More true today than ever – a picture tells a story

We’ve all heard that a picture tells a thousand words.  With all the gadgets we have to capture our eyeballs these days, we have a tendency to look down instead of up in meetings, but in some companies, employees are being encouraged to communicate through pictures drawn real-time.  Of course, this can be technologically enabled, but it doesn’t have to be overly complex. Sometimes it is as easy as putting down the stylus and picking up the marker.

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article last week on ‘doodling for dollars’:


Forget leadership, give me a good manager

Ever wonder about the difference between a leader and a manager? There’s a certain ‘you know it when you see it’ quality to both, and in truth both word connote skills and abilities that span organizational structures, vertically and horizontally.

Writers like Bennis (Becoming a Leader, 1989, and many others), and Daft (The Leadership Experience, and many others) create an aura of leaders as being “cool kids”, visionary, change agents, unbounded, curious, and so forth. Managers are painted as stodgy “steady Eddies” as best, planning, creating boundaries, enforcing rules, and squelching ideas. Intentional or not, the message is that it is better to be a leader than a manager.

But leadership without management, like strategy without execution, is pointless, and most successful managers have tremendous leadership skills, per many of the definitions out there. These days, I’d love to find someone who could confidently say “I am a really good manager. Give me anything and I’ll deliver, and motivate a team of people getting it done with me.” Lots of people seem to want to be anointed as a leader, but fewer people seem to want to put in the time and effort to be really good managers, or to take pride in that skill set.

I’d take a good solid manager and help them develop their leadership skills to work in support of their management discipline any day. But a leader who can’t be bothered with the basics or at least an appreciation of them…. I find that much harder to be around. I think it sometimes strikes me as a bit lazy. I don’t mean people have to always do all the administration that comes along with being a good manager – as you develop in your career, you start to delegate a lot of that, and start to LEAD people who are doing it and developing their own skills, which is a good thing. But to skip the step all together is a shame, because the best way to learn how to lead and devleop good management is to do it well, or at least competently, for a little while.

Intentional inefficiency – a new frontier for process design

Process redesign work has always emphasized efficiency.  The balance between efficient and effective is a longstanding debate amongst process-types, but efficient seems to win that debate on a regular basis.

One of the areas that process redesign tries to ‘fix’ is the points along the way where people need to interact with other people. For some reason, conversation is viewed as the ultimate inefficiency.  And yet, the same organization that seeks to drive out interaction points claims to be interested in ’employee engagement’, ‘innovation’, and ‘collaboration’.  How engagement, innovation, and collaboration happen when people don’t have any good reason to interact with each other is puzzling to me.

I’ve been thinking lately about intentional inefficiency. By this I mean embracing certain, selected inefficiencies in processes that support other organizational goals and are inflection points where innovation and creativity are most likely to take place.

What does intentional inefficiency do for you?

  1. It drives collaboration and innovation
  2. It creates engagement and connections between people
  3. It provides space for unexpected benefits
  4. Because it is intentional, it can be tracked and understood more effectively

Something to think about the next time you get after a process efficiency effort.

Conversant consultants – who are they?

Consultants have long had a reputation for being able to ‘read your watch and tell you what time it is’, which is actually somewhat tricky, as you know if you’ve ever tried to sneak a peek at someone else’s watch. This particular skill is valuable to you if you’ve forgotten you are wearing a watch, and you need to know the time. It is less valuable if you’ve ditched the watch and just use your phone, like most of the developed world these days.

So what good are consultants, if you are in the latter category?  Many of the traditional values are still there – consultants can bring in an outside perspective, they have tools and techniques that may not be known within your organization, and they have experiences with other organizations that are grappling with similar experiences to yours. But if they aren’t conversant – if they can’t help you talk through your problems and effectively frame them, you aren’t getting what you need. Consulting on business problems requires outstanding conversational skills, and not just chit chat – consultants need to be able to have nuanced, informed discussion with clients about the problems the clients are facing.

Think about the consultants your organization uses.  Are they helping you move forward with problems in a way that makes you more conversant in talking about the challenges? If not, you may not be getting all you need out of them.

Being brave in the workplace

We often talk about ethics, values, and trust in the workplace. These words have become a part of many change management efforts, of marketing campaigns, and of employee brand campaigns. But what about bravery? It takes brave people to act ethically, to hold to values, and both be trustworthy and to trust colleagues. How do we look for brave people, put them in the right places, and let them shine?

It is tricky, because brave people often cause conflict, are seen as reckless, or risk takers. Bravery isn’t a convenient trait, one that only gets exercised when it is useful. It comes out at inopportune times as well, and sometimes causes trouble just when management is looking for peace and quiet. But without it, all the ethics, values, and trust statements in the world won’t get us far. Think about it the next time someone takes a brave stand on something.


Build infrastructure to support emerging conversations

The infrastructure for dialog is important as well. It forms the backbone through which conversations happen, and provides a platform for connection between people in the organization. Getting the infrastructure right is important, but not at the expense of the other dimensions.  Unfortunately, many companies focus on infrastructure to the exclusion of other areas because it is easy to understand, measure, and account for, but then it often fails because the other areas have not been nurtured.

Some things to consider in building infrastructure include:

  1. Create and institutionalize conversation based strucures and systems
  2. Identify and deal openly with cultural preferences for knowledge sharing and co-creation. Realize that the cultural preferences may be different than any individual preference.
  3. Invest in solid technologies that support conversation and collaboration
  4. Enhance mechanizms and technologies to port information across networks
  5. Support employees seeking new practice communities and sharing


Conversational Leadership – Help leaders join the conversation

Many leaders have had the art of conversation drilled out of them. There is a strong bias to action in many businesses today, and the thought that a meeting isn’t important if action isn’t being taken – without realizing that the relationship building part is critically important precisely because when action is needed, or a crisis-level response is needed, those relationships will be put into play.  Conversational leadership recognizes conversation as a core process in shaping and evolving an organization’s culture and affecting how people behave.

Good skills for conversational leadership include:

  • Meet people where they naturally gather – don’t always call meetings in your own space and time.
  • Focus on designing effective questions and probing responses rather than firing away answers all the time.  Engage people in discussion, rather than looking for an easy tactical “answer” of “go do (this)”.
  • Invite the unexpected, be open to what people have to say.
  • Be a good storyteller, and enable a shared understanding.  Let go of your own commitment to what you believe are ‘the facts’, and construct a common story between the group.

In companies with weak relationships, crisis management is often incredibly poor.  There are ways to make meetings more productive from a relationship perspective, but first, people need to accept the fact that if they don’t know their colleagues, they won’t be able to work well together when needed.  Getting leaders on board withi being open to conversation for the sake of conversation is an important step in building a culture where relationships matter.

For a great overview of conversational leadership, see this paper by Hurley and Brown: