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The Heretic’s Guide to Management – understanding ambiguity in the corporate world

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I am delighted to announce that my new business book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity, is now available in e-book and print formats. The book, co-written with Paul Culmsee, is a loose sequel to our previous tome, The Heretics Guide to Best Practices.

Many reviewers liked the writing style of our first book, which combined rigour with humour. This book continues in the same vein, so if you enjoyed the first one we hope you might like this one too. The new book is half the size of the first one and I considerably less idealistic too. In terms of subject matter, I could say “Ambiguity, Teddy Bears and Fetishes” and leave it at that…but that might leave you thinking that it’s not the kind of book you would want anyone to see on your desk!

Rest assured, The Heretic’s Guide to Management is not a corporate version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, it aims to delve into the complex but fascinating ways in which ambiguity affects human behaviour. More importantly, it discusses how ambiguity can be harnessed in ways that achieve positive outcomes.  Most management techniques (ranging from strategic planning to operational budgeting) attempt to reduce ambiguity and thereby provide clarity. It is a profound irony of modern corporate life that they often end up doing the opposite: increasing ambiguity rather than reducing it.

On the surface, it is easy enough to understand why: organizations are complex entities so it is unreasonable to expect management models, such as those that fit neatly into a 2*2 matrix or a predetermined checklist, to work in the real world. In fact, expecting them to work as advertised is like colouring a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa, expecting to recreate Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Ambiguity therefore invariably remains untamed, and reality reimposes itself no matter how alluring the model is.

It turns out that most of us have a deep aversion to situations that involve even a hint of ambiguity. Recent research in neuroscience has revealed the reason for this: ambiguity is processed in the parts of the brain which regulate our emotional responses. As a result, many people associate it with feelings of anxiety. When kids feel anxious, they turn to transitional objects such as teddy bears or security blankets. These objects provide them with a sense of stability when situations or events seem overwhelming. In this book, we show that as grown-ups we don’t stop using teddy bears – it is just that the teddies we use take a different, more corporate, form. Drawing on research, we discuss how management models, fads and frameworks are actually akin to teddy bears. They provide the same sense of comfort and certainty to corporate managers and minions as real teddies do to distressed kids.

A plain old Teddy

A Plain Teddy

Most children usually outgrow their need for teddies as they mature and learn to cope with their childhood fears. However, if development is disrupted or arrested in some way, the transitional object can become a fetish – an object that is held on to with a pathological intensity, simply for the comfort that it offers in the face of ambiguity. The corporate reliance on simplistic solutions for the complex challenges faced is akin to little Johnny believing that everything will be OK provided he clings on to Teddy.

When this happens, the trick is finding ways to help Johnny overcome his fear of ambiguity.

Ambiguity is a primal force that drives much of our behaviour. It is typically viewed negatively, something to be avoided or to be controlled.

A Sith Teddy

A Sith Teddy

The truth, however, is that ambiguity is a force that can be used in positive ways too. The Force that gave the Dark Side their power in the Star Wars movies was harnessed by the Jedi in positive ways.

A Jedi Teddy

A Jedi Teddy

Our book shows you how ambiguity, so common in the corporate world, can be harnessed to achieve the results you want.

The e-book is available via popular online outlets. Here are links to some:

Amazon Kindle

Google Play


For those who prefer paperbacks, the print version is available here.

Thanks for your support 🙂

Written by K

July 12, 2016 at 10:30 pm

Conditions over causes: towards an emergent approach to building high-performance teams

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Much of the work that goes on in organisations is done by groups of people who work together in order to achieve shared objectives. Given this, it is no surprise that researchers have expended a great deal of effort in building theories about how teams work. However, as Richard Hackman noted in this paper,  more than 70 years of research (of ever-increasing sophistication) has not resulted in a true understanding of the factors that give rise to high-performing teams.  The main reason for this failure is that:

“…groups are social systems. They redefine objective reality, they create new realities (both for their members and in their system contexts), and they evolve their own purposes and strategies for pursuing those purposes. Groups are not mere assemblies of multiple cause–effect relationships; instead, they exhibit emergent and dynamic properties that are not well captured by standard causal models.”

Hackman had a particular interest in leadership as a causal factor in team performance.  One of the things he established is that leadership matters a whole lot less than is believed…or, more correctly, it matters for reasons that are not immediately obvious. As he noted:

“…60 per cent of the difference in how well a group eventually does is determined by the quality of the condition-setting pre-work the leader does. 30 per cent is determined by how the initial launch of the group goes. And only 10 per cent is determined by what the leader does after the group is already underway with its work. This view stands in stark contrast to popular images of group leadership—the conductor waving a baton throughout a musical performance or an athletic coach shouting instructions from the sidelines during a game.”

Although the numbers quoted above can be contested, the fact is that as far as team performance is concerned, conditions matter more than the quality of leadership. In this post, I draw on Hackman’s paper as well as my work (done in collaboration with Paul Culmsee) to argue that the real work of leaders is not to lead (in the conventional sense of the word) but to create the conditions in which teams can thrive.

The fundamental attribution error

Poor performance of teams is often attributed to a failure of leadership. A common example of this is when the coach of a sporting team is fired after a below par season. On the flip side, CxOs can earn big-buck dollar bonuses when their companies make or exceed their financial targets because they are seen as being directly responsible for the result.

Attributing the blame or credit for the failure or success of a team to a specific individual is called the leadership attribution error. Hackman suggested that this error is a manifestation of a human tendency to assign greater causal priority to factors that are more visible than those that are not: leaders tend to be in the limelight more than their teams and are therefore seen as being responsible for their teams’ successes and failures.

This leader-as-hero (or villain!)  perspective has fueled major research efforts aimed at pinning down those elusive leadership skills and qualities that can magically transform teams into super-performing ensembles.  This has been accompanied by a burgeoning industry of executive training programmes to impart these “scientifically proven” skills to masses of managers. These programmes, often clothed in the doublespeak of organisation culture, are but subtle methods of control that serve to establish directive approaches to leadership. Such methods rarely (if ever) result in high-performing organisations or teams.

An alternate approach to understanding team performance

The failure to find direct causal relationships between such factors and team performance led Hackman to propose a perspective that focuses on structural conditions instead. The basic idea in this alternate approach is to focus on the organisational and social conditions that enable the team to perform well.

This notion of  conditions over causes is relevant in other related areas too. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Innovation: Most attempts to foster innovation focus on exhorting people to be creative and/or instituting innovation training programmes (causal approach). Such approaches usually result in  innovation of an incremental kind at best.  Instead, establishing a low pressure environment that enables people to think for themselves and follow-up on their ideas without fear of failure generally meets with more success (structural approach).
  2. Collaboration: Organisations generally recognise the importance of collaboration. Yet, they attempt to foster in the worst possible way: via the establishment of cross-functional teams without clear mandates or goals and/or forced team-building exercises that have the opposite effect to the one intended (causal approach).  The alternate approach is to simplify reporting lines, encourage open communication across departments  and generally make it easy for people from different specialisations to work together in informal groups (structural approach). A particularly vexing intra-departmental separation that I have come across recently is the artificial division of responsibilities between information systems development and delivery. Such a separation results in reduced collaboration and increased finger pointing.

That said, let’s take a look at Hackman’s advice on how to create an environment conducive to teamwork.  Hackman identified the following five conditions that tend to correlate well with improved team performance:

  • The group must be a real team– i.e. it must have clear boundaries (clarity as to who is a member and who isn’t), interdependence (the performance of every individual in the team must in some way depend on others in the team) and stability (membership of the team should be stable over time).
  • Compelling direction– the team must have a goal that is clear and worth pursuing. Moreover, and this is important, the team must be allowed to determine how the goal is to be achieved – the end should be prescribed, not the means.
  • The structure must enable teamwork– The team should be structured in a way that allows members to work together. This consists of a couple of factors: 1) The team must be of the right size – as small and diverse as possible (large, homogenous teams are found to be ineffective), and 2) There must be clear norms of conduct. Note that Hackman lists these two as separate points in his paper.
  • Supportive organizational context– the team must have the organisational resources that enable it to carry out its work. For example, access to the information needed for the team to carry out its work and access to technical and subject matter experts.  In addition, there should be a transparent reward system that provides recognition for good work.
  • Coaching– the team must have access to a mentor or coach who understands and has the confidence of the team. Apart from helping team members tide over difficult situations, a good coach should be able to help them navigate organizational politics and identify emerging threats and opportunities that may not be obvious to them.

To reiterate, these are structural rather than causal factors in that they do not enhance team performance directly. Instead, when present, they tend to encourage behaviours that enhance team performance and suppress those that don’t. 

Another interesting point is that some of these factors are more important than others. For example, Ruth Wageman found that team design (the constitution and structure of the team) is about four times more important than coaching in affecting the team’s ability to manage itself and forty times as powerful in affecting team performance (see this paper for details). Although the numbers should not be taken at face value, Wageman’s claim reiterates the main theme of this article: that structural factors matter more than causal ones.

The notion of a holding environment

One of the things I noticed when I first read Hackman’s approach is that it has some similarities to the one that Paul and I advocated in our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.

The Heretic’s Guide is largely about collaborative approaches to managing (as opposed to solving!) complex problems in organisations. Our claim is that the most intractable problems in organisations are consequences of social rather than technical issues. For example, the problem of determining the “right” strategy for an organisation cannot be settled on objective grounds because the individuals involved will have diverse opinions on what the organisation’s focus should be.  The process of arriving at a consensual strategy is, therefore, more a matter of dealing with this diversity than reaching an objectively right outcome.  In other words, it is largely about achieving a common view of what the strategy should be and then building a shared commitment to executing it.

The key point is that there is no set process for achieving a shared understanding of a problem. Rather, one needs to have the right environment (structure!) in which contentious issues can be discussed openly without fear.  In our book we used the term holding environment to describe a safe space in which such open dialogue can take place.

The theory of communicative rationality formulated by the German philosopher, Juergen Habermas, outlines the norms that operate within a holding environment. It would be too long a detour to discuss Habermas’ work in any detail – see this paper or chapter 7 of our book to find out more. What is important to note is that an ideal holding environment has the following norms:

  1. Inclusion
  2. Autonomy
  3. Empathy
  4. Power neutrality
  5. Transparency

Problem is, some of these are easier to achieve than others. Inclusionautonomy and power neutrality can be encouraged by putting in place appropriate organisational structures and rules. Empathy and transparency, however, are typically up to the individual. Nevertheless, conditions that enable the former will also encourage (though not guarantee) the latter.

In our book we discuss how such a holding environment can be approximated in multi-organisational settings such as large projects.  It would take me too far afield to get into specifics of the approach here. The point I wish to make, however, is that the notion of a holding environment is in line with Hackman’s thoughts on the importance of environmental or structural factors.

In closing

Some will argue that this article merely sets up and tears down a straw man, and that modern managers are well  aware of the pitfalls of a directive approach to leading teams. Granted, much has been written about the importance of setting the right conditions (such as autonomy)…and it is possible that many managers are aware of it too. The point I would make is that this awareness, if it exists at all, has not been translated into action often enough.  As a result, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of leadership remains as wide as ever – managers talk the talk of leadership, but do not walk it.

Perhaps this is because many (most?) managers are reluctant let go the reins of control when they know they will be held responsible if things were to go belly-up.  The few who manage to overcome their fears know that it requires the ability to trust others, as well as the courage and integrity to absorb the blame  when things go wrong (as they inevitably will from time to time). These all too rare qualities are essential for the approach described here to truly take root and flourish.  In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that the  biggest challenges associated with building high-performance teams are ethical rather than technical ones.

Further Reading

Don’t miss Paul Culmsee’s entertaining and informative posts on the conditions over causes approach in enterprise IT and project management.

Written by K

January 29, 2015 at 9:03 pm

Zen and the art of project communication

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There is a curious disconnect between the theory and practice of project management: the former is epitomized by various BOKs and methodologies which lay out a rational framework for managing projects whereas the latter is  the reality that project managers experience when they are immersed in the day-to-day activities associated with managing projects.

Although most organisations would claim that they have implemented a project management methodology of some sort, the actual day to day work of a project often proceeds with a logic of its own. Moreover, the requirements imposed by methodologies may even obstruct the progress of a project:  it is not uncommon to hear of situations in which project managers and teams had to bypass their organisation’s processes in order to get things done.

The reason for this is not hard to find: projects – and indeed, organisations –  are often faced with unexpected and unforeseen events. Typically, responses to such events have to be  improvised, not planned.  Although planners are expected to factor in uncertainty,  what is not known cannot be foreseen. As we all know from experience, the future always manages to escape our carefully laid plans.

In this post I argue that the traditional (rational) mode of project communication – involving artifacts such as business cases, plans and status reports – is lacking  when  one has to deal with uncertainty.  Instead of communication based on rationality (or arguments based on facts), an alternate mode that focuses on rhetoric (arguments based on values and emotions) may sometimes be more fruitful.

[Aside: in a strict sense of the term, rationality is a form of rhetoric, but in this article I’ll consider the latter term as applying to values and emotions.]

Shortcomings of “rational” project communication

Traditional project communication tends to be more about conveying information  rather than encouraging  debate.  Specifically, project-related communications, be they verbal or written, emphasise facts and numbers rather than emotions and feelings.  For example, a status report may convey the status of the project in terms of milestones achieved or figures such as percent complete. Moreover, even though a project manager may highlight qualitative information such as risks, he or she will do so in a way that assures the recipients that the assessments have been made in an objective manner.  In short, project communications reflect the scientific-rational basis of project management itself.

In view of the above, it is no surprise that project communications tend to assume that the future can be predicted on the basis of clear cause-effect relationships.  For example, project plans describe future deliverables that will be the outcome of certain planned actions.  Indeed, that’s the whole rationale behind implementing project management processes – they are supposed to ensure that, if implemented right, the objectives will be achieved  “on budget and on time”  as envisaged.

That’s great in theory, but theory is good only for the classroom. As most of us know from experience, reality is messy:   stuff happens; things turn unexpected in a thousand and one different ways. In short, our projects escape our plans.

How do people deal with this messiness?    Closer home:  what do you do when your project takes an unexpected turn south?

In such situations it is not unusual to feel that the seemingly rational edifice on which your project is based is not so sound after all.  You may therefore be forced to examine the assumptions that you have taken for granted.  Consequently, you may ask yourself questions such as:

Is my approach sound?

Am I doing the project right?

Or, even more basic: am I doing the right project?

It is difficult to answer questions with any certainty, particularly when the future events are yet to unfold.  You need to make a decision, but to do so you need to get everyone on the same page. This is difficult to do because when facts are few, everyone seems to have a different opinion about what the “true” problem is and how it should be tackled. Some may even believe there is no problem at all.

A role for rhetoric

As we all know from experience, most people are attached to their opinions. It is going to take more than a logical argument to convince them to change their minds. Moreover, in situations of uncertainty and ambiguity, facts and numbers are scarce, and always prone to being contested by some recalcitrant stakeholders. So one has to work with opinions that are based on values and emotions rather than objective facts.

When one is attempting to convince people about something that depends on values rather than facts, the words and language constructs one uses are all important. That’s where rhetoric or the “art of debate” comes into its own. According to Wikipedia:

Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.

Of course, glib talkers (expert rhetoricians!) are often wrong, so it would be unwise accept rhetoric uncritically.  One has to subject rhetorical arguments to scrutiny just as one would with any argument. The value of rhetoric, however, is that it gets people thinking along lines that they may not have considered otherwise.

In the present day, rhetoric has acquired a negative connotation because it is often used for dubious ends – for example, demagogues use it to whip up emotions and (some) politicians to vilify others. But conversely it might also motivate people to come up with creative ways out of difficult or even impossible situations. Some of the most inspiring and world-changing speeches in history are masterpieces of rhetoric (Martin Luther King’s, I have a dream being one that comes to mind)

…and so, to conclude

Most of us don’t want to change the world, we just want to get on with our jobs.  My aim in this essay was to suggest the mode of communication that we have been programmed to use may not always be appropriate There is an alternative  that may sometimes be better.  Rhetoric isn’t just for lawyers and politicians; it has its place in the day to day work of managing projects. The  “complete” project manager– if such a person exists –knows that there is no contradiction in this and, more important, tacitly recognizes when a particular mode of communication is appropriate.

…and in case you are wondering what on earth this has to do with Zen philosophy, the answer is:  quite possibly, nothing at all.

Written by K

November 20, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Four organisational myths

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One of the ways we make sense of the world is by organising our experiences into stories. More often than not our narratives gloss over complexities, emphasising only those aspects or events that we want to. For example, I might tell a tale of my involvement in a successful project, talking up things I did that worked well while ignoring those that didn’t. The message implicitly conveyed by such a story is that my actions were responsible for the success of the project. Many stories in organisations are built on a similar theme:  that success is a consequence of reasoned actions.  This is an example of the myth of rationality.

In this post I look at a few myths that are common in organisations, highlighting how they mislead because they overlook other important factors.  My discussion draws upon a brilliant (and short!) book by James March entitled, The Ambiguities of Experience.

According to March,  organisational  stories frequently contain one or more of the following mythic themes:

Rationality: This is theme described earlier, that successes  are consequences of reasoned actions. Most folks who work in organisations tacitly subscribe to this myth. One can see this myth at work when people are asked to justify why they took certain actions. Their answers  are usually framed in terms of rational expectations of the consequences – i.e. that they rationally expected certain outcomes to follow from their actions. This is true regardless of whether the actions were actually thought through or not. Think about it: what was the answer you gave your manager the last time he or she questioned an action you took?

Hierarchy: This refers to the way in which problems and challenges are analysed. Typically problems are assumed to be decomposable into constituent sub-problems. Solving a problem is thus reduced to tackling the sub-problems. In organisations, this scientific-rational approach is more or less taken for granted as being the only way to solve problems. In reality, however, many organizational issues are wicked – they are difficult to define unambiguously, let alone solve.  As an example, see  this paper by John Camillus which discusses how  the formulation of an organisation’s strategy has elements of wickedness. In our recently published book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, Paul Culmsee and I discuss how such issues can be tackled using a range of collaborative techniques.

Leadership:  Another persistent theme in organizational lore is that of the significance of leaders. One indicator of this is the number of hagiographies of successful CEOs in the management section of bookshops. Another is the number of management school case studies that attempt to link the successes of organisations to the actions of their leaders. In truth, although the actions of a CEO may set the overall direction for an organisation, success or failure depends on a host of other factors that executives have no control over, including the actions of many other people internal and external to the organisation.

Historical efficiency: This is the idea that organisations and ideas compete with each other, and those that come out on top are the best. This myth is commonly seen in the literature of vendors who peddle “good” or “best” organisational practices. In many cases, however, the popularity of these practices has more to do with relentless marketing than inherent quality. Other, possibly better practices may not succeed in gaining mindshare simply because they lack the means to get the message out. Similar myths are common in official histories of organisations:  those that do well generally tell their stories in terms of their “unique characteristics” that enabled them to do well in the competitive marketplace. This myth also gets a fair bit of airtime in our book.

These myths are so pervasive in management and marketing literature that we accept them unquestioningly. Now that you know them, you will see them crop up in all kinds of places: marketing brochures, management case studies, biographies of business leaders and even on company web sites (the “About us” page is a good place to start). The point is that the stories we tell about ourselves are only a facet of the truth. Reality is always more nuanced and messier than can ever be captured in stories based on myths.

Written by K

January 26, 2012 at 11:23 pm

On the elusive notion of leadership

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In a post entitled, Macrovisions and Micromanagement, I discussed some of the reasons for the gap between the espoused view of leadership and its actual practice in organisations. The post is based on a research study in which managers in an organization were asked what their jobs entailed. Their responses revolved around themes of leadership – things such as strategy formulation, setting direction and generally acting as enablers rather than administrators. However, when asked to elaborate via examples, most managers spoke of administrative and bureaucratic activities rather than those that involved leadership.

There are many possible reasons for this gap. Some of these include:

  • Pressure to display leader-like behaviour: Management literature and education tends to place leadership at the pinnacle of managerial practice. Consequently, there is considerable pressure on managers at the middle and senior levels to display leadership qualities (as defined in management texts). 
  • The issue of identity: Most managers would like to view themselves as being leaders. As a result, they may unconsciously describe what they do in the flattering language of leadership.
  • Gap between job description and actual job: Managers are expected to display leader-like behaviour. However, at the same time, they are held responsible for specific and very tangible results. There is thus a continual pressure to get involved in low-level detail while maintaining the illusion of being a leader.

In the present post I delve further into the question of leadership. Specifically, I explore the possibility that the concept of leadership promoted by management literature is flawed. My discussion is based on a brilliant paper by Lesley Prince entitled, Eating the Menu Rather than the Dinner: Tao and Leadership.

To those who may be rolling their eyes at the reference to religion- stay with me, I think you will find that the content and conclusions of the paper merit serious consideration.

Background and context

The author begins by noting that much of management theorising about leadership is based on the following fundamental assumptions:

  1. The notion that hierarchies are an inevitable within groups, and that those on the top of the heap must exert control to avoid chaos and anarchy.
  2.  Leadership is a well-defined, independent concept that can be codified and can be the subject of inquiry. In other words, it is possible to formulate principles of leadership that are independent of environment and the actual practice of these principles can be studied.

The above assumptions flow from a western view of management. One of the tenets of such a view is that it is possible to formulate general principles of leadership, independent of the environment in which it is practiced.  Indeed this is the very basis of mass education in management: business school curricula would be largely empty if there were no general, environment-independent management principles.

On the other hand, in certain eastern philosophies (Taoism and Zen in particular), the focus is not so much on following prescribed principles or exerting control, but on dealing with circumstances as they are. The latter is a interesting perspective from which to analyse leadership because it emphasises that leadership is a social skill, best learnt through experience rather than theory. The paper is essentially a discussion of how certain precepts of Taoism can aid our understanding of leadership as an experience-based skill.

Taoism and its relevance to understanding leadership

Taoism has mystical connotations in western society because it is often associated with alternative lifestyles and counter-culture groups. However, in reality it is a practical way of life that teaches one to embrace direct experience, avoiding filters of presumption or analysis.  The author stresses that it is neither a religion nor a philosophy in the conventional sense.  Above all, it emphasises the danger of dogma and the importance of keeping an open mind. As the author puts it:

…it is sufficient to note that the point of Taoist practice is the relatively uncontroversial claim that our habitual understandings and modes of thought, often little more than unexamined assumptions, have a tendency to hijack our ability to apprehend the world, interfere with our perceptions, and often lead us to see what we think we ought (or want) to see rather than what is actually there.

This point highlights the relevance of Taoism in our quest to understand the concept of leadership: perhaps the answer lies in observing how people relate to each other in real-life rather than attempting to force-fit theoretical or empirical models of leadership to situations as advocated by management researchers.

At this point readers may be asking: how can we understand a concept without developing mental models or representations of it? Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of Taoism that one can understand something without necessarily being able to articulate it. In the same way, the paper is an attempt to get an understanding of the concept of leadership by looking at some of its paradoxical aspects. In the next few sections, we’ll look at some of the seemingly self-contradictory aspects of leadership that are explored in the paper.

The difficulty with definitions

Taoism alludes to the difficulty of using words to describe the essence of Taoism. As the author puts it:

According to Taoism grasping the Tao in mere words is a futile undertaking, like trying to explain the experience of an orange to someone who has never encountered one. In one sense the ideas are pure simplicity, but apt to become complex and nebulous when expressed in words…

He suggests that the same difficulty arises when trying to describe any aspect of social reality: there are so many different variables at play that pinning down the aspect of interest is virtually impossible. Indeed, as the author points out, there are a number of definitions of leadership, each emphasising a different facet of the concept.

Perhaps then, it is futile to attempt to capture the concept in words. However, that does not mean that  is impossible to understand it. As the author states, quoting from Keith Grint (a well-known scholar of leadership):

…before I began to study leadership in a serious manner, my knowledge of it was complete. I knew basically all there was to know and I had already spent over a decade practising it.

This insightful line suggests that it is possible to understand what leadership is and what it isn’t, without having to define it.  I would hazard an opinion that successful leaders don’t over-think what they do, they simply lead as required by the situations they encounter.

The hidden effect of language

The author highlights some important differences between ancient Chinese (the language in which the original Taoist texts were written) and western languages such as English. One of the most important of these is that Chinese is a verb-based language whereas English is noun-based. An implicit consequence of this is that Chinese emphasises action and relationships between objects whereas English emphasises objects.  The relevance of this observation to leadership is as follows: instead of attempting to objectify the concept of leadership, it may be more helpful to understand it in terms of actions and relationships. Once again, this suggests that we should shift our focus on the actions of leadership rather than the words (platitudes?) that define it.

Theological origins

The author makes the interesting suggestion that the dominant view of leadership may have theological origins. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Monotheistic religions are based on the notion of an omnipotent being who is essentially responsible for the world as we know it and is, in  a sense, in charge. This view suggests that hierarchies are natural and ought to be the way groups are organised which, in turn, leads to the view of a leader as someone who wields power by virtue of their position in the hierarchy. In contrast, in Taoism (in its pure form) there are no omnipotent gods as in the monotheistic religions.  It is thus perfectly natural to see the asymmetric distribution of power not as a consequence of hierarchy but as a fact of human existence.

Understanding leadership vs. knowing it

One of the central teachings of Taoism is to seek direct experience, free from preconceptions of any kind. This principle is in direct conflict with the way in which researchers attempt to study and understand concepts such as leadership. Typically, researchers make hypotheses, build models and test them against reality.  They objectify the thing to be studied and analyse it through the lens of their pre-existing knowledge. Instead a case-study based approach that focuses on the actual experience of leadership may be more fruitful. As the author put it:

The conceptual tangles and contradictions in leadership that seem to be an inevitable part of the models derived from the empirical and quasi-empirical methods of the western tradition often cause more confusion than clarity when people try to apply them. In contrast an approach derived from the theoretical naivete (but conceptual sophistication) of Taoism generates powerful insights that are often difficult to express in words. Part of the key here, perhaps, is to consider leadership not as a set of intellectual principles, but much more as a set of experientially located and responsive relational skills-in-process…

A couple of lines later, he goes,

…there seems to be a stubborn adherence to an old-fashioned objectivism, particularly in the persistence of the subject-object dichotomy. This inevitably excludes the felt and experienced realities of power, influence and involvement in the leadership relation, and this has generated some of the more intractable problems we face when studying leadership. If our models are to have any value they must speak to and from experience, even if this seems messy and inchoate at times.

Although it may be difficult to capture in words, leadership is far from a fuzzy notion: given a situation, most people just know if leadership is being displayed (or not). We understand leadership because we know it when we see it.

Labels do not make a leader

Although it is generally recognised that calling someone a leader doesn’t make them one, most organisations still conflate leadership with positions and titles.  The fact that high level management roles are often termed “leadership positions” is proof that this misconception is rife.

Moreover, as the author states:

…the conflation of `leader’ with any of the available position labels, makes the definition of `leadership’ and `leader’ completely superfluous – all one needs is a specification of position within a hierarchy, and all else follows. Except of course that it doesn’t, because we should still have to explain why some leaders by such a definition come to be regarded as fools, idiots, incompetents and charlatans.

Perhaps the most insidious feature of the confusion between position and leadership is that it devalues the work of those who are in  subordinate roles by presuming that they are somehow unable to display leadership qualities. They are considered passive players whose job it is to follow. Ronald Heifetz’s brilliant work on leadership speaks to this very issue. As he states in this interview:

In our society, we carry a common notion of the leader as the person with the vision, who then gets people to buy in, to align themselves with that vision. This notion is bankrupt and dangerous, because the leaders who have done good for their communities and organizations are not the ones who came up with the vision. If we picture them as the conductor of an orchestra, they are good at embodying the soul of the music. These leaders are good at articulating the transcendent values of the organization or community. But it’s not their vision.

The leader is an enabler, not an oracle who has all the answers.

Doing by non-doing

Another central teaching of Taoism is the concept of non-doing. Just to be clear, this should not be interpreted as inaction. Rather, it is effortless action.  In the context of leadership, there are two aspects of non-doing that are particularly relevant. They are:

  1. Acting without any preconceived ideas of what leadership is. That is, acting in a manner that is most appropriate to the situation at hand, without worrying about what convention might deem as leader-like behaviour.
  2. Creating a work environment in which people can operate autonomously and, where required, collaborate spontaneously. Instead of attempting to control events and people, the emphasis is on creating the conditions that are conducive to high quality work.

As the author puts it, “non-interference as an essential quality of leadership

Unconventional leadership

In essence, the teachings of Taoism urge us to experience things as they are.  However, this is not the same as accepting standard conventions or interpretations of how things are. The failure to appreciate the difference is the reason why many people dismiss much of this as mystical claptrap. Further, it should be emphasised that one does not have to be a revolutionary: the point is not to do battle with the system or overturn convention; it is not to be a prisoner of convention, to be able to step outside of it when the situation demands.


I have to say, this is one of the most delightful and stimulating papers I have ever read.  Although it has been published in a research journal, there are some brilliant insights in it for managers, leaders and those who don’t know the difference between the two.

The author quotes from Alan Watts at the end of the paper, and I can think of no better way to end this review:

I have associated and studied with the `objective observers’ and am convinced that, for all their virtues, they invariably miss the point and eat the menu instead of the dinner. I have also been on the inside of a traditional hierarchy . . . and am equally convinced that from this position one does not know what dinner is being eaten. In such a position one becomes technically `idiotic’, which is to say, out of communication with those who do not belong to the fold.

The central message of the paper is nicely summarised in its title which, though intended to take a gentle dig at scholars of leadership, applies rather well to many who claim to be leaders. Indeed, many so-called leaders act according to what books, gurus and consultants tell them rather than respond to the situation at hand. In this sense they do indeed eat the menu rather than the dinner

Written by K

January 11, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Macrovisions and micromanagement

with 8 comments


Much has been written about leadershipmanagement and the difference between them.   The former is associated with creating a shared vision and strategy for the future whereas the latter has administrative and bureaucratic connotations. Most organisations  celebrate leadership but consider management to be little more than an operational necessity.

In view of the exaggerated rhetoric regarding leadership it is of interest to ask how it is actually practiced on the ground.  This question was investigated by Mats Alvesson and Sven Sveningsson in a brilliant paper entitled, Good Visions, Bad Micro-management and Ugly Ambiguity: Contradictions of (Non-) Leadership in a Knowledge-Intensive Organization.  In this post I elaborate on one of their key conclusions:  that there is a gap between  the espoused view of leadership and its practice.

Leadership in theory

The emphasis on leadership in management theory  has lead to the widely accepted notion that leaders matter and that their actions can affect organizational performance and effect change in a positive way. Moreover it is also assumed that it is straightforward to identify leadership qualities in people as these manifest themselves through a set of well-defined behaviours and attitudes. In other words, leadership is a stable and robust concept. The main aim of the authors was to find out how well this theoretical conception of leadership holds up in the real world.

The case study and research methodology

The authors conducted a detailed study of how managers in a knowledge-intensive organisation viewed and practiced leadership.  The study consisted of extensive, multiple interviews with managers at different levels in the company (from the CEO to project managers) supplemented by observations made at management meetings.  Two rounds of interviews were conducted. In the first round, the authors asked the interviewees what their jobs entailed. Most responses centered on vision, leadership and strategy.  However, when asked to elaborate on their responses, most managers described their day-to-day work in terms of administrative and bureaucratic managerial procedures. This pointed to a gap between espoused leadership and how it is actually practiced. In the second round of interviews, the authors attempted to gain some insights into the reasons for the gap.

Macrovisions: the espoused view of leadership

The authors observed that when asked questions about their jobs, most managers spoke of leadership and how they practiced it. Big picture topics such as vision and strategy – what I call macrovisions –  were recurrent themes in their responses . Most managers claimed that their job was to articulate such macrovisions while leaving the details of day-to-day operations to their subordinates.  As examples, consider the following responses from interviewees:

A strongly knowledge intensive work as ours build on independent and active employees who has (sic)  the ability to take their own initiative.

This is consistent with modern themes of worker autonomy in decision, particularly in knowledge-intensive organisations such as information or biotechnology.  Reinforcing this, another manager said:

 I try not to interfere too much in operations. That would be wrong in every way, no one would benefit from that, but I am available if anyone has an operative question, otherwise it’s more me trying to make myself unavoidable in strategic issues but avoidable in operational issues.

Yet another manager spoke of macrovisions in the following way:

And if you provide the big picture, if there is a sense that these [minor decisions] are in the context of the wider strategy and it is not just, bang, bang [shooting with finger from the hip] we shoot this one and now we shoot that one, and now we gallop off in some other direction; if it fits a bigger picture, then I think we can manage. But that is where leadership comes in I think, we need to provide that context and the picture and the overall direction, to say “we are not here in the middle and you cannot [be allowed to] ride off in just any direction.

Macrovisions thus appeared to provide a broad framework within which employees had the freedom to make decisions that were broadly consistent with the organisation’s strategy.

Again, it is important to emphasise that managers were not specifically asked about visions, strategy or leadership, yet their responses invariably alluded to these themes.  The responses suggest that most managers in the company viewed leadership rather than management as their primary role.

This was consistent with the overall management vision set by senior executives.  As the authors put it:

The expectations formulated by higher-level senior managers and made explicit by the CEO on various occasions, is that managers should refrain from detailed management

Indeed, some managers spoke of managing details in derogatory terms. Consider the following response:

Requesting detail which is of no value to your personal job or position, and that can be detail about a specific office, budget thing through to really me going down to the project level and saying, “Well, how are we doing on that project and I really want to know”, so it is about the ability not to do that, and delegate and trust the people.

In short:  most managers felt that their work involved articulating and implementing macrovisions rather than practising micromanagement.

Micromanagement: the practice of “leadership”

A natural question arising from the above is: how did managers actually practice leadership? What are the things they did in their day-to-day work that exemplified leadership?

To answer this question, interviewees were asked what they did in their day-to-day work.  Strangely, most managers reverted to themes they had described in uncomplimentary terms. For example, when asked to elaborate on how he practiced leadership, one manager said:

There are many different ways of working. I think that as a manager here one has to implement significantly more directive ways of handling people, that is, that you say to people that you will spend the next month occupying yourself with this development, I want you to learn about this. I think that you have to have a much more directive way of handling of people in these operations.

This was not an isolated case;  another manager said:

I do get involved from a technical viewpoint, I expect, obviously my knowledge is still developing here, but I expect to understand quite consciously what the group is doing.

Yet another manager, when asked about the leadership tools that he used, referred to things such as budgets, recruitment etc. – things that are usually concerned bureaucratic, administrative procedures. There was little if any reference to activities that one might associate with leadership.

There is thus a clear gap between what the managers professed to practice and what they actually practiced. In the authors’ words:

…the responses brought forth aspects of managerial activities obviously quite far removed from most understandings of leadership in contemporary management literature and also from the more ‘grandiose’ ideas on the subject that they also claim to believe in and base their work on. Managers therefore talk of themselves as leaders without doing much that clearly and strongly refers to ‘leadership activities’. The case study exhibits the contrary: the activities of managers are more closely related to what is understood as micro-management…

Indeed this view was confirmed when the authors spoke with lower level managers. A project manager said:

Perhaps there’s a dialogue about that (leadership) that doesn’t really percolate down to those in production and it tends to become reactive. And micro-management, there’s a will to know too much in detail, when perhaps they should really be working with empowerment, that people are able to take responsibility, to send responsibility for the budget to me and have faith that I take responsibility for my colleagues, and all the positive talk such as “we are going to be the company of choice”, how are we going to realize all that, there’s too much administrative detail going through my superior.

…so much for all the talk of leadership.

The rhetoric and reality of leadership

From the above it is clear that we have a paradoxical situation:  managers believed they were being leaders when they are actually weren’t leading at all. The question is: why did this happen?

The authors offer a number of speculations for this, which I briefly outline below.

Firstly, leadership qualities are generally seen as desirable. Management literature and education tends to place leadership at the pinnacle of managerial practice. Consequently, there is considerable pressure on managers at the middle and senior levels to display these qualities.

Secondly, there is the issue of identity; how managers see themselves. Like those described in the case study, most managers would like to view what they do as leadership rather than “mere” management or administration. As a result, they may unconsciously describe what they do in the flattering language of leadership rather than the mundane terms of management.  However, as the authors stated in the paper, “Leadership talk and fantasies seem to leave a thin spray of grandiosity on the ‘leaders’” Clearly,  this may be of more use in bolstering managerial self-esteem than anything else.

Thirdly, managers often have to deal with conflicting agendas and requirements. In the case study managers were expected to display leader-like behaviour. However, at the same time, they were held responsible for specific and very tangible results. To deliver on the latter, they often felt they had to keep track of the details of what their teams were doing and step in when things were going wrong. There was a continual pressure to get involved in detail while maintaining the illusion of being leaders.

Another point that the authors do not mention explicitly is that middle and frontline managers are often expected to lead without being given the autonomy to do so.

It is likely that some or all of the above factors lead to a divergence between the rhetoric and reality of leadership.


The central message of the paper is that the concept of leadership is an idealization that is often compromised in practice.  Most people who work in organisations will not find this surprising: managers are generally  aware that their day-to-day work has little in common with the  rarefied notions of leadership promoted by management schools, while  others are likely to have worked with  micromanagers  who are masquerading as macrovisionaries.

Written by K

October 20, 2011 at 7:35 am

Assumptions of competence

with 2 comments

In a recent post, I wrote: “…most folks don’t really need to be managed because they’re competent at what they do, and go about doing their jobs in a generally diligent manner.”

On reading this an old friend wrote to me saying, “I am sincerely of the opinion that most people are not competent at their jobs…”  And a bit later in the same message, “If you are looking for quality and excellence, don’t expect to find it in business and corporate culture.”

Incidentally, he is an independent consultant with over fifteen years experience, much of it gained in  large corporations . His observations regarding the general lack of competence and quality in the business world must, therefore,  be taken seriously.  Nevertheless, I reckon he’s at least partly off the mark: I believe it behooves managers to  begin with the assumption that people are competent, and that they want to do high-quality work.

Let me start my case with three stories which may sound familiar:

Jim is a developer at the regional office of a large multinational. He is overloaded with work, typically working on at least two (often three) major projects concurrently. As a consequence he cannot do justice to any of them.  It is clear that Jim will not meet the deadlines on any of the projects. Though it is clear that his situation has been caused by poor management, he’ll be the one carrying the can.

Tracy is an experienced database programmer working on a large project. She has worked on similar projects before, and is arguably the best person to provide technical input regarding the design and implementation of database program modules for the product. Yet, her manager insists that every suggestion she makes be approved by him prior to presentation to the team, often adding his two-cents to her designs.  Of late the team has noticed that Tracy has been unusually quiet during project meetings.

Sanjay has been working as an ERP adminstrator for a while.  He has the job well under control, and is looking to pick up some new skills. The company he works for has just purchased a large number of licenses for a major business intelligence platform, so there’s going to be plenty of work building new reports.   Sanjay knows this area is under-resourced: there’s only one person working on the new platform, right from metadata design to creating reports. Clearly, this person could use some help, and it’s a perfect opportunity for Sanjay to pick up new skills.  Sanjay approaches his manager for permission to get involved,  but the manager refuses outright.

Sooner or later…

Jim’s blamed for the failure of his project(s).

Tracy has lost interest in her job.

Sanjay’s administering his ERP system competently enough, but spends his (considerable) free time surfing the Net. He’s bored, and makes no effort to hide it.

To a casual onlooker it may appear that Jim, Tracy and Sanjay “are not competent at their jobs”, but that is a superficial observation. The real problem is that they are no longer motivated by their work. The basic reason for their demotivation is bad management. More specifically:

Jim’s expected to achieve the unreasonable or impossible.

Tracy isn’t empowered to make decisions that affect her work.

Sanjay isn’t given the opportunity to learn new skills.

Fact of the matter is, these folks want to succeed at their jobs and even go beyond  their job description, but they aren’t given the support, opportunity and / or the means to do so.

I did say my friend’s partially right, and he is: with a demotivated team, quality and excellence and all those wonderful things we’re supposed to strive for in the workplace aren’t going to happen.  The question is, who is responsible?  As Deming mentions in his management / quality classic, Out of The Crisis, the fault lies largely with management.  I agree, but many don’t.  I’d be  interested in hearing what you think. Do let me know through your comments.

Written by K

October 28, 2008 at 11:03 pm

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