Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Improvisation in leadership: More than just making stuff up!

Business - and life - no longer has a script. Leaders must be able to adapt to life as it happens, not as they had planned.

That's why the first key skill of ragtag leadership is improvisation

There are two sides to improv: performance and engineering. Performance improv is what we're used to seeing on Who's Line Is It Anyway, where actors and comedians have to respond to challenges on the spot. Engineering improv is what we see in the typical kiwi number 8 wire mentality, where you use what you've got to make what you need.

The myth of improv is that it's made up on the spot. In a way, improv takes more preparation than reading a script.

You can rely on a script. With improv, you rely on yourself - and the environment and people around you. Performance improv takes a special kind of attitude, one of trust, one of acknowledging the worst that can happen and ensuring things go in a different direction. 

What kind of prep do you need for improv? 
  • Knowledge. Know as much as you can about the area you'll be facing, and keep an open mind to new sources of information.
  • Curiosity. You'll never know all that you need to know, so keep an open, childlike, curious mind. 
  • Bouncy. Don't get bogged down by failure, real or apparent. Bounce. Keep moving. The language of improv theatre talks about accepting offers that others give you. Accept offers from life and keep things moving.
Some other great resources on improv:
And here's our fearless Captain Mal doing some improv of his own, from the movie Serenity:

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Monday, 30 August 2010

When to be consultative and when to be a boss

When we talk about management models, we often get stuck.

Management (or leadership) models are like gears, we switch to the one that's appropriate for the circumstances (as we touched on in the last post).

Keith Grint touches on this in his work on "Problems, Problems, Problems". Thanks to Angus Blair for letting me know about Grint's work.

In a nutshell, Grint says we have three kinds of problems:
  1. Critical problems, where a commander is needed.
  2. Tame problems, where a manager is needed
  3. Wicked problems, where leadership is needed
To unpack those further, 

A critical problem was 9/11. Lives needed saving. Decisions needed to be made, fast. Hierarchy became important. We see this on both starships, the Enterprise and the Serenity. 

A tame problem is a puzzle that has a solution, but it's complicated (as opposed to complex). For example, moving office or launching a new product. It needs the skills of someone who can make things happen.

A wicked problem is climate change and/or ongoing terrorist threat. These kind of problems can't be dealt with using command or management, it must start by finding the appropriate question and asking it, and knowing that you don't know the "right answer".

A recent IBM study of CEOs shows that complexity is increasing (and ability to cope with complexity is still low). We need a new kind of leadership more than ever.

In the next post, we'll look at the specific qualities of ragtag leadership, starting with improvisation

Meantime, I'd love your feedback. On track? Relevant? Not?

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Friday, 20 August 2010

A clarification: Don't be exactly like Captain Mal

I feel it's important to point out that the Firefly analogy is not so much about Captain Mal's personality as much as the structure of the Firefly crew, and the kind of leadership.

As for Captain Mal's personality, he is and always will be a soldier, and therefore a uniform-wearer and order giver, despite a veneer of pragmatism and humour. 

But the circumstances determine the kind of leader Mal has to be - one who has to tap into the different motivations of each crew member.

There's a great example of this approach in the episode "Out of Gas", when we see how Jayne Cobb became part of the crew. 

The scene starts with Jayne and his boss pointing guns at Mal and first officer Zoe's head. With his hands still in the air, Mal makes Jayne question whether he's getting the best deal ... from a position of powerlessness he persuades Jayne that life aboard Serenity will be more lucrative - and just like that, Jayne changes sides.

That's extrinsic motivation, and for some people (like Jayne), and some jobs (like petty crime), money can be a powerful motivator. But for most people, and increasingly for most jobs, intrinsic motivation is far more powerful. 

In the book Drive, Dan Pink explains the scientific research that shows us humans are far more about autonomy, mastery and purpose than cold hard cash. And Captain Mal is pretty good when it comes to offering his crew those things in an intertwining dance.

He offers autonomy on a big picture scale - while they're on board Serenity, they're free from government intervention and control, which is important to some degree for everyone. However, they're also under Mal's command, which most times is just shiny, but it becomes important when there's trouble. 

That's where mastery and purpose come in. All the crew members are already good at something in particular (piloting, engineering, doctoring, troubleshooting, etc.), and they have an opportunity every day to do their job autonomously. 

We usually think of purpose as big and important (and that's what the follow up movie Serenity was about) but sometimes a crisis provides an instant and urgent purpose in miniature. That's when it becomes okay to be a bit more military, a bit more hierarchical.

More on this next time! Meanwhile, Mal explains the first rule of flying. I like this as a rule for life:

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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Sci-fi management models #2: Firefly

Thanks to Adrian for his feedback on the last post, including the fact that it was too long. This next one would've been longer, so I'll break it up over a few key thoughts.

Firefly and 21st century management

Although it was sadly cut short after just one season, Firefly has a lot to teach us about organisations of the future.

Unlike Star Trek, everyone is on Firefly for a different reason. For some, it's to get from A to B. For others, it's a place to hide out from the authorities. For others still, it's part of their business.

And at the head of it all is Captain Malcolm Reynolds, someone who, it seems, always has options. He doesn't seem particularly noble or good, just smart. And yet, over the course of the series, he inspires great loyalty from his shipmates. He is most definitely the captain, but not always in a Star Trek sense. The others look up to him, and they also expect a lot of him.

He, meanwhile, expects a lot from everyone. Everyone's a paying passenger, and everyone has different arrangements.

It's a scenario not uncommon for a small business startup. But it's also a scenario playing out for the world's largest corporations. Turns out the flexibility afforded by Firefly-style arrangements can be very helpful to a business in fast-changing times. Also, it never hurts to look at what every party wants out of an arrangement. We can no longer assume that people just want to wear the uniform and serve the cause. 

(To be continued... your thoughts and comments welcome!)

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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Sci-fi management models #1: Star Trek

(This is a draft version of the first chapter of Ragtag Leadership. It's a work in progress and I would LOVE your feedback, negative or positive)

"The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it's scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based. And if you can't find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened, you don't deserve to wear that uniform!" 
Captain Jean-Luc Picard, in the episode The First Duty

When I used to watch Star Trek as a kid, I wondered why everyone in the future wore the same kind of clothes. I didn't realise it was speaking about an organisation with a uniform. Star Trek has a lot to do with the uniform, with being part of something.

The Star Trek crew speak the same language, because they've been through the same training. Their goals and mission are clear: to seek out new life, new civilisations. Their parameters are clear: the prime directive guides their behaviour (except the odd occasion where circumstances dictate otherwise).

There's a clear chain of command, even when a merger takes place (as in Voyager), or when working in a joint venture (as in Deep Space Nine).

Everyone's cross-trained. When consoles blow up in Chekov's face (as happens with astounding regularity), Uhura is always able to take the conn while he goes to sickbay. And so on.

The fact that so many people on present-day Earth want to wear this uniform is tribute to the culture that Starfleet, this imaginary organisation, has created. 

Want proof? See the documentary Trekkies, which delves into the culture of Star Trek fandom, from conventions to fan fiction to one woman insisting on wearing her uniform to jury duty. While others thought it was a bit of a joke, she was serious about the values that uniform stood for. (Full marks for courage!)

What's it really about?

And yet, Star Trek is not all about sticking to company procedures. Star Trek has always been about deep space exploration, where the buck really does stop at the captain's chair, even though there are officers higher than him or her back at starbase. The best person to make a decision is the person closest to the action.

In fact, some of the most compelling episodes of Star Trek are those which contrast captains who've been through the same training, and deliver different results. In Equinox, a Star Trek:Voyager episode, Captain Janeway comes face to face with a captain who has cut ethical corners in order to survive. 

When she discovers what the other captain has done, she has little sympathy:

Captain Ransom: "It's easy to cling to your principles when you're standing on a vessel with its bulkheads intact, manned by a crew that's not starving."
Captain Janeway: "It's never easy, but if we turn our backs on our principles, we stop being human."

For Janeway, it's not so much a matter of Starfleet protocol as it is being human. When you're millions of light years away from home, being human is pretty important.

Variations on a theme

Over five different incarnations we've seen plenty of variations on the Starfleet management model. 

The original seriesStar Trek: The Next Generation and Enterprise showed us a Starfleet ship with a Starfleet crew, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine showed us a joint venture (a Starfleet outpost near the planet Bajor, staffed by a mixture of Starfleet and Bajoran personnel) while Star Trek: Voyager showed a merger between the stranded Starfleet Voyager crew and the equally stranded outlaw maquis crew. 

Okay, that's two variations on a theme. But still, these series provided some great moments of truth when it came down to the true nature of leadership. It goes far beyond position and title (particularly when you're far from the rest of the chain of command) and relies a lot on your personal negotiation ability.

Of note: even though the Maquis in Star Trek: Voyager were outlaws, they had still been through the same Starfleet training as the rest of the Voyager crew. The Bajorans in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had not, and it's interesting to see how far Captain Sisko associated himself with the Bajoran cause rather than representing Starfleet. His personal dilemma was between representing and advocating Starfleet's interests, and serving the people of Bajor. In the end ... well, I won't spoil it for you if you've never watched it.

What's awesome about the Star Trek model

Strong shared values can set a team on fire, and cause them to do together what they could never do alone. Military groups know this, that's why they draw heavily on their history and traditions and shock recruits into identifying with each other rather than any other background. 

We also see it in the corporate world, with mixed results. Before the financial crisis and the scandal of early 2010, Goldman Sachs was admired for its strong culture. In a 2005 BusinessWeek articlehttp://www.businessweek.com/bschools/content/feb2005/bs20050210_3129.htm , Aaron Marcus, head of campus recruiting, describes the teamwork culture at Goldman Sachs:

"teamwork means taking a passionate interest in facilitating the success of other people with whom you work."

The 2007 book Meaning, Inc. praised the bank's "restrained, almost cerebral tone", where "excessive individualism is frowned upon". The book also identifies Goldman's strong sense of long-term success ("a view that doing the right thing and building strong, enduring relationships with clients works out in the end. 'Long-term greedy', they call this orientation.")

A strong culture also comes with a sense of history. Again according to Meaning, Inc., Goldman Sachs hired anthropologists to "dig into its history and unearth key themes".

What's worrying about the Star Trek model

For one thing, it's worrying that I'm referring to Goldman Sachs as a good example of the Star Trek model. Being in a tribe can lead you to do things you wouldn't do alone, and that can be bad as well as good. How many sins have been committed by people "just following orders". 

And this is an issue that's addressed in many Star Trek episodes and movies, case in point being Star Trek: Insurrection. In it, the Enterprise crew uncover corruption and must act outside of their Starfleet capacity to put things right. 

In a confrontation, the corrupt Starfleet Admiral Dougherty threatens Captain Jean-Luc Picard with court martial. His response: "If a court-martial is the only way to tell the Federation what is happening here, Admiral... I welcome it." 

It goes back to what that same Picard said at the beginning of this section: the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth - not to comrades. 

And that's the challenge facing any tribal organisation with a strong culture: encouraging the individual courage to stand up against the system when the system is wrong.

Another worry about the Star Trek model is simply its unsuitability for early 21st century employment patterns. Gone are the days of lifelong tenure, or even 25-year stints at a single job. Now the average length of tenure for a marketing manager is under two years. In this environment, incentives and messages need to be different.

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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Introduction: Business books are boring (why this book is about science fiction)

I'd welcome your comments, feedback, agreement, disagreement about the below:

Business books are boring because they're abstract. They present ideas and models that we just can't picture. 

Sci-fi, on the other hand, is generally not boring. It's exciting, it's full of drama, moral dilemmas and crazy situations.

And if you've been in business, you'll know if's also exciting, full of drama, moral dilemmas and crazy situations. Even if we're not "going where no one has gone before", we're often going where we haven't been before. Business is a journey of exploration - self-exploration as well as exploring the world.

So why not run them together? Watch most science fiction shows on TV, and you'll see that leadership and decision-making are the most important ingredients. 

Why sci-fi in particular? Because sci-fi takes us where ordinary drama can't. Non-sci-fi fans don't realise this but ultimately science fiction is all about us, not aliens or space. It's a way of putting humanity under the microscope and seeing what makes us tick.

We've identified two main leadership models from our favourite sci-fi shows, and a third alternative for those who work alone. It's not that one is right and the others are wrong, it's just that some models work better in the times we're in. 

We'll go over the benefits and pitfalls of each approach in future posts (and in the book!).

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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

My #ragtagleadership presentation at BarCamp (MP3)

Ragtag Leadership At Barcamp Auckland 2010 by Simon Young  
Download now or listen on posterous
RagTagBarCamp.mp3 (17138 KB)

It's been a while since I've been worked on the book, but I have been watching Firefly, and the brilliant finale of Doctor Who. Never an idle moment.

But finally I've edited the audio recording from my BarCamp presentation, and include it here with the slides. 

Highlights include:
  • My sound recorder cutting out periodically
  • People talking over each other (such enthusiasm!)
  • A premature finish (we had a little misunderstanding over timing, so keep listening after the applause)
  • Some great comments and feedback on the core idea, including:
  • What happens to a ragtag team when they have to answer to a higher authority (e.g. a board? Corporate leadership?)
  • What about Han Solo? He went from a sole trader/partnership to being a general in a much larger army. What lessons can we learn from him?
  • What makes leadership different from mere courage?
  • As I mentioned in the last post, the Doctor Who model seemed to get lost in the process, so I'll need to rethink how that gets introduced. Perhaps the core of the book is the comparison between the two key ideas of Star Trek vs Firefly. I think the consultant model (The Doctor) is still very important (not least because I fall into that category!)
  • Would love to hear your thoughts! Let's keep this discussion going.

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