Why do bad leaders happen to good people? #notw #hackergate

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There have been astonishing revelations in London about leaders in the News International group of companies and in the UK Parliament. Perhaps even more shocking is the disclosure of the deep and complex relationships between the two groups?

It is a classic case study of power and the old-fashioned dispensation of favour. News International controlled the media, and thus they controlled politician’s access to the power of the media. It was good old fashioned Machiavellian politics of fear and favour.

For years, without the general public realizing it, the leaders of the nation were kow-towing to the powerful masters of the mass media. Democracy as we believed it to be did not exist. Instead electoral success rode on the back of favorable mass media coverage.

It now seems that even the (once respected) leaders of the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard were not immune to seduction by power and money from corrupt media players.

Now all this is being laid bare, with systemic criminal, unethical, and idiotic behaviour revealed. The people are seeing the tawdry mess in the light of day. None of the leaders in question come out of this well. Their venality, their cupidity, and their stupidity are on public display.

But the real question is were good people betrayed by bad leaders in business, government and the police? Is society to blame? Do we get the leaders we deserve?

These are important questions for us here in Australia – after all we are an outpost for News International as well. It’s time we started looking into the murkiness of relationships between those players here too. And it’s time we ask ourselves what kind of government and business institutions we want. It’s time to think about how our democracy works. And to consider how mass media can make a mockery of universal suffrage by manipulating messages.

Andrew Crook on Crikey has done an interesting analysis of the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the current government’s carbon tax versus the Howard goverment’s GST.

Julie Posetti raises some interesting questions for local media organisations to address in her recent post Some #Hackgate Questions for News Ltd and Other Media.

Another recent development in Australia times is industry lobby groups – such as mining companies and cigarette companies – harnessing the power of mass media to promote their own agendas. And through their campaigns they seek to stop governments enacting policies such as the mining tax or plain packaging for cigarettes. Thus the lobbying that once happened behind closed doors has moved out into the public realm.

The media landscape is shifting. The democratization of access to mass media means that others who seek to drive political agendas now have access to the means of production. Power relationships around media are also shifting. As a result these are dangerous times for democracy and for the implementation of long term public policies.

It’s time to stop sleepwalking and blindly accepting the ideas that the proprietors of the mass media want us to swallow. It’s time to ask questions like:

  • What kind of leaders do we deserve?
  • What kind of leaders do we create through our actions and demands as a society?

Also worth a read in this context is an article by Massimo Pigliucci on Al-Jazeera titled Ignorance today: Our world is awash in information – but can we make sense of it?

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Bad management, ethics and philosophy: what can we learn from News of the World?

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The demise of a 168 year old (and reportedly profitable) newspaper in Britain called the News of the World (NoTW) gives us some valuable insights on a number of levels.

Every day over the past few weeks we have been gobsmacked by the revelations about NoTW and assume nothing could be more shocking.

But then there’s a new revelation about the way NoTW practised its business and we’re even more shocked.

An important insight they offer us is how management practice in the real world is informed by management thinking about business and ethics. And how thinking about business and ethics translates into behaviour in the workplace.

Bruce Guthrie, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, recounts that in 1988 at a conference of News Corporation editors in Aspen, Colorado:

“I asked about ethics and Rupert called me a wanker”.

This article is interesting because it gives us a view into the behaviour that the top leader in that organisation demonstrated to his senior leaders and managers.

As Guthrie notes:

“I left that conference in Colorado more than 20 years ago concerned that Murdoch saw ethics or, at least, the discussion of them, as an inconvenience that got in the way of the newspaper business.”

When the top leader of an organisation gives that kind of strong message then it is extremely unlikely that any other leaders or managers will explore issues like ethics or managerial accountability. It is also unlikely that exploring those kinds of issues is part of the reward and remuneration structure within the organisation.

Further, it is also unlikely that the business leaders, given that kind of strong message from the top, will ever take the time to consider philosophical issues about management, leadership and the kind of business they want to run for customers, employees or society.

With that kind of leadership message we get a soulless automaton of an organisation that does whatever it takes to deliver shareholder value, no matter what cost to the people involved in the process.

And now, with News of the World, we see the results of that kind of leadership and management.

Where does the buck stop with the kinds of bad behaviour we saw in News of the World? Where did the people at the front line get the message that their appalling practices were okay? What kind of management philosophy was in place there?

Perhaps just a quick check of the News Corporation corporate governance page demonstrates their current thinking on corporate governance?

It seems that there are interesting questions for all leaders and managers to ask ourselves arising from this tragic tale of a corporation gone wild.

Most importantly we must ask ourselves “would I have gone along with business practices like those in evidence at News of the World?” – it is easy to say no from the comfort of an armchair and with full hindsight.  More pertinent to consider is the challenge of saying no during the cut-and-thrust of a busy day in the office when your job is on the line?

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Social capital, karma and getting things done

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I’ve never been a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done® method – all that sorting and categorising of endless lists bores me. But I am a huge fan of getting stuff done. Many years ago after yet another time management course at work I realised that what helped me to get things done was to have a very short list of to-dos everyday.

In a later course I realised it was an unconscious use of Steven Covey’s notion of assessing tasks in terms urgent/important.

It was then I realised that what I valued was getting stuff done. Not sitting down making lists and categorising. But rather clearly identifying actions that would lead towards achievement of my goals and objectives. Identifying the top three or four things I could do everyday to help to make those things happen.

But many of my goals, both business and personal, needed the assistance and cooperation of other people, and it became clear that social capital was an important consideration.

The bigger the goals the more likely it is that social capital will play a significant part in the process. The big question for getting stuff done is how to marshal sufficient resources (money, people, effort, time). But the next most important thing is how to turn ideas from just my ideas into our ideas. That is, ideas into which a group of people are willing to invest their resources.

This remains true for any group activity. It means that we get things done in a social economy and that we are constantly trading in social capital.

For most activities goodwill and intrinsic motivation are the things that get people involved. Even for projects where there is strong extrinsic reward it is my experience that those rewards do not motivate people in sustainable ways. This is borne out by research by Dan Pink.

We need to build good relationships and share social capital in order to be able to find and maintain collaborators.

Thus lists are only as good as the social capital that can be harnessed to get things done. It means that we need to be storing up goodwill, good karma, for when we need it.

Psychologists talk about the importance of reciprocity . It is interesting to consider how ideas like social capital and reciprocity are important for getting things done.

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Innovation: operational excellence is not a path to sustainable growth

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I’ve been thinking about innovation a great deal lately and am fascinated by how many people confuse two different kinds of innovation.

The two different kinds of innovation are:

  1. continuous improvement – the drive for operational excellence, which is driven by optimising existing business processes and products (in the Six Sigma world the DMAIC approach is used for this kind of change)
  2. step-change innovation – creating new ways of thinking, new products and new ways of doing things (in the Six Sigma world the DMADV or DFSS approach is used for this kind of change)

It often seems that the revenue and cost impacts of these two different kinds of innovation is little understood.

The former, optimisation, generally has the effect of reducing costs. This is an admirable thing and is always worth doing.

However, I sometimes think that we are in danger of optimising the customer service and humanity completely out of our business operations by focusing so much on cost out initiatives.

The second kind, step-change innovation, is more focused on new revenue opportunities. This is the lifeblood of any business, it is not sustainable to keep taking costs out of the business and merely optimising the existing business and products.

Sustaining innovation within existing businesses is hard. Academics have been researching for years seeking the secret sauce of innovation so that we can pour it into our businesses and succeed according to some formula.

But it is not that easy. Innovation is hard. I’ve done it from inside of large organisations. New ideas are difficult to achieve consensus upon. New products are hard to bring to birth when everyone is already doing well with the existing products. It is hard to get people to buy into change unless there is a substantial reason to get their attention.

Everyone is usually running hard to keep up and to meet the current KPIs and the last thing they need is some crazy innovator trying to stop them from getting business as usual done.

Innovation is risky and entails the possibility of failure.  It is important to ask ourselves how we can make this risky business of innovation work for our particular organisation.   A key factor is how failures are treated.  Another important factor is allowing some time out of normal business to build the innovation idea into reality.

In my experience innovation within a successful existing business is only possible with the help, protection and support of highly engaged senior executives.  Every time I’ve tried it without this type of support it’s been almost impossible to survive the political tension between innovation, business as usual and meeting existing KPIs.

However, there is one certain thing.  Operational excellence and continuous improvement are not the way to grow a business.  But they are a great idea for freeing up some funds to invest in step-change innovation that creates new business models and new products.  Thus it is important for an organisation to make space for both kinds of innovation.

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Innovation – does it make sense for business?

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Every business book I pick up nowadays seems to accept as a fundamental premise that innovation is a good thing and that it should be pursued relentlessly. But I’ve been wondering about that particular premise and under what circumstances it might (or might not) be true.

Innovation provides us with a dilemma in business. Don’t do it at all and the business will probably die over time. Or others will innovate and leapfrog the business – this is what has happened to Australian retailers (like Gerry Harvey) who have ignored their online channel. Do it too early, too late or too often and it could also damage the business.

A business is setup to measure, monitor and reward people on the basis of performing well in the existing business model, and few businesses are setup to simultaneously manage a disruptive new business model.

Then there is the challenge of innovating while continuing to run a successful business. After all, if the current business is not broken, why would people bother to change? This is a big problem that I have seen many times. Once the need to change is obvious it is often too late and market disruptors are already in play. In many organisations the pressure on getting the most out of the current business model leaves little spare capacity for innovation.

This dilemma of managing both the existing business and innovation at the same time is the great challenge for business leaders of our day. We can see ample evidence of this with the Australian retail industry. Many of the big retailers rested secure in their ‘knowledge’ that online had failed in the dot-com bust of 2000. They ignored the online channel and competitors from overseas have gradually grabbed market share to the point where Australia’s retailers are now crying out for government assistance.

It is interesting to see that, in contrast to the head-in-the-sand approach of many Australian retailers, shopping mall giant Westfield has pursued a diversification into online shopping as well as focusing on their core bricks-and-mortar business. [Disclosure: I used to work for Westfield as part of the digital team.] Thus they have balanced their successful existing business model with innovation.

In the places where I have worked successfully on new products there has been a happy confluence of things that made it possible. Among them were:

  • substantial top-down support from C-level team, coupled with time to educate executives about the idea/product and it’s benefits and risks to the business
  • an active and responsive project owner at executive level who can protect the team and manage upwards effectively
  • adequate resources to get the job done
  • appropriate oversight and governance (but not too much)
  • freedom to get it wrong in the short run, together with focus on getting it right in the long run
  • clear goals, objectives and milestones
  • adoption of agile development methods for software
  • good project management together with adequate reporting to enable stakeholders to gauge progress
  • a small tight-knit team who have a clear sense of mission and purpose

Whenever these things have come together for an innovation project it has been successful. Where these are missing the success has been much more hit and miss. That is not to say that an innovation cannot be brought to market without these things, but it is much more fraught with angst and is much harder for all concerned.

Business leaders really need to think about what internal barriers to innovation exist in their organisations and how to create safe nests for innovation to incubate.

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If bad is stronger than good what can we do about it?

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I’ve been reading an old article that remains extremely interesting – it is an academic paper dating back to 2001 titled Bad Is Stronger Than Good.

The authors note that:

“The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes.

… Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. “

This has profound importance for all of our interactions with family, co-workers, customers, and just about anyone we meet. According to the article a ratio of five goods to every bad is required to minimise the effects of the bad.

From a customer service perspective this means that for every negative impression it is five times harder to make a good impression. Applying some sort of cost/benefit analysis to that idea would likely show that bad impressions are expensive to correct.

The research indicated that “positive independent variables affected positive dependent variables, whereas negative independent variables affected negative dependent variables” or “more simply, good affects good, whereas bad affects both bad and good.”

The authors were even able to put a number on the impact:

“Good can overcome bad by force of numbers. To maximize the power of good, these numbers must be increased. This can be done by creating more goods. For example, in a romantic relationship each partner can make an effort to be nice to the other consistently. Such small acts of kindness are important for combating the bads that will typically occur. Indeed, if Gottman (1994) is correct, the ratio should be at least five goods for every bad.”

This is fascinating stuff and real food for thought. When I start to put it together with some of the other ideas that came up at Social Innovation BarCamp recently there are very good grounds to change thinking, behaviour and actions.

Article reference: Bad Is Stronger Than Good by Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs; Review of General Psychology 2001. Vol. 5. No. 4. 323-370, download PDF here

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Why things don't change – or the tyranny of 'THEM'

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Over the years I worked as a senior manager in large organisations and, more recently, as an educator and business coach for senior managers across private and government organisations. A fascinating phenomenon that comes up in all of those places is, what I’ve come to call, “the tyranny of them”.

A recurring theme while talking with senior people about how we can enact change within their organisation is a mysterious barrier to change called “them”. Often it is said that “they” would not like the change that is proposed. Or that “they” don’t like that kind of thing.

It is always fascinating to deconstruct who “they” are – these disapproving and negative people. It is especially fascinating because the people who are speaking of “them” are often reporting directly to C-level or Executive Management team.

Why is it that even at very senior levels within an organisation there is a paralysis in the face of change? And why does that paralysis take the form of a fear of “them”?

Think about how many times you’ve used the amorphous “them” as a reason not to do something at work.

It’s time to deconstruct “them” whenever they are called upon to reject action on change. Ask instead:

  • Who in particular will object to this change?
  • Why will they object?
  • Are their objections or concerns valid?
  • What can we do to address them?

Thus to be a successful changemaker one needs to understand the various objections to change, and more often than not realise that “we” are the barrier to change, not “them”.

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A new dimension to analysis: Time to include a spiritual angle?

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In business school we all learned to use the same analytical tools – S.W.O.T., P.E.S.T., P.E.S.T.E.L., BCG Growth Share Analysis, Competitor Analysis, Porter’s 5 Forces, etc.

But at dinner the other night, while chatting to some “kidults” (as they were introduced by their parents), we discussed the P.E.S.T.E.L. analysis.

This stands for an analysis of an issue in terms of the following factors:

  • Political
  • Economic
  • Social
  • Technological
  • Environmental
  • Legal

It was a joking suggestion from one of the my dinner partners that this analysis was missing an element that got me thinking.  This traditional business school analytical tool is typical of US influenced management thinking.  It is entirely rational.  It does not incoroporate any other perspectives.

I started to wonder, what happens if we add another element to this kind of analysis?  What happens if the last lens becomes:

  • Spiritual?

Not sure about the answer on this. But I am very curious as to how the answers change if we move from a P.E.S.T.E.L. analysis to  a P.E.S.T.E.L.S. analysis approach?

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Rethinking organisations: the digital revolution, social and convergence

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An interesting question came up last Friday in a discussion with a group of Marketing and Communications folks from McDonald’s. It was about how social media might be situated and used differently depending upon whether you approached it from either a Marketing or a Communications team perspective. Also the question of who should “own” social media within the organisation was raised.

These are good questions and they got me thinking.

One of the things I often speak about is how technology is converging. How computers, televisions, mobile phones and broadband are converging together to give us new kinds of devices that call into being new kinds of content. As a result we are seeing the mashing up of media from diverse sources and its remixing. The much loved Hitler Downfall Parodies are a great example of this.

The convergence of technology is also being influenced by new kinds of software. Social software that is so easy to use that non-technical people can create and use it without needing to track down geek assistance. Software like Facebook and Flickr are great examples of this trend.

However, another trend associated with this change in technology is the skills and capabilities that businesses need to thrive in this new environment.

In the past, under bureaucratic systems that arose during the last two hundred years in the industrial revolution, specialised silos were created to enable businesses to scale effectively.

Bureaucracy has become a value laden term these days and it is generally used in a negative sense. However, bureaucracy was an essential way to organise people on a grand scale in an age before realtime digital communications. But now that there is almost ubiquitous realtime digital communications we are undergoing a digital revolution.

Our business structures, skills and organisation have not yet adapted to this new world. I can see the need for convergence of skills and activities to enable businesses to take advantage of the digital revolution. Thus I’m starting to see the need for a convergence of many roles and functions. We need to start thinking about how to totally remap the organisation to integrate digital functions effectively.

For example, in the areas of marketing and communications the boundaries start to blur already. The real task of these areas is to communicate with people, either inside our outside of the organisation. And, increasingly, their role is to converse and collaborate with their stakeholders. These functions are merging towards creation of collaborative communities as the audience morphs into participants rather than passive recipients.

The kinds of ideas that need to inform our thinking about how to reshape our organisations for the digital revolution include:

  • Networks: both human and technology networks are key, working out how to enable each of these inside and outside of the organisation is critical.
  • Amplification: understanding how these new human and technology networks amplify messages is imperative; defining cultural practices that embrace this idea is important.
  • Connected: determining how to manage people and business in an age where everything is connected – both people and things – as is how to use this power for business and social good.
  • Personal: the blurring of the boundaries between business and personal or between private and public is already occurring. We need to develop cultural and organisational practices that understand and enable us to manage this blurring of boundaries.
  • Social: human beings are social animals.  The Taylorist world view that has coloured much management thinking in the twentieth century needs to change and reflect this truth.  Humans are not interchangeable widgets and we are not machines.  It is time business leaders and structures change to reflect the social nature of human and business interactions.

We need to find ways to move away from hierarchy and silos. We need to find ways to move towards meshes and webs of relationships.  These are more like the way human beings relate in nature anyway.  The entire bureaucratic venture has been an unnatural way of being for humans. Humans need to find a way to make business more human and less machine like.

It seems that social computing and hardware convergence could be the catalyst for us to change our ways of running businesses so that they better meet human needs and map to human social needs, while continuing to make profits.

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