Why Am I Doing This?

In 1997 just before finishing my MA in Leadership at Royal Roads University, I was accepted into the Doctor of Business Administration at the University of Bradford Management Research Centre in Middle UK. It was the No. 3 business school in Europe at the time. It was crazy back then as I recall handing my final project report in for assessment the day that I was heading to the airport to fly to my first residence in the UK. I was referred to a very wise man who had been editor of the British Psychological Association journal by a man who I later found to be quite the shyster. But more about him in another post.

Although I have very fond memories every now and then, particularly of my friend Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammad Al-Khalifa who to this day remains a friend a world apart, I must say that the other times were quite pivotal in a negative sense, mostly in developing my now robust feeling of distaste for being subordinated to another human being without consent.

I remember one time where I was fortunate enough to be able to spend several weeks staying on an old country farm in a stone farmhouse in Oxenhope. It was amazing to walk through the dales to arrive at a pub from the 15th century, to see the very place where the Bronte sisters lived, and to browse through bookstores that proudly displayed some very first editions of some of the classic texts in my field.

One afternoon my supervisor – let’s say his name was “Erry-Jay’ for the sake of modest deception – and I decided to start the evening with a G&T after already having several pints earlier in the day. Erry-Jay cracked a nice bottle of Bordeaux he and a few of his pals had salvaged from the basement of an old building on campus before the provost sank his mitts into it. What a find – all 200 bottles. So, one bottle into dinner, and his spouse – let’s call her Shmedna – does a face plant into her tenderloin  (Which, by the way, was freshly cleaved at a local farmhouse at the height of the BSE fiasco. Apparently the cows were upset, but not quite mad). Erry-Jay simply said “she’ll be fine … try a sip with the fried onions.” This was the routine for nearly the whole time I stayed.

in my last week there, Erry-jay decided that it was time for me to learn my place in the world. It started one night as he asked me why I was doing my doctoral studies in the first place. I spoke from the heart and said that I was very interested in researching my topic and that I felt leaders had an obligation to be the best they could be in the service of their subordinates. He replied “nonsense – you are doing it for the Union Card.” I nearly lost it. What followed the next day was a marathon of attempts to test me in a rather odd way. Although Erry-Jay was hard pressed to recount an author who had published since the 1980s except for his doctoral students, he was quick to say that because I hadn’t read Robert Owen’s 1904 transcripts to parliament, or because I didn’t know that the original “Cheaper by the Dozen” was about Frank and Lillian Galbraith.” that I really hadn’t done much reading at all. Me not read? Yeah, like fish don’t swim.

The next day, because the winter was coming, Erry-Jay needed help planting daffodil bulbs for the spring. I thought – what the heck. it was the least I could do for dippy bird entertainment in the evenings. As I was elbow deep in dirt planting 80-100 bulbs, down the path he paces with an umbrella. The skies opened up and the dirt turned to pudding and my master stood over me. He took great satisfaction in this moment, I think. I remember him saying “you think you had it tough in the military? You’re a colonial to me, boy.”

Game over. I never set foot on the campus again.

What did I learn from this? Among many other things I did learn that I value guidance and mentorship and not autocracy. I value self-directed learning and not benign-neglect. I value hearing the voices of others and not simply my own. I enjoy asking and not always telling. I enjoy humanity and not deference to hierarchy. I value dignity and kindness and not humiliation and power-over. I learned that the type of education I was experiencing was born of earlier times when the post-industrial machine needed to be fed by elites who knew the “truth” about what was good for others. I value open mindedness and not narrow-mindedness.

It’s different for me today but in many ways, it is very, very much the same. By this I mean that I am deeply interested in finding ways to help leaders make better decisions. I want to find out whether or not they truly do things their way because they think it is best, or whether or not they consider the nature of the context within which the decision is made.

Union card? More like a receipt if you ask me. I want to be a better researcher and turn out better work. I want to be self-directed, interdependent with others but not defined by them. I want to contribute. I want to learn and I want to continue to indulge my creativity.

That’s why I am doing this.

Oh, and I hate advanced statistics. Yep – I definitely hate advanced statistics. Time to get back to my assignment.

Stay tuned, race fans.

Sir Philliam of Thinkalot


A Question of Questions.

I think I have landed on a better research question. It’s been an interesting and at times confusing process, but here’s what I am about to explore in a methodological proposal for defence of my doctoral research direction:

How does variation in the nature of context affect the use of decision making heuristics among senior healthcare leaders in British Columbia?

Context in this sense would be delimited and defined by the nature of cause and effect as articulated by Dave Snowden’s work.

I will be building a very cool (to me, anyway) questionnaire in the near future as a way to both increase my capacity on the quant side, and also (and this is the interesting part) to test some ideas toward refinement via multiple regression analysis. I never envisioned this, but I came up with the idea of testing via path analysis how various factors bring forth a particular heuristic based on the Cynefin framework for sense-making. It’s actually kept me awake for more than a few nights now. I want to move it along! Stay tuned: I may come knocking …

I think I have had to come to terms with what others have sensed in me for some time: that I am largely a positivist who also holds a view that the world exists independent of our awareness of it. It’s a mouthful and it has huge consequences for me and my work, but it is bringing clarity for sure. Now I need to reconcile this with the process of leadership as a socially constructed process – without complicating the issue. For me this is a tension – a duality rather than a commitment to one or the other. I think it will be important for strategic leadership decision making and helping leaders develop over time. This is a true passion of mine so clarity is something very top of mind.

More to come!


Re-starting that which stopped.

Have to do this. It’s time to start moving ahead on my dissertation defence proposal. The hours are accumulating and I need to manage my info, effort and reflexive processes. It’s about time, n’est pas?

I am frustrated with the paucity of data on my topic area. Seriously – after hours and hours of pouring through database raw sources, I am coming up empty. For a major assignment I have zero source-data on my topic but I suppose that’s also a good thing: it’s an opportunity to innovate. Thankfully, my quantitative methods prof is supportive and I am able to conduct a lit review and create a survey for a major assignment in this, my last course!

I think I’ll try to create an online survey (ok – authentication issues are problematic), pilot it and see if it can inform my approach to the dissertation topic which will be based on a mixed-methods research design.

Stay tuned race fans.

Phil – from the land of fuzziness.

Amazed and Confused

So, tomorrow I am off to a Doctor of Social Science residence at Royal Roads University. I’m thrilled and confused all at once. Why? Because although I teach in the MA in Leadership program, I have intentionally taken a different path in my learning and I find myself gobsmacked with possibility and curiosity. My depth in the field of leadership and systems thinking now seems almost a unidisciplinary approach to a transdisciplinary concept. The moment I stepped into the research literature related to sociology and globalization, I knew I was hooked on academic caffein.

I say that I am awash in the sense that the call for leadership never seemed louder than it does at the scale of globalization: not because of the severity and morality associated with an interpersonal nuance, need or issue, but because of the complexity and scale of exploitation.  The big bell sounded in my head when I saw the difference between internationalization and globalization. We’re talking a complete re-distribution of the system of value creation and production never before seen in history. Add to this that we have absolutely no predictive ability to anticipate the consequence of transnational capital migration and emergence of a transnational capitalist class and we’re in for one wild ride, maybe or maybe not in our lifetime.

My area of research interest has morphed into the application of complexity science to a model for global leadership. Tall order? You bet. Am I up for it? What do you think?

It seems like so long ago when Dad was congratulating me on finishing as top student on my Junior Leadership Course when attached to 1PPCLI in Calgary back in the day: Onward and upward. Nose to the grindstone.

Stay tuned race fans.


Reification of Change

In reading Adrienne Rich’s poem entitled “Prospective Immigrants, Please Note” I was struck by the power of her words as they relate to change itself: change that is trans-situational. So often we are drawn to the promise of change as a thing unto itself as if reification gives us something more tangible to hold onto rather than accepting a hint of a deep underlying structure of meaning. It is intolerance for ambiguity that conspires against the promise itself; but our sense of future, possibility and optimism are defining qualities of human-beings-being-human that ignites us all.

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely

but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?

The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.

(Adrienne Rich as cited in Westley, Patton, & Zimmerman, 2007)

Westley, F., Patton, M. Q., & Zimmerman, B. (2007). Getting to maybe : how the world is changed. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

System Transformation and Requisite Applicability

It’s amazing, isn’t it? I recall seeing a glorious on-line video that really gave me pause to think of our place and our collective arrogance. Take no offence, sensitive ones. My comment is about how inward focused we can be when there is so much going on around us. It really makes me think about the relationship between what we can do as these tiny little beings trying to manage our own capabilities the best we can in a socially constructed reality. In particular, I found myself wondering about some big questions

  • In the evolving structure of a globalized economic reality, what capabilities are required to effectively lead large-scale, systemic operations in that environment? What are the implications across multiple industries? Who can come to the party in a transnational state?
  • Does the LEADS framework hold up beyond a domestic, come international mindset into a transnational world that looks beyond internal relations into a highly complex, exceedingly networked and culturally determined world beyond our current frame of reference?
  • What elements of the LEADS framework endure, which domains and capabilities collapse and what new ones emerge as essential?

To make these questions even more outrageous and, well, quite possibly terminal, I am wondering if lessons and promises from complexity science will be the ultimate framework for critical thinking that supersedes systems thinking. Blasphemy, isn’t it? But as Einstein is oft quoted to have said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them (Albert Einstein 1879 – 1955). Maybe it’s time for a game of catch-up for today’s leaders.

The word salad of popularized systemic nomenclature has made uptake and understanding of the System Transformation domain of the LEADS framework and perhaps the “demonstrate systems/critical thinking” capability, arguably the most tenuous of the lot and frequently avoided in terms of learning opportunities to support development. But proselytizers and rhetoric abound at the senior levels. Why, I often wonder? Is it a safe premise that this domain is what captures attention and galvanizes opinion? Is it a problematic one? Or an undiscussed reality that beyond praise for simple to complicated system fixes we wait for others to go first on the bigger, riskier, high-leverage transformation efforts? You know – change is good, you go first.

Organizations are not alone in their culpability, though. Consider the notable problem in the literature and practice base that confuses some of the key terms we need to fully appreciate in order to make sense of environment and context as a mitigating variable:

  • the terms systems thinking and system dynamics are being frequently used interchangeably; and
  • the terms complicated and complex are ubiquitous and in the majority of instances, conflated.

What sometimes results is implementation of expert-driven models as a component of system transformation when sometimes emerging practices and our ability to deal with ambiguity should be the order of the day. Similarly, the more organizations attempt to pound home new models without full appreciation of cause and effect, the more probable complete rejection of best practice will be! Add to this the highly risk-averse nature of many public sector endeavours (not to mention critical private ventures as well) and safe-to-fail experimentation falls by the wayside in favour of fail-safe strategic planning.

As an example, two graduate leadership students recently made a couple of remarkable spontaneous statements in the classroom when discussing the role of cause and effect on sense-making in light of this inherent confusion in the popular culture. One commented something to the effect: “my God – our arrogance has us planning completely for success!” Another referred to their organization’s adoption of the LEAN methodology as “inherently complicated when the reality of the organization was complex.”

Great insights in both instances and they were absolutely on the mark. What this reinforces for us all is the notion of requisite applicability. That is to say we need to think differently in different contexts. System Transformation requires the introduction of a clear lexicon, clean concepts and a healthy dose of ambiguity just to confuse matters. It is our natural sense-making tendency to over-simply things or to make things more difficult than they need to be that brings us the reality we experience on a day-to-day basis.

So, it’s time to think differently, not just about different things. Time to break free … (Thanks Freddie).

Phil may be reached at either phil@clswest.com or pcady@leadslearning.com

Rude clients, thank you for the learning opportunity.

Why am I writing this? I want to show anyone who thinks consulting is a glamorous gig, that in some instances, in spite of our best efforts as helpers and process consultants, we are simply not always  in partnership on initiatives with clients. Sometimes it just isn’t the glorious experience some make it out to be. There is another factor at play and it’s not always rosy so we need to come to grips with this infrequent but very real possibility. And, unfortunately, the client needs to own this. After all, the issues facing organizations and communities belong to them, not the consultant. To suck that one up would be to fall into Senge’s “Shifting the Burden to the Intervener” pattern and become responsible in a sense, for the client’s issue. To be clear, this is not about me, my personality, my sense of victimization or righteousness. it is about what happens when clients don’t live up to our expectations of decency.

Last Friday I was in a call with a new client rather unexpectedly. I ended up on the phone with the Executive Director of a national professional association trying to sort out the minutia of accessing a facility for a site visit in advance of a national conference where I will be a speaker and facilitator. For the type of session I will be running (Barry Oshry’s Organization Workshop) I never deliver the session sight unseen. It’s just bad news for everyone. So, I was attempting to schedule a visit to the facility while traveling through Vancouver. My emails bounce, bounce, bounced from person to person as a result of asking “can someone please arrange for a set of dates and times between Feb 13th and Feb 28th where I might see the rooms and make a few notes so that I can advise on setup and logistics?” I was surprised when I received an email from the Exec Director several provinces away at the centre of the universe that began with a perfunctory “can we have a conversation?” Innocuous? Right – not so much.

The trouble with open registration and a late cutoff date for these types of sessions is that I can’t advise on space requirements until I have a sense of the number of participants. For those of you who have participated in this type of session I deliver, you know what I am talking about. For me it is standard practice after almost 20 years of this type of work to make sure I know what I am getting into. The ED on the other end of the phone was very terse in response to my need, bordering on disrespectful, claiming my request unreasonable, stating no one ever does this, and on the rant went with complete conjecture, supposition and everything that comes with client entitlement. I felt like an object and not a person about two minutes into the “conversation.” In spite of mentioning periods where I would not be able to travel through Vancouver, the shiny new client requested that I make myself available for the visit during those periods. Naturally, I declined, begged out of the continuing socially awkward exchange I was being exposed to and offered that I would handle the matter personally and arrange the visit directly with the facility rather than through their conference organizers. No amount of social or relational acumen was working with this person in the moment. The systemic pattern and conditions of Oshry’s “righteously done-to client and the misunderstood service provider” were there waiting for me to walk in.

After the call I reflected on some of the really unfortunate client relationships I have had the terrific opportunity to learn from over the years. There is a set of characteristics I seem to have noticed in these problematic relationships:

  • Plain and simple inattention to process or an intentional downgrading of relationship building;
  • A distrust of internal and external resources now evident in group culture;
  • A propensity toward controlling behaviours;
  • A belief in a righteous sense of entitlement and personality of certainty and being “right;” and
  • A bullying disposition. 

Unfortunately, this pattern of disrespect is all too familiar to me as a consultant. I’m not whining. These are examples of great learning opportunities for me that I have actually experienced:

  • I have been yelled/screamed at, had books and other objects thrown at me or others;
  • I have arrived after traveling into the wee hours of the morning to find rooms appropriated and my belongings in the hallway as clients decide they like my room better;
  • I have been harassed at 02:00 in the morning by drunk clients at an off site retreat insisting I do their PhD data analysis (no – I didn’t actually do it!);
  • We have had six figure operating capital held for 6 months while the client transitioned and abdicated;
  • I have readied to take my team to a location to find the client (intoxicated) has appropriated the transportation because a MacDonalds run was important to the outcome of the multi-million dollar project;
  • I have experienced highly rude, unprofessional, childish classroom and meeting comments by the client while facilitating; and
  • I have been at the receiving end of sexual harassment and assault (client accosts me in the conference room in front of participants), threatens me and more. Good times, good times. 

In none of these instances did I lose sight of the project, my role in it, nor did I lose my desire to work through it and do great work. I did, however, feel indignant, disrespected and to confront that, I often took control of my own reality and addressed the issue one way or another as best I could, none of which was without consequence. In one instance it had a financial impact that would make your head spin. But in the end, it’s the client’s problem and no amount of money will buy my integrity and autonomy as a human being being human.

Thankfully, there are also fantastic people out there who are an absolute joy to work with. I’ll write more about them in the future. They are the vast majority. Unfortunately, however, I must say, that some still think bipedal locomotion is a fad and brachiation is the way to go. So here is my resolve going forward should I meet this type of person early in such an engagement:

  • I promise to learn from you, make notes about my experience with you and what you are asking me to do, how you ask me to do it, and how you treat me. You will serve as a great learning opportunity for other people. 
  • I will be stronger and more resilient because I have met you. Actually, I have met you before. I know what I need to do a great job and if I can’t get the conditions for success in place by our mutual commitment and collaboration, you’re on your own. Don’t get me wrong, I will work very hard for you, but if you are a barrier to me or my company doing what you hired me to do, sayonara.

By the way, this is MY work environment, too, and it is a necessary but insufficient condition to be treated respectfully.

System Transformation Happens Now – Yesterday’s Future

“When you separate the mind from the structure where it is immanent – as a human relationship, human society or the ecosystem – is committed, I believe, a fundamental error, which will surely suffer in the long run.” G. Bateson

This quote reminds me of the fundamental flaws inherent in the underlying myopia of system transformation efforts. I believe some authors (John Kotter comes to mind) who publish in the domain of organization change success and failure criteria etcetera, are examining proximate causes and not root cause or causes lying in waiting that are also part of the web of complexity associated with organizations. Unfortunately this approach feeds directly into near-term pragmatism and accountability-seeking that exerts tyranny over many stakeholders and governors of systems. It forces reductionism and near-term-thinking at the expense of longer-term opportunity quite possibility because safe-to-fail experimentaiton is risky. Apply a complicated fix to a complex phenomena (read: best/better practice when emergent practice is the order of the day) and don’t be surprised when you find yourself dealing with symptoms of underlying structures that were always there anyway. The diatribe in today’s Forbes article is more of the same old same old, so when will we learn?

Health care system transformation is a case in point and we all have a stake in that game. It’s really our own fault that we get what we get since our focus is so myopic. In Canada, Flaherty’s recent announcement regarding transfer payments is a sad example of a well-intended effort. He said on the CBC news yesterday that we need a viable health care system 10-15 years from now. Really? Seriously, Jimbo? I appreciate the courage demonstrated in light of global factors and events impacting dynamic global complexity, but to look at sustainable health care as a function of simple transaction and transition into a 10-15 year window is to minimize the epic complexity underlying the myriad interdependences leading to the provision of care. We need a better wellness effort, not care effort such that care becomes a post hoc concern primarily. But that means creating pain for us and for the perpetrators of proximate events (tobacco, alcohol, food but to name a few). Now who among us is really willing to stop the cause of the wound (problem in waiting) rather than the Band-Aid of funding (proximate cause). You? Me? Whom? Not likely – and that’s the issue. Need to connect values to leading through complexity? Try courage on for size.

Transforming organizations through problem solving produces a better past, in my mind, but not a better future. To produce a better future is to produce a better now, for the future, they say, never comes. There is only now and a memory of the past. What we dreamt of only becomes coherent with hindsight.

To create a better now, the lens of complexity offered by Snowden and Kurtz suggests we probe our systems with various catalysts, sense what patterns emerge and become meaningful in retrospect, then amplify or dampen the coherence that emerges. Are we up for that, Mr. Flaherty? Are you? I am and risk mitigation and not downloading is the only real thing I am concerned about.

Increasing our individual and collective tolerance for ambiguity does us great favor in preparing for unknown emergent patterns recognizable only in hindsight.  So try something new – don’t focus on making a better past. Increase your capacity to deal with emergence and you’ll be far more nimble and adaptable – NOW. The ability to overcome fear and anxiety related to uncertainty is one of the most highly desirable attributes we can possess when dealing with complexity.

As a coach once said to me: “What are you waiting for? Do you always need to know the outcome before you choose to act? Where is the creativity in that?”

We are a part of our complicated and complex systems, never separate from them, so conditions for transformation will seldom be better than they are now – which was yesterday’s future.

My Network Works

You know, I was thinking of Snowden’s notion of different types of systems (shocker, I know). In particular, I was wondering if my network of colleague practitioners was Ordered (either simple or complicated), Chaotic, or Complex. Snowden says we can look at them like this:

Ordered: system constrains agents, reductionism and rules, deterministic observer independence; 

Chaotic: agents unconstrained, and independent from each other; and/or

Complex: System lightly constrains its agents, agents modify the system by their interaction with it and each other. They irreversibly co-evolve.

What came to mind? Right: complex. In my network of colleagues that I draw upon or otherwise rely upon for one form of support or another, there are no real constraints or too many rules, and I, as an observer am clearly not independent from my network. Chaos – well maybe – (lol). But closer to the truth of the matter, we have a few unstated norms, I think, that help keep the network alive and dynamic, co-evolving with other forces and one another.

Sound ethereal? Consider the following unstated principles of how we have light constraints on our network and how we co-evolve with our interactions:

  1. Speak highly of one another and trust the inherent capacity each of us brings. It’s why we are in the same game and in the same room. If I didn’t trust you, you wouldn’t be here so let’s move on with it;
  2. Don’t steal clients – it’s an NLM (Network Limiting Move);
  3. Make the principal agent as successful as he or she can be – they may do the same for you one day;
  4. Do the best you can as if my client was your client – they may well be if the scope changes and I would be happy to refer – I do it regularly;
  5. Work for whatever your colleagues can afford to pay; trust is inherent in the relationship, we all need to run our practices, and no one will be taken advantage of;
  6. Reciprocate if you can – it keeps the faith;
  7. Be honest with your capacity and share credit where it is due. Nothing puts me off more than someone saying, “I built that” or “I did that” when I know damned well it’s not the case. Don’t be greedy with that BS or you’ll be gone – we rarely do anything without the help and support of others; and
  8. Be open-minded to the style and approach of each network agent or principal. Follow their lead and speak truth to power; the diversity makes us stronger.

I have noticed that the 6th principle above is often the one I am most frustrated with. I have hired close to 100 colleagues to pinch hit or contribute in the past 14 years and I am sure that is likely conservative. I can count on one hand the number of times where this has been reciprocated. I take it as a sign of the type of projects I have been involved with that are more systemic in nature and less likely to be content-exclusive. But still, I rely on my network to make me more effective, more robust and more successful. So thanks, folks. I hope I have the opportunity to contribute to your success in the near future in the same way you have contributed to mine.

So that’s about it for now. Colleagues, if you have something to add, please comment.

Presupposing Optimism – YRP Future Search Planning Update.

I was struck by something Marvin Weisbord said at a recent Future Search accreditation session. He had commented something to the effect that “people are doing the best they can every day with the resources and information they have at the time.” That’s a powerful proposition when it comes to engaging disparate groups of stakeholders on a project.

Recently I was in Toronto working with some great people on launching and planning a York Region Police Future Search conference related to developing a region-wide integrated strategy for crisis response to youth 18 and under with mental health concerns. Pretty virtuous stuff if you ask me. Then, it occurred to me that this was naturally the case when seeking to create a common future and all we really need to do is tap into the nascent optimism in each constituent. Presupposing optimism in the project was a latent assumption in selecting the planning committee. Being on the phone with the Future Search sponsor approximately a month ago, I recall how easy it was to identify the various people we thought were essential to the project success from a planning perspective. Having just met with them last week, this was born out in spades. The creative energy was ramped up very quickly and there were some great ideas brought forward as a result of optimism and enthusiasm for the project. What a great way to start and I can hardly wait to see what the planning conference brings in April.

This is my first Future Search conference and I have been blessed to partner with Tina Dias on this particular initiative. Since I often take on large group facilitation independently, committing to a partnership with Tina for Future Search conferences is a new approach for me. Working with Tina reminds me how healthy and refreshing such connections with highly skilled peers can be. Operating as an independent practitioner, a vast network of support and expert colleagues is truly an understated asset. I am going to start accentuating that more. Each one of us presupposes optimism not only in the projects we undertake, but also in our working relationships. This separate-but-connected way of working is a different model, for sure; one that many hide for fear of being taken advantage of, but one that should be developed more often in my opinion. More about this at another time, I think, as I make manifest something that has always been essential to my success.