My colleague Nick Sarra and I were asked to work with some practicing managers and leaders in what is usually described as a ‘fragile state’ in Africa. The country has been plunged into conflict for decades, and this has had a profound effect on social relations and the ability to get things done. Conflict still breaks out sporadically, making parts of the country off-limits, potentially reactivating the tensions which still exist between groups living elsewhere in the country, especially in the capital. The government struggles to provide basic services, so the country is dominated by international aid agencies, development organisations and the representatives of international governments who each have their own sets of policies, procedures and priorities. This becomes visible the moment one steps off the plane: the airport car park is full of 4x4s, each sporting its own logo, and often there to meet, or disgorge development workers with their wrap-around shades and desert fatigues. Without the agencies this country would not be able to survive, but at the same time it feels a bit like an occupation. Continue reading
Browsing the bookshop at Schiphol airport I picked up the Harvard Business School handbook on leadership which is supposed to contain the ten must-read articles of the last couple of decades. In the book you can find the usual taken for granted tropes and separations: that there is a difference between leadership and management, that managers are of course needed as well, it’s just that they don’t have what George Bush senior referred to as the ‘the vision thang’, that today’s speeded up world demands more leadership not less, and that if not all leaders need to be or can be transformational, they do at least need to be authentic.
One explanation for the move to authenticity is, as the particular chapter revealed, that there have been thousands of scholarly studies produced about leadership without our being any the wiser about how we might become good leaders ourselves. There is no recipe: ‘what a relief!’ (states the chapter). The answer, then, is to be our authentic leaderly selves. This involves being self aware and conscious of our story, being clear about our passions, responding constructively to feedback and learning how to empower others. All of this is brought about by the power of self-scrutiny. We pull ourselves up by our boot straps by scrutinising ourselves intensively and realising our own shortcomings. Continue reading
Having written about the experience of attending a hollow strategy event in the last post, I was interested hear criticism levelled at Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella for the address on strategy he gave staff recently. It is entitled ‘Bold ambition and our core’ and seems to be a terrific example of managerialist thinking (or perhaps lack of thinking).
After setting out an understanding of what the core of the company is, which seems to revolve around technology and the ‘customer experience’ Nadella then continues in the following way about the company culture:
Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture.
I truly believe that we spend far too much time at work for it not to drive personal meaning and satisfaction. Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.
Nothing is off the table in how we think about shifting our culture to deliver on this core strategy. Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving. Continue reading
I was sitting in a meeting with a social development organisation listening to the kinds of requirements that have been placed upon it by a governmental body in order to trigger the full funding for a grant that they had succesfully bid for. 10% of the grant is ‘performance related’. In other words, and on a sliding scale of reward for performance, the social development organisation has to prove that it has helped educate a certain number of girls in a developing country to a predicted level of attainment, and that these girls will have stayed in school for the three year duration of the project and not dropped out. Additionally money is released against the achievement of pre-reflected project milestones. ‘Results’ are validated by ‘rigorous research methods’ which turned out to mean quasi-experimental methods. In other words, the rubric insists that the project sites be compared with communities where there has been no such intervention, and which are ‘similar in every way’. The organisation will only be fully rewarded if it achieves exactly what it said it would, and precisely to the timetable it set out in the proposal.
This particular social development organisation I am visiting is one amongst a dozen or so others which have received similar or much bigger grants, some of which amount to the low tens of millions. All of them have proposed highly complex interventions in very different developing countries involving the girls themselves, their families, teachers, head teachers, community groups, religious and community leaders, sometimes even boys. As with most social development these days the intervention is highly ambitious and leaves the impression that the organisation, working through a local social development organisation in the country concerned, will be intervening in particular communities at breakfast, lunch and dinner and in a variety of different and incalculable ways. This combination of interventions may be necessary, but the extent and range of them makes the question of causality extremely problematic, experimental methods or no.
The other thing that struck me is that the dozen or so social development organisations receiving this money all have to use the same project management tools and frameworks so that the government department can aggregate progress and results across all countries and all projects. Quantification and standardisation is necessary, then, in order to render the projects commensurable, and in order to make a claim that the government has made a quantifiable contribution to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which they can ‘prove’. The kind of assertion that the government would like to make is that it has improved X tens of thousands of girls’ education to Y degree through its funding of a variety of organisations. These results, the claim will continue, will have been rigorously demonstrated through scientific methods and will therefore be uncontestable. Continue reading
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It has become a way of speaking in organisations that people feel compelled to say how ‘passionate and excited’ they are about a particular idea, an area of work, or if they are applying for a job. I have begun to experience this as a kind of tyranny, because it feels competitive and coercive, and ultimately, trite. It seems as though it has become impossible to apply for a job without saying how passionate and excited you are, and if it is a leadership position, to claim additionally that you are visionary and transformative. So many people are passionate about what they are doing (sandwich companies are passionate about the sandwiches they make, the truck which passes on the motorway heralds that the company is ‘passionate about logistics’) that it feels that something important has become trivialised and banal. It is just another saying to be tossed off lightly.
It also leaves those with a greater reluctance to give in to this kind of expressivism exposed to the accusation that if they can’t compete about how passionate they are then perhaps they are not committed to, or interested in, what they are doing. Being passionate and excited are surely not sufficient qualification on their own for doing anything well. I am reminded of the lines in WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming: ‘The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.’ Sometimes it is being passionate that closes down opportunities for listening and noticing, and paying attention to the particular importance of context and difference. It is a claim for authenticity that deceives.
I was forced to reconsider the idea of being passionate when I listened to Aung San Suu Kyi’s first Reith lecture ‘Securing Freedom’, where she talks of her own passion for freedom, drawing on Max Weber and Vaclav Havel. In linking passion, power and political action she has helped me retrieve the word from its contemporary shallowness. Aung San Suu Kyi is using the term very differently from the way it has come to be taken up in contemporary organisational life, and she describes the consequences of being passionate in both practical and paradoxical ways. Continue reading
The Health Ombudsman in the UK, Ann Abraham, recently published a report documenting the ways in which some elderly patients over the age of 65 had been poorly treated in the NHS. These were some of the examples:
• Alzheimer’s sufferer Mrs J, 82, whose husband was denied the chance to be with her when she died at Ealing hospital in west London because he had been “forgotten” in a waiting room.
• Mrs R, a dementia patient, who was not given a bath or shower during 13 weeks at Southampton University Hospitals NHS trust. She was not helped to eat, despite being unable to feed herself, and suffered nine falls, only one of which was recorded in her notes.
• “Feisty and independent” Mrs H, who had lived alone until she was 88, was taken from Heartlands hospital in Birmingham to a care home in Tyneside but, when she arrived, was bruised, soaked in urine, dishevelled, and wearing someone else’s clothes, which were held up with large paper clips.
Abraham’s report prompted much hand-wringing on the part of the Royal College of Nursing, government ministers and the press. The care services minister Paul Burstow saw the report as further proof that ‘modernisation’ of the NHS was needed, which presumably means the major ‘reforms’ that his own government is proposing. He added that ‘leadership’ was needed in the NHS to ‘drive out poor practice’, and mentioned a forthcoming initiative of the Health Quality Commission NHS regulator to carry out spot checks to identify malnutrition and dignity in older patients. Inspecting older patients for dignity is an interesting proposition. Continue reading