Friday, 19 December 2014

Management development - filling empty vessels or valuing experience?

I return to an issue that I have written about before, namely the development of management competence.

The reason that this has come back into my consciousness again is the experience that I had last week working with a group of aspiring managers over a period of three days.  In the group of 12, one person was currently in a line management role, another had been a line manager at a mobile phone company before joining the current organisation in a front-line role; the remaining 10 people were also in front-line roles but who had had no explicit management experience.  I share this because it posed some questions for me: would a course designed primarily for people with management experience still be relevant? how might I need to adapt my style to facilitate their learning?

An important principle that guides my thinking is that people are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.  Their life experiences, the jobs they are doing or have done, their prior knowledge and skills all come with them into any situation be this a formal learning intervention like a course or doing their everyday work. It is this experience that is the root of their learning and my job is to facilitate or animate this.  To animate derives from the French – animateur – and includes meanings of “to give life to, to quicken, to enliven, to inspire, to encourage, to activate or to put in motion”.  This is a reference from David Boud and Nod Miller's 1996 book 'Working with Experience: Animating Learning in which they describe five propositions to guide facilitators/animators:
  1. Experience is the foundation of, and stimulus for, learning
  2. Learners actively construct their own experience
  3. Learning is holistic
  4. Learning is socially and culturally constructed
  5. Learning is influenced by the socio-emotional context in which it occurs

Take seriously our own experience


The themes and topics that I talked about with the group covered a typical agenda for management development: self-awareness, situational leadership, objective setting, development planning, characteristics of high performing teams and stages of development, influencing, motivation, feedback and coaching.  In conversation with the group, it quickly became clear that, far from being empty vessels, they already knew a great deal about the topics.  In fact, as I reflect on this experience, perhaps the most important thing I did was to take seriously their prior knowledge before adding to it.  The result was a palpable sense of self-confidence within the group that they already knew a great deal, notwithstanding their relative managerial inexperience.  Both they and I were encouraged and motivated by this approach. 
My encouragement to all who I work with, whether in groups or individually, is to pay attention to what each of us is already doing and has always been doing, as opposed to what we should be doing.  Experience is the critical reflection point from which our insights can form the basis for action.   

Learning: Roman roads or woodpaths


As I wrote about in my post Learning: Roman roads or woodpaths, management developers are attracted to the possibility of identifying clear pathways and defined steps to follow.  In practice, much of our management learning is messy and nebulous and resistant to approaches, however tempting, that force us to follow a prescribed path.  



Any form of inquiry-based process that stimulates the workings of our cognitive systems and which give us control over what is learned.  

Coaching and action learning.  Both are effective if there are others that can work with you in these ways.

Or self-reflective methods that can be done on your own like:

Freefall Writing  - this is good for working on issues or topics where you have a nagging concern about something but are struggling to articulate.  
Evernote, which is good for grabbing web pages and adding notes about fragments of ideas that can be returned to later and reviewed.
Blogging is certainly my most important learning tool.  I value the discipline that comes with writing something that is visible to all.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

11 qualities of an effective manager - updated with a Slideshare presentation.

I have been blogging regularly for just over three years and the most popular post over this period was the one I wrote in September 2013 called 11 Qualities of the Effective Manager and their sources of learning It summarised the key findings of some research done with practising managers by two academics at Lancaster University in the UK.

To build on this blog, I have produced a short presentation of the research and included some reflections about the implications and possible methods to continue to develop managers and leaders.  The link to the presentation is here

Thursday, 6 November 2014

What else? - a great coaching question but what else?

Julie Johnson, a business associate of mine, posted this piece on her blog about the 'What else?' question in a coaching conversation:

Imagine that you are coaching someone, and you both agree that it is time to focus on generating possible solutions to the challenge at hand. So you ask your coachee: “How can you achieve this goal?”  Without any hesitation, you receive an answer. What do you do next?

Let’s take a case in point. A few years ago I was coaching someone who wanted to get better at giving strategic presentations, especially to senior management. We had already explored what had gone well and less well in the past, conditions that have an impact on performance, the advantages to achieving the goal and the disadvantages of not achieving it. By this point, his motivation was solidly in place. With both of us keen to get to solutions, the conversation went something like this: 

I asked, “What can you do to improve your presentations skills when presenting to senior management?” My coachee quickly replied, “I can take a course.” 

Tempted to explore possible courses, and whether there was a budget for a course available, etc. etc., I simply made note and asked, “What else?”  He quickly replied, “I can get a presentation coach.” 

I thought about exploring the qualities of the ideal presentation coach, but didn’t.  Instead I inquired, “And what else can you do?” There was a slight pause, and then he answered, “Well, I could go on YouTube and check out the techniques of some of my favorite speakers. [pause] And TedTalks. Mmm. I’d like that.” 

I noted once more, and then said, “What other things might you do?” There was a significant pause, during which he looked out the window. Then he said, “David. He is quite good. I’d love to have coffee with him and pick his brain. [pause] And I really need to watch him more consciously when he presents next time, and figure out what it is he is doing exactly that works so well.”

“Mmmm.” I said, noting these new ideas. “And what else would work for you?” This pause was even longer, and I waited. Finally he said, “Well, a couple of my team members have attended some senior management meetings, and they’ve seen me in action.  I bet they would be happy to give me candid feedback and suggestions.”

Tempted to ask who he might speak with and what questions he might ask, I just said “Ok. Anything else?” After a very, very long silence, he said “Well frankly, if I am really serious about this, I should practice my next presentation several times before I actually have to give it. [pause] I could even film myself. Yes! Yes! It would be so useful to observe myself in action! Then, when I finally like what I see, I will have the confidence to do a repeat performance when it really matters!”

When he was out of ideas, we reviewed each option he had generated, and then moved eagerly on to action planning.

While some of those post-question silences were pretty long, I don’t even think that my coachee noticed them. He was very busy creating. His first ideas were probably not new, because his answers came immediately after the question was posed. But because I kept asking the same question (with different words) over and over again, his mind kept creating, and the pauses between question and answer got longer and longer.

My general guideline in these situations is “The longer the silence, the newer the idea.” There are two things to avoid once you have carefully crafted this creative moment:
  • Don’t grab one idea and analyze it in detail – leave that for later once all the ideas are on the table.

  • Keep in mind that the longer the silence after your question, the harder your coachee is probably thinking, and therefore creating. If your question is followed by silence, you are probably ‘on a roll’! This is the best confirmation that your question is a good one!
 Link to Julie Johnson's blog

I like the narrative style.  It's practical and gives a good insight into the judgements that a coach continually has to make about the nature of their interventions.  I shared the blog with some managers that I had been working with on coaching practices the day after the blog was posted and I received this response from one of the recipients shortly afterwards: 

Thanks John.  I actually used this approach with one of my team – it worked brilliantly, and almost as set out above.

...nice feedback and evidence of the importance of sharing ideas and practices.

Coaching practice - what else do we need to consider?

Through my masters studies I looked in some detail at the field of conversation analysis and ethnomethodology and the structuring of sense-making that is part of everyday conversational interaction. If you are interested in following this in more detail please go to my blog Observing Practice.

Of particular interest in Julie's account is the description of the silences. What's noticeable is the work that's going on in the silences.  

The 'what else?' question is an effective device to stimulate thought and the skill of the coach is to hold the pause to allow the thinking work to develop - "There was a significant pause, during which he looked out the window".  However, what we can't tell from this is what the coach was doing whilst the coachee was looking out of the window.  My expectation is that the coach was helping to maintain the silence by following good listening practices like maintaining eye contact and avoiding non-verbal gestures or movements that might distract the silence.  My point is that these practices are being taken-for-granted but they are as much a part of the ordering process to accomplish an effective coaching intervention as the powerfulness of the question itself.

Why is this important?

Coaching is an important approach to helping facilitate change in individuals and teams.  However, like other management practices, it has a kind of mysterious 'black box' quality to it; coaching is not accomplished through a model or a set of questions or behaviours but through a choreography of fine-grained actions that emerge situationally each and every time a coach works with an individual or a team.  In other words, however good 'what else?' is as a question - and it's one that I often use too when I'm coaching - it rather glosses over a lot of important but unseen work that is also contributing to the result.  

The challenge of capturing everyday action 

My continuing interest in conversation analysis is the opportunity that it offers to study the choreography and use it as a learning tool to  enhance the development of coaches and coaching practice. 

The challenge is that this choreography slips by too quickly and is too nuanced; and to be of use the action would need to be captured on video or audio and then analysed to produce a micro level detail of practice.  I know from personal experience that the analysis takes a great deal of time and, at present, is too onerous to be of practical use.  

However, I am hopeful.  Big data technologies are now emerging that are able to provide information about, inter alia, workplace interactions  - for an example see the HBR blog The new science of building great teams and the use of electronic badges to gather interactional data.  This type of analysis looks very promising and is producing some ground-breaking insight into how people interact.  It forms part of some work that is being described as social physics that is coming out of MIT.  I'm reading up on this at the moment and will write a further post of my sensing making on this topic.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Leadership and management in the participation age



Image by Oscar Berg 

I've provided a short list of articles and blogs that I've been following recently talking about changing working practices; practices that place more responsibility on individuals to make their own choices, like Richard Branson's holiday offer, or those that provide examples of organisations that are operating without managers.

Branson unlimited holiday plan for Virgin blazes trail others should follow link to article

Managers are waste: Five organisations saying goodbye to the boss link to article

Companies Without Managers Do Better By Every Metric link to article

How Medium Is Building a New Kind of Company with No Managers link to article

The end of management?

What's interesting is the number and range of organisations that are working without formal hierarchies - from small entrepreneurial start-ups like Medium to WL Gore employing thousands of people.  Although my sense is that the claims for the end of management are overstated what they point to is other ways of organising work, which are quite different from the status quo, and which are working.     

From the industrial age to the participation age

The birth and development of today's management practices, organised around hierarchies, evolved from the industrial revolution. The emphasis was on efficiency, replication and stability. The metaphor was the organisation as a machine. Today's industrial revolution is the internet. The emphasis is on participation, collaboration and sharing. The metaphor is the organisation as a network with workers as nodes contributing their own interests, ideas and aspirations.

Less management and more leadership

As Warren Bennis once said, 'Managers do things right and leaders do the right things'. In other words, the distinction is about the exercise of judgement rather than applying prescriptions. In the participation age the claim is that organisations won't need managers as people will organise themselves in self-managed teams. But that there will still be a place for leaders; people who can create the conditions in which a group of people can organise their outputs towards a shared sense of purpose and meaning. Leaders in this context are facilitating rather than controlling; accountable and clear about the decisions they have the authority to make but also getting out of the way to allow people to problem solve with each other.

What makes knowledge workers productive?

I've shared Oscar Berg's Venn diagram of 'What makes knowledge workers productive?' because it captures something of the changing focus of workplace practices to support the participation age.

Where next?

The ways in which organisations are changing is very interesting.  I am certainly looking forward to keeping track of how things develop through blogs, Twitter and the like. Where next?  Perhaps the key is continued experimentation: in terms of  organisation designs that facilitate collaborative approaches and help make sense of what's possible for everybody in an organisation; and in approaches to learning that are built around emerging everyday workplace practice and directed by what the learner wants to find out rather than what teachers/facilitators, call them what you will, want to teach.    

Monday, 8 September 2014

The information revolution - is this leading or following organisational change?

In this post, I want to return to the topic of collaboration as a skill required by people, especially those working in organisations.  A question that I'm thinking about it whether collaborative practices are leading organisational change or whether they are following the emerging developments in the ways people are beginning to work together in a more networked fashion.

Just recently I had the chance to talk to a group about a trend, in an increasing number of organisations, to introduce enterprise-wide communication systems that are encouraging radically different methods of information dissemination. What's changing is a shift from the top-down formal practices of traditional internal corporate communications towards something that feels much more collaborative.  In this environment, employees are being expected to:

  • participate and share their ideas, concerns and points of view through an emergent network of virtual groups.  These groups cross traditional business unit 'silos' and hierarchies.
  • select and customise the streams of corporate information of most interest and make these visible on a personal home page.
  • use of a powerful search function to locate just-in-time information about, for example, company policies.  
  • make themselves visible through personalised profiles with CVs, skill summaries, personal blogs and news items, wikis and videos.
To add a couple of perspectives drawn from recent publications:


In the article Workers of the world - log in, The Economist charts the growth in importance of the business social networking site in shaking up the way professionals are hired.  Of interest is the ways that it is now being used by organisations for internal searches and some are using the skills data to help them make location decisions about new offices and factories.

From teams to teaming

The article Teamwork on the Fly in HBR April 2012 highlights a growing interest and shift in porous communities of colleagues who come together to solve a business challenge, or launch a new initiative.  One of the keys to making this type of organisation work is to have a skills marketplace where people with an interest in a particular issue can find partners.   

The multinational food company Group Danone believes strongly in this concept and has institutionalised it in the form of Networking Attitude, a programme that encourages ad hoc projects involving employees spread across hundreds of business units that previously operated independently, with little or no cross-pollination. 


Perhaps where we are now, at least in terms of how organisations are evolving in the networked era, is the end of the beginning.  The internet and social media have created the means to enable networks to grow that transcend traditional notions of hierarchy and control.  Whilst many company workers may have signed up to LinkedIn and other social media tools, the effect on everyday organisational life has been limited.  Apart from a few early adopters, the majority have been content to 'wait and see' and the status quo of company-wide centralised communications and local and business unit team meetings remain the norm in terms of dissemination of information. 

But my sense is that we have only just begun to grasp the revolution that is unfolding.  There are now a few organisations that are experimenting with different ways of organising work, e.g. Zappos, the online retailer and its holacracy model or Haier, the Chinese appliance maker that is using a large network of self-managed teams. Whether these specific models stand the test of time is less important.  What is common to both, and the Danone example, are the ways in which they are pointing towards the opportunities that exist for working collaboratively. 

In this context, whether the new collaborative communication practices that I cited earlier are leading or following this change is probably a moot point but what is for certain is that they will place much more emphasis on active participation from the majority.  

One practical benefit that we might all vote for is the potential for fewer emails.  How? A lot of email traffic is generated by requests to multiple addressees for comments.  Threaded discussions in virtual groups would eliminate this type of clutter and, other things being equal, reduce the size of the inbox - we live in hope.      

Friday, 29 August 2014

Learning practices - what is best practice?

First my thanks to Harold Jarche for his blogpost that alerted me to this piece on the Neurobonkers blog 'The lesson you never got taught in school: How to learn!'. The latter draws attention to and summarises an academic paper called 'Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology'.  10 techniques were evaluated.  The context of the study was primarily concerned with students in higher and further education.

Distributed practice

Having read the paper I want to use this blog to reflect on the learning technique of distributed practice both because the authors rated it highly in terms of effectiveness and because it's the most relevant to me in terms of its application in the business context. 

In summary, distributed practice is about the spacing out of learning episodes over time, compared to cramming, and the optimum gaps between each episode to aid retention. 

The conclusions of the paper are that the optimal level of distribution of sessions for learning is 10-20% of the length of time that something needs to be remembered.  So if you want to remember something for: a year you should study at least every month; for five years then the spacing should be every six to twelve months; for a week then the spacing should be 12-24 hours apart. 

Implications for practice


Managers value the stimulation of periodic learning about management.  I know this because this is what some of the participants on my programmes tell me. I also read something similar to this about Decurion, a US real-estate and cinema organisation, which had created a 10 week management course, run by their leaders. Attendance was voluntary and many employees had taken the course several times to enable them to understand the ideas and practices at a much deeper level and to see how to apply them to the business.

In my experience as a management developer, I can sense that my practice and salience increases the more I do it.  In one sense there is no real surprise with this point because it is already well understood that teaching others is itself a deep learning method.  However, what I notice is that when combined with my prior knowledge and experience as a manager and my interest in management learning practice, regular learning episodes seem to help.  So, it is a combination of good practices done regularly - e.g. facilitation, reading, note taking, blogging, which help.  The paper makes this point too - distributed practice is about the importance of a schedule of learning activities rather than favouring a particular kind of learning episode.  

I did a short piece of research at a UK bank in 2007 that looked at how managers were learning and the methods that worked.  Although learning through day-to-day experience came out top, this verbatim extract from one of the research interviews validates the value of distributed learning practice:
“…feels very different…because we were coming back and working on assignments it does feel like a 12/18 month journey and I do feel like I’m applying things because it’s in my thoughts almost every day…more with me than any other kind of training I’ve done before  I’d say that 95% of the training I’ve done in the past has been lost probably over the years.  I’m sure that I’ve taken some of it in, but the ...[external programme] stuff seems to have the daily reinforcement.”



Notwithstanding the positive effects of distributed practice, there are some important catches.

It may work best when processing information deeply and so for the greatest benefits it looks like it needs to be combined with some level of testing or assessment.  The purpose of testing may be twofold: to deepen the learning and introduce a level of formality and structure.  In my experience, this is something that many businesses shy away from for a range of cost, operational and/or philosophical reasons.

If you do go down the route of testing, then students tend to cram the activity required for the assessment into the last minute.  Human nature?  Probably.  

If distributed practice is organised around periodic workshops that take delegates off their jobs this creates operational tensions.  


Businesses want managers to adapt and change their practices.  What this research is pointing to is the importance of using learning practices that aid long term retention.  At one extreme sporadic standalone interventions will only deliver short-lived effects and at the other a longer term programme of learning and testing is probably not viable for high volume requirements because of operational and cost reasons.  

The gap can be filled by educating learners on how to learn.  From a self-help point of view, I like 'A Manager's Guide to Self Development' by Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell.  It is based on solid research and contains lots of targeted exercises.  The other techniques highlighted by the research paper are also worth exploring because no one solution or approach suits everybody.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58
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