I’m OK, You’re OK …. It’s Still OK

I’m OK, You’re OK …. It’s Still OK

When I started this blog, I promised to look at things which made groups work well. This post talks about one of the most consistent properties that support good social relations, mentioned across a broad spectrum of ‘literatures’.

I’m referring to something best summarised by the good old 60s book title, “I’m OK, You’re OK”. Written by Thomas Harris, Wikipedia tells us that it is “… one of the best selling self-help books ever published. It is a practical guide to Transactional Analysis as a method for solving problems in life. From its first publication during 1967, the popularity of I’m OK, You’re OK gradually increased until, during 1972, its name made the New York Times Best Seller list and remained there for almost two years.”

In the book, Harris argues, following the general lines of transactional analysis, that we can be in one of four ‘positions’:

  1. I’m OK, You’re OK
  2. I’m OK, You’re not OK
  3. I’m not OK, You’re OK
  4. I’m not OK, You’re not OK.

It has been argued that this four position model fits interestingly with ideas about typical conflict management styles, such that:

  1. Corresponds to COLLABORATION (Win/win)
  2. Corresponds to DOMINATION (I win)
  3. Corresponds to PLACATION (You win)
  4. Corresponds to AVOIDANCE. (Let’s not play)

I don’t want here to go into the thesis of the book, and especially not into the argument (which I don’t think is warranted) that the average person only gets to A after some sort of counselling and therapy. Instead, I simply want to make two assertions:

1       That it takes effort, skill and vigilance to keep a group centred on “I’m OK, You’re OK” and, when there is conflict, on collaboration.

2       That failure to do so, especially on the part of those with power and/or authority leads rapidly towards dysfunctional or sub-optimal processes and outcomes

I don’t think anything I say will be new but I’m hopeful that pulling the strands together around a simple, easily recalled theme is of practical use. So let’s look at the two assertions:

It takes effort, skill and vigilance to keep a group centred on “I’m OK, You’re OK”.

There are two broad factors that seem to be in play here—both fairly obvious. At the group level, hierarchical forms and operations seem common across human societies. Status differences by age, by gender, etc. are very common across a wide range of times and places while in more recent human history other factors such as economic or political power, authority legitimated by education and training, etc. are all additional bases for hierarchy. Whether or not hierarchy is somehow good or bad is not the issue here: the fact is, it ‘is’. With hierarchy comes the strong temptation to assume (both on the part of those with higher status and ‘the rest’) that those at the top are ‘OK’ and those at the bottom are ‘not OK’ (see e.g. my SlideShare presentation on ‘The Acton Principle’ at http://slidesha.re/ZQQY5L and the post on ’Missing Voices…” at http://bit.ly/ZQR7WU) This assumption blurs things that may well be true (the more ‘senior’ person may indeed have more information, more experience, more training, etc. than the more junior) with other unwarranted ideas about how is OK, placing the more junior person being ‘not OK’. In hierarchical situations, the default move tends to be away “I’m OK, You’re OK” towards “I’m OK, You’re not OK”. As we shall see in a moment, this can have disastrous consequences.

At the personal level, the failure to stay in the “I’m OK, You’re OK” position seems to arise from a mix of factors. Here, in briefest form, are but a few of the many possibilities:

  • We cannot escape from the childhood position of being little and not OK in relation to parents who are big and OK (this is Harris’ argument);
  • Fear of failure drives us towards either an overcompensating, over reaching attempt to win big, or a timid collapse into trying little or nothing. Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence from 1976 takes this line arguing that failed commanders either massively over or under reach but don’t attempt the real task they have been given;
  • Needs to feel competent and certain push people towards strategies that will make them feel better, including hearing what they want to hear (Dorner’s The Logic of Failure, 1991, shows how this can happen leading to catastrophic failure);
  • Being stuck at lower levels of cognitive development means people cannot handle a variety of points of view and interpret disagreement as (e.g.) hostility (see for example Bob Kegan’s many works such as In Over Our Heads, 1994); and
  • Conversational and emotional self-management skills have not been developed so people make unwise choices. (For example, in Crucial Conversations (2002), Patterson et al discuss the ‘sucker’s choice’ of ‘silence or violence’ (equivalent to placation and domination respectively) showing how a lack of assertiveness skills misses the middle ground).

Numerous other examples could be given. The point is simple however: there are many ways that, lacking self-awareness, self-confidence and self-management abilities, along with a lack of good interactive skills, people frequently lurch away from “I’m OK, You’re OK”. Combined with the dark side of hierarchy and power, it is not surprising, then, that groups exhibiting this as a routine position are less common than others.

Lack of “I’m Ok, You’re OK” leads rapidly towards dysfunctional or sub-optimal processes and outcomes

Again, documenting this in full would require a multi volume book, so only a few points will be made.

The litany of failures—in groups, families, marriages, friendships—is huge. How does a shuttle get launched with O rings that some folks know are defective? How does an airliner follow a flight path that the co-pilot knows is unsafe? How do military disasters like the Bay of Pigs Invasion or the 1944 parachute assault on Arnhem happen? More mundanely, how do groups make poor choices, hire the wrong people or fire the right ones? How do marriages come apart with both partners blaming ‘communication failure’? Etc., etc.  As Susan Scott says in Fierce Conversations (2002) these enterprises “…succeed or fail one conversation at a time.” Clearly, poor conversations, or silences where they should have occurred, have paved the road to these outcomes.

It is not always that case that failures are badly motivated. Consider Weinberg’s Fourth Law of Consulting (as cited by Adrian Segar, http://t.co/Ud6XmKFOvG ) “If they didn’t hire you, don’t solve their problem. A common occupational disease of consultants: we rush to help people who haven’t asked for help.”

Think about this very wise advice in terms of the four positions above: to tell people how to fix something when they have not asked you to do so is a polite version of “I’m Ok, You’re not OK”. It arrogates power to you away and from them. Thoughtful attention to conversations around you will reveal that it is remarkably common to hear this mild arrogance at work. People tell you or others that ‘you’ll love the movie such-and-such’ (meaning they did), that ‘you don’t want to take that job’ (meaning they wouldn’t take it) that ‘you should visit Paris’ (meaning they liked it) or advise you on how to bring up your children/manage your spouse or whatever, all the while exuding a faint air of superiority about their child rearing skills or marital skill. This is especially galling when it comes from the childless or the single in ones network: as my former mother-in-law used to say dryly, “Everyone can fix the Devil, except him whose got him”

Conversely, we know about the conditions for success: trust, transparency, authenticity, meaning and the like. Good leaders promote trust, treat people with respect, listen reasonably to other voices. Heifetz, the leadership expert, says that ‘protecting the voices from below’ is an essential element of real leadership. And Patterson et al again: When people feel safe, they can say anything.

Inspirational, emotionally intelligent leadership works—the research shows this again and again. Emotionally intelligent, self-possessed behaviour leads to good relations, life satisfaction and high efficacy. High reliability organisations (HROs) manage danger constructively. In all of these cases the core element of success is having the position of “I’m Ok, You’re OK’ as the basis of interaction. It’s not rocket science, as they say, but it also isn’t easy. The old cliché that ‘eternal vigilance’ is the price of freedom could easily be adapted here. Paying consistent attention to the egalitarian assumption of moral equality, irrespective of social status or formal ‘ranki is a necessary feature of continued successful functioning in social groups.

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On Line ‘Conversations’: How Well Can We Make Them Work?

Can you have a conversation on line? That question has intrigued me for a while and so I was greatly stimulated by an exchange between two very thoughtful bloggers, both of whom I am learning a lot from (I recommend you read them, you won’t be sorry!).

Chris Rodgers, author of the Informal Coalitions blog (http://tinyurl.com/dd6ljz) and Adrian Segar author of the Conferences that Work blog (http://tinyurl.com/28y9wd7) discussed the argument that There’s no such thing as on-line conversation at http://tinyurl.com/cpe4asq. At the risk of falling into the old ‘on-the-one-hand…’ line which allows one to fence sit, I think I agree with both of them.

Chris’ argument that in the absence of face-to-face presence and interaction the exchange of ideas is thinner (my word) seems right. As I have pointed out in my overview presentation on group participation (http://t.co/px9SoTjWLD) the complex intertwining of minds that occurs when we are co-present produces a rich array of effects (mostly, but not all positive) that create the intensely rewarding character that conversation can give, building social identities and bonds. It is hard to see how these can be fully replicated in any virtual forum. In this sense, then, one may never have a full conversation on line until the participants are immersed in a virtual reality suit that allows them to simulate co-presence seamlessly.

At the same time, I’m with Adrian’s push to create better communication processes on line, searching for methods that might permit this. For example, his detailed discussion of using Google Hangouts on Air (http://tinyurl.com/7fdsf6a) shows a rich possibility for enhancing connection using an easily available platform to achieve something valuable.

I think that with imagination, we ought to be able to go a lot further. There are numerous useful techniques for everyday workshops that achieve the twin goals of involvement and productivity. As two examples I’ll mention WorldCafés and open space fishbowls—which I will write about more in a different post. What these share is the capacity for open and egalitarian discussions which engage everyone and produce good outcomes. Structure is provided by the method itself which ensures an excellent chance for all voices to be heard (see my earlier posts at http://tinyurl.com/cxewp7t and http://tinyurl.com/bv3dchw) and inhibits things like serial monologue and the silencing of outlier ideas.

I have yet to see—but hold out hopes for—internet platforms/apps that will simulate these methods fully. Chris’ ‘synchronous interaction’ which (say) a fishbowl draws upon can be mimicked very well in part, less well in other ways (for fishbowls see e.g. http://tinyurl.com/d98mzop). It is not hard to imagine how the ‘bowl’—5 or 6 people in animated discussion—can be relayed in real time using various protocols like Skype. But to work well, this conversation (forgive me Chris for the usage!) needs to be visible to the much larger ‘audience’ and in addition there needs to be a method that allows an automated ‘put up your hand’ queuing system for others to join into the ‘empty seat’ and become a temporary part of the bowl discussion. So far I have not found one that does this and I have also found in discussions that there is a slight reluctance to accept the idea that the queuing process could be automatic rather than ‘moderated’. While I can see how the issue of troll-in-the-bowl needs management I think we need to be more imaginative about how we allow entry and topic sharing.

Using fishbowls, etc., with co-present groups I have found that direction and control of the process is very much governed by less-is-more and I would want to see this applied as much as possible to online versions too. I’d be interested in any ideas people have…

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Synergy or Dysergy: Do We Kid Ourselves We Have Been Synergic When Really We Have Pruned The Outliers?

In my last post, I talked about squeaky wheels and suchlike, arguing that to ensure that all voices get heard we need to ensure that people get their ideas sorted out individually ahead of any collective discussion. For most purposes, ‘write first, talk second’ is an excellent rule of thumb.

Since then, I have come across a completely different and quite illuminating literature that leads to this same conclusion. I’m referring to a finding in the distributed cognition literature concerning collaborative inhibition and recall disruption. I think it is worth saying something about this because while its practical conclusion is the same it differs from the squeaky wheel argument in an interesting way: while the latter has an intuitive obviousness to it, the collective inhibition argument does not.

Indeed, in a few conversations I’ve had about this idea I have come across the same sort of initial disbelief that one gets when mentioning the literature on how poorly we remember things in general. Many people pride themselves on their memory and can be quite miffed at the idea that human memory is fallible and malleable. In the same way, many people are (rightly) attached to the idea that positive collective discussion can be synergistic and are not easily convinced that it might, at times, be the opposite.

My source for this new (to me!) idea is an excellent article by Martin Fagin at the New School for Social Research in New York which he was kind enough to provide me (sorry there is no url for this, but I cite details in in my updated SlideShare at http://tinyurl.com/d757tgq). Rather than paraphrase him badly, let me quote him.

Although conversation can facilitate remembering when considering what the group as a whole produces, individual members of the group will remember less in a conversation than they are capable of when remembering alone, so-called collaborative inhibition … They may remember something that they would not remember alone … but, overall and on average, they will remember less. Thus, the group as a whole may remember more than any individuals alone would remember in isolation, but each individual is not achieving her individual capacity to remember. (Emphasis added.)              […]

The retrieval disruption hypothesis posits that collaborative inhibition occurs, at least in part, because one group member’s pursuit of an effective retrieval strategy disrupts the use of retrieval strategies that may be more effective for other group members

It is worth elaborating with a simple example what this means and how it connects to synergy or dysergy*. Suppose you and I are asked to recall something of which we were both a part. After a lot of thought, I come up with six things and you, independently, also come up with six. Four are the same and the others are not. So together we recall eight things, ‘our’ four, ‘your’ two and ‘my’ two. The pool of eight recalled things is NOT a sign of synergy—thought it might masquerade as such. Synergy is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—here we simply have the sum. Synergy would cut in if and when, after we pool our separate efforts, a collective effort adds a ninth and a tenth item… and  so on.

With the process described by Fagin (supported by a solid bank of research by a number of authors) what happens is even less than this. Talking together, rather than thinking separately, I immediately recall a couple of things and so do you, we agree on one of them and keep talking, you remember something else which, after a while connects to something I recall. And so, after a while we have pool of 7 items. Now we are pretty pleased with ourselves—we have a pool of 7 which seems much bigger than the couple we each started with and we have a warm, and misplaced glow about our ‘synergy’. In fact, viewed from the perspective of a pool of 8, that might eventually become 9 or 10, this outcome is dysergic not synergic. But because of how we got there, dysergy masquerades as synergy.

How can this happen? Well, if you read across modern psychology and cognitive science you’ll know that we continually kid ourselves. From self-esteem (where like the fictional Lake Woebegone, ‘we are all above average’) to visual perception (where our neural processing turns the fragmented input from our eyes into a smooth picture of the world) we routinely create a version of the world that our conscious mind (if we really have one!) treats as reality. (There’s a whole book there on ‘life as a self-licking ice-cream’ …. J )

This seems to be another such comforting illusion. Indeed, it is almost a collective version of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for the researchers who discovered that a large majority of people think they are above average across a wide variety of domains. Comfortable in this illusion people often remain unaware of their incompetence and, because of this, fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence. In the collective case, the danger is that participants—and group leaders or facilitators—share the illusion, confusing the warm glow with an optimal outcome.

In particular, one of the dangers is that in doing this we ‘prune the outliers’—be those the inconvenient facts we would all rather overlook or the off-the-wall idea that we could have found and which might have offered a breakthrough on a problem. These outliers—which by definition are not universally shared or suggested, can become the casualties of the cheerful dysergy that collaborative inhibition produces.

In one sense, if you follow the ‘write first, talk second’ rule that I have mentioned, you won’t easily have groups falling into this trap. But I think a few more ideas here about WHY this phenomenon occurs are warranted because I think they help us understand something more general, something with both and up and a downside.

I’m referring here to another few slides in my presentation (http://tinyurl.com/d757tgq ).  If you look at that you will see an argument from Garrod and Pickering about why conversation is easy, another from Stephens about anticipatory speaker–listener coupling and finally one from Nummenmaa on emotions making us ‘tick together’.  All of these point to a shared idea which is that the process of conversation is NOT a rational strategy for ‘exchanging information’ (although at times we might do just that.) Rather, conversation is substantially similar in many ways to ‘grooming’ behaviour: it is designed to build bonds, overcome conflict and so on. And this in turn links to the high levels of satisfaction we obtain when we have had what we jointly perceive to be, ‘a really good conversation’.

Thus the very fact that ‘conversation is easy’ underpins both the possibility of engaged dialogue and at the same time, the possibility of a shared suppression of memory or innovation that we neither notice nor lament.  As Fagin and his co-authors conclude:

People often do not jointly recount a shared past with others in order to improve their memory. Rather they do it because people are social creatures and they want to share their memories with others. Not surprising, this act of distributed remembering does not necessarily improve remembering. But it does seem to benefit the sociability that may have motivated the joint recounting in the first place.  (Emphasis added).

If the purpose of our talk is congruent with grooming, then, this is hardly a problem. But if instead it’s congruent with some more instrumental process then the very facility we show for integrating our memories, ideas and emotions can become a pitfall.

In running workgroups or facilitating workshops, it pays to be mindful of this!

*  Dysergy—the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

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Missing Voices and Squeaky Wheels: How to Make Sure Everyone Is heard

I had a salutary experience some years ago about missing important inputs to a discussion. It turned out well in the end but I learned a lesson about was how easy it is to use everyday practices without too much thought and, as a result, not even know you are silencing some people and privileging others. If you want workgroups to function well, you have to avoid this trap.

I was running a workshop for a market research team. They were a pretty laid back bunch, the type that wear casual clothes to work, use first names and joke and laugh a lot. On the first evening we were agenda setting and I asked the group each to write down one key thing we needed to discuss over the weekend. Sprawled in easy chairs in a big circle, they thought for a few minutes and wrote their ideas down. When we were ready, I started with the person on my left and went clockwise, asking each to read out their idea as a basis for more discussion later. It went well until I reached the last person on my right—let’s call her Pippa. Pippa blushed and said, “I got it wrong”.

Now it is obvious that one cannot, in the literal sense, get it wrong, so I realised something was amiss and tried to get her to share the idea but she kept shaking her head. Finally, to see if making light of it would work, I mimicked a suitor, knelt in front of her and hamming it up threw my arms wide and said, “Pippa, Pippa, I beseech you, read to me”, whereupon she laughed, blushed some more and read out the most important and insightful idea of the group.

What had happened here? Well, Pippa was the youngest person there, the most recent recruit to the team and (notwithstanding that this was not a conservative outfit) a woman in a mixed setting. So in terms of age, experience and gender she was lower on the totem pole than the older, more experienced, male team members. Since her idea was quite unlike what they had said, she was hesitant and embarrassed and felt ‘wrong’. Luckily, we got past this moment, but it is not hard to imagine another scenario where Pippa hastily changes her card, reads out something anodyne and the whole group loses an insight they needed.

My first reaction to this, when I understood it, was to change my practice in a very simple way. When I want to get people to share ideas I have always avoided the idea of ‘throwing the floor open’—that simply ensures that the confident extroverts speak out quickly and set the agenda. (I know, I’m one, so I’m not running down people I’m jealous of!) But until this moment, I had not paid attention to sequencing the contributions in any way. After this, however, I began to think hard about asking the most junior people first and ‘working up’.

I now call this the NELSON PRINCIPLE because a Navy friend assured me that the British hero ADM Lord Nelson did this in councils of war. Recognising that a LEUT would defer to a CAPT (and not vice versa) Nelson ‘briefed upwards’, maximising the diversity of input. If you want to have an around-the-room discussion, this simple process works well to maximise input and minimise inadvertent silencing.

Once you think along these lines, however, it does not take long to realise that this works as long as the contribution is not too controversial. Asking a junior person to kick off ideas and expecting them to ‘throw a dead cat on the table’ seems truly unwise. So what can you do?

Well, I use several fairly easy and obvious techniques that get stuff ‘on the table’ and do so without too much danger of being labelled by others. These also have the advantage of overcoming ‘halo’ effects, negative or positive. There is a very considerable literature on the biases built into implicit cognition which, at very least, alert us to the danger that a good idea from an unpopular person is likely to get less credence than a mediocre idea from a very popular one. These techniques flatten haloes out.

They also overcome what I used to call ‘posturing’. Thanks to the work of Garrod and Pickering (see my SlideShare at http://tinyurl.com/bgx6a7l) I now think of this more as a demand function towards ‘serial monologue’. Whatever you call it, in groups of more than 7 or 8 people those who speak tend to make speeches rather than talk informally and no dialogue results. Cross this with the tendency noted above (and also covered in the SlideShare) for the (over)confident extroverts to spout and pretty soon you have a ‘squeaky’ wheel problem—a few people who say a lot, often and a silent majority who don’t get their ideas into the pool.

So, two very simple and not especially original techniques that really work to overcome these tendencies in workgroups are:

The 35 method. I’m not sure where I got this first. It wasn’t Thiagi but looking now through Google that is the only place I can see it listed: http://tinyurl.com/6z285et. Whatever, this really simple technique uses ideas written anonymously on cards which are shared and rated in a simple ‘mixing’ model. Using a series of two person, brief conversations which energise the group, cards are scored in a way that allows the best received ideas to rise to the top, quite independently of who wrote them.

I cannot commend this too strongly—I have used it everywhere from teenage Air Force school cadets to the most senior military and executives, through public and private sector workgroups in a wide variety of industries. Doctors, police, fast-jet pilots, social workers, teachers… it never fails. I have used it to generate questions and to generate answers, to evaluate, to explore and sometimes just light heartedly to spice up a serious workshop—like the time I asked a military group responsible for listening for submarine noises to decide on the best motto for their unit and the card that ‘won’ hands down said, “What the F**K was THAT?”

A simple ‘Post-It’ Model. I’m sure most are familiar with this old one but it is still good. Around a room you put up large Post-Its, butcher’s paper, whatever. Each ‘sheet’ has a key question on it. Everyone in the group writes individual sized Post-It notes (one note per idea or comment, no limit to how many notes) and sticks them up next to the question to which they are in part an answer*. The group then divides into work teams, each team sorts and themes the notes on ‘their’ sheet and prepares a short summary presentation.

Both of these are simple and one at least very well known. Both work and they do so because they manage a variety of potential problems—squeaky wheels get no audience to posture to, quiet people get their ideas heard, confidence is not connected to agenda setting, popularity is disconnected from approval, difficult topics can be raised without fear the messenger will be shot, groupthink is generally avoided and so on. These are essential elements if you want participation, engagement and synergy.

Tip: if you want to do this one, spray the base sheets with re-positionable glue and the new Post-Its don’t fall off but can be sorted easily.

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Top down or bottom up? Leadership and groups in chaotic, complex or complicated contexts

Do groups need leaders or can they simply self-organise? This question is in the air—or maybe I am just noticing it today. Over the weekend my colleague Don Lowe emailed about ‘facilitator free interaction’ and a loosely related idea—‘senius’ (which stands for a sort of collective genius.) was discussed in a Brian Eno clip (http://t.co/7xFQ8l8GxV) Tweeted by David Gauntlett (@davidgauntlett). Eno argues for “… situations that produce good outcomes, rather than individuals who produce good outcomes”. Today there are two posts by Harold Jarche, one of which led me back to his excellent 2011 post http://www.jarche.com/2011/10/is-leadership-an-emergent-property/ and the other directly relevant to my theme now http://www.jarche.com/2013/03/from-hierarchies-to-wirearchies/  All of these lean towards groups as determinants and away from leaders or leadership. Is that the right way to go?

It will help, I think, to separate at the start three different types of group/leader settings to make sense of this. First (which has been my long term interest) there are groups that involve (mainly) face to face interaction. Second, there are groups that operate mainly virtually—‘networks and ‘wirearchies’. And lying between them an area I would like to explore later—virtual connections for live conversations (e.g. via VOIP or similar links). Is the last is more like the first or the second … and what follows from the answer?  I’ll come to that another day.

I want to answer the question about the relative importance of leaders and of groups as the determinant of outcomes with reference mainly to the first category. I like the Jarche arguments about virtual networks and it’s likely that my argument applies least to them.

The answer is neither new nor radical but I think it’s worth making, not least because it spring-boards to the posts that will follow.

Concentrating on good leadership as the determinant of good outcomes can be called the ‘top down’ school: good leaders lead teams to good outcomes by applying the appropriate leadership style and skills. Truck-loads of books and articles have been written on this topic and there are some obvious themes that emerge. Looking beyond ‘great [wo]man’ theories it is usually clear that if the right person, at the right time deploys the right skills, s/he makes a difference. There are some dramatic and clear examples of this, perhaps nowhere clearer than the life-or-death contexts of combat. Stories abound of failing units being rallied to excellent performance by the arrival of a new commander. More sadly, previously successful ones can fail because of a new, poor commander. For better or worse, leaders make a difference.

Yet ‘top down’ as an approach to complex adaptive systems does not work—as the failure of top down approaches in artificial intelligence showed some decades ago. So, exactly how leaders make a difference needs to be kept open just for a moment.

What, then, of ‘bottom up’? Certainly this is how complexity emerges—‘life at the edge of chaos’ emerges by simple actions that are repeated and result in adaptive and complex outcomes. And the literature on self-governing groups—which fills another truck or two—attests to this. Sometimes this self-government is based on temporary, democratically nominated leaders:  Harold Jarche’s 2011 post references an Apache approach of leaders emerging temporarily for a given situation and there is a suggestion by Clifford (Clifford, B., & Perry, P. (2000). The Black Ship: The Quest to Recover an English Pirate Ship and Its Lost Treasure. Headline) that pirates elected leaders who were to be obeyed during pursuit, attack or emergencies but who could be overruled or replaced at other times.

Moreover, the principles that underpin these interactions—such as group size, group composition and the links of these to participation discussed in the last post—make a difference. They can be understood, articulated and applied.

So is it is an easy and facile answer to say that obviously both leadership and group interaction have an effect. Probably, but it becomes a richer answer if we understand how they link.

Broadly speaking, leadership needs to fit context and contexts vary. The most crucial variation is the way that order, causality and knowledge intersect. Knowledge guru Dave Snowden has one of the clearest takes on this, and his Cynefin framework (nicely explained in a SlideShare presentation at http://tinyurl.com/5k489y) discusses the difference between chaotic, complex, complicated and simple contexts. What a leader needs to do differs depending on which of these four we find ourselves in.  Ignoring the simple setting (it’s not very interesting) a leader needs to ‘command’ when there is chaos, ‘lead strategically’ when in complexity and ‘manage’ when things are complicated.

Unfortunately, these three are frequently confused. Numerous ‘management’ techniques (KPIs, GANTT charts, etc., etc.) are somewhere between unhelpful and downright damaging if they are rigorously applied to complex situations and are fatally constraining in chaos. This is where the pirate model is so nice: in the chaos of the chase and attack, the elected captain commands and woe betide the man who disobeys. In complex situations, the captain is engaged with the crew who elected him—he can influence and shape the directions, but in the end he needs consent. If it is complicated (the least likely to the three for pirates), his job is to manage the technically relevant processes and people to get the right answer, again in consultation with the crew.

So here is the answer I think we get the most mileage from: when the matter involves (mainly) face-face groups in a complex setting—and most things involving human behaviour are complex—leadership in the full sense matters. It delivers mainly by building trust, by setting parameters and norms, by making resources available and by delegating details. The military have a phrase for this—they call it ‘mission command’. Under this method, the commander makes his/her intent clear, sets the boundaries and devolves direct actions to the units involved. Whether lower down this is handled hierarchically (command and control) or more democratically (like the SAS) is again context specific.

Other roles we might think of in groups—such as workshop facilitation—follow this pattern. In my experience, a good workshop sets strong boundaries about the methods to use and guidance about when a given method might be deployed—but allows the group interactions to be the bedrock for producing outcomes. It’s also is sensitive to the underlying dynamics that promote—or stifle—good outcomes. I’ll turn to these questions in my next few posts.

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Bread Pudding and Life: Thoughts for Designing Social Systems That Work

I promised to write about things that make social life work. One of them is recipe knowledge for locally stable, or ‘robust’ activities. Let me explain …

Every morning my partner Pamela and I make breakfast. Usually we share the tasks, pottering along next to each other and sometimes one or other does it all because they are up more quickly or feel more energetic. Despite the infinite variations in the process, the outcome is the same: breakfast is ready, coffee is poured, the word puzzle in the newspaper is ready to attack as we eat.

Surely, you say, this is no big deal? Isn’t this typical of social life? Well, yes … and no. Some years ago I attended a conference on alternative dispute resolution processes in Melbourne. The very good facilitator ran an effective process of collective brainstorming which generated a number of topics. Like-minded people then clustered to the topic that interested them and developed it. One of the topics was “what happens in the room” and come presentation time we were given an earnest talk about how incredibly complex the ADR processes could be and how the experts needed to be there, eternally vigilant, to ensure that the tiniest thing did not send the process spinning into the outer darkness.

Frankly, I found this a bit puzzling and disappointing. Why would we want to invest time and energy in something this flaky? Moreover, I had recently been in South Africa to evaluate a project for my friend and colleague Clifford Shearing and had been impressed by the simple and robust process that was running in some townships. Rather like our breakfasts, these were successfully managed by local folk without experts hovering anxiously over them. So I stood up and made this point (perhaps not diplomatically enough since it transpired that several doctoral theses were being lovingly written on this flaky topic and a few people were rather shaken by my argument.)

Simply put, my point was that complexity theory distinguishes between various contexts. When things are very unstable, the ‘butterfly’s wing’ effect is enough to cascade changes through the system in unpredictable ways. On the other hand, as John Casti pointed out, some contexts are locally stable or robust. He gave the example of a good bread pudding recipe: no matter the infinite variations of the bread, oven temperature, etc. if the recipe is a good one you always get bread pudding.

I went on to argue that what ADR needed was bread pudding recipes—robust systems that did not need hovering experts. I wrote this up in a rather obscure journal, which was sort of a pity because I think the argument is worth looking at. Well, now with SlideShare to help, I have made it available to a wider audience and if this interests you, you can read it in full at http://tinyurl.com/bgx6a7l.

The point of course, is not restricted to ADR. In social life generally, there is a myriad of routines that we execute almost without thought. Psychologically speaking, we do them through ‘System 1’ a set of cognitive processes that rely on tacit knowledge and implicit cognition which is ‘fast, feral and frugal’. Most of the time this works because the recipes are effective. Sometimes they fail. And usually we are not fully aware of how and why things work any more than we grasp the chemistry that underlies baking the pudding. But with a little effort, we can understand and we can design good recipes.

Let me close for the moment with a simple example. What is the right number of people to have for a dinner party?

Well, if you walk around furniture stores the answer seems to be eight. There has recently been a fashion for square tables with 2 per side, proving –as I will show in a moment—that designers know less than nothing about social dynamics. Eight is an AWFUL number for a dinner party and the only thing worse than a square table for eight is a round one. Who has not found themselves at some hotel dinner (e.g.in a conference) stuck at such a table condemned to a boring evening because one can only talk to the people each side and since one is completely uninteresting and the other is engrossed with the person next along, time drags and drags.

Why is eight so bad? Because it is too big for a single conversation and too small to simply break into a rolling series of sub-conversations. And this statement is not simply a common sense observation. As I have shown in another presentation (see http://tinyurl.com/b76hezu) group size is a crucial feature that underpins conversations. Six is the upper bound for a conversation—it allows numerous subdivisions of 2, 3 and 4 as time rolls along but when everyone is in the one conversation it is still comfortable. Eight, in contrast, lies in the awkward zone between dialogue and ‘serial monologue’ which is what routinely cuts in if one has a group of about 10 or more who are co-present (e.g. at a formal meeting).

And as the example makes clear, it is not only size but also local geography that matters. In contrast to a room full of circular tables, at a traditional formal dinner (e.g. in a military mess) long tables are laid out with people arrayed each side. A moment’s reflection shows that this can be seen as a series of overlapping sixes. A given person ‘X’ can talk to the person either side, the one opposite and the two ‘diagonally opposite’. Bingo—that is six. Of course, most of the time the groups are smaller, 2s, 3s and 4s in animated conversation. The people are the same, the setting is the same as the dreadful room full of circles of 8 but variations in number and layout make all the difference.

There is a serious message here, dinners aside. By not paying attention to micro-dynamics we fail to produce a reliable recipe—instead of good old bread pudding we have sadly sunken soufflés!

And there are lots of other recipes we can look at another time.

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