Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for Leadership

Resisting pressure to fragment

Are you a systems thinker? Do you regularly encounter pressure to fragment? Do you get questions like “But what is your area of specialization?” Or comments like “But that project was never intended to include THAT.”  I do.

So–even though I rarely write blog posts–I started a new blog: http://www.IslandHealth.Info It’s explicitly about things like healthy food consumption; not about leadership and knowledge work. So I was amused today when I came across a blog post by one of my favourite social media connections: Luis Suarez (@elsua). In this post, he writes: “One of those folks I have been truly admiring for a long while is  JP Rangaswami a.k.a. @jobsworth”

Luis embeds a March 2012 TED salon presentation by JP Rangaswami in this post. It is well worth 8 minutes of your time if you care about work in a knowledge era and appreciate the power of metaphor. This TED talk explores the idea: “what would happen differently in your life if you saw information the way you saw food.” It left me both inspired, and feeling sheepish about my decision to publicly fragment spheres of thinking, which this authentic thinker has integrated so beautifully and provocatively.

What do you watch for?

In organizations, we strive for specificity and certainty. Set a goal, carve into objectives, document metrics, and watch for progress. We know what we find, but what do we miss?
Since moving to the country, I have adopted a different approach in my personal life (or perhaps I’m simply more aware of it now). For example, my economical three-cylinder Daihatsu flatbed stalled the other day and refused to restart. This happened at the end of a driveway with an ocean view. At first I was totally focused on the problem. Then I decided to ignore the truck (which I later realized was flooded), and watch the ocean. I thought “something interesting is bound to happen.” And within minutes, an otter climbed out of the water onto a protruding rock, groomed its fur, and slipped back into the ocean.
This morning, I set up chairs on the new boardwalk that surrounds our pond. I sat in each of them to see if I liked their orientation. Then I settled into one, thinking “I bet I will see something interesting.” This time, within seconds, a hummingbird came to the pond. In the winter “clean-up” we had missed a couple of cattails, and the hummingbird went straight to these raggedy tops. She probed them just as hummingbirds probe flowers, but she was gathering a huge beak-full of fluff for her nest.

So I thought back to work in organizations…what lessons are there? In all my years of work in the public sector, two people stood out as leaders who inspired me and supported me in doing my best. As I think back on it, they both had this “watch for interesting things” approach. Of course they had to work with business plans and the like, but they were extraordinary observers, listeners, and synthesists. They were not afraid to try the unexpected. They understood use of complexity theory in leadership without ever using those terms.
In your work as an organizational leader (formal or informal; internal or external), what do you watch for?

KM as Hierarchical?

Yesterday I tweeted that authors of a blog post about knowledge management had managed to push my buttons. I assume that in writing their piece http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/social_media_versus_knowledge.html they researched through a number of sources. Perhaps they read the “knowledge management” literature driven by software vendors that many of us dismissed in the 90s.

If the relationships amongst social media and knowledge management interest you, read their post and the evolving list of comments. My comments follow.

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I’m rarely at a loss for words, but am not even sure where to begin. I’ll keep it to 5 brief comments.

1) There is no mention of knowledge management as complex, comprehensive work that can be a touchstone for a range of activities and tools, some of which may have nothing to do with technologies and some of which may fit hand and glove with social media.

2) If knowledge management is top-down, why does so much good work happen under the radar (ideally later infused into organizations)? And–by definition–if participation in a group is prescribed it is not a community of practice.

3) Who came up with the idea that all or most “knowledge” is stored in KM efforts? Most good KM leaders and consultants perpetually steer clients away from misguided repository-heavy tactics. Solid research has taught us for decades that people go to people when they need to learn, problem-solve, and share and generate knowledge. Loved it when M. Rumizen called communities of practice the “Killer Apps” of KM.

4) What are the traditional KM techniques referenced in the post? When our advisory board designed an MA in KM over a decade ago, we put focus on leadership for engagement and shifts away from mechanistic thinking, communities of practice, narrative, story, peer assists, action reviews, social network analysis, used of social media such as wikis for collaborative work, and–yes–a small amount of emphasis on repositories for essential information, ideally with links to stories, videos, resource people etc.

5) If knowledge management were as hierarchical, mechanical and simple as implied in this post, we wouldn’t still be wrestling with the big change leadership issues (and related terminology) that comes with rethinking how organizations work. Social media use is a brilliant example of what these changes can look like. Part of the chaos comes from the as-yet-unresolved collision of past and future models of work. I think back to Karl Wiig (one of the “traditional” KM founders) and his description of KM as a social movement.

CoP & Projects: A Toxic mix?

I’ve been exchanging tweets with Matthew Loxton about whether communities of practice (CoP) and projects are a good fit. He’s sceptical; I suggested it can work, depending on context and on definitions of a project. I haven’t written specifically about this before, so thought it was worth sharing preliminary thoughts in a blog post.

First, I think Matthew is correct to be cautious for at least four reasons. 1) The fuel for CoP is passion for a topic, and sometimes the grunt work needed for projects can eat away at that all-important passion. 2) In my experience, many executives don’t know how to manage (or more appropriately, not manage) CoP.  So any activities that make the communities look like more familiar animals—such as project teams—can put the distinctive nature of these groups at risk.  3) As the flip side of the same coin, the community might begin to equate its work with deliverables rather than good communication, support, inspiration, learning and improved practice. 4) Project work could put a community into a form of direct competition with other workplace groups. This could be a lose/lose. Fabulous results could result in unproductive tensions; poor results could erode hard won support for the CoP.

When I commented on projects being potentially valuable, I realized I was drawing a fuzzy line between two types of communities of practice: intra- and inter-organizational. I’ve seen the latter have a whole lot more freedom, diversity, longevity and sometimes creativity. This isn’t always true, but the distinction is worth thinking about. Executives don’t quite know what to do with inter-organizational communities, if they even know about them. They clearly cannot control them. If they come to see value in these groups, they might treat their member employees as intriguing internal consultants on loan, capable of bringing project benefits back into the organization.

As examples of successful project work, consider early days of CompanyCommand, when the “failed” project of the good practice guide was replaced—again on a volunteer basis—with the launching and development of the community itself. For years it crossed organizations, but had enough momentum to continue as an intra-organizational community of company commanders (who were always the intended beneficiaries). Another example is Canada’s counter-terrorism network of communities—CRTI—about which I have written in the past. Community members came from many federal government departments as well as from a range of first responder organizations. Some of the project work was funded through a proposal process.

I also commented about the definitions of project work. We usually think of projects as intimately tied to organizational goals (and my comments above are in that context). However, I have seen communities of practice take on learning-related projects. CPsquare (I’m fortunate to have a great vantage point by being in the leadership group) does this quite regularly.

I welcome other perspectives on Matthew’s question.

Musings on Client Panelists in Problem-Based Learning

For over 12 years, I’ve been involved with problem-based learning processes in which mid-career professionals present their ideas to executive panels. The settings and my roles have varied, but there are common threads: intense learning environments; current, complex or wicked challenges (problems); and client panel members who drop into the situation without the lived experience of the days or weeks leading up to the team presentations.

As part of the learning process, I expose participants to a range of leadership constructs and models. In this post, I will use the term “complex” leadership as an umbrella term for a range of theories and models associated with complex, knowledge-intensive, unpredictable environments. And I will generalize the term “complicated” leadership as an umbrella for more familiar theories and models associated with more linear cause-and-effect relationships.

There is anecdotal evidence that participants know they are working with complexity, yet struggle with how to distil their work into “presentations” coherent with complexity thinking. Some present linear, sequential, recommendations in traditional formats. Others present in ways rarely if ever seen in boardrooms, with or without conscious thought about complexity.

Almost since my first engagement with this approach, I’ve felt that work with the panel may be the weak link. In this post, I muse about one layer of these concerns. This may be a very early pre-publication draft about this sort of learning design.

When participants use non-traditional media such as storytelling or theatre depicting a different future, panel members often speak to the emotional impact such “presentations” have had. They rarely offer critique on presentation methods; their comments are about impact and content.

When participants use more traditional media, panel members often critique style, usually with comments about being more specific, detailed, emphatic, structured, and so on. As one example, when a team presented rationale and ideas for an unusual, multi-sector research and education centre (which would require considerable dialogue with potential partners and publics), a panellist asked about construction costs and phasing. As another example, a resource person (who worked with a panel member) stated there hadn’t been anything concrete in the presentations (whereas presenters believed they had included many concrete details).

So, what is at play here? Let me preface this hypothesis by saying that many executives with whom I have worked are skilled complexity thinkers. The nature of their positions requires them to work across boundaries with incomplete data. Yet many work in rigid structures with tools and measures rooted in the Industrial Era.

When panel members come into a seemingly familiar situation (which they might frame as being briefed) perhaps some default to a set of expectations not well suited to a complex problem. They may not have examined their biases. They may not have thought about how leadership and management differ, or how leadership can take dramatically different forms in different domains (as articulated by Snowden and Boone). They may come in thinking as supervisors more than clients or as mentors more than as peers-for-the-moment struggling with an intractable challenge. They may not have time to reflect beyond the emotional impact of non-traditional, and use media such as storytelling as springboards for new ideas.

In a very practical sense, what does this mean for use of a problem-based learning process for actual, current challenges? In some settings, its use has been pulled back (perhaps because questions of panel readiness weren’t studied and addressed). In others, panel members are now better briefed than they once were about the participant experience and what to expect. But I do not know of examples of client panellists being briefed on content from the learning experience (such as complexity theory or complex leadership or different forms of knowledge and limitations of scientific knowledge). Would such advance briefing be helpful? If so, how might it best be presented in ways that ease executives into seeing non-traditional work in enriched ways? What if some panellists are locked into industrial model thinking and tools? Could such preparation be counter-productive?

In “The Death of the Expert,” Richardson and Tait describe the role of the neo-expert in a way that rings true for me in this form of problem-based learning. “Modernist experts do our thinking for us, whereas neo-experts help us think for ourselves… Whereas modernist experts attempt to replicate successful patterns, neo-experts attempt to create new successful patterns (or behaviors) for each intervention” (2010 p.36)

I welcome insights with others who ponder similar challenges or can share related learning experiences.

More views on the BP-KM link

(or lack thereof)

I received from Nick Milton and Roan Yong on my post “BP’s spill and KM excellence: A paradox?” Both–in somewhat different ways–challenged the idea that there was a paradox: Nick (speaking independently but with deep internal BP expertise) argued primarily from the Black Swan perspective: no one could see this coming. Roan argued that BP is great with peer assists but they are designed for simple problems using Snowden’s Cynefin framework, whereas the blowout was complex. (I’d say peer-assists are primarily for complicated work and may have merit in the complex domain).

Now Tom Davenport has weighed in in an HBR post entitled “If Only BP Knew Now What it Knew Then.” He also contrasted the CEO’s approaches. Davenport states that BP’s “prized ‘peer assist’ program — the jewel of its knowledge program — was barely functioning.” Although he does not mention boundaries or environmental programs specifically, he hints at boundaries in statements such as “The cultural byword had become full steam ahead” (note mechanical metaphor).

A range of interesting comments is trickling in to the HBR site, and I hope they will continue to do so. Watch the HBR post space and comment/trackback here or there if you have insights to share.


Adaptive Tensions: Fuel for Innovation

In the twitter-based group that explores knowledge management topics (#KMers), John Bordeaux made some comments that piqued others’ interest. For example, he wrote that organizations pull for repeatability; people pull for creativity; and conflict can lead to novel approaches for both.

This statement speaks to the heart of my interests as a reflective practitioner. In scholarly circles I might say that I’m most interested in the intersections of complexity thinking, knowledge management and leadership. Since the mid-nineties I’ve not been able to think of any of those fields without the others. In lay terms, I might say that organizational structures serve good purposes AND constrain some types of knowledge-intensive work critical for growth or even survival. So many principles and norms in organizations are designed for predictable environments. This frustrates people who recognize the complexity around them, and have the energy to innovate and make a difference. These people find each other in coffee rooms, by water coolers, and increasingly through social media that can support networks and communities of practice. These connections can lead to anything from cynical camaraderie to deep learning, synergies and innovation.

Some KMers asked if I’d published anything related to the ideas in John’s comment, and I have, though I plan to expand this work in the future. For example, I identified 10 ways in which leaders work with the boundary between vertical and horizontal environments. One is to sustain adaptive tensions between the vertical and the horizontal. I illustrated this with a story of how an exercise was being planned to test and refine counter-terrorism capacity and capabilities. This quote from “Brenda” describes the process:

  • The first exercises very strongly focused on: “Here’s a spill, let’s clean it up” or “let’s find it first.” The second exercise was still along those lines, but they were a little more receptive to what if there were persons in that area of contamination. The third exercise was actually throwing in 50 rowdies who are potentially contaminated. How do you deal with them? So I’m anticipating that because of the way that I pushed for the exercise design, we’re pointing out gaps that will need to be addressed. And hopefully that will expand the areas of research interest for the next round of funding.

This quote is from p. 188 of Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

One of the points I was making was that networks of people that span organizational boundaries might be valued, respected and drawn upon by those in the vertical structures, or they might be excluded and marginalized to the detriment of learning and innovation. Even if they are respected, there are inherent tensions, which should not be ignored and which can contribute positively to innovation.

I posted my dissertation abstract below, and also have some papers that explore complexity-KM-innovation connections in the publications area of the blog: http://bit.ly/59PRMkAdap