Front foot Category

The four essential preconditions for system transformation

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Around this time last year I was reflecting in a concert. I discovered FRE. Focus. Responsibility. Example. Three attributes for organisation success. That framework has guided my work this year. And carries on into 2017. I have had much positive feedback about it.

Last month, away from home, on a morning run along the Thames, I was thinking…

I work helping systems improve. This support can be in my main sectors, be it fashion or conservation; education or health. Or it might be in the events I run, from team time outs to larger conferences; individual coaching to speaking. I am concerned with helping the smaller temporary systems, such as in a workshop. I am also focused on improving the larger, well-funded and enduring systems, such as a fashion supply chain or a programme on bio-diversity.

After over 30 years helping in complex environments I have identified four pre-requisites for system success. You might even imagine these as four bases to get a ‘home’ run. Four capabilities that are needed to be widespread in a system for progress. Or you can consider them as a personal manifesto – highlighting the four personal disciplines leaders in all roles need for achievement. They are shared here to help us all make different and better choices.

I summarise them as CHHH. That is curiosity, holistic (whole-sighted) attention, honesty and hope.

Let’s unpack these four themes a little. Each helps progress. I have had positive comments on this from some of the many people I know who are working hard for improvement from deep within the systems they are committed to.

CURIOSITY

Deepening curiosity helps us get beyond certainty and avoid hubris. There can be a pretence of motivation. There may be an interest in innovation in one’s own work, that is undermined by the failure to search out and copy what others are doing. In my decades of practice, I think low curiosity is the most striking and common observation – it limits progress, it leads to ‘reinvention of the wheel’ and the consequent waste.

Addressing a low ‘pull’, where colleagues are not bothered and not interested in what others are doing is hard. Ways to fan the flames of interest maybe through protected study time and positive reinforcement, including awards for copying! Crucially, leaders need to model curiosity themselves – asking questions, showing they prize imitation as much as invention, avoiding routine pet answers, working in a spirit of humility and avoiding arrogance.

Curiosity gets us on the journey. But it is only the first base.

HOLISM

Once there is some curiosity, then finding ways to see the whole is important. However, looking beyond one’s own tribal allegiances can be a challenge. Building empathy with ‘the other’ is difficult. However, this is critical if the system is to operate for the end user or end purpose, and not the ‘core group’ who have much to benefit from things as they are. Connection is personal, and takes time to develop and deepen. Spending time exploring WITOS (what is the other side) is key.

HONEST

The ‘third base’ is concerned with enabling important discussions beyond positioning and spin – having critical conversations

This is important for authentic attempts to make things better rather than cosy speaking in the groove, repeating nice sounding platitudes. This might involve a risk – especially when systems have a habit of spewing out whistle-blowers as ‘troublemakers’. Prophets and Radicals (tempered or otherwise) need to be sought and valued. Curiosity and Holism helps to nurture the empathy necessary for honesty.

HOPE

Finally, and maybe paradoxically given the tone of this piece so far, being positive is important. Burnout is a risk in system work. It is easy to end up with no hope for the system or even for oneself. Accepting critique, but looking beyond criticism and cynicism is the better route. Being personally buoyant in the face of all that needs to be done. Looking to encourage each other.

I increasingly use these ideas (CHHH) as a frame and even as ‘ground rules’ in my workshops.

I find them a useful diagnostic tool too.

If systems are perfectly designed to deliver what they achieve, then the basic design rules need to be shifted. Might CHHH help?

Inertia and entropy are design flaws to be addressed. If something seems impossible, start small. Where does CHHH point you?

So, I offer CHHH a way to start or sustain the journey of improvement.

Travel well.

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Does your idea pass The Chilli Test

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At the end of the Fifteenth Century the America’s were accidentally (re)discovered as a world of tremendous resource, including maize, potatoes and tobacco – products that have altered lives around the world. However, part of the story is of a two–way exchange between the old and new worlds with chickens, bananas and coffee going the other way too, for example.

And all this was in addition to the older trading routes into Asia and Africa. At the time Columbus was trying to find the western route to the orient, the price of black pepper from Asia was at an all-time high and the Ming vase trade was starting to inspire the wealthy and their local potters in Europe.

We think that we live in a connected, global world. I was in rural Malawi recently I was struck how many people who in many ways live life ‘off the grid’ have smart phones and how 3G is pretty ubiquitous – with WhatsApp replacing SMS. A recent National Geographic piece outlined how a little up the Rift Valley the Maasai are using this technology to enrich their lives, to meet a need.

Whilst the speed and scale of these changes is breathtaking, I think we have to go back 500 hundred years for the most remarkable story of ‘spread’ (not the sort you have on toast – but of knowledge).

One of the discoveries in central America was the humble chilli. These days we see spicy chilli’s everywhere: in European, African and Asian cooking – as well as in dishes from its home continent. I think it is probably the most ubiquitous of ingredients. It literally connects the world, cuisines and diets.

What is maybe surprising is it took only a few decades from discovery to global domination. At the time it was discovered many could not afford black pepper to liven up their dreary meals. Spicy hotness was a luxury. All of a sudden there was a new, cheap form of heat and flavour. This product spread the world. And it wasn’t just a spicy idea, but a ‘sticky’ one too – the product is still totally ingrained globally.

At the airport shop in Blantyre, Malawi there were only a few products for departing visitors to spend their remaining Kwacha on – from nuts to ‘Puffs’. One of the goods was Nali Chili Sauce: made from birds-eye chilli’s it is dubbed “Africa’s hottest sauce”.

So the chilli travelled the world. It dominates. It is possibly the most global product . Why?

It met a need. It offers the spice of life – cheaply.

So, does your big idea meet a need? Is your ‘change programme’ (or political view or belief system or business offer – or blog!) going to help others live and improve their lives? Is it affordable or does it have a burdensome cost? Will people want to ‘steal with pride’? Is there are a pull?

Or are you just pushing like mad?

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Being Human in The Age of Extremes: Pausing to see the other side

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What makes us human?

  1. The ability to tell stories that make sense of our lives?
  2. The (potential to have a) conscience?
  3. The way we organise to do ‘projects’ from farming to hobbies to start-ups?
  4. But also ‘othering’ – that is the way we pretty naturally like to put all we see and meet into groups and make those good or bad, helpful or harmful, right or wrong, hero or villain. ‘The other’ is frequently given less positive characteristics, though sometimes (for example in the case of celebrities, especially national treasures), they have a sort of saintly halo.

 

This final characteristic or seeing putting something in a neat box and labelling it positive or negative extends to the black and white thinking we see in the anxious debates of our age, including:
• BREXIT
• Refugees and migration
• Junior doctors strikes
• Nationalism in Europe and the US
• Trident
• The Union
• The various issues and groups who Donald Trump targets
• Trophy hunting
• Sugar tax
In all of these a circle tends to be put around those with a different view and then there is a judgement that makes them and their ideas wrong.  We see it from our Facebook pages to Front pages.

The news media and social media coverage of all these stories polarises views. Advocates of a particular viewpoint tend to sound as if the argument is very clearcut; they know the answer – and it is in their direction.

So if being human means we have a tendency to seek tribal certainties, what makes us civil is, I believe, stepping back from quick scapegoating…seeing the other side, disagreeing well, looking at what is fact from the story and considering the alternative stories.

However, I agree that in a way I risk ‘circling’ those who are certain and making them wrong! Yet, this desire to see the other side is more of a habit I practice than a belief; a discipline more than a personal value. I find it as easy to label and judge as anyone else, but reckon that learning to challenge those tendencies (as I look for information to challenge my assumptions and confirmation bias) is pretty important in my life and work.

And the more I think about the stuff that occupies the pages, screens and chat in my life the more nuanced the ideas seem. I realise ‘IDK’: I don’t know.

As I explore the gospel of doubt in the age of anxiety I discover I need to continually practice ‘holding my beliefs lightly’. Yet, I regularly need to form a view and make a judgement. I need to vote. I need to advise a client; to call time in a meeting. I need to act.

So what makes us human? Pausing. The potential of a momentary pause to consider; what else might be.

 

Further reading:
Meaning of Life is a project
National treasures
• Projection, scapegoating, splitting
WITOS and perspective managment assessment
• From other peoples skin (shoes, eyes)
Holding our beliefs lightly
• The Gospel of Doubt and questioning the ‘bricks’ on which our beliefs are based
The Age of Anxiety

 

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Are you FREe?

Checklists, Front foot, Improvement, Organisations, Reflect, Teams, Think, Values No Comments

Earlier this week I attended a concert at Kings College Chapel. As I sat there in the dark stillness a storm raged outside that rattled the ancient doors as a nearby college clock chimed the hour. I recalled how exactly 27 years before I had first been in that place.

I remembered I had been a little shocked to find myself in higher education – as a working class lad who struggled a fair bit at school. Yet in my mid 20s I had applied to study at tertiary level. When interviewed, some of the alternative angles I shared from my experience as a front line NHS worker, plus the insights from my union activism seemed to appeal to those who selected students.

Over the years I have found sitting in that building to be a powerful place for reflection during times of significant personal change.

So, I was thinking – but on this occasion about my work. My studies all those years ago were the start of my deeper interest in how organisations perform (or don’t). Over the last few months I have been crystallising what I now know about institutions – from larger networks to smaller teams, from commercial enterprises to noble purpose initiatives – based on my experience of working across sectors and continents. What makes an organisation worthy of commitment? What are the features that make them likely to succeed? And fail?

After a quarter of a century, I think there are just three things that are crucial. I summarise these with the word FREe (actually FRE, as you will see below).

Firstly, FOCUS. Is the purpose of the organisation shared? Is the strategy clear – is it understood? Has the governing group set out its intentions (and limitations) for the wider staff to work toward and within? Do individuals know how their particular role contributes – and do they realise where their personal motivations fit, and where they do not?

RESPONSIBILITY: are staff expected to use their initiative to sort out issues? Do they have freedom to act? Do governing boards avoid overstepping the mark and resist micro-managing the executive – and do line-leaders avoid constraining their staff with overly detailed instructions or the expectation of involvement in all decisions? How clearly are all staff held to account for how they have used their autonomy?

Crucially, EXAMPLE highlights the role of senior leaders in setting the cultural tone for an enterprise plus the part played of line managers in re-iterating this – and the importance of peers in reinforcing the ‘right’ behaviours. Most of us are not saints or sinners, rather we absorb the ways others work. This extends from basic ‘pro-social’ interactions to do with decency and civility through to the modelling of focus and responsibility and other important attributes like curiosity. ‘Example’ also concerns how the implied attitudes at the core of a business’s purpose are demonstrated by staff in their dealings with each other as much as with customers: be that caring in the case of health services, learning for an education provider or speed for a high street fashion brand, for example.

I am discovering how this simple framework is powerful in a range of settings.

It helps individuals: it is useful in ways from coaching leaders through to prompting those being interviewed for new jobs to ask useful (and interesting) questions.

With teams it is a checklist to test that the platform for achieving positive results is in place.

For organisations it highlights three important factors to work to get right in all places – to ensure well-served customers, content staff and a fulfilled mission.

Are you ready for FREe business?

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The Gift of Happiness? The Single Surefire Way To Be Happy: Give

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It is already early November. Despite the unseasonably warm weather in the UK, we are firmly moving toward the festive season; though I spotted the first Christmas merchandise in the stores by late summer.

The holidays and the associated greeting cards are increasingly branded as time for those of all faiths, and none: “Happy Holidays!”

However, there is a common denominator that unifies all traditions. From the biblical exhortation that ‘it is more blessed to give than receive’ to the eastern emphasis on developing and practising compassion. Even the self-help industry chimes in agreement. In the happiness movement we hear that giving to others (of your time, money, skills) is the surest way of living a joyful life.

If you look around there are lists and lists of things to give up to discover a more contented life. However, when considering the most respected checklists for happy living the emphasis on serving others jumps out. Paradoxically possibly, we are told that when we give up the sole focus on trying to make ourselves happy and consider on what we can do for others, then that is the moment that we are most likely to discover joy for ourselves.

Do you want inspiration and encouragement to help in this gift focused stance?

The story of ‘Join Me’ from Danny Wallace and the associated global movement for RAOK – Random Acts of Kindness are entertaining reads.

And in mid-January a bunch of musicians are getting together in Cambridge to do a few things:
1. Remember how important mental well-being is, and how hard that can be for some to achieve, especially in the dark of mid-winter, a few weeks after the fun (and disappointments) of the festive holidays.
2. Put the spotlight on a number of good causes – charities that are looking for support.
3. Bring together a load of different people for a good time – and also ask, what can you give, this year, right now?

Interested? You would be very welcome. Have a look here.

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An illustration (impression) of front foot working

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I enjoyed visiting the ‘Inventing Impressionism’ exhibition at the National Gallery in London recently. I learnt about Paul Durand-Ruel who is credited with inventing the market for modern art and a number of the contemporary ways of marketing art too (solo exhibitions, gallery lectures etc).

He fought the Salon structure in Paris that had a hold on the definition of ‘good’ art. He supported artists – financially and, more importantly, with encouragement and hospitality. He enabled the, now, hugely popular Impressionism movement to emerge.

What was most impressive was how he had to keep trying new things – as he moved about Europe to escape conflict and as sources of finance for his deals came (and often, went). The chronology listed at the back of the exhibition guide has something significant (both good and bad) happening most years.

Durand-Rule had a vision and, eventually, was successful –  his family business profited from this for many decades after he had established Impressionism most lucratively in the US in the late 1900s and then achieved a breakthrough in the UK in the early twentieth century. The rest, as they say, is history.

You can get an impression of the exhibition following the first hashtag in this tweet.

As the final hash tag indicates, I think the story of Duran-Ruel is great example of what it takes to live on the ‘front foot’.

He was inspired – and acted on what he imagined. He was helped in the implementation and achievement of his vision by working well with his family and a range of financiers and artists (including ensuring a rapprochement with Monet). And fundamentally he had a self belief in his insights and skill.

When looking through the lens of this assessment for Front Foot working, I think Durand-Ruels does well – though probably wouldn’t recognise many of the more contemporary leadership terms (alignments, conflict, meetings), despite his skill for, and leadership of, contemporary art!

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The Reinforcing of some front foot assumptions for NPOs

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I like this blog by my former colleague Stuart on the ideas and inspiration he has received from Michael Bungay Stainer

A great example of curiosity and creativity.

I like the 3 dimensions for Great Work – maybe as they reinforce some of my beliefs of what is needed for successful, front foot, Noble Purpose Organisations:
– Focus (direction)
– Courage (momentum and coordination)
– Resilience (balance)

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eFFOrt in the NPO

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In seeking to improve the ways of working in Noble Purpose Organisations, where is it best to start to get (or move further) onto the front foot?

To mix my metaphors, many are interested in ‘culture’ and ‘tools’ to fix the organisational ‘DNA’.

I have just read another ‘top 50’ list – the top innovators.

So here is my ‘top 6’. A few things I find helpful.

For Alignment: preferred scenarios and journey planners

For Attitude: working to ‘practice what is preached’ with the 5 level values model and perusing and encouraging strengths based leadership in groups

For Awareness: WITOS and the perspective assessment to try and see at least 2 sides of any issue – especially in meetings

And for Accountable Autonomy: the work of Gerard Fairtlough and ‘the three ways of getting things done’

Fundamentally, I think the cultural dynamic of Noble Purpose Organisations can be a pretty huge barrier to fundamental improvement. Blind ‘ego’ is part of the core dynamic. These 6 methods help increase the sense of
– agreed direction
– reinforced momentum
– co-ordination and collaboration
– and balanced working.

Or in other words, they help leaders get themselves and their teams on the front foot.

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Front Foot NPOs?

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In the late noughties I was watching the box set of West Wing. It took quite a while. I was impressed by the dynamic of the way the White House team worked for and with President ‘Jed’ Bartlett.

Having viewed quite a few episodes one weekend I came up with an alliteration I quite liked: how the team from CJ to Josh, from Leo to Sam was fast and focused, with some fun at times as well. There was lots of feedback to each other (even if it wasn’t wanted!), yet this forthright way of working was quite forgiving too (at least to those in the team).

I called this the features of the Front Foot Organisation (FFO). Over the coming months we developed the initial ideas into a set of actions to help achieve these characteristics – actions to achieve greater direction, momentum, co-ordination and balance within a team or organisation. We provided an assessment and even applied the FF idea to the family as part of a talk for fathers and sons at a school I was working with.

The FFO idea has proved to be one of the most popular and enduring of idenk ideas since first outlining it in 2008. Despite the fact that the genesis of the ‘front foot’ idea is unclear (though it is rooted in sports and even politics) it has a broad face validity and is widely used. You regularly hear how people want to put their ‘best foot’ forward, not be on the ‘back foot’, avoid being ‘wrong footed’. Our feet are in our mouths, literally!

I truly believe that each and every Noble Purpose enterprise should be a FFO. People who join them certainly expect them to be. The standard we assume is high – very high. However, often Noble Purpose Organisations are far from beacons of front footedness.. And when that happens, as we have noted, expectations are dashed and cynicism grows.

The CEO or Director of an NPO is actually their ‘chief culture officer’. The ideas on the FFO provide a handy checklist for that senior person to start working on the awareness, alignment, attitudes needed. They provide pointers about what to tolerate and what to hold firm on.

Social workers use a simple acronym to think about what to do ‘upstream’ to achieve the results that are needed when working with a young person. For example, when supporting a child in care they try to consider any Antecedents to observed challenging Behaviour and the negative Consequences that can result for a child and those helping them.

The Front Foot ideas offer some pointers to Antecedent Actions that leaders can use to get the outcomes they want. Results that achieve the purpose of the NPO.

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Watching for you team mates?

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I ran the local Chariots of Fire race earlier this week – as part of two teams of neighbours.

I enjoy running now – as a way of getting out and about, from a brisk way to start the day on a cold winter morning at home to a means of seeing somewhere at dawn where I am staying when working away.

When at school I couldn’t quite get the hang of it: I would start fast, and run out of steam, with a stitch after a few hundred metres. I ended up getting to a point where I thought “I can’t run”.

A few things got me going with, and enjoying, running in midlife – things that illustrate some of the Front Foot principles (such as personal goals and persistence) –and especially the importance of other people and practice in helping us on our way:
1) A mate who encouraged me – and pointed out I should calculate and not exceed a certain heart rate if I wanted to be able to keep going
2) Personal practice – getting my technique (breathing and stride) right, informed partly by the book “Born to Run”
3) Team spirit – this was key in a competitive race, that I would never have tried a few years ago.

The importance of the team (co-ordination in the front foot framework) was bought home to me when I was waiting in the pack of other runners to pick up the baton for the second leg from my team mate. A very fast, veteran runner arrived early, but couldn’t find his team member. His desperation as he walked up and down the sea of expectant faces was palpable – as he, with increasing panic and frustration, called for his team number. Eventually (after a good minute) they found each other. The relief (and irritation) was evident. As a team they still did well (much better than us!) – but I can imagine they didn’t enjoy the post race reflection quite as much as we did.

Who do you need to watch out for today? Who could you encourage? What do you need to work to perfect yourself?

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