I finally managed to accomplish what I had planned for so long but just hadn’t found the time to. Work, professional development activities, family – and the desire to sleep, read a good book, watch my favorite TV series, not to mention go out with my friends – kept me from getting down to business.
Then came the IATEFL conference in Glasgow and my second resolution – to systematize knowledge acquired during conferences. Thus, it was the perfect match and opportunity: finally starting my blog, and starting my blog by writing about IATEFL. So here it goes.
My IATEFL 2012 Highlight # 1
Digging deeply into the plenary Mess and Progress, by Adrian Underhill
Due to the wonders of modern technology, Adrian Underhill’s plenary and slides are available for everyone here. In addition, many of my bright and tech-savvy colleagues attending the conference have already posted informative and inspiring blog entries commenting on Underhill’s talk, among others. Thus, my purpose in this post is not to summarize the talk, but rather, to attempt to expand it by researching the rich references provided to us by the speaker and reflecting on how this talk affected me in my leadership role and within the complex system in which I operate.
In his brilliant IATEFL opening plenary, Adrian Underhill talked about how systems theory can guide the 21st Century leader to deal with complexity, or what he calls mess, and effectively lead a learning organization. Right in the beginning of his talk, Underhill cited Russel L. Ackoff, who defined a mess as a system of interrelated problems. Ackoff, who passed away in 2009, was an advocate of systems thinking as a means to change our patterns of thought and, thus, solve our current problems. According to Ackoff, “Systemic thinking is holistic versus reductionistic thinking, synthetic versus analytic. Reductionistic and analytic thinking derives properties of wholes from the properties of their parts. Holistic and synthetic thinking derive properties of parts from properties of the whole that contains them.” (Ackoff, 2004).Systems thinking seeks to understand how things influence one another within a whole. Relevant to Ackoff’s work is his distinction between development and growth.
Growth is an increase in size or number. Development is an increase in competence, the ability to satisfy one’s needs and desires and those of others. Growth is a matter of earning; development is a matter of learning” (Ackoff, 2004).
Development is not something that one can do for another. One can only encourage and support others’ self-development. In addition, we don’t learn by doing things right, since when we do things right, it’s because we already knew how to do them. We can only learn from making mistakes, identifying them and correcting them. As far as mistakes go, there are two types: errors of commission, when we do something we should not have done, and errors of omission, when we don’t do something we should have done. According to Ackoff (2004), errors of omission are more serious.
As Underhill stated, systemic thinking allows you to differentiate a problem from a mess. While the former is fairly clear cut, definable, easy to explain, to label, and probably to solve, the latter is extensive, has no boundaries, and is uncertain, ambiguous. There’s no tidy fix using our current way of thinking. We can’t reduce mess to difficulty and we can’t respond to it as if it were difficulty.
This is when leadership comes in. A powerful statement made by Underhill is that leadership is taking responsibility for the influence you have. In a traditional way of thinking, things are more important than people. In a systems thinking approach, relationships are primary and things are secondary. According to Management.Wisdom.com:
The most complex systems are social, such as families, sports teams, organizations and nations. Social systems are the most complex because they usually contain and must integrate many mechanical, biological and mental subsystems. Furthermore, managers have to engage members who have their own personal goals as well as the organizational vision. Personal and organizational goals have to be reconciled.
Thus, adaptive leadership is needed in order to align the purposes of the organization with the purposes of the people in them. Underhill emphasizes that people need to be doing what’s important for them. He resorts to Harvard professor Ronald A. Heifetz and his idea of Adaptive Leadership. His most recent book is called The Practice of Adaptive Challenge (co-authored by Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky). I came across an interview with Heifetz about his book in which he explains that an adaptive context is one that “demands a response outside your toolkit or repertoire; it consists of a gap between aspirations and operational capacity that cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place.”
In his review of the book, Ian Cook mentions that leaders face two types of challenges: technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges can be easily identified and addressed with known solutions; conversely, adaptive challenges require significant (and often painful) shifts in people’s habits, status, role, identity, way of thinking, etc. They impact the whole system and require the creative involvement of all stakeholders in the search for solutions. Adaptive leadership seeks help from people and units with different needs, priorities and perspectives toward new ways of working and ways of thinking.
According to Underhill, the traditional, hierarchical, top down approach is working less and less well in settings where complexity is increasing. It is not smart enough for today’s complexity, where you need intelligence dispersed throughout the system. Thus, what we know about leadership is outdated, for the leader’s work today is very different from that of the past. This is when Underhill resorts to Margaret J. Wheatley.
In Servant-Leadership and Community Leadership in the 21st Century, a keynote address given at the The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership annual conference, June 1999, Wheatley states that reflecting has become a revolutionary act these days. It’s not in our job description. The great gift of humankind is our conscience and the ability to notice, reflect, and learn. Yet we’re always too busy. For her, the most courageous act of a servant leader is to attempt to slow things down so as to allow people to think about what they are doing. A servant leader must find ways to accomplish their work, sustain their relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time.
In talking about leadership, Underhill stated that “our conceptions of leadership are locked in a time-warp, constrained by lingering archetypes of heroic warriors and wise but distant fathers”. In an article entitled It’s time for the heroes to go home , Frieze and Wheatley (2011) state:
If we want to transform complex systems, we need to abandon our exclusive reliance on the leader-as-hero and invite in the leader-as-host. Leaders who act as hosts rely on other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done. Leaders-as-hosts see potential and skills in people that people themselves may not see. And they know that people will only support those things they’ve played a part in creating. Leaders-as-hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute, and that most people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work. And these leaders know that hosting others is the only way to get large-scale, intractable problems solved.
This thought brings us to Underhill’s idea that a learning organization is one that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. A company that does a lot of training is not a learning company.
The idea of Learning Organization (LO) was put forth by Peter Senge in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline. Senge is an advocate of decentralizing the role of leadership in organizations so as to enhance the capacity of all people to work productively toward common goals.
According to Peter Senge (1990: 3) learning organizations are: “…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” (infed)
These were the questions Underhill proposed for the audience to decide if their organizations were true learning organizations:
1) It’s easy to get people to listen to and experiment with new ideas and suggestions.
2) When one person learns something new, everyone hears about it.
3) Making mistakes is part of learning. You can be open about it. It’s not career limiting.
4) Staff members of all ranks give each other plenty of quality feedback from above, below, sideways.
5) Everyone is involved in discussing school policies before adoption.
6) People in one dept. know what people in another dept. are thinking, and they help each other.
Underhill ended his plenary inviting the audience to engage in systems thinking to see more points of view, encourage connectivity, not control, and see the whole school as an adventure park for our own learning. His learning mantra is: See what’s going on; do something different; learn from it.
My humble reflections:
Absorbing all this information and reflecting upon it takes time, so these are my initial thoughts and reflections. I can see I have a lot to learn and to change in order to lead my organization to reach its full potential as a learning organization. In some aspects, we are on the right track. In others, we’re not. I sometimes suffer from the lack of time syndrome and the resulting failure to see the people and work with the people. Before attending this talk, though, I was already working on a 2012 resolution to slow down, to reflect and to plan before plunging into actions, and I was glad to find support for this personal goal in Underhill’s thought-provoking plenary.
Regarding the problem versus mess idea, it’s true that we sometimes want to deal with mess as if it were just a problem with an easy solution, using analytical processes and traditional ways of thinking. Messes require synthetic and innovative thinking and are not solved by way of traditional approaches. They require looking at the whole, not at the separate parts. We are a large, dynamic and changing organization and we need to find ways to develop, not just grow. This talk inspired me to work towards this goal, to adopt principles of servant leadership, and, above all, to work with all my staff in order to find adaptive ways to meet all of Underhill’s requirements for learning organizations.
“No one has to change. Survival is optional.” W. Edwards Deming.