Emerging Ideas

Operating Practices for Leaders

A little while ago my colleague Dr Garth Britton and I began thinking about the ways in which our work as consultants and coaches had changed over the past five years. At the time we developed a very rough description of an approach we called Open-Ended Consulting based on some broad broad patterns we had detected in our practices. Then we got busy with work and life and didn’t progress this any further.

I’ve been thinking recently that much that I have learned as a consultant and Executive Coach I wish I have known when I was a senior executive. With that in mind I returned to this work and thought I would share these “practices” with you, with a view to fleshing each of them out over the coming months.

So here they are:

  1. Begin in the middle – observe people and their work in context and develop rich description(s) of the situation and its antecedents.
  2. Engage deeply and often – talk frequently to test insights and understandings and agree what is intended and what needs to be done.
  3. Work together to co-design and articulate new ways forward (next steps), alternate understandings and potential new practices (disciplines).
  4. Initiate short, sharp activities to test ideas, strategies and implementation approaches
  5. Notice “rich points” and “striking moments” and explore similarities and differences
  6. Continuously gather data to inform and test the ongoing usefulness of new frames and formatively evaluate the impact and effectiveness of emerging practices and tentative action.

Our thinking, as we identified these practices, has been heavily influenced by an alternative tradition of  thought about how we, as humans, engage with the world and each other. This tradition is strongly social in its underpinnings, recognising that from our birth, if not before, we engage with the world around us, including other people, both bodily and discursively. It is therefore a powerful alternative to strongly individualist ideas and helps to counteract the prevailing tendency to see the mind as separate and superior to the body, including particularly emotions and intuition.  In our view this tendency often leads us to seek objectivity in situations where it is simply not possible. At least not in the time available to make a decision about what to do next. It also means we often under-value the other ways of knowing we have available to us.

Exploring and experimenting with these practices has helped us be more confident in starting our work in complex and ambiguous circumstances by simply talking to people about how they are experiencing the situation and how they understand it. It has also reinforced for us the value of local, contextualised understandings and locally developed experiments, prototypes and actions as the basis of learning the way forward, one step at a time.

For the moment I’ll leave you with this thought:

“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible.”

George SaundersThe Braindead Megaphone

How do we develop people to lead in the midst of complexity?

Recently I had the pleasure of introducing Jennifer Garvey-Berger, co-author of the book Simple habits for complex times: powerful practices for leaders[1], before she led a workshop for coaches, consultants and organizational development leaders on the topic, “Supporting our clients in an increasingly complex world”. What follows is a modified version of my introduction.

For more than forty years writers have suggested that not all of the problems or difficulties we face at work and in our communities are “solvable” using approaches based on the scientific model. As far back as the 1970’s, it was suggested[2] that the kinds of problems policy planners deal with – societal problems – are inherently different from the kinds of problems that scientist deal with because they are inherently “wicked”. That is, because they are ill-defined, reliant on elusive political judgment for resolution and never solved as such, just re-solved, over and over again.

More recently the development and application of several frameworks[3] has drawn attention to the differences between and among problems and issues but also the continuing differences of opinion and lack of certainty about the best ways to address the more complex among them. A recent PWC UK report[4], for example, described the problems faced by businesses as tame, critical and wicked. It went on to suggest that wicked problems present real challenges to business as usual and require flexible and collaborative solutions that are unlikely to be achieved by either traditional (e.g. command and control) or more recent (e.g. authentic) leadership approaches.

In various ways much of the discussion points to a fundamental difference between the kinds of problems that can be “solved” based on prior experience, best practice and conventional use of evidence and those that cannot be “solved” in the usual sense at all, because what is happening is dynamic, always emerging and ever changing, partly as a result of what those involved in them are saying and doing in response to each other.

For our commercial, political and community institutions this is becoming apparent as we realize that much of our current thinking about how to solve problems, be they challenges in the private sector (resources, accommodation, consumer goods), for government (budgets, infrastructure) or issues that are both intimate and global e.g. refugee crises, keeping children safe, reducing domestic violence or responding to climate change, have simply proven inadequate. For business and not-for-profit and public sector organisations this is becoming apparent as we grapple (often with increasing pressure on profit and or shrinking budgets) with problems arising out of informational hyper-connectivity but growing social disconnection. For coaches, consultants and OD practitioners the question seems to be:

How do we develop people to lead in the midst of this complexity? 

A colleague of mine put this neatly when he asked:

What is it like to be within a [situation] that is always on the way to somewhere else – a [situation] that is full of ‘tendencies’ without any actual ‘stopping points’?

We could equally ask:

What it is like to lead in such a situation? 

This is becoming apparent for me as, along with some of my colleagues, we make a change from focusing on Executive Coaching to a broader focus on learning, change and organisational development, often in the context of helping organisations get on with complex projects. We are bringing some of our “coaching” orientation to the task and as a result doing our consulting and change work differently.

One way to characterize this difference is to distinguish between “diagnostic” and “dialogic” ways of working[5], particularly in organizational development. On the one hand there is measurement against and movement towards some pre-determined standard, on the other there is iterative and responsive inter-action that takes into account shifting contexts, particular circumstances and evolving possibilities.

How we respond to complex issues, situations and problems and lead in those circumstances is a function of how we orient ourselves from within them. It is also a function of how we are oriented by the situation itself and how we perceive the expectations placed on us by the people and groups with whom we must coordinate our activities. These various orientations generate what can be called “action-guiding anticipations”. We enter any situation with these anticipations at the ready. The source of change lies in whether or not our anticipations are realized, whether we notice the subtle and particular differences when they aren’t and how we respond to that noticing[6].

The kind of thinking that will help us with refining new orientations and developing new practices has been around for some time, so there are many guides who can help us as we walk along this path. That thinking, though, is diverse and far from agreement.

Jennifer challenged us during the workshop to consider where our “growth edge” lay in relation to our work as coaches, consultants and OD practitioners. Our responses were very diverse and seemed to reflect some quite different perspectives.

Perhaps it is worth broadening the question a little to ask:

Where is the “growth edge” for this kind of work more generally?

I’ll say more about that in later blogs. Suffice it say as my colleagues and I begin a new year in 2016, and beyond, we anticipate working with our clients to help them:

  • Explore dilemmas, problems and possibilities from multiple perspectives.
  • Hold “not knowing” and the need to improvise and adapt.
  • Act on the big and the small picture, moving fluidly between vision, strategy, practical action and results.
  • Exercise “passionate detachment”.
  • Identify, envision and pioneer the change that needs to happen, while continuously adapting.
  • Use power mutually, creatively and courageously.
  • Hear and reflect on the patterns and themes in their own ways of speaking.
  • See communication as more discursive, relational and responsive and less like an information processing system.
  • Be vulnerable and to show their uncertainty and “not knowing”, while also acting decisively and making courageous and timely decisions.

It is worth noting that many of these areas of practice for leaders imply the holding of some sort of paradox. It seems fitting, therefore, to end with a quote from T. S. Eliot:

Every experience is a paradox in that it means to be absolute, and yet is relative; in that it somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself.


[1] Berger, J.G. & Johnston, K., 2015, Simple habits for complex times: powerful practices for leaders, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

[2] Rittel, H.W.J. & Webber, M.M., Dilemmas in a general theory of planning, Policy Sciences, 4(2), pp. 155-69

[3] See for example the Cynefin Framework developed by Dave Snowden and the Agreement and Certainty Matrix, developed by Ralph Stacey.

[4] The Hidden Talent: Ten Ways to Identify and Retain Transformational Leaders. Price Waterhouse Coopers, UK. 2015.

[5] Bushe, Gervase R, and Robert J Marshak. “Revisioning Organization Development Diagnostic and Dialogic Premises and Patterns of Practice.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 45.3 (2009): 348-368.

[6] Shotter, John. “Dialogism and Polyphony in Organizing Theorizing in Organization Studies: Action Guiding Anticipations and the Continuous Creation of Novelty.”Organization Studies 29.4 (2008): 501-524.

Evolved Leadership

Evolved Leadership

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Author: Phillip Bonser

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Last Updated: 01-12-2008 13:24

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In this short paper I have tried to capture the essence of what I think is particularly interesting in the filed of adult development.