The Post Office Saves the Day

November 22, 2007

father-christmas-stamp.jpg

The Post Office offers a Christmas savings scheme to meet the needs of savers damaged in last year’s Farepak crash. This is a financial services innovation which is welcome news to many of the most vulnerable families in the community. It also demonstrates that The Post Office may still be able to develop new strategic options for itself

The Post Office has been under threat for some time. It has hardly won accolades for its leadership, as competition increasingly invades once-protected markets. The Royal Mail group continues to present a beleaguered image. Its current news bulletin begins

We apologise to all of our customers for the inconvenience and disruption caused by the recent industrial action and are pleased to announce that there is no strike action currently taking place.

The announcement concludes in less than convincing style

We are pleased to confirm that the CWU EC has ratified the deal on pay and modernisation and that this acceptance of the proposal means that Royal Mail is now able to go ahead with plans to modernise the business and make it more flexible, efficient and able to compete more effectively. We are making sure that any changes we make will not cause any disruption to our customers and where we have mail for customers, deliveries will be made each day across the country.

The Post Office and Royal Mail

As its website indicates,

Post Office Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Mail Group Ltd and operates under the Post Office® brand. Managing a nationwide network of around 14,300 Post Office® branches, we are the largest Post Office network in Europe and the largest retail branch network in the UK handling more cash than any other business…

Post Office Ltd is one of the three arms that make up the Royal Mail Group, along with Royal Mail and Parcelforce Worldwide. Post Office Ltd’s Chief Executive and non-executive Chairman sit on the Group’s management board.

A leadership opportunity?

When are there leadership opportunities? At times of great threat. Why? Because there the obviousness of the threats will have encouraged considerations of what to do about them? Doing nothing may indeed by good for rather subtle reasons. This amount to ‘doing nothing in a calculative way’ rather than in a helpless way, the latter backed up by denial. Doing something can also be backed up by denial and by false calculation.

In other words, not acting is also a possibility. Acting or non-acting can be strategies. They can be considered strategies. They can be well considered and doubtfully considered. The circumstances surrounding threat at least may increase conscious efforts to do something better and different. Sometimes the strategy has been elevated to a leadership principle of masterful inactivity.

The opportunity in the threat

My unexpected conclusion is that the Post Office has a rare asset that it carries through the financial crisis, and which is one that most other financial institutes do not have. The asset lies in the confidence of customers that any deal offered will be as near as safe as any deal can be.

The implication is that the proposed savings product, although a relatively small one, could be an indicator of futher possibilities based along the same lines of guaranteed safe and regular savings. This was the strength of the home-savings schemes and of the offerings of the door-to-door insurance salesmen epitomized by The Man from the Pru. , The Pearl, The Refuge for a century or more.

The healthy option

If this is the case, it will be a healthy option that has emerged partly as a consequence of a breakdown of trust in the current business image of high street banks and their current accounts (no pun intended). Healthy, because the good old Post Office was hardly a considered option by many ordinary people who considered themselves to have more financial savvy than to follow the untutored practice of saving with the Post Office, or with the friendly societies.

The possibility is healthy because it is not dressed up in dubious marketing promises of foolishly attractive yields. What you are offered is what you will get. Maybe, just maybe, the simple promise can not easily be copied by competitors.

Straws in the wind?

The idea is based on several assumptions. First, that the various beffetings to the international and national financial systems are producing a shift in attitudes among members of the general public. These in effect result in beliefs that banks are no longer safe havens for money. In the UK this week, the missing computer records of thirty-five million members of the public may contribute to such atttitudes for some time to come. The second assumption is that the Post Office is, in contrast, safe. Not safer, but safe.

We will see.


PC Whispering: Astonishing new claims for leadership training

April 1, 2007

rws-00-fool.jpgman-listens.jpgSunday April 1st 2007: A leadership study suggests that Neurolinguistic Programming can assist computer users to improve their relationships with their machines. A modified version of Horse Whispering was also found to have a positive effect, while a ‘cocktail’ combining both treatments was found to be even more effective.

An international study, Project Koestler, will be reported to a conference of human/computer interface scientists starting today at the University of Greater Manchester, England. The research was carried out by a team of researchers from Duke University (North Carolina), and academic colleagues from Greater Manchester (England), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Cork, Ireland.

The conference will learn of evidence from carefully controlled trials in all four regions. The study indentified computer-users as belonging to high CE and low CE (computer empathic) sub-groups. Essentially, the high CE groups were assembled from individuals who had reported unusual skills at getting computers to do what they wanted them to. The low CE groups were reported as very poor at getting computers to do what they wanted them to. The groups represent relatively high and low ‘leadership’ skills over computers.

In the primary study, participants received either training in Neurolinguistic Programming, or in developing greater sensitivity to the computer as a valued friend and work colleague. This treatment was quickly labeled as PC Whispering, after the controversial work pioneered by the original Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts. A follow-up study, still on-going, is examining the effects of combining both kinds of training.

The approach

Participants were recruited from respondents to advertisements in local newspapers asking for volunteers for open-access evening classes in improving computer skills. The researchers followed the obligations of explaining the rationale of the experiment, and any possible adverse consequences for volunteers.

Each course of treatment involved explanations to the volunteers of how human behaviors can help or hinder computer relationships. The explanations were followed with practice of the behavior-modifications proposed within the treatment. The volunteers then carried out procedures with their own PCs and when hooked up to a special machine developed for the program by researchers at Duke University. The apparatus monitored physiological states of the volunteers.

The Results

The training seemed to have little impact on the high CE group. One respondent appeared to perform at a lower level after treatment with NLP, but had returned to his pre-test performance levels within a few days. There were no significant effects.

However, within the low CE group, results were spectacular. After the NLP training the average CE measures for this sub-group rose to nearly the levels of the high CE group at all four training sites. After the PC Whispering, the results were similar. All four sites reported substantial improvements. However, the improvements were marginally less than those of the group receiving the NLP training.

A smaller more complex study is underway. The researchers are more cautious in making claims for this study, which suggests that a combination of NLP and PC whispering will enhance performance of both high and low CE groups.

What does all this mean?

Project Koestler is named after the Hungarian-born intellectual Arthur Koestler, who wrote extensively on human creativity, including a book on The Ghost in the Machine. He also funded research into the paranormal at the University of Edinburgh.

Until the actual results are examined, we must remain cautious of the claims being made. One expert in research methods told me that researchers who announce their work in this way may be publicity seekers if they do not already have a track record of publishing in scientific journals. Maybe it is all a hoax.

Nevertheless, many new ideas sound crazy, before they become the new orthodoxy. One AI expert who helped in the programming of Deep Blue to beat Garry Kasparov, is working on the next generation of computers. He has revealed that he expects these computers to make ‘better leaders than humans, and perhaps better team colleagues, and even life partners’.

Neurolinguistic Programming remains a contested model of behavior modification. At present, Wikipedia offers a caution on the contents of its article. Horse-whispering is an equally controversial technique. The original Horse Whisperer, Monty Roberts, insists the term is misleading, and prefers to emphasize skills that derive from listening not whispering to horses. The concept is being ‘tamed’ through different terminology such as intelligent horsemanship, or trust-based leadership.

As for PC whispering – perhaps we should just postpone judgment and ‘watch this space’.


On becoming a leader

February 11, 2007

This post takes the humanistic legacy of Carl Rogers to explore: Leadership as map making; Leadership as block busting; and Leadership as bridge building. It offers a framework for use in leadership development progammes at undergraduate, graduate, professional and executive levels.

Old Bridge

The title of this post acknowledges the work of Carl Rogers, a pioneer (with Abe Maslow) of humanistic psychology. His ideas on personal development have since come into common currency. In particular the post connects leadership to the title of his most influential book, On becoming a person.

The legacy of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) conceived of human development as the process of becoming (self-actualizing). Although his major professional world was that of clinical therapy, his ideas have become influential beyond that domain. His dominant idea is that the process of self-actualization is natural, albeit hindered by various life experiences. We each have an instinctive desire (an aspiration) to develop our potential.

Furthermore, we feel good about ourselves when we are engaged in the processes of developing our potential. This is at the heart of another key concept, that of positive self-regard. (terms such as self-image and identity can be traced back to his work). At a personal level, positive self-regard is unconditional in nature.

However, social groups have developed in ways in which self-regard receives only conditional respect. That is to say, we become restricted by the conditions and rewards of the social group. Such reinforcement distorts the natural processes of development. The individual may have trouble dealing with the gap between the expectations of the group, and his or her perceptions of ‘the real me’.

Over time the individual deals with the problem through psychological defences (Rogers notes two major defence systems, distortion and denial).

Developing yourself, developing others

The core of Rogerian theory is the capacity of the human to self-development. You are your most important teacher and moral leader. However, he also was concerned with the process of developing others (particularly those with seriously damaged processes of self-actualisation). The Rogerian therapist strives to develop openness (‘congruence’), empathy, and respect (unconditional positive regard). If we are to borrow from Rogerian theory for leadership development we must examine whether these principles can translate.

As a first step, we can see how Rogers had worked out a model for encouraging individuals to achieve their potential. This is what the therapist does. I believe we can indeed borrow many of his ideas (changing what needs to be changed) to arrive at a more general model for leadership and for leadership development.

We will be connecting the ideas of Carl Rogers with the leadership text, Dilemmas of Leadership, to explore the importance of map making, block busting and bridge building in leadership development.

Leadership as Map-making

Dilemmas of Leadership suggests that leaders develop themselves through processes of map reading, map testing and map making.

The mapping processes are metaphors of journeys of self discovery. During the journeys, maps of received knowledge, and examined in the context of direct experience leading to revision of personal beliefs.

Dilemmas of Leadership suggests that a text can be read as a Platform of Understanding or summary of a belief system. The POU is a kind of map, ready for use. It covers the historical maps of leadership from trait theory maps, through situational maps, to those maps dealing with new leadership concepts (transformational leadership).

To take a simple example, a student may read a book about leadership and extract from it a map of what leadership is all about. She then has a personal assignment – let’s say it is in a volunteering project. During the project she experiences various events which can be connected to the things she has read in the textbook. The process of testing enables her to make sense of the text-book connected through her own experience. This, in turn, strengthens her skills in future leadership roles. When she acts, she draws on the (always developing) personal map she has been making.

Map-making from the daily news

This blog can be seen as a series of maps about leadership drawn from the news stories appearing every day of the year. Out of personal choice I select a story that seems to have some leadership interest and summarise it for myself. Towards the end of that stage of map-making I find myself doing some map testing. Does the story fit with what I already believe I know? Even more rarely I might make a new connection and discover a new (to me) leadership concept.

For example, I came across several stories about threats, either by a leader or to a leader. A recent rather complicated one involves the chairman of The Royal Mail, Allan Leighton. You can follow the story in an earlier blog. The point here, is that the story reminded me of the way in which a threat takes on a dominating role. I could have been reminded of global warming, but I happened to think of an old chess story attributed to a chess player by the name of Nimsowitsch. This is now leading me to look more actively for examples of threats to a leader, and for convenience I label the process the Nimsowitsch principle. Maybe the concept will help me act differently in the future, not just in a chess game, but faced with real-life crises.

A second example is the map of management and organisational structures often known as Fordism (after Henry Ford’s production line innovation). A colleague suggested that Toyota’s lead production methods were moving manufacturing away from Fordism, and associated with a new leadership approach. I found refrences to Toyotism. What if, I wondered, we were seeing a shift in leadership approaches to include Eastern philosophic values. Perhaps inspired by a well-known book on the Tao of leadership, I added another concept to the map, and coined the term Toyotaoism.

An invitation to make some leadership maps

I believe in the processes of map reading, making and testing, and invite you to try them out for yourselves. You could keep a diary or learning log. Which, come to think of it, is not that far away from the process of writing a weblog or blog …

It’s a process of triangulation through which you combine your connect your received knowledge maps, with your personal experiences, and with the stories available every day of other leaders and their actions.

Leadership as block busting

Leadership as block busting was dealt with in an earlier blog. One new twist is worth mentioning, namely to link block busting to the leadership development ideas of Carl Rogers.

In his writings, Rogers explained creativity as the output or manifestation of self-actualisation. Why is creativity so rare and prized? Because of those distortions of the (Rogerian) ‘true’ self through socially imposed bias, which produces denial or distortion of the creative journey of discovery.

There is an enormous body of literature, theory and practice dealing with ways of breaking out of the assumptions imposed in an individual. We have been applying Lateral Thinking methods with cohorts of MBA students for several decades and summarised it:

Lateral Thinking for Project Work

For a recent introduction to creativity in business see the (admittedly lengthy) monograph from The Innovation Research group at Brighton University Business School. The report goes far more deeply into the brief summary offered here.

We have identified several Lateral Thinking techniques which help in the production of new ideas. The techniques (Reversals, Wouldn’t it be Wonderful If, and Jolts) are summarized in a power point presentation on using Lateral Thinking in project teams.

Bridge building

The leader as bridge builder is implied in the leadership literature. The textbook Dilemmas of Leadership explores the concept as trust-building. Leaders who believe in a trust-based style accept that they have to grant followers permission to act without direct leadership control. This leads to a dilemma of granting power to others if the leader wishes to exercise more direct control over them. Trust-based leadership facilitates and invites change rather than directing it.

In Celtic legend the story of the giant Bran tells of the way a great chief has to be a bridge.

In the Romance of Branwen, there is a curious passage where Bran and his men come to an impassable river. Bran says, “he who will be a chief, let him be a bridge”, and lays himself down to form a bridge over a river, allowing his army to cross over. The narrator of the romance tells us that this was the first time the saying was uttered.

In negotiations, the bridge building style is essential where it is vital to avoid win-lose outcomes (that’s back to the Nimzowitsch principle, by the way). It is necessary as peace process negotiations develop. It is often needed to resolve honesty held differences, by making a creative leap.

The related concept of ‘join up’ was originally developed by Monty Roberts (The ‘so-called Horse Whisperer’ in the film starring Robert Redford). Join up involves collaborative working, even if one partner may have more power and responsibility that others. It has since been extended to provide insights for trust-based leadership methods applied in Primary and Secondary Schools, as well as in business and social care environments. (Note, these are unequal power partners, where there can still be respect, Rogerian unconditional positive regard of the other partner, be it a child, a horse, or a remedial prisoner).

A parallel has been proposed between creative leadership and trust-based leadership

A simple to use concept is to look for Yes And rather than Either Or in your leadership efforts. As a bridge building technique, Yes And has been documented as having been applied successfully in numerous trust-based projects to achieve better decisions, harmony, innovation, and other creative outcomes. It offers a way to work through the (Rogerian) blocks which would otherwise reduce individuals to feelings of powerlessness.

Discussion Points

Various approaches have been described to support the process of leadership development, that is to say the process of becoming the leader you are capable of becoming. Using a humanistic approach developed by Carl Rogers, three aspects of leadership development were studied: map making, block busting, and bridge building.

In what ways do the suggestions support (or challenge) your beliefs about leadership, and suggest learning for future actions?


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