Righteous Indignation and Leaders we Demand

May 26, 2009
Righteous Indignation

Righteous Indignation

The UK political scene has been rocked by daily revelations in the Daily Telegraph of inflated expenses of MPs, including those of Government ministers. The episode is having profound damaging consequences for politicians of all parties. Will it prove a tipping point for political change?

The build-up to all this had been earlier stories of malpractice among MPs which had already prompted a Government enquiry, which was due to report later this year [July 2009].

The Telegraph appropriated (well, OK, bought for a rumoured £300,000 according to the Guardian) the leaked and unexpurgated information made available to the official investigation.

The Guardian was later to set aside its moralistic tone and offered a more generous account of the Telegraph’s coverage and of its young editor Will Lewis

The Daily Telegraph’s young editor has the scoop of the decade with the revelations about MPs’ spending. He has kept a low media profile, but he could go down in history as the man who shook Parliament to the core.

MPs speak of a suicidal atmosphere in Parliament, the Speaker has resigned, several political careers have come to an end and more may follow, and there is talk of wholesale constitutional change

The expenses furore

An excellent briefing by the BBC explained the expenses furore, and noted

There is genuine concern among MPs that Parliament has never been held in lower regard by members of the public. Even MPs who have done nothing wrong are reported to be considering quitting as they are considered “crooks” by the public. Some [commentators] fear that Parliament may take years to recover from the furore, while others warn that voters may take out their anger with the main parties by backing fringe and extremist parties at next month’s local and European elections.

MPs take their medicine

Those MPs who speak out, do so out from painful necessity. They seem to be addressing what is regarded as general mood in the public regarding all MPs as self-seeking scoundrels. A few MPs ’fessed up to their constituents and took the pain with some hope of being granted a second electoral chance (Michal Gove was one). Other attempts in public meetings, such as that by Andrew Mackay, merely served as lightening conductors discharging the wrath of the electorate and party leaders.

The people are speaking

It is hardly surprising that MPs, if they can not remain invisible to media attention, are finding ways to demonstrate visibly as possible their inherent decency. The exceptional cases of defiance appear to show how misguided is such lack of displays of repentance.
The people are speaking, and MPs have somehow to show they are listening.

A similar gesture to popular opinion by Harriet Harman recently suggested that judgment at the court of public opinion was needed for dealing with morally abhorrent cases (she was referring to Fred the Shred’s pension arrangements.

Public outrage in the UK, a month ago directed at anyone implicated in the credit crunch, has been partially redirected toward the new villains, our own appointed parliamentary representatives.

Public reporting, informing, and guiding

The process of capturing the mood of the public is one of the roles of the mass media. The journalistic device of encouraging interviewees to reveal their emotions is ubiquitous, although too easy to extend into intrusion on private grief. (‘How did you feel when the police rang on your door at 1 am in the morning with news of the terrible accident? …What sort of little girl was your daughter?’).

Over time, a shaping process takes place. Interviewees are unconsciously conditioned to supply a rather narrow range of responses. Righteous indignation is one.

This social reinforcement of convergence of accepted behaviours can be detected in style and of ideas expressed in letters read out in ‘points of view’ broadcasts, letters which begin ‘why, oh why…?’, read out in tones of genteel frustration.

The routinization of righteous indignation may also be detected in phone ins. ‘I’m boiling mad at what that earlier caller said, Nicky …’. Media and mediated collude towards the performance.

The sanitized protest

Then there are the sanitized protests on shows such as Question Time, in which audiences present themselves as well-screened and bizarrely fragrant bunches of righteously indignant camera-fodder.

A recent BBCTV Question Time show acted out a memorable version of ‘I’m appalled at your hypocrisy and amoral abuse of public funds’ to the MPs on hair-shirt duty. The show was later cited by the BBC as demonstrating the mood of public anger over MPs expenses. An example of co-creating the headlines.

The leaders we demand

I suspect that these are socializing forces currently amplifying feelings of betrayal and encouraging demands for morally superior leaders.

Forces that produce leaders we deserve become overtaken by forces encouraging support for leaders we demand.

What do we want? New leadership. When do we want it, Now.

Note on Righteous Indignation:

The image is a cartoon illustrating the conceit of Righteous Indignation of two [King] Richards portrayed as attacking their literary creator William Shakespeare. I just liked the cartoon, reproduced in Humanities, September/October 2008, 29,5


Is leadership training up the pole?

October 4, 2007

stairway to heaven

Originally uploaded by t.rickards

A recent visit to a leadership training camp prompted the question ‘what’s the point of all this pole climbing?’.

The very reasonable question was posed by a colleague who had not been part of the experience. Where to start?

Faraday was asked ‘what’s the point of electricity?’ Being a bright spark himself, he was able to reply ‘What’s the point of a baby?’

Experiential learning has to be experienced

It is perhaps a dilemma of leadership. No amount of conceptualizing seems to help answer such a question. The fundamental divide may be between those who learn from experience, and those whose reluctance to engage with experience prevents them from ever finding out for themselves.

Case for the prosecution

It is very difficult to demonstrate the direct link between experiential learning and subsequent real-life behaviors. Therefore, the cost-effectiveness of such programs are also difficult to demonstrate.

Individuals will have very different capabilities to cope with the physical and emotional challenges they are confronted with.

Organizations are increasingly aware of the corporate duty of care, and where the ultimate legal responsibilities and sanctions fall.

Case for the defense

It is very difficult to demonstrate the link between almost any form of business education and subsequent real-life behaviors. There are various technical reasons. These can be found (among other sources) in the Chapter in Dilemmas of Leadership as well as in texts on evaluative inquiry for learning in organizations.

The entire Business School curriculum is increasingly under pressure to accept its limitations, and change to cope with the challenges of the 21st century. The rankings of Business Schools are widely regarded as based on dubious mathematical manipulations and rely on indirect measures of assessing educational value (proportion of faculty with higher degrees; average salary gains among its graduates; ratings in scholarly publications …). Nor is there much agreement about the relative merits of various ranking systems.

Students generally rate experiential projects highly. The exit assessments for the cohort of the Business School described here were overwhelmingly in favour of the projects as a valued part of the course.

A better way?

Here’s a challenge. There must be better ways of assessing the impact of experiential learning as part of a business education.

How a press blunder can be career threatening

August 9, 2007

images.jpgA young executive provides a story in good faith to a journalist. Now her career is under threat. It’s a lesson in catastrophe theory. We compare the case with that of a project team whose actions escalated to threaten a corporation’s good name

This week a press item outlined a fascinating human interest story. Journalist Eve Tahmincioglu had developed a story from Kathy [disguised name] who had been given PR responsibilities to publicise her organization. Kathy was very inexperienced, and was highly motivated to supply the story. Then Eve received an email from Kathy suggesting that the story had been a hoax.

“Hello Eve, my name is (Kathy) and I just got into the office after being out of town for 2 weeks; the CEO just informed me about an article, and apparently someone in our office tapped into my e-mail which was left on my desk and made up all those things about our company. This makes our business look really bad. I’m not blaming you at all; we are holding a staff meeting to find out who is responsible for this. If there is any way you can remove the article sooner that would be most appreciated.”
… As a journalist, an e-mail like this is probably one of the worst things you’ll ever receive. There is nothing worse than putting out bogus information …

The story is a good read. Suffice to say, that Kathy had not been working under close supervision. I won’t spoil it any more for you, as I want mostly to consider an angle not covered in the original. My ‘take’ is the way in which dealings with the press can indeed be career threatening. Also, that the danger can spring up very quickly, and become difficult for those involved to prevent something very nasty happening to their company, and (obviously) to their own prospects.

The project team and the press release

Once upon a time (as all good stories start) there was a project team, who like Kathy, has been given an assignment with a PR component. Also like Kathy, the team was motivated, energetic, and (well let’s say) a bit impulsive. Also the episode went close to being career-threatening for the team members.

The team were working to a brief from a project sponsor who had wanted them to develop some good PR for the company. They had shown considerable creativity in beefing up the story until it was really quite newsworthy. So much so, that it attracted TV as well as press attention.

In remarkably rapid time, the media brought its own version of due diligence into play, by checking the authenticity of the claims. The story was largely accurate, but it implied that it was endorsed by a very senior person in the organization involved in the story. The VSP’s office brings the press enquiry to his notice. VSP is very angry, and refuses to have anything to do with the press or with the story. Calls for explanations. Project team and various senior executives have a very tough time dealing with angry VSP who fears for the corporate reputation of the company. Things calm down when press decide there is no story and no point in taking it further.

What’s going on?

As a business case study I would be inclined to leave it at this point. Maybe suggest a few pointers for discussion purposes.

Several possibilities seem to be worth considering. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

1 The foolishness model. Kathy was foolish. The project team members were pretty foolish. Couldn’t they see the dangers coming up, particularly considering their relative inexperience. The VSP was foolish for not dealing calmly with the matter, which turned out OK in the end.

2 Weick’s catastrophe models. Karl Weick has deeply examined sources of crisis and catastrophe. In airline and rail disasters it seems that several low-probability events crop up in ways that would be hard to anticipate. Faced with the terrifying and unexpected, many people become fixated on inappropriate explanations of what’s going on.

3 Risk management models. High profile and expensive projects are increasingly subject to risk-management processes. These reduce the dangers associated with the known types of risk.

4 Denial. There are various versions of this in social psychology. Psychodynamic theories suggest that ‘dysfunctional groups’ hold on to inappropriate explanations before and long after a crisis occurs. The consequences include scapegoating, (it’s all his fault) and preoccupations which detract from effective efforts by the group members to deal with the task before them.

5 Social pressures. Versions of undue acceptance of authority, for example of a team leader and their judgements. These were the effects revealed in the famous Stanley Milgram experiments (I was only obeying orders).

Whichever sorts of explanation you might favour, I’m inclined to build a few special contextual factors into the equation. The inexperience of Kathy and of the project team in dealing with the press. The lack of judgment of possible consequences of actions and possibilities of unintended consequences in each case.

MBS Barbeque: Future leaders relaxing

July 5, 2007

MBS Barbeque

Originally uploaded by t.rickards

This photo by Seong-Hye captures the barbeque I wrote about recently. The camera-hogs are made up of an MBA project team and members of a legal practice (can you decide who’s who?). In the background is the line for the barbeque. Hmm. I can almost smell it! Oh, yes, and I’m there somewhere as well …

Today the class of 2007 graduates. If the weather relents, Oxford Road will be awash with splashes of color, as students and scholars in ceremonial garb head for the great hall. The different colors of the gowns are as significant as regimental colours.

The well-wishers and family members almost outnumber the students. Quite a number will be in their own national costumes. It’s a day for dressing up. Once I complimented someone in a particularly majestic and vivid outfit. Where had he come from, I asked. Rochdale, he replied, with that regional accept that was as good as a passport identification.


The weather did not relent. I’m afraid it was a grey day for the class of 2007, as it was for students from other parts of the University. As for a wedding, the weather doesn’t totally ruin the event. There’s always someone worse off. For example, that unflappable-looking Dean still stumbling over the names at the cermony despite coaching received in advance (Its the very short and very long names that need most practice). Then there are the members of the University’s ceremonial party who had an entire week on stage, applauding politely for six to eight hours a day, as the interminable lines of graduands process past their weary eyes.

Now how about combining the ceremony with a barbeque? That would be a welcome innovation.

Manchester Memoirs: Case Notes on The Manchester Method

July 5, 2007

mbs-web.jpgHow effective is project-based learning within business education? A tutor reviews a seven-week project for MBA project teams assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the approach

It is early evening, Friday June 6th 2007. I stagger into the courtyard after two days of Project 2 presentations from the class of 2008. The Class of 2008 is a recently introduced label for what used to be called ‘the first year MBAs ’. The new name reminds us that the class graduates in 2008. Similarly, the class of 2007 is the distinguishing label for ‘the second year MBAs’, now close to graduating. Next week, examiners’ meetings will settle the fate of members of the class of 2007, and confirm which members of the class of 2008 will or will progress towards graduation.

Project 2

Project 2 occupies a pivotal space in the MBA timetable. It’s where teams of MBAs take on projects on behalf of business clients. The projects have been selected as requiring the team to work from a starting brief towards something with more clearly specified and feasible objectives. Most team members have quite a few years experience in business roles. But Project 2 still presents some tough new challenges.

An end-of-semester barbeque is underway in the courtyard. I can’t smell the coffee, but I can smell the hamburgers. The event has been organized in support of a local charity by an indefatigable student from the class of 2008. All seats in the courtyard have been claimed, with the unoccupied ones being guarded for hunter- gatherers in the Barbie line. I try unsuccessfully to see if the sustainability team members were opting for non-veg hamburgers.

Could that be the team that had pulled no punches about their lawyer clients now supping enthusiastically with junior council? It was. I wondered if the barristers had liked my ice-breaking joke a few hours earlier to welcome them? The one about there being no space in front of the School for their chauffeur in the corporate roller? I decide they didn’t.


A couple of months ago, the teams from the class of 2008 had bid for the Project 2 assignments they would like. Before that, there has been a lot of work by the project support staff, canvassing for projects. After the student bidding, there are some disappointed students and some would-be sponsors. There will be further bidding. It’s a neat process, with good learning challenges. One down-side is that faculty have trouble in advance predicting will be favorites. This year I tried to hard to ‘sell’ a project only for the offer to be totally spurned. Another great project (so thought the tutors) was likewise turned down. Teams have offered assorted explanations for their preferred choices, but there’s no obvious pattern revealed, and maybe undisclosed reasons.

The projects

A strong tradition has emerged that the specific details of projects remain confidential. The senior administrator of the project has a shredding machine in her office, and she ensures there are no documents that might lead any information to be revealed to anyone outside the restricted circulation list. Which is one of the reasons I won’t be saying much about the projects.

Team dynamics: Not an Apprentice in sight

Project 2 took place over roughly the time period of the BBC TV show The Apprentice. I am immune to the charms of Alan Sugar’s program. I am spending quite enough of my waking and working days with teams of people working on business tasks.

One more time: what is The Manchester Method?

At The Manchester Business School, our short-hand for the learning provided within projects is The Manchester Method. This defies conclusive definition for the same reason that social constructs such as leadership and creativity have defied definition. The concepts take on new meanings as they are tested in use. This explains why, over the years, The Manchester Method has been described in various ways. When students ask about definitions I offer the one most reflecting my understanding at that particulat time. Recently I have been saying that

The Manchester Method is a learning process of a kind which permits participants to engage directly with experience, and which facilitates links between the experience, and relevant theoretical concepts.

But I still show overhead visuals with an earlier definition which actually is a well-known description of organizational culture: The way we do things around here.

Learning Gains

The MBAs learn about leadership, co-dependence among team members, dealing with multiple ‘stakeholders’, tackling the ambiguities of business projects, and much more beside, A minority will go more deeply into the pedagogy, in personal logs and follow-up studies.

Each project is unique. But every project has been selected so that it permits learning rather general behavioural principles. One set of these were imported from the pioneering work of The Tavistock Institute. These suggest that any social group will be prone to defense mechanisms against uncertainties, and perceived threats and fears. The symptoms are easier to detect from the outside. They are broadly actions which can be interpreted as scapegoating, finding in a person the symbolic object on which to project blame.

This is where it gets interesting. A team may have someone who is not working very hard. In some cases the rest of the team acts to get rid of the free-rider. In another team, the team is unable to make contact with the sponsor, and is at risk of not completing the assignment. Sometimes the final report then puts too much emphasis on the weaknesses troubles of the sponsor. Yet another team finds an explanation of their difficulties as unprofessional behaviors of a tutor, or course director, or maybe collective incompetence of those connected with the project.

These are the dynamics which are swirling around. They reflect what happens when teams tackle tough problems. They have not been deliberately inserted into the project as a social experiment. And, the faculty does not deliberately act in what are described as unprofessional ways. As painful as the process is, the mini-crises do turn out to have scope for constructive learning.

A Painful Experience

I reflect on some project highlights and lowlights. Not for the first One team, frustrated by actions (or inactions) of its tutor decides they have been badly treated. Why not send the tutors a memo? How about sending a copy to the project coordinator? In which case, it may be better to send a copy to the overall course director as well. In which case, maybe a copy to the Head of the School seems an even better idea.

Could have been worse. One year, a particularly outraged team sent copies to The University’s Vice Chancellor. Perhaps we should give more specifical illustrations of wicked problem solving

What Didn’t we get a better Grade?

Today I had another familiar requests on behalf of a team. Why didn’t we do better? One student has arranged to meet with me to discuss this. How honest will I be? Will I find time to turn the discussion [later today, July 4th 2007] into a further little opportunity for personal development? Not just for the students, but for myself and maybe others involved in the project. Will I be able to recheck with the second reviewer before the meeting? Will I find my notes out of which we agreed the particular grades two months ago, for the seven presentations we sat in on ? Will the notes still be somewhere in the middle of the pile of documents in my office, ‘tidied’ into archeological layers in a ‘pending’ pile?

The tutors on the project are still trying to arrange time to get together for a debrief sometime during the following few months. Immediately after the project there was a general exodus to catch up after seven weeks more closely confined to barracks. Holidays, conferences, last-minute contingencies, and (honestly) out-of-town responsibilities mean we are still trying for a date that works for a full complement of the dozen or so support staff directly involved in the project.

Incremental innovations

Each year there are various suggestions to fix what went wrong. Some ideas make it into next year’s project planning. At first, tutors may have to introduce changes as experiments, aware that any change which impacts on assessment is not ‘authorized’ until accepted after scrutiny on various committees. Also, the experiments make documentation a little-less reliable.

Is it worth it?

Projects are particularly challenging as a mode of business education. We tend to keep faith in the benefits of this kind of experiential learning. A surprising proportion of colleagues hang in there, rather than seek alternative ways of justifying their careers.

That’s not to say we do not also experience some of the doubts and darker moments of the MBA teams. As one management scholar liked to say ‘every project appears to be a failure in the middle’.

Leadership: Going from good to great

June 8, 2007

What separates the good from the great in team projects? Managing the task effectively is a necessity. Three inter-related issues repeatedly crop up in MBA business assignments. They concern managing boundaries, managing expectations, and managing for insights

It is one week from final presentation day. A team turns up in my office for final words of advice. Every project is different. Every team is different. But their concerns this time have a very familiar ring to them. Are they on the right track? How will their sponsor (‘business client’) react to their findings? What to do about what they’ve learned in confidence?

To muck about with a saying from that great Management theorist Tolstoi, all teams fail for the same reasons. Each team that succeeds does so for its own unique reasons.

So its easier to alert teams for what often goes wrong, than to say what they have to do to get everything right. Their project could stand for hundreds of projects. The tricky thing is to sort out what are the commonalities. What advice from past experience might be extracted, and offered for this particular team?

Lord of the Flies?

Some team behaviors are right out of Lord of the Flies. Or The Apprentice TV series. The team is to all extents and purposes a bunch of individuals each struggling for individual success. It’s dog eat dog. The design of The Apprentice TV series forces participants to re-enact that familiar drama. One of its messages is personal survival. Survival at all costs. Any collaboration is minimal. There may be a veneer of collective sense of purpose implied in public at presentation time. But it is rather difficult for the dominant and dominating leader to come across as part of a unit which has been able to bring all its talents to the tasks they faced.

Lord of the Flies (LOTF) teams can get by. Thre are quite a number among MBA project teams. They tend to ‘stick it out’ and blag themselves to a decent rating in a final presentation, promising thmselves never to work together on another assignment. Decent result for the short-term maybe, but not dream-team behaviors.

This team did not fall into the LOTF category. The was no ‘chief honcho’ . No ‘followers’, ‘nodding donkeys’ , or ‘loafers’. Just a bunch of people who seemed to be sharing in a pre-agreed plan. Also, they seemed open to suggestions which required them to re-examine and perhaps depart from elements of that pre-conceived plan. In other words, they showed they were capable of being flexible in response to new ideas. If they behaved that way in my office, there was every chance they had behaved in a similar way at their sponsor’s workplace.

Who owns the project? Managing across boundaries

When teams present their findings, who are they really trying to impress? This is where The Lord of the Flies analogy breaks down. In Business School jargon, the team is learning to manage across various different boundaries. It is in the later stages of a project that some teams begin to grapple with this. They may well ‘delight the customer’. But the team now realizes there is more than one customer, and ‘delighting’ one may not ‘delight’ another.

The team can come to terms with these ambiguities in a final presentation and in their final report. In general, the process is managed by a bit of simplification into ‘who owns the project’, with just a hint of acknowledgement of other interests around.

In these projects, the team may have started as if their first contact was their one and only client. Then they found that a more senior figure in the organization has quite different views. In this specific case they had found that there were two sub-cultures in the business, each with differing views about what the company needed to do.

There is another boundary to manage. The entire project will be assessed and graded as part of the participants’ business degree. Faculty members will also be attending the final prentation to the client.

Incidentally, some students think that makes the whole thing unrealistic. I argue it is only another version of business life, when new team members are open to so-called 360 degree evaluations of their performance.

Managing expectations

As you consider how to manage those boundaries, you will inevitably begin to consider how to manage expectations of those interest groups. One obvious possibility is preparing in advance, checking out as far as possible the expectations of key players. Here again, it will be a judgement call. My own experiences suggest that successful teams have not just prepared themselves, but prepared the sponsor. But they will also have one or two pleasant surprises up their sleeves. It’s the bad news that is best pre-signalled.

Managing for insights

A great result will mean that the team will have managed expectations of key constituents including the project sponsor or client. It will have attended to differing expectations, which may be particularly intense at meetings where wider networks of interests are represented. The project task will have been tackled in terms of its objectives. The objectives of an initial brief may have been tested and negotiated.

All this may produce a good result. But not a great one. For that, there needs to be something special. A final presentation offers one situtation rich in opportunities to demonstrate excellence.

Agagin, drawing on experience, I would say that effective creativity enhances a message and is not substitute for one. A recent example was the ‘pitch’ made to the BBC by the Salford consortium which revealed an exciting vision of the city of the future. The London Olympic bid had an equally powerful video, which switched attention from the event to the children who would benefit from the event.

But creativity ‘works’ only if its intended ‘consumer’ buys it. If your sponsor heads up a finance organization, then she is likely to respond differently than would a sponsor from a dynamic and fast-growing IT outfit. Creativity in business will always involve risk and judgement.

How to get an A

How might a team get an A for its work? They may increase their chances by concentrating on the primary examiners and trying to find out their particular preferences. But in practice this is never straight-forward. One academic examiner may be highly influenced by the project sponsor. Another may not. It is not unknown for teams to win the active support of their sponsor to lobby the examiners on their behalf, only to find that may have the contrary effect to the one desired.

This team had got to the point of realizing that ‘getting an A’ should not be the only or even dominant objective as they reached the end of the project. They would take it as an opportunity for testing their own skills in business projects, and for discovering how they might work as a team for future challenges. Even for having an enjoyable experience in the process. Now that’s something they can self-assess as an A.

Leadership lessons

I’m aware that the content of this post hardly toches on leadershp. A few ‘don’ts’, perhaps. Don’t be a bully. Don’t encourage Lord of the Flies behaviors.

By implication I have been making a case for a creative leadership style touched on in an earlier post. In these MBA projects, leadership is more obviously a task distributed across team members. Nevertheless, there may still be a valued place for an individual who may have earned the right to be the most prominent team member in decisions and in those boundary-spanning situations in which expectations are tested.

What is creative leadership?

June 2, 2007

180px-telemachus_and_mentor.jpgCreative leaders attract a great deal of attention in business, politics, sport, and education. There seems to be a widespread belief that creative leadership is a good thing and that more you can get the better. How far are we from a rigorous understanding of an under-researched topic?

Creativity and leadership have various characteristics in common. Both have attracted attention across a wide range of professional, educational, and socio-political fields. Both have defied easy definition. Furthermore, there are few convincing answers to questions such as: How might creative leadership be distinguished from non-creative leadership? In what way might this distinction help anyone?

A personal view

A few years ago I collaborated with Susan Moger on a practitioner text, Handbook for Creative Team Leaders. We have used it in different countries and with many different kinds of team. In the book, we point to two different sets of beliefs about creativity. The first is the rare gift view, and the second is the universal human capability view. Our commitment to the latter can be traced to ideas of creativity derived from Carl Rogers, and developed within the creative problem-solving movement.

Our audiences have tended to take for granted the notion that teams need creativity. When asked for definitions or explanations we tend to say something like ‘Creativity is a process through which individuals and groups discover new and useful ideas. Creative leaders are people who help that process come about’.

A confession

They say you make progress when you realize how much you don’t know. If that’s the case, I’ve made progress recently. I’ve reached the conclusion that I have no well-grounded answer to the question ‘what is creative leadership?’.

My dissatisfaction comes from the knowledge that the approach outlined above has tended to favour the lived experience over the abstract concept. The focus is on creating rather than reflecting on the creative process.

This need not be the case. Chris Argyris has called the primary discovery processes single-loop, and reflective one double-loop learning.

Argyris has made significant contributions to theorizing of Organisational Behavior. His proposal can be understood as implying that

Double loop theory is based upon a “theory of action” perspective outlined by Argyris & Schon … This perspective examines reality from the point of view of human beings as actors. Changes in values, behavior, leadership, and helping others, are all part of, and informed by, the actors’ theory of action. An important aspect of the theory is the distinction between an individual’s espoused theory and their “theory-in-use” (what they actually do); bringing these two into congruence is a primary concern of double loop learning. Typically, interaction with others is necessary to identify the conflict.

Pressure for results

My belief remains that projects engaging teams in creative activities are promising opportunities for learning about learning (double-loop learning). The most promising opportunities are those with extended projects. These have been found to occur when they are part of lengthier educational processes. Even then, pressures for results tempt a majority of teams to stick too closely to concerns for short-term performance outcomes and course grades. With appropriate mentorship the teams are better able to confront the ambiguities of their situations.

What do you think?

So, what do you think? I’d like to hear other experiences and views on the nature of creative leadership. This will be incorporated in a subsequent post, which will also include findings from a forthcoming issue of the Creativity and Innovation Management Journal which examines the links between leadership and creativity.

Creating for a client

May 8, 2007

creating-for-a-client.pptThe process of creating insights for a client is helped by a creative team leader. This post offers a systems model for such insight leadership.

[Post under construction: use trackback to be notified of later versions]


Project leaders have sometimes told me they do not understand how they might support team creativity (rather than individual creativity). This has been the topic of earlier posts, under the Project Leadership category (To be found in the Categories list in the sidebar, right). In this post, I offer a descriptive model or conceptual framework with which to explore the processes of creative leadership. The abstract ideas will be easier to follow if you are actually involved in a ‘live’ project, and follow the powerpoint presentation as an additional explanatory aid.

The framework

The framework draws on the basic principle of a creative leader which I came across many years ago. My mentor was George Prince, co-founder of the Synectics organization, and author of an excellent practitioner handbook, The Practice of Creativity.

A recent web posting gives some idea of the principles of synectics. That post under-estimates the importance of a team-leader as facilitator. However, it does illustrate the kinds of micro-structures which have become adapted and borrowed over time, into other various non-proprietory systems.

Many years of work with experimentation with versions of techniques and principles for creative teamwork have led me to the view that the role of the creative team leader lies in supporting the team members through various ‘process’ interventions for enhanced positivity, extended effort, and various ways for seeking unobvious ideas of value.

The creative team leader in projects

We may apply the principles to the context of a creative team leader within a project for a client or sponsor. The dynamics have some similarity with the facilitator in the original synectics writing, but also some contextual differences.

First, the similarities. In a synectics session, the facilitative leader attends to process. The client or ‘problem-owner’ is the arbiter of insights. That is to say, the client receives the suggestions of team members, in search of any ideas which trigger insights into the client’s belief systems. The key roles:

Creative facilitator: who sets the climate for insight through ‘creativity-triggers’
Team members: who generate their ideas
Client: who seeks insights which go beyond his or her prior beliefs and assumptions.

Differences: The insights in a project (compared with a creativity session) are likely to occur when with the client, creative team leader and team members are not co-located. As a result, the ideas from team members have to be transferred and tested.

The creative leader, and the creative team

The differences between the creativity session and a project are shown in the powerpoint presentation. I hope to revise this. In its current form, the slides show how a formal leader is a restriction of insights, and a process leader in contrast balances freedom and structure.

The presentation indicates how a client will have a world-view or Platform of Understanding (POU -c), which can only be glimpsed in a project brief. During any project, the team will build up its shared Platform of Understanding (POU – t). For the client, team suggestions become opportunities for confirming or disconfirming the original (POU – c). An insight will tend to disconfirm some aspect of the earlier POU – c.

The team in its efforts to understand and help the client will seek to operate with a POU- t which they believe to be a close representation of POU – c. With or without help from a creative (process) leader team members seek insights arising from their emerging POU- t and which they believe will also be insights for the client.

If this process were to take place in a creativity session, the team would be encouraged by the process leader to listen and learn from the client, and vice-versa. My experience is that teams who engage in such sessions frequently find that the process indeed helps a client reach creative insights.

In a project team, the creative leader has to work towards the same sort of open climate. The context is now different. In practice, team leader and client (and perhaps members) have to find a way to recreate the conditions of exploring (POU -c) and (POU -t) together

One important opportunity will be the final meeting when the team and its process leader presents findings to the client, as closure on the project brief. This is where the proposed ideas or ideas have to find a client prepared to receive them.

If the POUs are well-matched, there will be more chances that the client will be open to ideas that disrupt the original POU -c and assumptions carried into the project brief. If they are not well-matched, the outcome is highly uncertain. Some clients will be able to make the required ajustments; other will not.

What do you think?

This has all been very abstract. I think it helps explain how some teams are able to spark off creative insights, and how others fail for reasons to do with failing to understand where the client is coming from’ and where he or she is likely to go.

A meta-tip for web workers and leaders

May 1, 2007

lieutenant_dan_taylor.jpgThere’s plenty of advice for web-workers and leaders. Tips abound. But will they be any good for you? Here’s a meta-tip on how to benefit from those attractive looking bits of advice.


This post is about hints, recipes, suggestions, or tips. It came about in a period when I was open to tips for new ideas.

This was because I had been postponing any preparation for an upcoming video-conference meeting. I don’t do video-conferencing much, either of the new-fangled web-cam or of the older studio variety. Maybe, as the deadline approached, I might have thought about how to make a good contribution, in what has been scheduled as an important review of a new distant-learning course.

Rightly or wrongly, I was operating out of habit which I can now codify as a tip. Don’t spend time looking, if the dog always comes back when it’s hungry.

But I interrupt myself. Here’s another tip from me to you: Don’t interrupt yourself. You’ll have enough difficulties with other people’s interruptions.

Some tips from the blogosphere

Alerted by a wordpress hotpost, I found a site dedicated to tips for webworkers. The specific tip was ‘talk more slowly’ . This may appear incredibly trivial. But I will argue that there is a good reason why that doesn’t matter. Here is the tip for webcam conferencing.

From the web-workers blog, I was taken by the surfing waves to another blog. This one had tips for programmers. It argued that you should list problems instead of next actions.


These two tips led to some musing about how and why tips work.

How and why tips work.

There’s a real attraction to tips, and has been, for as long as you want to go back in history. Moses came up with ten tips for his people.

It’s still a popular format. ‘Ten tips for speed dating … ten tips for stopping athlete’s foot … ten tips for pain-free weight loss’. The tipster may not have the authority of a Moses, but somehow we always want to try the tips. The easier the tip is to try, the more likely we are to give it a whirl.

Why the attraction?

An interesting question. Suggestions are welcomed. One possibility is that the tip is a promise of instant gratification through action. Frustration is overcome. You could say you have bridged the thought-action gap, and escaped anxieties associated with lack of control. I could go on, but will spare you (Tip: Self-indulgence including self-interruption comes at a price).

Another attraction is the attraction of the promise made, backed by the authority of the tipster. Sometimes charismatics get away with Forest Gumpery. Someone I worked with, and who had the charisma which made him a potent tipster. One tip in particular would always have the audience scribbling it down, nodding in awe and approval. This was his tip. Treat assumptions as facts, and facts as assumptions. Wow! Profound? Forrest Gumpery? Profound Forrest Gumpery?

The promised meta-tip

A while ago, I had become interested in attempts to stimulate creativity through structures such as brainstorming. The tips for brainstorming were things like: ‘Postpone judgement’, ‘freewheel’, ‘quantity breeds quality’. Eventually I realized that it was better to think of the tips as learning aids not sure-fire fixes. The meta-tip gets at this fundamental principle. Here (at last) it is:

A tip is a proposed operational procedure which provides an opportunity to learn about more general conceptual principles in specific action contexts.

So, brainstorming instructions permit brainstorming actions, which permit reflection on how the principles worked, why, and how they might be fixed when next called into use.

To Tip or not to tip?

If you are rather averse to tips, because of their apparent triviality, don’t be. In the example cited above, ‘talk slowly’ appears a trivial point to make. In the specific circumstances of video-conferencing it is far from trivial. You have to work out pace in absence of cues within a face-to-face discussion.

According to the meta-tip, the proof of any tip can be established through the link you make between the more general idea, and specific action.

Listing problems not actions is a bit more complicated, as it is itself something of a meta-tip. (‘My meta-tip is better than yours’). At least that gives us an angle to explore things more deeply. My take on this would be to suggest that a refinement of the tip may be: think problems and actions’. That seems to be moving towards a synthesis of both positions.

But leadership IS a team role …

April 26, 2007

Employers are increasingly valuing team players over leaders, says a futurologist. But where does that leave team leadership? We look at the claim from a research perspective

In a BBC interview, BT Futorologist Ian Pearson says that employers are recognizing the virtues of interpersonal skills (sometimes called soft skills, and as a differentiator between masculine and feminine behavioral styles).
The impression left by the article, is that team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers. Also, that women are better team-players, and therefore also more valued by employers than are men. The arguments leading to such conclusions need a bit more examination.

The situation seems to have been reduced to some either-or propositions, such as ‘we either have to chose good leaders or good team players’. It also implies that there is a universalistic recipe out there. If a century of research into leadership has revealed anything, it is the absence of a theory of leadership that provides universal propositions. In other words, we might wish to study the hypothesis

H: team players are becoming more valued than leaders by employers

[Or the form preferred in many research methods courses
H: team players are not becoming more valued than leaders by employers]

Either hypothesis when put to empirical testing will quickly be shown to be highly context dependent. At which stage, the researchers begin to mutter about ceterus paribus , or contingent variables, or in everyday terms ‘other things being equal; or ‘it all depends’ . Unfortunately, empirical research catches popular headlines more easily if it can be reduced to a simple statement. We have to work at the proposal to sort out the factors behind he assumptions. So let’s do a little more work on it.

Are team workers becoming more favoured over leaders by employers?

Yup, you guessed it – it all depends. It depends on what the statement means by leaders, team workers, and even (less ambiguously) by employers. It depends on the sorts of employment, and the sorts of team task. As stated, the issue can be tested. Are employers placing team working skills above leadership skills in making their selection and recruitment decisions? Has that become standard practice in BT, to take the specific case with which Professor Pearson is particularly familiar? What is the evidence that the same applies to other private sector organizations in our global marketplace?

For what it’s worth

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think is going on, and what sense I can make of it.
First, long-held views of leaders and followers have come under some scrutiny. The old ideas was that leader took the decisions, the followers carried them out. ‘Good’ followers ‘obeyed orders’, but you can see where I’m going there. More recently, this view lead to tricky dilemmas of leadership which have not gone away.

Among the most promising of attempts to deal with the dilemma of ‘followership’ was the search for methods of power-sharing, so that followers all had status differentials removed, and all became members of the same team. (I know a very large organization that actually banned the word ‘manager’ in the height of enthusiasm for a team-based approach). With empowerment came motivation, and the end of the economist’s bane, the economic free-rider. From that perspective it was an easy step to develop the idea of distributed leadership.

But what happens to the ‘old style leader’. This is where I think I can make common cause with the Pearson thesis. The weaknesses of the old style leader have been rumbled. The special one has to become a special team player. More than ever, in team work, the leader is nor more, and no less than a team player. And as such, the team player needs those desirable soft skills.