Uncovering assumptions

Think!
Think : Christian Weidinger via Flickr

I’m continually fascinated by what happens around change and why some things, that on face value appear to sound and look great and are perceived to be exactly what is needed to help things improve. But yet over time they simply fade away and people are left wondering, what happened to that piece of work? or what happened to that project? and importantly why didn’t things actually change?

Over the years in my previous role as Digital Lead, I often supported and created projects on the edges which on face value sounded good and for a period of time generated some positive buzz and some momentum, but as I sit here now I am left wondering why didn’t those things create the change I thought they would, why are things not changing.  I accept there have been some surface changes, but I’m not going to kid myself in thinking that those surface changes were worth it. After all, nothing fundamentally has changed. In fact, one thing has and that is ME, I’ve fundamentally changed.

The shift for me in understanding this systemically and conceptually has been the learning and practice within my new role. In this role, I am learning about Systems Thinking and Intervention Theory which is helping me to support leaders to see and think differently.

Over the last few months, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things I was involved in and whether I can, could or should re-engage but have struggled with this as I’ve not really understood how to do that in a practical way which helps. One of those things is LocalGov Digital – something which I dedicated a huge amount of personal time and energy into over 5 years.

When the network started in 2012 I was in a different head space. When I look back at that now and the decisions and motivations I had then, I can now understand why I did what I did and why I think LocalGov Digital managed to get the traction it did at the time and continues to do so.  We had a good narrative, we had a groundswell of support and recognition and were able to harness that to grow our collective visibility – things were looking good.

I thought it was a great way to connect to people but one assumption underpinning this was that collectively we (LocalGov Digital) were already thinking differently (more on this later) and therefore took an unconscious stance of “we were right and others were wrong”.  I now know this is not a constructive position to take and inevitably leads to conflict and tribalism.

I didn’t know any different and for me personally, the value the network created was one of support and connection with people which previously didn’t exist…I felt like I belonged and found a safe space. Finally, I was able to connect with others who thought the same as I did….but over time I was blind to the unintended consequences of the actions the network took, including actions by myself.  I’m not suggesting everything or everyone was wrong, in fact, what I’m saying is that I’m learning that actions I took then internally and through the network are having consequences over time that from my new point of view were not constructive or helpful.   I know the network did the same as a whole, but the network was simply behaving within the parameters of a public sector system which triggered those actions.

In terms of seeing this as a pattern of behaviour, I am now seeing this across many networks and can see this is essentially how networks come together – I can even see elements of the same spirit and determination of early LocalGov Digital being replayed albeit slightly differently through the One Team Gov‘s activity / messaging.

My observations are that both endeavours are coming from a place of good intent, (change public services for the better) however, there are some BIG assumptions sitting behind that good intent, those assumptions are currently invisible and therefore have been unchallenged.

For me, one of the biggest assumptions sitting behind both LocalGov Digital and One Team Gov is that everyone who engages or contributes with any of this work is already and actively thinking differently?

When I say “thinking differently” how I now understand that is that people are learning in a double loop way, resulting in thinking differently.  What I’ve learnt about myself is that I was not thinking differently, I was, in fact, thinking very much like everyone else, including the people I had assumed I thought differently from…that realisation was a pretty illuminating and painful one, but I am now able to learn from that and can see the journey and the power of that journey.

There is an excellent article on double loop learning here, it is quite a heavy subject but this post articulates it clearly in my opinion. I’d very much recommend reading it before continuing but just in case you don’t have time I’ll be quoting from it anyway throughout this post.

“For double-loop learning to occur and persist at any level in the organisation, the self-fuelling processes must be interrupted. In order to interrupt these processes, individual theories-in-use [how we think] must be altered.” (Argyris & Schon)

“An organisation with a [defensive] learning system is highly unlikely to learn to alter its governing variables, norms and assumptions [i.e. thinking] because this would require organisational inquiry into double-loop issues, and [defensive] systems militate against this…we will have to create a new learning system as a rare event.” 

When one applies to this oneself it has transformational impact, this is the journey I’ve been supported to go on in my new role here…

This next snippet sums up for me the nature of the journey i’ve been on…please note the wall they refer to in the snippet below is a barrier to double loop learning.

“The first task is for you to see yourself – you have to become aware of the wall…and Argyris & Schon are suggesting that you may (likely) require an intervention (a shake) to do this. Your current defensive learning system is getting in the way.

Let’s be clear on what would make a successful intervention possible, and what would not.

An interventionist would locate themselves in your system and help you (properly) see yourselves…and coach you through contemplating what you see and the new questions that you are now asking…and facilitate you through experimenting with your new thinking and making this the ‘new normal’. This is ‘action learning’.

This ‘new normal’ isn’t version 2 of your current system. It would be a different type of system – one that thinks differently.”

So when I say think differently, this is how I now see and understand that.

So coming back to the “assumption” of everyone already and actively thinking differently presents a number of questions for me;

  • How do we know people are actively thinking differently?
  • How do we know that the people who are looking at their work are able to legitimately change that work?
  • How do we know they are doing purposeful work and do they know what purposeful work is?
  • Do people know and understand the purpose of their work from an outside in perspective?
  • Are people able to have the current conditions that apply to their everyday work suspended?
  • Are the leaders who have the legitimate power to suspend those conditions engaged and connected?
  • How are we learning what good looks like through a new lens of thinking?

So with these questions and more in my head, I’m starting to wonder now whether we are simply advocating people do different things over actually thinking differently?  And what are the consequences of that approach?

If the purpose was to help people to think differently as defined through double loop learning, what would Local Gov Digital and One Team Gov do differently as a result of that shift in purpose?

I don’t have an answer to this but welcome peoples thoughts and opinions no matter how diverse they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A letter to myself of 12 months ago

06-03-10 You Wrote Me Oh So Many Letters
Dear colleague,

You don’t really who I am although I will look familiar, I know you, actually better than you know yourself. I’ve wanted to write this for a while now as I’ve been meaning to connect with you and offer some words of support, some words about pain and suffering and some of what you read might challenge you to your core.

Writing this isn’t as easy as I had imagined it would be as I’m considering how you might interpret this, react to this and respond to everything I write in this letter.

What I have learnt over the last 12 months is that it is nearly impossible teaching anyone who thinks they already know what they need to learn. You helped me learn that. You showed me the impossible is possible.

I know and understand that your desire and passion for wanting to see change happen can seem unrivalled compared to some of our colleagues and I applaud you for that. You are well respected and liked by your peers and you are always up to date with the latest and newest things and always appear knowledgeable about change and changes elsewhere. It has taken time and effort but you have justifiably earnt the position you have. That space inside you though that feels empty won’t go away on your current path. It is a calling for something profoundly different.

Making change happen in organisations is a complex affair and can be incredibly frustrating especially when other people don’t get or understand what you are doing or trying to achieve.  I know you wished people would simply think the way you do! But I’m here to say you are one who needs to change the way you think!

I’m not suggesting that what you do is wrong or that change in some form doesn’t happen as a result of what you do. However, how do you understand the consequences of the approaches you have taken and continue to take? Are you aware of your blind spots? Are you even capable of seeing them? Are you aware, particularly around whether you can actually see the change you envisaged or are you blinded or suppressing the truth – my truth was – I was contributing to the problem I was trying to fix?  I know that you are part of the problem you are trying to solve!

I found it personally difficult as I thought I knew what I needed to know – BUT I have spent the last 12 months unlearning nearly 100% of what I knew and understood. That nearly broke me, it pushed me to the edge of my emotional resilience, I cried (often), I felt lost, insecure and often thought my time was up and I should leave my job, but deep down there was a spark that refused to die. In those moments I found myself amongst the best people I could have ever hoped to have around me to support me, challenge me, help me to understand a new perspective. A new team, friends, colleagues and fellow companions on a journey of discovery.  You will meet these people soon – cherish them.

I used to think and believe that ‘starting many fires’ and constructively disrupting the status quo from the edges as a ‘rebel’ was the only way change would and could happen. In fact I would go as far as to say it is how I positioned myself and my role for a number of years, I even went on training courses advocating this was the only way change could happen – I know you deeply believe this to be true too, but you will unlearn this and find the truth. I can’t tell you what that is as you need to learn this for yourself and when you do I will be here for you.

After some reflection and searching I can draw upon the experience I have through a different lens and that tells me (if I truly listen) I was misguided, misinformed and lacking the self-awareness to truly understand how change happens, real sustainable change and my realistic chances of affecting change. Don’t let the hype that surrounds you blind you to the truth and your inner truth.

Why do you do want you do? Are you really clear on your purpose? Are you sighted on your defacto purpose playing out for others to see and feel as the consequences of the actions you take ripple outwards working against the very thing you hope to achieve?

How aware are you of the influence and power you have to make a sustainable change?  You should revisit this dynamic once you have understood the answer to why there is a disconnect between your external influence and internal influence!

I’m not for one moment suggesting you give up, throw in the towel or walk away.   Just trust when I say to you that you will need to pause, take stock, reassess and reframe everything.

It gets better, in fact, I can tell you I’ve never been happier in my role, in my life and it starts when you let go. The clarity emerges but allows yourself to lean into the uncertainty, the darkness and the space between who you are now and who you can be.

We may not agree on what is written on this page, but understanding how you feel, how you think and why you do what you do is important to me.

When you are ready, I will be here, waiting – I will be ready to hold your hand, stand beside you and walk with you into your future.

Regards,

A friend

On being a School Governor

I’ve been a School Governor now for about 5-6 years and continue to enjoy the experience. I am currently a Chair of Governors at a Primary school local to me as that is where both my children attended. My oldest son has already moved on to secondary school and my youngest is in his last year and will be making his transition to secondary in September.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to share what I have learnt, what I’m thinking and some of the questions I have.  Over the last few months I’ve started to reflect on my time as a governor in the following areas and have unpacked these further in this post, they are: the purpose of primary schools, the role and effectiveness of governors locally and nationally and the opportunity for professional and personal learning within schools as a governor.

Are we clear on the purpose of a Primary School or is this being compromised?

In my time as a school governor I’ve seen first hand that schools are challenged to meet multiple demands and multiple expectations and on the whole, the staff do amazing work in trying to balance all the pressures of daily school life which are on top of actually providing education for children.

In the School where I am a Governor, we define our purpose as “help and support every child to be the best they can be”  This has helped us to define our priorities and our approach including, thinking about how we use and deploy staff, how and  where we invest money for impact and intervention and importantly how we know we are doing the right things.

Schools are doing so much more than just providing education (in a traditional sense)  – they are active in providing social work, health intervention, family support, community development and now in increasing financial austerity fundraisers and business managers.  I’ve witnessed that all these things are absolutely critical to get right especially as all children’s lives (indeed everyone’s lives) are complex and to ensure that children are ready and able to learn you need to invest time and energy in the other areas to help and ensure children can be the best they can be.

For a number of years now there has been an even greater focus on austerity which has led to some instances of decisions being driven by money as opposed to being driven by what is the best outcome for the children. This by default makes the purpose “manage the money” as opposed to providing education…the significant drive and focus on money is so strong in the current climate that it makes it extremely difficult to stay focused on the true purpose.

It is clearly fundamental to ensure you stay financially stable but a trend in forcing schools to operate more like businesses is creating additional pressures and work which schools are not necessarily resourced for and this simply puts direct pressure on Head Teachers, teachers and support staff which in turn increases the pressures and stresses in the system.  So I ask myself how much activity and work is actually focused on meeting the primary purpose as opposed to meeting false purposes such as managing money?

In addition a wider question I ask myself is – if you have these multiple pressures and demands then does this affect the purpose of a primary school or its ability to meet its purpose?  My experience and observations tell me this is the case.

Adler suggests that there are three objectives of children’s schooling: (Adler, 1982)

  • the development of citizenship,
  • personal growth or self-improvement, and
  • occupational preparation.

The interesting thing to me is that the main external high-level measure of success is focused on the Key Stage 2 SATS results (Maths, English – reading and writing etc). This is often directly related to whether a school is rated highly within the inspection framework.  So I ask myself how do attainment results tell me that a school is meeting its purpose and how does the inspection framework tell me a school is meeting purpose?  Unless the purpose is ‘make the attainment results come true’ or ‘meet the numbers’

The importance of measuring success and being clear about what good looks like is critical if we want to see primary schools developing the foundations of learning, the disciplines of personal growth, self-improvement and personal mastery. If we want to see schools creating environments where tolerance, respect and equality are promoted as the basis of being good citizens and if we want to support and invest in the future by stimulating the minds of children so they are curious, courageous and compassionate to face the challenges of the future in relation to our society and economy.

I guess what I am saying is I’m not seeing any evidence that the current external measures of success in schools tell anyone whether we are creating those things stated instead I see measures that focus attention on money and test results?  Before I become a governor my only really measure of a school was an inspection report and grade, but now after being a governor, I have developed a deeper knowledge and understanding of what really happens and understood the purpose in a different way. There is a big disconnect here which is driving the wrong behaviours!

The role and effectiveness of Governors and how do we know we measure success effectively

Sometimes in my time as a governor, I have felt like a proxy inspector as opposed to an effective and active part of the school leadership. This behaviour is not explicitly encouraged but becomes implied when you understand the inspection framework but this is counter productive as inspecting the school as a governor does not promote or create a culture of continued and mutual learning.  I see the role of a School Governor as the following:

  1. Being clear on Our Purpose – This is a clear, simple statement(s) of what we are here to do as a school.
  2. Being clear on Our Measures and understanding what good measures look like. These are the mechanisms by which we judge our effectiveness in meeting our Purpose. This will inevitably include understanding how the external measures contribute or not to helping us understand our effectiveness.
  3. Agreeing and having clarity on Our Principles. These guide how we carry out our work and help to make real the shared leadership and the shared vision.
  4. Setting a framework for Our Policies. These set out what we will do in carrying out aspects of our work and must contribute to helping those in the work meet the purpose.
  5. Being accountable to and being clear on Our Key Tasks. These are actions that we have to perform on a regular or ad-hoc basis (as detailed in the Annual Cycle).  This is where we ensure we can be held accountable to our legal responsibilities which include staying financially stable and secure.  This is also how we triangulate our understanding and knowledge of whether we are meeting purpose and measuring the right things.

The inherent pressures of inspections and the inevitable price that is paid by people (mostly Head Teachers) when the inspection reports are not as good as the inspectors would want to see is unfair and simply promotes a culture of fear and drives activity to “cover your back”. This is made even worse in the context of the academies agenda as the pressure to be seen to be meeting the targets is creating perverse behaviours and the consequences of which are directly affecting children we should be focusing on. In the current landscape if your school is seen by the inspection framework as failing then the likelihood of that school being forced to become an academy is increased significantly and in most cases, this is the only action to be taken.  The assumption underpinning this action is that Academies are better at delivering good or outstanding schools. I’m yet to see the evidence that supports this.

In reality, the evidence I see and can validate is that school leaders, teachers, support staff and everyone working in and around schools is lots and lots of hard work to try to create new and different experiences for children on top of all the activity which is expected by the current system drivers of “meet the numbers and targets for testing.”  But what I can’t say with confidence is whether all of the work they are all doing is meeting purpose and is contributing effectively…What I need to understand is what really gets in the way of a Primary School meeting its purpose and what can I do as a governor to remove the barriers and blockages.

This dilemma and conflict can only really be resolved by leaders and this is something I find fascinating.  The question I find myself asking here is, ‘does the system know who the leaders are, what are current leaders doing to understand and build their knowledge of why the current system is the way it is and are those leaders connecting with each other?’

Personal and Professional Learning and the opportunity to develop insights into organisational change and culture.

In my day job, I work in Organisational Change and my role is to support leaders to see and think differently so that services are designed around understanding what matters to citizens and clarity of purpose.

The opportunity I have as a school governor to develop my practice and learning is incredibly rich and diverse and this as a side benefit of wanting to help and support my local school keep me motivated and determined to be the best I can be.

The learning, however, is not simply one way. I had originally held an assumption that I would be offering my time and energy and wouldn’t really learn anything other than “school governance”. However the more I understand the thinking and approaches being used within primary schools the more those models become more visible to me in an organisational change context.

An example of this is the way in which primary schools have mainstreamed reflective practice and focusing on mastery of self. In my previous role as Digital Lead, I used to think that the most significant impact on organisations in the future would be technology and the disruption of that technology. Clearly, those disruptions will be present a fundamental challenge, but for me, the behaviours and values being promoted and recognised which underpin the approaches in Education will have a deeper and more profound impact unless organisations recognise the deeper cultural shift that is symbolised by the age of the internet.

Another example is promoting a growth mindset for children, the shift in the school now is that it understands that unless adults model and understand the growth mindset aswell children will not believe it as they will mirror and model the behaviours of the adults…this is exactly the same dilemma in organisations where leaders are not living the values and behaviours they promote.

On the whole, being a school governor has helped me develop and practice skills and learn new and different ones too. Schools and in particular primary schools are a fascinating place to be and I would highly recommend connecting with your local school and asking whether you can help in some way. if you are passionate about the future of our society, primary schools are a great place to learn about and experience what the future looks and feels like.

 

 

 

 

 

Can Intrapreneurship actually happen.

Recently someone shared a link on twitter to this post on Medium by Jeff Gothelf > Intrapreneurship is a lie. So I became a consultant.   Initially, I was in two minds about whether to click on it and read it but I was intrigued enough that I did.
After reading I started to reflect about whether I shared the same views that were expressed in the post and I realised that about 12 months ago I did. This time last year I would have said this post resonated with EXACTLY how I felt…But I understand that now I think differently and believe that there are some interesting lessons that I have learnt, some of them were very painful to accept.
I used to think of myself as an intrapreneur and thought that I was a pretty good one too, I mean I even won an award and was also nominated in the LGC most influential list. So the feedback loops around me were saying that I was pretty good, but I have continued to struggle to make sense of how all of this could happen and yet I was failing to create a lasting sustainable change in my council…so much so I wrote a post about that disconnect in relation to the difference between internal influence and external influence.
So revisiting the post on Medium – it is a 6-minute read and worth it, so suggest you take a moment if you haven’t already. There was so much in the post that did and didn’t resonate that I wanted to share my reflections.
In some ways, Jeff’s post for me makes an assumption that entrepreneurial spirit is and will likely sit with a few people and that in itself creates some challenges and problems when trying to replicate as an internal person as Jeff points out “big org realities kick in”. For me and this is something that I think I have made many mistakes around in the past, is that being entrepreneurial isn’t necessarily something that a person can do in isolation, it is more about the conditions and the system you operate within that allows the innovation and creativity to flourish.
In the past, I have assumed that I have the power to change things but am only really limited to change on the edges of the organisation, this has made me feel better inside in the past that small things happen but the failures to reach the core of the organisation for lasting change is something I simply tolerated and perhaps ignored as I didn’t want to face up to what the real issues were that were stopping that. What I have learnt over the last 6 months in order to be successful you have to ensure you have the right conditions and the wider system alignment to ensure lasting and sustainable change actually happens.
So the question I started asking myself more was – why is there a difference in the perceived impact between external and internal people and what are the causes of this variation?
Moving on for a moment What I’ve also learnt is that until new organisational models exist, ownership and power lies within the formal hierarchy.  There may be some people who disagree but from someone who is on the inside this is very much the case and is one of the lessons I’ve learnt which I will share more on in this post.
Incentives to change or improve the work people do doesn’t sit within the teams who do the work but with managers or change teams who sit outside of that work. So at what point can someone take real ownership of any change as the majority is imposed upon them.   So where is the incentive for those people who actually understand what is happening, who see the consequences (intended or otherwise) and yet are blind to the assumptions and thinking that led to the design of the work?
In the section of the post which talks about integration with the rest of the organisation, the question I have in my head is – Why is the responsibility for ideas disconnected from the people who implement them or even do the work, what creates this separation and what assumptions drive the design of that flow of work?
The challenge here and the underlying assumptions I believe sit beneath this are that you need to have people who have particular skills and traits that do “their bit” and then you can successfully move that along a pipeline to someone else and they do their bit and so on, until the change you anticipated or something like it pops out the other end.  The issue I have with this is that this is flawed in its design as to why you would not help the people who do the work develop the skills, knowledge and understanding to respond to the problems they have and allow them to do it. Or even allow them to pull expertise into their work at the time they need it!
The element of the post that resonated the most with me is the section about external influence always trumping internal opinion.  This was the bit that has aligned to my own personal experiences the most and has been the cause of most of my own struggles. However, I’ve started to realise where I went wrong and how in pushing and pushing and pushing to do the things I thought were right but never saw come to fruition is because I was trying to push and push and push. The irony is that I’ve learned to now operate and work in an on-demand model where I and the team are pulled to work with people because they want and value our input. This shift is a fundamental and yet profound change in how you can be successful as an intrapreneur – this will be at the heart of how intrapreneurs can design themselves to be successful.
The biggest irony in all of this is that we have on in the past pulled external people in to say exactly the same thing as the internal people do?
Finally, there is a fascinating comment towards the end of the post that states “there will never be a way for the kind of results both seek to be achieved unless large companies can make the cultural shift to spread innovative thinking throughout the company while finding ways to reward this work in a way that retains top talent.”
My only comment on this is that any size and shape company essentially needs to do one key thing – Understand and make visible the thinking and assumptions that create and lead to the design of everything in it. Knowing this allows you to better understand how to move forward…

The 3 leadership qualities I value and want to develop in myself.

The other day I read a fantastic post by colleague Kelly Doonan “Eight Steps to Good Leadership” It is well worth a read, so if you haven’t read it, please take some time now or after this post to check it out.
After reading it I was inspired to write this post as I haven’t blogged for a while, although I have many “draft posts” sat in here waiting to be finished…
Recently I was asked by colleagues to do a 10-minute talk/presentation on “Leadership” in the Chief Executives office as part of a set of recent Leadership Events in the council.
So my usual approach was to think about what leadership really means to me, what I thought the leadership challenges are and considered my personal experiences and observations, in particular, those people that have inspired and challenged me over the years and still do.
I made some detailed notes, which is unusual for me but given that I only had 10 minutes I thought I better try and stick to time so wanted to ensure I focused myself. This post has essentially been created using the notes for that session with some post edits as I pretty much ignored my notes when presenting, even though I held on to them during the entire presentation – I believe I stuck to time though 🙂
The reason for not sticking to the notes was that the two previous speakers who were great, made me think about how things feel and what it means to talk about those things more openly…this basically led me to change the first half of the talk and draw upon my thinking in a previous blog post “Love of Fear – Which one rules you”  I felt that it would better suit the flow of the whole session. I was happy to adapt it and actually felt more comfortable simply speaking from the heart as opposed to reading from a script.
A part of the design of my talk I started to think about what problems I saw, what caused those problems and how I thought particular leadership qualities could rebalance or directly address those problems. Reflecting on my experiences, observations and understanding over the years, I came up with the following:
  • increasingly isolation of people and organisations
  • a lack of clarity and understanding as to why public services exist
  • an acceptance or even tolerance that things are the way they are and can’t or even won’t change.
So I distilled three leadership qualities that I believe are either missing, in short supply and/or will provide solid foundations for the future. The qualities are clearly for everyone and anyone but I firmly believe that these are essential for people in legitimate leadership positions right now across all public services and wider. I also want to further develop these qualities in myself.
In thinking about the session I was pondering how these problems came about, how they are allowed to continue existing and I started to think about the blind spots that the sector has around leadership capability. So I decided to call my session “Why I think public sector leaders are undermining the opportunity for improving the sector – and they don’t even know it?
The 3 Leadership Qualities
Firstly – Curiosity – the desire and drive to discover and explore the deeper meaning and purpose of all things. To know and sense that there is always more to understand, more to learn and unlearn about ourselves and the world around us. That what we know today will be challenged by what we learn tomorrow and to be comfortable with uncertainty.
Secondly – Compassion – developing a meaningful connection to all things – to truly understand the lived experiences and lives of others and all living things and to be purposefully driven by that connection to take action – selflessly and for the benefit of others not individual gain. In doing so leading by example, not through rhetoric.
Thirdly – Courage – to find and connect to the inner strength in us all and to step forward and lead when everyone around us is simply stuck in the comfort of the status quo. To be authentic and to choose our own destiny and path in life and to acknowledge our responsibility to future generations.
I believe that these three qualities can reduce the isolation, help us find meaning and purpose and challenge our assumptions that things can improve
The event was filmed so I have included the link to the video below.