From the lab to the C-suite (Executive Series)

Findings in physics, biology hold inherent lessons about leadership and change
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/16/2014

Editor's note: Once a month, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosts a special seminar on a topic of interest to HR professionals and business leaders. Canadian HR Reporter covers these events for a special feature titled "Executive Series." The feature includes news coverage from one of our editors, plus commentary from SCNetwork's panel of thought leaders on strategic capability, leadership in action and organization effectiveness.

This web post contains all of these elements.

Effective leaders eliminate fear, by Morgan Smyth
Conclusions not necessarily novel, by Michael Clark


From the lab to the C-suite

Findings in physics, biology hold inherent lessons about leadership and change

By Liz Bernier

Control, efficiency and authority — these are just a few of the buzzwords surrounding traditional ideas of leadership.

Preserving stability, maintaining the status quo, quashing conflict and sustaining control are some of the tasks leaders are traditionally expected to do.

But leadership is infinitely more complex than that, said Jamie Gruman at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

“We’re controlled by ideas and norms that have outlived their usefulness in organizations,” said Gruman, an associate professor in the department of business at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “Organizations today are largely dinosaurs.”

The way we think organizations should function is largely based on ideas that originated hundreds of years ago, he said — and many of those ideas are out of place in a rapidly changing world.

“Most of the advances that we have in science are attributable to this idea that developed during the (Age of) Enlightenment that we can control the universe if we think about it carefully enough,” he said. “And this is how our organizations have evolved — with the same idea.”

Traditionally, the primary objective of an organization’s function has been control and efficiency.

“If you think about the structures and policies and procedures that govern the way your operate in your organization, I bet you dollars to doughnuts that 90 per cent of them are focused on control and efficiency, and making sure everything stays the way you want it,” he said.

But that status quo mentality is not conducive to successful change — and it’s not compatible with scientific discoveries about how the world works.

“Some ideas have developed out of developments in the hard sciences that shed light on the fundamental nature of the universe in which we operate,” said Gruman.

And these new findings in areas such as quantum physics and evolutionary biology highlight the fact that the old ideas about control and authority aren’t as helpful as we once imagined.

Complexity leadership and emergent change

Scientific advancements have shown us that physical reality is indeterminate — as much as we might like to, we can’t predict everything, said Gruman.

“The fundamental nature of reality is you can’t predict outcomes. You can in very circumscribed situations that are short in time, short in distance. But over the longer-term, five years out, 10 years out, you cannot predict what’s going to happen,” he said.

That’s why the notion of complexity leadership becomes important.

“Complexity leadership is an approach to leadership… that capitalizes on these crazy ideas that characterize the fundamental nature of our reality,” said Gruman.

Also important is the concept of emergent change.

Traditional notions of change rely on a highly structured, planned approach, he said. This can work for smaller changes but for larger ones — more sweeping ones, more controversial ones — it probably won’t work, he said.

“There’s a high probability of relapse with planned approaches to change — uneven distribution among units, less suitability for opportunity-driven changes, unanticipated consequences due to limited foresight, adoption of best practices that are ill-suited to your environment, ignorance of top management regarding key contingencies and capabilities at the front line, lapse in implementation… and a whole host of other (problems).”

An emergent approach to change is a way to compliment the planned approach and address some of those problems — and that gives you a greater likelihood of success.

Emergent change is when order develops without you having the intention to make order develop — it emerges on its own.

You may have experience with groups or teams in your organization that come together to solve a specific problem. It’s not necessarily sanctioned by the employer — it just arises spontaneously, said Gruman.

“All of a sudden, they come up with a new solution to something — out of nowhere. This is an example of emergence in organizations,” he said.

“As managers and leaders, if we want to move toward emergent change, we need to create the conditions necessary for emergence to occur.”

In the traditional approach, a leader’s job is to increase stability —to look for deviations and correct them.

“Whereas in the new approach — the (emergent change) approach — your job as a manager is to increase learning and self-organization, which may involve moving away from stability,” he said.

It’s not a perfect idea — there are problems with emergent change as well, he said. But it’s a different way of thinking about change — one that leaves for room for creativity and innovation.

“As leaders, one of the fundamental things you need to do to manage change effectively is let go,” said Gruman.

Control versus chaos

Part of letting go of control is letting go of the idea that our role as managers and leaders is to keep the system close to equilibrium, he said.

“Emergent change or an emergent organization occurs when we are far from equilibrium. If you’re in a system that is very regimented, very controlled, you’re not going to have emergence. It’s when you bring that system to a more chaotic state — to the edge of chaos — that emergence is likely to occur,” said Gruman.

Leaders tend to rely on “shaping behaviours,” which involve a high amount of control.

“Shaping behaviours involve controlling what gets done, expressing your own views and beliefs about change, using your unique experience of change to shape the implementation, holding others accountable… this is really the mental model of what we think of when we think of a leader. Someone who is in control, domineering, authoritative — these are the shaping behaviours,” he said.

An alternative to that is leaders who engage in “framing behaviours” and creating capacity — creating a framework for change that is not forced or regimented.

“These were leaders who established starting points for change, designed and managed the journey, and communicated guiding principles for the organization. Instead of saying, ‘Here’s how you’re going to do it,’ they said, ‘Here are ways to think about how to approach what you’re doing. What you do is up to you,’” said Gruman.

Research has found that the shaping behaviours — those traditional leadership behaviours we all think of — were negatively associated with successful change.

However, framing behaviours were positively associated with successful change, he said.

“We live in a different world today. It’s no longer ‘command, control, paramilitary style.’ It’s no longer about controlling... it’s about innovation, constant change, building your organization to change.”

This doesn’t mean leaders should throw out the rulebook or abandon everything they’ve learned about leadership, said Gruman. It just means the old ideas should be tempered and moderated by the new ones.

“We’re not talking about abandoning the rules — we’re not talking about abdicating your responsibilities,” he said.

“It’s not about completely ignoring everything we know about traditional leadership, but supplementing it with behaviours that help the system get to a position where it can grow on its own, and you can leverage the inherent knowledge and experience and capabilities of all the people that you work with.”


Effective leaders eliminate fear

By Morgan Smyth (Leadership in Action)

Change or perish. Adapt or die. Charles Darwin wrote of this in 1859. It was as true then for the world’s species as it is now for our organizations. And the rate of change keeps accelerating — just look at your new, already outdated smartphone.

Knowing these axioms, why do organizations continue to resist change? Management is the main reason, because they fear personal loss. With change comes risk, and risk insinuates loss — loss of position, loss of power, influence, control, prestige and title. In a nutshell, they don’t feel safe — so neither can anyone else.

So how can we encourage leaders to embrace change? By showing them change is actually good for them, their personal risks are low and the upside is high. Look what Google has done in its brief 15-year history: Google Search, Google Earth, Google Energy, Google Glass, Google Apps, et al (more than 100 in total). Has all this change caused much risk? Sure. But most of it has resulted in positive consequences.

While risk remains the biggest inhibitor to change in most organizations, it can be mitigated. Jamie Gruman rightly states the best way to achieve this is to create a safe environment, in which all employees can voice their opinions and ideas, knowing what they say will be listened to and judged on its merits, with no negative repercussions.

When employees are treated as mature, responsible adults, they behave as such. Most of them can self-manage very well, given the chance. Most of them want to contribute and most can contribute significantly. When a climate of trust, respect and co-operation is established, initiative becomes the norm.

This means abolishing the old command-and-control, hierarchical structure. This outdated framework is notorious for forcing an employee’s great idea to navigate from concept to reality only after receiving 1,000 “yeses” along the way, and it can easily be squashed by one “no.”

While at it, get rid of the word “chief” in job titles. Toss “officer” too — unless you work in a police station. Their days are done. Retiring these old-guard, authoritative symbols sends a clear signal that change is indeed starting. Several other cultural and organizational changes must also be made as Gruman mentions but, whatever you do, act fast before the Millennials catch you napping.

“A business… has two basic functions — marketing and innovation. They produce results. All the rest are costs,” said management consultant Peter Drucker. So, what will it be — change agent or cost item?

Morgan Smyth is an SCNetwork thought leader and a change management consultant who launched his own IT services company which soared to Profit Magazine’s 50 Fastest Growing Companies. He can be reached at msmyth@braegen.com.


Conclusions not necessarily novel

By Michael Clark (Organizational Effectiveness)

Jamie Gruman’s presentation was intriguing and entertaining, but his conclusions are not as novel as he suggests.

Gruman took us down a path that began with the unpredictable universe and concluded that managing change is best done by creating conditions that encourage emergent change. Along the way,
we heard that today’s organizations are dinosaurs, hierarchy is unnatural, planned change is hopeless and the stubborn legacy systems of the industrial age are “ghosts that haunt us.”

But a funny thing happened along the way: Gruman’s conclusions on leading and managing change are already known to those with experience in organizational effectiveness.

Nodding along with Gruman’s iconoclastic, anti-hierarchy presentation with requisite skepticism, I surprised myself by suddenly being in agreement with his concluding thesis — “FramCap.” His change leadership model — framing change and creating capacity — has existed by other names (including “common sense”) for almost as long as we’ve known about quantum mechanics. Further, FramCap implicitly contains hierarchy, command and control and planned change. I do have to congratulate Gruman, though, for using chaos theory to confirm common sense.

The truth of the matter is that hierarchy occurs in nature, as does complexity. Organizational effectiveness practitioners are weary of mavericks decrying the hierarchy boogeyman. The mistake is assuming hierarchy means command and control, and that command and control is a bad thing.

In my experience, hierarchy is only a problem when there is a lack of coherent strategy and structural misalignment. Command and control is only a problem when it comes with a dearth of effective leadership.

With the FramCap model, Gruman is espousing what successful managerial leaders intuit naturally. That the model “feels” right is the hallmark of it being common sense. “Sense-making” in the FramCap model is actually the universal function of leadership. It is setting direction and setting context.

Creating disruption is also part of effective managerial leadership. Holding stability and instability in tension is the only means to learn (to change), to effectively and efficiently grow an increasingly capable team and to accelerate continuous improvement.

Boundaries in an effective organization mean role clarity. It is an exercise in liberating employees with parameters. It is creating sandboxes big enough to give employees enough room for them to use all the tools provided and then expecting the sandcastles to be built. Managers are saying, “Here you go. We’ve agreed upon what it is you are going to do. Come back if you have a problem or a suggestion. Otherwise, on your way”.

The final aspect of FramCap —trust — is the foundation of being able to do all these things. As any effective manager knows, without walking the walk and creating environments of open and honest dialogue, trust isn’t going to happen. Without trust, transformational change is impossible.

Despite the claims of the earlier part of his presentation, Gruman conceded that planned change and emergent change likely need to complement each other. It seems that there is a place for both control and chaos. It’s true, then, that we have our organizational ghosts. But, for organization effectiveness practitioners, they are more like Casper than poltergeists.

Michael Clark is a thought leader with the Strategic Capability Network and director of sales and marketing at Forrest & Company in Toronto, an organizational transformation firm.


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