In 2010, Georg Diez wrote in the newspaper SZ Nr. 275:
»We are on the brink of this new century, the contours of which we can at least discern. A new green hedonism, a new technology euphoria, a crisis demolishing old hierarchies and enabling new realities, thus making room for fresh ideas.«
Now, the media (social as well as official) are full of suggestions on how to use democratic forms and methods in order to handle the crisis of hierarchies. Few pause to ask whether this can be combined with the organizations’ system targets and their embedment into the global financial market. The suggestions for democratisation contain another hope: the hope of many that they will be able to work with more engagement and self-determination.
Discussions of this kind are addressed in organizations from two points of view. Firstly: what do I have to do in order to create a space that enables employees to be engaged as they work? Secondly: how can I create a context within which my employees make their potential available? The answers to both questions lead us to another reality of leadership work. The essential question is: how can my employees be heard and what will enable them to work in a context they consider meaningful? If both of these aims are realized, more employees will feel their effective agency. That is the psychological basis for motivated, confident people.
The current urgency is demonstrated when we address the scenarios drawn of the near and middle-distance future. With regard to perception within organizations, these are described by the acronym VUCA (Jörg Müngersdorff: New Leadership for a New World; Johannes Ries: VUCA).
Jörg Müngersdorff clearly outlined the potentially dramatic nature of the developments in a range of fields, asking the decisive question: Are organizations prepared? A look at the regular polls on employee motivation in larger and large organizations yields a clear answer: no (depending on the study, 70% to 80% are described as unmotivated). Unless, of course, you believe that 30% of employee potential suffice to tackle the challenges ahead.
Is democratisation the answer, however? Even a simple look at the topic »Choosing our leadership« raises fears of never-ending election campaigning. Yet, democratisation has already started to take place long ago. Forms of plebiscites like employee questionnaires, 360° feedback and management dialogues are steps along a path towards a democratically composed organization.
With regard to the next steps, there are two aspects that have to precede the experiment of daring to »choose« leaders, strategic topics, wages, etc. The first step has to be the dissolution of hierarchic borders. We create layers in organizations. As a result, debates are limited to single levels and often keep repeating in the same patterns. At this moment, we are witnesses to a protest against these limits arising among the lower layers. This protest is not primarily about status issues or what would generally be subsumed as »envy«; it is about a sense that leadership is too far removed from reality, that it is not in touch. This is true internally as well as with regard to market developments. Delineations of this kind can be opened up swiftly and without disturbing the structure. It could be considered a realization of the popular fireside chat.
Participation in leadership conferences, management meetings, strategy circles and other meetings will be changed: half of the participants shall be delegated by employees. It is important that the delegates are sent by local or functional units that have fewer than a hundred employees. This strategy will always touch only selected groups that change over the course of time. It will nevertheless introduce a lasting change to the conversations, debates and topics at traditional meetings. The hierarchic borders will become more fluid. Bottom-up knowledge can enter opinion-forming processes and enable participation (the condition for engagement and motivation). These are soft methods of democratisation, which at the same time bring about a lasting improvement of an organization leadership’s vertical communication: Having been there will change the way we speak about an event.
The second aspects concerns one of the bases of democratic orientation: the establishment of an internal critical media landscape. Organizations will have to abandon their guided internal press led, as it is, by image folders. One condition for functioning participation is a critical counterpublic, which is at the same time an important source of information on prevalent thoughts, perceptions and feelings for those in charge. The introduction of internal social platforms are an entrance gate that make it possible to practice and try out how to deal with a critical counterpublic.
It is apparent that the traditional procedure where a manager defines the hierarchy has lost some of its full power of legitimation. It has been joined by a second process of decision-making: once I have been placed, my employees will have to actively choose me. This fact obliges us to enter dialogue. An organization that has managed to introduce vertical participation models and that is truly engaged in an exchange with their employees will find it much easier to gain social competence. In such organizations, people are working together on a goal. They know the significance of what they are doing and can experience the value of their contribution.
A final reminder: Why do we need all of that? Because we will need the engagement of more than 20 to 30 per cent of our employees if we want to be able to face the challenges ahead.
Some time ago, I presented six basic stances for a new kind of sovereignty in organizations on this blog: VUCA-AIKIDO. These stances outline an AIKIDO mindset that can enable employees to face VUCA situations in organizations with greater confidence and to retain their ability to act in the VUCA situations themselves.
The basic stances I presented received a positive response. I was encouraged to think further after discussions with clients, project partners and colleagues, not least very intensively at the last Sophia. In the context of organizations, it is especially interesting to think about how managers can apply this AIKIDO mindset in their leadership. How can I lead employees who I have been entrusted with through VUCA situations that have been experienced negatively? How, at the same time, can I enable my team to use the positive potential of VUCA?
I have formulated the following principles to cater to the leadership position. I hope that they contain some initial answers to these questions:
AGILISE I promote initiative and intrapreneurship. I provide my team with space and support self-monitoring. I make sure that there will be self-reflection.
USE INTUITION I have an authentic leadership style. I enter dialogues with my employees about their feelings. I deal with mistakes constructively and account for them. I invest in play and experiment.
CREATE CLARITY I tell a good management narrative. I create meaning and give values by guiding action. I curate the topics I deem important.
SPONSOR INTERACTION I trust my employees. I give and ask for open feedback. I make a community out of my employees. I lead together with colleagues and foster co-creation.
BUILD DIVERSITY I seek out »misfit« employees and invest in difference. I encourage my employees to engage in constructive contradiction. I maintain and foster thinking and acting in options.
MAINTAINING ORGANISMS I constantly stimulate change and my actions are guided by the process. I create emergence by networking intensively. I make sure that there is balance and rhythm.
Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise. (George Gershwin)
I believe that the ability to improvise is becoming more and more important for individuals, teams and organisations in an increasingly VUCA business world. Where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are making it impossible to know whether the plans of today will still be valid tomorrow, it is important to be able to act on the spur of the moment. Where it is necessary to act faster than ever before in order to stay in the field while it is impossible to base these actions on a plan, certain results can only be achieved by trial and error. Where the conditions are prone to change at any time and adaptation and reorientation are necessary in ever shorter cycles, improvisation makes financial sense, too. It takes a lot of time and capacities to build up a perfect structure. Are we sure that we really always need a perfect structure, especially so when standardization is lost and we encounter more and more customization? In brief: perfectly orchestrated organisations are going to have to prove their jazz band qualities more and more often in order to stand their ground in the world of VUCA.
The last SYNNECTA Sophia included an experiment on this hypothesis: We invited the two musicians Ulla Oster (double bass) and Vincent »Themba« Goritzki (guitar) for a joint improvisation session. However, we asked them to refrain from any previous contact with each other. We wanted to test the musical scope of improvisation out of a spontaneous encounter and eventually enter a dialogue about the basic principles of improvisation.
I myself eagerly looked forward to the event: nobody could be certain whether the audience’s ears would be pleased by the melodies and rhythms awaiting them. My tension grew as the musicians began to play. What I heard was amorphous and chaotic without recognizable harmonies; it was noise rather than what is generally considered to be music. After a while, however, first structures slowly emerged as the musicians scanned and reacted to each other. Harmonies were adopted, lines of melody taken on and continued, a rhythm began to dominate the chaos – there was music! Toes began to move to the beat. The music grew… After roughly an hour, the two musicians made eye contact to agree that their improvisation had come to an end and bowed first to each other and then to the audience. They earned enthusiastic applause from the managers and business representatives in the audience.
In the subsequent interview, we first addressed the basics of playing together and then opened the floor for an audience discussion. I would like to reconstruct from memory some of the conversations that ensued in the course of this dialogue. These ideas had moved me in particular, as I consider them paradigmatic illustrations of the basis for successful joint improvisation. They also show how differently the audience and the musicians approached the subject.
Spectator: Having played with him for one hour now, what to you think of him? What is he good at, what not?
Musician: It’s much too early to answer that, I hardly know him….
Spectator: While you were playing, I noticed that you kept taking turns being in the lead. First one of you lead and the other followed, then the next moment it was the other way around. How does that work?
Musician: I didn’t think that that was a question of leading and following. It was more like a dialogue among equals…
Spectator: At one point he grew louder and you resisted, you refused and entered a conflict…
Musician I: That wasn’t a conflict, it wasn’t about power. I simply followed the energy.
Musician II: It’s more like in a conversation that can grow louder and more animated out of enthusiasm, for example. Then everyone is louder without really noticing…
Spectator: You didn’t know each other at all. How did you establish trust?
Musician: That was there from the start. To me, trust is an attitude.
So here are four impulses from the musicians for a new culture of improvisation in organisations:
- Let your counterpart be who they are to begin with, be respectful and reserve your judgement, don’t consider categories and achievements straight away;
- Have a dialogue among equals rather than negotiating positions of leadership and subordination;
- Reinforce energies and use them together rather than struggling for power and fighting each other;
- Give trust as a present instead of expecting that people have to earn it…
I can imagine that this attitude, as inspired by music, could enable improvisation in businesses and even improve cooperation in general. It constitutes a wonderful invitation from the musicians to experiment and improvise in our own fields and spheres of work…
The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.
(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)
Our modern, enlightened world no longer has a place for myths – they have been displaced by facts. Myths are generally ostracised as »false consciousness« and an adversary of reason. Reason is focused on reality and its rational processing; myths distort the facts and build fantastic contraptions out of and around them. We may tolerate such a thing in our children’s world as fairy tales. However, we fail to see the value of myths in the normality of daily life.
Accordingly, logic and calculation are always preferential in organizations, too. The world of organizations functions on the basis of facts and data that can be processed conclusively with reason and calculation. A »good feeling«, a »sense« of danger or a »hunch« for an opportunity will not convince any management. Anyone who makes an intuitive statement in business conversation will immediately be forced to prove their instinct at hand of an elaborate business case and valid numbers. Organizations are not only managed by numbers, they are also growing more data-bound. Software-based management cockpits make it possible to perform detailed KPI checks. Performance-related pay depends on logically deduced goals cascades and performance evaluations, which measure achievements or the degree of goals achievement and convert them into bonus payments. Project successes have to be demonstrated even in advance with exact goal definitions and index tables …
Organizations profit from the circumstance that the logical evaluation of our world generates more and more data, including on the markets and in the consumer sectors. Web technology makes people ever more transparent: their consumer profiles, their searches and reading interests, their health, their friends, their travel preferences, etc. The correlation of these data at the same time make the behaviour of profile groups more and more predictable. In consequence, the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson, announced the »end of theory« in 2008: We no longer have a use for theory, as the amounts of data we have at our fingertips are so great that we can simply calculate statistically the answers to questions and simulate prognoses for the future by computer technology. There will no longer be a need for hypotheses, as data can be evaluated straight away. »Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.«
However: The global data volume doubles every two years, growing ever more into Big Data, to use a fashionable phrase to describe one of the business world’s central challenges. A new industry is now working on offering software and technologies to businesses that will endeavour to give them an edge with the evaluation of data sets that are constantly growing and changing and are ever more complex. Logical algorithms attempt to tame the flood of data.
Yet, even in the face of great technological advances, more information does not necessarily spell more knowledge. The increasing calculation of the business world does not necessarily translate into a greater sense of security for its inhabitants. A sense of security and well-being cannot be tied to pure numbers alone. Numbers may be able to illuminate a »what?«, but not the meaningful »why?«, as Microsoft Research’s leading scientist Dannah Boyd has repeatedly stated. Therefore, philosopher Byung Chul Han wrote that »dataism is nihilism«, while »meaning, on the other hand, rests on narration«, on a good story. »Counting is not the same as Recounting. (…) It is recounting, not counting, that results in finding and recognizing the self.« Chaos researcher and psychologist Andreas Huber agrees: he has averred that the increased complexity of our world of VUCA can only be described and understood by thinking in metaphors. From this point of view, Chris Anderson’s praise of data measurement and his discharge of theory constitutes the abolition of meaningful (as in: full, of meaning) work.
This is where the logic of facts and numbers reaches its limits. It cannot recount. It cannot think metaphorically. It cannot ask for meaning. Myths can do these things. I would like to advance the hypothesis that organizations in VUCA situations are in greater need of what Hans Blumenberg called »work on myths« in order to deal with the confusing »absolutism of reality«. I do not want to replace reason with myths. I am simply advocating the notion that deep-seated orientation can be provided to employees not only with the great range of meaningfully used data, measurement and analysis tools but also with a narrative structure. This is also and particularly the case when there is no concrete goal in sight and/or the exact path lies in the dark. I believe that managers can attain guiding clarity by focussing on a narration within their organization that is intuitively graspable for the employees and at the same time allows them the necessary freedom to act.
I posted six AIKIDO principles on this blog. These help people and organizations to more effectively address VUCA. Myths are compatible with the first three basic stances Agility, Clarity and Intuition. Myths have always played a role in defining culture by providing a narrative that has placed the world and existence into a meaningful context. Without providing logical proof, they concentrate on the truth behind the facts. They provide associations in images and symbols and speak of the content as music in words (Kerenyi) in an intuitively graspable and emphatically liveable language. Myths provide a simple basic text that can be continuously altered in its concrete manifestation. »Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells«, wrote Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the most renowned researchers of myth. That means: every person can essentially create a myth, tell it in their own personal manner. The content of a myth delivers a meaningful model that provides sense and answers the »why?« question. At the same time, myths help to filter contents, centre employees and focus them on what is relevant. Therein lies its fundamental clarifying force. Simultaneously, myths always provide space for flexible action and thus conform to the third AIKIDO principle: Agility. Myths can only make a statement within the concrete, image-bound event of the narrative; yet they always occur as showcases and permit interpretation. A myth never provides a process description or a rule book, but provides example images of principles that humans themselves have to translate into rules of behaviour in concrete situations.
In VUCA situations, managers can enable the power of myths for intuitively effective, clarifying narratives. I would like to suggest the following storyline as a minimal structure for a management narrative. It has proved its worth in consultancy work in the past:
- Description of the Situation: What is our current challenge?
- Purpose Statement: What is the meaning we create together?
- Value Statement: Which basic values serve as guiding lights for our actions?
- Leadership Statement: How do I lead you onto the path, what are you able to trust in with me?
Note that the management narrative about volatility and uncertainty of the future is not »tangible«. It does not pose concrete questions: What are our goals? Which rules will we apply? What are my expectations? It is deliberately fuzzy when it describes the future with regard to goals, but it does provide behavioural guidance for the given moment.
A good management narrative finds short, incisive answers for questions and its core can be told in no more than a minute. The brevity of the narrative helps sharpen the content and makes it plausible. I have had positive experiences with asking managers to tell each other their management narratives and afterwards give feedback in order to test the effect of their narrative structures.
Management narratives ideally use metaphors to enrich their content. A good narrative opens and ends on an association, a symbol, a motto, a mission statement … The statements on purpose, value and leadership cannot and should not be told only via words as a story, but be illustrated with images, emotionalized with associations, symbolised with objects, made emphatically graspable with experiences.
Myths are never told just once. They live off being told again and again, the same content in ever different ways. Successful communication lives off redundancy, repetition, doubling. Narrative is not the same as holding a power point presentation and providing hand-outs. Or printing a glossy brochure for distribution. Narrative needs oral transmission. In order to be effective, managers have to be able to enter spontaneous conversations with their narrative, inspire meetings, enliven lunchtime chatter, positively seize the office grapevine … While the content will always remain the same, the manner of telling will be spontaneously adapted to each situation. The core of a narrative can proliferate in so many ways wherever tales can be told.
Social Media provide an additional attractive platform of communication for managers. Even given all manners of reservations and aversion to them, they are places where narratives can be successfully placed in order to give narrative guidance to employees. Facebook and Co show the attraction of recounting over counting. Statistics, diagrams, columns of numbers hardly exist on these social media. The social media are dominated by film extracts, images, adages, gossip, short information. Users of social networks type their messages into the computer, but the platforms act according to the laws of the spoken word. In contrast to hierarchical, status-oriented bureaucracies, the communication structure of community-based networks functions with viral effect: The structural similarity of all participants means that the message with the most attractive content is the one that will spread fastest.
This is the precise place where the management narrative can develop its advantage. To use social media in order to continuously post those film clips, adequate quotations, telling images, paradigmatic experiences, discussion-inviting links that conform with the Purpose, Value and Leadership Statement means that managers are able to keep returning to a guiding narrative core again and again, always in a different guise. With this in mind, good managers will require a new skills set in the digital workspace. The interior management team will need not only the logical thinker but also the eloquent men and women of letters, the aesthetic artists and the creative tinkerers.
These thoughts are not meant to advocate stupefying bedazzlement or unethical manipulation of employees! Quite the opposite: I want to oblige the manager. It is important to keep renewing promises of meaning, values and management through narrative leadership. The managers will allow themselves to be measured by these promises in practice. I am convinced that this will make narrative a valuable management tool, which can help to better lead employees in organizations through Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, using the intuitive clarity of myths.
Two days on leadership, VUCA, personal development, work-life balance
Donning a blue cape to walk along a fictional catwalk and saying who you are is not quite the behaviour one would expect of managers. This scene took place among the participants of a special SYNNECTA event format: a »LeadershipJourney«.
The »LeadershipJourney« is a special, tailored SYNNECTA format. In July 2014, we took sixteen managers from a large German organization along with us on a two-day journey. The stations of the journey were as unusual and unexpected as the everyday life of leadership is in a global business world. The journey was our opportunity to experience the challenges of our own life in management from a completely new point of view. We focussed on perceiving the external and internal landscapes that managers take action within. The managers asked elementary questions
- Which global conditions do I face in my daily work?
- How do I approach them and how do I feel about that?
- How do I solve crises? Who or what gives me strength?
- What does that mean to me as a role model in my organization?
The apparent dividing line between the worlds of work and life became increasingly blurred in the course of the journey, realigning the axes of inside (my life) and outside (my work) into centres of one’s own life before long. These centres impact each other; they cannot be lived apart.
The journey first brought us to Ehreshoven in Germany’s Bergisches Land region, where we were housed in the Order of Malta Conference Centre Malteser Kommende and addressed several topics: the world of VUCA, the Order of Malta’s millennium-long history and their approach to uncertainty, our own management style and self-leadership.
VUCA describes the conditions and challenges of the present-day world: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. VUCA develops within global and external conditions that lie beyond an individual’s sphere of influence. However, we as persons can shape our own environment in which VUCA reveals itself. We can make VUCA »endurable«, we can reap the benefits. In the end, we arrived at the key recognition of the fact that we are not called upon to fight the world of VUCA; instead, the managers found ways of using its energy. We had found a conciliatory outlook into turbulent times.
The museum of ethnology Rautenstrauch Joest Museum in Cologne allowed us to discover the variegated cultural phenomena of the world. Together with all participants, we addressed amongst others the question how other cultures deal with VUCA. We were given valuable input by Dr. Clara Himmelheber, an ethnologist and researcher at the museum, who was spirited and inspiring as she led us through the museum and shared with us her perspectives on journeys, self-reflection, encountering situations of uncertainty.
With self-reflective exercises and dialogues, we all searched for answers to questions on origins, culture and attained perspectives on self-leadership and our personal work-life balance.
- How does it feel to come home to yourself?
- To divulge something of yourself that may have been hidden until now?
- How do these »soft« insights about yourself fit into a daily life in which you have to take hard decisions?
For the participants as well as for us SYNNECTA consultants, events like these are TimeOuts. They are valuable and deeply enriching experiences. Together with the group, we achieved exciting insights and outlooks. Exploring new places, encountering new perspectives, accepting strange and new ideas: these experiences created memorable insights about ourselves and others.
The LeadershipJourney brought us to places where we confronted ourselves, locations of intense experiences and complex learning. Their significance will continue to achieve new dimensions in the courses of our daily lives and reveal itself in our concrete dealings with each other. Those who return from a journey have had that experience: many impressions only attain their significance in our everyday life, they develop their effect after we have returned home. The participants take home their LeadershipJourney experiences and translate them into their own spheres of action, where they can be applied. Consciousness of their own selves, openness for new things, positioning and vision in situations of change: these are all good characteristics and expedient conditions to work together in a relaxed and constructive way.