Global Leaders gather at ILA Conference

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Leadership experts from around the world will gather live and online 5 – 9 November for the International Leadership Association’s (ILA’s) virtual global conference, Leading at the Edge. Global leaders and featured speakers will meaningfully address the changing role of leadership globally in an era of COVID-19, declining democratic norms, social justice movements, economic uncertainty, corporate responsibility, climate emergency, and more.

A partial list of featured plenary and spotlight speakers includes:  

Global Leaders – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Director-General, The World Health Organization – WHO); Princess Mabel van Oranje ( Initiator & Board Chair, Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage)

Thought Leaders – ILA 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award Winners Ron Heifetz (Harvard University) and Ron Riggio (Claremont McKenna College); Otto Scharmer (Presencing Institute); Margaret Heffernan (Forward Institute); Matt Qvortrup (Coventry University); Richard Bolden (Bristol Business School, University of the West of England); Henry Mintzberg (McGill University); Barbara Kellerman (Harvard University); Gareth Edwards (Bristol Business School, University of the West of England).

Business Leaders – May Abdel Asim (Founder, Media & More in Cairo); Helle Bank Jorgensen (CEO, Competent Boards); Christophe Dubi (ED, International Olympic Committee); Gamini Hewawasam (CEO, FineFinish Engineering); Aline Kamakian (Chef & CEO, Fig Holding); Mahmoud Mohieldin (ED, International Monetary Fund); Marta del Rio (Founder & CEO, Wasi Organics); David Lee Schreiner (President & CEO, Katherine Shaw Bethea Hospital); Mark Shapiro (President & CEO, Toronto Blue Jays).

With a stellar list of keynotes and featured speakers, 400+ expert session and workshop presenters, and a diverse array of networking opportunities Leading at the Edgepromises to inform, inspire, and invigorate.

As ILA President & CEO, Cynthia Cherrey sums up, “Our live, online virtual event is designed to deliver everything that makes an in-person ILA conference special: plenaries from global leaders working at the intersection of theory and practice; workshops, panels, and presentations with speakers from around the world; special networking activities organized by our member communities and social engagement committee designed to help attendees converse and create collaborative networks; and a Meeting Hub that allows you to easily set up impromptu virtual meetings on our conference platform.”

The conference is open to everyone. Registration fees are as low as $125 USD and attendees can choose to attend the sessions live or access the video recordings on-demand through the end of the year. Continuing Education credits (CEUs) are also available to meet professional requirements.

“We invite you to join us for this live online virtual conference as we explore leadership, the ways that we lead, and what we expect from leaders,” remarks Conference Chair Kathryn Goldman Schuyler. “Leading at the Edge will nourish those who lead, consult, teach, study, and conduct research with exciting ideas, innovative projects, and good friends — both old and new.”

For complete details, please explore the conference website at ILAGlobalConference.org or email Global2020@ila-net.org.

The International Leadership Association is a worldwide professional association committed to advancing leadership knowledge and practice for a better world. We accomplish our mission through the creation of trusted leadership resources and via the synergy that occurs by bringing people together in the trusted space of our conferences and events, collectively having a multiplier impact on leadership and change. For more than twenty years the ILA has convened extraordinary talent across sectors, cultures, disciplines, and generations. Learn more at www.ila-net.org.

Multidisciplinary Research Teams and Transdisciplinary Impacts

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In September Peter Case, Professor of Organization Studies at UWE Bristol delivered a webinar for staff and doctoral students at the College of Business, Law & Governance – James Cook University in Australia. Here is a summary of his presentation, talking about multidisciplinary research teams and transdisciplinary impacts.

Researchers increasingly find themselves inhabiting a world in which sponsors demand that their work generate outcomes and impacts beyond the walls of academia. There is an expectation that applied research will yield beneficial changes to one or more of the following areas of life: economy, society, culture, public policy, the environment, health and wellbeing. Moreover, many of the problems that researchers face are extremely complex, if not ‘wicked’ (Rittel & Webber, 1973) in nature.

The challenges of tackling problems caused by climate change or trying to achieve sustainable development, for example, typically involve multiple stakeholder interests and are mediated by an array of interrelated socio-material factors.  Accommodating such high levels of complexity is an endeavour that, arguably, falls beyond the scope and capacity of any single disciplinary frame.

One response to challenges posed by complexity is to employ multidsiciplinary research teams. These teams typically comprise a diverse set of experts who bring particular specialist perspectives, theories and methodologies to bear on a given problem. Multidisciplinary teams thus afford a more holistic approach to the issue at hand and, moreover, hold the prospect of producing ‘joined up’ solutions to any given problem.

Peter Case recently gave a talk on this, sharing some of his experiences of working with mutlidisciplinary research teams in the context of complex problems and large scale projects. He spoke about drawing on his work in international development and global healthcare spaces to explore what is involved in forming teams, managing group dynamics and harnessing collective efforts to meet overall project aims and objectives.

Peter concluded by arguing that enhancing research impact entails moving beyong a strictly multidisciplinary approach to a transdisciplinary mode of stakeholder engagement; one in which academic researchers facilitate and contribute to wider dialogue with partner institutions and intended beneficiaries.

Bringing Ideas to Life: The role of mediating objects

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Written by Dr Arthur F Turner – Senior Lecturer in Organisational Studies, UWE, Bristol.

Since 2008 I have been looking into the growth of leadership in managers and, more broadly speaking, I have been journeying towards a degree of understanding of how these ‘magical’ transitions take place. I have more recently been tutoring and facilitating the learning of coaching and mentoring through the teaching of elements in the curriculum of ILM Level 7 and Level 5 vocational qualifications.

One part of this decade-long inquiry has been the surfacing of Vygotsky’s ‘mediating objects’ as a vital piece of theory that really seems to work. I had been describing these ideas to my colleagues, students and clients (I have been a qualified coach since 2008) in terms of philosophical ideas and theories (see, for example, Heidegger, Huizinga and Vygotsky – all male European philosophers of the early 19th century).

My own favourite mediating objects to use in leadership and management development are finger puppets of culturally-diverse characters (both real and fictional) which have a powerful way of stimulating ideas and re-enacting workplace dynamics. I have written about how and why these puppets work and, more often than not, I have found myself drawn towards the Déscartian view of minds and bodies having a distinct ontological basis. Whilst thoughts and ideas in your head are shapeless and have no form through the use of mediating objects (puppets or whatever) these ideas, challenges or issues can be expressed in a more solid way, through an object that gives it shape and structure.

A selection of finger puppets used in leadership development workshops

For several years I felt these ideas must have some more up-to-date, supporting philosophies. My searches often led along blind alleyways… until recently. A chance look at a collection of articles in the New Scientist in 2019 I came across Lambros Malafouris and his theory of Material Engagement. All of sudden a modern philosophical translation of the role of objects in our world came into view. Like London buses no sooner had one emerged than another turned the corner into view. From Emma Watton and Phillipa Chapman’s leadership and cognitive artefacts premise to Object Orientated Ontology (OOO) championed by Graham Harman via the hermeneutic spaces of Michel Foucault; mediating objects have been coming out of the shadows! This time of year, Autumn, also gives some spur to the acknowledgment of the ways in which ideas and learning can emerge from nowhere. Take for example the humble fungus:

I have been fascinated by fungi for a long time and testament to this are a small collection of porcelain fungi at my home, modelled to represent specific species. These models are a doorway into the weird world of fungi which now, in real life, often appear overnight, lawns, tree-trunks and fallen branches are festooned with a dazzling array of shapes and sizes, mostly based on a standard, young-child-seen, shape of stem and cap. A new book by Merlin Sheldrake now has retold the research that reveals a parent mycelium that weaves and interacts for miles amidst root, leaf-fall and wood. This mycelium is closely interwoven and often miles long. Far from a non-sentient being fungi and the mycelium that is the fungi can work together over miles, lasso nematodes, trap and enslave ants and break down rock, stone and concrete slabs… a concept now referred to as the Wood Wide Web.

Holding one porcelain fungal model in my hand can open opportunities to talk about living organisms, ecosystems and on to discussion about stakeholders, networks, knowledge, intelligence and complex chemicals. Objects mediate human understanding and ferment the production of knowledge and understanding.   

I’d be interested to hear about any mediating objects you use in your own leadership and/or organisation development practice, and your experiences of how these support and mobilise the shifts in awareness that characterise deep learning.

What will the Leadership of Innovation look like in the post COVID world?

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Rob Sheffield, Visiting fellow at UWE, and Stuart Morris, Facilitator of Design-led Innovation & Creativity at Thales, discuss the emerging implications for the leadership of innovation. Here are extracted excerpts from a wider conversational piece, which was recently shared on medium. Click here for the full read. 

About the context

Stuart: Rob, you have written about leaders in organisations learning to develop the creative capabilities of their team members and themselves in leading innovation. I think it is fair to say that these leaders have come under increasing pressure over the last 20 years to enable more creativity and innovation within their scope of responsibility, whether it be at a global or local team level. The likelihood is that the post-COVID world will only accelerate and intensify this pressure. What are your thoughts on this?

Rob: I think you’re right about the spread of need for creativity and innovation. Of course we’ve seen an extraordinary rush of need-led organising since the crisis hit. The collaboration in households, streets, communities, cities, across organisations, countries… Wow. (And we can all list moments where more collaboration would have helped.)

But, the shift happened long before COVID-19. In our work, we’ve noticed a gradual rise in the demand for and supply of creativity and innovation skills, over the last 15–20 years, and a much more sudden one since around 2015…

…And employees want these skills. Partly because they want to bring imagination into work; also because some people identify very personally with creativity and want it in their work lives. And there is the perceived threat of AI, in its broadest sense, raising questions of which work will remain for people. Well, it’s not easy to automate the generation and implementation of novel ideas. The skills of developing ideas and realising value from them are likely to be done by humans for some time.

Implications for leadership of innovation

Stuart: The era of “scientific management” over the last 100 years, post Industrial Revolution, has created many embedded support systems (and even big businesses who supply these systems), such as reward & recognition, financial management, other business management processes and strong delivery focus. It is these strong embedded cultures I would suggest make it very difficult for leaders to enable the necessary innovation and creativity to happen.

Rob: There is certainly a gap between the need for innovation, and the satisfaction with its delivery. Pre-Covid, Accenture’s research has concluded that many organisations have been talking about breakthrough changes, but sticking with the safer, incremental sort.

I imagine this is for many reasons. As you suggest, if we (maybe unconsciously) hold the metaphor of organisations as machines, that brings with it the assumptions of control, predictability, power invested in top-down planning, and that unforeseen events are mistakes. Whereas, for example, if we imagine organisations to be places where a multitude of conversations are happening simultaneously — some wither, some repeat, some transform into new avenues — this is a metaphor closer to a marketplace, or a network of organisms. There is very little top-down control, and ‘life’ emerges from interactions at local level, where the nature of interactions is key to whether conversations become interesting and manifest into novelty.

Stuart: It is this leadership paradigm which I believe will be severely challenged by the new contexts presented post-Covid, all of which we cannot predict, which is a real problem for those whose assumptions are based on a deterministic view of the world.

So far, we’ve talked mainly about organisations, but we can also widen the implications.

Rob: We’re being given a sharp reminder of what society is. We see examples of our interdependence all around: food chains; how we help and care for each other; supporting key workers to continue their work, and the criticality of being able to connect with each other digitally.

The many examples of street, community, city and wider levels of collaboration, reflect initiatives where no-one has asked for permission, are based on shared purpose, are experimental — trial/learn/improve — and often supported by huge goodwill, kindness and forgiveness from people affected.

Most of us have not seen such mass collaboration. And I hope it will have at least two effects. First, we are remembering what makes a society: that we fundamentally need each other in order to live the way we want. And this realisation will encourage more positive collaboration. Second, that to have such a way of living requires a more nuanced way of framing leadership: one that is much more sensitive to how leadership can spring from anywhere, and connects and empowers people to act.

Stuart: This reminds me of a great Ted Talk by Joi Ito (MIT Media Lab) in 2014 about the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. His wife and family were living in Japan, about 200km from Fukushima, when the Tsunami hit. The news channels, television, government, etc were not telling him anything he wanted to hear in terms of radiation levels — how much danger were his family in? He went on the internet and found others who were also trying to figure out what was going on. Due to their diversity of skillsets they loosely organised themselves to create the ability to measure and share the largest (at that time) open data-set on radiation anywhere in the world — a great citizen science project. In his summary Joi shared his new view of the world of innovation as “deploy or die” (get it into the real world immediately) as opposed to the previous “demo or die” (a step back from deploy) and the even older “publish or perish”…

Home-working during Coronavirus – using the corners of our home for work, rest and play

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Back in 2017 Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor of Organisation Studies at UWE Bristol Business School, wrote a piece for Work Wise UK about how the commute – be it on a train, a bus or in a car – offers an important space for reflection and escape. She talked about how the commute can be a space ‘in-between’ in which we can momentarily break away from the multitude of identities we seek to maintain in contemporary society, and temporarily find a sense of sanctuary in a working world characterized by change and fluidity. The commute, therefore, offers a ‘liminal space’ in which to momentarily dwell – a liminal space being one that is on the ‘border’, a transitory space somewhere ‘in-between’ where we can suspend social expectations – and just press pause. She also reflected on the liminal spaces of the workplace – like corridors, stairwells, corridors and toilets. Places in which, as her research shows, are usually used to escape the visibility of the office or shared workspace and become important territories for private conversations, quiet reflection, and inspiration and creativity (Shortt, 2015).

In her guest blog post with Work Wise UK last week, she talks about the loss of these spaces and how we can find them again in our current conditions working from home, which for many of us also includes juggling home-schooling with work.

Since the Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown, for many workers these spaces have vanished. We aren’t commuting, which is great for the environment and for a whole host of other reasons, but I wonder if there are some of you who are missing the space the commute created between work and home – that liminal space for reflection, decompression or planning. And, of course, many of us are not in the office, so those corridor conversations, those watercooler moments, those snatched minutes in a toilet catching up with a colleague are gone. All these informal micro-interactions at work that are so vital in the everyday life of workers have, for the time being, disappeared.

Instead, many of us are working from home. We have set up workspaces almost overnight and our homes have become workplaces and meeting rooms, classrooms and gyms, places of worship and places to rest. These changes in our domestic environment have taken some adjusting. We have had to negotiate with partners and children about how our home spaces are used, for what purpose and when, we’ve had to compromise our sense of privacy and open up our homes as personal backdrops on Zoom calls, and as the earlier blog from Stefanie Reissner and Michal Izak shows, we have had to think carefully about how we establish, manage, and re-adjust our work/ home boundaries.

All this transposing of work life into the home and sudden, rather dramatic mass shift to working from home has made me think more about the organisation of space at home, and in particular, the liminal spaces of the home. In all my research projects in both public and private sector organisations over the past 15 years, the significance of liminal space has always emerged – whether it be the cupboards in which hairdressers find respite from the visible work they do, the toilets where open-plan office workers go to have private conversations or the stairwells that nurses use to catch up with each other away from the wards. But what are the liminal spaces in our homes, how are they being used in the current crisis, and do they have any value? As a researcher of organisational life, I’ve seen and heard various stories over the past 8 weeks from UK workers adjusting to working at home, and I’ve had my own experiences as a mother and knowledge worker juggling full time work and home schooling a 5-year-old, and the corners of our homes do seem to be significant in a number of ways…

Firstly – liminal spaces for new working practices. I have spent a number of years researching the work of hairdressers working in hair salons and over the past 8 weeks or so I have been struck by how innovative some in this industry have been at adapting to working life at home, using social media (mainly Instagram) to do so. What has been notable are the uses of liminal spaces in their homes, that are now appropriated as new workspaces. For example, one celebrity hair stylist in London is seen in a walk-in wardrobe demonstrating an easy up-do (wife as model). Another hair stylist in Wales is pictured in a hallway by the mirror demonstrating how to cut a little boy’s hair (son as model). And another stylist in London is filmed in a toilet demonstrating a guide to toning your hair at home (self as model). These new workspaces are allowing them to still work, still connect with clients, but perhaps help them avoid exposing parts of their homes to others and somehow this protects their privacy. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the new Twitter account ‘Room Rater @ratemyskyperoom’ has been set up to comment on and rate the backdrops and private homes of the rich and famous as they Skype and Zoom in the media. As such, the privacy of our homes has been comprised by new working from home practices and so we might reflect on how the liminal spaces in our homes might offer an alternative to putting our more dominant spaces – kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms – on display for all to see.

Secondly – liminal spaces for privacy and rest. The privacy issue is one that we have not really talked about during this crisis. The big focus, naturally, during isolation has been countering the feelings of being alone or separated, and as Reissner and Izak advised in their blog earlier this week, we need to stay connected. But just as I would argue that overly open, collaborative workspaces sometimes forget the need for private, quiet space in their designs, for those of us as home in lockdown with partners or families, we might think about how important it is to find just a few moments alone for rest, reflection and respite. One Bristol-based entrepreneur I am working with on research project text me a photograph of her on the roof of her house and said:

This is the only place I can get some rest…some peace and quiet. This is where I can just breath for a minute. It’s a beautiful view and a lovely skyline, all the trees and rooftops. I love being up here, I might do this more often’

Another young mother in Bath, who works in the public sector and is working from home with 2 small children said:

‘I find myself just sitting on the stairs to get five minutes peace. If I’m in the kitchen, the kids want snacks. If I’m in the living room I’m working. I just sit on the steps for a few minutes and get a bit of down time’

So, it could be suggested that liminal spaces are helping us, just as they do in the office, to find private quiet moments of respite from family, technology and being on show. The corners of our homes, or, as above, the rooftops and stairs, are being used in the practice of self-care and wellbeing during Covid-19.

And finally – liminal spaces for play. I have seen how liminal spaces are being appropriated for play during our home-based lockdown. My 5-year-old daughter has been at home with my husband and I, like many other children, for the past 8 weeks, and the den-making has been rife! My daughter has made a den on the stairs, under the stairs, under the table in the dining room, in the hallway, on the landing, on the kitchen step. Dens have been built in every nook of our house over the past few weeks and having spoken to a few ‘working-from-home-mum-friends’, it seems I’m not alone in noticing this. One working mother in Oxford told me:

‘Yes, I’ve noticed my kids have been making dens all the time during lockdown! Behind the sofa, under a tree in the garden, all over the place – but never in the actual playroom that’s specifically designed for them and all their stuff!’

This has made me reflect on children’s needs for privacy and ownership over space. They compromise all the time in relation to space, with their bedrooms perhaps being the only haven they might have in a home, and even then for the most part parents place restrictions on these places – no food, no drink, tidy up, make your bed. It is no wonder that children, whilst in lockdown with their parents who are desperately seeking their own spaces and managing boundaries for work/home-life, are claiming snippets of space. This is perhaps a child’s response to seeking solace, rest and privacy, much like the entrepreneur on the roof or the working mother on the stairs discussed above. And of course, this only serves to highlight how liminal spaces, used for privacy and individual territory, are important to everyone, not just grown-ups in the workplace.  

So, working at home during Covid-19 has shed some light on the liminal spaces of our homes and how they are emerging as unexpectedly useful. As a response to the lockdown, we have seen how the territories on the margins of the dominant spaces in our homes (those we have defined uses for, like living rooms or kitchens), are now in regular use in new ways. Spaces like cupboards, hallways and stairways have always been there, in our peripheral vison, used mainly for transitioning through the home, but they now come into full view and full use – for work, for rest and for play. In our post Covid-19 world we might reflect on the potential for these spaces; how might they be used differently? What value do they have and for whom? And how might they feature when we’re working at home?

These are all reflections and food for thought on home-working during the Coronavirus crisis. I invite you to reflect on how you are using the corners of your home; what have you noticed about where you are working? Have the stairs and landings featured in your working day and if so, how? And what value do they have? As Bachelard (1958/1994, p.136) reflected, corners are symbols ‘of solitude for the imagination’ – what spaces in your home offer moments for imagination when you are home-working?

Leadership, Complexity and Change: Learning from the Covid-19 pandemic

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Guest blog: Richard Bolden, Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre

What a difference a few days make… Perhaps it’s the sunny Spring days after a long, wet winter; the dog walks spent chatting with teenagers who would normally be off at school; the unexpected free space in my diary with no expectation that I should be in the office; or because so much of what we take for granted has changed so suddenly.

At the time of writing we are in the fourth day of the lockdown called by the UK government to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus. It’s been a tense few weeks as the wave of infections grew ever closer – no longer focussed within a far and distant sounding part of China but causing havoc across Italy, France, Spain, the UK and now it seems, pretty much every part of the world. A quarter of the global population – a staggering 2 billion people – are currently in some form of lockdown, confined to their homes in order to slow the spread of the virus and, in so doing, allow time for governments and health services to prepare for the spike in patient numbers and the inevitable rising death toll.

Almost overnight UWE, Bristol – like universities, schools and colleges around the world – closed its doors and shifted from face-to-face to online delivery. Staff and students have responded with huge adaptability – revising delivery and assessment processes that would have taken months, if not years, through traditional channels. The speed and the scale of changes for organisations in every sector and location are unprecedented. Manufacturers have switched their operations to enable the production of essential items such as ventilators, face masks, hand sanitiser and paracetamol that are now in such high and urgent demand. Governments have drawn up detailed plans to support individuals and organisations at risk of redundancy/bankruptcy – casting aside the usual economic concerns to focus on social priorities such as protecting the vulnerable, supporting those in financial difficulty and strengthening core public services (particularly health and social care). And communities have rallied together in ways not seen since WWII – providing support and reassurance for the elderly and isolated, sacrificing personal liberties for collective benefit and finding new ways to connect, communicate and collaborate.

In the words of the Chinese curse we are indeed living in interesting times (1) – both fraught with risk and opportunity. The turbulence of the last few years has revealed deep divisions within society, as illustrated particularly clearly in the Brexit vote within the UK and Trump presidency in the US. The rise of populism has been associated with scepticism and distrust of experts and evidence, with social media providing the perfect echo chamber for amplifying the polarity of perspectives and questioning the nature of ‘truth’. Differing ideologies and beliefs have been positioned in opposition to one another – them and us, winners and losers, do or die – rather than as an inevitable and desirable characteristic of a diverse and inclusive society, which enables creativity, adaptability and resilience in times of complexity, uncertainty and change.

One of the remarkable consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic has been how quickly it has reset the dial on many of these issues – fostering calls for compassion, solidarity and collective action. At times like this it is our similarities rather than our differences that define us. This is as true for those in positions of power and privilege as those who are marginalised and/or find themselves living in precarity.  We are all susceptible to the virus, all have people we care about who are likely to become very ill or perhaps even die should they catch it, and will all be affected by the economic and social impacts of the outbreak – not just for the months that it lasts but for years to come. The capacity of individuals, families, organisations, communities and nations to weather the storm is not equal, however, with those with least access to financial, emotional and other resources most likely to bear the brunt of the suffering.

An unexpected outcome of Covid-19 is the impact on the environment. The reduction in pollution levels around the world during just the relatively short time in which travel, manufacturing and other environmentally damaging activities have been reduced demonstrates both how directly human activity impacts on the environment and the remarkable ability of the environment, and the animals and plants within it, to recover if given the opportunity. For those who have been calling for a step-change for policy, practice and behaviour towards a more sustainable way of life there is no more compelling evidence of the extent to which this is possible and the environmental benefits it would produce.

For those of us interested in leadership research, education and practice there are many important lessons to take from the current situation. I’m sure everyone will have their own take on events but as a starter for ten here are a few of my own takeaways so far.

  • Shared purpose – after winning a significant majority in the general election of December 2019 Boris Johnson and his government focussed on building a sense of urgency and commitment to ‘getting Brexit done’ that largely entrenched rather than unified opinions around this issue. With Covid-19 the focus has completely shifted to a shared purpose that unites rather than divides individuals and communities. It took a little while to get to this point but, for now at least, the nation is far more unified around a common purpose than it has been for many years.
  • Collective leadership – whilst there is a tendency to equate ‘leadership’ with the traits and behaviours of individual ‘leaders’ the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for individuals and groups to work concurrently and collaboratively in order to achieve leadership outcomes. In daily news briefings, Prime Minister Johnson and members of the cabinet have stood alongside the Chief Medical Officer and other experts to provide clarity and direction to an uncertain population. Whilst this is perhaps the most visible ‘leadership’ at national level it is abundantly clear that it is dependent on significant acts of leadership elsewhere as well as the active ‘followership’ of those responding to calls for care and consideration.
  • Systems change – the Coronavirus pandemic is an inherently complex problem that requires expertise and effort from multiple domains to make sense of the issues and to mobilise timely and effective responses. The concept of ‘systems leadership’, increasingly advocated within public services, highlights the need to influence and leverage engagement across organisational, professional and other boundaries. Frequently this means needing to lead without formal authority – to work with principles of complexity and systems thinking to initiate new patterns of behaviour that spread from one context to another. It also involves dismantling and rebuilding systems, structures and processes – both physical and psychological – that constrain rather than enable transformation and change.
  • Sensemaking – in times of ambiguity and uncertainty leadership has a key role to play in helping people to make sense of the situation(s) in which they find themselves. The people who will be recognised as ‘leaders’ are those who are able to frame the context in a way that acknowledges the nature and severity of the issue(s), addresses the concerns of their constituents and which provides a degree of clarity about the actions/responses that are required. Within the US Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, has emerged as key national figure in mobilising the response to Coronavirus – providing far greater clarity and direction than Trump and now being mooted as the democratic candidate for the next US election despite not even standing as a nominee.
  • Place based leadership – whilst many national figures have struggled to grapple with the scale and implications of the issues posed by Covid-19 local leaders have often responded far quicker and been more effective at mobilising public, private, voluntary and community groups and organisations to collaborate and respond. Place-based leadership is responsive to the context that surrounds it – drawing together multiple perspectives and expertise to address issues of concern to citizens within a particular locale – and will be essential not only in dealing with the immediate effects of Covid-19 but in the long period of rebuilding and recovery that will follow the pandemic.

These are just a few initial reflections and there is far more that could be said. Looking forward I have no doubt that the Spring of 2020 will be seen as a defining moment in our understanding of and engagement with leadership, complexity and change. I only hope that we learn the lessons and make use of them to create a stronger, healthier, kinder, safer world rather than defaulting back to the divisive and destructive policies, practices and behaviours that preceded the current crisis (2).

Richard Bolden

Bristol Leadership and Change Centre

27 March 2020

Notes

(1) Whilst often presented as the English translation of a traditional Chinese curse the phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’ has rather more recent origins – see https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/may-you-live-in-interesting-times.html

(2) Please do share your own reflections and insights by means of the comments box at the end of the post in order to continue the discussion. Further reading and resources linked to the themes raised in this article are given below.

Further reading

Bolden, R. and O’Regan, N. (2016) Digital Disruption and the Future of Leadership: An Interview With Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of Centrica and MasterCard, Journal of Management Inquiry, 25(4), 438-446.

Bolden, R. and O’Regan, N. (2018) Leadership and Creativity in Public Services: An Interview With Lord Michael Bichard, Chair of the National Audit Office, Journal of Management Inquiry, 27(1), 45-51.

Bolden, R. and Witzel, M. (2017) Dis-united Kingdom? Leadership at a crossroads. In S. Western and E.J. Garcia (Eds) Global Leadership Perspectives: Insights and Analysis. London: Sage.

Bolden, R. et al. (2011) Exploring Leadership: Individual, organisational and societal perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolden, R. et al. (2017) Leadership Paradoxes: Rethinking leadership for an uncertain world. London: Routledge.

Bolden, R. et al. (2019) Developing systems leadership in public health: A scoping report. UWE, Bristol on behalf of Public Health England.

Bolden, R. et al. (2020) Mobilizing Change in Public Services: Insights from a Systems Leadership Development Intervention, International Journal of Public Administration, 43(1), 26-36.

Bolden. R. et al., (2019) Inclusion: The DNA of leadership and change. UWE, Bristol on behalf of the NHS Leadership Academy.

Paradox of success and failure

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Moon Executive Search recently spoke to the Director of Doctoral Research in Business and Law at UWE Bristol, Svetlana Cicmil, about the paradox of success and failure in the context of modern businesses. Read the original post here.

Most [IT] projects fail; it is just a question of how much failure can still be deemed a success’”[Cadle and Yeates (2001)]

The binary notions of success and failure govern much of the way that both individuals and organisations approach, experience and evaluate work. But how adequate is the traditional narrative of success and failure? Does it enable or hinder the pursuit of constructive, fulfilling work?

The consequences of constantly evaluating our actions and achievements as binary outcomes can not only be long-lasting, and include anxiety and insecurity, professional penalties, and loss of direction; they can also make us lose our ability to sensitively, holistically and constructively reflect on our activities and organisational purpose in a wider social context.

Take the IT industry, for example, it is famous for its failures at the project level and for its success at the industry level:

“Massive failure rates have never threatened the advance of IT; quite the contrary, high-risk and prone-to-fail projects nearly always characterize leading-edge industries. Failure in this sense is the price of success.” (Sauer, 1999, quoted in Fincham, 2002, p.2)

This not only demonstrates how ‘failure’ is required for innovation, but also that the attributions of failure and success are dependent on who judges them, at which point in time, and at which level of activity.

Therefore, it is fair to say that failure and success are interrelated in an elusive way. Drawing on insights from studies of project-based work we can examine the elusive nature of the fixed categories of success and failure, illuminate the multiple judgments of success and failure that are simultaneously at play, and encourage a more critical and complex approach to coping with this dilemma in everyday working life.

Increasingly employees are finding that their roles have become project-intensive and that as a result they are working and making decisions within the organising principles of matrix structures. In theory, matrix structures support effective and efficient utilisation of an organisations’ resources, creating the capacity to simultaneously run multiple projects.

However, a well-researched syndrome of project overload includes the pressures and anxieties caused by the simultaneous existence of multiple, mutually-exclusive, but complexly interrelated criteria for evaluating the performance of each of the projects that an employee may be simultaneously involved in.

Where multiple parties participate in project initiation and delivery, they will make sense of, and engage with, the project in different ways and with different ambitions and expectations, this can create irreconcilable criteria. 

The challenge is to find a way for the project’s participants to negotiate and agree on the key criteria against which inevitable changes to the project plan, resulting trade-offs, and any redefinitions of the original goal and specification will be tested and evaluated.

In order to do this, we need to consider how the notions of success and failure are framed. Instead of working with belief that success and failure are polarised, discrete, fixed states, organisations should be asking how they can provide their employees with a fulfilling and meaningful working life which is not impacted by the requirement to undertake multiple projects. But how can this be achieved?

Firstly, review the ambitions driving each project in a more reflexive, caring and satisfying manner. This requires awareness of the need to navigate the unknown in a responsible way which will avoid the negligence and reckless risk-taking that may detrimentally impact those involved in the project.

Secondly, failure is often tied up with a feeling of having let down and disappointed the project team and wider company. But does this stem from original unrealistic expectations? When undertaking a new project ask for an objective opinion on the ambition, expectations, and goals, do not discard previous experiences as irrelevant with the conviction that things will go better this time, and make sure that there is time to consult and check.

Deviation from a plan should not be considered a failure if everyone involved has been open-minded, critically reflexive, and collaborative about what new opportunities this might bring.

Finally, the leadership team should introduce systemic changes that acknowledge the complexity of project-based work. These could include incorporating regular reviews of established processes and approaches to collaboration, agreeing and renegotiating project performance indicators, and introducing a high level of accountability, responsibility, and transparency in decision-making to reduce vulnerability from project overload.

By considering the experience of success and failure in the context of project-based work, we find that the success-failure binary is not only too simplistic but is actively harmful to the pursuit of what matters. Rather than considering success as something desirable and failure as a pathology to be eradicated, should they not be considered in a complex relational way? If so, the key questions, therefore, move from ‘Why did this fail?’ to ‘What was achieved?’ and ‘What can be learned from this?’

18th International Studying Leadership Conference

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From 13-15 December 2019 Bristol Leadership and Change Centre hosted the 18th International Studying Leadership Conference, which was attended by around 140 delegates from 13 different countries.

The conference featured three keynote addresses (Prof Peter Case from UWE, Prof Sonia Ospina from the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and Prof Elena Antonacopoulou from the University of Liverpool), a panel discussion at City Hall (chaired by Prof Robin Hambleton with contributions from Mayor Marvin Rees, Kalpna Woolf and Andy Street), five parallel streams (including almost 90 separate papers) and a gala dinner at the Marriott Royal Hotel on College Green.

Participants have been invited to submit their papers for a special issue of the journal Leadership on the conference theme of ‘Putting leadership in its place’, which will be edited by Neil Sutherland, Gareth Edwards, Doris Schedlitzki and Richard Bolden.

Managing Around the World: RoundTables for Experienced Managers

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“A tale of two cities” – that’s how a colleague described Bristol when I asked for an introduction.  There’s something ominous about the image of parallel universes inhabiting the same space. In the Charles Dickens novel, the two cities are Paris and London in the late 1700s as social order breaks down under the burden of inequality and industrial transformation. The political and industrial revolutions were tipping points from which unforeseen transformations followed around the world. We may be at a similar point now, and in April 2020 we will host a one-week ‘Round-Tables for Experienced Managers’ to examine what’s happening at the front line, in the experience of people who are leading, managing and organising businesses, public services, social enterprises and cross-sector initiatives.

Participants come from all over the world, with contributions from world-leading experts including Professor Henry Mintzberg and Professor Jonathan Gosling. In 2020 the RoundTables will be hosted for the first time in Bristol, in partnership with UWE’s Bristol Leadership and Change Centre. As well as those lucky enough to take part in the whole process there are opportunities for local organisations to host short investigative visits, when they will be subject to curious but friendly scrutiny – always a source of intriguing insight and provocative questions.

Titled ‘Managing Around the World’, the programme concentrates on the challenges that each person is facing. In structured, progressive peer-to-peer exercises we analyse and re-frame those challenges, bringing fresh insights and broader perspectives. We visit local organisations (in multi-national teams) and delve into the dynamics of ‘two cities’ Bristol.

The outcomes are likely to be personal and practical for most people because of the focus on each organisational predicament. Most of the activities are readily adapted to use in organisational and community settings. Equally exciting is the opportunity to pool all this experience of leading, managing and organising towards fresh insights of what’s happening on the ground, around the world and in Bristol: are we really at a tipping point? Where are tangible and significant responses to the climate emergency, artificial intelligence, post-colonialism? What are the most hopeful of these, and what more could each of us do?

The RoundTables programme has previously inspired significant projects, such as Professor Peter Case’s work with front-line health services in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Eswatini. Eliminating malaria is a real possibility after years of successful control; but success depends on active intervention on a case-by-case basis. This in turn relies on local knowledge, resourcefulness and cooperation across health and community activists, and on the ability to invent customised responses in unpredictable and complex environments. Because ‘Managing around the world’ combines systemic perspectives with focused attention to each actual challenge, and does so with the front-line people involved, it has been a means for organisational re-invention – in humble, particular, humane ways, and demonstrably effective. In fact the model developed in Zimbabwe has now been adapted again to support the integrated care process in several parts of the NHS.

But back to Bristol – can this one-week programme be an effective catalyst for the ‘two cities’, and for the way we organise, lead and manage? A catalyst is a temporary architecture that enables new realities to emerge. That’s our aim for ‘Managing Around the World’, which will take place at the MShed on Bristol’s historic harbourside from 26th April to 1st May 2020.

As the local host, we pleased to invite current and former students of UWE, Bristol and members of our networks to join the programme at a discounted rate, or to accommodate visits from the programme participants. The programme will be co-directed by Anita Gulati, a long-term associate of UWE and lead for the Bristol Leadership Challenge programme delivered across the city in 2017-18.

To find out more about the RoundTables and register your interest please contact Lucy Wilson at UWE and visit the programme website here.

A practice perspective: Facilitating a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop

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Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Enterprise, Pam Seanor recently hosted a workshop for NMI, a payment solution company, in Lego ® Serious Play®. Read her account below:

Written by Pam Seanor

Between practice and theorising

Serious-playing with Jayne Purcell, Service designer, we facilitated a day workshop with NMI – “You’ve probably used NMI’s software when booking a train ticket, paying for parking, ordering a burger or most recently making a contactless charity donation, without realising it! NMI develops the most trusted payment software for mobile, online, and in-store payments that is relied on and used by millions of people worldwide, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year” ( https://bristolcalling.com/company/nmi/ ).

As such, the organisation has explicit creative processes and outputs that come together worked on by differing teams. Further, NMI have recently been engaged in a merger and are now part of global organisation with offices in Chicago, IL, New York, NY and Salt Lake City, UT. The Bristol office wanted to try out LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® with the intention to come together over their working within a changing work culture, how they work and how they are going forward as the organisation grows.

We created a space to exchange ideas and develop awareness of differing perspectives and complex themes that encompass social aspects of group practices and activities aiming to reach out to the members of the organisation (Nicolini & Monteiro 2017). Based this encounter, we address the following applying a practice-based approach to entrepreneurship (Nicolini 2012) in part using Lego bricks to play seriously and in part to reveal collective critical reflection.

LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® (LSP) is a process underpinned by theorizing and there is increased interest of how academics are using it and more widely serious play with a purpose (Statler et al. 2011). For instance, Gauntlett (2015) stated “it is a playful method of differing applications to help gain insights in to personal and collective understanding of a problem as well as imagine possible futures”. The process has common ground rules/ etiquette: posing the question – the purpose of the workshop; constructing models; sharing and listening to others; reflecting (White paper on LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® 2013). Both Jayne and I are trained LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitators. Where Jayne has been a Certified facilitator for a decade, I became an LSP facilitator in January. We have been collaborating to devise skills workshops and structured tasks and prompts for learning ePortfolios in my enterprise & entrepreneurship modules with undergraduates – so I had been practicing playing with Lego with large numbers of students. Even so, it was a little daunting taking a low-tech tool like Lego to a creative/high tech organization, including members of the Chicago office who travelled over.

And, as a critical researcher I want to speak to how challenge is a central part an LSP workshop. Statler et al. (2011) noted the paradox of serious play as a process of working through paradoxes rather than removing all tensions and contradictions that arise in everyday work practices. On the one hand, I am really interested in working with organization to create “other” spaces for play (Hjorth 2004), on the other hand I am hesitant to promote play as an outcome similar to how organizations like Google seem to be using it managerially to keep people at work to be more productive (Ashton & Giddings 2018). However, as a facilitator, my role is not to intervene, nor to promise participants specific organizational outcomes from the workshop.

It was not possible for all members of NMI to take part; the workshop was 5 groups of 10 participants at each table. These groups were arranged by a member of the NMI team as they often work together on projects in the organisation.

The workshop offered an opportunity to engage in play activities that they would not normally do in work and differing types of social encounters (e.g. to the worst holiday model build we had one participant share a poem of this family holiday – An ode to a dead cat).

We had initially intended to move members of teams around during the day; however, we felt some flexibility was needed and discussed this with the organiser and chose to keep within teams to better draw people out. After the morning practising how to play the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® way, the afternoon was focused on play and “the spirit in which we do what we do, the feel of the team”.

Taking care not to include any people in these images, photographs were taken of models metaphorically representing some of the real-world concerns about working at NMI. The focus is the model. Each post-it note is a few words to describe the key point of their model. Prior to the photos being taken by one of the members of the NMI team, permission was asked to use them in this blog.

Anyone not wishing to be included was asked to speak with one of us as facilitators. And, the draft of this blog was sent for approval prior to circulating. In the spirit of participants telling their own stories, rather than me as a researcher crafting the narrative, the following are examples of differing metaphors to represent their ideas.

Before, I want to highlight that we offered a day for the workshop 9.30AM – 4PM to give participants the opportunity to get used to playing and to play. Even with this time, we could not cover all that we hoped, and we agreed with the organiser that this was a useful starting point from which he could take forward ideas emerging.

WELCOME – A model of feeling welcomed – a few participants newly joined the team – of the team engaged in their open plan office and sitting with their computer screens in front of them and of taking the time to be welcoming.

BRISTOL FOOD & DRINK – This model depicts the area near the office. The location is in the harbourside reflected with the bridge and one of the harbourside cranes created to show the value of being able to go out for coffee/lunch in these areas and of the value of regularly seeing sea birds (and of socialising after work).

COMPASSION – this model holds 2 key metaphors, the rainbow towers and the ladder above as bridging together the organisation. This also reflected other models that were of diversity and balance and valuing members of the team – here represented by many mini figures.

KNOWLEDGE & WISDOM – A concern of change for one was nurturing and maintaining the knowledge and wisdom shared by people who have long worked in the organisation represented by this tower/library build.

At the end of the afternoon, every shared model was placed and presented first one, then the next, and then next, on an empty table and briefly explained by a member of the team creating it. All participants were asked to gather round the table, to listen and once every model had been presented to have a look round. This process was to allow space for all ideas to be heard. These models can be seen in the link, motion image of the shared models created by all of the teams.

Learning -awareness- collective reflecting

Gutzan and Tuckermann (2019) noted “Although scholars have begun theorising the social notion of collective reflection in organisations, empirical studies illustrating these often-neat theoretical conceptualisations are still rare”. Through the use of Lego, as above, a few common themes were raised and heard – one of the members of the Chicago office commented that she had no idea people felt these ways. Feedback after the workshop was generally positive (NMI created a quick and dirty survey to capture participant views).

We did not assume that collective reflecting would only occur on the day. Instead, that it would be ongoing to improve organizing at NMI. Rather than my words, I offer an email from one of the management team who organized the day of listening to the messages from the day and reflecting afterwards –

In short; the event was a great success.  We were really encouraged by the feedback and the response.  Both during the day and afterwards.  Personally, I think it was a 10 out of 10.  I don’t think I could have hoped for much more.

Having discussed it with a few people, they did find it difficult to transition from literal to symbolic.  Maybe it’s related to the type of people that computer science and maths attracts – I’m not sure.  Irrespective, many broke through and it was clear that as the day progressed people were increasingly engaged (…) By the time that we reached the final model everyone has loosened up and were contributing something.  The final model “build” where everyone put something on the table and spoke was really interesting.  There was a great feeling of culture, purpose and it highlighted to myself and Matt what was important to the staff at this time.  Clearly culture and location!  Our office move was always going to be about maintaining our identity and culture, and it was clear that location would be very important, however during that particular session the real importance came to the surface.

We may well buy some Lego for the office.  It’s on the list of things to discuss …

As such, NMI are not only seeking new location and also creating “other spaces” for play. Too, we are discussing the possibility of further serious play sessions for other members of the organisation. One aspect that somehow escaped mention in planning conversations and a meeting before the workshop was of the intended move of the office location. In hindsight we might have built more in to the intention of the day in this seemingly contradictory objective of a move and of the challenge of creating an “other” space.

This blog has been written to grapple with the paradox that Matt Statler and his colleagues speak of in serious play that might bridge between theory and practice and to provide a point of contact for future research of how we might make the challenges in theorising of serious play and collective reflection more useful for practitioners, and what we as academics might learn from practitioners. If you are interested in discussing these ideas of how serious play might contribute to critical approaches to organisation studies and/or creativity throughout the organisation to address challenges as part of the stream of entrepreneurship as practice, please contact Pam Seanor – pam.seanor@uwe.ac.uk

Thanks to Nigel and Emily for the use of his photographs and for inviting us to work with you and members of the team at NMI Bristol.