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Authentic leadership and digital transformation: Herminia Ibarra at DLD18

People struggle when they move up a leadership level – they find all sorts of reasons to do their old job and avoid the new one. It’s a subject that London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra has been studying for some time – and one she expands on usefully in her brilliant book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, which was deeply useful to me personally as a CEO.

This week I had the privilege of being able to meet Professor Ibarra and hear her speak at DLD18 this week in Munich.

One of the problems we struggle with, she says, is wanting to be authentic, but making the mistake of thinking this means acting the same way we have always done.

“People say they have to be true to themselves to be authentic. But which self? Being authentic is about self-determination, having agency, being willing to try new things, new ways of being.”

This reminds me of my favourite definition of the duty of leaders, laid out by the Warren Bennis in the 90s:

”It is the individual, operating at the peak of his or her powers, who will revive our organisations, by reinventing both self and them.”

You have to brave enough to explore who you could be, the selves you might need to draw on in order to be the leader your company needs.

Ibarra also invoked the concept of growth mindsets (I can learn and change) and fixed mindsets (I am good at some things and will never be good at others) as explored by Carol Dweck in Mindset.

She expanded on the importance of this willingness to try out different ways of being for leaders:

“It’s about being playful with your sense of self, a kind of design thinking with the self.”

It’s a kind of seeking mindset then, in which the individual doesn’t just believe that they can change but is actively engaged in exploring different ways of being.

It’s a crucial difference and one that matters deeply to leaders in the digital age. When organisations need to adapt constantly, so do the leaders – so, in fact, do most of its employees, but you have to start somewhere. We need to train our people, prepare them for a world of constant disruption and change – and the skills training organisations often default to is insufficient.

”[Preparing for digital transformation] is somewhat about technical skills, but it is more about emotional skills. Dealing with fear of change, of obsolescence.”

Fear makes people conservative, revert to old versions of themselves, old behaviours that are less likely to work in the face of radical change. So fear doesn’t just bolster inertia in organisations, it corrodes the ability of its people to even consider changing their own behaviours, a necessary prerequisite for adapting.

This connects with our work at Brilliant Noise around leadership in the digital age and our digital mindset model. Actually, it adds questions and ideas that I am keen to explore with our clients.

DLC18 has helpfully posted videos of all of its sessions – so here’s Herminina Ibarra’s if you’d like to hear more.

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Keep on moving

Maybe we need to stop thinking of change as something that needs to be managed, an awkward event that comes along every few years and upsets everyone who was getting on just nicely as they were.

But how? I wrote some things about this for CMO.com. Part of the answer lies with data that helps people quickly understand, communicate and display the value of their work:

Reframing and offering data that helps our people explain their value and their status within the organisation could act as an antidote to less useful ways of expressing status—presenteeism (“I am here all the time and super busy”) and attachment to a particular job title or role that may not be useful after the next wave of change hits.

In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, he describes how email and other always-on busy-work can act as a replacement for really valuable work in organisations where the value of what someone does is hard to measure or express:

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. This mind-set provides another explanation for the popularity of many depth-destroying behaviours. If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter—all of these behaviours make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviours can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.?

Could it be that the mystery of the productivity gap – the lag between companies investing in technology and workers’ output increasing – can be explained by email and messaging apps allowing appear-to-be-busy-work while simultaneously tempting us with distractions and ludic loops in social media and games that erode our ability to do the work that would really make us happy and our organisations more successful? Whilst it is too simple to think solely in these terms, there would seem to be a case for further investigation.

With productivity seeming to be an economic and management mystery, perhaps using data to measure value to the individual and the value that the individual creates would help change behaviours. Not to spot where shirking – accidental or otherwise – is happening, but to inspire and reward behaviours that are more useful.

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Brilliant Noise Public notebook

Pilot and scale?

Ember

An important part of the way we work at Brilliant Noise is “pilot and scale”. Find the best solution and then help grow it, spread its use.

Seems like common sense. Interesting, then, to read Johnnie Moore’s thoughts on an article about whether “scaling” is appropriate in some types of organisation, specifically NGOs involved in development.

A quote from Anna Young at the Young Foundation stands out:

… the concept of scaling has strong connotations of standardization. It has its origins in manufacturing, where the aim is to achieve economies of scale, by spreading fixed costs across more units of output. But in the messy social field, the potential for standardization is more limited. Here, concepts of reinvention and adaptation will be at least as important, if not more so, than standardization. Social outcomes are not products that can be easily made to formula and packaged. This is especially clear in the context of innovation in public services.

Could it also be the case for all kinds of organisations? Is this the kind issue that new “scaling” approaches like holacracy can avoid?

Certainly in a creative or ideas-based organisation, standardisation would be death. A successful project cannot be replicated, issued as a facsimile for all future challenges. Processes and principles and support systems can be, but using the “product” as a synonym for “service” is perhaps a symptom of a dangerous fantasy of standardising something of which you would never want a standard version.

Pilot and scale, prototyping and shipping – these are very useful ideas, but we should also consider their limits.

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Change: we’ve been here before

In his book about the start of the First World War, Max Hastings discusses the incredible rate of change – new technologies, ideas, social forces – that were in play in the opening decades of the last century. Reflecting, in 1930, on how dramatic the changes in the world were Winston Churchill said:

Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent or vital has lasted. Everything I was sure – or taught to be sure – was impossible, has happened.

Whether for useful perspective or rhetorical symmetry, many are drawing parallels between 2014 and 1914 – rising superpowers, faltering hegemonies, world order in flux, communications technology muddling old certainties about the relationships between creaking elites and restless populaces.

Regardless of how similar today is to that terrible year, it is clear that there’s nothing very new about rapid, disruptive, global change. We need to be looking back as well as forward as we face our own challenges and opportunities.

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2009 “a good year to change the world”

Continuing in the theme of reasons to be cheerful in 2009, I’d agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of School of Everything‘s Paul Miller, interviewed on the Guardian’s PDA blog:

The UK is a good place to be if you’re doing this kind of thing. There are plenty of socially motivated investors in the UK from UnLtd to Nesta, 4iP to the Young Foundation, backing early stage entrepreneurs and projects based on how much social benefit they could create rather than on whether they can sell them to a big tech firm in two years’ time.

“So the outlook for 2009 if you’re trying to change the world is pretty good. If you’re trying to get people to throw virtual sheep at each other, it’s going to be a lot tougher than 2008.”