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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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Threshold concepts

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Threshold concepts” is a term from higher education theory, meaning an idea or a piece of knowledge which, once understood, is transformative – it changes how you look at a subject, what you think is possible.

My friend Jim Byford introduced me to the idea of threshold concepts and I’ve been using it ever since (neatly, it is of course, in its own way, a threshold concept).

Taking a look at some information about the idea, I came across a summary of a conference on threshold concepts in New Zealand, which called out the following characteristics:

• transformative but also potentially troublesome,
• irreversible, that is, difficult to unlearn,
• Integrative – revealing previously hidden knowledge,
• Re-constitutive – effecting a change in the learner’s subjectivity,
• Bounded – leading to new conceptual terrain,
• Discursive – changed, and
• possessing liminality – a space to be crossed, a shift in identity, that may be uncomfortable.

Powerful, dangerous things these threshold concepts, aren’t they?

Part of digital transformation is crossing through difficult terrain – personally and as organisations. Transformation’s not something you simply decide to do and flip a switch – it is a period when we realise that you what we do not understand and are struggling to understand. You decide to make yourself confused and uncomfortable for a while, effectively, as it is the only way to get to the breakthroughs you need. 

A related concept is “liminality”, which I’ve discussed here before. Liminality is something that needs to be explained before you can start to learn. The same conference paper discusses it like this: 

Unsettling the learning takes students, once they have penetrated the boundaries of former thinking and practices, to a new space, the liminal space where new ways of speaking can be manifest. Recognising and re-naming ideas in relation to the new space can be transformative and moves the learning forward, “it makes the theory ‘sticky’”. All the same, as Erik cautioned, there needs to be an awareness of the range of participants “being squeezed into the liminal space” and what this can mean.

I find this description reassuring. Talking about some threshold concepts – for instance exponential growth – evokes really strange responses from people sometimes – defensive, aggressive and essentially grief-like at times.

On a lighter note, it’s not all journeys through the valley of darkness and confusion – playfulness has a role too…

It was suggested that playfulness can allow a retreat from the perceived constraints of the given discipline and that “playing on the thresholds of the discipline can be a way of escaping the discipline” or as a way of navigating a changing world.

But working with these concepts is not easy, they say, and possibly not for everyone:

Unsettling ideas can result in a form of disequilibrium. While there was some advocacy for “being comfortable in one’s own skin” it was also clear that adopting TCs was not for the faint-hearted.

The area I’ve been working with threshold concepts on is a kind of digital literacy for leaders – the skills, knowledge, models and threshold concepts that leaders need to gain in order to be successful, by leading organisations in a digital age (acknowledging that some schools of thought say that organisations will need to be leaderless or full of leaders). Call it digital leadership. I’ll write more about that soon, here and on the Brilliant Noise blog – for now I just wanted to think out loud about threshold concepts.

Threshold concepts offer advanced ideas and tools for those with resilience and leadership potential. There is also a requirement for us to understand what digital literacy will look like for people with other needs and capabilities in organisations, but leaders are a good place to start.

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Outliner thinking

In this MIT Technology Review article about different writing and blog authoring tools – As We May Type –  Paul Ford describes a tribe I wasn’t aware existed, but once described I knew immediately I was a part of – “outliner people”.

Outliners were one of the first writing tools available on computers and they continue to be very important. Ford defines it as…

…a kind of mental tree. Say level 1 is a line of text. Then level 1.1 would be subordinate to 1, and 1.1.1 subordinate to 1.1; 1.2, like 1.1, is subordinate to the first line. And so forth.

Personally, I use Omnioutliner Pro, CarbonFin’s excellent Outliner app for IOS, as well the outlining functions in Evernote and Curio on occasion. I picked up the practice from Jim Byford and my now business-partner Jason Ryan, who conjures major projects, intricate strategies and complex plans on a screen, turning an interesting conversation into an action plan and the beginning of a briefing document or proposal.

I like mindmaps, but outliners suit my needs more often. Sometimes an idea will be developed in a mindmap and then be transferred (as an OPML file – Curio does this automatically very well) to an outline and later that outline will turn into a Google Doc, Pages or Word file that can be made more beautiful and complicated and ready for sharing with the world outside the project team.

It’s a case of the right tool for the way you need to think in a given situation. But also, the right tool in chain of tools that can become a workflow that means you move from idea, to concept, to model, to prototype to plan in smooth transitions, with as little friction and cognitive costs between each step as possible.

More on that thought in the next post