What’s THE Critical Matter That Gets In The Way of Business Transformation Efforts?

Accurate Real-Time Communication & Information Are Critical in a Time-Sensitive Game That Involves Many Actors

My local airport is London Heathrow. On average, 30 airplanes are landing and another 30 are taking off every hour.  Put differently, one airplane is landing or taking off every minute. Now consider that mishaps – crashes where people are injured/die and/or property is damaged/destroyed – are rare.  So rare that mishaps make the national news, usually the front page.

Who/what is responsible for that which occurs: 30 airplanes landing and another 30 taking off every hour using two runways?  Read this Wikipedia article especially the section: “Operations”; and the sub-sections “Facilities” and “Flight movements”.  So what’s  your answer to the question that I posed just a moment earlier?

Yes, the folks responsible have put in place a ‘tried and tested’ collection of facilities, practices, and rules that work. Is that all there is to it?  I say there is more. I say there has to be more – as the world we find ourselves embedded and constituting is dynamic: the drama/pattern we call life/world is forever changing, not static like stone.  What is the more?  I say it is communication/information.

Before we continue, let stop to consider what it is that we are talking about here – lets look at the etymology (origins) of these words:

Communication (n.)

late 14c., from Old French comunicacion (14c., Modern French communication), from Latin communicationem (nominative communicatio), noun of action from past participle stem of communicare “to share, divide out; communicate, impart, inform; join, unite, participate in,” literally “to make common,” related to communis “common, public, general”

Information (n.)

late 14c., informacion, “act of informing, communication of news,” from Old French informacion, enformacion “advice, instruction,” from Latin informationem (nominative informatio) “outline, concept, idea,” noun of action from past participle stem of informare “to train, instruct, educate; shape, give form to”

I say that one of the busiest airports in the world, with an aeroplane taking off / landing every minute, works (as in crashes are rare) because in addition to the system of rules and practices (static) there is the dynamic process of communicating/informing occurring between the players in the system; the primary players are air traffic control (air traffic controllers, practices, systems) and the aeroplanes (pilots, practices, systems).

Notice, the effectiveness of this communicating/informing is a function of honest (accurate) communicating/informing occurring between the parties on an continuous basis – the trigger being the arrival/departure of the aeroplanes from/towards Heathrow. Consider, that in this game (where lives are at stake, and people face public consequences for negligence or dishonesty) the human players communicate/inform that which matters honestly – as in accurately.  The players are not telling outright lies, not leaving out that which is essential because it is convenient for one player (in this drama) even though it imposes a cost on the other player.

What happens when miscommunication/informing occurs?  Crashes, and near misses. Here is an instructive example from TravelMole (bolding is mine):

Two passenger aircraft were reportedly just 600 feet from colliding because an air traffic “holding stack” became so congested… the controller, who could not distinguish the two plane’s call signs on his screen, “mistook another aircraft at 12,000 feet for the BA aircraft, which was at 13,000 feet”. “He then ordered the United aircraft to descend to 13,000 feet, into what he wrongly believed was empty airspace. Within 40 seconds the vertical distance between the two planes had reduced to only 600 feet, breaching the minimum safety gap of 1,000 feet.”

The misunderstanding occurred because there was too many planes in the holding stack waiting to land. That is to say too much information to digest. Information that was overlapping. Thus confusing to the human mind.  Notice, there was no deliberate intention by the pilots or the aeroplane systems to misinform.  Which is one reason it was only a near miss as opposed to a calamity that would have cost 500 lives.  Who/what saved the day: an intelligence that used the accurate information to guide intelligent action. Again, according to TravelMole:

The aircraft would have reportedly come much closer if it had not been for the BA jet’s collision avoidance system, which ordered the pilot to dive.

My Experience of Transformation Programmes in Large Organisations

Almost all of my work on the Customer side of business occurs within/from the context of enterprise wide transformation programmes that usually span multiple business units, many countries, many teams/players, many business processes, many information technology systems….. I say that these transformation programmes are operating within/from complex as opposed to complicated domains (Cynefin). The difference there is an inherent and significant uncertainty/unpredictability in large business organisations as opposed to complicatedness in the dealings that go with the safe take off / landings at Heathrow Airport.

So what is absolutely critical to the success of these business transformation programmes? Effective – as in timely, accurate, complete – communicating/informing occurring between the many actors/players and the business equivalent of Air Traffic Control – those who are charged with leading and managing the transformation programme.

Recently, I was brought in as a consultant to lead a significant work-stream within a larger programme which itself sits within a larger global transformation initiative.  One of my responsibilities is to communicate/inform those who are impacted by that which I know and they do not know.  I did just that sending out an email and copying in a key member of Air Traffic Control. This did not go down well, I was reprimanded. Why? Because I had honestly communicated information that a person did not wish to be communicated. His concern? The information, whilst accurate, may make the work-stream look bad in the eyes of those that matter: the ‘Air Traffic Controllers’.  I was told that in the future ALL outbound communications had to be direct to him. And he will choose who is informed of what, when, and how.

There are so many work-streams that have to come together for transformation initiatives of this kind/scale to work out well: generate the desired outcomes by the desired time, within the desired budget.  So many players involved who have to co-operate and collaborate. So it is no surprise to find that there is a complicated, experienced as burdensome, governance framework/structure in operation to manage the many interlocking dependencies.  Yet, the efficacy of this governance framework/structure/ organisation rests on effective communicating/informing occurring between the players and other players,  and  between the players and ‘Air Traffic Control’, and between ‘Air Traffic Control’ and the players.

Now it really hit me. Wow! How many other actors/players playing a leadership role in this transformation initiative are not communicating the information that needs to be communicating?  How many are delaying bad news?  How many are spinning the truth with falsehoods including false optimism? How many are aware of bad news and choosing to hide it from those in positions of power in ‘Air Traffic Control’?

Given this – that which is so – how effective is the burdensome/expensive governance framework?  Not that effective? This led to this thought arising: “Is it possible that the governance framework (people, practices, forums) is expanding because those in  ‘Air Traffic Control’ perceive that the process/journey of guiding the transformation programme is friction-full and unwelcome surprises pop up? And they think more people, more structure, more formal communication will fix the problem?”  Upon getting present to this thought, the absurdity of it all hit me: one part of my laughed uproariously, the other part cried.

Digesting this it occurs to me that traditional thinking and practices around large scale change transformational change are the obstacle not the solution. Why? I say effective leadership is missing: the fundamental platform upon which effective communicating/informing/teaming occurs is weak or absent.  

What is this fundamental platform?  Psychological safety: do I/you/we/us feel safe speaking truth to power?

As this conversation has been going on for a while and we may be at a point that you are no longer willing to listen to my speaking, I leave you with these resources if you wish to dive deeper into that which I am pointing at:

5 Traits of Effective Teams at Google

I thank you for your listening, and I wish you the very best until our next conversation.

Leadership: What Is The Access To Generating Breakthroughs In Effectiveness-Performance?

Some work environments are characterised by that which is called psychological safety:  a shared belief, by the people who work in the environment, that it is safe to experiment, to give voice to one’s voice, to take risks.

A Thought Experiment On Psychological Safety and Performance

A researcher is researching the link between psychological safety and the number of medication errors made in hospitals.  She studies eight hospital units and finds that the hospital units characterised by psychological safety have the highest medication error rates.  She reports these ‘findings’ to you.

Imagine that you are the manager responsible for reducing the number of medication errors in these hospital units.  How will you determine what course of action you will take given what the researcher has ‘found’?  Will your action not be determined by how you make sense of the phenomena at hand: the higher the reported psychological safety the higher the reported medication errors?

Given your management training, you say something like this to yourself: “No surprise here. Where you create an environment for people to make mistakes without fear of punishment, people make more mistakes!”

Given this ‘explanation’ what will be your course of action?  Isn’t the course of action shaped, even dictated, by your explanation?  Will you not reduce the psychological safety?  Of course you will.  You will put fear into the hospital units characterised by psychological safety. Imagine you take that course. You track medication errors by person and hospital unit. You name-shame by putting together and making visible a ‘leaderboard’ of those making the most errors. And apply sanctions to those who exceed a certain error rate.

What turns out to be the impact?  You find that after a little while there is significant drop in the number of medication errors that end up on your weekly management report.  You congratulate yourself: you figured out what was going on, you acted, and you generated your desired outcome.

Let’s Reconsider The Phenomena AND The Explanation

Whilst you, the manager, have been ripping out psychological safety and replacing it by fear, the researcher has been doing some more digging.  She had a brain wave and decided to look at independent data.

By looking at this data, she ‘found’:

  • The psychologically safe hospital units did not make more medication errors. In fact, the data showed that the higher the psychological safety within a hospital unit, the fewer the medication errors made by the people in that unit.
  • The folks working within units lacking psychological safety  hid their medication errors, out of fear of punishment.  And as  a result no learning took place regarding the causes of medication errors and thus no reduction in medication errors.

With this phenomena-explanation (the explanation and the phenomena have been merged into one here) what course of action do you the manager take?  Isn’t the sound course of action dictated by the phenomena-explanation?  Isn’t the sound course of action to increase psychological safety in those hospital units (under your management) where fear of retribution-punishment pervades?

Your Actions Are Shaped By The ‘Story You Construct’ To Explain The Phenomena

I draw your attention to the fact that action is the access to influencing the world and generating change-outcomes: only actions cause-shape outcomes.  If you think otherwise then don’t breathe and see what shows up!

Notice that your actions are NEVER given by the phenomena itself. That which is, simply is. And is discarded by most of us if we cannot make sense of it.  Why? If we cannot make sense of it then we cannot orient ourselves in relation to that which is: the phenomena.

Further, notice that your actions are ALWAYS given by the ‘story you make’, the explanation you construct, about the phenomena.

What does this mean?  It means that all the power-possibility lies in the ‘story you make’, the explanation you construct.  Why? Your actions are influenced-shaped, even dictated, by the explanation you construct.

What Is The Access To Generating Breakthroughs In Effectiveness-Performance? 

The access to generating breakthroughs in effectiveness-performance lies in the domain of explanation: the ‘story that we construct’ around the phenomena at hand.

If we are to construct more insightful stories/explanations (on the phenomena that concern us) then we have to escape the pull of the existing ‘net of understanding’ – the paradigm that gives us being and from which we operate. Listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to … their state of thought. Observe how every truth and every error, each a thought of some man’s mind, clothes itself with societies, houses, cities, language, ceremonies, newspapers. Observe the ideas of the present day ….. see how timber, brick, lime and stone have flown into convenient shape, obedient to the master idea reigning in the minds of many persons ….. It follows, of course, that the least enlargement of ideas …. would cause the most striking changes of external things.

I say that the job of leaders is to generate that ‘least enlargement of ideas’ that Ralph Waldo Emerson is talking about. That is to say make a shift in the dominant paradigm that shapes organisational sense making of phenomena. And thus shapes-dictates their courses of action.

If you are lamenting the state of the Customer Experience like Colin Shaw is then it is worth listening to the following words by Donella H. Meadows:

There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work hard at it, whether that means rigorously analysing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of not knowing….

The reason that organisations have not made a success of Customer Experience. And are in the process of killing it, is that the Tops in these organisations have not made the requisite ‘least enlargement of ideas The have not put aside their existing ‘net of understanding’ and so are go about the new in the same old way. Thus, I say that many, if not almost all, Customer Experience initiatives start stillborn.

To conclude: the challenge of leadership is to cast off the already existing ‘net of understanding’ and thus creating a space from which to construct more insightful stories-explanations of phenomena. And thus opening up new courses of action. Course of action that carry risk and also the promise of breakthroughs in effectiveness-performance.  

If you found this ‘conversation’ one that resonates with you then I invite you to watch the following video: