A person, viewed from behind, looks into a fire

Sharing Context and Purpose at Work

By Sam Robinson

We’re revisiting our blog archives and republishing pieces that remain as timely as ever. This post was originally published in September 2015.

Karl Weick’s 1993 paper The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster is an analysis of a notorious incident in 1949 in Montana, USA. The disaster centred on a team of firefighters attempting to contain an out-of-control forest fire in a gulch located along the upper Missouri River. Tragically, the fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters.

Reading through the story, I can’t help but be affected by the torment that would have been faced by those people in fighting the fire. While it’s possible to read through the events dispassionately in the safety of a cosy office, a historic anecdote from the dim past, for some reason tragic events like these can stick firmly to our consciousness. This particular tragic event is one of those for me.

Not all of us will directly experience a crisis like this, but all of us will experience a crisis of some kind from time to time. Crisis stories are part of the shared language we use to make sense of the world.

Recently I had the good fortune to talk to people working in an organisation and affected by a crisis, within days of it happening. A serious road accident involving a number of vehicles, lives being threatened and impacts on a major arterial road – the organisation was called to coordinate the immediate response. Talking to the people involved, their overriding sense was that the teams involved, from very different parts of the organisation, worked together “like clockwork”. But there was also a frustrating and lingering question: “why isn’t it always like this?”

What is it about a crisis that focuses our attention so fully for a short period of time?

A frosted cupcake topped by a lit sparkler against a blue background

What Does Leading by Example Actually Mean?

By Chally Kacelnik

I meet a lot of leaders who talk about their capacity to lead their teams by example. It’s one of those phrases that just sounds right. “Leading by example” connotes getting amongst it and relating to people in a simple, accountable, down to earth way. However, it can have quite disparate meanings depending on who you ask. Most recently, the answers I’ve heard are that leading by example is about:

  • Being able to build trust and influence with staff as you go about your work
  • Being hands on and helping staff with practical issues
  • Demonstrating respect and otherwise working positively with others
  • Being consistent in what you expect from staff

Trust, practicality, respect, and consistency are all worthy goals for leaders to pursue in their relationships with their staff, their peers, and with everyone they encounter in the workplace (not to mention their broader lives). However, it’s telling that there’s not often a common thread in what leading by example means to people. People tend to be quite confident that leading by example is a thing that they do, and my experience is that there isn’t much of an awareness of different interpretations. The main commonality is that everyone’s quite sure that everyone else understands what they mean by it.

That’s pretty worrying. If we assume that others are not the same page about something as common as this, how can anyone be sure about what example they’re setting, let alone whether they’re leading and communicating with others effectively?

So what should we talking about when we talk about leading by example? Walking your talk sounds like bluster or fluff if you can’t pin down that talk. That’s where the problem lies. For some leaders, saying they lead by example inadvertently becomes a way of not communicating effectively and not operating at the right level of work (see our levels of work article for more information on this).

Shelved, lopsided black binders

Managing Customer Data the Right Way: 10 Basic Principles

By Chally Kacelnik

Let’s consider how to manage customer data the right way: ethically, usefully, and achievably. With scandal after scandal about the misuse of customer data making headlines, it’s no longer possible to think of data as something neutral or passive that gets collected and sits out of sight and mind.

We’re seeing rapid changes to how we think about the collection and use of data. One major theme of the day is technological innovation. Traditional boundaries are being tested, with even governments feeling out how public and distributed innovations like blockchain could work for them. Another theme is dread. There’s a distinctly dystopian resurgence of anxiety about surveillance and poor or actively harmful data management, and unfortunately we’re seeing that suspicion justified. It’s vital for organisations – particularly government ones – to understand that data is fraught and to take a thoughtful approach to the ethics, reach, volume, and scale of the data they collect and use.

Within organisations, there tend to be two opposed approaches. There are those who trust in tech to solve data problems, the more innovation and more data collected the better, even if it’s not fully understood. Then there are those who trust their own workarounds more: the people who have their paper folder or their spreadsheet sitting on the side, whether because the system isn’t set up usefully, there isn’t an established way of working that encourages the right kind and quality of data isn’t being entered, or because of habit and comfort.

Increasingly, the uses and abuses of data are so top of mind and so poorly understood by most of us that organisations are tending to throw everything at the wall. It’s all too common for organisations to take the approach of investing big in new systems without understanding how to drive them effectively, ending up with messy data that causes lots of headaches, rework, haphazard ways of working across the organisation, and reinforcement of those two opposed approaches (including workarounds on top of workarounds!).

In short, if you throw everything at the wall, you’re going to find cracks. Technology isn’t a wilful force in and of itself (at least not yet!) and should be a facilitator rather than a driver. Positive, active human behaviour should drive how we interact with data and how we use technology to facilitate that interaction. Let’s get back to the very basics of what organisations need to do with data: serve their customers.

Here are seven principles for achieving that aim by managing customer data well at the ground level:

A group of people stand on top of a rock formation against a blue sky with small white clouds.

(Un)surprising Findings from Google’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team

By Sam Robinson

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” breathlessly told us about ‘new research’ that revealed surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter… and then told us what we knew already about the most highly effective teams.

That’s not a bad thing at all – in fact, it was deeply satisfying to read about yet more evidence that the strength of shared beliefs within teams is the key to that team working well together. This has actually been known for many years and documented extensively in Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations, but perhaps not in the same terms.

The article refers to ‘psychological safety,’ a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.

We tell our clients that culture isn’t simply “what we do around here,” nor is it a complicated abstracted academic concept encouraging analysis only and not action.

When I discuss culture with clients, it’s about “culture” as a group of people who share beliefs about behaviour that (members of the culture believe) demonstrate positive and negative values.

A person, viewed from behind, faces a train, with the unnoticing people inside separated from her by a window.

The Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor Paradigm

By Sam Robinson

One way where this might come up at work…

  • A team is “left to its own devices” for many years, used as a dumping ground for staff who are being moved on, there is little or no recognition for their work – apart from when things go wrong (then they really hear about it).
  • A new manager is appointed and intends to “make things right”. She goes about articulating roles, holding people to account and managing performance.
  • Team member(s) feel aggrieved and share stories about what a bully the new manager is.

Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor Paradigm

Originally known as the Karpman Drama Triangle (Karpman, S (1968) Fairy tales and script drama analysis Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7(26)) this model is intended to show the destructive relationships that can emerge when people are in conflict. Karpman chose the phrase “drama” as he intended to focus on the perception that people can end up playing certain roles – often unknowingly. He does not and I do not deny that there are actually “real” victims. This model is about the impact of perceptions, and the influence of those perceptions on our behaviour.

In this model, there are 3 roles, the Victim, the Persecutor and the Rescuer. The roles are not static and can shift between different people and back and forth between roles. Typically, the situation commences when a particular person takes on a Victim role. All roles play a part in keeping this unhelpful dynamic in place.

A person, viewed from behind, looks into a fire

Sharing Context and Purpose at Work

By Sam Robinson

Karl Weick’s 1993 paper The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster is an analysis of a notorious incident in 1949 in Montana, USA. The disaster centred on a team of firefighters attempting to contain an out-of-control forest fire in a gulch located along the upper Missouri River. Tragically, the fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters.

Reading through the story, I can’t help but be affected by the torment that would have been faced by those people in fighting the fire. While it’s possible to read through the events dispassionately in the safety of a cosy office, a historic anecdote from the dim past, for some reason tragic events like these can stick firmly to our consciousness. This particular tragic event is one of those for me.

Not all of us will directly experience a crisis like this, but all of us will experience a crisis of some kind from time to time. Crisis stories are part of the shared language we use to make sense of the world.

Recently I had the good fortune to talk to people working in an organisation and affected by a crisis, within days of it happening. A serious road accident involving a number of vehicles, lives being threatened and impacts on a major arterial road – the organisation was called to coordinate the immediate response. Talking to the people involved, their overriding sense was that the teams involved, from very different parts of the organisation, worked together “like clockwork”. But there was also a frustrating and lingering question: “why isn’t it always like this?”

What is it about a crisis that focuses our attention so fully for a short period of time?