Bulls, china shops, climbing frames and unfortunate acronyms

Organisations, consultants, recruitment and selection types, psychometrists and astrologers have at least one thing in common: a tendency to categorise the rest of us. (Behind their backs, of course, we return the compliment, but that’s a whole different blog …) Perhaps one of the psychometrists will drop us a line, as I’ve always wondered if there’s an instrument that can sift and sort us into two quite important categories: angels and fools.

I’m not necessarily the ‘rush to judgement’ type that that sentence might suggest – in any case, my own psychometric experiences – for MBTI, FIRO-B, HDS and Hogan PMVI – are online here by way of disclosure) – and I do recognise an important consideration that was highlighted here in one of yesterday’s blogs: Harold Jarche’s distinction between the complicated and the complex. I’m making the assumption that people in charge of processes or organisations are sufficiently au fait with them to know which of those two categories they fall into. (I’m also aware of an on-going debate about the roles of expertise in leadership, but we are – in the spirit of cutting to the chase – talking about the difference between ‘intricate but decipherable’ and ‘messily unpredictable’; are there lots of factors or not, and do they interact with each other predictably or not? Quite difficult for a meerkat, perhaps, but not too hard a distinction for an adult human.)

Having encountered a number of ‘fools’ over the years – many of them armed with hammers or their metaphorical equivalents in their urge to rush in, imperatives a-kimbo, I smiled when I read Gwyn Teatro’s related account of a team-building course:

Many moons ago I was part of a team-building course in Toronto. At one point, we were divided into groups and marched outside to tackle a project that involved climbing poles and traversing from one pole to the other with only the aid of ropes and some safety tackle. Our goal was to successfully overcome the obstacles put in our way and complete the course in the best possible time.

We failed miserably. Not only did we not complete the course, we failed to overcome most of the obstacles as well.

With booby prize shamefully in hand, we reviewed what we might have done differently. And, in thinking about it now, apart from doing just about everything wrong, we simply didn’t spend enough time in “O”.

‘O?’, you’re possibly thinking. Observation – part of the Observe-React–Judge–Intervene mental process of Edgar Schein that Gwyn goes on to explain. Not the most fortunate acronym, I mused, hesitating – appropriately enough – to wonder if the phrase “Putting the ‘O’ into ‘ORJI’” might raise as many Canadian eyebrows as it might their English counterparts. Thankfully, the phrase ‘ORJI is a matter of emotional intelligence’ didn’t crop up, although it might have been profitably rephrased if it had.

Gwyn Teatro’s blogs are always accessible, thought-provoking and wise, and the lesson about not handing the reigns straight to the action-oriented without pausing to assess anything (even the abilities of those who might have done the assessing) is a good one. It bears repeating frequently, especially as those most in need of hearing it are the least likely to be paying attention to it. One of the hardest parts of turning fools into angels is getting them to stand still long enough to pin the wings on them …

I particularly liked two of the comments that Gwyn’s piece provoked, firstly when Dan Forbes said:

Just this week I was a participant in a 2 hour strategic planning session of an organization. It was a dismal failure (for many reasons). Essentially no time was spent on observation.

It was more like the “ready, fire, aim” approach.”

But my reaction was more than just the weary smile of recognition or the wrily-amused ‘we’ve all been there’ shrug. It’s not that the situation he describes is a variation on the ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer’ chestnut, it’s the mystery of how the shooter expects to hit the target when aiming is undertaken after firing. Spent too little time in “O” and you might easily wind up in A&E. (Although Gwyn’s piece’s title includes ‘Leadership’, the bigger issue here to me is about team leadership and team working: if at least one member of the team has their eyes open, effective team work – and team leadership – includes taking their contribution into account. A clay pigeon range littered with intact pigeons and spent cartridges is evidence of something – namely a lot of trigger-pulling – but not of anything useful or productive.)

The other comment that caught my eye – and, as it itself acknowledges, flags up the hardest element of challenging the ‘rush to action’ – came from Anne Perschel:

To think is to act. To observe is to act. The less active and obvious actions, the ones that appear on the outside as inaction, can be the most difficult to execute.”

Gwyn quite rightly points out that these kinds of actions are not only hard to do for those doing them, they’re hard to do in many circumstances as their seeming inaction is misjudged or penalised.

Over three years ago (this blog is on the side of the angels, and it moves accordingly slowly), there was a post here about this difficulty as it relates to thinking – something that looks very much like inactivity to those not doing it (and even more so to those not drawn to it). We quoted Bertrand Russell:

Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.”

I hope for his sake he was nowhere near Dan Forbes’ metaphorical rifle range when he said it, or that his masculinity was no handicap when it came to multi-tasking – thinking, providing soundbites and running like the wind.

But no amount of levity will either take away from or resolve the problem. Where the urge to skip over the ‘pleasantries’ of observation is a failure of leadership, it suggests a need to review the criteria for elevation to leadership positions. The leader’s role is to inspire the best overall performance from all available resources, not to use them as cannon fodder. It certainly suggests that the ability to investigate and understand before acting is not being recognised or rewarded – indeed that a wish to avoid observance is being rewarded.

Where it is a failure of team working, the quality of leadership that is evident when the most helpful contributions of other team members are not being taken into account needs to be called into question. Given the importance of a sense of contribution to a sense of engagement, it’s worth bearing in mind that angels have wings and might choose to flutter off of their own accord sooner of later. Especially with all that aimless shooting going on.

I’m aware of the time-cost-quality triangle. Thinking takes longer and time is money, although thinking is not only a low-cost activity but one with a potentially high rate of return. But I’m aware that probably only the angels will have read this far, and they deserve some entertainment. In which case, allow me to direct their attention to a piece from Random House’s blog that explains the origins of the phrase ‘gung-ho’.

Next time you see someone angelic smile when someone foolish proudly describes themselves as being ‘gung-ho’, a tiny number of you will be able to understand why.

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