If You're the Chief Ideas Person in Your Organization, There's a Problem. A Big One.


How did we all get onto this notion that leaders must be the single supreme creative force behind their organizations? Was it Steve Jobs? Henry Ford? Cornelius Vanderbilt?

Let’s give it a rethink shall we?

Co-creation isn’t about rolling up our sleeves and leading a team of creative people. It’s about creating an environment where co-creation happens around us, in spite of us and occasionally, through us. It’s about eliminating the separation of planning and doing.

This of course, requires us to grapple with our needs for certainty and significance. We like the certainty of knowing we’re in charge and we attach ourselves to the notion that because we’re in charge, things will unfold as we want them to. And, we like the significance of being the person with all the answers and all the authority. This is what many of us are led to believe true leadership is.

But it’s all an illusion.

It used to be that leaders planned, and workers did. The problem with this delineation is that knowledge and expertise exist in the organization at all levels. It exists in individuals, in small groups of employees, in the organization itself and in professions and industries as a whole.

By far, the majority of the knowledge and expertise is actually at the middle and lower levels – the levels where employees have daily connection to customers and suppliers, to the production process, to data and to the impact of competitive actions. In other words, knowledge and expertise exist at the levels where employees are in the muck.

The kind of knowledge I’m talking about can be called “tacit” knowledge. It’s the stuff we know in our bones after being in a job, industry, field or profession for a long time. It’s often intuitive and difficult to articulate.

A good friend of mine, we’ll call her Melody, once worked at a small market research firm. Not long into the job, she had a major disagreement with her boss over the results of a telephone survey. Melody doubted the accuracy of the findings. In her words, “the numbers were lying”. Early survey returns seemed to be pointing in one direction, but later returns told an opposite story. The about-face was weird and based on her years in the industry, Melody’s gut told her that the data wasn’t behaving properly. On closer inspection, she discovered that several of the surveys had inconsistencies that indicated they were falsified. And after a little more inspection, she came to realize that her boss had in fact, doctored the results to give the client the answer he was looking for. Melody’s boss had underestimated the power of Melody’s tacit knowledge. And yes, Melody fixed the data and then quit her job.

Leaders who feel threatened by the tacit knowledge of their employees tend to rely on “articulated” knowledge. This knowledge is specified verbally or in writing and tends to include strategy documents, technical specifications, policy manuals and the like. When we focus exclusively on this knowledge, we can make all the rules we want, but they will be broken, because frankly, our employees know better, even if they haven’t explicitly stated how they know better. Underestimate the power of tacit knowledge at your own peril.

The Unstuck Leader structures their organization in such a way so that tacit knowledge is drawn out and extended to the benefit of the organization. When employees commingle and share their tacit knowledge in small groups, or what the late Stockholm School of Economics professor Gunnar Hedlund called “temporary constellations”, true innovation and transformation emerges.

And oh boy, does this require leaders to be watery in nature. We must be willing to reexamine all of our assumptions about what leaders do. We must learn to resist imposing our ideas and solutions on organizational problems and conflicts. We must stiffen our backbones and stop relying on so-called “best practices” when issues arise. We must allow and even encourage tension and conflict in and between groups. We must get greedy for the very best talent and be worthy of that talent by holding ourselves to a high level of accountability.

And most importantly, we must embrace exploration and experimentation. Because here’s the thing. Most organizations in the knowledge era are simply too complex for any single person or even team of people to fully understand.

But, networks or “temporary constellations” of motivated, empowered employees can arrive at multiple alternatives, discover previously unrecognized issues and opportunities and solve problems with high levels of success. Small ideas grow in sophistication, complexity and effectiveness. Competition between groups speeds the process, and results are arrived at quickly.

What’s working is built on. What’s not working is discarded. This organic, intuitive, creative process is called “Emergence”.

And it’s a beautiful thing.

More on that, next week.

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