The pull of the tangible and the pull of the past

I am supposed to be working on a talk I am doing in a couple of days. I have some time available and some rare space to think. So of course I have started reading some books on topics that have nothing to do with my talk, and I am pondering how these impact life at work in areas that are, again, nothing to do with my talk.

I was reading “What Philosophy can teach you about being a better leader,” by Alison Reynolds and others.

The theory

They raise a point they call “Tyranny of the tangible” that I think of as the pull of the tangible.

In their research the authors found that when leaders are executing their strategies, 89% of them do one of just 3 things:

  • Restructure who reports to whom;
  • Change who is accountable for what; or
  • Introduce new processes to make things run smoothly.

This rings true for me, but is it an issue?

The authors are into empowerment, or the sharing of power. They distinguish this from “delegated authority” which is giving people power within boundaries of the things you control.

In fact, they suggest that people in authority should be granted that authority by the people they lead/serve rather than assuming authority and granting some of that to some of the people that they lead. If that is the case, then empowerment in not just giving people the scope to execute your wishes, or organisational goals. Empowerment is about giving people the power to actually define, negotiate and execute the agenda themselves.

That thinking aligns really well with some of the ideas in “Leadership is Language,” by David Marquet an (possibly my current favourite) “Alive at Work,” by Daniel M Cage.

The lived experience

So – I am holding the fort as a temporary manager for a team of designers and I am wondering how I can add value to them.

I am a great bureaucrat so, honestly, I feel confident that I can remove some organisational impediments that distract the team and help the team gain momentum from other organisational processes and administrivia. In other words, I can help them to use the organisation’s current structure to better deliver value and work better as a team, without needing to change that structure.

But working together as a team involves humans interacting together. I am lucky that this team are good at that already, but what if I want to lead them rather than just be a senior administrator who removes red tape for them?

Well in theory I can take control and delegate work to them, but sadly they understand their work better than I do and they are certainly better at their craft than I will ever be. They will likely delegate the supply and demand admin to me, but not the design standards and expectations. They will also maintain their own relationships with stakeholders, creating a level of organic work management.

That is OK though, according to these book. Instead of defining my accountability, I should let the team discuss what the team needs and make sure everyone has a voice. Then, assuming they have the right information, they will work out how their team should run and then delegate some things to me to run for them. I will be the “leader” but only because they give me the authority.

Of course – that assumes that the team has the right information to act on. So maybe part of my job is to make sure they are well informed and have access to good, credible information for design.

That is a bit different to a traditional view that the boss gives me authority and I then delegate some of this to others.

So far so good – back to theory

So far so good- what does that have to do with the three approaches that leaders fall back on?

Well, this team is working well together, but it is a small team. As more people join or more teams interact, then the interaction becomes more complex. As the interaction becomes more complex, leaders (rightly) fear losing control.

Interaction among peers, frenemies, teams with different goals and people with different views is a complex adaptive system and it is hard to predict and control from the top or centre, because of, well, complexity and the adaptive nature of agents in the system sensing, learning and adapting.

I won’t go into complex adaptive systems here, but the way the whole system works is based on intangible, or at least invisible, relationships between people and things and the changing actions taken by the many people who are in the system.

The average leader (ie me) will see that things can get out of control and struggle to see how they can control intangible, ambiguous things.

Being human, they will look for something tangible that they can take control of in this sea of chaos (or innovation, it is hard to tell). They will therefore try to control the interaction, sense making and activity of the team(s) by “fixing” the structure (Who reports to whom; who is accountable for what; and the processes for both making decisions and getting things done).

Good plan – but this control of only part of the system involves change, which can create anxiety, passivity and dependence, according to the authors. People know the new structure, process and accountability is coming/mostly defined, but they are either still trying to make sense of it or they are trying to work out if what it means to them, even as it the new structures, processes and accountabilities take shape.

That bit aligns with the SCARF model which I have encountered in some of the books from David Rock, “coaching guru.” SCARF tells us that if you are creating any of the following, people will turn defensive rather than generative:

  • Status – threatening their current or future status
  • Certainty – creating a feeling of uncertainty
  • Autonomy – threatening or questioning their autonomy
  • Relationships – threatening relationships or their quality
  • Fairness – creating a perceived risk or issue about fairness.

Sadly, altering who reports to whom, who is accountable for what and what process they follow probably risks hitting multiple parts of that model – triggering a defensive response rather than a collaborative and innovative one.

Probably not a great start.

I can see why we might try to put in place the right seeming things but if the issue we are ultimately trying to fix is about interaction and collaboration, or if our goal is greater empowerment AND accountability, then inflicting negative emotional drivers on all the “agents in the system” (ie the people) seems the worst possible road to victory.

This is what the authors mean, I think, by the Tyranny of the Tangible. Leaders, being human, try to latch onto the tangible things that they can control, but in doing so they create multiple intangible barriers to interaction, empowerment, confidence and momentum. Ironically triggering the outcome that they feared, causing them to repeat the cycle.

Instead, leaders should focus on building trust, communication between people and similar intangible things. At least that is the theory – I assume some clarity around structure and accountability is needed.

Lucky for me, my ignorance of design excellence and my lack of authority as an interloper mean I can avoid the trap of the Pull of the Tangible with my designers. Luckily also, people in and around the team are happy to collaborate together to come to the right outcomes and create the right structures.

Unfortunately, though, it means that I need to find another way of leading the team. Or more accurately, finding out from them and their stakeholders what leadership role I should be filling, based on what they choose to delegate to me. It sounds more like I am doing a job application or negotiating my role in the team rather than being the boss.

But what about the pull of the past?

So, my approach is not entirely clear, but my first steps should involve understanding the multiple perspectives of the member of the team of those they work with. Then I should probably facilitate a healthy conversation about the value and the niche the team can fill and help the team members to craft their jobs according to the current organisational context (system) and their own strengths and desired growth areas. In theory this will align to the real value proposition of the team and be in harmony with other teams they work with.

Sounds good to me – that is straight out of the book “Alive at work.” It also aligns with the things I have often done as a coach, consultant and leader.

But that brings me to another risk.

What is working now is working the way it was designed to work, but the way that things are working is inherited from the organisation the way it was a few months ago, when I was not leading the team, some of the team members had not yet joined and the organisation was a little smaller (we have been growing quickly).

Our rapid growth and our ongoing rate of change mean that the team is, at least subtly, different to what it was a couple of months ago.

This is where the Pull of the Past comes in.

I have been around a long time now and I have a lot of experience in many of the aspects of the work we do. That is great, because it means I have some answers to things that we face now because I have seen them before. Or more accurately, I see the challenges I face now as being similar to the things I faced in the past.

I am a big believer that we underestimate the strengths we have and that we often have solutions that we have tried in different contexts in the past that will work well in facing the challenges we face now.

However, you might see a dark side here too. Our experience is a double edged sword. I have seen teams adopting agile, but mistaking the new ideas they encounter in a new way of working for tweaked versions of what they already do rather than a significant change to the way they work (see Moving away from agile, the wrong lens). If it happens to “them” then it could happen to us.

I have also seen teams trying hard to adopt improved ways of working or really focusing on changing direction, only to revert to old behaviours when under pressure.

This is not change resistance, nor a lack of insight. This is because our habits are ingrained and we are not aware of them. When we are under pressure our minds grasp something tangible (what we have done before) and run with it. It is a survival approach when we face a threat, but it means we get tunnel vision and keep falling back on old ways, even to the extent of documenting a business case for a decision that has already been made (which I have done).

A coach I worked with, called Pat Reed, really drew this to my attention as something that coaches (and I guess leaders) need to continually battle (see I did not saw slow down now to speed up later).

Pat called it the “pull of the past”. When moving forward into a new and different future, need to constantly and deliberately remind ourselves of the future we want to be in, and recognise when we are acting our way back into the past that we are comfortable with.

So I run too risks here when I “listen to the voice of the team”:

  • The first is that I only half listen and therefore hear what aligns with my past experience. The flip side of this is that there is also a risk that others will hear a different message based on their sense making and history. The result is that listening to the team turns into listening to past versions of ourselves agreeing to things without actually understanding each other.
  • The second is that under pressure, which we all are, we will all automatically fall back on what worked in a different time in a different place. That means we will seek a future by replaying the past, which someone is quoted on the internet as saying is madness, or bad or something.

Ironically, I am a coach, working with designers. We are all trained professionals in listening, questioning assumptions and co-creating value. We should be the best place people in the world to build (design) and awesome team of happy people adding value at all turns.

However I guess I need to focus on:

  • Bringing enough structure to make sure the organisation’s processes are helping the team and not being cumbersome. I am good at that though and the people in the organisation are keen to help.
  • Ensure that the team has the right access to good, credible information and to the resources needed to excel at what they do. This will take time and effort, but seems doable.
  • Remembering that authority is being delegated upward, since I am not the right heir to the team, but rather a usurper, until the rightful king appears. I should be good at that, since the name James actually means Supplanter, replacer or usurper 🙂
  • Helping the voice of the team and stakeholders drive the interaction and therefore value created by the community. That will take some time and focused attention.
  • Avoiding the pull of the tangible and the pull of the past to facilitate forward momentum. That will take me real presence and practice, since I have many distractions going on at the are part of my other role.

And a quick ad from our sponsor (me)

As a side note – if you are in Sydney and are a great design lead, this is a team that needs a talented design lead and we are on a great quest. We would also love to speak to you if you are a designer who want to join us on our quest too. We are on a journey, so you won’t be walking into the perfect designer role at Google or Spotify, but we have the right people and the right destination, so you will be joining a great and fulfilling quest.

Just look review our career page and send a resume, or ping me for a chat.

So staying focused will be important

So much for taking a short break from writing my talk, to sit back and relax. I better get back to drafting my talk, as soon as I have a cup of coffee, of course.

After that, I will consciously focus on the task at hand.


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