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Leading for improvement within living systems. Steve Onyett 2 nd December 2009. Leading from Within Living Systems- 2 nd December 2009. A facilitated exploration of what our emerging understanding of living systems tells us about leadership for sustainable development.

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Leading for improvement within living systems

Steve Onyett

2nd December 2009

Leading from Within Living Systems- 2nd December 2009

  • A facilitated exploration of what our emerging understanding of living systems tells us about leadership for sustainable development

Some thoughts and ideas...

  • How do these connect to your world as experienced?

  • How might they help you in what you need/want to do?

“Modern leadership theory..

  • ..is about leading and managing complex adaptive systems that operate as a series of networks with multiple stakeholder interests”.

    Beinecke & Spenser, 2007

Law of the Situation

  • Leadership is transient and contextual

  • Where knowledge and experience are needed the person who can is the right person to do it.

  • Not all leadership should be determined by position power yet people with authority should be prepared to exercise it.

The essence of leadership and management

  • …is the creation of environments in which people can be creative.. Where they can exercise power to achieve outcomes valued by end users, the people that care about them and that they care about, and other key stakeholders.

The Triple Bottom Line

  • Benefits to the organisation- financial and otherwise

  • Benefits to people within the organisation- both those that stay and those that leave, but as it’s ambassadors.

  • Benefits to the local community and beyond

Understanding our context

Working well with living systems means working well with “complexity”

  • See for example –

    • Bob Hudson. (2006). Whole systems working- a Guide and Discussion paper. CSIP-ICN

    • Jake Chapman. (2004). Systems failure. Why governments must learn to think differently. London: Demos

Complexity theory

..or just

“Recognising how the universe works and just getting on with it”

.. theory

Leonardo da Vinci

  • “Those who take for their standard anyone but nature- the mistress of all masters- weary themselves in vain”




Following a Recipe

A Moon Rocket

Raising a Child

  • Recipe is essential

  • Recipes are tested to assure replicability of later efforts

  • No particular expertise; knowing how to cook increases success

  • Recipes produce standard products

  • Certainty of same results every time

  • Formulae are critical and necessary

  • Sending one rocket increases assurance that next will be ok

  • High level of expertise in many specialized fields & coordination

  • Rockets similar in critical ways

  • High degree of certainty of outcome

  • Formulae have only a limited application

  • Raising one child gives no assurance of success with the next

  • Expertise can help but is not sufficient

  • Every child is unique

  • Uncertainty of outcome remains

From - Plsek, P. “Complexity, culture and large systems change” presentation

Source: Brenda Zimmerman, PhD

Questions? (after Chapman, 2004)

  • Are we spending too much time trying to apply complicated solutions to complex problems?

  • What approach would we adopt if we accepted that systems cannot be controlled nor their behaviour predicted?

  • What might we need to do differently?

Build collective understanding of what working in complex systems really means

  • Small changes can have big effects

  • ..and big changes very little effect

  • Emergence- the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

  • Tolerance of uncertainty and flexibility

  • Recognising the futility of control

The pointlessness of controlfrom Jenny Rogers “Influencing Skills”

  • You can’t force people to work effectively on something they disagree with.

  • Organisations are so complex and subject to so many diverse influences that it is pointless trying to control them.

  • Distance from most senior to most junior makes it unlikely that control can be exercised over that stretch

  • Much control is unnecessary -where there is openness and willingness to give feedback

  • Control reduces risk taking- a necessary precondition for the innovation on which organisations depend

  • It’s exhausting and your time can be better spent!

The problem of Big Planning

  • “Long term planning and the rigid structures, precise task definitions and elaborate rules that often accompany it, may be positively dangerous, ‘fixing’ an organisation in pursuit of a particular vision when an uncertain world requires flexible responses”.

    Hudson, 2006

  • May need “holding frameworks” for relevant subsystems to keep direction and coherence

What implications of more ecological thinking?

  • Push and exhortation from leaders and policy makers can be counter-productive.

  • People’s ability to stay the same will always be greater than our ability to make them different

Working with your stakeholders- what is their

  • Readiness to change?

  • Confidence to change?

  • Judgement of the importance of change?

Respectfully consider these cells and provide information to inform

What implications of more ecological thinking?

  • Change needs to happen bottom-up but the right conditions need to be created.

  • …like gardening, or throwing a party?

Working with complexity values

  • Allowing solutions to emerge by:

    • encouraging rich interaction, removing barriers and oppressive controls

    • giving space and time,

    • not over specifying means

Working with complexity values

  • Valuing multiple perspectives

  • Using multiple approaches that make effective use of experience, experimentation, freedom to innovate and working at the edge of knowledge and experience.

Working with complexity as “surfing the edge of chaos”, Pascale, et al (2000)

“.. In systems as in life, when threatened, [it] move towards the edge of chaos. At this edge experimentation and mutation occur from which creative solutions can emerge. When this occurs living systems self organise and new forms or patterns emerge. The challenge for leaders is to disturb or disrupt the movement at the edge to provoke the desired outcome” – sometimes referred to as “perturbing the edge”. McKimm et al, (2008)

Panic Zone





“..Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm”.

Winston S Churchill

“Transformational” leadership- roots

  • James MacGregor Burns defined transformation as that which turns followers into leaders and leaders into moral agents.

  • Transformational leadership occurs when people elevate each other into a higher level of motivation and morality.

  • Thus inextricably linked with the social meaning that people attach to their work.

Creating a better space

  • ‘ba’ A Japanese term, meaning ‘a shared space for emerging relationships’ or in more general terms a context where meaning may emerge.

    Originally proposed by philosopher Kitaro Nishida

Real teams have..

  • Clear and shared objectives

  • Members who have to work closely together to achieve the objectives of the team

  • This interdependency includes users and their supporters

  • Members who have different and clearly defined roles within the team

  • The minimum number of team members required to get the job done

Thought for the day. Today Programme. Radio 4. 26th February 2009

  • “Here is the gift of relationship. It lies at the very core of what it is to be human.”

    Rev David Wilkinson, principal of St John’s College, Durham

Holons- Whole-parts

The “Transcend and include” principle

Holons- Whole-parts

  • Both systems and psychoanalytical thought share the premise that every part of an organisation represents the whole.

An example in mental health

“It is important not to underestimate the human interaction that is at the heart of mental health treatment and care. This interaction is an expression of individual and organisational values”.

Irish Mental Health Commission Vision for Change, 2009, p.14

So what DOES work to build relationship?

  • Trust

  • Transparency and fairness with respect to the exercise of power and influence

  • Giving away and sharing power

  • Giving back- feeling like an asset not a liability

  • Happiness

  • Noticing and affirming the good

  • Working to a shared agenda

  • Taking time

  • Finding a good space to work and develop together

Trust and social capital

  • In the absence of trust and mutual obligation staff become mired in mistrust and self preservation, while the organisation declines.

  • Communities and organisations with high levels of social capital work more productively and cooperatively than those with low levels—and are also healthier.”

Welsh, T. & Pringle, M. (2001).

Trusting Relationships

Conflicting Needs

Shared Vision


Shared Values






Complex/Poor Data

Reliable Information

Lack of Time /

Prior Experience


Distrusting Relationships

Source: Richard Lauve, MD (VHA Inc.)

Four underpinning principles in the new DH approach to change


    • To engage people across “the system” to work together to make change happen


    • Ensuring that decisions are made at the right level, and as close to the user as possible.


    • Building on the Darzi concept of staff as “Practitioners, Partners and Leaders”.


    • Aligning different parts of the system towards the same goals as a way of achieving complex cultural change


Co-production and working from strengths

  • “… people are defined entirely by their needs and so those needs become the only asset they have. No-one should be surprised when people then behave in ways that perpetuate such needs” (11).

  • “When ..assets are deliberately ignored or sidelined they atrophy”. (11)

Co-production and working from strengths

  • “Co-production demands that public service staff shift from fixers who focus on problems to enablers who focus on abilities. … This role is not recognised or rewarded within the management structures that are currently in place”.(13)

“Front-line staff are essential to delivery and empowerment...

  • Their morale is as important as client morale. Yet in practice, the participation that they are asked to extend to clients is often not extended to them”.

New Economics Foundation. Co-Production. A manifesto for growing the core economy.2008. 13

System alignment

  • Envision the future together and ambitiously

  • Communicating that future in an engaging way is the task of leadership

  • Have end users needs and aspirations at the centre of that vision.

  • Ensure that the voices of end users and those are heard loudest in shaping the vision

The energy of social movements

  • “Social movement thinking is about connecting with people’s core values and motivations and mobilising their own internal energies and drivers for change…

  • …[evidence from change management studies show] people change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings

  • ..rather than a single individual, it is a network of leaders at multiple levels who guide and mobilise the successful movement”

    Helen Bevan of The NHS Institute


  • Decision making should be located as closely as possible to the place where actions are taken.

  • This means addressing the flight from authority

  • .. and helping people love their monkeys!

“.. Sloterdijk (1987) observes that the whole of postmodern society is living within an internal dialogue or cognitive environment of a universal, diffuse, cynicism.

As a predominant mindset of the post-1960s era, Sloterdijk takes the cynic not as an exception but rather as the average social character.

It is argued that at both the personal and institutional levels, throughout our society there is a widespread disturbance of vitality, a bleakening of the life feeling, a farewell to defeated idealisms, and a sense of paralyzing resentment”.


Cynicism limits imagination: The cultural challenge

  • Problem and deficit-based culture

    • extending into public communication and the media

  • A preference for experts and answers

  • Cynicism passing for sophistication

From Global AI Conference Keynote by Bliss Browne, President Imagine Chicago- imaginechicago.org. November 2009

“A cynic, after all is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again”

  • Zander and Zander, The Art of Possibility. 2000, p.39

Involve young people as leaders

  • (e.g. of an appreciative interview process) to disarm cynicism and activate hope.

  • An inspiring way to engage in conversation about the future is by engaging in conversation WITH the future

  • Strength-based questions asked by young people help expand images of possibility and build affirmative competence.

From Global AI Conference Keynote by Bliss Browne, President Imagine Chicago- imaginechicago.org. November 2009

The magic - “Abrahadabra”

From the Aramaic..

  • “I will create as I speak.”

From Global AI Conference Keynote by Bliss Browne, President Imagine Chicago- imaginechicago.org. November 2009

Language is a moral choice.

  • To frame social development in problem talk creates expertise and focus on what communities don’t want and what doesn’t work.

  • To regenerate communities requires focusing on possibilities, focusing on what works instead of what’s wrong.

From Global AI Conference Keynote by Bliss Browne, President Imagine Chicago- imaginechicago.org. November 2009

Deficit based approaches

  • Provide opportunities for lamentation and blame that weaken the fabric of relationships

  • Bring the past into the future- so slow- focuses attention on yesterday’s causes- better to bring a preferred future into the present

  • Offer a visionless voice

  • Create cynicism, alienation and fatigue

Appreciative Inquiry

Is about developing the competence to CHOOSE a way of thinking

  • “Appreciative Inquiry is the cooperative search for the best in people, their organizations, and the world around them.”

  • “It involves systematic discovery of what gives a system 'life' when it is most effective and capable in economic, ecological and human terms.”

From “An opportunity to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry” Presentation by Anne Radford

Appreciate “Best of what is”

Imagine “What might be”

Design “What should be”

Create “What will be”

Identify problem

Conduct root cause analysis

Brainstorm solutions & analyze

Develop treatment - action plans

Appreciative Inquiry

Problem Solving

Deficit-based change

Strength-based change

Mystery Metaphor:

Organisations are alive, “appreciative systems” are universes of strengths via relationship

Problem Metaphor:

Organisations are “problems to be solved”

Linear, machine-like metaphors;

From Global AI Conference Keynote by David Cooperrider. November 2009

Solution focus/appreciative inquiry- exploring what works so that we can do more of it

We manifest what we focus on and “we grow toward what we persistently ask questions about”

orWhat we talk about gets bigger!

AI works to build the positive core of the organisations involved.

  • Organisations need a lot less fixing and a lot more affirmation.

  • Appreciation builds relationships, collective intelligence, and freedom to innovate

From “An opportunity to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry” Presentation by Anne Radford

“The Power of Appreciation..

  • ..rests with its self-reinforcing and self-generative capacity”

    Srivastva and Cooperrider, 1999

  • This requires inclusion, safety in participation and good communication =

  • Effective team working and leadership

  • Teams are where this is modelled and enacted

Sparkling leadership

  • As you look back what sparkling moments stand out for you as experiences of being really well lead or managed? What did you learn about worked well?

  • As you look back what sparkling moments stand out for you as examples of where you were really effective as a leader or someone making a positive contribution to change? What did you notice worked well for you at that time?

Leadership as an ethical endeavour

  • Positive Emotional Climate = “an environment where managers take into account the emotional needs and personal growth of employees and encourage the sharing of positive emotions”

  • Leadership practices that promote “positive emotional climate” associated with company gains in revenue, growth and outcome. Ozcelik et al, 2008

Leadership as an ethical endeavour

  • PEC associated with less cynicism and more engagement

Research using the Team Leadership Questionnaire

  • “Showing genuine concern” has the biggest impact on motivation.

    • Being interested in your needs and aspirations and how things feel for you.

With acknowledgement to Bev Alimo-Metcalfe of www.realworld-group.com

“New paradigm” approach to leadership

  • More “soft stuff” emphasis on working through others

  • Leaders with more faith in other people than they have in themselves (and they have a lot of faith in themselves!)

  • More concerned with connectedness and inclusiveness

With acknowledgement to Bev Alimo-Metcalfe of www.realworld-group.com

“New paradigm” approach to leadership

  • More concerned with vision

  • More concerned with improvement

  • Less concerned with “Great man” models of leadership

  • Striving for excellence through optimism, openness and personal humility

With acknowledgement to Bev Alimo-Metcalfe of www.realworld-group.com

Peter Drucker in conversation with David Cooperrider on “Ai”see Cooperrider (2003) Appreciative Inquiry Commons

“The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths…making a system’s weaknesses irrelevant”.

--Peter Drucker

From Global AI Conference Keynote by David Cooperrider. November 2009

The importance of authenticity

  • Leaders lead most effectively when they are being themselves and being true to themselves.

  • Authentic leadership is about, “being yourself- more – with skill”

    Goffee and Jones, 2006

Highlights from “Host Leadership: Towards a new yet ancient metaphor” by Mark McKergow PhD MBADirector, sfwork - The Centre for Solutions Focus at Workmark@sfwork.com, www.sfwork.comForthcoming in the International Journal of Leadership in Public Services

Shortcomings of the hero metaphor

  • The hero leader is seen as all-knowing and the followers all-dependent;

  • The illusion of control

  • The homogeneous imagery of the followers - are we subjects or sheep!

  • The willingness of the hero (warrior, king, even shepherd) to die in the act of saving the flock

Shortcomings of the servant metaphor

  • The richness of the metaphor is not obvious. Your waiter or Jeeves?

  • The image of servant is not a compelling one to those (for example women and ethnic minorities) who are traditionally cast in such a role

  • The leader as servant has similar hierarchical issues to the hero, but from the other end

Leader as Host, Host as Leader




Warren Bennis on Gladstone and Disraeli

  • If you had dinner with William Gladstone, you were left thinking “That Gladstone is the wittiest, the most intelligent, the most charming person around.”

  • But when you had dinner with Benjamin Disraeli, you were left thinking, “I’m the wittiest, the most intelligent, the most charming person around!”

  • Gladstone shone but Disraeli created an environment where others could shine. The latter is the more powerful form of leadership, an adventure in which the leader is privileged to find treasure within others and put it to good use.

    From introduction to Parks 2005 p xi-xii).

Advantages of the host metaphor

  • It’s an everyday image

  • Host and Guest are co-defining

  • Hosting is an activity, rather than a defining characteristic of a person

  • Hosting gives a definite feel of some responsibility for the success of the event

  • The role of host can involve behaving as total hero or absolute servant

Elements of host leadership

  • The four balances + 1

Principle of Response-ability

  • Defining the event

  • Responding to what happens


Principle of Co-participation

  • Join in along with everyone else

  • Engage and provide


Principle of Gate-opener

  • Protect boundaries

  • Encourage new connections


Principle of Alpha and Omega

  • Be the last

  • Be the first


The host is both the first and the last – Arabic proverb

The 5th principle?

  • Front stage work.

  • Back-stage work.


Ask yourself

Paul E. Plsek, 2008

Thank you!- steve.onyett@gmail.com

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