Sunday, July 22, 2012

Your Transparency Is Showing

Whether you know it or not, your actions and motivations are more transparent today than ever before.  Those around you observe and note, not just how you respond to things you are directly responsible for, but for those you have a less defined but still important relationship to as well.  Stakeholders, both internal and external are observing, forming perceptions and opinions, and acting. 

In today’s era of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) we are held to a different standard of engagement.  Co-workers, leadership, and customers expect us to take a broader view of our responsibilities and the wider reach of decisions and actions.  They expect us to be accountable not just for the details and bottom line of our job, but for the effect of our efforts beyond the parameters of this year’s performance goals.  They expect us to care about the effects of what we do.  This is not a new phenomenon.  None other than Peter Drucker connected the dots between our actions and our responsibility for them on a broader scale.

“One is responsible for one’s impacts, whether they are intended or not.  This is the first rule.  There is no doubt regarding management’s responsibility for the social impacts of its organization.”

Sometimes knowing what we should feel responsible for and how to act are not always easy.  The old adage “do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons” is a good place to start.  Adopting that principle as a foundation simplifies what can become a complicated equation at times.  When individuals and organizations operate from this perspective transparency illuminates motivations and increases acceptance and support for good efforts.

In today’s world increased visibility and instant communication platforms foster instant judgment making and perception decisions, often without the benefit of the full story or proper diligence.  Society generally expects us to be aware and accountable.  The degree to which we are perceived as being good or bad actors on the societal stage is important to us as individuals and organizations.

Parallel development of increased awareness of actions, improved access to large amounts of data and the ability to analyze it, and enhanced sensitivity of stakeholder communities combine to increase transparency.  The question is not “Am I transparent?”  The real question is, “How will I act to assure my transparency is a positive force?”

Many companies today are actively engaged in CSR efforts.  Some are large scale and visible, and get press because of the corporate logo they are associated with.  Some are small but no less important, undertaken in a “everyone do what they can” spirit. Some of these are important and beneficial, changing the lives and future of workers in distant parts of the world we never thought of or cared about before.  I wonder, however, how many CSR programs amount to little more than “CSR-washing” (to borrow a phrase from the Green world).  As is often the case in life, I suspect that the difference between substantive programs and those which seek primarily to bolster marketing efforts is one of motivation.

In the HBR article “Leadership in the Age of Transparency,” Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby set out guiding principles for acting responsibly.

Take ownership of the things you are directly responsible for.  With increased communication, measurement and analytic systems we can today understand the effects of our decisions and actions in ways we could not before.  That fact alone brings accountability for the extended impacts we create. 

Take action even when the impact cannot be precisely measured.  When we understand or learn that harm is occurring on our behalf we have a responsibility to act even if we are not directly causing the harm.  A good example of this would be taking the initiative to train supply chain partners producing products in a way that is detrimental to workers or the environment. 

Take interest in those things that we may not be directly or indirectly involved in but which have a connection to our activities.  In the article Meyer and Kirby use the example of an oil company that is helping to develop an affordable and clean-burning alternative to cookstoves uses widely in undeveloped regions of the world.

The issue of responsibility, whether corporate or personal, is really an issue of integrity.  I am not suggesting that each of us is responsible for everything we see and know.  I am suggesting that we are responsible for those things that we are involved in and for which we have the capability to affect or influence.

Transparency, responsibility, and integrity are linked in a way that cannot be broken.  It is not about an agenda or cause.  It is not about a current trend or market share.  It is about....

Doing the right thing        The right way       For the right reasons

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Transparent Leadership

If you have ever worked for a leader who is genuinely and intentionally transparent then you understand the freedom such a leadership style creates.  It is in part a freedom to take appropriate risks, but only in part.  More to the point, it is freedom to be honest, direct, accountable in a non-threatening manner, and to create.

While many transparent leaders may be naturally wired this way I do not believe this leadership style can be successful unless intentional in design and consistency.  A transparent leader must have confidence in himself or herself, trust in others, and establish an environment that encourages transparency on a broad scale.  These leaders can be recognized by the traits they exhibit.

Transparent Leaders Focus on Solving Problems:  Approaching failures as problem solving and learning opportunities allows those involved to objectively search for facts without assigning blame.  Accountability remains an important organizational value with the underlying goals of improving future outcomes through honest investigation and analysis.  When the root causes are out in the open everyone will know what the contributing factors were and who was responsible for them.  Blaming is not necessary, learning is mandatory. 

Transparent Leaders Value Candid Talk:  A common mistake in the midst of failure or conflict is the rush to move past the point of pain to re-establish a comfortable, non-threatening equilibrium.  This prematurely shuts down the kind of honest discourse that challenges assumptions and reveals root causes and future opportunities.  Respectful dialogue and relationships are key to creating an environment where candid talk, direct talk about important issues, is viewed as non-threatening. 

Transparent Leaders are Fully Engaged:  Leaders who “parachute in” to give motivational speeches, make urgent demands out of context or worse, embarrass or humiliate, put their own insecurities on full display.  Some may still value the full on autocratic leadership style but it can rarely be successful in today’s business world.  Teamwork and collaboration, the hallmarks of contemporary business, require a level of trust that can only be developed by being fully engaged, having the team’s best interest as first priority, and establishing a win-win environment.  Doing so requires that the leader be “present,” engaged, and focused on removing obstacles to success.

Transparent Leaders Share Leadership:  With a style that is focused on developing an environment that values accountability, candid dialogue and engagement; transparent leaders tend to trust team members with greater responsibility and freedom.  This allows others to take leadership roles themselves, helping to develop personal and organizational assets that strengthen the whole.  Releasing team members in this manner and allowing them to share in leading, including its challenges and rewards, encourages trust and the kind of shared respect that will serve well in tough circumstances.

Transparent Leaders Hire Well:  Choosing those you will partner with in a transparent organization is especially critical.  With increased transparency, trust and loyalty expectations of team members leaders must evaluate talent from a different perspective.  While intellect, training, experiences and education are always important factors, personal integrity traits take on greater importance.  Hiring the smartest candidate with the best experience background may not be the best option if you have questions about their commitment to the team.  To the old adage “hire the best and the brightest” you should add “and the most trusted.”

The transparent leadership style is not just about the leader’s personal make up.  True, some personality traits make it a more natural style for some than others.  But it is also a purposed style with specific values and goals, all of which can be developed and duplicated.  And that in one sense is the real value of the transparent leader – duplicating his or her value through leading and mentoring; developing new leaders who understand, appreciate, and seek to replicate transparent leadership.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Business Agility: A Model for Improving Responsiveness – Pt. 2

This post concludes the series on business agility which I first explored in the March 25 post.


Rely on A Good Compass, Not Maps
Today’s business environment changes too rapidly for a detailed and rigid business construct to remain viable for very long.  No matter how detailed you try to make a business map it will eventually mislead you.  Developing a “compass,” however, allows you to navigate territory with a sense of direction, purpose, and by using currently available intelligence and resources to create a path forward. Here again, emphasis is placed on organic strategy, one that anticipates changing opportunities and risks, is purposely alert for their signals, and which allows for mid-course corrections. 

Cultivate Resilience Instead of Strength
Organizations that try to resist failure at all costs view doing so as a strength, often touting that this preserves resources and improves efficiency.  That may indeed be true, but it also limits the amount of experimentation constituents feel empowered to undertake, which in turn can limit the acquisition of knowledge and discovery of opportunities.  There is also the issue of speed.  High intolerance to risk requires than any new initiative or idea be thoroughly vetted by all levels of the organization before approval to proceed is granted, thereby delaying benefits of the initiative (assuming it does not die on the vine in the process).  Entrepreneurial organizations take a different approach entirely.  Here, “failing early and often” is viewed as a learning process that increases knowledge and contributes to future success.  While no one would suggest that all organizations should be entrepreneurial in nature, it is fair to suggest that those which are strongly oriented in the risk averse direction consider the costs of their stance.  Focusing on organizational structures and governance that improve resiliency provides the ability to accept reasonable risk with the assurance the organization can recover when needed.  This generally means a less autocratic structure with “check, plan, communicate, act” systems in place to speed response at the tactical level.

Pull Instead of Push
One common attribute of agile organizations is that they invariably share robust networks.  Social connections among participants provide access to intelligence and resources.  Affect networks are based in shared motives, expectation and business or operational norms.  Cognitive networks focus on shared understanding, common definitions of work, and supportive systems for doing the work.  These networks do not act alone.  While each has its own core there is significant overlap, allowing each type of network to influence the others.  Information, resources, strategies, and operational norms are all shared with trusted partners making resources outside the “home” organization available.  Leveraging these networks can provide opportunities for increasing flexibility and better aligning resources with the need of the hour.  For example, a company may choose not to fully staff and thereby consume labor resource funds when work is fluid and requirements shift.  In this case a company may choose instead to maintain a funding pool which allows it to procure specific skill sets and knowledge on an as-needed basis exactly when the need exists.

Business agility strives to create an environment at all three levels (strategic, operational, episodic) that promotes responsiveness to changing business conditions while avoiding the chaos and trauma that can paralyze an organization undergoing change.  Making increased sensitivity to conditions and robust responsiveness characteristic creates an environment where change is expected and less threatening.  In today’s shifting landscape those are valuable traits, especially in the FM arena.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Business Agility: A Model for Improving Responsiveness – Pt. 1

This post begins a short two part series, continuing the subject of business agility first examined in my March 25 post.  Part One of the series addresses the theory behind agility.  Next week’s Part Two will focus on the practice of agility.


Business agility has long been the hallmark of successful organizations, and its importance in contemporary business is growing.  True agility, however, often requires a mindset and operational dynamic that is counter intuitive given industry’s penchant for quick fixes and control.  Real agility requires a business culture and strategy that is sustainable over the long haul.  Typical business reactions such as reducing headcount and services, de-emphasizing customer service, or deferring projects and initiatives that create capability and capacity will work for the short term, but they are not generally sustainable.  These strategies consume or discard resources that may be better used creating and re-energizing.

Defining Agility – An Elusive Quest
One of the problems with “Agility” is defining exactly what one means when one uses the term.  It is a common term and strategy in the IT world, but focuses almost exclusively on IT systems that improve communication and data sharing to speed processes. Manufacturing types express agility in terms of customization and last responsible moment commitments.  Knowledge management professionals describe it as using knowledge management systems to provide greater or faster awareness of changes.

In their paper “Understanding Organizational Agility: A Work-Design Perspective” Holsapple and Li suggest a homogenized definition that can be applied in most cases, identifying alertness and response capability as key dimensions of agility. 

“Agility is the result of integrating alertness to changes (recognizing opportunities/challenges) – both internal and environmental – with a capability to use resources in responding (proactive/reactive) to such changes, all in a timely, flexible, affordable, relevant manner.”

Another important characteristic of agility is recognized in the statement,

“Business Agility is in the mind of the organization and comprises an absolute willingness to constantly monitor one’s position, in a timely and appropriate manner – not just to respond quickly.” 

This statement makes the explicit and often misunderstood point that agility is not just about speed.

Three Levels of Agility
Strategic, Operational, and Episodic agility comprise the agility spectrum.  Each is achieved intentionally through work design that promotes organizational and cultural drivers which are supportive of agility.

Strategic agility can be identified as maximizing organizational alertness to business changes and integrating response capability.  Its purpose is to structure and govern operational work to assure alignment with organizational mission and strategies, thereby enhancing the organization’s ability to identify and take advantage of business opportunities.

Operational agility derives from this integration of alertness and response capability, governing episodic work by allocating resources and setting schedules in the most efficient manner.

Episodic agility refers to what we may more colloquially describe as transactional or task-specific work.  This is where work processes produce tangible value.  It may be intellectual collaboration in the case of knowledge workers, or the fulfillment of specific service or production processes.  Importantly, it is at this level where alertness to task level environmental conditions may lead to process variance.  There is an interesting dichotomy here between agility, which emphasizes alertness and appropriate response to changing conditions, and process management which generally emphasizes control and stability.

The three levels have definite boundaries, support each other, and when taken as a whole permeate the entire organization. In this manner they provide the combined alertness to changes and response capacities that enable taking advantage of opportunities, or adjusting to threats in a nimble manner.

Next week we discuss three specific strategies that help improve agility.