Do we have crisis management all wrong?

bucket brigadeStandards, best/good practices, rubrics and operational audit formats seem to be reproducing at an alarming and staggering rate. ISO 22301 is now released, but it remains to be seen how this will converge with NFPA 1600, EMAP and the other professional practices formats out there competing for our attention. Local agency techniques, business continuity management and social sector approaches all tend to take slightly different directions. The old timers are experts at SEMS, NIMS, ICS and so on, which assumes a specific scale, level of preparation, access to resources, management style, electricity, (now internet), and organizational context. These entities generally have a functioning EOC, lots of practice, trained first responders and outside mutual aid potential (and pre-existing agreements). Yet, most initial responses, (perhaps lasting longer than planned for), involve either small work groups or families with:

  • Lower levels of training
  • Unfamiliarity with NIMS and ICS
  • Potential isolation (and marginalization) from a centralized command and control function
  • Possibility of necessity for long-term and sustainable continuity of operations, (or simply survival)
  • Relational challenges if the group had not worked (or exercised) together in the past, leading to team complexities
  • Lack of resources

More characteristics are possible that might further complicate the response to a scenario or different threat. The traditional 72-hour kit still helps, but challenges like Superstorm Sandy showed that this is a small part of the challenge.

As an example, we seldom consider a world without electricity. Yet the complex, interdependent, tightly-coupled systems we have created sometimes presume that adequate power will always be available. From the internet to refrigeration to hospital life-sustaining systems, the loss of electricity promises far deeper implications and consequences than we generally suppose. A power outage is fraught with cascading implications, depending on the context, preparation, duration, individuals involved with direct response, secondary and tertiary crises, status of central command and EOC, mutual aid, contingent acquisition agreements, plans in place, and previous opportunities to practice for such an occurrence, (among other possibilities). New York's "diesel bucket brigade" is a shining example of perplexing problems.

In Resilience, Zolli and Healy lay out a framework for thinking about this. The Salvation Army uses a crisis management format for day-to-day operations. The University of California system is considering a related idea for certain projects.

These are helpful for thinking about a bottom-up version of “functional crisis management” as a management template for the kind of scaled-down, isolated, under-resourced, relationally-complex responses of the future, facing sense-making challenges and wicked problems. But Newtown, Sandy and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami have changed our world forever.

How many more black swans will it take to figure out “fat-tailed” crisis management? Who is working on this?

Those pesky hazards that sneak up on us and why they matter

In “re-imagining” the peculiar and unique context of crisis management in the academic setting, I have had the opportunity in recent months to work with several major public universities NFPA 1600, EMAP and the various professional organizations generate helpful, commendable and applicable tools ... but they yet remain on the journey to understanding why academe is so fundamentally different, and therefore how its crisis management tools should be reconsidered.

Standard protocol dictates that we apply currently acceptable benchmarks like NFPA 1600 to these organizations and end up with a NIMS/ICS plan that will work. The good news is that the NFPA tool leaves no stone unturned – more challenging is the time, staff, energy, collaboration, organizational complexities, expertise and unique approach required for an educational institution to use this tool. (Also problematic is the apparent absence of actual rubrics for these tools – lt me know if you find some.)

If you’ve spent any time in emergency management, especially in traditional settings like business, state or local government, the knowledge available is extensive and thorough. We identify potential hazards and rank them to make the task more manageable, then plug on through the planning process until thoughtful and well-exercised plans are in place.

But have you noticed that the hazard part is getting trickier? Earthquakes, fires, hazmat incidents and even terrorism are certainly better understood than they were ten years ago. But what are we missing? What are the hazards yet to be comprehended which will create unpleasant surprises?

One major public university is experiencing repeated power outages in research facilities with sensitive temperature and energy tolerances. No one really knows the full cost implications of a catastrophic power failure, but a few discerning individuals have made the connection to future research funding. In disaster parlance this is a mitigation question.

In another example, a journalist connected off-campus U.C. Berkeley facilities targeted with recent Occupy activities to the University’s research efforts. The implication for reputation management is clear; in this case the incident appears resolved with little or no damage.

Today another major university ran afoul of the FDA. The “hazard” apparently emerged in 2008 and may be rapidly approaching crisis status. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that this institution could be banned from “receiving federal research grants.” (In 2011 this amounted to $130 million for the University in question.)

How do we approach “loss of research funding” as a hazard or threat? A catastrophic financial event could be one functional approach, with a fairly generic HAVUC/NIMS approach.

However, real vulnerability extends far beyond the EMV and requires full and strategic costing. Much of this may be qualitative or even intuitive, (internally crowd-sourced?), modeled loosely, or even reaching only nominal/ordinal levels of analysis. It may be multi-dimensional, populated by numerous and passionately-involved activist stakeholders. Rankings cannot be ignored.

When the accreditors come to visit the institution, (which they do on a regular basis), how many plans will they find for confronting long-term, catastrophic financial failure? Where has this already happened?

These people can’t be led

A colleague once said of his rancorous department, “these people can’t be led.” Complex governance and diffuse decision making had crossed the line to create a Complex Legislative Organization (CLO). No one disagrees that appropriate process is important to an organization’s results, but at a certain point this wholly internal affair becomes counter-productive. Managing around this threshold is increasingly challenging in change and crisis. Sadly, many CLOs evolve past this threshold into ineffectiveness because of mistrust. Functioning CLOs require social capital – norms of reciprocity, multi-strandedness, shared values, networks and so on – probably more so than most organizations. Trust is central when functioning depends on process rather than mission.

Some CLOs are historically or culturally established, like academic faculties or the Quakers, (the latter go so far as to emphasize collective intelligence.) Social capital grows with use and disappears when not used. There may be some kind of inverse relationship between mission-driven efforts and CLOs. The discipline of the marketplace seems to limit CLOs in business, but even size and cash may allow them to appear in the for-profit world.

Mistrust and declining social capital drive complexity into dysfunction. Tenured faculties can give rise to “a thousand points of no” –diffuse decision making that can eventually lead to a thousand chokepoints, which is ultimately where every individual has veto power over a decision. Dysfunctional CLOs are marked by an absence of social capital:

  • Execution is delayed or defeated (Tom Peters recalls General Motors’ take on “ready-aim-fire” as “ready-aim-aim-aim...”)
  • Context trumps performance
  • External results disappear as the mO is consumed by the “meaningful Inside”
  • Stasis overtakes agility and innovation is quashed

CLOs are unusually resistant to change, by their very nature, and can spiral inevitably still further into reinforcing loops that perpetuate this dysfunction.

Synthetic organizations probably provide the only remedy (a form of balancing loop), and then only temporarily. In crisis, planned synthetic organizations, because of manufactured trust, simplify CLOs by moving decision making and management back toward executive leadership for a time.

In CLOs, as useful as synthetic organizational solutions can be, they will probably face resistance. The inherent nature of these contexts advocates against changing a status quo precisely because the power balance pleases most of those involved. A serious disaster or crisis could generate an unplanned synthetic organization that might damage the situation still further. (Gang activity in South Central Los Angeles during the ’92 riots functioned as an illegitimate synthetic organization for a short time). CLS only solidifies the CLO.

  1. Planned synthetic organizations: an emergency operations center or change/crisis team within an organization.
  2. Executive committees: a longer-term form of synthetic organization, but with tighter boundaries on decision making. Boards use these in the absence of the whole, but the whole convenes for the big decisions.
  3. Task forces: they work, but temporarily. Sooner or later they report back to the CLO, where they can be crushed.
  4. Contrived constituencies: sub-divide existing chokepoints still further to dilute their power... ethically tenuous but sometimes necessary in survival mode.
  5. Work-around organizations: create related new organizations outside existing CLOs and transfer as much power as possible.
  6. Cancel tenure-type practices ... again, a survival mode solution, guaranteed to splatter the walls and ceilings with blood and feathers.
  7. Cultural transformation: a huge challenge with generally poor odds.
  8. Skunkworks: these work as long as they have budgets and are permitted their own results.
  9. Re-catalyze to mission: essentially redirect corporate mindfulness to the mO.

Frankly, dysfunctional CLOs don’t promise a lot of hope. Most of the solutions above are temporary. The operative phrase in some of these is survival mode. In HAVUC terms, vulnerability exceeds the capacity of the organization to survive a specific threat.

If you’re leading a CLO consider 1 through 9 above, but also plan privately for the crisis that will come. If it’s bad enough and you survive it your organization may be ready for a new day.

CLS and Synthetic Crises

A smoothly-running EOC is a work of art. (Just finished a gig as an observer at UCSD’s annual disaster exercise where one of the world’s best – Phillip Van Saun – ran the show). This EOC turned a sprawling University into a synthetic organization for a few hours.) Jim Collins said that “social sector leaders need both executive skills, the exercise of direct power, and legislative skills, the ability to influence people through motivation and persuasion—the latter being more nuanced and more difficult to learn.” Change and crisis automatically push the organization from legislative leadership back toward the executive leadership pole of the continuum.

The movement from legislative to executive often happens through a synthetic organization – whether planned or unplanned. An emergency operations center is a planned synthetic organization and is an effective response for a community facing transition. They work best with planning and foresight, yet even an impromptu synthetic organization can be useful if properly understood and managed.

James D. Thompson credited Richard Avery with originating the notion. Using a community crisis or disaster as a starting point, this new entity appears “as a super-organization, synthesized from parts that have been taken out of normal contexts and reallocated and integrated in new ways”. Social units in the community subordinate their decision processes temporarily to a “headquarters” of some sort. When normalcy returns, “the system withdraws resources from the synthetic organization and gradually returns to pluralistic processes for allocation and integration decisions”. Though crisis (or rapid change) is the catalyst for this process, other scenarios could conceivably generate the same result. Key to this phenomenon is the process involved – organizations concede authority for a time to a new entity which then acts in some sense on their behalf, followed by a return to a new normalcy, perhaps with some key adjustments.

Lencioni suggests that managers/leaders can create crisis to stimulate followers. (We hereby designate this the “Chicken Little Syndrome” ... or CLS). Because the sky is really not falling down, the crisis itself is contrived and synthetic. But this seems like a possibly risky strategy. Obviously, the lesson of the fairy tale is that this should not be attempted too often or credibility suffers. At the same time, even a manufactured crisis can generate energy and urgency.

So how do we manage that fine line between creating a sense of urgency for a team and generating a synthetic crisis that breeds cynical followers, who know that the sky is not really falling?

Is agile University an oxymoron?

Executive leadership morphs toward legislative leadership as complex governance and diffuse decision making emerge, according to Jim Collins. Many organizations plod along with some effectiveness as homes for legislative leadership – the ultimate example may be the U.S. Senate or a Quaker college where essentially any individual can stop the show. BUT,

“... a large number of institutions today employ governance structures inconsistent with their current activity.”[1] Big idea: If you are approaching the legislative leadership end of the continuum don’t be surprised if you can’t manage change or collapse in crisis.

Diffuse decision making is when:

  1. Several individuals are involved in the making of a decision.
  2. These individuals are in different organizational levels, organizational units (at the same hierarchical level), and/or geographic locations.
  3. The decision is partitioned into several activities.
  4. Considerable time elapses between initiation and termination of the activity resulting in the decision (i.e., the point in time at which the decision is made is not distinct).
  5. A final decision results but is not “rigid” at any point in time (i.e., some flexibility continues to be exercised by participants in the decision).

Sound familiar? We once worked at an ethnographic management study of an organization and began to understand its idiosyncracies only when we finally saw an org chart that looked like a plate of spaghetti thrown against a wall. Insiders thought everyone operated that way. Even the smallest decision could be co-opted by 5-10 other people at different levels and in different locations around the world. It was an organization essentially condemned to constant crisis without hope of innovation or change. All five categories above were represented in nearly every decision.

As appropriate as diffuse decision making and complex governance may be for a university in stasis, change and crisis now rule almost everywhere. And if any university remains in stasis, we would all like to know who and where... (Nan Keohane allegedly said once that when doomsday came she wanted to be at Duke University, because everything there took a year longer ... but not even Duke is in stasis.)

Experience would advise that radical governance change invariably suggests itself too late.

Is agile University an oxymoron?

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[next... The Chicken Little Syndrome and synthetic organizations]


[1] Minor, J. T. (2006). A case of complex governance. Journal of the Professoriate, 1(2), 22-37.

What if Universities were like Wikipedia?

A recent session at Educause apparently invoked Wikipedia and spoke to universities as agile organizations. The speaker wasn’t really suggesting that Wikipedia should be the model for the university of the future, but the abstracted concept was a little intriguing. Of course, Peter Drucker foretold the knowledge economy built with knowledge workers long before some of us were born, and I suspect his agile brain had glimmers of the knowledge management implications of Wikipedia around the same time. And, understandably, most academics keep their distance and steer toward more critically-accepted and stringently peer-reviewed resources.

But Wikipedia made me think about knowledge in different ways. Here’s five possibilities for the future of Wikipedia and maybe of the university:

  1. Knowledge as co-generative: maybe this is crowdsourcing on steroids. My approach moves beyond strangers blindly flaming each other’s wiki entries and incorporates cordial relationships – maybe even facetime.
  2. Knowledge as performance: we don’t always do well at measuring. Academic assessment and accreditation are facing strong challenges with some recommending the abolition of the latter and others suggesting entirely new depths of federal intervention. In organizations, without understandable results performance is irrelevant ... at least performance and results benchmarking could bring more disciplined reflection to the use of crowdsourced knowledge.
  3. Knowledge as practice: eventually, if knowledge is not put to some kind of use for the sake of the world it honestly does not seem very worthwhile – even the most esoteric of doctoral topics should someday create some good somewhere. (not everyone will agree with this)
  4. Knowledge as history: co-generative crowdsourcing that is cumulative can become history. I used a wiki in a class I taught last month and had a ball. Everytime the class is taught the participants themselves will further build the knowledge base.
  5. Knowledge as community: finally, knowledge in the context of relationships co-generates civilization and civil society. Maybe we could aim beyond knowledge communities as communities of practice to places of realized potential.

Knowledge for the sake of itself may be a penultimate goal. (Universities may be a penultimate goal!)

So can the University be a place of realized potential? Name some.

What if the chief end of the University...

... was to create happy alums? The University of the Customer showed up in a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education. (I made a related attempt a few months ago.) Bill Sams proposed the following mission for his mythical university of the future:

Our goal is to optimize the personal capabilities of our customers on a lifelong basis and to match those capabilities with the needs of business and society in a mutually profitable relationship.

Having been in several presidential searches in recent years I continue to be intrigued by the uniform unhappiness of alums. I posed the question above to one roomful of trustees and got some quizzical looks. But if we are concerned with external results, and if the meaningful Outside is our operating environment, then why not explore the implications of this goal?

What makes a happy alum? ...An education that works, a network for a lifetime, appropriate and profitable employment, a long-term relationship with the place where it all started, and perhaps a vehicle or means to contribute back. So what if the University started here with an effort to include this as part of its business and worked backward to put all the pieces in place to make this happen? Would this not be a useful direction for senior leaders to aim toward, plan and execute? The results are easily measurable and such a purpose-driven approach should please most stakeholders and constituencies.

With MBAs especially, the value of the degree seems essential. If the reputation of the awarded degree is slipping, so is the graduate’s livelihood. How many deans and program directors, (much less presidents), pour resources into all the steps that lead to a cadre of happy MBA alums?

What would a University/School/Program look like that targeted this mO?

A disaster of manners + crisis leadership

The ease and speed with which an organization can tank is staggering. Equally astounding is the eventual realization of how important cultural triggers work to make it happen. A recent NYT article sets the stage for Sam Zell’s acquisition of The Tribune Company:

People had been living with uncertainty for so long and they hoped something good would come from an owner with a proven track record of success in other businesses.

It is a classic HaVUC scenario. The company changed hands precisely because of its vulnerability, scooped up in a complicated and risky process, but suggesting a possibility of success presumed by a previous track record of the buyer’s holdings elsewhere. What was not clear turned out to be how much a mis-fit in culture would damage the effort.

Based on interviews with more than 20 employees and former employees of Tribune, Mr. Michaels’s and his executives’ use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.

One of the first tasks involved a rewrite of the employee handbook to reflect change:

Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook warned. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process.” It then added, “This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.

Mergers, acquisitions, buyouts or takeovers all create hazards to companies, and in turn form a vulnerability profile that might be specifically unique to each organization. Subsequently, the organization has either enough capacity/”capital” to survive and perhaps flourish, or not.

The titanic clash at the Tribune seems to be about civility and courtesy as much as anything. Peter Drucker said that “bright people ... often do not understand that manners are the “lubricating oil” of an organization.[1] What an old-fashioned idea! How the Victorians would have approved! Drucker himself could speak authentically – in all my dealings with him he never failed to be courtly, civil, courteous and utterly mindful of the other in every conversation.

But back to crisis – can a disaster of manners sink the mighty corporate ship? Apparently it can at least be a significant contributing factor given the company of clowns Zell set up to perform at The Tribune Company. Note that this further vulnerability deals mainly with men acting like idiots toward women.

Capacity and various forms of “capital” (social especially) mitigate vulnerability in the face of corporate hazards. As a manager when was the last time you included “courteous behaviors” in your disaster management scenarios? It may be too late to save The Tribune Company but one wonders whether it ever occurred to them that misogyny as a crisis scenario could kill a vulnerable organization?


[1] 21st Century, p. 167.

That fatal 1/3 of a second - leadership and learned helplessness

The rather intriguing idea that helplessness can be learned seemed to fit some familiar situations. Courses addressing learned helplessness have been available to our medical students for a while here where we teach. Briefly learned helplessness is:

a condition of a human being or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.[1]

People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly")—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.

So we have three scenarios:

1)     How do we lead followers who have learned helplessness?

2)     How do followers handle a leader who has learned helplessness?

3)     How do we manage ourselves if we’re that leader?

None is very palatable. This goes beyond complacency to a clinical condition that can wipe out the momentum of a team. It becomes a built-in, predictable, automatic reaction to situations – apathy, gloom and even desperation.

I wonder if it can creep into organizational or group culture? In our research we came across groups that seemed to share a sense of hopelessness similar to this, often after prolonged exposure to leaders who were toxic bullies.

The key to the phenomenon as I see it, is the learned behavior that fails to resolve the condition even when the opportunity for restoration reappears. It is possible to condition yourself so negatively that each new opportunity keys an instant destructive memory from your past. Even if there was overall success in the situation you recall, where your actions were affirmed by others and good results emerged, your first flash of insight instinctively dwells only on an invalidating or unfavorable facet, because you have so conditioned yourself to allow this. You only remember that minor moment of failure in the incident. In that fatal one-third of a second you have lost any chance to break the loop. The opportunity for restoration blinks out of existence before you knew it was there. The chronic, debilitating depression noted earlier is a predictable result.

When this manifests in the leader it is a serious affair. My wife Janis and I are wrapping up a book on battered leaders that should be at the publishers in a few months. We’re discovering that when leaders are battered by followers, peers or supervisors, learned helplessness sometimes follows. Here are some thoughts[1]:

  1. Surround yourself with a “circle of loving detractors” so that you have an early warning system in place.
  2. Keep your reality defined – test these perceptions and reactions with a true friend.
  3. When confronted by a situation, in the initial one-third of a second of your reaction, first do no harm – either to yourself or to another.
  4. Then wait two-thirds of a second and review your second recollection – it will probably be the positive one.
  5. Parse each situation and write a short, balanced history of what actually happened. Review this in a reality-based community.
  6. Recall that you can control your own response to a situation even if you can’t control its outcome.
  7. Practice generosity – it takes your mind off yourself.

Bottom line, when Max De Pree claims that the “first responsibility of the leader is to define reality” it may be necessary to start with yourself and not your followers.


[1] (There are therapeutic solutions for learned helplessness so professional help can obviously work also.)

The M-Spot: 1 soldier or 20 schools?

We should all be looking for the “M-spot” to answer the perpetual question of how much mitigation is enough? Whether managing change or crisis we should hope to mitigate vulnerabilty. Some not-so-scientific thoughts follow... In my classes, I sometimes compared a dimension of mitigation to straightforward community development. Starting with HAVUC, any potential threat to a place [could be a neighborhood, business, multi-national NGO, nation-state, or whatever], created a contextually and environmentally-driven vulnerability profile, that in turn could be offset, partially or completely, by building in the capacity to neutralize the hazard:vulnerability scenario. Thus HAVUC. Overly simple of course, but it’s a starting point. If nothing else, it presses us to think of the traditional emergency management term “mitigation” as a function of capacity within a defined situation, which in turn brings up a broad range of developmental and “capital” possibilities.

The idea evolves from the marginal cost:marginal revenue curve we all learned about in Econ 101. Theoretically, as the curves moved across the graph, approach a nexus, the change in cost of each new widget would be slightly less with slightly more revenue to cover costs and profit. When the curves crossed that point equaled the optimum level of production.

In a giant leap, adapting this basic concept to capacity building creates a sort of thought experiment. In simple financial terms the more money we pour into mitigation the more we should be decreasing risk, and thereby adjusting vulnerability. We keep doing this until some optimum point is reached where vulnerability is nil, or at least some level we can live with [usually determined politically]. Numerous questions arise: how do we understand capacity in non-cash terms? Can it be quantified? How do we measure marginal change in impact? Who decides what effective means? Where does social capital fit?

What’s the difference between vulnerability and risk? Risk is useful but only goes so far in these scenarios. See Against the gods for an excellent take on this. Bernstein eventually gives up on the precision of probabilities. Even our intuition tells us at some point that quantifiable answers won’t save the world. Where we stray along this line of thought is in thinking that we can actually manage risk. We can’t. But we can manage vulnerability, at least by paying some attention to things like the admittedly simplistic HAVUC algorithm, and asking how these things work more systemically.

Decision makers are always balancing the cost of capacity building (or mitigation) against results. The change agent in an organization is constantly juggling culture, social capital, threats and vulnerability. Read Kristof’s recent blog in the NYT. Even the title breathes HAVUC – “1 Soldier or 20 Schools?”.

Is there an M-spot here? Can some combination of soldiers and schools sustain a community until a better combination comes along?

Measuring, making meaning and matchsticks

Using an unusual method for research on at-risk populations in a South American barrio, a friend watched as community members filed forward and placed individual matchsticks in specific areas of the map, thus creating a population density chart for her evaluation project. As one individual stepped up he broke the matchstick in half, said “this is me”, placed it on the map, and then walked away. Apparently all gathered around the table collectively held their breath - then a shared sigh passed through the room.

Managing and leading must always be about measuring at some point. Organizations have no reason to exist unless they are producing results, assessing them, then adapting and changing to produce even better results. If businesses don’t do this they die (and rightfully so). If those in the social sector don’t do this they are irrelevant, wasteful and breed cynicism.

There is no quantifiable result for that broken man who dropped his match fragments on the map, but the story is very powerful. A major NGO might invest millions in community development projects, but the numbers are meaningless compared to the real value of one story like this one, certainly in terms of the potential for raising funds.

Stories require serious responsibility on the part of the storyteller because stories are easy to manipulate (or even make up). When we claim that "this really happened" an entire new dimension of meaning is presented to the listener.

The fall can be painful when integrity is sacrificed. A young woman in the Northwest U.S. recently claimed someone else had thrown acid at her face. Her pathetic scarred face, photographed sitting in a hospital bed, generated sympathy and donations until the truth emerged - she had done it to herself, for unknown reasons. Meaning shifted dramatically.

Sometimes, if a story is too good to be true, it probably isn't. And, we should find meaning in the real stories with care. A solid story is worth a thousand numbers.

So how do we measure the meaning of human beings? Leaders influence followers with stories much more than with numbers. Much of leadership is making meaning. (Dick Ellsworth and Mike Csikszentmihalyi used to teach a great course at Claremont on this very topic.)

So make meaning with matchsticks in mind ... carefully and with integrity.

3 dynamics for high AMPerage leadership

Adaptive management paradigms (AMPs!) helped me think about the different toolkits needed for local and global management practice. The two contexts seem to be different, requiring different emphases. This became challenging when designing two MBA programs in the Caribbean. One aimed at international healthcare practitioners with significant prior experience working online from essentially anywhere in the world. The second focused on international business in the context of the Eastern Caribbean for private-sector people with more limited prior experience, but also able to work online from anywhere in the world.

Both “local” and "global" meant different things. Both were MBAs, requiring experience – but the texture and outcomes seemed very different. So AMPs seemed like a good idea.

AMPs recognize that every target is moving, yet we use “snapshots” of information to manage situations. More than ever, organizations are in constant movement – for every decision, the organization may be in a new place. (See missional GPS) This is a bridging strategy – both across time, but also between the local and the global.

At least three dimensions of AMPs need explanation. AMPs are:

  • Contextually dynamic: both local and global arenas outside the organization affect activities. For a business, the industry and the market loom large.
  • Transactionally dynamic: each managing/leading transaction has its own set of complexities. A management transaction is the lowest common denominator in functional management. It is simply any action between two individuals which contributes to a result aimed at a common objective in an organizational environment of some kind. As these add up an organization should demonstrate performance, adherence to mission/business and responsiveness to its meaningful Outside [external results]. Management transactions generally occur within the organization, but should be aimed outside.
  • Situationally dynamic: each set of transactions carried out in local/global contexts change with the situation. The contextual dynamic forms the backdrop, each action is transactionally dynamic, but the situation dynamics shape the outcomes irrevocably.

Essentially this is change management. We hear often that a group “is resistant to change” or that an organization, waking from sleepy complacency, now needs “change management”. The simple truth for nearly any organization, at nearly any point in time, is that we as leaders are always exercising change management. Organizations either handle change or stagnate and become irrelevant. All management, and certainly all leadership, is about change, movement and dynamism.

It helps to use our concept of AMPs to sort through change. Try categorizing these three dynamic areas in considering a familiar case. It helps when deciding what you can change, as well as what you cannot. More to the point, use this to remember you are aiming at a moving target while you yourself are moving.

Where will this set of transactions, situation and context move dynamically by next week?

What shape should my AMP take to provide authentic leadership for these followers?

Is crisis management a form of social capital?

Peter Drucker said management is making knowledge effective, and I like to add “through relationships”. One definition of Social Capital is “anything that facilitates individual or collective action, generated by networks of relationships, reciprocity, trust, and social norms.” There’s overlap here somehow. Management creates and integrates social capital, and takes on its property of increasing with use – it compounds itself. So if management (and presumably leadership) creates capacity in organizations and communities, might it therefore be considered a form of social capital?

Crisis management is always a good litmus test for social capital concepts. Traditionally, “management” in a typical community crisis or local emergency is probably closer to a form of social triage, where middle management civil servants, usually lacking clear authority, constantly make decisions using unclear and shifting priorities, and trade off mutually-unacceptable alternatives in a politically-charged, unstable and compromised environment, in order to reach the unrealistic goal of some kind of consistently effective action.

The Incident Command System emphasizes “command”, but command techniques and practices are clearly limited to field operations among professional responders. At any level above field command and outside the emergency operations center, “management” quickly becomes complicated and unconventional. And anytime in the field, when nonprofessional or voluntary resources are engaged, “command” will not cause diverse constituencies and volunteers to coalesce into a smoothly functioning emergency response.

In community crisis management, multiple hazards can create both primary and secondary crises. For either, broader resources are needed. In fact, the broader the resource base, the greater the community’s capacity. But broad community capacity cannot be “managed”, and definitely cannot be “commanded”. The community crisis management continuum exends from power (the ability to cause an outcome directly) through “infuence” (indirect causation) to “appreciation” or “appreciative enquiry” (understanding and valuing external events over which we have no control or influence), as ever more diverse resources come into play.[1] Jim Collins’ legislative leadership fits here somewhere.

Might be an interesting angle to think about management and leadership...


[1] Weisbord, M. R. (1992). Discovering Common Ground: How Future Search Conferences Bring People Together to Achieve Breakthrough Innovation, Empowerment, Shared Vision, and Collaborative Action (1st ed ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. P. 173.

3 steps to sustainability loops: the Jesuits

Why are we intrigued by the Jesuits? The Jesuits have thrived for nearly 500 years. Surely there is a sustainability loop here somewhere.

Their passion is arresting. Films convey this past in today’s visual culture. The memorable image from The Mission is of the lone naked man, strapped to a wooden cross, dropping over the edge of Brazil’s monumental Iguassu Falls in an endless, slow-motion fall entering a roiling mist of seemingly infinite turbulent water. The pathos of Black Robe echoes this.

Even the elitism of the Jesuits’ rigorously selective membership process appeals to our vanity and yearning to be and to be with the finest. The “few good men” of the Marine Corps pales in comparison. Each selectee would not be accepted unless he promised brilliant leadership, commitment unto death, nobility of spirit and staggering intellectual gifts. (I’m tempted but I’m married and not even a Catholic! Though Loyola's mother's last name was Balda so maybe I'm related...)

In short, the brand is doing well. Obviously, weak and vain men appeared in Jesuit ranks, and some made it to the top. Not all the stories are honorable, and there were real reasons for the suppression of 1773. Not every brother teaching in the local catholic high school is Jeremy Irons. (Though it has been said that the Jesuits are the world’s largest higher education network.)

The basic sustainability pieces are in place: a negative reinforcing loop of perceived problems in contemporary Catholicism pushed Ignatius Loyola to create a balancing loop in the creation of the order. This balancing loop took shape in such a way that it has supported sustainability for these nearly five hundred years of operation.

Some background: at their founding by Loyola, a number of innovations forged their initial culture.

They were:

  • Out of uniform and wore no habits (though the “black robes” did show up later)
  • Uncloistered – not hidden away from the world in monasteries or anchorite cells
  • Non-contemplative – the daily office was not required
  • Non-ascetic – they did not practice rigourous self-discipline and self-denial
  • Committed to the so-called “fourth vow” - emphasizing apostolic mission/papal obedience
  • Not allowed higher office outside the order
  • Encouraged in unrestricted spiritual activity – there were no parish/pulpit boundaries

Chris Lowney wrote a modern-day management study of this long-lasting organization and identified “four pillars” of the movement – self-awareness, ingenuity, love and heroic deeds. (his terms). I believe these derived momentum drivers could incorporate Lowney’s “pillars” and form the core of the Jesuit sustainability loop:

  1. A BHAG
  2. The nuestro modo de proceder
  3. The examen

Lowney’s “heroic deeds” sounds similar to Jim Collins’ Big Hairy Audacious Goal, framed as a worthy sacrifice for the highly selective group of young men who were eventually admitted to the order over the centuries. This is probably the demand-side driver and therefore the key to continuing momentum. At times, this seems like an almost reckless squandering of brilliant lives. Peter Drucker mentioned the Jesuits often and specifically challenged this lack of focus [1]on results. Yet perhaps the drama of Jesuit martyr stories that built the “brand” and challenged new recruits is the real point.

The nuestro modo de proceder translates as “our way of proceeding”. Perhaps one of the tightest corporate cultures in the history of the world, “our way” includes concepts like “running full speed toward perfection” and “standing with one foot raised”. I’ll further fold in Lowney’s “love” and “ingenuity” (innovation and creativity?) to this set of underlying assumptions that brought order to their task. It might be just another set of values but for its strong action orientation. This makes it a momentum driver. The simple Jesuit idea of magis (more) creates a kind of accelerator within this driver that further spurs to constant movement. Even the psychology of Flow has been used to understand the Jesuit experience.

Tim Van Gelder’s blog restates Loyola’s “spiritual algebra”, which is also a critical component in “our way”:

  1. Identify the issue you need to decide upon, framed as whether to take a proposed action or not
  2. Identify and keep in mind  your most important values and objectives.
  3. Cultivate an indifference to the outcome.
  4. List and weigh up the pros and cons of acting in the proposed way, and the pros and cons of not acting.
  5. Determine whether acting has the greater net benefit
  6. Choose what to do based on this determination rather than your gut feeling (“inclination of sense”).

Finally, the examen. Lowney’s “self-awareness” emerges from this, but so does Drucker’s idea of regular performance reviews, external results and the meaningful Outside. This requires at least daily reflections on goals, character, behaviors and outcomes, and constantly ranks activity against impact.

This sustainability loop appears to work with only three drivers, so it meets the elegance test. Obviously organizational sustainability is more complex than simple balancing and reinforcing loops, but they do help envision some of the issues involved.

What’s your favorite sustainable organization? Can you diagram it?


[1] Drucker, 21st century p. 165.

5 steps to sustainability loops: Simeon’s Trust

Some management history... While at Cambridge University several generations ago, I researched an historical management case study focused on sustainable organizations. An innovative clergyman, Charles Simeon, created a 5-step cycle that fixed a minority group in English ecclesiastical society “to the remotest ages” through a strategy that generated a balancing loop, which offset an existing reinforcing loop. Reinforcing loops are cycles that build momentum each time a loop is completed. They can work like virtuous circles or like death spirals. (The former are preferable, btw.) To counter a death spiral, you need a balancing loop. (But if it’s an airplane were talking about, better use the parachute.)

The current reinforcing loop blocked clergymen of Simeon’s ilk from parish service, so he created a systems adjustment strategy through a balancing loop.

The steps to Simeon’s balancing loop were:

  1. Recruit young men at Cambridge University for the Anglican ministry through “conversation parties” at his rooms in Kings’ College.
  2. Establish theological colleges next to major universities for ordination training.
  3. Encourage sympathetic bishops in dioceses so that ordinands would be ordained.
  4. Purchase advowsons to place ministers in parishes and manage them through a trust.
  5. Support annual clergy meetings for continuing education and sustaining relationships.

All this started in the late eighteenth century, and over 200 parishes in the Church of England continue functioning to this day as a result. While others obviously assisted in this strategy, Simeon’s hand can be seen throughout.

Functionally, this loop identified the five key momentum drivers – no more, no less – that were needed to offset the existing system that opposed his desired end. The reinforcing loop offset by his balancing loop became literally a perpetual motion machine over the last two centuries or so.

The genius in the strategy lay in point number 4. While opponents could attack or shut down any of the other four drivers in the system, the advowson tactic removed parishes from the marketplace and legally protected them for a very long time. The demand side – the need for ministers in the parish – drove each of the other four supply-side drivers. As long as openings in the parishes occurred through death, resignation or transfer, the system purred along. A point of vulnerability could be the trustees overseeing #4, but this has generally not been a problem.

Additional elegance is found in the simplicity of five drivers. Perhaps four might work, but I’m not sure.

So here’s five thoughts for sustaining organizations:

  1. Frame your organization in terms of reinforcing or balancing loops
  2. Find the smallest number of momentum drivers
  3. Give each the simplest possible task
  4. Identify and isolate a key driver that can generate a perpetual motion machine
  5. Monitor cycles with the longest view in mind, always innovating

Can this work in business? Try Apple Computer ... drivers could be:

  1. Steve Jobs
  2. Brand
  3. Innovation
  4. Promotion/hype

What if Jobs dies? What if the heavily-hyped new product events flag? Innovation may be the key driver here. Can companies lose their ability to innovate? Of course.

Have you ever conceived your organization/company as a sustainable reinforcing loop?

6 tips for Garden Variety Creativity: No sleeping bag required

A popular article at the New York Times examines the hypomania we associate with entrepreneurs such as Seth Priebatsch, founder of Scvnger (pronounced “scavenger”), who quit Princeton and now occupies a sleeping bag on a couch in his office when he’s not working 96 hours in a row. The article claims that:

The attributes that make great entrepreneurs, the experts say, are common in certain manias, though in milder forms and harnessed in ways that are hugely productive. Instead of recklessness, the entrepreneur loves risk. Instead of delusions, the entrepreneur imagines a product that sounds so compelling that it inspires people to bet their careers, or a lot of money, on something that doesn’t exist and may never sell.

But in a contrary view Peter Drucker challenged these perceptions about entrepreneurs:

Despite much discussion these days of the “entrepreneurial personality,” few of the entrepreneurs with whom I have worked during the past 30 years had such personalities. But I have known many people – salespeople, surgeons, journalists, scholars, even musicians – who did have them without being the least bit entrepreneurial.

Drucker believed these preconceptions could even be dangerous – complicating the idea of creativity in organizations until all but the most stereotypical (read manic) opt out. Instead, he argued that innovation is mostly a systematic discipline practiced by examining several areas where it is likely to occur: the unexpected, incongruities, process needs, and industry and market structures, as well as demographics, changes in perception, and new knowledge.

With the current economic crisis no organization can survive without innovation; it is “the means by which the entrepreneur either creates new wealth-producing resources or endows existing resources with enhanced potential for creating wealth.” If this capability is limited to the gregarious workaholic then large pools of latent creative capital will go unexploited. We need a new paradigm of innovation, what I call “garden variety creativity.” GVC is adapted to the seasons – the cultural and economic changes afoot. It is cultivated through the systematic application of knowledge, and it is native – endemic or naturalized to the local climate (e.g. to local needs, threats, and opportunities).

Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet entrepreneurs who exemplify GVC--introducing innovation to organizations like Coca Cola and Unilever, as well as social sector ventures. ?What If! Innovation is a $40 million global company working in over 40 countries. When I entered the large oak doors in the East Village I was surprised to find lime green floors, Ikea couches, and paper canvasses begging for the multicolored sharpies cupped nearby--and not a hypomanic in sight.

There is a changing landscape of innovation in companies, and it won’t look like an archetypal entrepreneur or brilliant mystic. These tips from ?What If! on creating an innovative culture require discipline, planning, and leadership (and can be implemented by any personality):

  1. Find the key to an innovative culture by creating a virtuous circle of structure, attitude, behaviors and skills.
  2. Identify the behaviors you want and encourage leaders to model them. Innovation is about people and how they behave together.
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Openness and trust provide a basis for an innovative culture.
  4. Take creativity out of the hands of “creative people” and put it back where it belongs – with everyone.
  5. Hire for attitude and teach for skills – successful teams are created, not inherited.
  6. Practice followership rather than leadership. If you walk the floor and reward for risk, people will come with you.

How does your garden grow?

Keep The Circus Under The Tent – At Your Peril

Reflections on September 10, 2001 On September 10, 2001, I delivered a presentation on terrorism and interagency coordination to an audience of American and Mexican military and government officials in Mexico City.  My slide-deck, as it is known in military parlance, included images of the World Trade Towers and details of the 1993 truck-bomb attack, as well as open-source information on Osama Bin Laden.  I had no special insight into the prophetic timing of my presentation, or of the magnitude of the events that would prove the resolve of both the perpetrators and targets of this infamous attack.   There was, however, a foreshadowing regarding   problems leading up to September 11th and which are present in most crisis events: the factors of trust and its impact on effective communication and coordination.   I look back with a mix of emotions on the events of the following morning, because lack of unity and the silo-effect were contributing factors that plagued U.S. efforts to effectively develop a collaborative strategy of threat mitigation.

One legacy of this lesson is the development by the New York Police Department (NYPD) of an intelligence service which operates beyond the borders of the United States. The thin blue line of NYPD has determined that federal intelligence agencies failed to serve the City of New York, and the police have therefore taken matters into their own hands.  This strategy, in the eyes of some, negates reliance by the City of New York on others for the most critical information concerning threats to the city.  I suggest this model also highlights the underlying problem: trust. Trust, or its lack, is often mentioned as the reason that critical information is not shared among individuals and across organizations. Fragmented or broken communication, based in part on lack of trust, remains a threat to success.

How can any leader build or, more delicately rebuild, trust in order to foster the open and free exchange of information?  One method is confidence-building-measures.  This involves agreements between individuals and organizations in which each party agrees to take steps up an escalating ladder of good-faith gestures. Sadly, establishing or restoring trust and communication often occurs in the face of a breakdown, not as a standard business practice. Hindsight bias notwithstanding, I wish my presentation on September 10, 2001, had focused less on the pedantic protocols of interagency relations and more on the process of developing confidence-building-measures.

What will it take to move toward a model of trusted communication and away from fragmented and dysfunctional silos?

B-Schools and “the rise of the rest”

Clara Lovett’s commentary on “American” (I think she means U.S.) b-schools is timely. “The rise of the rest” should be some kind of global agenda item. I am presently involved in starting MBAs in a developing region. In one country here, over thirty percent of the people live below the poverty level. Literacy is a struggle and the culture is not heavily invested in reading. Tourism provides a lot of revenue though “service” is not generally understood at a level the North American or European customer might prefer. Other revenue comes from overseas remittances.

Wealth must be created in this region for long-term sustainability and there are bright and eager entrepreneurs and business people who want to do this. With credit union loans and family help some might be able to afford to pay around $90 US per semester credit for an MBA, but could not stop working while studying. Part-time MBAs are the only option. As best as I can figure Harvard costs around $1,800 per unit; adding in the need to live there full-time it’s about $3,700 per unit for a family. One of the places I used to work now charges $1,785. My guess is that at least 99% of the world could never afford these MBAs. More to the point, even if they could, the education would quite likely have little to do with creating wealth back home.

Books like the Bottom Billion and Fortune at the Bottom suggest that we all should be concerned about wealth creation in lots of places. When considering these ideas, elite B-Schools, with a few exceptions, either aim at getting more for those who already got it, or throw in some social responsibility courses that take students to a barrio or favella somewhere to reflect on social issues (or drink the local beer).

The MBA elite, represented mostly by AACSB, seem to be a pretty self-absorbed bunch. Maybe a fundamental re-imagining of the first-world MBA is called for, something that might contribute to “the rest”. However this poses an essential conundrum... unless the faculty of these schools have spent a significant amount of time at ground-level in these places they won’t have a clue.

Next steps:

  1. Re-orient your worldview
  2. Live with “the rest” for a while
  3. Don’t assume that a U.S. model is right, good or appropriate anywhere else
  4. Set up the teaching MBA that will equip practitioners actually to teach others, rather than create personal or corporate wealth
  5. Figure out functional management and apply it locally – this means that local business and management paradigms might create infinitely-customizable MBAs
  6. Trash current ideas about accreditation and start over
  7. Fear not new models

Each of the italicized phrases in the list of seven above will provide fodder for future blogs.

In the meantime, let me know your thoughts on creating an MBA for “the rest” (of the world).

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7 Steps to an MBA for the rest:

  1. Re-orient your worldview
  2. Live with “the rest” for a while
  3. Don’t assume that a U.S. model is right, good or appropriate anywhere else
  4. Set up the teaching MBA that will equip practitioners actually to teach others, rather than create personal or corporate wealth
  5. Figure out functional management and apply it locally – this means that local business and management paradigms might create infinitely-customizable MBAs
  6. Trash current ideas about accreditation and start over
  7. Fear not new models