Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Personal Development for the Confused

Do you think that personal development is an integral part of being a leader?

Hmmm ...

Well, it probably depends on what personal development means. Personally, :-) I think there's some confusion about this.

Would you, for example, expect that your boss should be more personally developed than you because he is further up the company ladder? What would that mean in terms of his behaviour?

How about the CEO? Or even the President / Prime Minister of your country? From a personal development perspective, how comfortable do you feel about them being your leaders? What would it mean for the company or the country if they were more personally developed?

If Bill Gates is the richest person in the world, is he also the most personally developed?

Perhaps we could ask Anthony Robbins or Steve Pavlina for their opinons? Lots of people do. There's a whole industry around personal development.

It can be difficult to talk properly about some things in these politically correct and sensitive times, but how do we decide if someone is personally developed or not? In comparison to ... what or whom?

That's part of the confusion, I think. What's often called personal development might be better termed personal accomplishment, or even expert accomplishment.

A balance of both is good. Be accomplished and be a person.

What about your employees?
How's their personal development?

'Who cares!
', some might answer, 'as long as they do their jobs!'.

Which attitude probably part explains any problems you might be having in that regard...
in the opinion of someone who has quite a way to go with his own personal development.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Corporations don't have Values, People do!

As part of a culture change process with a company I'm working with, I've asked the participants to design a new induction procedure. Part of the induction will be an attempt to explain the corporate values and instead of presenting the usual values/mission statement here's the question I put to the group:

"How does working here allow me to express my personal values?"

The idea was to get individuals to relate some true stories about what they had done, what had happened and so give new employees (and perhaps old ones, too), some introduction to the culture of the place.

A couple of points I want to make:

Firstly,it was really hard for some people to stop with the corporate-speak; you know, the 'employees are our greatest asset, blah, blah, blah'. I'm not doubting that these people believe stuff like that (or that they should believe it), but I wonder if they actually felt it? I certainly didn't feel any connection between the head and the heart from the people who spoke that way, and using corporate-speak doesn't tell anyone how this company is any different from another company - only the unique stories of what has happened here can do that.

Secondly, I deliberately asked for personal values, not corporate values. I seriously doubt that corporations really have values and maybe it's time we stopped kidding ourselves that they do, and take personal responsibility for what we do in the name of the corporation. Sure, some committee may get together and formulate a nice sounding list but are those really the values of the whole corporation? Remember, the fact that a corporation has legal standing as a person is simply a fiction, something that's been enacted in law, but it doesn't make a company a flesh-and-blood, living, breathing and feeling person.

(BTW, I've just downloaded 'The Corporation' via Democracy. I haven't seen it yet.)

We could say that a company's values are evidenced by the actions of the company, but it is still individuals or groups of individuals who are really taking the actions. To say that the company is taking the action simply allows the individuals to legally, if not morally, shift responsibility, thanks again to that legal fiction.

That's why I think it makes a lot more sense to ask people how working at a company allows them to express their personal values. Now, if one person tells a story about that, then I can listen to him or her and judge whether I wholeheartedly support those values, or I can just live with them, or at the other extreme, find them unacceptable.

Of course, if I find them unacceptable something's got to give.

If lots of people share their stories, then we have a pretty good idea of the company's actual culture as expressed by actual behaviour. And we remember it.

Friday, November 24, 2006

BRFSStrategic announces a new C.F.O.

Following on from 'Acronyms: What's in a Name?', I'm pleased to announce that BRFSStrategic has a new
hief Friendliness Officer

as part of the team.

, pictured, at nine weeks already has a natural ability for her main role concerning friendliness, and is rapidly learning how to carry out her other onerous duties including lying/sleeping under my chair while I'm blogging, reminding me not to take myself too seriously
and chewing everything in sight!

Congratulations are also in order to the team at on the appointment of their new C.E.O. (Chief Eating Officer).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Acronyms: What's in a Name?

Acronyms! Love them or hate them? You know what I mean - those words formed from the initial letters of other words. You can go to and look up over 3,000,000 million of them.

Governments are really good at making them up so that they are pronouncible but carry no meaning other than identification: e.g.

  • NOFEAR (National Organisation for European American Rights)
  • NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation),
  • CSIRO, pronounced 'sigh-row' (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation),
  • ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation),
  • and apparently about 3,000,000 others.

Geez, I've even done it myself with BRFSStrategic - Big Red Flying Squirrel. You'd think I'd know better!

But consider when an acronym can become a useful metaphor full of meaning:-

NESST - National Executive Strategic Sustainability Team - the idea being that this top-level team was to be a nest to nurture various initiatives.

CAST - Change Agent Support Team - for a team responsible for implementing change, the acronym made it clear that the team members were the cast who were the main players in any effort, not just directing but actively participating.

NeWT - New World Training - for a training program designed to give participants awareness and tools to manage their own culture. Quite apt, because a newt is an animal capable of regenerating lost limbs.

What I found really fascinating was that the culture in each of these cases was 'robust' enough to tolerate some digs at these acronyms.

For example, one wag described NESST as a place for those who were feathering their own! CAST was quickly referred to in some quarters as CAST-AWAY. NeWT left some people wondering what parts needed regeneration.

These sort of meaningful acronyms tell a story of their own, and give people some way of judging when they are no longer apt
acronyms but only anachronisms (sound pretty close don't they?), which could indicate it's time to change, give them up and do something else.

Do you have any favourite acronyms???

addendum 24/11/2006: there's a lovely post about acronmyms by John Maeda here.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Buy In ... Sell Out

Do you have any phrases that when you hear them make your flesh creep or start to ring warning bells?

Just about any sentence that contains the words “
get buy-in” will do that for me. “Getting Buy-In” is a concept that I hate – I hate hearing it, I hate talking like that and I hate thinking like that.

I hate hearing it because it automatically smacks of insincerity and manipulation to me. Like what we’re wanting to do isn’t quite palatable on its own so we have to spice up the dish somehow, like using curry to disguise meat that’s off.

I hate talking like that because it feels like I’ve gone over to the other side, the dark side where I’m not relating to others as whole people but more as commodities that can actually be bought and sold. Hmmm, let’s see; exactly how much buy-in can I get?; as if I can measure how many grams of co-operation I can buy (extract) from another’s heart, mind and soul.

I hate thinking like that because, frankly, it’s a cop-out. It’s too easy to assume that I can buy compliance at some level, rather than take my proposal to the people who will have to execute it anyway and genuinely, respectfully ask them what they think. It’s easier in the short term to go for compliance rather than develop co-operation or even collaboration.

Do you think that the people you are trying to get buy-in from don’t know? At some level they do – at some level they know that a very calculated exchange is taking place. And they are weighing that up constantly – not just at the moment when they have given you
‘buy-in’, which most people wrongly assume is forever and unchanging.

That’s the essence of my objection to ‘buy-in’ thinking – it’s transactional rather than relational and don’t be surprised if at some point the people you thought you had eternal ‘buy-in’ from suddenly decide: “Right, well, I’ve bought enough of that! It’s time to
sell out.”

And I think they have every right.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Building the Pyramid, Running Round the Circle


Hugh Macleod, somewhere on his Gaping Void blog,
has this neat cartoon depicting the company hierarchy. It's a pyramid, naturally enough, and at the base are 'losers', in the middle are 'clueless' and at the top are 'sociopaths'. Fair enough, even if it's not totally fair. Perhaps it's only 95% fair ;-). And while Hugh labels the bottom layer 'losers', it seems to me that in this particular pyramid, everyone is a loser.

Dave Pollard's post, Living on the Edge, presents a diagram of a series of concentric circles - the outermost circle which comprises 10% of the population are the innovators on the edge, and the innermost circle which comprises just 1% of the population are the political and business elite. I suppose that if you had a conical pyramid instead of the usual square and looked at it from a hot-air balloon :-) both Hugh's and Dave's drawings might look similar. Not that I equate Dave's edge-dwellers with Hugh's losers!

There's another connection, too. Both Hugh and Dave have described systems - very sick systems, full of wicked problems: and full of people, too, including some wicked ones no doubt.

Today a thought popped into my head - just what do most companies do that actually adds real meaning to people's lives? When I talk to business owners, and when I talk to employees, I'm often struck by the similarity of the conversations. The really serious conversations, which don't happen so often because they are so scary, all seem to lead to 'meaning' ... like, "What does all this activity really mean?" or "Well, now I've made it, it just doesn't seem to mean what I thought it would". And the same inquiries could be made not just by individuals but also by entire systems, however defined; a team, a company or even a country.

Somehow I know that it doesn't matter how much training you have or take, how many 'change management' initiatives you introduce, or how many workshops, focus groups, seminars or Open Spaces you invoke, nothing makes much lasting difference, nothing sticks, without 'meaning'. It's tricky because 'meaning' doesn't get decided - - - it sort of arises, and I have a hunch that it does so individually AND collectively almost simultaneously because we are relational beings. (If it doesn't arise, then it's basically imposed, which is the cause of the lament of so many business owners that their employees just don't seem to get it - of course they don't ... it literally means nothing to them.)

Practically, what does it mean, say, for a company? I'm of the view that most strategic activity is basically what could be called sense-making. The best analogy I've heard is that it's making sense of a game where no one has told you the rules or how many players there are and the rules and the players keep changing all the time! Which is also about wicked problems.

Sense-making is only a stepping stone to meaning. Lots of people tend to equate the two but I think there's a big difference. The best way I know how to explain the difference is through what my father told me about death: "We may comprehend death, but we will never understand it" - sense-making is aligned with comprehension, but meaning is about understanding.

What's more, there's no sense in your making sense all alone - you have to communicate it to others, both to be affected by them and their perspectives and to test the reality of your sense-making. In a company those others are what I call a 'strategic team'. Teams really are the greatest strategic asset you have in a company, but most so-called teams have quite a way to go before they perform in this way. It's more than a functional or operational arrangement, which is where most teams seem to be.

It's the situation where you realise that without the team and the other people on the team, your life would somehow have less meaning even if only because being part of the team brings out the best in you, work-wise and personally. Now that's a tough call for the company, for the team and for the individuals. It's also a choice that involves paying as much attention to the process of the team as to getting the job done.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

What sort of expert do you need?

I read an interesting article recently about being an expert. There was a neat graph in the article which showed where experts add value. What immediately struck me was the immediate correlation possible with Snowden's ontologies, so I've fiddled about with the original graph and the result is what you see (hopefully).

I think that Mauboussin is writing about 'technical' experts. I make a distinction between 'technical' experts and 'process' experts. The technical experts know what you think you want to know, the process experts know how to get you to deliver the results you want with what you already know. That's a simplistic definition but it gives the general idea. I'm a process consultant. I hesitate to say a process expert, because I'm always learning.

When you're choosing an expert/consultant, it pays to be pretty clear about what sort of expert you need for the problem you're dealing with. Following both Snowden's ontology and Mauboussin's graph to classify your problem, just about the only time you need a technical expert is when you're dealing with a 'simple' problem or a 'complicated' one. This is the realm of best practice and all you really want to know is how the other guys are doing it, so you aren't falling behind the competition.

I have two caveats here - first,if you aren't already best practice, then you don't have the right people who know their stuff and second, what's best practice for one outfit might not necessarily be best practice for another, even in the same field. Why? Because no two companies are exactly the same.

In any case, whatever a technical expert tries to teach you (and basically that's what they're trying to do) may not be what you need to learn. And the best learning is on-going, self-directed and experiential anyway, so I'm hard pressed to see why you'd hire a technical expert in the 21st century unless you were avoiding responsibility. There's quite a lot of that, though.

I'll always remember a meeting I went to, one of those peer-group mentoring type of things where the group was deciding what the topics of future meetings might include. The attendees seemed to be getting really excited about stuff like 'paperless office' and CRM and as a facilitator I was at least happy that there was some energy in the room. After the meeting one of the group told me that he'd never been so depressed in his life! He said that if he wanted to know about the paperless office, he'd get off his butt and learn all about it himself and there were more valuable ways to be spending the meeting. He was right, of course, and I doubt that he ever spent much on being taught in business - he was too busy learning what he needed to know, not what some consultant thought he needed. Back to the graph - and it's clear that the value of a content expert drops off pretty quickly once we're out of the quadrant of known simple problems and chunkable complicated ones.

With complicated but knowable problems, the real skill comes in getting to see the whole and not just the parts. In a real sense too much specific expertise is the very thing that prevents you from seeing that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. With too much expertise you just can't get out of yourself enough to see what's really going on in the big picture. Some technical knowledge about what your company does is probably useful for a consultant, if only to put you at ease, but it's really the same situation as for a simple problem ... if you don't know your business from a specific content point of view then maybe you're in the wrong business?

Complex problems become more about process. It's wicked (intractable) stuff and the only way through it is by collective sense making devolving into collective responsibility. The consultant might be EXPERT IN THE PROCESSES used to make sense collectively but probably not an expert in getting people to be responsible. If you're looking for an expert to tell you how to run your business then maybe you're in the wrong business, because as I said earlier you should have all the expertise you need right there in the business.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Bella Italia

I'm in Italy at the moment. This is beautiful and also frustrating. It is beautiful because there is no drought here, unlike Australia. It is also beautiful because the Italians have a particular approach to life ... which is also why it is frustrating. It takes about 3 weeks here to get a fixed phone line, but only about half an hour to get a mobile number. So I am sitting in the one and only internet cafe for the district, catching up on e-mails for the last two weeks. Next week we are off to Tuscany and when we get back, maybe the phone will be on.

Until that time, my apologies. Look forward to posting when the net comes on.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

We Are Not All the Same

In another life, I spent 4 years in Kenya. Every morning at daybreak, I'd pilot a hot-air balloon full of tourists over the Masai Mara game reserve. It was a fantastic time for me - I was doing something exciting in one of the most beautiful, diverse places on the planet.

Each morning a crew of 15 Kenyans would prepare the balloon and help at the launch. The passengers would pile into the wicker basket and off we'd float over the magnificent landscape, game-spotting from our lofty vantage point and usually landing near some hippo pools, where the crew would have already raced ahead and prepared a full breakfast.

For many passengers it was the highlight of their trip - perhaps even their lives! - sitting in the middle of the African savannah after an exhilarating flight, eating an English breakfast and drinking champagne. Most of the time they simply summed it up by saying, "Thank you for the best morning of my life!" Now
that's job satisfaction.

But my job was easy, really: I was the 'bwana'. That's what the Kenyans often called me. It means a lot more than 'mister' and hopefully a lot less than 'master'.

Most of the time, I let the crew get on with their work as a team, interfering as little as possible. After all, they had seen plenty of pilots before me. They worked hard physically, to unpack and pack the balloon - all 350,000 cu.ft of it fully inflated - and prepare the tables and chairs for breakfast. Everything had to be loaded and unloaded onto the back of an ancient Bedford truck manually. And their pay wasn't great; certainly not compared to yours or mine.

Still, there was one guy, Gabriel, who never seemed to be doing much at all. Often seems to be the way with teams, doesn't it? I watched Gabriel for a few weeks and, by my judgement, he was certainly doing a lot less than the other guys on the crew. Not only that, he was always the first to have his breakfast which the crew did when the passengers had gone.

"This guy isn't pulling his weight," I fumed to myself, "because, after all, it's only fair that they all do the same amount of work, isn't it?" So, I resolved to talk to the crew chief, a man named Makalla, to tell
him to get his act into gear, talk to Gabriel and get him to pull his weight.

Makalla came to see me and I launched into a lengthy explanation, which seems to be the way to make your point in Africa. Makalla nodded and nodded while I was talking, and the more I talked the more I agreed with my own point of view. "This is great - I'm getting somewhere," I noted to myself as I continued lecturing about team dynamics, leadership, equality and fairness. "Maybe I can make a difference here, be a leader.",

When I finished, Makalla simply looked at me and said, "But bwana Alex,
we are not all the same."

I deflated, depressed. I wondered if they would ever get the point.A couple of weeks later,
I got the point.

It was a windy dawn. The burners were roaring hot air into the balloon when the tether rope slipped and I was dragged under the basket for about 50 metres as the balloon was being pushed along by the wind. I had managed to turn off the burners and pilot light but was struggling to pull the rip-line which would open the top of the balloon and deflate it.Then I heard Gabriel shout - "bwana Alex! bwana Alex!", saw him running, and next, risk reaching in to grab the rip-line, very likely saving me from serious injury.

How many of our organizational teams are as adept at dealing with diversity as my African team?

How many of our organizational leaders really can accept that we are not all the same?

How many of our organizational leaders can create environments where even the different can shine?

Buiding a Relationship, Building a Brand

What I’m trying to do here is just to let you in on what sort of person I am, and how I might have some useful perspectives for you.

First, from StrengthsFinder – here are my top 5 strengths:

People strong in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connection between seemingly disparate phenomena.

People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

People strong in the Self-Assurance theme feel confident in their ability to manage their own lives. They possess an inner compass that gives them confidence that their decisions are right.

People strong in the Strategic theme create alternate ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant pattern and issues.

People strong in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.

The lights really started to switch on for me when I did the StrengthsFinder test – building on strengths seems a much better way to go than being ‘typed’ or ‘disced’ or whatever. I felt that I really had something to work with, to shape, for the future. Sort of open-ended, like many good questions are!

Secondly, RightPath – produces a really useful ‘unique profile’ – useful because it’s practical.

Here’s mine:

Eight Strengths -

  • Initiating, wants to set the agenda
  • Sees the strategic/future potential
  • Good at meeting and communicating with people
  • Has a dry sense of humour
  • Enjoys being in the spotlight
  • Engaging and a good listener
  • Likes and promotes change
  • Works with broad concepts
Four Struggles
  • Can be judgemental and critical
  • Can be na├»ve and too trusting
  • May tend toward restlessness
  • May be too relaxed when diligence is needed
See the parallels between the two profiles – StrengthsFinder was like the floodlight, while RightPath is the spotlight.

That's the sort of thing I like to do when I work with organizations, too. Start with a floodlight and then use a spotlight.

What do the initials B R F S mean?

B R F S stands for Big Red, the Flying Squirrel - really!

It could also stand for 'Be Really Freaking Strategic', but mostly I chose it so you'd remember it ... and who wouldn't remember a Big Red Flying Squirrel?

I have to let you in on some secrets, though.

BRFSStrategic isn't big - there's only me. I deal with just a few clients at any one time, personally. If you're my client, I'm committed to you in a big way.

Red is a great colour. It's the colour of emotion, the heart, and it means that I'm concerned with the whole person. Organizations are all about people.

Flying takes courage, especially when you don't have wings. Have you ever watched a squirrel leap from branch to branch? It is almost as if they are flying. Plus, in one form or another they seem to be right across the world. In Australia we have squirrel-like sugar gliders. When we are in Italy we watch with awe while the resident 'scoiattolo' performs its acrobatic jumps from tree to tree in the forest next to our place.

The last letter, S, is for 'squirrel'. More importantly, S is also for success.

One of the good things that happened after I decided about the name was coming across Steve Denning's Squirrel Inc, A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling. If someone like Steve has faith in the squirrels, the rest of us probably can too.

So, that's the story about how I decided to start branding this business.

In fact,
I am the brand because there's only me, but until you and I develop a relationship of some sort through this blog, or even working together, I figured Big Red would get us off to a flying start!