By Guy Higgins

Last week, I posted about context and clarity in communication. As I was reading The Admirals (an excellent biographical overview of the four WW II Fleet Admirals, Leahy, King, Nimitz and Halsey) by Walter Borneman, it occurred to me that the exchange of messages surrounding a major WW II battle provided an excellent historical example of what can happen with the lack of clarity and context. Continue reading

Context and Clarity

By Guy Higgins

I recently saw, on social media, a political cartoon from 1941 with a question from the person who posted the cartoon juxtaposing the situation in the cartoon with a situation today. Unable to help myself, I commented, and I received a reply that said, “It was only a question and any implication you draw is yours only.”

That got me to thinking – was that true? Was I reading into the post something that wasn’t there? After much more consideration than I intended, I decided that, while it is remotely possible that I have been wrong in the past, I was not wrong about this. The post was not just a question. By referring to an extremely specific situation, the question was put into a specific context and projected onto a situation today. That’s important because the tacit (but only) purpose of any post was to communicate, and communication must be both clear and complete. Continue reading

The Best…

By Guy Higgins

I recently read an article by Scott Page, an evangelist of cognitive diversity and professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The article, Why Hiring The “Best” People Produces The Least Creative Results, briefly discusses the advantages of applied diversity when contrasted to meritocratic practices. Dr. Page points out that the truly “interesting” problems facing organizations and society today are complex problems (balancing your college-age daughter’s checkbook after it has remained unbalanced for two years while missing four of the monthly statements is hard – but it is neither complex nor terribly interesting). Complex problems are, fundamentally, multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional, thus requiring diversity in the team developing the solution. He, therefore, goes on to discuss how, even given the need for a diverse team, members of the team cannot possess all of the knowledge of their discipline. Continue reading

Carpenter or Cabinet Maker

By Guy Higgins

I often have discussions about leadership versus management. Those discussions usually start because I complain that people use management (or manager) when I think that they should be using leadership (or leader). The pushback I get is that companies use “manager” to encompass the responsibilities of organizing a group of people to achieve the goals of the company. I agree – companies do use “manager” that way. That doesn’t make it correct any more than using the term carpenter when you’re referring to a person skilled in flawless joinery to produce an exquisite piece of furniture. I am not belittling carpenters – carpentry is an important skill and involves no small degree of structural engineering knowledge (albeit mostly informal). Cabinetmakers and carpenters use many of the same techniques – measuring, cutting, joining. That doesn’t mean that any carpenter can make exquisite furniture or that any cabinetmaker will appreciate the easy way to make all the decking pieces line up perfectly at the edge of the deck.

The same perspective applies to leaders and managers. They both use much of the same knowledge. The difference is that you “manage” things like resources and time (just try inspiring time to run more slowly and see what that gets you) while you “lead” people (see how well your team or workforce responds if you move them around like bricks or treat them like the proverbial mushrooms). Continue reading

Leadership in the Time of #MeToo

By Guy Higgins

I just recently read a Harvard Business Review article, In the Wake of #MeToo, Should Corporate Boards Hire Compliance Officers? The article was written in response to the recent spate of sexual harassment allegations and lawsuits.

I responded to that post at the time, but I thought that I would share my thoughts with my Noble Readers – since I think that this is an extremely important area of discussion.

The author of the article, Jim Heskett, gives his definition of the scope of this Compliance Officer: someone who reports directly to the corporate board, independent of the CEO, and who is responsible for “facilitating knowledge of what is actually going on in the organization.” While I think of a compliance officer as someone responsible for ensuring regulatory compliance, it seems to me that Dr. Heskett is discussing someone who understands and monitors the environment or culture or atmosphere of the organization. For simplicity, I’ll refer to that as the atmosphere. Continue reading

A Nobel Laureate’s Advice to Leaders

By Guy Higgins

I recently read a short article on Richard Feynman. The article is titled Who Is Richard Feynman? The Curious Character Who Mastered Thinking and Physics. The article briefly discussed Feynman’s approach to learning and included a few quotes from him. This post is going to look at three of those quotes:

  • “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird… I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
  • “I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad.”
  • “The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.”

So what do these quotations have to do with leadership? Let’s look. Continue reading

Snap Out of It and Fly

By Guy Higgins

I recently came across an article of the same title as this post. The key point of that article was that airplane pilots are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a potentially fatal distraction – focusing on determining the problem with the onboard-computer system/automation and neglecting to fly the airplane. The author speculates that, in fact, airplane pilots may be slowly becoming less adept at actually flying the airplane as they become more adept at manipulating the computer system. Why is this important to organizational leaders? Good question, let’s explore that.

I recently posted on Communication and Power. In that post, I listed the responsibilities of a leader. For the convenience of the Noble Reader, here are those responsibilities (cut and pasted from that post):

  1. To establish an organizational strategy and the associated goals – a good leader will not do this unilaterally, but will enlist her direct reports as I’ve previously posted.
  2. To create an atmosphere within which all organizational employees can succeed and achieve their professional and personal goals.
  3. To allocate the resources needed to achieve implement the strategy and achieve the goals.
  4. To obtain and allocate resources necessary to solve problems.
  5. To solve problems that cannot be solved except by the leader (this can be difficult since the temptation is to solve problems that can be solved by the leader’s team).

The traditional jobs of an airplane pilot are to “aviate, navigate and communicate” in that order. Nowhere does that say or imply, “figure out why Iron Mike or Alexa or any other pseudo intelligent piece of technology is going (or has gone) off the proverbial rails.” Do the important stuff first and the trivial stuff last (or maybe not at all).

My list of the responsibilities of a leader ends with solving the wicked hard problems that no one else can solve. This is the basic aviating of leadership – focus on the crucial stuff and leave the other things to people who have the opportunity to solve them while you (the leader) are dealing with that wicked hard problem. Don’t get sucked into fixing some perceived systemic problem while your airplane (your organization) has “departed controlled flight.” For example (since it’s in the headlines now), if you get a report of sexual harassment, investigate that specific report and take appropriate action rather than starting to wonder about potential systemic HR failings. Leave HR failings to be cleaned up after you get your airplane back in controlled flight.



Dunbar’s Number in the Era of Social Media

By Guy Higgins

I recently came across an article, Maintaining Relationships: The Fallacy of Dunbar’s Number. The article was written by Brad McCarty. The title instantly attracted my attention because I’m a real believer in Dunbar’s Number and I wanted to find out if I was mistaken – was there really some solid evidence that Robin Dunbar was wrong in his conclusion that there is a maximum effective size to the social group that a human can maintain. (Dunbar is the evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist who uncovered evidence that there is a maximum effective size to a social network that human beings can maintain – i.e. Dunbar’s Number.) Continue reading

And in this corner, Improvisation…

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I posted about bureaucracies and both the necessity for what they do (permit large organizations to actually work) and the problems that they create (stasis, stagnation, inefficiency). This week, I want to post about improvisation. I referenced Professor Stephen Asma’s essay on improvisation. He did a far better job of describing improvisation than I could, and I recommend that you read his essay. But, for those of you who are interested in my take on improvisation or who don’t have the time/inclination to read the professor’s essay, here’s how I see it.

Improvisation isn’t just pure ad hoc reaction. There are, I think, two major factors in being able to improvise well – understanding the “rules” that govern improvisation in any specific domain and having lots of experience in that domain. (By “rules” I don’t mean a formal set of written rules such as those that govern bureaucracies, but rather the generally recognized ways in which people can collaborate in non-standard or unplanned ways to achieve their goals). Professor Asma uses jazz improvisation as his model, and I’ll use football. When an experienced quarterback takes the snap and drops back, he frequently sees the play unfolding differently than planned. He now has to improvise to some degree. If he has a lot of experience with his receivers (including his running backs who are in their “receiver mode”), he knows that they will; 1) try to space themselves away from defenders (e.g. get open), 2) move downfield, 3) stay away from their teammates so as not to confuse the situation, 4) move to the same side of the field that the quarterback is moving, and 5) come back to the ball if its thrown to them. None of those rules are in the official football rulebook, but they are the “rules” used by players to recover from a play that has been disrupted by the defense. Exactly what each receiver does isn’t covered by those “rules’” but they permit effective improvisation. Continue reading

In This Corner, Bureaucracy…

By Guy Higgins

I just read an essay in the Aeon e-zine, We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better. I think that, aside from a couple of snarky shots at non-politicians running for office, the article is excellent (and even those snarky shots have some degree of validity). I also expect you are now asking yourself what learning to improvise better has to do with bureaucracy, so I’ll elaborate.

The essay starts off recounting a story about bureaucracy and then goes into a brief comparison of a “bureaucratic mindset” vs. a more “improvisational mindset.” The author, Professor Stephen Asma, comes down firmly on the side of learning to be better improvisers while recognizing that improvisation can be both good and bad. This post and next week’s post will do that compare-and-contrast thing that Sister Mary Godzilla often required in class, which cast terror into all sixth-grade minds. Continue reading