flowing motion

Posts Tagged ‘financial crisis

I am optimistic but

attend to the facts

I think we live in oddly optimistic times, but only if we attend to the facts.  Financial facts can be hard to come by and its very difficult to find the whole picture laid out in one place.

The Huff has a summary of the financial crisis in April 2010

  • our total national debt as you and I understand it – what we owe not just what the government owes
  • how much is underpinned by China
  • what China wants done and what IMF is doing RIGHT NOW

The Huff’s general message is tighten your seat belts.  The critical ideas seem to be

  • Debt repayments due in April 2010
  • Chinese/IMF proposal to introduce SDR’s – in short an international reserve currency which allows countries with surpluses to hedge their bets across countries looking for bailouts (us)
  • Where (and to whom) our money has gone (we really should get back what is left)
  • A crisis due in the next month or so (hang on to your seats)

Where is the end of the tunnel?

At odd times in our lives, someone wise captures our dilemma in a single sentence.  I hope he won’t mind, but almost a decade ago in Zimbabwe, at a time when other people were saying, “It is darkest before the dawn”, the UN Representative said to me, “You feel right now that you are in dark tunnel and you cannot see the light at the end.  But you will see it eventually.”

I think many people in western countries feel this way.  Yet they won’t vocalize their thoughts.  I think keeping nervous thoughts looked away is a mistake.  Our stress levels and we come no closer to a solution.

Getting our thoughts in order

Speaking up, though, often feels negative.  Worse, in competitive masculine societies, which  describes most English-speaking societies, when you describe what is not working for you, you look like a loser.  And losers definitely come last.  People don’t want to hang out with you in case losing rubs off.

Psychologically, though, it is important to express your fears.  If we don’t, they will build up until they govern our lives.  Then we start to make very unwise decisions.  We will find yourself bandying together with people whose only goal is to complain.  Losing does become a way of life.

When we express our fears, we also have an opportunity to list what goes well.  Our objective is not to ignore what goes badly  It is to take stock of what tools we have in our tool kit so we get some leverage on the problem.

My bad day

Let me give you an example. Yesterday, I got pins and needles working at my desk.  To get some circulation going, I went downstairs.   Despite moving very carefully, I put my numb foot down carelessly, fortunately on the last stair, and twisted it badly.  I put out my other arm spontaneously to steady myself and resprained an already sprained-shoulder.  The combined pain made my head spin.  I thought I might faint.

Effectively, my day was finished. I got back to my desk and with visions of a black-and-blue ankle, looked up how to treat a sprain: RICE.  Rest, ice, compression, elevation.  And do it straight away.

Fortunately I had a pack of frozen peas in the freezer.   My day then became a day of trying to keep ice on my foot (I never did figure out how to combine ice, pressure and height), canceling appointments, and trying to work on my lap.

To make matters worse, my project for the day was design.  If there was ever a task that I find fiddly and annoying, its graphics.  It beats tax returns and hoovering by a long margin.  There, even writing that makes me feel better.

I persevered, despite my aches and pains, until close to midnight with triumph, I produced something that was not disgusting but that needs redoing because the proportions are long.

See how long this story of woe is?  I really ended my Wednesday feeling life was dull and unpleasant.  I made myself exercise while I ran a clean up on my computer.  Then at midnight, I made myself fill out a gratitude diary.  What was good to say? Yup, I had stopped my ankle swelling. It ached and it was slightly swollen but it was not a black-and-blue mess.  I had made progress on a task I find very hard.  I had stopped at home and had salads for lunch and supper.

I surprised myself reevaluating my relatively ’empty’ day as better than I thought. But I resisted calling it positive.  That is the point, isn’t it?  I resisted noticing the positive because I was so shocked by the negative.  Sometimes we want to sulk.

Learning from countries in trouble

Getting a grip, I used some magic Anti-Flamme, available only in New Zealand, on both my ankle and shoulder, curled up in a ball which I hoped would tax neither foot nor shoulder.  Then I put on BBC World Service to listen to The Last Resort, a novel about happenings in my birth country, and surprisingly good, though close to the bone.

The author of The Last Resort, is taking the view that it is darkest before the dawn, and for once, a book about Africa is not whincingly sanctimonious.

Listening to the lives of people who are in a very dark place but who go on anyway, reaching out, and trying to be decent in ways they understand,  we should know that sometimes we will not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  But we are still better calling out to others who are there with us, and taking an inventory of what we have for our emotional and physical sustenance.  We don’t know there is a way out.  But if we worry about that instead of coping with the present, we will not get out.  Our salvation is what is around us.

As for Westerners who are burying their fears.  Don’t.  I know a fair bit about national economics.  I make it my business to follow the pundits.  We are up shit-creek.  No doubt about it.  But we also have

  • The buffer of a lot of fat
  • Deep confidence
  • High aspirations

The nuclear deal crafted by Obama is important.  We are working together to make the world safer.  Scientists are making fundamental discoveries almost daily.  We have a new generation coming through.   The internet works so well that it is unremarkable now to interact with people world wide on a daily basis.

In our unspoken discomfort with a financial crisis of our own making, we fall into three traps

  • We leave our own heads in a mess
  • We “diss” the people who are taking the brunt of the crisis – the unemployed, the poor and the dispossessed
  • We miss the opportunities we should be working on

How to survive the dark tunnel of the financial crisis

If you are surrounded by people talking nonsense about darkness and tunnels, then I say accept the reality.  We are in a dark place and we cannot see the end.

And keep a daily gratitude diary to keep your emotional state in balance with reality, to honor who and what bring value to your life, and to remind yourself of what does work.

I can walk on my foot today.  Blast, though, another day of graphics.

The golden rule of economics and politics

It is all that we need to know really.  We can afford what we create.

Our plan of work tells us what we can afford

And from the golden rule ~ we can afford what we create ~ we have two other rules.

It is better to work with others than alone

None of us can create everything we want, or need, to afford.  It matters that we belong to a bigger group or tribe.

The collective to which we belong tells us what we can afford.  Our family, our company, and yes, the country, the sovereign state to which we belong, define what we create and our lifestyle.

When I am writing, someone is creating the electricity that powers this laptop.  While another person is making my washing machine (running in the background), I am looking for easy-to-understand writing on our economy that cuts through the obfuscation delivered by politicians.

The system matters.  Our place in it also matters.  But the whole,  the collective, is what we must keep our eye on.  Where we draw the boundary matters.  Because we can afford what we can create. Who is weBetween us, we create what we can afford.

Draw a circle around who we trust, and who lives and breathes because we live and breathe, and we have defined what we create and what we can afford.

If that circle is too small to define the lifestyle we want,  there is our first task.  Widen the circle. Widen the  magic circle of trust.

We need leaders who instinctively read that circle and work with our neighbors, suppliers and customers to widen our system.

Tell me what you are going to do.  Economics will follow.

The second rule that follows the golden rule is that value comes first.  We can check the economics afterward.

The clear writing economist, Ann Pettifor, makes this point well.

The central bank in each country should set the money supply to match the economic capacity of a country.

She doesn’t like using a household or small company as an example.  So let’s use a giant multinational.

When a giant company needs something done, and they are pretty certain it will work out, they put up the budget and let the managers and workers get on with it.  Money comes first in time.  But profits, and worrying about profits comes last.  Paying back the investors comes last.  We will recover our money provided we only put up the amount of money that the work was worth.

But we will never make money unless we have the money to bring a team together and get going.

The skill in managing, and financing, a major investment is understanding what venture is worth.

Before you tell me that business does not work like that.  It does.  Don’t confuse where you work with successful companies and successful public service.  I’ve consulted to them.  I’ve led in them.

I have two rules:

  • What do you want to do?
  • After you’ve told me, we’ll run the numbers to make sure it is economically viable.  If not, we go back to question 1.  What do you want to do? We begin with the value.  We begin with what you want to create.  Economics follows.  If you want to do it, we will back it.

We can afford what we can create

These are our questions.

What can we create?

Who do we create it with?

What is our potential that we are not using?

To find our potential: ask people.  What do you want to do?  When that is on the table, we’ll run the numbers.  If the numbers hold together, we back their plans.

The golden rule and Britain’s government deficit

Ann Pettifor puts this story in the context of Britain’s government deficit(which is large but not nearly as big as the bank bailouts).  She is standing for parliament but don’t let that dissuade you.  She writes clearly.  That alone is a good reason for electing her.

The collective, Britain, defined by the reach of the Bank of England and the reach of the pound sterling, has potential.   Fund it.  A simple message.  Fund what we can create.

The only question that I ask, and I’ll go to her blog now to ask the question, is how quickly will we recover the money?  I think I would like to see the numbers run by month, quarter and year.  Then I would feel more comfortable.

Then my trust would increase  Then the collective strengthens.

Sometimes economists (and lawyers and accountants) forget that everything they do depends upon us believing it.  Yes, the outer boundary is the reach of the pound sterling.   The real boundary is our belief in each other.  Some people call this belief ‘confidence’ but that is the wrong measure.

Confidence  is self-efficacy.  The correct measures is collective self-efficacy.  The question for that is “Do I believe that you will do better economically this year?” When we answer yes to that question, then we will boom.

But first the question of timing.  I must ask Ann that.

For now I am thankful for finding that quotation.  Simple.  Pithy.  We can afford what we create.

Followed by my two rules.

  • People matter.  Who is we.
  • We’ll check the economics after we have decided what we want to do.

P.S.  I googled “we can afford what we create” and I didn’t find any other reference to it.  Did Ann coin this phrase or is it a well known economic expression?

Economic reports for the week

The news of the week is the growing fear of sovereign default in Mediterranean countries and the possibility of a double dip recession.  I spent the morning reading up the economic commentaries and turning them into plain English.  As far as I understand what I read, our way of life is in supreme danger of falling apart.

We cannot afford to carry on the way we are.  We don’t have the money.  And the price of borrowing is likely to go up unless we can show clearly how we will pay back what we want to borrow.

The politicians are in a conundrum.  They want to defend Britain’s triple AAA rating.   And to do that they must achieve two goals.

#1  They must show on paper that we can pay back the money we borrow.

#2 They must show money-lenders that the people are behind them and won’t erupt in open revolt.

We need a plan on paper but it matters naught if we do not stand together. It matters naught if we are each trying to position ourselves to win out during the inevitable decline. The money-lenders are watching us.  Our very division will be our downfall.

Finding the will to stand together

So as ever, the issue is neither financial nor economic.  It is social & political.  How can we find the will to stand together?  How can we keep our heads when others are losing theirs?  How can we develop the collective trust to work out how to get through the next ten years?

Positive psychology in hard times

This is just the kind of problem that positive psychology deals with.

We want to know how the ordinary person, you and me, can exercise personal leadership when we don’t have confidence that formal leaders will exercise the leadership we need.   We want to know how to act sensibily when we really have no idea how things will work out.  We certainly want to act in the common good without being totally irresponsible about our own futures and the futures of our families.

3 steps for citizen leadership during the financial crisis

I’ve tried to distill the advice of positive psychologists into three steps.  What do you think?

#1  Keep our eye on people we respect.  Fill our minds with what does work and not with what doesn’t.

#2  Tell the stories of what does work.  Bring the best of the past with us.

#3  Layout out the things we do understand so that other people can understand the issues.  And help others who do not have the skill to layout knowledge in their area.

Is this the way to live positively in times which seem to call out the negative, conniving and complacent?  Is this the foundation of citizen leadership?

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Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, action & the financial crisis

This time last year we were definitely in the first of the five stages of grief.  Denial: we couldn’t quite believe that the bankers had blown a hole below our a waterline.

A year later, economists at least, have moved on.

The Governor of the Bank of England said

“The sheer scale of support to the banking sector is breathtaking. In the UK, in
the form of direct or guaranteed loans and equity investment, it is not far
short of a trillion (that is, one thousand billion) pounds, close to two-thirds of
the annual output of the entire economy.

To paraphrase a great wartime leader, never in the field of financial
endeavour has so much money been owed by so few to so many. And, one
might add, so far with little real reform.” (Governor of the Bank of England,
in a speech, 20 October, 2009. )

Yes.  One trillion pounds sterling, 66% of the UK’s annual GDP of 1,4 trillion pounds has been put aside to mend the hole, lest it sinks the entire ship of state.

I don’t think the man and woman in the street quite grasps the size of the hole.  If they did, they would have stormed the life-boats.

Professional economist are beginning to look at alternatives

The economists are beginning to debate seriously though.

Do we cut back hard to pay down our national debt – for which you and I must read – government debt?  Should the government stop spending like we might when we’ve just had an overseas holiday and put too much on the credit card?  Cut out all the luxuries till we have paid off our excesses?

Or do we need Keynesian economics to get out of this?  That is, should we spend money from the center to create a ripple effect?  For example, should the government spends 100 pounds on a new school, who pays the builder who pays the suppliers and who pays their suppliers who pay the supermarkets and who ultimately pays me.  All of us take part and we all pay tax and don’t claim benefits?

Ann Pettifor’s talk on Keynesian economics is 20 pages long.  If you are not an economist, put aside a couple of hours to get through it. It is worth the time.  First, it is clearly written.  You will understand the issues. Second, it is well written. It is nice to know that someone in England can still write a great speech (though she appears to live and work out of the States now).

Where are economists on the grief cycle?

So the economists are beginning to look at the facts.  What stage of grief are they in?  We need to know this so that we have a sense of how long the dilly-dallying will go on.

  • None are really proposing action.  The actions of others, yes, but not their own.  But they are along the track.  I would say the independent economists are around the bargaining stage – if we do this, it will be alright!
  • The Governor of the Bank of England, though admirably witty, seems to be further along around the depression stage. I do hate writing that.  It feels like tempting fate.  It’s relevance is this. It’s important to have a sense of when we will move collectively out of the state of shock and deliberation.  And it is important for younger psychologists reading this to store away a sense of how long community’s take to recover psychologically from extreme shocks so they are better able to lead when shocks happen in the future as they surely will.

We are gathering ourselves for action

We are still waiting for the leaders whose plans are not contingent.  We are still waiting for the leaders who say this is what I am going to do. This is what I am wholly committed to doing ~ so much so that I don’t have to say I am committed.  You see it in my eyes. You see it in my focused attention.  You see it in my invitation to join me.

We have a way to go.

Where were you the day Lehman’s crashed?

I had spent a long day sequestered in an office building in London. Coming out into the dark evening, I was surprised to see a serious story in the free newspapers handed out at the entrances to the Tubes.

The 158 year old bank, Lehmans had declared bankruptcy and 10 000 financiers, bankers, clerks and support workers who arrived at work on the prestigious Canary Wharf were told they must cease trading and clean out their desks.

Our response to abrupt crisis

Abruptly losing your job and your livelihood is not a disaster but it is certainly a crisis. Some of Lehman’s employees may have taken the first plane out to a sunny beach, but most of them would have sat around the next day wondering what to do. The day after would have been a day of rumination. What went wrong? Could it have been avoided? Who is to blame? And, ultimately, what should they do to retain the same income, status and meaning in life.

Career coaches and people in career crisis

Many career coaches will see erstwhile employees from Lehman’s and may have seen some already.

Proxy career coaches in the form of doctors, bank managers and employment agents will see them sooner. What is the best advice that we can give Lehman employees and all others whose way of life comes to an abrupt, surprising and juddering stop?

What it feels like to be in a career crisis

The first thing we need to remember is being laid off is a rude shock. Having had no preparation for the event,

  • Ex-employees do not know what to do
  • Ex-employees panic
  • Ex-employees want it to be ‘all OK right now!’

Our task as career coach

Ex-employees may have no experience or training in damage control. They may be have no experience in managing their own emotions and attention. This is our task if we are to help them succeed. We must help them to

  • Regain emotional equilibrium
  • See the solution
  • Regain control

What we will achieve as a career coach

We are not, though, going to make it “all OK right now”. Our clients will want us too.

A year ago when Lehman’s crashed, even the pundits thought we might spring back to normal like a new elastic band.  But, for most people, the early teens of the 21st century will be a time of enormous transition. A country with a GDP of 1.4tr cannot dole out 1.0tr without having to make some adjustment.

Yet there is a flip side to a bad situation.  When your house has burnt down so to speak, there is little point in building one that is exactly like the one before. We build a better one.

Our challenge as a career coach

In the early stages, when our clients want everything to be OK, when they are in the first of the five stages of grief – denial – they will not want to work through the long hard slog of rebuilding.  They will want everything to be bounce back. We have to work with them even though they are in no mood to work.

Helping them find any foothold as they work through their grief is important. Listen to them. But also help them keep moving. They have a lot of rebuilding to do and every small step will be important when they emerge from the emotional turmoil further along the line.

The career coaches that we need

Coaches who can do more than say “aha” are needed now. We need coaches who can help people take baby steps while they are overcome with emotion.

6 questions I ask professional career coaches

It is amazing that this is not taught on work psychology degree programmes.  These are the first 6 questions that I ask professional career coaches.

  • How do we work with people overcome by grief?
  • What practical steps can any of us take when our career and life has fallen into an untidy heap?
  • How long does it take to rebuild a career mid-stream?
  • How soon can we introduce the idea of rebuilding a better career to a client overcome by grief?
  • How many people really do rebuild a better career after such a disruption?
  • What distinguishes those who begin that project from those who don’t?

A tsunami is on its way but we are sleeping through it

I’ve done that actually, slept through a tsunami warning, but I am not talking about waves here. I am talking about the massive changes taking place in the world.  The financial crisis is just the beginning.  The financial crisis is the tremor under deep water that sets off a tsunami of social change.

Intuitive people “get it” first

I have a good intuitive brain.  Many times in my life, I’ve realized that something is all wrong.  But I have stopped to persuade others rather than just “get out”.  I am happy that I am a team player and I am happy that I am loyal and generous.  Sometimes in this life though, patient explanations are not going to “do it”.

There are two important reasons why people don’t listen to warnings from *N**

  • When we stop to explain, we signal to people that we don’t mean what wesay.  People read body language more than they listen to words.  When we stay, they stay.  Sadly, they don’t read our actions as solidarity.  They hear our words as hot air.
  • People who are *S**, rather than *N** [Myers-Briggs], attend to “what is” not “what may be”.  They look around and they don’t see that their comfortable life is about to disappear.  They see a comfortable life.   Our sense of the future is contradicted by tangible facts and frankly we look like fools.  To communicate with *S**, who usually outnumber *N**, we must show concrete proof.  We must find a way of turning out intuitions into something they can smell, feel, touch, taste.

What to do when a tsunami is approaching

When we sense a tsunami is approaching, I’m afraid there is no point in hanging about the beach telling people to get dressed and head for the hills.  What we have to do is

  • Get up
  • Pack up very visibly
  • Head to the hills

We mustn’t slink off.  We must be visible.  But we mustn’t stop to debate or explain.  We must simply walk the talk.  Say briefly and clearly, “A tsunami is coming.  I am going to high ground.”  If they look interested, say “Carry this!”  Whatever you do, don’t give them something essential.  Give them something useful that you could leave behind if they dither and don’t start walking.   Don’t stop.  Don’t look back!   If your best friends stay to continue the party, that’s a shame, but ultimately their choice.  Walk, and keep walking.  Now!

Why I am talking? The tsunami is coming!

Head for higher ground!

As a rule of thumb, if the place you are in is all too easy, all too lazy, all “too right”,  and most importantly “all too exclusive”, you are on the beach!  Head for higher ground!

Imagine the place where the tsunami will not reach.  Imagine who and what is not going to move.  That will be beach.  Leave that beach, now!

Imagine the higher ground, pack up visibly and walk.  Don’t look back.

Hat-tip:  This post was inspired by this very long post by Graeme Codrington.  It is dedicated to all the *N** of the world and particularly those who work as strategic planners for large corporations.

Popular subject, this recession!

I love it when someone visits my blog and I love it even more when someone leaves a comment.  Sadly, though, on a blog, originally taglined beautiful work, I get more traffic about the role or HR and the recession than for topics like poetry.

So you want to know about HR and the recession?

These are my qualifications to talk on the subject:

1. I am a WORK psychologist.

I pay attention as much attention to the work we do, and the context that we do it in, as I do to the techniques of HR and the psychology of the work.

Here is an important point I have noticed:  Writers on HR are not exploring the recession itself. 

My observations are this:  this is not a recession.  It is not a depression either.  The financial system is too central to the economy and too large, with one quarter of our livelihoods in UK, for this to be regarded as a cold, or a serious bout of flu.  Indeed, I don’t think metaphors of illness or failure will take us far and it is best to think of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly: the one goes and another emerges.

Where will we be in five year’s time?  What industries will be surgent?  What will jobs look like?

I spoke to someone in Johannesburg today.  He had just been into Zimbabwe and I told him of the Forbes’ prediction that Africa will supplant China as the supplier of low cost labour in five years.  Look at Africa with that filter and notice the scenarios you now consider.  Look at the processes you now perceive to be the ones we should protect, cherish and nurture.

We are not in a position of more-or-less.  We are in a position of radical change.  We need, I think, to be discussing the nature of work in the UK and how work will change by the time we are out of this crisis.

2.  My second qualification is that I have lived through a serous recession before, sadly.

We go through phases in these situations much like the phases of bereavement.  We deny, we get angry, we barter, we accept.

At the moment, we are in the early phases, with many people believing that somehow this will all go away while a few others expressing a little anger – about fat cats, particularly.

Few of us are exploring our options in any depth.  And, even fewer of us are taking a leadership position in which we help other people understand what is happening and how they can work together towards a better future.

My experience of these situations is that the presence or absence of that leadership, workplace by workplace, will make a difference to the final outcome.  The last thing we need is to develop a pattern of each man for himself, women and children look after yourselves.

Leadership matters.  And leadership means believing in our followers, and showing it.

3.  I am a psychologist.

In any stressful situation, we are faced with the easy choice: be defensive and protect what’s ours.  Or, we can step up and be proactive and generative.  Which is often very hard.

Let’s take Obama’s inauguration as an example.

Obama’s inauguration will be one of the largest in history – people want to be there.  Obama is doing some predictable things.  He is looking for ways to include as many people as possible.  And he is capping donations at USD50K.  Both laudable.

This quotation struck my eye:

This inauguration is more than just a celebration of an election,” she said. “This is an event that can be used to inspire and galvanize the public to act. That is what we’re aiming for.”

To spend all that effort (and money) on a celebration of past successess is not enough – not now, not after such a campaign.   The collective party in Washington and across the country, if not the world. lays the foundation for the next round of effort.

Rahm Emmanuel, incoming White House Chief of Staff is quoted as saying:  Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.

Indeed, a good crisis allows us to think through what is important to us and how we will work together in the future.  I desperately want to read stories in the HR blogs on what we are doing together to meet the challenges of the future, together.

Before we launch into micro-actions of making people redundant or whatever else (there’s been lots of traffic on psychometric tests of all things), how do we want people to act?

What collection action are we hoping to inspirie and galvanize?  What is the good use to which we will put this crisis?

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What do we know about our ability to manage global systems?

After Umair Haque wrote on our tendency to create bubbles from sub-prime assets, or toxic junk, I set myself to work reading and thinking about the more esoteric academic work on big organizations and disasters.

Karl Weick on Highly Reliable Organizations

Karl Weick, who is not widely quoted, mainly because he is a difficult read, has studied a range of organizations such as nuclear power stations, orchestras and forest fire fighters. Much of what we know about running large organizations, we have learned from him.

The disaster of the banking system, and the very high likelihood that it will sink UK if not the USA, should send us running to Karl Weick’s books for explanations.

This is what I have gleaned:

  • When our world gets turned upside down, we go into shock

In the current financial crisis,  Zimbabweans, for example, who have seen a financial meltdown in their recent past, go about saying: yup, seen that before.  They know what to do.  Everyone else is thrown. Nothing makes sense.

  • We get into these situations not so much because we are dumb, but because we are lazy

Complicated situations, like nuclear power plants, derivative markets and hedge funds, and for that matter an English roundabout, require our full attention.  We have to be ‘neurotic’ about ‘weak signals’.   We need to notice when little things are wrong and check them out.  We need to listen to each other because we all bring different expertise.

When we start sweeping rubbish under the carpet and deferring to the great and the good, then we are headed for trouble.

This aspect of organizational life is difficult to manage.  Being neurotic about weak signals can just make us opinionated and boorish.  The point about weak signals is attend to those on your own patch.   I’ll give you an example.  In mines and in hotels, when a manager sees a scrap of paper on the floor, they stop to pick it up.  Then they find out how it got there and why it was left there.  We don’t let it go because small things are indicative of system failure.  As a psychologist, I always make a mental note when someone in an organization is agitated. There are dozens of possible causes.  They may simply have remembered they forgot to get the milk and be making a mental plan of what to give the kids for breakfast – not earth shattering.  But they could also be very uncomfortable about a decision at work or have a real crisis outside work and need some space to sort it out.  I only cross them off my list of weak signals when I am sure they are OK.

  • We get out of confusing situations by acting.

We bring all our training, past experience and understanding to bear, but the truth is that we may not have experienced anything like this before or what worked in the past may be misleading.

Moreover the situation is evolving as we think and plan.

So we begin to act, we watch the consequences of our actions.  We leap so that we can look.

Acting without knowing is terrifying.  So wise organizations prepare people.  We get them to rehearse likely scenarios.  We also put them in situations where they don’t know everything.   That’s why gap years and study abroad is so valuable.  We learn to cope with our emotions when we don’t know what is happening!

What’s clear for a manager is that we must get people to act.  Some act easily – perhaps too easily.  Many are over cautious.  The trick is to give people little things to do.  When we administer psychological tests, for example, we don’t give a long explanation.  We want people to act within 20 to 30 seconds.  Wkeep things brief. Hello, I am  .  .  .  We will be here all morning doing some exercises.  I’ll guide you through everything.  Would you like to sit down here and write your name on the first bit of paper?  And then we got straight into a 2 minute exercise which is designed to be easy, burn off some adrenaline, and give them a practical overview of what will follow.  Their subsequent scores are much higher for reducing endless cogitation and allowing them to learn from action.  Weick even cites a situation where an army unit in the mountains got “unlost” by following a map of another mountain range.  A manger’s job is to get people to collect relevant information, act on it, collect more, act on it, etc.

Collective mindfulness

I like the term collective mindfulness because it refers to a culture where all three points are incorporated.

  • We respond to weak signals and we build our attention to weak signals into the culture by modeling mindfulness and listening to every one.
  • We accept that surprises shock us and reduce our ability to act.
  • We get everyone up and about finding relevant information and sharing it.

Collective mindfulness increases belonging

What Weick doesn’t seem to say, but might have done, is that the feeling of inclusion and shared purpose will also release cognitive capacity.  Just as we should never ignore weak signals, when we are in a good mood, it is easier to spot what does work and do more of it.   When we belong, we don’t have to worry about finding a group which will be loyal to us.

In a complicated system, freeing up that cognitive space and doing more of what works might preempt disaster.

That’s me done for this Sunday.

I am relieved. We can manage our collective affairs.  We can work effectively in a globalized, internet-connected world.

  • Attention to detail no matter its source!
  • Manage shock with action
  • Act to reveal information relevant to the common and valued purpose

P.S.  As I looked for a mnenomic, I noticed that these are the same three factors modelled by Marcial Losada in business teams:

  • Inquiry-Advocacy>1  [Ask questions; summarize; ask questions]
  • Positive:Negative speech > 5:1 [Ask what needs to be done; don’t wallow in negative emotion]
  • Reference to the world outside the group – Reference to the world inside the group >1 [Find out what matters!  Don’t just theorize]

Ah, social scientists are repetitive – why don’t we just do this stuff?

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EPS

If you are an accountant or financier, EPS means earnings per share. If you are a staff manager or systems designer, EPS means events, patterns, systems.

Events, patterns, systems

Here we are in November 2009, a good year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and two years after the run on Northern Rock.

Events

Each of those is an event. People on the front line had to respond. They stood in the queue to get their money out of Northern Rock. They carried their belongings in a forlorn cardboard box out of the Lehman building.

Events are about doing. What we do brings them about. What we do deals with their consequences, good or bad.

Patterns

Two banks going under (and later more) may or may not be part of a pattern. In this case, we have a pattern.

As soon as people made a “run” on Northern Rock, many of us will have asked, is the ea pattern? And if so, what shall we do about it?

Many of us sat down immediately to review the stability of our own banks. We checked out all the rules and moved our money about so all our eggs weren’t in one basket.

Patterns are about asking questions. Is a pattern emerging? If so, what are the forces behind the pattern? How will the pattern effect us? What does knowledge of the pattern allow us to turn it into an event ~ to do.

Systems

And as soon as we had moved our own assets to safety, we asked the next question: why? Why and how did we run our affairs so they led us to this peril? How was it that we missed earlier patterns and did not take evasive action earlier?

For ordinary people, systems are about pondering. And for some ranting and raving. Professional systems designers and staff managers review the information systems alert the people who “do” that something needs “doing”. We review the information systems that trigger, or failed to trigger, question. And we review the information we used to look for patterns.

Events, patterns and systems correspond to the three circles of managers.

Do-ers

On the front line are those that do. They need information to warn them of events and to manage events as they unfold.

Managers

One step back are managers. Their job is not to ask whether the doing is getting done ~ that is the job of doers. Their job is to look at patterns.

They might compile the information on whether the job is getting done and feed it to the frontline. But if the job is not getting done, they should ask whether the right information is being delivered at the right time.

System designers

A second step back are system designers ~ managers of managers. They neither control events nor deliver information directly.

They ask another question: will the system of doing, pattern detection and information give us the patten of events that we are able to manage?

Many people start to glaze over at this point.

What kind of work do you like to do?

Doing is busy and immediate

Most people work on the front line. They like it there. It is busy, active, sociable and very very immediate.

Good management works ahead of the action using information from days gone by

The old saying, though, is that without good governance, life is nasty, brutish and short.

Let me illustrate in everyday terms with the smallest act of good management. An irritation shared is usually quartered. When someone is carrying a heavy load, we stop to help. It takes us a few seconds and it makes a huge difference to easing their day.

When we have the right information at the right time and the right place, everyone is able to do more, more quickly. Manager might not carry the heavy loads themselves, but they will have alerted people that someone needs help, or found out whether the heavy load could have been broken into parts, or worked out whether it would be cost effective to get in some machinery.

Managers work ahead of the action by using information from days gone by. They still see what is happening. They see results and often dramatic results. But they are not doers.

Managers miss doing

In many organizations, managers come from the ranks of doers and they resent not being part of the old team. And they resent no longer having the thrill of immediacy. In some organizations, like universities, they resent the sharp loss of status because doers – those who do research – know that managers are unable to do.

In most organizations, managers also have the power to order, rather than advise, doers. Managers are also paid more.

Higher status & greater authority makes sense when we are unable to manage without first having been doers.

Increasingly though, it makes no sense at all for managers to be paid more than the people they manage. Take air traffic controllers, for example. They are unlikely to have been jet pilots. Air traffic controlling and flying planes are two different career paths which are learned and maintained separately. For very limited periods, air traffic controllers are able to give orders to pilots, but this is only a pragmatic arrangement. A system has been worked out where you “take a number and wait your turn”. Air traffic controllers are announcing the pilot’s turn ~ not telling them how to do their jobs.

We see instantly from this example that more people prefer to do ~ fly the plane ~ than control. That is how it should be. Nonetheless controlling is an important job for those who have the temperament to do it.

System designers are removed from the action but think up the system

And now you walk away, a little bored but satisfied that you understand it all. You’ve forgotten the system designers. Who thought up the system of air traffic control? Who investigates when something goes wrong?

Well, the third tier are widely despised! We don’t do. We don’t control. We are rarely seen until after the action and then only when things have gone wrong. We are the system designers and we come in two forms: the forensic – the after the event crew ~ and the designers.

Either way, our job is look at the system and ask whether it delivers a range of situations that are doable and controllable.

Obviously there are few of us. We aren’t needed every day.

The ongoing work of systems designers is seen more obviously in process plants. Highly qualified engineers design the plant and are on hand to advise when the process limps. When the system becomes luggable, or otherwise incomprehensible, the engineers are called in to reveal the more obscure ways of getting things to run smoothly again.

Design work is even more interesting because it is done ahead of time. Design work in human systems often attracts people who have a lot to say about the world. They don’t necessarily fit in well to systems work simply because the world rarely obliges us by doing what it is told!

Good systems designers are savvy. They leave plenty of room for the system to wrap itself round people and the way they do things. System designers have a good sense of side-effects, they have a sense of how long things take, and they understand the stop-and-go nature of human affairs.

But note, systems designers exist!  They’ve designed every thing you use. Banks. Post offices. Roads.

They check everything you use. There are engineers out there right now checking that the bridges are safe. There are doctors running medical “seeing ahead” to possibilities you cannot imagine. There are auditors checking businesses and banks to make sure your money is safe.

Where are the people who designed our systems?

What has puzzled me during the scandals of the last two years is that we haven’t heard much about the system designers – both designers and forensic investigators. I am not sure why we have this silence.

We are left with the impression that system specialists have been taken out of the system and the top level managers who are responsible for overseeing them haven’t being doing their job.

An amber light for the great system of the UK

For me, that is the greatest “system” amber light in UK today.

Why aren’t the system designers more visible?

Why don’t we point clearly to work units, to degree courses, to professions whose very job is to make sure life is doable and controllable?

Isn’t the lack of trust that people have in UK politicians precisely because they cannot see where decisions are made?

Who designs the system? Who checks that it is running? Point me to their offices!


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