Projects, Networks, and Temporary Organizations – S19.3

In a 2018 article in the International Journal of Project Management (Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 4-11), Jorg Sydow and Timo Braun provide a rationale for conceptualizing projects as temporary organizations. They relate that within the practice and study of project management, projects have generally been viewed as components of other organizational systems, rather than possessing an ontological existence of their own. From the perspective of the material we’ve covered in class, we can suggest that if it’s appropriate to view projects as organizations then they will necessarily require a form of governance.

While the temporary nature of projects may be the key element in characterizing this form of organization, it is only one part of what is referred to as the 4-T framework. In this framework, projects are described in terms of time, teams, task, and transitions. The time element indicates that projects are initiated with a particular end date in mind, even when circumstances require adjusting that date. The team component emphasizes that those working on the project will be removed from their normal work routines and responsibilities, in order to put their full attention on the project. Whatever positions or levels of authority they held within their home organizations are now secondary to their role and function as a member of the team. The authors indicate that it’s far from self-evident that teams will be inherently cohesive, even in the face of what on the surface may appear to be a singular well-defined common goal. With respect to task, a big part of the justification for embarking on a project in the first place is that the objective or goal is more complex than any single organization, or regular operation of a single organization, is capable of handling. Finally, the notion of transitions refers to both the establishment of the temporary organizational form (the project), as well as the dismantling of that form upon completion of the project. Further, we can think of the transitions as a reflection of the context of the project, as characterized by the conditions prevailed prior to the project and what conditions prevail afterward.

Temporary organizations provide an interesting illustration of the principal-agent problem. Sponsoring organizations as the principals identify a project and put together a team of appropriate individuals to carry out that project. Especially in the case of inter-organizational projects, the shared interests of the participating organizations may only represent a portion of what those organizations expect. Each sponsor is likely to possess and look for the fulfillment of its own specific interests within the context of the project. At the same time, the social interaction that takes place among the members of the team will lead to a collective understanding of what needs to be done and how it should be done, that may not match what the principals, either collectively or individually, had intended. Given the distinct ontological existence of the project group, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the sponsoring organizations to significantly influence what takes place within the team.

Are temporary organizations more likely to exhibit hierarchical, market, or network governance structures? If we view projects as temporary organizations, what impact might this perspective have on the way conceive, undertake, and evaluate community economic development projects?

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Final Thoughts – S19.4

Six years ago, before I had finished the final draft of Governance and Social Leadership, I published a post on this blog that summarized some of what I considered to be the key messages I wanted readers to take away from reading the book, or taking the social leadership class. What follows is a slightly edited version of that original post. What lessons did you learn?

I do not present a new theory of leadership. Rather, I present a tool for examining and evaluating theories of leadership as well as phenomena described as examples of leadership. My concept of social leadership is meant to capture the process of building capacity to act through the initiation of shared knowledge construction. In contrast, the continued process of knowledge construction and the transformation of capacity to act into action is part of management and daily operations. It is the initiation, sometimes intentional and more often than not unintentional, but always exceptional, that constitutes the moment of leadership. And, it is only for a moment. Leadership is transient. It emerges and disappears.

The words leader and leadership are so overused in current discussions of business, government, religion, and every other sphere of human activity, that they have become almost meaningless. We could make great strides in understanding and living with the human condition by eliminating the concept of leader altogether. As for the concept of leadership, it should be reserved to refer to those initiatory acts that emerge out of social interaction, as people collectively attempt to make sense of the world around them. It is a spark, or a quantum leap, and like those phenomena, it emerges when the circumstances are right and then it is gone. However, the effects will last to the extent that people both recognize and are prepared to act upon that spark. Leadership emerges and gains its significance through relationships. Hence, my insistence on the term social leadership. It is not an attribute of the individual or group. Its essence resides in the space between.

So, how do we train leaders? We don’t. What we do is educate people to openly and continually interact with others, in all aspects of life. Social interaction leads to the establishment of intersubjective meaning, as DePree would say, maturity as a measure of rising levels of literacy. Talk and reflect, and talk again, but more importantly listen. Listening is a highly underrated and nearly forgotten skill. Listening requires quiet, and we have become so accustomed to a noisy world, that our ability to be quiet has all but vanished. In fact, for many people, the few moments of genuine quiet that they experience induce as much anxiety as the normal cacophony to which they are exposed.

To a great extent, our current leadership crisis is a crisis of noise.

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Ensemble Leadership – S19.2

In a 2018 article in the journal Leadership (Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 307-328), Grace Ann Rosile and her collaborators present a new theory of leadership that they call ensemble leadership. Combining insights from relational leadership theories and indigenous ways-of-knowing, the authors characterize ensemble leadership as collectivist, dynamic, decentered, and heterarchic.

Collectivist implies that the good of the group is more important than the good of the individual. In fact, the distinction between individual and group interests, as if these two are in opposition to one another, is viewed as a false dichotomy. Individuals come to see their own well-being as a function of collective well-being.

A dynamic perspective is one that views the world in a constant state of movement and change. The authors point out that this approach is natural to most indigenous cultures, as witnessed by the fact that tribal languages tend to have a far greater number of verbs than nouns. This perspective is particularly evident in the construction and relating of indigenous stories, which display a more cyclical nature, respecting context and changing circumstance, as opposed to the predominantly Western-culture bias, inherited from Aristotle, that stories must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The authors explain the notion of decentered by referring to the botanical phenomenon of rhizomatic propagation, whereby certain plant species spread runners underground in various directions, leading to new plants popping up in seemingly random locations, so that eventually the idea of a central plant becomes meaningless. What exists instead is a complex web of interconnected plants that for all intents and purposes now simply compose one plant.

The notion of heterarchy is borrowed from developments in post-structuralist anthropology. What it implies is that rather than trying to idently one dominant hierarchical structure within a community or organization, it is possible for different hierarchical configurations to manifest themselves from time to time, depending on the circumstances, and it is equally as likely that hierarchical structures can be set aside altogether so that a more egalitarian structure can emerge.

One remarkable feature of ensemble leadership theory is the idea that non-human living things like animals and plants, as well as inanimate objects like rocks and wind, can have agency. They can act upon the group and each other, thereby contributing to the way meaning is constructed. The events become woven into the story at a level that goes beyond the mere recounting of human response to those events. By treating the objects and events as active characters within the narrative, a more holistic view of what is taking place can be constructed.

The theory of ensemble leadership raises a number of interesting questions. What impact could these ideas have on the way communities approach economic development projects? Would this approach to leadership be possible within the context of for-profit organizations? Are there organizations or communities that actually operate in a way that recognizes the agency of inanimate objects or events? Any thoughts? Any other implications or concerns that come to mind?

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Requisite Variety – S19.1

In the first chapter of Governance and Social Leadership, I indicate that one aspect of my approach to examining governance and leadership is to be troublesome. Part of my reason for doing so is to challenge readers to think about the concepts and ideas that they and others take for granted, assume to be true, or assume are part of a shared knowledge base. One way I go about being troublesome is to introduce disparate ideas – concepts or phenomena that might not normally appear relevant – into the discussion of various topics. An important one of these disparate ideas is the notion of requisite variety.

The concept of requisite variety was introduced in 1956 by Ross Ashby, a pioneer in the field of cybernetics, a term coined in 1948 by Norbert Wiener, who defined it as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Since then, cybernetic principles have become central to developments in several disciplines, such as biology, computer science, engineering, management, and psychology.

Within cybernetics, the idea of variety refers to the number and types of components, or constituent elements, of a system, as well as the possible combinations of these elements employed by that system. The word requisite suggests the objective of determining just how much variety is necessary in a particular system. One of the goals of cybernetic systems, therefore, is to find the minimum, or optimal, amount of variety necessary to sustain a particular operation, organization, or organism. While too little variety poses a threat to existence because the system cannot cope with its day-to-day activity, too much variety is inefficient, because resources of perceived value will be squandered, again posing a significant existential threat.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Strategy and Management (Vol. 11, No. 2, 2018), Rocco Palumbo and Rosalba Manna examine the role of requisite variety in supporting organizational growth. They point out that the key role of requisite variety in an organization is to provide the capacity to respond to environmental uncertainty. This uncertainty can arise from a broad, and often unpredictable, range of sources, including war, natural disaster, political regime change, global financial crises, public attitudes, the introduction of restrictive legislation or policy, shifting demographics, new technologies, changes in ownership, personnel or organizational structure, personal and family matters, and any number of other factors.

The authors indicate that studies of requisite variety in organizations have identified it alternately as a predictor of performance, a tool for responding to shifts in demand, a factor in new product development, an approach for examining business processes, and a way to enhance human communication and organizational learning. Among their conclusions, they suggest that requisite variety is “a by-product of a co-evolutionary relationship between the organization and the environment” (p. 252). This conclusion not only highlights the importance of considering context and process, it also reinforces the idea that the establishment of distinct ontological and epistemological boundaries between organizations and the environment in which they exist is far from easy.

How could an understanding of the concept of requisite variety help us to identify, analyze, and potentially address the viability and sustainability of, for example, a marketing campaign, a community economic development initiative, a new business venture, or our own lives?

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Value for business and society – S18.2

In a recent article in Rotman Management (Spring 2018), David Kiron et al. outline five principles that corporations can follow to build a sustainable business. They developed these principles following an eight-year study and, while they identify examples of progress in line with ESG (environmental, social, governance) goals, they worry that the global increase in populist and anti-regulatory leaders seriously threatens further development.

1. Focus on issues that are material to your business.

While encouraging employees to car-pool or ride their bicycles to work might sound like a positive social and environmental initiative, it is outside the core business of the organization and will have no impact on the sustainability of the organization. Instead, businesses need to engage in activities that directly impact their processes and products: reducing paper usage, recycling waste water, increasing product life, incorporating recycled materials into their manufacturing, and so on.

2. Innovate your business model.

Too many corporations view sustainability primarily as a function of risk reduction, regulatory compliance, and building their reputation as good corporate citizens. A more effective means is to look for ways to increase market share, develop efficiencies, and take advantage of competitive advantages. For example, Kraft found that even though one of their new package designs used 28 per cent less material and required 50 per cent less energy to produce, it was the overall design that appealed to customers, leading to increased market share and enhanced customer satisfaction.

3. Build a clear business case.

The main argument here is that even when you have people within an organization tasked with identifying and implementing environmental and social initiatives, all of which may look good in a corporate CSR report, unless these initiatives create value for the organization they are a waste of resources. However, the business case does not need to come first. Many times, it takes an internal entrepreneur to identify and act upon an opportunity that may or may not in the end produce results consistent with sustainability goals.

4. Develop a compelling value creation story for investors.

In many businesses and community-based organizations and associations, it can quite difficult for stakeholders to recognize benefit from activities centered on sustainability. It is incumbent of managers and those tasked with communicating with interested parties to learn how to package the sustainability message into their more traditional performance-oriented reportage. Assuming that stakeholders will understand the importance of sustainability in remaining competitive or providing an acceptable level of service is a huge mistake.

5. Embrace collaboration within your ecosystem.

No organization at any level operates independently. Genuine sustainability can only be accomplished through collaboration across a supply chain or value chain that can include entities spanning a broad range of industries and services, as well as be geographically diverse. Successful implementation of this principle requires the clear definition of roles and responsibilities, the establishment of effective channels for communication as well as expectations around reporting, and developing an overarching system of governance for partnerships.

Questions

What part, if any, does leadership play in developing or implementing initiatives consistent with these principles? Where in the corporation/enterprise/community should/could such leadership emerge and from whom?

 

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Implicit followership theory – S18.1

One critique of leadership studies has been that followers are receiving inadequate attention, both as research subjects and as complex active participants in the leadership process. In response to this critique, a few scholars have attempted to carry out more follower-centric studies of leadership, sometimes referred to as followership studies.

In a recently published article (Leadership 2018, 14(1): 3-24), Jackie Ford and Nancy Harding suggest that leadership theories developed from the perspective of the followers all contain one tragic flaw. They are based on an implicit theory of followership that assumes leaders and followers serve a common purpose, and followers are for the most part passive and helpless conformers, in need of persuasion or coercion in order to take action.

Implicit theories are those we take for granted, but are often unable to fully articulate. We develop them almost unconsciously throughout our early lives, from our families, our teachers, the television shows and movies we watch, current events, and many other aspects of our culture.

Ford and Harding explore three influential approaches to leadership, in order to determine if and how the ways in which followership is conceptualized in the end serve to undermine the very theories being proposed.

Bass and Steidlmeier advocate for something they call authentic transformational leadership, whereby leaders influence followers to undergo a personal transformation through which they take on the characteristics of the leader, thus in a sense becoming leaders themselves. They differentiate between authentic and pseudo-authentic leaders based on the presence or absence of a moral foundation (whatever that might mean), but how is a follower to determine whether in fact a leader possesses that moral foundation, or is merely acting as if they do? This approach assumes that followers are empty vessels waiting to be filled by the leader, but if the leader is successful then there will no longer be any followers and hence no need for a leader.

Gronn wants to eliminate the dichotomy between leader and follower, advocating for a notion of distributed leadership in which everyone works together to carry out an organizations mission. In this approach leadership becomes a product of cooperative action, rather than an input. So, beyond eliminating the roles of leader and follower, is there still a need for a concept of leadership if it is only recognized after the fact? Further, the approach is based on the assumption that everyone in the organization shares a common vision and is willing and able to work together – a sort of state of perpetual happiness and positivity. If leadership is distributed, then to be a follower would mean that one has chosen not to participate, thereby positioning oneself as negative and destructive to the environment.

Robert Greenleaf’s theory of servant leadership retains the roles of leader and follower, but also introduces the idea of the servant, who in many ways is the genuine leader, without any reference to their position in the organization. Servants are able to respond to the needs of an organization, because they are somehow capable of moving beyond the flawed attitudes and behavior of others, to offer what is really needed to benefit the collective. These rare individuals have no desire to lead, or to be given credit. They are somehow morally superior to the unsophisticated and brutish masses around them. If the need arises they simply feel obligated to respond.

While there is much more that could be said about the three approaches, Ford and Harding suggest that they all fail to move beyond the power differential set up in traditional leadership theories in which the leader is in some way superior to, and therefore has influence over, the followers. Followers come across as fundamentally bad, or at least empty, waiting to be filled, corrected, and oriented by the leader. No attempt to alter terminology, eliminate followers, or eliminate leaders, manages to escape the bonds of this implicit theory of followership.

 

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Weak ties – S17.4

Read Only Connect, by Pamela Pavliscak, which examines the link between weak ties and strong relationships. The article is an interesting blend of the technical and the social.

I look forward to reading your comments.

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