Play and a developing sense of self

I continue my reflections on the stimulus provided by Herminia Ibarra form her latest HBR blog: The Most Productive Way to Develop as a Leader
In that blog piece, Herminia urges leaders to get or give themselves permission to play with their sense of self. This idea of play is a major challenge to current ways of working as those deemed to be successful in modern organisations may well have foreclosed on options and stifled the discontinuous growth that only comes when we suprise ourselves. Such successful people may be good at consistently relating their actions to a purpose, of being described as having ‘clearsightedness’. Any idea of ‘playing’ with options is perceived to be weak.
So, knowing as we do how organisations value rationality, and recognising the scale of challenge any change will face, how do we get or give ourselves permission to play? Herminia references James G. March’s ‘Technology of foolishness’ piece, an article that I wasn’t aware of so I have turned to it for explanations and a way forward. This ‘voyage of discovery’ into March’s work is an example of the behaviour that Richard Martin describes in his blog piece ‘Make curious with me’; ‘The curious individual constantly moves to the boundaries of their knowledge…we seek to bridge our knowledge gaps through curiousity, combinatory play and serendipity’

In ‘Technology of foolishness’ March describes playfulness as:

1. as above all, being a temporary suspension of the rules
2. allowing experimentation, but acknowledges reason
3. being obliged to accept that at some point the playing will stop or it will be integrated into ‘normal’ activity

March is clear that playfulness is not:
1. a release of emotional tensions of virtue; a ‘mardi gras’
2. an element of spirtual balance
3. supportive of self indulgence; play is an instrument of intelligence, not a substitute

Play allows a leader to explore alternative ideas of possible purposes and alternative concepts of behavioural consistency; to be playful with their conception of themselves.

March provides us with 5 procedures for playfulness:
1. treat goals as hypotheses-experiment with alternatives to discover new and interesting combinations
2. treat intuition as real-this permits us to see some possible actions that are outside our present scheme for justifying behaviour
3. treat hypocrisy as a transition-to give ‘permission’ to play and contradict our ‘normal’ selves
4. treat memory as an enemy-‘if we keep on doing what we have always done, we’ll get what we have always got’
5. treat experience as a theory-to allow for the retrospective learning of new self-conceptions

March concludes by asking for the design of organisations to attend to the problems of maintaining both playfulness and reason as aspects of intelligent choice. Organisations (and I would suggest leaders themselves) should encourage play by insisting on some temporary relief from control, coordination and communication.

A leader as a bridge

This is the first of a short series of pieces stimulated by “How to act and think like a leader” a blog posting by Herminia Ibarra.–3894
In this posting Herminia writes of the important leadership activity of being a bridge between their department, service or outpost and the rest of the organisation.
My recent experience reinforces to me how important this activity is to successful leadership. A leader must be an ambassador for their team within the wider organisation. The leader needs to build the right bridges at the right time and needs to ensure that the bridges that they build are and continue to be connected at each end and that the bridge is well maintained.
For the bridge to remain strong and connected a leader needs to establish trust as a vital support:
Trust is born out of being credible; do people believe in what you can do, being reliable; do you do what you say, and having good intent; is the balance between being self-serving and serving others right. If trust fails at either end of the bridge it will become disconnected or collapse.
Trust, like a bridge needs to be maintained. This maintainence needs to be proactive not reactive, a programme of preventaive maintainence needs to be followed. A leader needs to have an eye on the future to ensure that the bridge is fit to carry any loads that may need to cross it.

Preparing for both the upside and the downside of uncertainties is not incompatible. Thus in the early 1960s the designers of the bridge across the Tagus at Lisbon built in both seismic protection against the known historical possibility of earthquakes, and extra strength to allow for double-decking of the bridge in case traffic ever expanded substantially. Some twenty years later, the Portuguese exercised this option to double- deck the bridge – a design first (Gesner and Jardim, 1998). To deal fully with the uncertainty implicit in future thinking, (a leader) cannot only focus on risk management; (he or she) must also manage opportunities.

Leaders enabling individual learning for continuous improvement

Individual learning and the pooling of that learning is an essential element for continuous improvement.
Leaders have a vital role to play in stimulated and supporting the learning process. Learning can be seen as a process; for this process to be effective the following is required:
1) a focus to plot a course
2) environments that facilitate learning
3) techniques to enable learning to be efficient

An individual will only move through the process comfortably while the driving forces exceed the restraining forces. There is a danger of being stuck and demotivated when the forces are matched. Leaders must attend to the learning process to ensure that the driving forces maintain the upper hand.

The role of leadership in creating a learning environment:

1) Developing and delivering a shared vision of what is expected to raise awareness of the journey
2) Consistent questioning to alert to ignorance; to raise a sense of conscious incompetence that stimulates individual’s learning
3) Developing shared vision of why; the benefits of, learning to promote understanding.
4) Removing barriers, develop ownership, enable and allow risk taking for commitment and enactment.
Throughout, host quality coaching conversations in the workspace to stimulate and support.

(Stimulus for this piece was Bill Buckler ‘A learning process model to achieve continuous improvement and innovation’)