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Leadership and How to Avoid the “That’s How We Do Things Here” Mindset

May 12, 2019

Let’s go back in time (not too far) to re-visit an excellent business piece on corporate culture and change. That’s the Way We (Used to) Do Things Around Here from Strategy+Business was co-authored by three experts with diverse backgrounds:

Jeffrey Schwartz is a research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine, University of California (Los Angelos);

Pablo Gaito is the VP of learning and development at Cargill (a firm with diverse holdings in agri-food, financial and industrial products);

Doug Lennick is an author (e.g., Financial Intelligence) and an advisor to Ameriprise Financial and a former executive VP at American Express.

The S&B article helps shed some light on why people behave as they do and ways to more effectively lead people through change. It’s also well-timed, given the increasing turmoil in markets, the steady emergence of new competitors, and technological change.

Schwartz brings to the table a background in neuroscience; Gaito, learning in a large organization setting; and Lennick, ethics and leadership. Although the article is aimed at the private sector, its messages are highly relevant to those working in government and the not-for-profit sector.

An important point made early on by the authors is that not only do corporations face the challenge of the “complexity of collective behavior,” but changes must be made simultaneously while they carry out their daily activities and strategies.

Six principles of change, based on neuroscience, that have been used successfully at a variety of companies are presented:

1. Habits are hard to change because of how the brain manages them,

2. Because neural connections are “plastic,” behaviour patterns can be changed,

3. People can rewire their thinking habits if they pay attention to new ways of thinking,

4. Emphasize what people are doing right, not their mistakes,

5. Build cognitive “veto power” by stepping back to consider possibilities,

6. Strengthen the ability to focus attention over time (a weakness with most organizations).
From these principles flow a series of six steps that compose what is called “The Virtuous Cycle of Focused Values.”

Step 1: Recognize the need for change

When engaging in this process, the key is to make it real by focusing on a compelling real-life issue.

Step 2: Relabel your reactions
Reframing on how you responded in the past to events or situations helps you to deal with such issues as embedded workplace assumptions and behaviours (e.g., “This is how things are done here.”)

Step 3: Reflect on your expectations and values
During this process it’s essential to think about something tangible that will captivate people’s attention; in doing so you’ll lay the framework to create the new conditions of interaction in the workplace.

Step 4: Refocus your behaviour
This involves identifying the practices you wish to see become embedded in how the organization functions.

Step 5: Respond with repetitionAs a change leader you need to consistently practice the desired behaviours and hold yourself accountable. Tracking the daily behaviours that managers are expected to practice requires a set of metrics.

Step 6: Revalue your choices in real timeThis final step involves “progressive mindfulness.” It means from shifting from the mindset of “That’s how things used to be done here” to “We do things here better now.”

This is just a sampling of the S&B article, with a number of its key messages. Be sure to read it. As the authors state in their conclusion: “The concept of organizational reframing is still relatively young. The potential impact of neuroscience on management practice is mostly unrealized.” 


Genuine inquiry starts when people ask questions to which they do not have an answer.
-Peter Senge

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Is Sucking Up To Your Boss the Way to Get Ahead? What Would Machiavelli Think?

May 5, 2019

The perennial question of what’s the best way to get ahead at work continues to be discussed and studied. One study by two academics revealed some interesting but not necessarily surprising findings. Professors Ithai Stern (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) and James Westphal (University of Michigan) studied the appointments of board members and how they achieved these positions.

The study involved 1,000 senior level American managers in the manufacturing and services sectors: 134 CEOs and 765 board directors. “Entitled Stealthy Footsteps to the Boardroom: Executives’ Backgrounds, Sophisticated Interpersonal Influence Behavior and Board Appointments,” the professors found that corporate leaders were successful in being named to boards of directors when they used subtle forms of flattery and indicated agreement on issues with those involved in the selection process. In essence, implied conformity was the modus operandi for these corporate appointees. As Professor Stern explains:

“Past research has demonstrated the effects of corporate leaders taking part in ingratiation and persuasion tactics. However, our study is the first to look at the effectiveness of specific tactics in increasing the likelihood of garnering board appointments at other firms, as well as which types of executives are most likely to effectively engage these tactics.” 

Some of the findings were quite intriguing, such as the most effective flatterers (ingratiators as the authors call them) came from upper class backgrounds and had backgrounds in such areas as law, sales and politics. As a sidebar, it’s coincidental to see that these three occupational areas typically rank very low in public opinion surveys on trust and respect.

Stern adds: “Lawyers, politicians and salespeople routinely take part in flattery and opinion conformity to complete their jobs, similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment. Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas.” 

During the study, the participants were asked to describe their most effective approaches in massaging the egos of co-workers without them being aware of the motives. The most popular method was to ask a co-worker for advice, such as posing the question: “How were you able to secure that account so well?”

A second popular technique was to compliment the executives in the presence of their friends, with the sole purpose of hoping they would tell the executives later on. Combining flattery methods significantly boosted the individual’s chances of being appointed to a board of directors.

Buttering up your boss, or potential boss, appears to have big payoffs, provided you know how to spread it in the just the oh-so-right proportions. In particular, the abilities to engage actively in social networking and to build relationships are key to advancing one’s career. This needs to be qualified with you know what you’re doing. There’s nothing worse than a suck-up (brown-noser as is commonly expressed), whether at a senior managerial level or down in the ranks.

As much as a study such as this one is somewhat revealing there are no real surprises, except for validating certain tactics and how to employ them effectively. It’s unfortunate that the principle of merit continues to get shortchanged, whether in business or government. This issue may be viewed through both a leadership lens and a competitiveness lens. In years past, America and Canada were successful economically due to protectionist barriers and the submissive state of developing countries; the ball game, however, has been changing rapidly.

There’s far too much at stake for North American organizations to continue accepting such manipulative behaviours when it comes to career advancement and appointments to boards, etc. Merit is the new game in town. The Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, South Koreans, etc., who are indeed human, also understand the need for competence when it comes to management and leadership.

What should those in positions of power and authority do, whether you’re the President, Prime Minister, CEO of a multinational, president of a regionally-based telecommunications firm, assistant deputy minister in government, under-secretary of state, or just a Joe-Blow general manager of a manufacturing plant?

Do you, for a moment, believe that those subordinates sucking up to you have the best interests of the organization in their cross-hairs, whether it involves shareholders or citizen taxpayers?

So what would the infamous Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) think of all this fuss? Machiavelli, civil servant and philosopher, became an influential power broker during the short-lived Florentine Republic and was later imprisoned and tortured when the Medici dynasty returned to power, only to write his renown The Prince in 1513, but which wasn’t made public until 1532. This widely interpreted treatise speaks to how “princes” (those individuals in positions of power) should build and maintain power.

Machiavelli may not the best role model to follow. Maybe he is for people such as like Donald Trump and hard-ass Oracle CEO Larry Ellis. Machiavelli, at his core, was about the amoral pursuit of power: how to build and maintain it. And in his immortal words if one has to make a forced choice, “it is better to be feared than loved.”

So does this infer that Machiavelli would in the end detest suck-ups? That he’d rather get on with business? To get done what needs to be done?

Perhaps.

But in today’s corporate environment, let’s be clear that those who know how to manipulate and smooze, based on some recent research, have the leg up on the majority of us.

Pity.

There’s too much at stake.

Here’s the last word to Machiavelli on how flatterers should be avoided:
“…of flatterers, of whom courts are full, because men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that they are preserved with difficulty from this pest, and if they wish to defend themselves they run the danger of falling into contempt. Because there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when everyone may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.

Therefore, a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and none of the others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions.”

Public Enemy #1: Baby Boomers

April 28, 2019

Enough is enough.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’re well aware that I’ve been pretty critical of Baby Boomers and included myself in that criticism. However, there’s a limit to stating just how evil, self-centered and foolhardy we Boomers have been. We don’t have pointy tails.

Sure, blame us in part (okay, large part) for the explosion in consumer credit, the housing bubble, the financial meltdown, the Great Recession, greedy CEOs, selfish politicians, bad government policy, etc. Holy crap, it doesn’t look terribly bright for Boomers!

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which mushroomed for a short time to over 900 cities worldwide, underscored, once again, the damage that Boomers have wrought upon the world.

Screeeeech!!!

Stop the bus!!

Enough of that crap. Let’s get a realistic grip.

If we’re going to play that game, other generations are fair game. It’s time to get out the whacking stick.

The Vietnam War, with its 50,000 dead young Americans and an estimated 300,000 injured, was brought to America by the Silent Generation (those 72 to 90) and the Greatest Generation (90-plus), an expression coined by retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. To add further insult to those who served and survived (most were drafted for the most part) their country turned its back on them when they returned home. Soldiers were spat upon and insulted by their civilian peers. Virtually no treatment existed for those suffering from PTSD.

Contrast that to the much greater recognition and support systems present for America’s now volunteer Armed Services. It’s not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than in the 1960s and 1970s.

How many Gens X and Y have a clue about the horrors of the Vietnam War on young people, notably males?

If you’re a young person and haven’t heard about the Kent State shootings, please enlighten yourself.

And even in the current context of more supportive populaces in Canada and the United States when it comes to Afghanistan (Canada took a pass on Iraq), with the thousands of soldiers killed and wounded, the horrors of PTSD, amputees, etc., our two countries blindly went on with their consumer-driven rage? How many Gens X and Y were reflecting on the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan while casually sipping a latte at Starbucks?

Gens X and Y (especially the latter, aka Millennials) are clueless when it comes to sacrifice, not just for country but for family.

In his book That Used to be Us, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recounts a visit he made to Afghanistan in 2009 with Admiral Mike Mullen, (former) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen and Friedman stopped at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province to visit the troops. Here’s Friedman’s account in the 115 F heat:

“Let me see a show of hands,” Mullen began, “how many of you are on your first deployment?” A couple of dozen hands shot up. “Second deployment?” More hands went up. “Third deployment?” Still lots of hands were raised. “Fourth deployment?” A good dozen hands went up. “Fifth deployment?” Still a few hands went up. “Sixth deployment?” One hand went up.

Admiral Mullen asked the soldier to step forward to shake his hand and to have a picture taken with him.”

The November 21, 2011, issue of TIME had the cover story “An Army Apart.” Journalist Mark Thompson presented a compelling story about the growing gap between the U.S. military and the civilian U.S. population. As he eloquently put it: “Think of the U.S. military as the Other 1% – some 2.4 million troupes have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq since 911, exactly 1% of the 240 million Americans over 18.”

One former soldier he profiled is 32 year-old Marine Sergeant Alex Lemons who returned home in July 2008 following three tours in Iraq. Suffering from PTSD and having had 14 operations on his feet, which were badly damaged because of a fall, Lemons bluntly explains the gap between his civilian friends and the military: “It’s hard to think of my war as a bizarre camping trip that no one else went on.”

One compelling statistic is that when you remove those Americans who are physically unfit to serve their country, have criminal records or are in college, you’re left with only 15% of Americans between 17 and 24 who are eligible to sign up! As retired Army major general Dennis Laich puts it: “The all-volunteer force is a mercenary military made up of poor kids and patriots from the third and fourth socioeconomic quintiles of our country.”

To my fellow smug Canadians, we’re no better north of the border – maybe worse, when it comes to really paying attention to the needs of our troops when they return home. Indeed, horror stories abound which the media has picked up to a limited extent.

When you have professional Armed Forces, such as our two countries, it’s easy for the population to get pumped up for the troops with contrived patriotism. As the saying goes, “Old men crave war; young men fight it.” (Memo to file: add “women” to this saying).

And what about Gens Y and X? Sure, they “support” their peers fighting and dying half a world away, while sipping a Cappuccino with one hand and texting on their iPhone with the other.

Back to the main story…

Sue and I successfully raised four kids to adulthood (29 to 39 years of age). Despite a decent government salary and Sue being out of the labour market for 12 years while she stayed home with the kids, we never went consumer crazy. No trips. No fancy crap. Just worked, raised kids, did community volunteer work, and (in my case) earned two Masters degrees.

And we were sandwiched for many years with aging parents and “kids” who still called us with their issues and, now, with a seventh grand kid on the way.

Male friends with much younger children used to ask me if it got better as kids get older. My response was: “Are you kidding? It gets way worse. Wait till they start driving.” Or in our case with three daughters, check out some of the asshole boyfriends who were brought home.

Gen Y and its older cohort Gen X are the instant gratification generations. They see something they like? “I want it now!”

Gen X has gone consumer crazy, buying into monster-sized houses for one or two kids. When I grew up in Montreal there was just my brother and me. We were fortunate to have a two-story house and our own bedrooms. However, many of my friends were from homes with four-plus kids. Some lived in little bungalows with two or three kids packed into a tiny bedroom.

Howeever, it’s about the bad Baby Boomers and the poor, exploited Gen Y and the excluded Gen X.

Rather than looking for scapegoats, a more constructive approach would be to collaborate across generations to find solutions. There are plenty of problems to go around. Stop the finger-pointing. After a while it’s no longer cool.

Blame is destructive.

What’s your solution to this mess?

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.
– Laurence J. Peter (“The Peter Principle”

Are YOU an Owner in Your Corporate Retreat? From Numbness to Engagement

April 21, 2019

Your eyes are glazing over, head slumping dangerously closer to the table, upon which lie scattered papers. The coffee’s terrible, as are the fat-laden muffins and pastries. And you’ve grown numb from the incessant drone of your boss, who’s pontificated on the organization’s priorities and direction.

Yes, you’re at a corporate retreat. It may be at a local hotel or hall, or perhaps at a fancy resort (though this is now unlikely given the crappy economy).

One of the blessings of being retired is that I no longer have to attend corporate retreats.

I attended far too many such retreats over 30 years. Some were horrendously bad; some had good moments, but dragged on too long; and a few were very productive with positive outcomes later on.

So how do you go about designing, planning and delivering a successful retreat, whether with a large number of people or just with your team?

Too often, off-site retreats (planning sessions, town halls, team meetings) are driven by management, from the initial design and planning to the delivery of the event and to the typical no follow-up. Employees are treated as furniture: told when the retreat will be held, where and how long. Little thought is given to engaging employees from the start.

The 2008-09 Great Recession and ensuing period of weak growth pushed companies and even governments to retract spending on corporate retreats and conferences. However, that doesn’t mean that with improved yet modest growth that when retreats are held one should assume that management wants to get the biggest bang for the buck – namely, the engagement of employees with useful results that will help move the organization forward.

My experience over 30 years on being both on the receiving end of stunningly useless retreats and highly productive ones produced some important lessons. Here are eight key success factors for a successful corporate retreat, large or small:

1. Clear purpose and short list of key objectives.
Without these, your event will produce nothing but yawns, disrespect for management and a waste of corporate resources.

2. Senior management corporate sponsor.
This applies to some cases, depending on the purpose, scope, impact and required resources. The sponsor is in effect your event’s cheerleader, who shares in the accountability of output.

3. Employee engagement in the design, planning and delivery.
This is where you build employee ownership and commitment to the process. If you have a union, be sure to include them at the start. That way the union will have a vested stake in the outcome and won’t sabotage your efforts.

4. Carefully select a neutral facilitator.
This is a vital step. Whether the facilitator is an internal or external resource, they must not bring their own baggage or biases with them.

5. Ensure that employees’ issues and concerns are incorporated into the design.
Treat people as adults and they’ll surprise you every time. This is not a top-down process.

6. Incorporate variety into the agenda to respect adult learning styles.
You don’t want people zonking out from boredom, or disengaging from the discussions. You want contribution.

7. Be sure that laughter is a big part of your retreat.
There’s no better way to keep up the energy level in the room, to break potential tensions and to encourage people’s active involvement than to have people laughing.

8. Assess the retreat against its purpose and objectives.
Tell the participants that they’ll be asked to complete a short questionnaire a week later. This delay is to allow them to digest what they’ve learned and reflected upon.

Take a moment to share an experience from a successful retreat you’ve attended.

We need to give each other the space to grow,
to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity.
We need to give each other space so that we
may both give and receive such beautiful.

– Max DePree

Have You Lost Your Voice? Stand Up and be Counted

April 13, 2019

Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose….Be shunned, be hated, or be ridiculed, be scared be in doubt, but don’t be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.
– John Jay Chapman (American author. Commencement address to Hobart College graduating class, 1900)

Do you like being suppressed when you want to express your views at work?

Do you enjoy feeling like a pea in a pod?

And do you prefer working in a setting where you’re in a compliance mode?

If you answered no, you’re a warm-blooded human being. Sorry reptiles, you’re out.

Here’s something to share. A few years ago I stumbled across on the internet a fascinating essay. Well, maybe not an essay, but it was pretty provocative. And then while travelling through New England (I’m a neighbouring Canadian) I picked up a copy.

If you haven’t read the Cluetrain Manifesto, first published in 2000, then this is essential reading. Written by four respected social media commentators, the Manifesto provides an enlightening look at our rapidly changing world and the democratizing role that the internet is playing. What’s fascinating is that it’s even more relevant now since when it was written–before Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Instagram and a host of social media platforms. The manifesto is a free download.

Put in context that the above quotation is from 19 years ago. Yet how many companies, including non-profits and government, really get it when it comes to the democratizing and empowering effects of the Internet?

A lot has happened since the release of The Cluetrain Manifesto: 911, the endless war in Afghanistan, the 2008-09 financial meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession, a limp economic recovery, Brexit, the emergence of Facebook, the collapse of Nortel, the junk bond status of former powerhouse Nokia and its subsequent resurgence, the 2011 Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street. The list goes on.

And through all of these changes the Manifesto has remained relevant, a document each of needs to read and reflect upon.

What really struck me while re-reading the Manifesto was chapter two, The Longing, written by David Weinberger. The essence of Weinberger’s message has to do with retaining our individual voice. Yet working in bureaucratic organizations, whether in business or the public sector, has the pernicious effect of robbing each of us of our voice.

As Weinberger says:
Just about all the concessions we make to work in a well-run, non-disturbing, secure, predictably successful, managed environment have to do with giving up our voice….Our voice is our strongest, most direct expression of who we are. Our voice is expressed in our words, our tone, our body language, our visible enthusiasms.

Weinberger talks about the sniping that goes on in organizations as a result of “management” taking our voices. People push back. Why? Because we’re human beings. However, management is a “powerful force” that reflects a bigger picture of promising employees peace, happiness and wealth.

It turns out (just look at what’s happened in the past decade to the economy) that we’re all victims when it comes to the loss of our collective voice. It is only the force of our regret at having lived in this bargain that explains the power of our longing for the web.

Books like the Cluetrain Manifesto are great because they stimulate our thinking and remind us that we’re all on this beautiful planet for just a nano-second of time. When it came to reflecting on David Weinberger’s words of wisdom, I got to thinking about Harrison Owen, respected author, consultant and creator of Open Space Technology, a highly empowering method of engaging people and inviting their voices to solve complex problems, whether in organizations or at the community level.

The fundamental premise of the Cluetrain Manifesto is that companies have been blind to the sea change the Internet represents, desperately clinging to methods that worked wonders in the broadcast era but that are radically counterproductive online.

Take time to reflect on what this sea change means for you personally.

Are you expressing your true voice daily in whatever capacity you’re working or volunteering?

When it comes to working in a crappy labour market, and especially if you’re seeking work, then ideals go out the window. Everyone bunkers down, allowing themselves to be kicked in the butt by the boss, nodding their heads in agreement during meetings or job interviews.

But is that a good strategy?

There are companies out there that want people to express themselves honestly and openly. However, remember that with being open comes common sense and responsibility. In the vernacular if you want to stand up and be counted, don’t be an asshole. Be a leader. Add value, contribute to your co-workers’ ideas and be open to outcome, not attached to it.

Are you ready to take the plunge?


Conversation is a profound act of humanity. So once were markets.

– Doc Searls (The Cluetrain Manifesto)

The Humble Leader: Giving Without Strings Attached

April 7, 2019

Open a book on leadership or management, read an article on the subject, or listen to an interview and you’re bound to bump into coaching or mentoring. This inter-related field has exploded in the past two decades, with certified coaching programs and mentoring initiatives becoming as ubiquitous as cubicles.

As with any new management development or fad there’s a saturation point, and perhaps to be provocative a case of diminishing returns. And as a longtime friend and leadership consultant said to me a while ago, “There are a lot of hungry coaches out there.” Indeed.

Certification as a coach doesn’t come cheap, at least not with the reputable programs. Expect to fork out major bucks. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of formal coaching programs, assuming one can afford to become a client, especially in a brutal labor market with a prolonged economic recovery. And just when getting that competitive edge is so important.

What has interested me for some time is the ongoing fuzziness over what is coaching and what is mentoring. I’ve listened to enough disagreements from experts on their distinctions. Perhaps one helpful explanation is from Hilarie Owen (CEO of the Institute of Leadership, author, and former head of leadership services for the police in Wales  England and Northern Ireland). In a past interview with the International Leadership Association, Owen explained the difference between coaching and mentoring this way:

We often confuse mentoring with coaching. A coach asks questions and doesn’t have to have the same background or have experienced the same. A mentor has been where the mentee is, has empathy and hopefully, has learned and developed wisdom. Coaching tends to focus on performance; mentoring tends to develop the whole person which is why enabling a person to reflect is an important part of mentoring. In developing the person, you need to question the beliefs and assumptions that a mentee has, especially if they are limiting their capability.”

At the heart of this issue is people–warm-blooded human beings, complete with their gifts, warts and idiosyncrasies. We shouldn’t be making coaching or mentoring a complicated rocket science process, feeding what is now a self-serving industry that “certifies” people to become coaches. 

Of all the material I’ve read on coaching and mentoring over two decades, one piece stands out for both its simplicity and elegance. Meet Chip Bell, author of the excellent book Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning.

The premise of Bell’s approach to mentoring is that the mentor is part teacher, guide, sage and, especially, someone who strives to the best of his or her ability to act in a “whole and compassionate way” with the mentee. As he states: “No greater helping or healing can occur than that induced by a model of compassion and authenticity.”

Bell uses the acronym SAGE for his approach to mentoring:
S – Surrendering:

In contrast to the mentor driving the learning process she surrenders it. It’s not about losing power or authority but rather yielding to a flow that transcends both mentor and mentee. A mentor who attempts to control the learning process will in the end hinder discovery and personal reflection.

A – Accepting:
This is the act of inclusion. It’s about embracing uncertainty, change and possibilities, as opposed to judging or evaluating.

G – Gifting:
The act of generosity underlies gifting. However, don’t confuse it with giving, which is the process of bestowing something of value with the expectation of receiving something in return. Mentors have gifts to share, accumulated from their life experiences.

E – Extending:
This involves the challenge of pushing the mentor-mentee relationship beyond the assumed boundaries. It may eventually mean the end of the relationship if the mentee is to continue growing and exploring new opportunities.

Bell explains that Surrendering and Accepting are essential to the learning process because it “levels the playing field.” They enable Gifting to occur in its full form, with Extending reducing the mentee’s dependence on the mentor.

What’s so appealing about Chip Bell’s mentoring model is that it’s really a philosophy on how to approach one’s learning and how to become involved in helping others in their learning journeys. Indeed, it’s not even about managers as mentors, as the book’s title states; instead, it’s about people helping people. SAGE serves as the four cornerstones to mentoring, or coaching if you prefer that word. Eventually, it becomes a case of semantics.

Be sure to check out Bell’s book and his website (see the above links) and open yourself to a different way of thinking about mentoring and coaching.

There is a magical quality about the spirit of the mentoring process when it takes on a life of its own and leads mentor and protégé through an experience of shared discovery.
– Chip Bell (Managers as Mentors)

To Cluster or Not to Cluster Is Not the Issue: It’s about Leadership

March 31, 2019

The world economy is in a competitive street-fight, with a no-holds-barred struggle for market share, and indeed for supremacy within a market.

Over several decades, economists have developed and advanced their theories on how to develop cities and regions. When I studied urban economics and regional development in the late seventies and early eighties, growth poles were the hot topic. Companies would be drawn to specific locations that had desirable amenities, taxes, talent, etc. This would create an agglomeration effect over time.

Later on, people such as Harvard’s Michael Porter marketed his concept of innovation clusters. His 1990 book The Advantage of Nations became a best seller. During the subsequent years Porter’s reputation grew as he further elaborated on his ideas, where he became the de facto guru on clusters and their role in creating wealth and jobs.

Ideas come, and ideas fade. Whether it’s because the empirical proof never fully arrives to support a concept, or because people desire a new fad with fancy terminology, can be debated. What’s at stake, however, is how national and local governments address the global economy’s growing complexity and intense competitiveness. (Above photo: Singapore)

Strategy+Business, an online newsletter from booz&co., featured an excellent article by Ernest J. Watson III (University of Southern California) entitled: How to Make a Region Innovative.

The rest of this post provides some of the main highlights.

Watson describes innovation clusters as networks of organizations whose purpose is to “jumpstart” industries at a regional level and which are able to compete internationally. He then notes that many of these attempts never achieve their goals.

His research over many years has found that cluster initiatives typically fail because of the misguided belief that a heroic innovator has the solution. Or that government throws cash at the initiative. Or that business schools become blinded by supporting their students’ entrepreneurial ambitions.

If the aim is to create a chain of innovation that can be sustained over the long-term, then a new way of thinking is needed. In Watson’s mind, this means embedding innovation within established social institutions and networks. To do this effectively requires connecting together four sectors. Watson calls this “The Quad.”

1) Business
This is the cluster’s economic engine, where much of the needed capital is raised and risk-taking is concentrated. Business leaders play a vital role in the Quad.

2) Government
The needed infrastructure investment is provided from government, whether physical, broadband, schools, transportation, etc. It also provides regulations, tax breaks and investment rules.

3) Universities
An ongoing supply of talented graduates is necessary for a cluster. In addition, a steady stream of ideas from research is key to the creation of new knowledge.

4) Non-Profit
This sector spans a wide variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They play an important role in the Quad because they typically have their feet on the ground, understanding the pulse of the community. For example, these organizations are moving increasingly into such areas as banking and finance (e.g., microfinancing in developing countries or small business in North America).

And to accomplish this form of innovation hotbed of activity, one word rises to the top: LEADERSHIP

Leadership is key if cross-sector networks are to be created and used effectively.

Leadership is essential if an organizational culture is to emerge where innovation is a way of being.

Leadership is mandatory if talent management is to be managed properly: from recruitment to employee development to retention to knowledge transfer.

Human beings are impatient, with a strong tendency to dismiss history. We want instant results, and when they don’t arrive fast enough we move on to a new fad or concept.

Watson reminds the reader that it took 100 years for Bangalore, India, to evolve into a strong cluster. It took Silicon Valley in California over 30 years to achieve its international reputation.

Canada and the United States no longer have the luxury of time to experiment with new concepts, with academics debating endlessly about their merits or deficiencies. If we’re to stop the slide in our respective global competitiveness, then we’d better learn quickly how to tear down the barriers and rules that hinder collaboration across the four Quads. JT

A successful quad system needs organizations that are willing to continually reform themselves, and to collaborate on building the cluster’s capabilities as a whole, spreading good management practice from one organization to another.
– Ernest Watson