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Posts Tagged ‘thought leadership’

on theory versus practice


That title almost suggests a rivalry or conflict between the two, but they are complementary tools. A leader needs both and the more of each that they have the more effective their leadership should be. You can start with either, it really doesn’t matter which. The important thing is to keep a balance between the two. 

Theory is fine from the basic thought process through to detailed research. Taking time to consider why things work, or don’t work, is important. Reading, listening and discussing should be something that we all do so that we can understand out actions and the likely consequences of them. Continuous improvement is essential, but theory alone will not be enough.

As a practitioner you gain experience and that builds two things. One is that you can improve your judgement and, for some tasks, you will cease to consciously think about certain things and just do them automatically. Think about driving a car, operating a piece of equipment or playing an instrument. To begin with you are slow and jerky in how you do things, but, with practice, you just do them fluidly. The same applies to how you lead or manage as your experience makes some things instinctive in the way that you respond. The other thing that experience brings is that you can better understand the theory if you have done the job and being able to relate theory with the practice of doing. For some they will begin to contribute to and further develop that theory.

There are theorist who have never practiced and there are practitioners who have not studied theory. It isn’t a problem, but the better people in either discipline have experience of both fields and the marriage of both makes for the best results. From my own experience some of the worst people that I have had to work for have been stuck in one camp or the other and, if I had to choose, I would go for a practitioner every time for there is an element of truth in the old adage that those who can do and those who can’t teach.

One example comes to mind of a boss who was on an MBA course and at team meetings we would get to some point of planning and he would announce that he had just done that module on his course and, pulling the relevant binder off his bookshelf would regale us with its contents. Now there would be the odd nugget that we could use, and did, but most times he was not bright enough to spot the relevance and would go banging on past that point with all sorts of bullet points read verbatim off the page; he had no real idea of how to apply the knowledge let alone apply it to any good effect. The theorist at his worst.

Your abilities will evolve as you go along. You will learn from your mistakes and, better still, from the mistakes of others. If you also try and learn from your successes you can pool all of that and go read some theory to see where you can spot the joins; how much of your success and failure can you match with the theory. The correlation of these points of reference can help you improve through a better understanding of the theoretical side of what you do and a better understanding of why certain results come from your actions (or inactions).

It is not always easy as a practitioner to find the time to study, but it is worth finding some if for no other reason that the better you get at your job the more time you will find that you have. All too often you can find yourself firefighting issues and coping with re-working mistakes. These are the two biggest wastes of your time and as you get better they are the easiest things to fix. Use the time that this gives you to think further about what you do and how you can do it better is the best investment you can make in yourself.

It is not easy, but none of the good things are cheap. Something as worthwhile as this is worth working for. Give it a try, starting today.

perception versus reality revisited


Perception is belief. How you see things is the truth as far as you are concerned and it will stay that way until something comes along that might change your mind. It is a trait that we humans will probably always have.

It is fine as long as we are open to new ideas and are prepared to be proved wrong. If we are not then we are bigots and that is one of the problems with society today; there are too many people who are not willing to have their beliefs challenged.

I grew up through a world of change, not just in what was happening in the post WW2 period, but also because we moved house every couple of years or so. By the time I left school in 1969 it was my fifth school in 12 years. That revolving cast of teachers and other adults that helped form me fell broadly into two groups. One group lectured me in their beliefs whilst the others gave me their opinion, but pushed me to think for myself.

That carried on into my working life where there were many people who were dogmatic about how things were or should be done, the “My way or the highway” type, but there were also the rarer people who would ask “Why” or “What happens if…” and these people were also open to allowing me to challenge their thinking.

I learnt that to be certain was a dangerous thing. Weigh up the available evidence and make your decision, but be prepared to explain why you had come to it and never be afraid to allow others, especially subordinates, to offer their thoughts.

Today in society it seems that informed debate is dead. Social media appears to dominate people’s thinking and if you do not line up with the way others see things you are wrong. In a time when people’s rights are trumpeted everywhere the fundamental right to free speech has been lost. Offence is taken freely, but the way that we react to something that we hear or read is our own choice; we do not have to take offence at anything and personally I don’t, no matter how abhorrent what has been written or said is to my beliefs.

Hatred is everywhere as opinions become more polarised and topics are dealt with at a purely superficial level and, sadly, it is at that slim veneer that people’s perceptions become fixed. What people today seem to believe is not critically thought out, it is based around sound bites on social media which is the last place to be looking for informed debate. Because people gravitate towards sources that support their way of thinking and so shut themselves off from anything that might balance their opinions.

There is no short term fix to this and eventually there will be a swing the other way. It may not be in my lifetime, but it will come. I hope that there is not too much damage done before it happens. There is an old adage that The Truth Will Out and one day we will get back to a place where there is more congruence between perception and reality than there is now.

on the paradox of knowledge


I vaguely recall being told when I was in my late teens that the more we know the less we know and thought then that this was ridiculous. Clearly I did not then know enough.

Over my professional career there have been many occasions when my team and I have been engaged in planning something and have gone through that stage where our researches have led us to a point where we have more questions than answers; every answer that we seek leads to more questions and it is an iterative process that all project teams go through.

At some point in one of these project team meetings someone gave that long forgotten answer again; the more we know the less we know and it struck me that, far from being nonsense, it was actually true. It is aligned to another old adage about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing and I have had moments where I have made a fool of myself trying to use a new piece of knowledge only to find that what I knew barely scratched the surface.

Everything that you learn opens the door to more learning. I know now that this is what fuels my own passion for learning and it is so easy now. As a boy I had an old atlas of the world and a dictionary of similar vintage and these were my main sources of reference. No I have a tablet beside me for much of the time and, if not that, then a mobile (cell) ‘phone. With a few clicks I can check all sorts of facts and have been known to spend an entire evening digging through having started on one topic and been led to various threads from that.

The opportunity to learn is all around us these days and there is no excuse for not using it. Ignorance may be bliss, but I am a lot happier knowing things and seeking to know more. Hopefully I will never lose that urge to learn something new every day.

on the fail fast principle


For most of us we have become used to the fail safe way of working. I am old enough to remember a time when air brakes failed off leaving you with the best way of stopping being to find something soft to drive into. We don’t allow that these days.

Failures are things to be avoided and we work hard on our processes to find ways of doing it right first time, every time. If you are failing your KPIs it is career threatening, a thing of shame. No wonder that so many people are afraid of failure.

Yet we all know that we learn more from our failures and something that I adopt is based on a way of thinking that is called fail fast. The principle is to have something monitoring the system that warns of potential failure somewhere and puts things into a safe mode. It is similar to the Limp Mode that you may have found on your car. Some engineers are using it to push for failures, to encourage them to enable their eradication and this type of thinking is used in high pressure areas like Grand Prix motor sport to find and eliminate potential weak spots in any system or component.

Forty years or so ago we were doing something like this with software testing. The classic test was to take historic data and run that through the program to check that it was doing its sums correctly, but we mixed in erroneous inputs to see what happened. We would also overload the software beyond its specified capacities again to see what it would take, or otherwise.

With more manual processes this approach can also be tried and it will tend to show where the flow starts to fail. Critical Path Analysis is a good companion tool here and using the two can show how the CP can change user different circumstances.

These things can start as desktop exercises, but there is no substitute for doing them in real time because the the working environment will often through up things that would otherwise be missed; the story of my old boss and his M1 traffic jam has been told here before, but it was a classic case of the real world making a bugger’s muddle of what looked like a great plan.

The key message here is to always look at what other people in unrelated industries are doing. It is time rarely wasted because everyone has a need to make things happen as efficiently as possible. How they do it and the way that they think about their problems can often through up an idea that you can adopt or adapt. Take time to look around; you never know what you might find.