Some Days Are Just Not Made for Trying to Get Things Done – Day 29

Saturday 17:44, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

Some days are just not made for trying to get things done. Like today, for example. I was full of good intentions and felt as motivated as ever to delve into my studies, but when I sat down by the kitchen table, on a padded chair for optimal comfort (I anticipated a long session), and I opened the chapter on change management, it immediately became obvious it was going to be an uphill struggle. An hour later, after reviewing what I had read and learnt, I gave up.

Change management is something that most of us have experienced at some time in our professional lives. Truth be told, I would even go as far as saying that most of us are experiencing it now, and possibly, all the time. As before, the topic fascinates me, which is why I was somewhat surprised when my thoughts would not stop wondering while reading about the various theoretical models of change management.

You look well, Toño. Although your eyes tell me you are a little tired‘, my father said when I skyped briefly with him and my mother, who are travelling in Latin America at the moment, escaping the long and predictably harsh winter of Sweden. ‘I don’t understand why you have to push yourself so hard! It really is unnecessary.‘, my sister exclaimed during our phone call a moment ago.

Well, some days are just not made for trying to get things done.  I wish there were a system; an app perhaps, or maybe something more sophisticated like a live-in, computerised avatar, who could tell you what your capabilities were going to be for the day.

Good morning, handsome‘, my avatar would say. I would program him (or her) to always be complementary, no matter what state my face and hair would be in. ‘Today will be a sunny and mild day, you will feel amazing until noon, after which you will feel a little tired and light-headed. Don’t attempt to do anything that requires more than 5% of your brain capacity, like studying. It will be a complete failure, and it might stress you out.’

This kind of advice would be priceless, as I would turn down the notch a little, enjoy another coffee in bed, and perhaps have an afternoon nap.

Isn’t the King Powerless? (Part 2) – Day 26

Wednesday 07:18, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

One of the benefits of studying and learning about management – and, in my opinion, the one that has the greatest impact – is that it gives you a framework in which to make sense of behaviour, situations, actions and processes that we have both experienced and, occasionally, even instigated ourselves.

Theories, concepts, models and terminology, all of which were previously unknown but that through the process of learning are unveiled, provide a new language that enables us to see things through a new perspective.

For the last few weeks I’ve been reading about power and politics in organisations: two interlinked and truly fascinating concepts with political, economical, social and even philosophical connotations. Of the various theories, it’s really Lukes’ three dimensions of power, and the fourth dimension added by Hardy, that truly fascinate me. For context, I’ve described them below:

  • 1st dimension: power is visible and open (e.g., your line manager asks you to do something)
  • 2nd dimension: power is out-of-sight and whoever decides about ‘the game’ is ‘in the game’ (e.g., decisions made by a management group behind closed doors)
  • 3rd dimension: power is purposefully used to normalise and neutralise situations in order to avoid conflicts; things are taken for granted (e.g., your boss asks you to do something that is against your true will and uses language to sugar-coating it and ‘sells’ it to you as a benefit)
  • 4th dimension: power is invisible, relational and systematic and is not ‘owned’ by anybody; its affects are not by design and leaves certain individuals and groups of people disadvantaged while other benefit from it (e.g., a structural re-organisation of a large multi-national)

I’ve never really come across the fourth dimension before and although initially difficult to grasp it is the one that fascinates me the most. As an analogy Hardy uses the pieces of a chess board to describe how ‘less powerful’ pieces like the pawns can, through positioning and relation, bring down a much more ‘powerful’ piece, like the king. What I find interesting in this analogy is that although the objective of chess is to put your opponent in check mate (i.e. render the king powerless), I see the king as powerless pretty much all the time. The way the king moves, the way it is protected by the move castling. To me, I see a vulnerable piece, but one that is also the most important.

How does this relate to organisational structure? Are CEOs the kings of organisations? Are the pawns the employees? Or does Hardy’s fourth dimension create a world in which power and power structures remain largely invisible to most of us? And if this last question has any truth, if we cannot see and, by definition, control a systemic and relational dimension of power, what are the responsibilities of senior management during organisational operations and change? Is it to use power responsibly and create a just culture? To maximise shareholders’ profits and ensure operational fitness? Can the last two situations co-exist?

And to take the analogy even further, is there a ‘player’ – i.e., one that controls all the pieces of chess?

Pawn and king

Conflict at The Cupcake Factory – Day 19

Wednesday 13:51, The Cupcake Factory, London

Names have been changed to protect the innocent. He may be she, and she may be he. Oh, and it all takes place at The Cupcake Factory.

Conflict and conflict management is a distinctly human behaviour and is endemic in all levels of society. A glance at this week’s The Economist tells us about ‘disputes’, ‘collisions’ and ‘derailments’ in the political, scientific and economic arenas. Organisational conflict is also rife, with headliners speaking of ‘frozen conflict’ to indicate a temporary solution to an ongoing dispute over e-books between Amazon and Hachette.

There are a number of theories on organisational conflict and conflict management. For example, by using a model that examines an individual’s level of assertiveness and cooperation, as well as the levels of satisfying one’s own versus other’s concern, Thomas was able to identify five distinct conflict management styles, each designed to approach and resolve conflict in different ways.

A recent situation at my new employer, The Cupcake Factory, exemplifies the use of two of these management styles, namely accommodating where another individual is allowed ‘to win’ and collaborating where both parties are seen ‘to win’.

For context, I was recently asked by the Chief Cupcake Chef to give a talk at a prestigious international cupcake fair. Upon hearing of my decision to deliver a standard ‘corporate pitch’ (i.e., presenting benefits and features of our cupcakes), our external sponge consultant strongly advised against it as, in his words, it was ‘going to go down as a lead balloon’. Instead, he recommended a topic I knew very little about, but one that he thought would be better received by the audience. Although I have worked in the cupcake industry for well over a decade, the products and services of my new employer are new to me. I therefore decided to take his advice, as he was more experienced than me in this field. This is the first example of Thomas’s accommodating strategy, as I admitted my proposition was not optimal for this particular occasion.

Admitting that I was wrong did not affect my professional integrity, as I felt I had learned something and it would have been unreasonable of me to ignore the sponge consultant’s advice. Additionally, using accommodating strategy in this particular instance could have been seen as a signal that I’m open to dialogue, which is an essential component of facilitating reflective practice.

As I was no expert on the new topic I called a meeting with the sponge consultant and head of icing development to discuss the structure of the talk. At the meeting, I quickly became aware that neither of my colleagues were volunteering to assist me with the structure of the talk, which meant that I took it upon myself to write it. I specifically asked the sponge consultant if he wanted to get more involved in the talk, but he declined and suggested that it would be better for me to ‘work out’ the structure by myself so that it didn’t sound like I was regurgitating somebody else’s words.

The real conflict situation, which I eventually managed to resolve through using Thomas’s collaborating strategy, came about when I submitted my first draft to my two colleagues, who, after reviewing it, recommended further work. The sponge consultant’s feedback in particular included significant structural changes. My initial reaction, which did not display much emotional intelligence and that I kept for myself, was that of frustration as I felt that recommending significant changes after having declined my request for help on exactly this particular matter was ‘taking the piss’ as we say here in the UK. After some deliberation, I wrote to my colleagues and informed them that I was going to think about their suggestions over the weekend.

Having a few days to think things over and to get some distance from the problem was useful as it allowed me to practice what Raelin calls reflective practice. Ultimately, it made me realise that most of the suggestions were, in fact, on point, and would result in a more interesting talk, even though it meant additional work for me. I used Thomas’s collaborating strategy and informed them that I would incorporate most of their feedback. I went as far as thanking them for ‘pointing me in the right direction’.

Allowing both parties ‘to win’ felt like the right thing to do, as it was only my pride and frustration that were in the way of a good management decision. From the point of view of the sponge consultant, having a senior manager take in his recommendation is a strong signal that I listened and was able to maintain objectivity without allowing emotions get in the way.

While the above case study shows the use of two of Thomas’s conflict management styles, there are three other remaining ways to approach conflict. For example, a more aggressive approach, known as competing, would have been for me to reject my colleagues’ feedback and argue that it was ‘too late’ to make the suggested edits. This, of course, might be damaging in the long-term as my colleagues might feel less inclined to provide constructive criticism in the future. Alternatively, I could have avoided conflict altogether by not asking for feedback in the first place (known as avoiding). In hindsight, this would have resulted in the talk being less interesting and relevant to its audience and may have come across as a sign of my being ‘a lone wolf’.

Thomas’s model allows for a quick categorisation of behaviour in order to find the appropriate management style. Applied to the case of the sponge consultant and his feedback on my talk, it is relatively easy to identify and classify my behaviour. However, the model is simplistic in its approach as it fails to recognise that often conflicts are multi-faceted and a combination of styles may be used. Additionally, Thomas’s model does not take into account the role of power in conflict resolution and, in my opinion, power plays a pivotal part in any conflict management style. For example, the level of power both parties have is instrumental in deciding different outcomes.


Thoughts While Waiting for a Haircut – Day 17

Monday 18:17, Rocket Barber Shop, Hackney Road, London

Rocket Barber Shop is an über cool place on Hackney Road, East London. It’s got that weird balance of trendy, cheap and cool – and lots of beards, of course. It also has a huge queue, which means I have time to reflect on what has been going on.

I’m three weeks into my MBA and, if I’m going to be optimistic, it’s so far so good. It’s of course tough; in many ways much harder than I thought, and while I’m trying to be as perceptive as possible on how this MBA if affecting those around me, at times I struggle, and the whole life-work-study balance thing goes straight out the window, which never was the intention. At the recent Day School we were told by one of the tutors that ‘it’s determination and stamina, not intelligence that will get you through’. Well, we’ll see.

There are many things I’m still trying to get used to. Like waking up at 5:30am. The tactic I’ve developed to roll out of bed and into the chair where I normally sit and study involves complete annihilation of any trace of doubt why I’m up at this unholy hour. It’s like switching to autopilot and manoeuvring myself from the bedroom, through the corridor – without tripping on my treacherous trainers trying to ambush me – and into the kitchen. The second tactic involves what started as a double shot but now has evolved into a triple shot flat white. Needless to say, I don’t even know what has hit me by the time I’ve opened up my Mac or text book.

Another coping mechanism (I guess that’s what they are) is that I’m approaching the MBA in as small chunks as possible. To imagine I’ll be doing this for an entire year, even three, is at the moment completely beyond comprehension. It’s like climbing a mountain and not being able to see the top – for a long while. I should really stop saying I’m doing an MBA, and say I’m doing a 6-week post graduate course in management.

This last bit made me think of a joke someone recently told me. I’m sure at least one of you will find it funny:

How do you know someone is doing an MBA?

They will tell you.

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 20.31.09

Isn’t the King Powerless? (Part 1) Day 14

Friday, 07:20, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

When I was a young boy my father taught me how to play chess. I still remember the old, wooden box, with its rough sides, defaced with purposefully made scratches that bore the signs of blue ink engravings, which had faded over time and were long gone. The lid of the box had a chipped edge, possibly due to careless moment; possibly mine, and I even remember the sound it used to make as it slid open to reveal the black and off-white chess pieces.

I remember this box so well; and I remember, with equal clarity, the countless time I played with my father, working very hard trying to beat him. I was fascinated by the game. Learning how to play chess must have been one of the first instances where I learnt about, or perhaps more correctly used, power and strategy for my own gain.

Fast forward 30 years or so and having read about stakeholder theory and power and politics at work, I’m equally fascinated to learn about this fundamentally human behaviour and how the game of chess is played out at an organisational level. The more I read the more I realise how complex and potentially overwhelming power and politics at work is. But also how important it is to have a structured understanding of this part of human behaviour, as it runs through individuals, teams, organisations and society at large. Whilst I’ve always known – and felt – the power of top-to-bottom decision-making; there are nuances of power that have surfaced to become clearer. And what were once hidden agendas and backstage planning are becoming tell-tale signs of a particular dimension and classification of power.

Ultimately it poses a question to individuals, from CEOs, line managers, direct reports and even myself, and that question is why?

Isn’t the King Powerless is a two-part entry where I share my thoughts on power and politics at work.

On Being a Good Manager or a Good Leader – Day 9

Earlier this week I saw this great talk on by Simon Sinek. It caught my eye because the title was ‘Why good leaders make you feel safe’. As part of my MBA, I will read about a range of subject areas, from management theory to strategy to corporate finance to marketing. The list goes on and on – and although I’m convinced it will all be very useful and will contribute to my development as a manager, my aim is not simply to just be a good manager.

As managers we have a wide range of obligations, and the role we, as individuals, play in order to execute these obligations is essential to the organisation. But it is not through my own individual contribution at work that I will make a real change; this will come from the individual members of my team and from those that I work closely with.

We all want to work with a good manager, even an excellent manager. But wouldn’t we rather work with a good leader?

I can’t say I agree with every single word in Sinek’s talk; and perhaps 12 minutes is not long enough for Sinek to fully explain the nuances of his concepts, but it poses some interesting questions and has definitely left me with some food for thought on creating safety and collaboration in my organisation.

It Was Only a Matter of Time – Day 5

Wednesday, 17:32, The Underground, unknown location, London

It was only a matter of time. I knew it was going to come unexpectedly and without warning; like Baz Lurhmann’s says in Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen):

“Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as 
effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing 
bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that 
never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm 
on some idle Tuesday.”

Although it did happened on a Tuesday so I should’ve seen it coming.

First mini breakdown – check.