32- The Postmodern Leader: Style Two. II. The Strategic Challenge

July 19, 2010

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

II. The Strategic Challenge

The premodern Style II Leader builds her credibility on the foundation of courage—and typically looks to an external enemy as the focus for engaging this courage (and more generally as a generator of energy and motivation among those she is leading). The modern Style Two leader builds her credibility on the foundation of empowerment—and typically looks to her own team as the source of both difficulties and opportunities. The enemy and fundamental challenges in modern organizations reside inside the organization. What about the postmodern Style Two leader? What are the fundamental challenges facing this person. As I noted in Blog 31, the enemy is now even more intimate. It resides within the heart of the Style Two leader. The enemy force is now constituted of the “demons” that reside inside each of us. How do we take the risk? Can we learn by doing and by making mistakes? Is courage ultimately about risking our own reputation on behalf of a worthy cause?

I propose that the three strategic planning processes described in Blog 31 are each rather “safe.” We hide behind precipitous action (command model), behind vision (symbolic model) or behind data (rational model). Unfortunately, our postmodern world of complexity, unpredictability and turbulence requires that we move beyond these three models and that we effectively interweave information, intentions and ideas. There are two models of strategic planning that facilitate this interweaving and that enable a Style Two leader to take appropriate risks—and most importantly to learn from these risks and the mistakes that inevitably occur when facing the challenges of postmodern complexity, unpredictability and turbulence.

Approach Four: Transaction-Based Planning

The transactional approach to strategic planning begins with a focus on all three domains—information, intentions and ideas. When using a transactional approach, the Style Two leader can begin anywhere; however, any dialogue or exploration of any one of the three domains automatically moves a Style Two leader and his planning group over to the other two domains. It is the transactions between the three domains that lead to powerful ideas that can be translated into successful action.

This approach is also transactional in that the planning does not end with the movement to action. There is ongoing organizational learning, for any action not only provides valuable information about the quality of the idea being engaged, but also provides greater clarity regarding organizational intentions (“Oh, that’s what we really want to achieve”), as well as clarity regarding additional information that needs to be collected (“Oh, I guess we made a wrong assumption about this; we need to find out more about it”). At this moment, the Style Two leader also becomes a Style One Leader/Learner.

Transactional planning is rarely placed in the hands of the upper level executives in the organization. However, unlike the third approach, transactional planning is not housed in a planning office, planning committee, or the Management Information (or Budget) Office; rather, this fourth approach is usually housed deep in the organization and involves many players. There may be a series of ad hoc planning committees, or a series of intensive large-scale meetings involving many representatives from different areas and layers of the organization. The major outcome should be a broad based understanding of what is now happening and what is about to happen in the organization. Organizational learning takes place at all levels of the organization. Thus, there is a third way in which this approach to planning is transactional—it involves transactions between and among all levels and departments of the organization.

The transaction-based approach to planning can be very effective if used in an organization that is large and in an organization that resides in a relatively stable marketplace. The organizational must be large enough and secure enough, and the environment must be stable enough to allow for personal and organizational reflection and sustained, collaborative planning processes.  More than any of the other approaches, the transactional approach tends to increase commitment to the plans finally formulated. Given that ongoing monitoring takes place, the fourth approach (like the third approach) also tends to produce few failures. At the very least, those failures that do occur tend to have a reduced impact, given the ongoing analysis and re-planning processes.

Transaction-oriented Style Two leaders are usually inclined to assume an internal locus of control. They believe that broad based participation by parties who are internal to the organization can make a difference in addressing tough external challenges. Furthermore, by emphasizing ongoing organizational learning even after the plan is put in place, members of an organization are likely to feel that they can eventually manage and even overcome major external challenges. At times this assumption of internal control is not realistic. Transactional Style Two leaders are sometimes over-confident about their ability to control or even influence external conditions.

Turning to the MBTI profiles, we find that transactional leaders are most likely to be oriented toward the sensing function (S) when gathering information (perceiving) and to the thinking (T) processes when making a judgment (the ST configuration on MBTI). Transaction-based leaders are also much more inclined to be deliberate and diligent in the judgments they reach. From an MBTI perspective, they are more likely to be oriented toward perceiving rather than judging in their work (STP). Rational Style Two leaders (third approach) are deliberate in their work and ensure that they have the appropriate data and clarity of purpose before moving forward. They are also inclined, however, to stick with their idea and their assessments once a plan of action has been mapped out. Conversely, the transaction-based Style Two leader keeps her options open even after a plan of action has been initiated. Transactional leaders are always open to new ideas, clearer intensions and new information—they remain in a “P” mode even when engaged in action. These transactional leaders can be a source of real frustration for other leaders with a more “J” (judging) orientation. Not only are the transactional Style Two leaders slow to come to a decision, they even tinker with the decision after it has been made!

The key to effective planning for those who embrace the transactional approach is paying attention to the external environment that has an impact on their organization—these leaders must embrace an external as well as internal locus of control. Transactional leaders must fully appreciate not just the ongoing collaborative processes that occur inside their organization, but also the powerful forces that are operating in the 21st Century on their organization. They must be wary of the “group think” that can occur when building consensus—the tendency for a group to perceive what it wants to perceive and to stifle contradictory (and particularly pessimistic) perspectives. In this case, as in the case of the third approach, the “enemy” is not just an external threat, it is also internal pressures to conform on behalf of consensus. Participants in transactional planning may abide by the results of a carefully conceived collaborative process without taking a second look to be sure that the results of this transactional analysis are not just properly reached, but are also based in reality.

Before moving to the final approach to planning, I will identify the major leadership challenge associated with the transaction-based approach to planning. This challenge concerns the value inherent in the involvement of all members of the organization (or at least all members of the planning group) in reflective practice. This type of analysis and organizational learning requires a level of cognitive sophistication that may not be found in all members of an organization. Is the transactional leader simply naïve in assuming that people really want to learn from their mistakes and are willing to redo their carefully prepared action plans if the actions that are eventually taken reveal a flawed plan? In some ways the fourth (transaction-based) approach to planning is a postmodern, 21st Century version of the third approach—it pushes the envelope with regard to creation of a learning organization.


Approach Five: Generative-Based Planning

The fifth and final approach to strategic planning can be considered a 21st Century, postmodern version of a command-based approach to planning (see Blog 31). While the fourth approach requires a relatively stable environment and works best in a fairly large organization, the fifth approach is quite entrepreneurial (like the first) and works most effectively when the environment is unstable (a common phenomenon in the 21st Century) and when the organization is relatively small or at least very nimble. There is a strong emphasis in this approach, as the name implies, on generativity—producing something, learning by doing, trying it out, “letting it all hang out.” Risk-taking and pilot-testing reside at the heart of this approach. It truly challenges the internal courage of the Style Two leader. Rather than spending much time talking about or conceiving an idea, or spending much time clearly articulating desired outcomes (intentions), or conducting a needs assessment or conducting a market survey (information), generative Style Two leaders try something out in a small, controlled setting. This pilot test can produce substantial and highly tangible information for them about the real needs and interests of the market they are surveying and a much clearer sense of what they can realistically expect with regard to desired outcomes.

As in the case of the fourth approach, attention is given in the fifth approach to learning-after-implementation. An idea is tried out and careful attention is given to what occurs. Rather than devoting a substantial amount of time up front to planning, a generative Style Two leader spends time after the initial offering or pilot test in determining what worked, why it worked and what modifications need to be made in the near future to make it work more effectively, more efficiently or in a more attractive manner (given the market to which this product or service seems to appeal). It is critical when the fifth approach is engaged to create or find a safe place in which the new idea can be pilot-tested. Newly-designing airplanes are tested out in wind tunnels. Something equivalent to a wind-tunnel must be created when testing out a new product or service under generative planning guidelines.

This highly entrepreneurial approach is simultaneously action-oriented and quite reflective (after the initial action). It makes sense in a highly turbulent environment, for one must act quickly and learn quickly to keep up with the shifting conditions. It is not enough to create a learning organization (as is the case with the fourth approach), one must create a “fast-learning” organization—which is even more challenging in terms of cognitive flexibility and willingness to learn from mistakes (as well as successes). This ultimately is the major leadership challenge of the fifth approach: how to create this fast learning climate in the organization.

Broad-based participation is required if generative planning is to succeed—not just to build commitment, but also to enable the fast learning to occur. Those involved in the actual production of a pilot test are usually best informed with regard to analyzing the results from this pilot test (unless they have a vested interest in the outcomes of the pilot test—which means this is not really a safe place in which to test out a new idea). They learn fast and must then convey what they have learned to others in the organization so that broader patterns can be detected. The pilot tests can be a source of additional learning. Further modifications can be made in existing pilot products or services, or new products or services can be created. The learning demanded of generative planning is simply too much for those operating at the top of the organization to absorb; leaders need the knowledge, insights and wisdom of other members of the organization.

Generative Style Two leaders, like transactional leaders, are usually inclined to assume an internal locus of control. They believe that enough good ideas—tested and modified through continuous improvement processes—can meet the demands of any external challenges. As in the case of the fourth approach, generative learners believe that ongoing organizational learning and modification after the plan is put in place enables them to eventually manage and overcome major external challenges. At times this assumption of internal control is not realistic; generative-oriented leaders are sometimes over-confident about their ability to control or even influence external conditions. They simply are not nimble enough to keep up with the turbulence that exists in the external environment, or do not have sufficient organizational smarts to learn everything that has to be learned about the complex, unpredictable and turbulent setting in which their organization operates.

What about MBTI profiles? Generative Style Two leaders are most likely to be oriented toward the intuitive function (N) when gathering information (perceiving) and to the feeling (F) processes when making a judgment (the NF configuration on MBTI). These men and women are much more likely to be oriented toward perceiving (NFP) in their work than are those who use any of the other approaches to planning. They may move rapidly to action (as do people with strong J functions); however, they are always leaving options open and will readily try out another idea, based on their own intuitive powers. They are also very concerned with outcomes (Feeling function) and don’t really care much about how a decision is reached, as long as it leads to something that is greatly valued (even something that can’t be imagined prior to the start of the generative planning process).

If transactional Style Two leaders can be a source of real frustration for planners, leaders and organizations with a more “J” (judging) orientation, generative Style Two leaders will be even more frustrating. They move rapidly (which the “J” folks like), but keep changing their minds. They are like jugglers who keep many balls up in the air and don’t seem to worry about one or two of the balls falling. They simply pick up the balls, reflect briefly on what has been learned, and begin juggling these same balls or some new ones.

For those who engage in generative planning the key is not just fast learning but also fast execution. Cut back on the number of barriers and review procedures (which are so dear to the rational planners) that exist in the organization. Instead, “let all flowers bloom.” This means that there will be many mistakes, but a fast-learning organization is one in which one can learn from these mistakes.  It is even more appropriate that generative leaders learn from the successes that occur. This does not only mean that they keep the successes moving forward, but also that they try to extract the important lessons to be learned from these successes, so that this learning can be applied to other potential projects. While a generative Style Two leader will inevitably make mistakes and foster many failures, there will be fewer of these negative outcomes if lessons can be learned from past successes.

The generative planner does not have to be concerned in particular about a balance between an internal and external locus of control, for the pilot test will usually yield rich information about both internal and external factors that influence the outcome of the pilot test. The real challenge is not being biased toward internal or external data. The real challenge concerns ways in which all of this abundant information is processed and interpreted. It is a matter of too much information from all sources rather than too little information from any one source. All-too-often, organizational leaders escape from a generative approach to planning, and return to one of the “safer” approaches of the 20th Century (see Blog 31), or to a more systematic, but less entrepreneurial, mode of transactional planning. It takes real, personal courage (and heart) for a Style Two leader to remain engaged in a generative approach to strategic planning.

Conclusions

While no formula exists for the brewing of personal courage, the two approaches to strategic planning that I have just briefly described do tend to move leaders toward action, while also encouraging reflection and clarity of direction. They both discourage blind movement forward (and in this way nudge the Style Two leader toward Style One), yet also discourage non-action and the state of freeze. Perhaps most importantly, both the transactional and generative approaches to strategic planning encourage Style Two leaders to confront a profound and challenging question: on behalf of whom are we displaying courage and taking risks? Who ultimately will benefit from our brave leadership? Are we doing this work on behalf of our own career advancement or to inflate our own ego? Or are we engaged in a “bigger game” and furthering a much more noble cause? When we confront this profound challenge—which we often do in our postmodern world—we are becoming not just more effective Style Two leaders, we are also becoming leaders who embrace a third style of postmodern leadership. We are becoming “servant leaders” – a perspective on leadership to which I turn in the next two (and my final two) blogs on leadership.