How to be a Woman (and an inclusive feminist)

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“The best thing to do is to choose what you think is right and then just make it look cool… With writing a book about feminism, I was like ‘I could write a real ball aching book and just go ‘you must believe women are equal to men because it’s like a fact of science’, or, I could just write a funny book where women go ‘oh, I’m having fun reading this. It’s making me happier about myself and now I’m just going to buy myself a more comfortable pair of pants’.”

Caitlin Moran on how focusing on the positive (and humorous) can be a much more fruitful approach to engagement and change than acting righteous or having a rant. From a male perspective, I find her disarmingly funny, articulate, passionate and very intelligent. There is something about her style that makes me feel included as a feminist, rather than adversarial as a man. I suspect this comment about her positive focus goes a long way to explaining why. Her book, “How to be a Woman” has (as of July 2012) sold over 400,000 copies in 16 countries. For more funny, articulate, disarming feminism (including how to teach your children to pity Rhianna despite her beauty, wealth and power), listen to her interview with Tim Minchin 

A Generation Inspired

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“It’s a complex, cluttered world we live in… But the oasis of sanity is often the Olympic Games.”

Lord Sebastian Coe

If you read this quote before the Olympics began, you could have been forgiven for questioning Lord Coe’s own sanity. Between G4S’s project management woes, missiles on residential buildings and frenzied taxi drivers; with all the cynicism and the hype and the back-biting and the worry, the Olympics looked anything but an oasis of sanity.

And yet the last two weeks of breathtaking competition and raw human experience have served as the best possible remedy to the pre-games angst. They have been a timely reminder to any of us who underestimated the magical, unifying, inspiring nature of the Olympic games.

It has, hands down, been a show case of all humanity at its best – and not just mind-addling physical achievement. Has there ever been a more perfect display of parental pride than Burt LeClos’ interview with the BBC after his son beat Michael Phelps to gold in the 200m fly; or Michael Phelps’ grace in defeat in the same race? Oscar Pistorious’ may not have won the 400m, but his stereotype-smashing presence was a huge step forward in the way disability is viewed. Likewise, the crowd’s heart warming support for Caster Semenya  has hopefully begun to redress the disgrace of her public humiliation over the last three years.

Olympic athletes continually redefine what is possible for the human body to achieve and showcase the irrepressible strength of the human spirit. What’s more, by showcasing our common humanity; for two weeks speaking in a Universal tongue to the potential of the human when we are courageous, and dedicated and selfless and heroic, the Olympic games unites us and offers a glimpse of what we, as a society could be. So yes, the Olympics brings mania, and hyperbole, and many, many tiny flags; but if a positive vision, a positive demonstration of humainty at its best is not the epitome of sanity then I don’t know what is. Thanks your London 2012 – a generation inspired.

Don’t burn the platform – light the way

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“We will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea: Yes We Can”

Urgent! Urgent! Everyone be urgent! Our iceberg is melting, because our platform is burning. And even if that’s not technically true, we will tell you that anyway, and find data to support that argument, because good change management starts with a sense of urgency.

Sound familiar? Conventional wisdom has stated that any change effort needs to start with urgency: From Lewin’s “unmelting” phase (which Schein has expanded to include “disconfirming the current model”); to Kotter’s stage model – beginning with (you guessed it) stage 1: Create a sense of urgency. Steven Elop – Nokia’s CEO offers a textbook example of this approach – even starting his employee communication with the fable of the burning platform.

But is it really the right approach for every situation? Urgency gets things done – no doubt about that – and jumping off a platform into icy waters can be a sensible approach if your life is in imminent danger. But if the platform isn’t actually on fire, then people are going to see through the lie sooner or later.

There’s an unsaid assumption in this approach that in change, people need to be forced to do things that they don’t want to do. Kotter himself has started addressing this by talking about the importance of winning hearts as well as minds. It goes without saying that only exaggerating the negative aspects of what has gone before is going to win few hearts.

As an alternative – could co-creating a positive vision of the future bring about a more sustainable sense of urgency? David Cooperrider suggests that hope and a dream of a better future – a “burning vision” can catalyse action just as effectively. Moreover, there’s no “change fatigue” and a lot less resistance with hope as a foundation. Nobody has exploited that fact better in recent history than Barack Obama. And while there was no shortage of fuel for him to light a burning platform, his choice to focus on hope, and utilise relentlessly positive imagery led to one of the most impressive election campaigns in history.

New roles for new leaders (or what Rupert Murdoch can learn from UPS)

There have been a couple of really prescient examples this week of an old model of leadership proving defunct and irrelevant. Last Wednesday, Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone – a landmark judgment for the ICC. Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch was accused of being unfit to run a major corporation. Interestingly in both cases, there was insufficient evidence to directly prove either leader had actively done wrong. But whether Taylor ordered the rape and mutilation of thousands of civilians in irrelevant. Whether Murdoch explicitly ordered a cover up of phone hacking, or just created a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture devoid of moral questioning is moot. In both cases, leaders created a culture that allowed evil to occur. And in both cases, the leaders have been called to account, and have been found wanting – regardless of their plausible deniability.

Diana Whitney draws the useful distinction between leaders (as people with competencies) and leadership as an emergent process in an organisation that enables better performance. Given the rise of megalithic companies (or states – for that matter), it seems necessary to move past the assumption that an individual leader (no matter how competent) will be able to keep tabs on an entire organisation.

So if Taylor or Murdoch are guilty of enabling a culture where evil could occur, what does positive leadership look like through this lens? Arguably the most important aspect of leadership in a post-command-and-control space is to act as a moral compass. To ensure that good ideas are megaphoned, and ideas that can lead to evil are stamped out.

Beyond that, there is also the requirement to create a culture where everyone is enabled to question, experiment and engage.

In this respect, you could do worse than looking at UPS. At some point in the last couple of years, someone had the counter-intuitive idea to redesign all their routes so that trucks in the USA never had to turn left. No, it was not an ‘Ode to Zoolander’s inability to ambi-turn; the idea was to cut down the amount of time idling and sitting in traffic. The strategy has helped them shave over twenty million miles off their clocks in 2011, while delivering 350,000 more packages. They have also reduced their carbon footprint by 20,000 metric tonnes.

Regardless of Bob Stoffel’s (UPS CEO’s) charisma, personal insight, or knowledge of the activities in every nook and cranny in his organisation, he has created a culture where ideas like “let’s never turn left anymore” can not only be voiced, but can gather momentum and actually become reality.

“Strengths perform, but also, strengths transform”

I am spending this week at the 5th World Appreciative Inquiry Conference in Ghent, Belgium. Appreciative Inquiry is a philosophy of change, based on the belief that the best way to enhance the capability of a system is to focus on what works well in that system currently; and to engage the whole system in the co-creation a new way of working.

David Cooperrider, father of the field gave the key note speech on the first day, offering a personal perspective on some of the most recent developments in the field.

A consistent theme in Cooperrider’s work over the last twenty five years has been the need to move away from a defecit-based view of change. Playing on Einstein’s truism that a problem has never been solved at the same level of consciousness that the problem was created, Cooperrider offered a corollary for organisations, suggesting that the greatest problems an organisation faces are never “solved”, rather, they are “eclipsed, made irrelevant, or saturated in strength”. Rather than identifying problems and proposing solutions to fix them, Cooperrider argues there is much greater value in identifying strengths and growing them to the point that the organisation evolves past the problems of yesterday.

Cooperrider drew on Peter Drucker’s definition of leadership, as “creating an alignment of strengths that renders a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

Inspirational, thoughtful, packed with practical examples, the session was a call-to-arms to scale up the generative power of AI to match the demands the world is facing today.