Hacking leadership

Hacking leadership

One thing I’m looking forward to at CWL’s upcoming Future of Work forum in Melbourne on April 20-21 is Great Minds Don’t Think Alike. It’s a classic hack or ship it session.

The 36-hour intensive innovation workshop will challenge 20 University of Melbourne students to come up with the most innovative, practical solution to a key dilemma facing Australian organisations in four streams – People, Place, Technology and Leadership.

Aside from bringing the fresh lens of youth, the four teams will apply contemporary thinking and process to the challenge.

We’ll check in during the course of the conference to see how they’re progressing and what they’re learning. Late on the last day they’ll pitch to the audience who will determine who gets the prize, not a bad reason to stick around to the bitter end.

Why stop at 20 uni students? This is the kind of hack mindset we should be attempting for our teams and organisations (and Australia Inc for that matter), to cut to the heart of what problem/s we really should be trying to solve, cut maddening red tape and speed up the flow of ideas for new products and services.

We’re all being urged to get behind Australia’s #IdeasBoom, to get agile and innovate more so our organisations can respond to changing demographics and survive in an increasingly complex global competitive environment.

So much of the national debate on innovation has revolved around the technology, the digital economy and start-up entrepreneurs. And when these forces are so powerful they’re described as a fourth industrial revolution, a focus on tech and entrepreneurship is vital.

But equally it is more vital than ever that we make cultural shift required for those toiling daily inside the enterprises that turn the wheels of the economy day to day.

This means we are going to have to get comfortable with some uncomfortable truths, like why do we keep acting as if we have got all day?

Just over 20 years since the major review of management capability in Australian organisations, the Karpin Report, demonstrated the case for new skills and capabilities to enable Australian enterprises to make the most of our future, we have not come very far.

Evidence that links the quality of leadership to organisational performance, productivity, innovation and long-term competitiveness has grown substantially in the years since. Yet the research shows aside from a few leading organisations, Australia remains weak, complacent even, in this department.

We still tend to elevate leaders who might be technically strong but aren’t well schooled on the communication, interpersonal and social skills that empower employees and build the cross disciplinary partnerships that help us innovate within and beyond the firm.

To make it worse, we take cover behind cringeworthy mountains of management babble, when what we desperately need is plain speak (anyone want to ideate and begin a dialogue to action that particular agenda item?)

A bit like our driving skills, we kid ourselves that we are actually better at this leadership stuff than we really are.

And a  bit like our driving, the majority of us could use a refresher for Leadership 101 for the 21st Century. It would debunk thinking that is past its use by date and get us up to speed with evidence-based contemporary thinking and practice.

The Centre for Workplace Leadership landmark Study of Australian Leadership (SAL), now in its final week,  involved surveys of 2500 workplace managers and their direct reports at the organisational, workplace and employee level. It should provide useful insights into some appropriate benchmarks for leadership development and management practices as our competitors move ever faster.

One powerful tool to hack the organisation is the thinking about our thinking. That is for us to become aware of how our unspoken assumptions or biases (conscious or unconscious) skew decision making. Nothing personal, we all do it, we’re human. You can even test your own (check out projectimplicit.com).

To make sure you get the best thinking for a complex world, you need to get more women in leadership and mix it up on the people front – different racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, ages, disciplines and ways of thinking. Diversity matters because the more different lenses you can bring to complex decision making, the less likely you are to get blindsided.

But as we found in New Women New Men New Economy (Federation Press),diversity doesn’t just happen, you have to work at it. A couple of quick examples. Australia’s elite economic agency Federal Treasury always imagined itself a collaborative, collegiate type of place. When then secretary Martin Parkinson got his team to look at the data and hold focus groups with staff he found it was actually internally competitive and favoured an overly masculine model of leadership. Looking closer it found it was the men who got the taps on the shoulders and the development opportunities.

“That’s what made me start to think, what is going on here,” Parkinson reflected, becoming a powerful advocate for gender equality through Australia’s Male Champions of Change program.

And one from left field. When Google launched a new IOS Youtube app it discovered that up to 15 per cent of videos posted were upside down. It turned out that right-handed engineers were the culprits. A more lethal example was the practice of testing seatbelts using crash test dummies the size of an average man, which left average women more likely to receive serious injuries when involved in accidents in real life.

If you don’t understand the different lenses you are bringing to an issue you are not performing to the best of your ability, says Megan Smith, US Chief Technology Officer.

Unless you can to get your head around the need for diversity of thinking you will not be able to get agile. Simple as that.

Narelle Hooper is co-author with Rodin Genoff of New Women New Men New Economy: how creativity, openness, diversity and equity are driving prosperity now (Federation Press). She will MC the Centre For Workplace Leadership’s Future of Work: people, place, technology conference April 20-21 in Melbourne.


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