How does your management team fight?


Watch this pithy video from Harvard Business Review, on the value of productive conflict in management decision-making.

Conflict is an essential feature of any management meeting or decision-making process. If your team does not engage in productive conflict, it will not make good decisions, and team members will not take accountability for results.

Management meetings are a microcosm of the full organizational leadership dynamic. Too often, they fall into an unhelpful “nice” vs. “nasty” dichotomy.

On the “nice” side, there is (excessive) emphasis on and reward for managers being very nice, even meek, at the meeting table (with the possible exception of the most senior managers). I call these Stepford Wives meetings. Voicing strong opinions is discouraged, and seen as threatening to the group dynamic. Decisions are driven by consensus. Some team members remain largely silent. They are disengaged, fearful, and/or political, waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before saying anything. . Because authentic opinions are not always welcome, some managers quietly stew as the group appears to move in a given direction with which they do not agree. It is only natural that a roomful of managers will not actually hold the same opinion on a proposed course of action, and should be cause for concern if multiple viewpoints are not expressed. In this world, if a “consensus” is achieved at all, the withholding managers may not fully support its actual implementation. The fight, such as it is, will take place behind the scenes. This is a less than ideal outcome.

Another danger of an over-emphasis on “nice” is paralysis. No consensus is ever achieved, and therefore no decision made, and no action taken. This is also clearly not an optimal outcome for a management group, whose job it necessarily is to make hard decisions about which initiatives to drive forward (and which to not), and how to do so.

On the “nasty” side, the management table is more reminiscent of the Lord of the Flies. The prevailing atmosphere is one of distrust, even paranoia. No ground rules are enunciated, and no common understanding exists of the purpose of the meeting or even the objectives of the organization. In this hostile Darwinian environment, it is the loudest and most aggressive voices who dominate. And “dominate” is the correct term: this is nothing but a competition, a savage pageant of egos, where the best ideas do not often win, and where the objectives of the organization are not key drivers of decision-making. Some team members are silent here too, mostly out of fear. Thoughtful voices are not sought out. While decisions may get taken at this table, they again will not be supported behind closed doors, as less aggressive managers who do not agree with the decision finally express their opinion by failing to fully support implementation.

In either unfortunate scenario, the decisions made, if any, will not be the best ones.

The answer, then, has to be be productive conflict, which in turn requires a foundation of trust.

Patrick Lencioni, in his leadership fable, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, cites “Fear of Conflict” as the second dysfunction of a management team, not surprisingly following the first dysfunction, “Absence of Trust”. As Lencioni wisely illustrates, management teams need to fearlessly engage in open debate, to arrive at the best possible decisions. But in order to do so, a foundation of trust must be built, one in which team members are willing to show vulnerability, and the cornerstone is laid by the CEO. Lencioni goes on to show how productive conflict instills commitment to the decision, which in turn sets the stage for accountability, which begets results. And aren’t results, after all,  the raison d’etre of leadership?

The online democratization of higher education: do MOOCs work?


MOOCs (massive open online courses) have been with us now for over a decade. The idea that anyone with a high-speed internet connection could participate in a wide array of courses and programs – and even obtain professional certificates or degrees – at no cost or low cost seemed rich with promise.

In recent years, criticisms have inevitably arisen. Completion rates are low. Courses lack academic rigor. Good education is not one-size-fits-all, and online courses lack the personal touch of teachers and professors. Programs remain Western- and English-language focused, and are primarily benefiting those from wealthy countries who already have degrees, over those in the rest of the world.

These concerns need to be taken seriously. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s too early to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater? I am not an educator, but am keenly interested in continuous quality improvement, and it seems to me that these criticisms merely highlight opportunities for improvement. They should not necessarily disqualify the effort entirely. Continue reading “The online democratization of higher education: do MOOCs work?”

How Not to Engage Employees and Improve Performance: The Effects of Bureaucracy

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What We Learned About Bureaucracy from 7,000 HBR Readers

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini/August 10, 2017

Very interesting piece from HBR on the often-deleterious and hidden effects of bureaucracy on organizations. While the study surveyed employees in private sector organizations, many of the findings are nonetheless instructive for leaders in the public, quasi-public and not-for-profit sectors.

What did the authors find?

Not only do managers and front-line staff have very different perceptions about many key workplace issues (an area that deserves further exploration itself), but bureaucracy steals time, undermines empowerment, frustrates innovation, and breeds inertia. Not surprisingly, bureaucracies breed politicking, rewarding canniness over competence, and incentivize pettiness and parochialism, such as the building of fiefdoms and hoarding of resources.

Not all large companies appear to suffer from excessive bureaucracy. “Companies like Nucor, Morning Star, Spotify, Haier, and others have demonstrated that it’s possible to run large, complex organizations with a minimum of bureaucracy, and that doing so yields substantial performance advantages.”

Professionals and Substance Use Disorder: An All-Too Human (and Regulatory) Challenge

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The Lawyer, The Addict is a heartbreaking story in the New York Times about the shocking prevalence of substance use disorder (an umbrella term covering “addiction”) in the U.S. legal profession. The piece focuses on the search for answers by the former wife of a Silicon Valley lawyer who died of complications related to his opiate addiction.

I’ve worked extensively in this area with professional regulators, including the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario and the Law Society of Upper Canada, where I developed an array of resources and procedures for the regulator to use when dealing with lawyers and paralegals whose health problems interfere with their ability to practise.

All professions have trouble acknowledging and addressing issues such as mental illness, substance use disorder and dementia (a growing problem for baby boomers) amongst their colleagues. The health professions are at least able to see the problem as a health issue, but I believe that lawyers have historically tended to view it as a failure of will or moral courage. Nor does it help that many lawyers are so-called “high functioning” alcoholics, whose problem is quietly known and implicitly acknowledged but not necessarily addressed early on by colleagues. Continue reading “Professionals and Substance Use Disorder: An All-Too Human (and Regulatory) Challenge”

So You Think You Have A Data & Analytics Strategy?

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So you have the right technology, and an analyst or data scientist or two on staff. Is that enough to claim you have a full data and analytics (D&A) strategy? No – it’s not.

Much more is needed – and most organizations are not there yet:

  • Buy-in at the senior leadership level.
  • A deliberate D&A strategy, with a common understanding of and commitment to the strategy across departments, including objectives, goals and measures of success.
  • The willingness to build the right cross-organizational structures and processes, and commit the appropriate technological and human capacity needed to implement and sustain the strategy.
  • Full integration of the D&A strategy with the business strategy, so that analysis truly drives decision making.
  • The willingness to change direction if your analysis indicates that’s the right thing to do.
  • Full involvement of non-D&A staff – the business experts – into the strategy.

Embracing Big Ideas to Improve Healthcare

Excellent discussion by Dr. Thomas Lee (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), on how big ideas are needed to improve healthcare. He brings diverse thinking from business, sociology and psychology into a mutually reinforcing cycle. I’ve taken the liberty of reducing his video (link below) into graphic form.

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Unblock Your Potential: 7 Steps to Breaking Your Bottlenecks


What is a bottleneck, and who cares?

Anyone who has managed an operational area, whether in manufacturing, services or regulatory/government operations, knows the headache of bottlenecks, those troublesome spots in the process where production gets held up for any number of reasons. They are as inevitable as the turning of seasons, and unfortunately we get too accustomed to them, but they still need to be broken. Bottlenecks generate enormous costs from unnecessary overtime to staff frustration and conflict, to unhappy customers, to lost productivity. In order to break bottlenecks, managers need to create an environment of continual process improvement.

What is continual process improvement, and why does it matter?

Process improvement is a means of devising and incorporating both significant process breakthroughs, and small incremental improvements. The approach used here is adapted from the “Plan-Do-Study-Act” (PDSA) Cycle developed by W. Edwards Deming, and the Toyota Production System (TPS, a type of lean manufacturing). See Appendix A below for helpful links.

Continue reading “Unblock Your Potential: 7 Steps to Breaking Your Bottlenecks”

Why Non-technical Skills Matter – A Lot – When It Comes to Preventing Errors and Accidents

In safety-critical fields such as aviation, nuclear energy, and healthcare, employees’ technical skills are naturally important. We want our surgeons to know how to conduct surgery properly. But we often fail in these settings to recognize the equal importance of non-technical skills (NTS), such as situational awareness, communication, coordination, problem solving and teamwork.

Last fall, I presented at a master class of the Canadian Network for Agencies of Regulation (CNAR). There, we had the pleasure of hearing Rhona Flin – a psychologist from the University of Aberdeen who works with safety-critical industries – speak about NTS. I have included here a Ted talk by Ms. Flin about this subject.

Much of the work on NTS originated with aviation investigations of the 1970s and 80s, such as the runway collision of two 747s on the island of Tenerife in 1977, which to this day remains the most deadly collision in aviation history. The accident investigators in that case did not find technical problems with either of the jets involved, nor did they find any deficiencies in the technical skills of their aircrews. What they did find was a tragic series of coincidences compounded by non-technical problems, including miscommunications between the jets and air traffic control, hesitation of the KLM cockpit to confirm their takeoff status, and impatience on the part of the KLM captain, leading him to take off in heavy fog without proper clearance. The fully-fuelled KLM jet struck a taxiing Pan Am 747 on the runway, setting off explosions and killing 583 people.

Continue reading “Why Non-technical Skills Matter – A Lot – When It Comes to Preventing Errors and Accidents”

Data-driven Government


Much as been written about bringing effective analytics to government (and by extension, quasi-governmental organizations such as regulators), and we have seen leaders emerge in this area. Overall, though, the process of translating the available research, knowledge and practices into action has been slow. There are strategies for addressing the challenges faced by public sector organizations in adopting and embracing a data-driven culture, many coming from private sector organizations such as Hewlett Packard and IBM.

Click to access Strategic%20Analytics.pdf


Click to access empowering_a_data-driven_government.pdf

Systems Engineering and Health Care: A Match Made in Heaven

Dr. Peter Pronovost was a pioneer in hospital checklists, a simple, low-cost harm reduction tool already in widespread use in aviation for more than a half century. Now he’s bringing more systems thinking into the healthcare fold, this time applying systems engineering to streamline and make key health information readily accessible to practitioners, patients and families.


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