Micromanagement and Humble Inquiry

I have been hearing a lot about “micromanagement” lately in my coaching work with 360° LPIs (Leadership Practices Inventories) where invited Observers are asked a series of questions regarding the Leaders’ behaviours that either support them or detract from their learning, their self-concept as professionals and thus, their job satisfaction. In a series of interviews with professionals in another organization with retention issues, the issue of “micromanagement” surfaced with regard to a leader whose knowledge, expertise and meticulousness led to her team’s sense of being “overpowered’ and disrespected by her tendencies to “micromanage” others.

In the context of business management, “micromanagement” is defined as a management style whereby a manager closely observes and/or controls the work of his/her subordinates or employees. In a 10.16.2017 Fast Company newsletter piece titled: ”Stress is making you micromanage, which is making everything worse”, the author, Caterina Kostoula discusses the effects of being micromanaged on health, creativity, retention and productivity and asks the reader to consider why there is a need to micromanage, what is the source of anxiety that is leading to the behaviour. She suggests a number of ways to understand and curb the tendency.

Both these experiences and readings have brought me to Ed Schein’s 2013 Humble Inquiry text, which is about the art of questioning, rather than telling. In today’s social organizational climate no one wants to be told, least of all highly educated professionals of any age who believe that their education and expertise ensures they will be treated with respect as the knowledge workers they are. Ed Schein is a thought leader who has maintained his interest, involvement and noted expertise in the world of people, organizations and culture for 60+ years. He is 90 years old, a former professor in The Sloan School of Management, a master in organizational culture and leadership and still a powerful force in the organizational development world.

There are different forms of Humble Inquiry outlined in the text and there are a few commonalities among them.
1. Humble Inquiry implies a desire to build a relationship with colleagues that will lead to more open communication and greater feelings of teamwork, trust and mutual respect.
2. It implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and thereby, arouses positive helping behaviour to the other person. It is about an attitude of interest and curiosity.
3. Humble Inquiry is necessary if we want to build a relationship beyond rudimentary civility, because we may find ourselves in various kinds of interdependencies in which open, task-relevant information must be conveyed across status boundaries.
4. It is only by learning to be more humbly inquiring that we can build up the mutual trust needed to work together and open up communication channels.

It is likely that in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous organizational world of today, it is easy to fall into the trap of micromanaging to avoid the anxiety of not knowing. By better understanding our discomfort with highly uncertain outcomes, we may get better at identifying and understanding a tendency to micromanage – and by the way, this tendency may be seen by others before we are able to see it ourselves. The next necessary step is to identify the behaviours that are deemed by others to be micromanaging. The final and very important step is to successfully learn the art of Humble Inquiry and to use it whenever we feel the urge to take the lead away from others to dispel our own discomfort.

With thanks to Ed Schein, Caterina Kostoula, Fast Company and a series of online summarizing authors from sites such as Agile Jottings.

Reflections from Thomas Friedman’s Latest Book

I picked up Thomas Friedman’s 2016 Thank You for Being Late< /em> a couple of days ago and immediately found myself immersed in some of my favourite topics.

First he talks about writing and writers, and what it takes to be a journalist, a subject of great interest to this writer. What I need to share here is that my first career aspirations were in journalism. I attended Carleton University at 17 in the mid 60s to study Journalism. I was young, unsure and I left after Year One – what was called a Qualifying Year, which I found very uninspiring. Chances are I was meant to be a Nurse first, and I have never regretted that decision, although other careers have drawn me to them, specifically Psychology. Now that I have more free time, I hope to meld some of my interests in writing this blog, and write more often – a resolution for the coming year. Let’s see how I do as 2018 nears its opening.

Back to Friedman, who tells the story of his parking attendant, an immigrant from Ethiopia who is a successful blogger, and now Friedman’s competitor in a rapidly changing world. He talks about the role of journalists in taking a complex subject and breaking it down such that she better understands it, and can then help readers better understand and appreciate it. He relates this subject to politics, voters specifically, and to the 2016 American election of Donald Trump. And he quotes Marie Curie who famously said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less”. To me this is particularly apt at this point in time when so much change is all around us, and happening fast, and many people are struggling to keep up with the pace and the dimensions of the significant changes affecting all aspects of their lives.

Friedman argues that we are at one of the most important inflection points in history, unequalled since the development of the printing press paved the way for the Reformation. One could add here the innovation of the steam engine 400 years later, which ushered in the Industrial Revolution, and a societal move from county side to cities, from agriculture to manufacturing. He describes 3 significant driving forces affecting the planet and the people on it: Technology, Globalization and Climate Change, all accelerating at once and he argues significantly affecting the acceleration of each other.

The Path to Health Lies in Nature by Sharen McDonald

I have a treat for readers today. My great friend and excellent thinker and writer, Sharen McDonald of Pointe Claire in Quebec has agreed to do a guest blog on Biophilia. This is an excerpt from a lecture Sharen gave at McGill last week.

How often do we exclaim over a magnificent sunset? Why do we request rooms with “an ocean view” on seaside holidays? What causes us to inhale with deep satisfaction upon entering a forest of pine trees? In these incidences and many more, we invariably derive deep comfort from all our senses. During the latter part of the 20th century psychoanalyst Erich Fromm used the term ‘biophilia’ to describe “the passionate love of life and all that is alive.” Biologist E.O. Wilson later popularized the term with the belief that nature nurtures and calms us.

A century earlier, Frederick Law Olmsted, founder of American landscape architecture and designer of Central Park, presciently believed in the power of nature to refresh our minds, and thus restore our entire body to harmony and health. Olmsted realized that increasing urbanization would become problematic for humans unless parks were introduced to cityscapes. Bit by bit, technology did affect our innate bond with nature through buildings and vehicles that were centrally-heated or air-conditioned depending on the season.

In the 1980s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan proposed their Attention Restorative Theory, noting that viewing nature combatted mental fatigue and psychological distress. In 1984, Roger Ulrich’s “View through a Window” post-op study was hailed as “groundbreaking.” Despite this, and his similar 1993 study in Uppsala, Sweden, few meaningful changes were introduced to hospital design until recently. Alas, windowless rooms existed still.

Now is the time for innovation. Firms such as Human Spaces are promoting biophilic design in workplaces. The impact on hospital settings is immense, witness the Olson Family Garden at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri. Unsurprisingly, healing gardens benefit not only patients and their families, but also significantly reduce stress-related fatigue for staff. Maggie’s Centres for cancer patients and their families, first introduced in the U.K. in the 1990s, are now popping up across the world. Skylights of blue skies with fluffy clouds are now found in elevator ceilings in The Montreal General Hospital and elsewhere. The City Tree Project offers constructions of moss, each of which may remove pollutants from urban air as effectively as the planting of 275 trees.

Countries and cities worldwide are implementing biophilic strategies to encourage the maintenance of health as well its restoration. In Japan, shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) achieves notable positive health results, not only reducing cortisol levels and the harmful effects of other stress indicators, but also significantly increasing the production of NKC (Natural Killer Cells). (The Nature Fix – Florence Williams) Currently, there are 48 Forest-Therapy Trails in Japan with plans to double this number in a decade. At Alnarp, Sweden, the world’s largest rehabilitation garden offers nature-based treatment for stress-related mental exhaustion. At Chungbuk University in South Korea, one can pursue a degree in forest healing. Saneum Healing Forest is one of 37 such forests in that country. In Singapore’s Changi Airport, you can visit a butterfly garden or nature trail, and their hospital’s ICU was designed with windows 6 feet in height so that every patient may view trees. Finland and Scotland are also on the list of countries making positive strides towards better health through biophilia.

Heading towards the future, there is legitimate concern for children in the fast-paced, stress-inducing 21st century world of technology. Forest kindergartens (Waldkindergartens), so popular in Germany, are now being introduced in other parts of the world. We can look to Chippewa Nature Center’s Pre-School in Michigan, Jaureguiberry Primary Nature School near Montivedeo, Uruguay, and the Hudson Forest School in Hudson, Quebec. These initiatives are encouraging signs of progress, reconnecting young people with nature and establishing a lifelong bond that will enhance their health and their lives.

Irish-Canadian medical biochemist and botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, notes, “For every breath you take, thank a tree.” Outside we go!

About Fractals

I have been cottaging for a couple of weeks with our family. I’m really enjoying the ease of summer, the sunny mornings where all the wet towels (which spend the night in the screened porch) are hung outside to dry and freshen up in the sun before the day’s events. Ah the sun – how would we ever manage without it!

I’m nurturing an interest in fractals, trying to understand them better, and see them more readily both in nature and eventually elsewhere in the built environment. I take my paddleboard out in the early mornings to explore the trees along the banks where the fractals are numerous and diverse – once you develop the eye for them. My interest in fractals stems from a broader interest in complex adaptive systems, and how an understanding of CAS can help us to better understand and adapt to changes in our organizational structures and activities, our relationships, even the ups and downs of family life.

There are many interesting definitions, and excellent photographs, of fractals on the web. I’ve tried in this post to pull out some of the simplest, most informative and easy to understand ones – so that I can find them more readily. Continue reading “About Fractals”

Thinking about Occam’s Razor

While watching an episode of Madame Secretary the other night, I was interested to hear the main character mention Occam’s Razor as she wrestled with a complex issue and the need to get at the variables, understand them and make decisions about how to proceed. Knowing my interest in complexity and complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory, a friend told me about Occam’s Razor awhile ago. I had never come across it before, despite lots of reading about complexity and complex systems – obviously not reading the right things, Ann! Thanks.

Wikipedia tells us that Occam’s Razor (which is also sometimes written as Ockham’s Razor) is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham in the 13th C – believe it or not. William was a respected English Franciscan friar, philosopher and theologian.

The principle of Occam’s Razor states that among competing hypotheses which predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove to provide better predictions, but—in the absence of major differences – the fewer assumptions that are made, the better – according to the theory.

Called also the Law of Parsimony, it tells us to KISS or keep it simple, and not over-complicate. This of course makes a lot of sense and it also reminds us to quantify, qualify and verify our assumptions. Wikipedia goes on to say “ For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there is always an infinite number of possible and more complex alternatives, because one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypothesis to prevent them from being falsified; therefore, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are better testable and falsifiable.”

The fact that we are still considering William of Ockham’s ideas, 7 centuries later boggles the mind, and makes me question how much more we know or don’t know today than we did centuries ago.

It also makes me wonder about the fit between Occam’s Razor and complex adaptive systems’ theory. This is for another time.

Situational Leadership and Complexity

Andrea writes: Recently I had the opportunity to attend a workshop given by the Canadian Institute of Organizational Development (CODI) facilitated by Marilyn Laiken about Leading Teams in Change Environments. The workshop focused on Situational Leadership theory developed and published originally in the 70s by Hershey and Blanchard.

The fundamental underpinning of the theory is that there is no single best leadership style and that different situations require different adaptive leadership responses. What counts most is the ability of the leader to read the situation – including both the work to be done, and the maturity and experience of the team – and make an appropriate leadership response. The theory proposes a series of stages of development of the individual and the team, and identifies ways leaders can adjust their leadership responses to each stage. The model has endured. I asked myself why AND could it have anything to add to leadership in a complex environment?

I originally learned about Situational Leadership while developing a workshop with Dr. Raye Kass at Concordia University in Montreal. Her synthesis of what the model says about leadership was that it is “the capacity to observe and the willingness to react.”

What makes this a useful definition is that it takes the emphasis away from the leader and the style, and instead it stresses the leader’s ability to question, observe, and respond effectively. What is the context? Where is the need? What is the basis for the response I am considering? Am I ready to respond to what is going on using the best of my leadership skill?

Knowing the different stages of Situational Leadership (Telling, Selling, Participating, Delegating) and my own personal preference (Participating) is an important self-awareness skill. The leader’s requisite tools are the ability to observe, assess and diagnose the situation, react appropriately and learn. The act of leadership is based in inquiry (what is going on right now? what does the situation need from me?)

The goal of leadership in complex systems is to develop people and teams so they become self-organizing, autonomous contributors. The very act of leadership shifts from a command and control model to a dance of influence that anchors on both relationship and task. A stage theory may seem the antithesis of a complexity lens perspective – and I’m not sure that each stage is as linear and progressive as one might expect.

The theory endures because it offers new perspectives on leading in complex systems, which few leaders today can avoid. By focusing on the context, the goals, the people and their needs, Situational Leadership has something special to offer anyone trying to grow as a more effective leader in a complex adaptive system.

Sometimes command and control is exactly what makes it all work

Andrea writes: Last weekend I attended The Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia with my Mom and some close friends.
Other than the trees, the beautiful azaleas, and of course the golf, at The Masters you can’t help but notice the fluidity and order that ensures everything gets done in a certain way.
No one runs. No one shouts, “Get in the hole!” There is no autograph-seeking. If you place your chair at the 18th hole, it will be there, untouched, when you return. When you line up in a very long queue to buy lunch, it all works incredibly smoothly.

It’s estimated about 35,000 people attend on each of the 4 days, and it is ever so orderly. Observing the thousands of attendees –it struck me that sometimes Command and Control, and its orders of hierarchy, can really work. As I watched what is arguably the most prestigious golf tournament in the world I asked myself: So how does it all work?


The Masters, like golf itself, is heavy with rules, etiquette, and expected decorum, most of it in place for decades. For instance, there are only certain places you can walk, times you can move, strict rules about when silence is required, and when and how you are allowed to cheer.
Occurrences such as cheering at the wrong time, are rare at The Masters “but we must eliminate them entirely if our patrons are to continue to merit their reputation as the most knowledgeable and considerate in the world.” This 1967 quote is from Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones Junior, President in Perpetuity of the Augusta National Golf Club. Little has changed since then and the expectations for certain behaviours carry over generation after generation.


There are clear and unwritten yet well-understood agreements among all the stakeholders in the world of golf. Although Augusta National is arguably among the strictest arbiter of rules and decorum, all private clubs (and many public ones) expect a certain level of customized behaviour that is agreed on culture in the sport. Agreements among the stakeholders uphold the expected customs, etiquette and decorum.


As well as unwritten agreements to follow the rules, and the many polite and cheerful staff moving everyone along (even through the restrooms), there are carrots and sticks to ensure compliance.
Tickets to The Masters are won, through a carefully managed lottery. If you follow the rules you can attend the most celebrated golf tournament in the world, at one of the very best clubs in the world, and take your friends and family as guests, for life. Extremely prestigious as a public sporting event, tickets are much sought after.

If you don’t follow the agreed upon rules and etiquettes, your tickets are forfeited forever.
When at Augusta for The Masters, without your prohibited cell phone, eating your egg salad sandwich on soft white bread with a cup of pink lemonade, you can’t help but feel you have been transported back in time. Certainly no one would suggest that there is a modern or “moving with the times” feel to Augusta and The Masters – which is both remarkable and somehow quite lovely.


The benefit is that thousands of people, circulating in a coordinated and orderly fashion, navigating fast food lines, and quick restroom breaks, enjoy for a brief time a revered and time-honoured institution that has managed to resist most calls for change – at least for now.

What is the cost for such order? The need for incredible manpower – a very large number of staff members monitoring and controlling patrons and ensuring compliance – is evident. Strict adherence to rules, and immediate consequences for rule breakers is mandatory. Emergence and creativity is left to the golfers.

In a complex and dynamic world, a VUCA world (see previous post) golf clubs still have the luxury of control that few organizations, try as they might, can afford to keep.

Why Wicked Problems Need a Complexity Lens

Andrea responds: Wicked problems are like complexity. They have interdependent agents that interact in unpredictable ways and produce a pattern or emergent trend. They are non-linear, their “cause” and “effect” can be simultaneous (does eating too much cause you to be obese? OR does being obese cause you to eat too much?). The solutions can therefore have unintended consequences (does forcing kids to exercise make you more stressed? and more likely to eat? less likely to exercise?).
Each linear solution is wrapped up in contradicting forces and opposing perspectives that keep the current status in place. Some of the solutions to a Wicked Problem can emerge from seeing it through a complexity lens, and using lessons learned from complex adaptive systems.
I first ran into the term “wicked problems” at an Art of Hosting seminar in Pembroke in 2009. The Art of Hosting brought together professionals who wanted to tackle Wicked Problems in the world by hosting conversations that matter.
The people at Art of Hosting and other groups using whole system semi-structured conversations believe that there is no simple solution to a Wicked Problem. They hope that getting as much of the system – and as many stakeholders as possible – in one space, and asking “Wicked Questions” may provide the beginnings of a solution. Wicked Problems can involve many stakeholders with competing and complementing information, values and perspectives. The solution involves unlocking as much new and diverse information as possible in order to find new and generative patterns in the system.
This is not to say there is no solution to Wicked Problems. For example, childhood obesity has begun to drop in the last couple of years.
Viewing the Wicked Problem as a whole system issue, and inviting as many stakeholders as possible to the table, can bring greater clarity to system mapping, and enhance the possibility of enabling potential solutions to emerge.

Complexity and Wicked Problems

We hear people talking about “wicked problems”. We’re thinking that global warming is a wicked problem but is the conflict in Syria and the Ukraine? Is the missing Malaysian airliner? Is the growing gap between rich and poor in Canada a wicked problem? Is the extreme poverty in developing countries positioned alongside extreme wealth and waste in the developed world a wicked problem? Is traffic gridlock in major cities like Toronto a wicked problem? So we asked ourselves – what exactly is a wicked problem anyway?

Horst Rittel, Professor of the Science of Design, and his colleague Melvin Webber, Professor of City Planning at Berkley are said to have coined the term in a 1973 paper titled Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.

A wicked problem, they wrote, is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in the traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented. They are said to be stubborn, intransigent and even hard to describe. It is difficult to actually define “the problem” because there are so many factors to consider.

Lawrence J. Peter (a Canadian scholar famous for describing the Peter Principle) once said, “Some problems are so complex you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them”.

Wicked problems are said to be tough or even impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, dynamic and interlocking factors that are often hard to recognize and describe. Wicked problems resist being de-constructed or de-layered (people refer to the analogy of peeling an onion). Solutions are rarely right or wrong but better, worse, good enough or not good enough, say many social complexity theorists.

So it’s likely that global warming can be considered a wicked problem and maybe the conflict in Syria. The situation in Ukraine seems more straightforward as does the missing Malaysian airliner? The growing gap between rich and poor in Canada is solvable with social policy so maybe not a wicked problem? The global equivalent probably fits the criteria because the solutions are less obvious and more diverse people, cultures, governments and societies are involved and must be engaged to care. Traffic gridlock in major cities like Toronto probably not, since solutions are quite clear – more transit and bike lanes, with incentives not to travel alone by car.

We’ll be watching for more on “wicked problems” and likely revisiting this topic again. We’d love to hear what you think?

When collaboration isn’t the best option

Andrea writes: Last fall, I saw Vivien Twyord speak, promoting her book The Power of Co about the preconditions for collaboration. Vivien is a seasoned collaboration facilitator, who works to solve large, seemingly unsolvable projects like local communities and electrical companies deciding where to put unwanted towers. She has used her vast experience to bridge years of distrust and paralyzing inertia and make collaborative decisions.
The first and most powerful thing Vivien taught me is that collaboration can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. Her key take-away lesson for me was that you need to understand the difference between a simple problem, a complicated situation, and a deeply complex issue. Making the right initial diagnosis can make all the difference.

A simple problem has few factors and the outcome is predictable. Cause leads directly to effect, and the answer is knowable. Example, your car needs gas to run. If you run out of gas, your gas gauge will light up. The solution doesn’t require a collaborative intervention to find the solution.

A complicated situation has many factors but the solution is still predictable. Cause leads directly to effect and the answer is still knowable. A noise in your car that you describe to your mechanic, but aren’t sure where it’s coming from, is more complicated than a gas gauge on Empty. Still, talking to an expert – in this case a good mechanic — would be a much more efficient use of time than initiating a collaborative conversation on potential solutions.

A complex issue: The solution or outcomes are not known. For example, changing the behaviour patterns of car users and encouraging a bike lane in a divided community has a number of complex issues, environmental, safety, distrust, misinformation, cultural convention etc. An expert might be able to suggest potential solutions and therefore contribute to a good outcome but a simple answer to a complex problem is bound to create unintended reactions and responses.

Complex systems have interdependent agents. Removing one piece or inserting another will not fix the problem or create a sustainable solution. A complex lens allows us to see a system with underlying connections and values that can both nullify big changes (see Senge “the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back”) or have a large response to small changes (see the power of butterfly wings flapping).

In her talk Vivien stressed the point over and over: Do not collaborate if your problem is simple or even complicated – it will frustrate and exhaust you and your system. What’s worse it will build distrust and undermine the faith or willingness to collaborate when necessary. Even if the problem is complex, if you think the problem is simple, i.e. you are pretty sure you know the right answer before you start, then collaboration will be a frustrating, drawn out experience and harmful to the project.

If your problem seems intractable, unknowable, and maybe even unfixable, you need to look up Vivien and learn the Power of Co.

Another view of simple, complicated, & complex is the Cynefin model, an interesting framework developed by Dave Snowden, which also includes a 4th possibility the Chaotic. Go there if you dare!