Saturday, January 5, 2008

A new discretion

The British civil service is one of the finest institutions humans have devised. Why? Because the service stands for two things in my mind: (1) Quality intellect applied; and (2) Discretion.

Being discreet is difficult. My teacher John Rohr has influenced my thinking a great deal, but I have come to diverge a good bit from Professor Rohr in my own thinking, perhaps a dangerous thing.

Regardless, what has discretion meant, and what should it mean to a leader as enabler?

First, discretion has meant a low-key, low-identity input on policy matters with the open capacity to make decisions for the public good as part of an institutional stream of excellence. That sounds like John Rohr...

What influences me from classical administrative discretion is the downplay of identity, a hallmark of the British Civil Service. The idea is this: One graduates from a fine institution, say, Cambridge, and then one serves politicians...quietly. As parties change in office, the civil service politely and obediently stays behind guiding the stability and quality of the institutional government. This can work well, and the UK is the paragon in many respects. I am honored to be part of its extended family. The old British comedy, Yes, Minister! satirizes this way of institutional operation and some of its foibles.

Now, what should discretion mean? As institutions melt we cannot rely on networks with the past to provide sustenance. Instead, we must look to discretion as a turn toward its identity-reducing aspect as the emergent primary classical influence. That is, I am not the institution and the institution is not me. Where I have gone to school is less important than who I help. I am an enabler...not out for myself but rather in service to the good. The minister melts away (never entirely...gracious me!) not leaving a bureaucratic state, but a melted set of proto-organizations where leaders must continually explore the darkness for the prospect of doing the right government, in policy networks, in civil society, in business, in life. Divisions fade. Life becomes a holistic moral enterprise about learning and connecting anew--not leveraging old links for power or agenda pushing.

What passes for good is each leader's moral challenge. What the leader enables is always linked to the dilemma of whether one's aid is helping in some impossible and final holistic analysis. Where I fail is certainty and agenda. Each decision of the new leader is a network decision...contextual, painful, uncertain and focused on the good and sustainable. Such enabling is inextricably linked to learning.

The first moral question

I am increasingly of a mind that the first moral question (and we need to stop feeling twitchy about using the word moral) is as follows: What can be sustainable?

This of course begs the question of what is meant by sustainable. In my view, leading entails morality and morality entails ecological thinking. One must think of modes that can survive ebbs and flows but that also recognize wanton destruction of future options is inherently unacceptable.

In the past, morality was about the stability of structure. That is equally unacceptable. What passes for sustainability is not the preservation of human cultures just because. If we are to preserve anything it must be the natural.

Preserving is more action than leadership. But preserving is also enabling of a sort. That point requires more careful thought.

A challenging idea on tolerance

This from B. (government folks worry about discretion and rightly so...) He claimed to me that tolerance is a low standard for equality and not good enough. Equality requires acceptance, not mere tolerance.

So few tolerate that a high standard seems almost ridiculous, but I like the idea of it.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Paul Eloff

An old friend from South Africa, Paul Eloff, may join in these writings. His views are his own but his world overlaps mine a good bit. I'll let him explain his background and interests.

All his posts will have Eloff as a label, and I shall add Lanham as a label from here on in.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Time and learning

Learning, as I have previously written in posts tagged learning, is (I think) about coping. I argue it is a sort of coping with the dissonance we feel when confronted by things that don't fall into our sense making apparatus with ease. Sense making, or being able to tell ourselves a comforting story about some set of phenomena, is the glue of social interaction. Some call it "a theory of mind." But sense making as Karl Weick, for instance, uses the term, is closer to the right name in my opinion.

We cope in an evolutionary sense to respond to environmental changes. Learning is thus ultimately a branch of evolutionary behavioral biology/ecology. This coping enables us to plan for the unknown to some degree and to respond more flexibly when we encounter the unknown. The advantages are fairly obvious.

In order to facilitate learning, we need to place ourselves in dissonance--places where our world views don't work. Then we adjust. This is a painful paradox because it would seem that comfort is also a foundational objective for humans, and stability sooths like few other things.

Training is a much more basic process of learning how to do a specific task within our world views. It is a more primitive skill, I'd guess, in an evolutionary sense. Training little interests me. It is structural as I use the term and rarely associated with meaningful learning in any direct sense.

What some consultants/scholars, etc. call knowledge management is more akin to what I am calling learning. But KM also incorporates the training on how to replicate basic functions that transfer culture and economic structures from one party to another. It is sort of a bridge concept. Institutions, are, structurally interlinked generation to generation for knowledge management. I've written on all this before, for the most part.

The great variable in knowledge/training/learning (and their variations) is time...time to application of learning; time of relevance of learning; inscrutable time.

Humans organize rationally over time. We call this planning. The best planning integrates learning and expectations for further learning, but few humans or human institutions do very well at this highly complex task. Most plan in a rather static and mindless rather than mindful way. We are so bad at planning that it is now increasingly common to hear it argued we are better off not planning--a discouraging view. But so it may be in some instances.

The crux of time knowledge is a capacity to cope. The crux of leadership is enabling that learning. These together form the great challenges of this century. So far I am not optimistic about the likely outcomes. One would prefer to end the year optimistically, but false optimism is the worst sort of poison to learning.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

One Tool Fallacy

It interests me that people seem to keep searching for the one application where they can spend the bulk of their time. At the very same time I cannot help but notice that nearly everyone is using a proliferation of not only tools but platforms on which to run tools.

A great deal of time is no doubt spent with integration. But it is a sort of building on sand project I think. Just as firms of old used to chase the Holy Grail of unified systems (remember SAP?), now individuals hope to have self-info-hegemony.

Not bloody likely. Here's why:

You see everything IS miscellaneous (D. Weinberger). We have power to track and subdivide, so no one is likely to let any one supplier proliferate. There seems to be no competitive or innovative advantage to being big anyway. So, things fragment while capitalists fund nuanced differences from relatively well accepted standards. And, at the risk of value judgment, this is entirely a good thing. Better still, free software geeks cloistered in some info-grotto kill themselves to pump out free versions. Yay!

Dissonance, anger and learning

Anger often lurks near learning. Why? Frustration is the hallmark of dissonance, and I largely believe that dissonance of a sort is necessary to learn. But why?

Learning is an adaptive mechanism we gained to be able to cope with time and change. Evolution loves coping strategies...indeed, natural selection isn't so much about winning as it is about coping. Those who cope best survive and thrive.

Learning and coping are one and the same for me. I learn when I can face dissonance and not respond with anger alone. Anger is a trigger for memories, but coping is learning to get on and get through the dissonance (of, say, a tough algebra problem).

Twitter Twibes

There's lots of talk of tribes. I think of Maffesoli, but there are other writers. What is my Twitter Twibe... an Elmer Fuddism I like to think I made up?

My Twibe is those who say curious things to me. People who cause me dissonance yes, but also those who help me feel warmth. Warmth and learning. That's my Twibe.