Further thoughts on the tools and techniques of leadership and management

In this blog I hope to develop some of the points made in previous blogs on the tools and techniques of management. What is generally meant by the term ‘tools and techniques of leadership and management’ is ways of applying instrumental rationality to solve problems and control outcomes. In fact, in an ambiguous and uncertain world none of these tools and techniques can do what is claimed for them but they do constitute the techniques of disciplinary power which enable leaders and managers to control the bodies and bodily activities of
people in the organization. All of these tools and techniques take the form of rules, procedures and models. However, there is a difference between competent performance, on the one hand, and proficient, expert performance, on the other.
The difference is that following rules, procedures and models may produce competent performance, but proficient, expert performance requires moving beyond the rules, procedures and models. Management tools and techniques of
instrumental rationality may promote competence but the development of expertise is beyond them. Experts are unable to articulate the rules governing their performance because they simply do not follow rules; instead, as a consequence of long experience, they exercise practical judgment in the unique situations they find themselves in. Through experience they are able to recognize patterns, distinguishing between similarities with other situations and unique differences. The patterns they recognize are the emerging patterns of interaction that they and other people are creating. In other words, they are recognizing the emerging themes in conversation, power relations and ideology reflecting choices. The key resource any organization must rely on is surely this expert interactive capacity in the exercise of practical judgment
by leaders and managers. If we cannot identify rules, procedures and models  as ‘drivers’ of expert practical judgment, does it follow that we can say nothing about practical judgment and have to leave it as a mystery?

I do not think there is anything mysterious about the exercise of practical judgment and we can inquire into the exercise of practical judgment and explore whether it is possible to identify any ‘techniques’ of practical judgment.

The first point to note is that if we are to continue using the term
‘techniques’ then we have to accept that it cannot mean what it means in the
mode of instrumental rationality. In instrumental rationality, the tools and
techniques take the form of simplifications and generalizations, or in other
words, second order abstractions that are context free. These tools and
techniques are algorithmic in nature and take the form of models, frameworks,
rules and step by step procedures. However, none of them can address
uncertainty, unpredictability, ambiguity and complexity. The exercise of
practical judgment is highly context-related, it is exercised in highly uncertain and unpredictable, unique situations. It cannot, therefore, be generalized or dealt with in the manner of second order abstractions.

The exercise of practical judgment calls for a wider awareness of the group,
organizational and societal patterns within which some issue of importance is
being dealt with. This requires a sensitive awareness of more than the focal
points in a situation but also of what is going on at the margins of that which
is being taken as the focus. Practical judgment is the experienced-based
ability to notice more of what is going on and intuit what is most important
about a situation. It is the ability to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, as
well as the anxiety this generates. The second point to notice is that
expertise is largely unconscious and difficult to articulate, as became clear
when those trying to develop Artificial Intelligence found that experts could
not formulate what they did in terms general enough to be simulated by a
computer. Clearly practical judgment has to be acquired and exercised in ways
that cannot easily be generalized.

This does not mean, however, that there is nothing further to be said about practical
judgment. The capacity for practical judgment in relation to some activity is
gradually developed through actually performing the activity in question. So
the technique is to do the work, ideally under the supervision of another who
is already an expert. The technique, then, is one of doing the work alongside
others who are more experienced, so learning by doing. For thousands of years,
in most cultures, pupils or apprentices lived and worked with masters or
craftsmen to acquire, for example, the expertise of cloth maker, weaver,
butcher, scribe and teacher. Schön gave an analysis of this kind of
relationship, when he described how, for example, artists, medical
practitioners, teachers and others learn their craft in a studio or other
workplace where they work with, and are supervised by, those who already
display expertise. In fact, it is part of the role of a manager in every
organization to supervise the work of those reporting to him or her. In many organisations
today, relatively inexperienced managers are formally allocated a mentor and
even if this does not happen, inexperienced managers may informally find a
mentor. Schön described the expert as a reflective practitioner, that is, one
who thinks in the action of practicing.

Reflection-in-action, or more importantly, reflexivity-in-action, can be
thought of as ‘techniques’ of practical judgment as can supervision and
mentoring. However, it is important to note two points about these
‘techniques’. First, supervisors and mentors must themselves be experts if they
are to guide others on the route to expertise and supervising and mentoring is
also the exercise of practical judgment. It follows that supervising and
mentoring cannot be reduced to rules, procedures and models. Second,
supervision and mentoring are at their most effective in sustaining and
enhancing capacities for practical judgment when they take the form of
reflexive inquiry into what they and those they are supervising and mentoring
are doing together and why they are doing it in the way they are.

Furthermore, the previous paragraph makes it clear that practical judgment is not an individual possession, competence or skill set. Practical judgment is, rather, social processes. Interdependent individuals can only develop and sustain the
skills of practical judgment through participation with each other. When senior
leaders and managers withdraw from the hurly burly of organizational life to
live in an isolated world of privilege, they simply lose the capacity for
practical judgment. This has been made clear again and again, for example by
the failure of the CEO of Lehman Brothers to make practical judgments about
exotic financial products – he had very little awareness of what they were and
no interest in them. More recently, a UK House of Commons Select Committee
examining the phone hacking perpetrated by News of the World, questioned Rupert
Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation, and his son, James Murdoch. It became very
clear that they were completely out of touch with what is actually going on in
their company, or they were not telling the truth.

Since leaders and managers can only become experts through experience, it follows
that some form of mentoring is a very important way in which to foster the
development of leadership and management expertise. It also follows that some
form of ongoing or periodic supervision is highly important in sustaining and
further developing this expertise. Management and leadership coaching might be
a ‘technique’ of fostering practical judgment. However, a distinction should be
drawn between the kind of instrumentally rational, step following, forms of
coaching which focus on goals and tasks in a narrow way, and the kind of more
discursive and exploratory forms that coaching, understood as a kind of work
therapy might take. A coach who follows rules and step by step procedures when
working with leaders and managers is in fact using the tools and techniques of
instrumental rationality and while these may foster competence, they cannot
develop proficiency and expertise. The problem with coaching is that the coach
will probably not have the kind of expertise which the client needs to develop,
while a mentor who is an expert leader and manager in the client’s organization
will have that kind of expertise. However, a coach who is an expert in
discursive forms of work therapy may assist the client to greater awareness of
his or her roles in the organization. In other words, the contribution of a
coach could be to encourage the development of exploratory reflexivity. Coaches
who work in a discursive way with groups of leaders and managers may help to
widen and deepen communication in a group and so produce greater meaning and
again this activity cannot be reduced to rules and procedures. The coach’s work
in the development of more fluid and complex conversation involves curbing the
widespread pattern in organizations where leaders and managers focus on the
future and move immediately to planning and solving problems.  This can be done by exploring narratives of
what those in the group have done in the past in order to develop some insight
into what they have been doing and why they have been doing it in a particular
way. Such conversation grounds group members in the present as they make sense
of the past in the present and opens up more varied and grounded ways of taking
account of the future in the present. Another ‘technique’ which can be used in
discursive, narrative forms of coaching is that of writing. It is very helpful
for leaders and managers to write short narratives of troubling events they are
currently experiencing and then inquiring into these narratives in the group.

We might think about ‘techniques’ that foster and sustain the capacity for practical
judgment in a number of ways. First, practical judgment requires ongoing
reflection on the judgments made and the consequences they produce. Mindless
action does not yield practical judgment; instead mindful action is required in
which the actors reflexively think together about how they are thinking about
what they are doing. I think, then, that we can understand the first
requirement of ongoing practical judgment to be an ongoing inquiry, one that
takes narrative, reflexive forms. Secondly, practical judgment relies on
ongoing participation in the conversational life of an organization in ways
that widen and deepen communication. Thirdly, practical judgment involves some
degree of spontaneity and improvisation and there are ‘techniques’ which can
make people more aware of this, such as working with theatre. Fourthly,
practical judgment is essentially the ordinary politics of everyday life where
the techniques of rhetoric play a part and the matter of ethics becomes of
major importance.

5 thoughts on “Further thoughts on the tools and techniques of leadership and management

  1. Donald Davies

    I have seen mentoring used more recently in Banking where there seems to have been an informal shift since 2007 from being managed to being mentored

    It was not until I left a recent contract role at Northern Rock that I discovered that myself and a close colleague had informally formed a relationship where he saw me as his mentor.

  2. ben

    Ralph, I agree with your observations. I had a mentor when I first started working as an insurance broker – he was expert in the craft and I learnt a great deal from him, by observing, being scolded, being praised, making mistakes on business that maybe would not create catastrophic consequences in the event of error. But your piece above feels idealised, as it maybe it is intended to be… because as well as being mentored and nurtured by this individual, I was also subject to his will and ego, and his desire to control me and make sure that I did his bidding, not fully develop my own. What, or how should we think about this when trying to facilitate mentoring/nurturing to develop expertise? Can tools, techniques, models even help in this situation? Sometimes even the best mentors do not necessarily want, or desire for you to usurp them in the role of expert.


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  4. Phil Lawson

    I enjoyed your post and the comments on awareness of the group and the margins. But of course this is a challenge for many reasons, the complexity of an organization being key. The limits of our working memory being another, one not talked about as much.

    I have been working on these issues for the past 12 years and have developed a rather simple online visualization which increase awareness by management and staff, bringing people together onto the same page. I wrote a book on this published in 2004 and received a patent on the system in 2008. (the system creates visuals of any complex system, used by the US Army in marriage counseling, government agencies, universities, colleges and high schools)

    As it is a visual I cannot explain it in words but if you are interested in seeing what it shows is happening in a real company the link below is to a very short video (118 seconds) which dramatically increased awareness by management and staff on many fronts.


    If you would like to discuss this approach or learn more about it I am happy to engage in dialog.

    Thank you.

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