Networked Leadership


I’ve been meaning to write this since 2 rather busy weeks back in October which comprised of; the Solace Conference, CityCamp Coventry, a Creative Councils event down in Cornwall, facilitating an action learning group with Leicestershire Police and a learning week conference at the City of London as well as my first #innopints meeting in Devon. I met so many interesting people and its great sometimes to experience such a variety in a short period as you make different connections in your mind and I’ve been reflecting on those since then.

The underlying theme that has been stuck with me is the need to understand how to both connect and unlock networks. Beyond that I think we need to understand the cultural change that this confronts organisations with – how to truly adjust to the idea that network power is a huge asset if it can be integrated with some kind of structure. The companion to this is a renewed awareness of the need to look for networks internally and externally because to do things differently we need to be unconstrained by organisational boundaries.

Networked power operates in a very different way to hierarchical power (something that Mathew Taylor touched on in his keynote to Solace) and as the Public Sector is both pulled and pushed towards becoming more reliant on networks and networked power the cultural impacts of this are central to understanding how we actively rather passively make this change happen. For me this is about making the cultural shift that is beyond a standalone social media strategy.

The work we are doing with Leicestershire Police is a good example of this. The Force is making excellent use of Social Media but wants to push this forward in order to move out of high quality communications and into more operational impacts from its use of Digital. It’s a process and cultural change problem not a skills or training issue. To help them address this we’ve been working with them to create an internal action learning group who are looking at big strategic questions around identity, risk and process redesign.

The first step of the work with LeicsPolice is helping them to rethink their use of social media in terms of the groups that they want to connect with and influence – rather than as a straightforward communications exercise. This is causing the team we are working with to think very differently about external actors and to understand where the power sits in their networks in a very different way.

This external kind of external power was at the heart of the CityCamp Coventry (and other CityCamp like ours in Brighton of course) – a brilliant couple of days with Sasha Taylor and crew talking about virtual orchards, mapping the ring road, using empty shops and creating Coventry ambassadors. The fact that Martin Reeves as CEX of Coventry took the time to be there on both days and that the Council staff are part of the organising team for CityCamp Coventry showed their understanding of the fact that we need to remove organisational boundaries if we are going to unlock the ability of communities and citizens to innovate.

The urgency of making this kind of systematic change was very clear at Solace. This year at the Summit I felt a sense of a much greater acceptance of the need for substantive change in the face of financial and social pressures – but for many people no clear consensus or plan as to what that means. The point is that though we may or may not be at the point of the greatest level of change but it doesn’t matter – the inertia is largely broken and we are on the move. For many people the problem is that the early movers are deep in the depths of innovation and they are not sharing their experience enough.

These early movers are largely remarkable people who can’t spend enough time finding out what other people are doing and as a result feel isolated – and they are surrounded by people who want to learn but don’t know who to learn from. Dealing with the uncertainty of not yet knowing what works in the new landscape we are operating within means that we need to learn how to learn and make decisions as we are doing so. To make this work we need to connect and network these individuals and small groups and we need to do this on a larger scale than is currently happening. This could be a role for more established, and more hierarchal, organisations like Solace but only if they are able to make this cultural shift themselves – which is a different but still substantial challenge.

When we talk about co-production the focus is often on the relationship with the Community. Here the power shift is clear; from the State to the Citizen. The real challenge of co-production or at least greater levels of collaboration is between more formally structured organisations where the power negotiations are going to be much more complex as they rebalance resources. We need larger organisations to be active brokers in this process and they can only do this if they are transforming themselves and becoming more agile and networked.

In making change small practical actions are vital – but we need a bigger vision or at least a set of values as a lodestar to help filter this in some way or at least build the confidence that we need to make astonishing things happen. If we are going to build this vision then we need to do so at the same time as looking at the culture and structure of the organisation who is going to deliver it and create networks of people at all levels and beyond levels in wide networks to make this happen. Again larger organisations can help to build and support this bigger vision – but they have to be part of the change themselves to be credible and effective.

We need leaders in this new world and I have written elsewhere about the qualities that those leaders might have but we also need connectors and collaborators who are going to bring groups and networks together in order to build something bigger than any group can manage on their own.

I met so many brilliant people in those two weeks and I saw so many interesting and potentially transformative ideas but I also saw people reinventing and repeating ideas and learning. I also saw the passion of the entrepreneur or innovator being at odds with a collaborative way of working – not within their own project but with other organisations. I also felt the urgency around the transformation agenda that is now in Local Government.

I believe in radical evolution of what we have rather than a complete restart but we have to get on with it and this means really addressing organisational change not just experimenting on projects – or perhaps doing the two things in parallel not sequence.  I am left with four questions:

How do we make sure that we are open, really open, to new ideas?
How do we become better organisational collaborators?
How can we identify the skills that are needed to work effectively in new ways?
How will we create the bigger vision?

We may need more than 140 characters to answer these.

This is one of those posts that my PHD supervisor charmingly refers to as throat clearing – its the piece you have to write before you can write the piece you want to write.

I have been doing a lot of internal mulling about the nature of collaboration and leadership in networked organisations. This is all mixed in with more thinking around how we create open practice in our organisation. I have written a bit about this here.

I think at the centre of these threads is a discussion about what data you should share about your organisation when the shareholders are private individuals rather than taxpayers and where accountability is delivered via the board room not the ballot box.

“Should” – as ever there is a mix here of moral imperative and practical necessity. As I’ve said before I know that my own belief in the importance of open practice is partly an ethical one but I also think that its the way in which we will make business fit for purpose as we start to operate in a more digital and networked environment.

I am impatient for the open data discussion to start addressing the cultural effects of a more open environment as I think that only by looking at this are we going to unlock the really transformative potential of open data and also how we will put more pressure on corporates to open up the data which will form an important part of the overall picture and ultimately the business case.

However there is something in this discussion of information sharing which also relates to how you go about working in a more networked and collaborative way.

At Public-i we are starting to properly work in networked collaboration with a couple of other organisations (more on that later) and this is working because we have a lot of trust, respect and openness with each other. We are all small organisations and so it is possible to form working relationships throughout all three organisations to make sure that this works. Its really exciting actually doing this networked organisation thing and not just talking about it.

Open data should be the basis on which Government organisations are able to collaborate more effectively but if we want this to extend this to more effective collaboration with the private sector (ad I think we do) then there needs to be some reciprocity in this openness.

The elephant in the room here may be a conversation about acceptable levels of value exchange and profit but I will keep my mind open on this point. Wrapped within this is the a need for an increase in levels of balance sheet literacy in the audience in the same way that participatory budgeting requires an increase in budget literacy. We know from the debacle of so many outsourcing arrangements that if you get this wrong you get terrible services and terrible value – a more open conversation and agreement of what’s acceptable may help avoid this in the future.

At this stage I am just trying to form good questions to help find good answers. I think the questions I need to ask are around understanding the levels of reciprocity in terms of openness that is needed to effect strong working relationships between the public and private sector – and how do we make these robust enough to create organisational rather than individual trust. I’ll be asking these questions of some of our clients and discussing it internally – as well as with collaborators – and I will also need to talk to shareholders about this as its important not to forget that they are a vital part of this discussion. As ever though I would really value comments here as well – so let me know what you think if you have time.

So – it turns out that my inability to fix my research methods chapter had the effect of rendering me unable to write anything else – who can understand the workings of the human mind??? Chapter 4 now dispatched I am now trying to catch up on backlog (this includes 3 UKGC12 posts – oh how I rue the day I pitched so many…). Anyway. This post is jumping the queue because I have been doing a lot of mulling recently, for various reasons, about organisational culture – its an attempt to synthesise these thoughts and organise them a bit.

The first thing that brought this on is that fact that Carl Haggerty is going to be joining Public-i 2 days per week to work as Product Manager for Citizenscape. Carl has written about this here so this is my turn….I’m delighted Carl is joining us for all kinds of different reasons.

The first is the simple fact that Carl is great to work with – having worked with him on the Virtual Town Hall pilot, as a client at Devon County Council and also in various GovCamp sessions I know that he combines expertise and forward thinking with the ability to challenge your thinking in a really positive and constructive way.

This ability to issue constructive challenge is going to be crucial to someone who is coming into a project – Citizenscape – which has been very a huge amount of work for a lot of people for the last couple of years. The product has developed hugely from the initial EU project and then Virtual Town Hall pilots and has now been deployed across our core Connect sites as well – but we still it can go a lot further. Its live, stable and useful but so much of the functionality is lying below the waterline – in the code, locked into the UX and in the admin functionality. We are hoping that a fresh pair of eyes – from someone who understands what we are trying to achieve with Citizenscape – will help push it forward.

The second reason I am delighted to have Carl join is about the blurring of boundaries. The fact that we will be sharing him with Devon County Council makes this a fairly unusual arrangement but one which I think reflects the new ways in which public and private sectors need to be working together. I hope that we will learn a lot from working with Carl but I also hope he will learn from us. I am very grateful to Devon CC for being willing to support this kind of working and I hope that the institutional learning goes both ways as well.

There is a lot of talk about the Public Sector needing to be more business-like, to behave more like the private sector, but we don’t often reflect on what this actually means. This kind of shared working is a way of exploring the cultural qualities that might flow in both directions. I am hoping that Carl will have a positive experience of working a small business which is able to be far more agile and innovative than a local authority just by dint of its size but that also needs to be constantly thinking about selling as an essential part of its lifecycle.

There. I’ve said it. The ‘S’ word. Doesn’t it send a shiver down the spine?

Dan Slee posted a very pithy piece which explained very clearly why the public sector is right to have a poor impression of the private sector sales process and, as someone running a company, made me cringe. However I believe its possible – and perhaps even advantageous – to build innovative and useful projects that are sold and then co-created between public and private sector organisations. I also think that discussing value exchange – money – upfront in a project is one way to ensure that you keep the attention of all the project participants. In my experience doing stuff for free doesn’t really convince anyone that they need to take what you are doing very seriously – though on the other hand you do need to be sure that the value exchange is fair and defensible. I don’t want to public sector wasting money and I don’t want to be part of helping it waste money.  This point of view has taken me a while to come to which is perhaps another story.

Its possible that the only way that we will substantively shift government practice is with these kinds of co-created projects and relationships. If this is the case then we need to learn how to work together – systemically – and the kind of cultural exchange that we are starting with Carl could form a valuable part of this learning. As we are both avid bloggers I am imagining you will hear more about this whether you want to or not.

There is a lot of challenge in the idea of opening up your organisation to have a client working with you as part of the team – not just on one specific project where they can be contained. Any organisation will have a degree of paddling below the water going on and it takes confidence in what you do to open this up to scrutiny. One of the reasons we are doing this, apart from the fact that you can’t learn without risk, is because we think that any business that works closely with the public sector needs to be setting itself at least the standard of openness that we demand of our government organisations. Projects like Chris Taggert’s Open Corporate is part of this but I think the blurring of organisational boundaries to create the most effective project teams is another. We have all worked closely with other organisations but this blurring of boundaries is something else.

I also think these qualities of confidence and openness are essential in a networked organisation but I will come back to that thought another time.

The second reason I have been mulling organisational culture was as a result of a twitter conversation discussing whether or not context is significant in terms of defining and understanding innovation. The consensus was a strongly felt ‘yes’ – you can’t describe something as innovative without understanding the context in which the work is done and projects which are innovative in one context may be fairly mundane in others. @Pubstrat has excellent things to say on this subject.

This got me thinking about how you might more actively set the context for a future project. We are I hope – subject to various practicalities – about to kick off another Citizenscape pilot in the fairly near future. How can we set the right context for this project? The first and obvious point will be creating the right project team and relationships but I think the critical element of this is in creating a shared context between ourselves and the client. Creating this initial shared understanding and actively discussing the fact that project which is focused on ‘doing things differently’ means that the project itself needs to…well….do things differently.

I am trying to put together a more organised set of thoughts around the question of ‘agile project management‘ which I keep coming back to. I think this idea of setting the new, shared, context for a project – or an organisation – is part of that but I also think its part of what it means to participate in a ‘networked’ project which takes place across organisational boundaries. It is more and more frequently the case that we are working in loose coalitions or temporary teams and partnerships and that our different work contexts are colliding. This is happening across internal and external organisational. I think we probably need to be thinking about what this means and trying to capture some of the approaches that make it all work more smoothly – capturing the context is one part of this.

The final reason I am thinking about organisational culture is because I find that so many of the conversations that I have with clients that start of talking about social media, engagement and democracy end up really being about organisational change. I increasingly come to the conclusion that we – practitioners – can’t continue to make incremental progress to unlock the real potential of the social web if we don’t start to actively discuss the way in which our organisations will change as a result. This is not saying anything new – we all know this to be true – but how many people are just below the parapet in terms of really talking about this fact within their organisations? How many senior teams are thinking in these terms? Time for a more public discussion and a lot more mulling I think.

I was one of 5 facilitators at the Solace Summit a couple of weeks ago and I have been mulling the experience ever since. The event was unusual in that rather having what has always been a perfectly good but rather traditional conference the Solace team (with some I have to confess provocation from myself and others) decided to try to create a more open process which enabled participating to co-produce a communinique around key issues for Solace to address over the coming months. You can read the output here. My first reflection is one of relief – last year it made me positively twitchy to see a group talented and influential people sit passively in a room instead of actually actively participating. Its so rare that you can convene this kind of group it always struck me as a horrible waste to then keep them quiet for most of the event. Happily the audience were hugely positive about the change in format and I think that we will see more of these kinds of events from Solace. Ultimately this is really good news for those of us who attend event such as LocalGovCamp and the like and who want to see better senior support for this kind of open space event – next time just ask them if they went to Solace this year.

I was responsible for the Economic Growth conversation – which was fascinating as its not my core field and made me learn and think about loads of interesting things which I won’t bore you with here. The question that has stuck with me for the last couple of weeks is what do we mean by a networked leader?

As is usually the case when you start talking with senior managers we all concluded that we needed leadership and not management if we were to see Local Government play a significant role in local economic growth. However the group was also convinced that the leadership for local government in this context was as a convenor and a facilitator and not as the person necessarily delivering the outcomes.

I have been thinking about networked leadership ever since and this post is a first attempt to start to put thoughts in order – next up will be doing some more reading around the subject and so any recommendations would be very welcome. I start from the position that leadership in a networked organisation is going to need very different qualities to those of a hierarchal leader – and that we need to explore these qualities if we want to create more networked organisations.

The first quality I think is the ability to create a vision and narrative of that vision which at the time as being focused enough to give direction is open enough to enable others to contribute to it. The organisational vision needs to be an ongoing – and public – conversation.

However to be credible in setting this vision it is essential that you have knowledge of your own place in the network and the value that you bring – and that this evident to the rest of the network. You cannot, in my view, be a leader in a networked organisation just by dint of job title – you need a strong place to stand and an arena in which you contribute to the overall information and activity exchange of the network. The social web is at heart a meritocracy and I believe that the network society has as similar emphasis on personal contribution and exchange.

At the same time as having a clear view of their own contribution the networked leader also needs to be an effective talent spotter – they need to be able to quickly find and amplify activities which contribute to the vision.

In doing this there is a need to be transparent with respect to decisions and to be able to explain these as being coherent with respect to vision and values.

In terms of activity – a lot of time will be spent giving feedback and amplifying activity from within the network – acting a curator as much as content creator.

But the single aspect that is at the same time a byproduct of the above and perhaps the most immediately realisable aspect of the networked leader within local government is the power that hierarchical based leaders have to convene people and conversations. This was the anchor point for the SOLACE conversation with general agreement that though local government is not necessarily going to lead local economic growth it can and should convene the networks which will make this possible and take a leading role in the curation of the conversation around the local economic narrative.

These are certainly qualities that I aspire to as I try to lead my own organisation – though I am also certain that I don’t consistently achieve them. The bigger question may be however whether or not this style of leadership is possibly in organisations made up of thousands of people in multiple overlapping networks and this is a question not just for organisations but perhaps for political parties – its certainly a question that the Occupy folks are concerning themselves with. I am sure that there is a lot of thinking already out there on this and I will start hunting for it.

Hierarchy is not always bad – I have been thinking about this with respect to the Virtual Policing project we’ve been working on with Sussex Police and frankly I am rather relieved that the Police have a command structure as in some situations you do need clear lines of control. However the question for me is whether you can retain the useful aspects of command and control hierarchy without comprising on the benefits and behaviours of the network society. That is definitely something I want to explore.

PS Please note that this has been filed in the ‘things I want to write about post PHD’ category – we’ll see how far I get in the meantime!!

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