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Improving leaders' organisational insights

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Many leaders struggle with change because their knowledge of how organisations work is mainly derived from ad hoc experience. If they can’t see them as dynamic systems they won’t be fully effective in developing new insights into their own organisations – or leading change.

So how can Boards, CEOs, Executive Committees and other senior leaders ensure they have the perspectives and the information they need?

First, truly effective leaders can distil the big picture from the way their organisation’s many component forces interact. They cut through complexity, designing interventions to address the problems and opportunities they see. This requires a vocabulary for describing the components – concrete and abstract – of organisation. (Take a look at the proven Burke-Litwin model.) But it also demands the willingness to acknowledge unpalatable truths.

To understand what is going on in the organisation, leaders must demand the right data and turn it into useful information. For example, leaders should invite employees to explain what’s driving the results of the latest engagement survey. HR Information Systems should be mined for new patterns and to identify areas of strength and weakness, flows and trends. Diagnostic interviews should shed light on organisational issues and their causes and effects.

Next, disparate information sources must be connected to yield insights into what’s happening and likely to happen. How does customer satisfaction relate to employee data or changes in business process or IT? How is organisational culture affecting success in major projects – and what needs to change? Does the organisation balance cost and performance?

Then, effective leaders seek inputs from knowledgeable individuals and groups. This means talking with heads of business units and functions and with people on the front line. And it should mean increasing your own direct experience. Call as a customer to see what it’s like dealing with your own organisation. Cast a critical eye over your offices to see what their layout and style say about your business.

But systematic understanding and informed insights must be matched by a psychological willingness to go beyond managing today’s business (Box 1, in Vijay Govindarajan’s construct.) and to use organisational thinking both to selectively abandon past ideas that no longer work and to create the future.

At Kiddy & Partners we include systematic organisational thinking in our Leadership Development programmes for senior and high-potential executives. When we work on Team Effectiveness with Boards and Senior Teams, we help design the processes they’ll use to monitor and manage the organisations they lead. And all of our Organisation Development assignments include an initial discovery phase to ensure the client begins with an in-depth understanding of their organisation.

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