The Inquirer 23rd Edition
Quantum Leadership – Now What?
10 Ways in which the quantum leader can change the world
So much of the change and leadership writing assumes discontinuous change and leading through turbulent times followed by a period of stability. This approach no longer seems appropriate for our rapidly changing, unpredictable political, economic and environmental context. The appeal of the quantum frame of thinking (Inquirer editions 20 and 21) is that it offers a different state of mind which is more appropriate for thriving in our volatile, complex, unpredictable times. Of course, the Newtonian models weren’t all wrong, but they were generated in a different time and context, and their track record in enabling successful change is not a good one. An advantage of the quantum frame is that elements of the Newtonian leadership and change models can have a new breath of life.
So, what are the practical applications of a quantum frame of thinking and to whom does it apply?
1. The value of a quantum frame is that it allows everything in the leader’s world to be perceived differently. Meetings, products, strategy, conversations with stakeholders – all are parts of an iterative cycle of interactions which create the future. The quantum frame gives us a new mental apparatus to understand everyday situations. The quantum leader deliberately unravels the frames which they have built over time and have become our default way of making sense of the world. By being aware of them and challenging the assumptions and implications of them, a whole new world of possibilities is revealed.
2. One of the most helpful implications of the frame is that leaders at all levels have a role to play in enabling continuous change. It was always the case, but the frame validates middle managers especially, instead of glorifying the heroic senior leader/CEO. The middle manager’s role is crucial in creating an environment and culture which encourages staff, their thinking and processes to adapt fluidly to changing market, economic and political conditions in the moment, on an everyday basis. This is much more than just being adaptive (Newtonian) and more about ‘self-organising’ (Quantum) where the properties of the organisation are constantly changing in dialogue with an infinite, complex environment.
3. Actively managing one’s thinking (metacognition), resisting habitual thinking developed over years of practice in solving problems, short-term thinking and task focus. These remain important and useful, once selected, deliberately, because they fit the context - but should not be the default mode of thinking. The quantum leader’s default is in inquiry mode – learning, questioning, turning judgement into curiosity, holding competing ideas in mind, turning disagreement into mutual exploration and defensiveness into self-exploration. S/he looks for patterns of individual and organisational behaviour, which might hinder or offer possibilities for change and the multiple perspectives and truths of stakeholders, so that effective relationships can be built and sustained .
4. Quantum leadership means modelling the thinking and helping people to adjust their ways of thinking, develop new defaults, as well as the business processes needed to support the new way of thinking. In a quantum frame leaders need to demonstrate that they can hold opposing ideas in mind (eg polar opposites like centralise versus de-centralise) and still function, that they can read the views of multiple stakeholders and that decisions and interventions have more the character of experiments, from which we can learn more about our assumptions, data and options, than ‘correct’ answers or solutions.
5. Interventions or meetings or decisions or projects are not ends in themselves, but steps in the iterative process of inquiring - sense-making – acting, inquiring - sense-making – acting etc. This can be simply stated as What? So What? Now What? which is used frequently as a reflective tool, but in the quantum frame becomes a proactive method of inquiry and a good habit. The quantum frame also revives Heifetz’s Observe, Interpret, Intervene model (The Theory Behind the Practice, Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky Harvard Business Press 2009). It helps leaders to revive ideas about the Learning Organisation because sustainability (survival or thriving) in the work environment demands overt learning leadership behaviour.
6. Empowering managers to exercise their choice about how they perceive and make sense of the environment/context. Without being incapacitated by deep analysis on everything, the leader/manager can look at almost all the issues in play - in the in-tray, meeting room and water cooler and ask – ‘what does this mean?’ Can I just process it and get it done as a transactional task or can I interrogate it – in a few moments through a quantum frame to ask:
- How does this fit with patterns of thinking and interactions in the business?
- Does it carry a greater significance because it is different in some way?
- Does it offer an opportunity to connect with other people as part of a process of building coalitions?
- Can this situation be leveraged to facilitate change?
- Does it allow me to develop the thinking of my staff?
This matches Daniel Kahneman’s idea of thinking systems 1and 2 (‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ Allen Lane, 2011) which we wrote about in previous editions. A quantum frame says I have to inquire into this situation and how my stakeholders and I respond to it, because I have to make sense of it and not just react to it – automatically. A quantum frame is also invaluable for managing the irrationality of people which Kahneman so vividly describes. We tend to think that the world is a rational place full of reasonable people doing reasonable things. Evidence says otherwise, so being in a state of mind that is constantly observing what is going on, making sense of irrationalities and competing logics, and then making decisions, equips us to function most effectively.
7. Bringing strategic thinking into everyday management practice. The quantum frame encourages managers to sense-make continuously, scanning the internal and external environments for connections and trends. It allows then to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty in problems which are unbounded. They are able to play an infinite game (J.Carse New York : free press 1986) where organisational life is ‘playful,’ experimental, continuous and emergent, and quite different from finite games which have a definite beginning and ending, and are played with the goal of winning.
8. There is a remarkable fit with the best of innovative thinking practice. The summary of the most effective tools for innovation (Luma Institute HBR Jan 2014) describes a meta model of Looking (observing and researching the human experience) , Understanding (people, systems, patterns and priorities, problem framing) and Making (concept ideation, modelling and prototyping) which matches really well with the inquiring (what?) - sense-making (so what?) – acting (now what?) process of the quantum leader. It could almost be a template for the way the agile manager needs to be in our complex, volatile world.
9. Leaders can inquire into all the models of change that they learned about on their MBAs and begin to select from them the change tools which they can apply in a quantum context. Instead of thinking that they have to follow a certain model (usually top-down and Newtonian in thinking), they can employ the most appropriate tool to use for a particular intervention. Importantly, there will be less need to introduce corporate change ‘programmes’ using those old change models, instead realising that every conversation is a change event, every communication is more than an exchange of data – it is an opportunity to create new meaning, which is the precursor to changing behaviours.
10. In previous editions we have written about the crisis of capitalism and the role of the leaders as stewards or custodians of values in the post -industrial age (Feb 2013). The quantum manager looks to find where energy is generated in the organisation - being explicit about finding value in what we do, conducting ethical business, emphasising the importance of quality conversations and relationships, and creating an agile, net/working environment.
The quantum frame of thinking gives the leader a framework for being and thinking, and not just doing. It provides a meta-view through which all the activity in the organisation and its wider context can be explored and understood, and appropriate actions taken. At first look, the quantum frame idea can seem abstract and theoretical, but I hope that I have shown that it is essentially practical – it is a frame through which we can set our lives and take all our actions. Imagine for example coming into work first thing in the morning :
You enter the building, pause, remind yourself about complexity and the need to recognise default thinking frames, ask yourself how you want to be, rehearse pausing to judge whether to think fast or slow, get into a state of curiosity/ inquiry and remind yourself of the range of skills you have that go with it, and enjoy the sense of calm engendered by not knowing ……….