Monday, January 14, 2013

Leadership and the Art of Plate Spinning

By Virgil Carter

The title of this article is drawn from a recent article of the same name by Colin Price, published in a recent edition of the McKinsey Quarterly. The article focuses on the difficulty for senior executives to align their organization’s best opportunities and their best people to work on those opportunities. Why is this so difficult?

According to the author, the difficulty is actually “a number of paradoxes, many of them rooted in the eccentricity and unpredictability of human behavior, about how organizations really tick”. This is because, in the words of the author, “Appealing as it is to believe that the workplace is economically rational, in reality it is not”.
Price goes on, saying, “Our research shows that the most successful organizations, over the long term, consistently focus on “enabling” things (leadership, purpose, employee motivation) whose immediate benefits aren’t always clear. These healthy organizations, as we call them, are internally aligned around a clear vision and strategy; can execute to a high quality thanks to strong capabilities, management processes, and employee motivation; and renew them more effectively than their rivals do. In short, health today drives performance tomorrow”.

In his article, Price focuses on three other paradoxes that, “in my experience, are both particularly striking and quite difficult to reconcile. The first is that change comes about more easily and more quickly in organizations that keep some things stable. The second is that organizations are more likely to succeed if they simultaneously control and empower their employees. And the third is that business cultures that rightly encourage consistency (say, in the quality of services and products) must also allow for the sort of variability—and even failure—that goes with innovation and experimentation”.

Coming to grips with these paradoxes will be invaluable for executives trying to keep their people and priorities in balance at a time when cultural and leadership change sometimes seems an existential imperative. Just as a circus performer deftly spins plates or bowls to keep them moving and upright, so must senior executives constantly intervene to encourage the sorts of behavior that align an organization with its top priorities.

Price concludes his discussion thusly, “Embracing the paradoxes described in this article can be uncomfortable: it’s counterintuitive to stimulate change by grounding it in sources of reassuring stability or to focus on boundaries and control when a company wants to stir up new ideas. Yet the act of trying to reconcile these tensions helps leaders keep their eyes on all their spinning plates and identify when interventions are needed to keep the organization lined up with its top priorities”.
For the full article, go to:

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