One Community Shares Leadership
In Rochester, Minnesota 25% of the children have asthma. With no clear understanding of the root causes, this surprising statistic is a complex problem for the children, their families and the community. Good Morning America reported that the city is taking this problem seriously and pioneering a radical new treatment approach. The approach has nothing to do with new medicines, new medical technology, or fixing the air quality. Rather it involves a collaboration, full of cooperation and communication to help children with asthma. The partnership consists of the child, her parents, a Mayo Clinic doctor, school nurse, classroom teachers, and the country health department. This replaces the traditional model where the parents are responsible to manage and integrate the health care of their child. In this new partnership, rather than going it alone, parents report the quality of their childrens’ health and the quality of their life style is dramatically improving.
Well you might be thinking good for them – interesting story, why didn’t they do this before? Good question, why didn’t they do this before? By definition complex problems are not easy to solve. Our typical approach to complex problems involves a heavy dose of leadership from subject matter experts, who focus on telling not listening, who position themselves outside the problem and the community trying to solve the problem. Often within the community many people feel they need to be the expert and come up with the solution, leading to competition. Next there is often strong independence from different parts of the community. This can take the form of job rules – I would like to help you, but my job is this, not that. Sometimes independence comes from protecting my turf or feeling the need to defend against criticism real or implied, from the lack of progress.
And of course everybody is overwhelmed with the complexity of the problem and distracted by the competing demands. This is not always discussable. So it is easy to imagine in a situation like Rochester that the parent is overwhelmed. The child’s teacher is overwhelmed. The school nurse is overwhelmed because she has hundreds of children to keep track of. Community services are overwhelmed – down in resources people and budget. Even the local experts, who feel they should know the answers because they are leaders, find themselves reluctant to admit being stumped.
And maybe it is even simpler than all of that. Our communities (towns, organizations, corporations) don’t have a lot of experience solving complex problems reliably. Our traditional forms of leadership rooted in one leader knowing more than others, determining the course of action, being a source of wisdom, being directive, being independent – don’t help solve complex and ugly problems. The qualities we typically associate with leaders such as decisive, directive, forceful, independent, expert, don’t help solve complex problems. In the places in the world where communities select their leaders how often do we look for qualities like collaborative, listens, builds coalitions, learns, creates spaces for dialogue?
Larry the Executive
Consider the case of Larry an executive in a large corporation whose mandate is to fix a major problem – customer billing. In the first month he spends most of his time talking to his boss and other key executives, spends a week traveling to meet customers and has some individual meetings with people on his team who he thinks are reliable. He learns that there are 8 different customer billing systems, which are separate.
This was the result of highly independent business units and several acquisitions which for various reasons had never been fully integrated. The billing systems use different customer codes, different product codes. Only 3 of the eight systems can share information. There is no way to produce an integrated customer bill. Bills are late, inaccurate, and the first bill is often delayed by 3 months. Attempts to fix these problems have failed primarily because of the inability to reach agreement on what each business unit requires. When work would start on a fix, funding was not sustained, often reduced or withdrawn because of budget cuts or because work would stretch over budget years.
Larry’s solution is to reorganize and consolidate authority, funding and personnel under him. This would move resources directly from the business units to his organization and allow him to set requirements for the billing systems. His proposal is meet with little enthusiasm and great resistance by the business unit presidents. They say publically they must directly control any process which touches their customers. Privately they react to any loss of authority or budget reduction. The CEO is not willing to revisit the authority of the Business Units because it raises so many other issues – and so Larry gets some of what he wants.
Complexity calls for new leadership. Notice that I used the word leadership not leaders. It calls for us to leave behind the old model of singular, independent, expert leadership in favor of one that is shared and collaborative. The purpose of this blog is to explore shared leadership and how it can help us solve complex problems. In the coming weeks and months I will examine the moves and qualities of those who practice shared leadership and the principles they follow to create change in their communities.
Much of the material here is adapted from a forthcoming book called in-Spire: Ten Principles to Evoke, Focus and Sustain Energy in Organizations and Communities.