Tag Archives: context

The Bigger Context

“But, what if my team has some bone-headed ideas?” Francis pushed back. “There are a couple of people on my team that think I’m an idiot, that they have a better way to do something.”

“Occasionally, we are all idiots,” I replied. “Perhaps, on occasion your team is accurate.”

“But they don’t see the big picture,” Francis described. “They think I delay part of a project because I don’t know what I am doing, when the fact is, we are waiting on parts with a six week lead time.”

“So, it’s context?” I asked. “And, you don’t think they will understand a six week delay in parts?”

“They have trouble just figuring out what materials we need for today’s production, much less a part that won’t be here for six weeks.”

“Francis, this is a struggle for all managers. Your team is working day-to-day or at best, week-to-week, but they are impacted by events that happen month-to-month, or quarter-to-quarter. Don’t sell your team short. They may not be able to manage long lead time issues, but they can certainly understand those issues, particularly if you make them visible. In what way could you communicate project scheduling to your team in a way they would understand?”

Traits of a Leader?

“You look like you have a question,” I said.

“I have been studying leadership, but it is a bit confusing,” Maria replied. “So, many books, so many perspectives. You would think if I read all the books, I would know what traits I should possess to be an effective leader?”

I nodded. “So, it would seem. Any study of leadership rarely considers the context of leadership, so the discussion appears jumbled and confused. Leadership never stands alone, it is always in a context.”


“Was Churchill considered a great leader?” I asked.

“Yes, for those of us who have seen the movie,” Maria chuckled.

“Yes, in wartime, but not so much in peacetime. To truly understand leadership, first you have to understand the context. Connect the context and things make more sense. Most often, I speak about managerial leadership. But, there are other contexts, parental leadership, political leadership, military leadership, spiritual leadership, academic leadership. The context will demand the qualities necessary for effective leadership in that circumstance, and eschew those characteristics that detract.”

Maria nodded, so I continued. “Before we look at the person (qualities and traits), first we have to look at the context. The biggest mistake most companies make in hiring is to look at the candidate without understanding the work in the role. It’s all about the work.”

A Goal Sits Inside

We think success is in reaching our goals, that our goals will change us and the world around us. Deconstructing the every-year process of setting goals, we may find something more important.

What is the context in which your goals reside?

It’s not the goal that changes you, it’s the context. Context is the crucible which holds the shape of you and your success. A crucible with a defect may lead your goal astray, or allow you to accept a goal that will lead you astray. Think long about the context in which you live. Change the context, behavior follows.

For an individual, context is mindset. For an organization, context is culture.

What’s Stopping Innovation?

Susan looked down, her face long in frustration.

“You look at creative ideas,” I said. “I look at context. I have to acknowledge your frustration at the lack of progress in your journey of innovation. Let me re-frame my observations with a forward looking question. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I am not sure where you are going with this,” Susan responded.

“Let’s assume your creative ideas have merit. What conditions exist in your company that resist the construction, testing and adoption of new ideas?”

“Now, that’s an easy question to answer,” Susan chuckled through her frustration. “There is a long list –

  • We already tried that before and it didn’t work?
  • It’s too expensive.
  • It will take too long.
  • The last person with an idea like that got fired.
  • We are headed in exactly the opposite direction and we have too much sunk costs to change direction now, even though what we are doing isn’t working.

“Nice list,” I smiled. “It’s always easy to answer the negative, now let’s answer the positive. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

Possibility for Creativity

“When I look at my company,” Susan said, “many times I see the stifling of creativity and innovation, often in the same sentence extolling the virtues that are being trampled.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We have some initiative suggested by a consultant, process improvement,” she said. “We spend a couple of off-site days banging our collective heads together to come up with ideas to make things more efficient. We chew up a couple pads of flip-chart paper, posted on the wall, everyone high-fiving.”

“And?” I asked, looking for the other shoe to drop.

“And two weeks later, nothing has changed. We are still doing things the same way, suffering the same consequences.”

“Do you personally believe creativity and innovation are important,” I pressed.

“Of course,” Susan replied. “We had some great ideas, it’s just that nothing seems to happen.”

“Sometimes, ideas are not enough, intentions are not enough, even first steps are not enough,” I replied. “Sometimes, it’s the context in which these ideas sit. It is the surrounding conditions that serve to resist new momentum, change. We are seldom wanting for creative and innovative ideas, it is creating the conditions for those ideas to flourish. Sometimes, it is difficult to create the conditions for those ideas to even be possible.”

Context of Uncertainty

“Holding the manager accountable for output still seems odd,” I said. “There are still things that can go wrong, out of the hands of the manager.”

“Yes, that would seem odd, but we have to think about context,” Pablo replied. “The context of the technician is quite short, measured in days and weeks. The context of the first line manager extends beyond and requires attention to those things uncertain, those things that can be anticipated, not in days or weeks, but weeks and months.”

“The outlook at a different level of work?” I prompted.

“Looking forward, there is always uncertainty and ambiguity. The uncertainty six months from now is within the context of the first line manager or supervisor. Their role requires they look ahead, plan for contingencies, because the future is ALWAYS unpredictable. It is the role of the first line manager to plan for backups, bench-strength in the team, tools that break, materials that arrive off schedule or out of spec. The first line manager must build in buffers to respond to variability in circumstances, because circumstances are always variable. In short, it is not within the authority of the manager to reprimand the team for a shortfall in production, but to create the circumstances in the system to respond to conditions to prevent the shortfall.

“It is precisely those conditions outside the direct control of the manager,” Pablo continued, “that the manager has to plan for in the face of an uncertain future. That’s their role. That is why the manager must be held to account for the output of the team.”

Change the Context

“And, to promote the social good for the team employed by my company,” Pablo said, “I have to believe in the good inside each person. I have to create managerial systems that support that belief.”

“What you say is counter to many managerial practices,” I said. “In my travels, I see compensation systems, bonus and incentive programs that rely on greed and competition over compensation. I see team members with a narrow focus only on the next promotion, hidden agendas, backdoor politics, even backstabbing. I see a general mistrust of authority inside the company.”

“Yes, often that is what you see,” Pablo replied. “And, it is through no fault of employees. They engage in behavior to survive inside the system in which they live. If we create a system that relies on greed, we will get greedy behavior. If the only way we acknowledge contribution is by status, if the only thing that feeds a person’s self concept is a promotion, then you will get politics based on power. If you want to change the behavior, change the context in which they live.”

Listen to the Words

“Hey, how is it going?” I asked. It seemed an innocent question.

“Oh, man, it’s rough. Our biggest competitor just lured away our Project Manager. The price of raw materials is going through the roof. We had a glitch in our computer system last week. I don’t know. I guess things are okay,” replied Marshall.

I stopped in my tracks. On the surface, it seemed like small talk. An innocent question. A little commiserating.

But words mean something. You are what you think. The only way I can tell what you are thinking is to listen to the words that you use. How do you describe yourself? How do you describe what is happening around you?

You are what you think. What you say is who you are. But take it one step further.

What you say is who you will become. How you describe yourself is who you will become. How you describe the world around you, is the world you are destined to live in.

“Hey, how is it going?”

How will you respond?

Huddle Meeting, Most Important Meal of the Day

“What’s the major benefit of a huddle meeting first thing in the morning?” I asked. The team looked around at each other to see who might jump in first.

“To share the plan for the day,” said Shirley.

“To make certain assignments,” chimed in Fernando.

“To schedule lunch,” smiled Paul. Everybody stifled a brief laugh.

“Lunch is important,” I said. “Now, most of you are too young to remember Woody Allen, but he said that 80 per cent of success is just showing up. One of the major benefits of a huddle meeting first thing in the morning is to firmly establish the starting point for the team.

“Lots of time can get wasted as people trickle in, fritter around, sharpen pencils (who uses pencils anymore?). But, if you have eight people on your team and you lose fifteen minutes, that’s two hours of production.

“A huddle meeting can start the day. Sharp and crisp. Five minutes. Let’s go. Hit it hard.”

Point A to Point B

An event is anything that gets our attention. An event, at work, is any decision or problem that gets our attention. Decisions and problems present themselves as isolated events, yet they exist inside a context. That context will have significant bearing on the outcome of the decision and the solution to the problem.

When we measure the context in terms of time, or timespan, we gain insight into the impact of the decision made or the problem solved.

We can certainly walk from point A to point B. And to carry a payload, we are limited to our backs. In the long term, if we are to carry many payloads, we may want to invest in a vehicle to carry each payload. The timespan of the decision indicates its impact.

If we are to carry many payloads in our vehicle faster over a longer period of time, we may want to invest in a road. If we want to go faster, we may top that road with smooth asphalt. If we want the smooth asphalt to remain smooth with minimum repair, over time, we may invest in a strong sub-structure for the road. The timespan of the decision indicates its impact.

Still, we can certainly walk from point A to point B.

It is the role of management to think about longer timespan impact at higher levels of work.