BRAIN GAIN: Do leaders ever stop developing? It’s an unanswered question – and perhaps an unanswerable one. But it’s interesting to look at leaders who do go on developing both themselves and their businesses.
In 2014 Frederic Laloux published Reinventing Organizations. He did what all good scientists do, which is to look and see if there are patterns that suggest previously unrecognized phenomena.
From his large firm international consulting experience Laloux had been thinking that there must be some better way of running organizations than he generally observed in the performance driven world to which his daily activities committed him. So he went to look to see if there was any naturalistic data that might give some clues.
What he discovered was a number of companies that, quite independently and without any knowledge of each other, have arrived at and practise a similar radical set of principles – so radical that in some ways they are blindingly obvious but never properly observed, as if they existed only in blindsight. Put briefly, they focused on organizational purpose before profit, believed people are highly adaptive self-regulating systems that work best when lubricated by complete trust, that a complex system can be self-healing, and that authority comes from the people closest to the customer whilst direction is continuously discovered. And that, under such conditions, costs reduce remarkably and profits appear as an output, not a primary purpose.
In 2015 my book called The Fear Free Organization, written without any knowledge of Reinventing Organizations, proposed that the kind of organization that Laloux independently described might be more characteristic of the female than the male brain – though Laloux had no frame of reference connecting what he described to the modern brain sciences. His was more an evolutionary model.
As the lead author of The Fear Free Organization, I had for four or five years been looking for any organization that might be characteristic of the way the female brain seems to work, which is to do with integrating rather than separating information. The pathways in the female brain source data from both halves of the brain continuously. The male brain seems to use one half or the other but not bridge between the two so easily. As the left half manages what is known and the right half is on the lookout for the unknown, different behaviours would characterize different patterns of accessing the two halves.
In November 2014 I heard of one UK-based organization that seemed to operate in the way that Laloux had described. At an Association for Coaching global conference in Budapest Sairah Ashman, the COO of the international branding firm Wolff Olins described how she has re-fashioned the way the company operates around highly flexible teams that are very focused on client service and organized by lead coaches.
And then in late October 2015, at a first conference organized by the Academy of Brain Based Leadership in Cupertino, California, I heard about another firm from its founder, Jim Stuart. At the crossroads where large parts of Apple’s real estate forms the backdrop to life, a story was told so compelling that visiting its store in Chicago became a must-have experience. Think of doing for bathrooms and kitchens what Apple has done for the telephone.
Imagine re-designing your bathroom, kitchen or outdoor barbecue from a store where no-one is trying to sell anything at all – but a store so well-equipped, beautifully designed (by Fitch of London), and so compelling to explore that you end up learning to slice and prepare a twenty-pound salmon and leave the store having ordered nothing but with both you and the store-keeper intensely satisfied. That’s PIRCH. Both you and the store know you will come back when you are ready to buy, and when a little of the divine dissatisfaction that the store has engendered re-sets your aspirations for the life-style you want those most-used rooms of the house to convey.
And over the four years that the eight stores across America have been developed, come back people do – to the extent that, across the USA, only Apple and Tiffany outsell PIRCH on a turnover-per-square-foot basis. On 30,000sq feet of showroom in one store, that’s quite something.
Having retired in his mid-forties from success as a commercial real-estate developer, Jim Stuart had a bad experience of trying to design and furnish his own new outdoor barbecue. It could be so much more enjoyable, he thought. And that is what he has set out to do – abandon retirement and bring surprise and joy to the experience of updating one’s lifestyle. Everything there works – baths can be filled, showers turned on, fridges are lit and filled when opened, loos flush, cookers work. Dreams get made and can be shifted into reality and then installed into life.
And that’s not even to mention the beautiful coffee bar that is the first greeting experience, and where it’s all free. Indeed in one store the free coffee bar is the favourite place for some teenagers to gather to do homework. No-one would have designed such a store for such a purpose, yet in an emergent way the store has found one of its own. And those teenagers become natural ambassadors for the store into the adult world in a way that no advertising could achieve.
So one answer to the opening question might be that good leaders never stop developing themselves, or others, or – most of all – wanting to test their ideas.
This is the latest in a series of articles from Dr Paul Brown, Faculty Professor, Organizational Neuroscience, Monarch Business School Switzerland. Paul was was previously Visiting Professor in Organizational Neuroscience at London South Bank University and in Individual and Organizational Psychology, the Nottingham Law School, UK. Until recently based in Laos, where he was part of the National Science Council in the Office of the Prime Minister, he now lives in Vietnam from where as Honorary Chairman of the Vietnam Consulting Group he maintains an international consulting practice and is Senior Adviser to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Hanoi. Palgrave Macmillan, in association with IEDP, recently launched a new book series The Neuroscience of Business, of which Neuroscience for Leadership, co-authored by Paul with Dr Tara Swart and Lady Kitty Chisholm, is the first tile. The Fear-free Organization was published by Kogan Page in July 2015.