Leading in unprecedented times... - Veterinary Practice
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Leading in unprecedented times…

Professor DAVID LANE discusses the challenge for leaders and the need for re-visioning

WE are told that these are unprecedented times, so what does an evidence-based profession have to offer when there is no evidential precedent? What might the leader of a team do, when facing unprecedented dilemmas, that adds value. How do we rethink the service we offer?

When faced with uncertainty one reaction is fear, which in business leads to loss of confidence and a retreat to retrenchment. The alternative to fear is to treat it as a challenge to find ways to promote change and find new ways to reach our clients.

We can call upon four forms of evidence:

1. Scientific

■ correct ways of gathering data, value free, setting free, although note different forms of scientific philosophy and consequently of enquiry. Yes, we base our work on the scientific but how do we turn that into regular practice models?

2. Technical rational

■ beyond setting, divested of practice knowledge, audit, evidence base. We can create practice models but how do we make them available to staff with other skills from the vet or indeed to our clients?

3. Reflective

■ practice as deliberative action based on reflection within specific context. How do we learn from our practice and the views of our staff and clients – what opportunities for reflection do we create?

4. Critical deconstruction

■ to challenge existing dominant stories. What are the dominant stories about our practice that are now getting in the way of providing new services?

When we do call upon the evidence we find that rather than the times being unprecedented, there is evidence base upon which to draw to inform current circumstances. But to deal with uncertainty we have to recognise that rather than rushing to close it down, we can use it as a point of creativity. To re-vision our service, to offer something that adds new value as well as preserving what is the best of our current offer.

We can work with our teams to revision:

Our purpose – what we agree with our team and clients as the purpose of the service, where are we going and why.

Our perspective – what informs our work (beliefs, values, and ethics), what perspectives can inform the journey we agree to undertake to provide our service.

Our process – what happens when we work, what different processes are most appropriate given our purpose and the perspectives that inform it in order to most effectively undertake our journey to better client service.

Re-visioning our service is about the conversations we have. The quality of the conversation determines the quality of the relationship and the quality of the relationships determines the quality of the system/organisation/service that emerges.

In complex times we need to recognise the degree of agreement on our purpose that is possible and the predictability of achieving any agreed purpose. How do each of us and our clients see the service evolving? The field of complexity theory offers some suggestions. For example Stacy has created a matrix to address this (see Diagram 1).

The type of conversation we can have depends on where we are in the differing spaces in the matrix.

■ Rational/Empirical works from an existing evidence base or hypothesis testing framework:

– it assumes a cause/effect and linear process;

– it works from the existing story we use to explain our service offer but views that as an example of an existing stock of stories which can be informed by an evidence base;

– most appropriate in the rational space

– agreed purpose and predictable outcomes

■ Emergent Story works from the ground up:

– looks for what themes emerge in the conversation and what we notice;

– uses tension and anxiety creatively;

– most appropriate in the space of ambiguity on the edge of chaos.

■ Structured Story works from the top down:

– provides boundaries using predetermined lenses to organise the story;

– helps hold anxiety so that we can work with the context;

– most appropriate in chaotic contexts.

So if there is a high level of agreement and predictability, then we can use existing models/theories of service delivery to add incremental value.

If, however, there is moderate agreement and predication, rather than drive everyone towards agreement, the creative space needs to open up to allow multiple conversations and wait to see what themes emerge that gain credence that could be the basis for a new story about our service.

In the chaotic space the pressure is to rush back to the rational (that does not work); rather, we need to hold our anxiety for long enough and try to move towards the creative space.

The challenge for leaders in these times is that they cannot always stand outside the system and pull the levers of change with predictable results. So what do we do?

■ Help create the conditions that allow successful outcomes to emerge.

■ The nature and quality of the conversations in the person/team/organisation are critical.

– Motivating people is more about listening than telling.

– It requires on-going, iterative conversation.

– Creating healthy conversations creates positive attractors and stimulates positive behaviours.

Leadership in complex systems is about facilitating and guiding, more than controlling and determining.

Leaders provide:

■ direction – some of the key goals;

■ boundaries – limits and things to avoid;

■ resources – to get the job done;

■ space for innovation – permission to do things differently;

■ set and maintain the real values.

Are we ready to take on this form of leadership?

Further reading

Modern Scientist-Practitioner, a guide to practice in psychology (2006) Lane and Corrie, Routledge – explores your identity as a professional so you can create more effective stories about practice.

Constructing Stories, Telling Tales – a guide to formulation in applied psychology (forthcoming, 2009, Corrie and Lane, Karnac Books) – explores how we can understand our own and clients’ stories.

The Art of Inspired Living, Corrie (2009) Karnac Books – explores tools you and your clients can use in coaching from positive psychology.

Managing the Unknowable. Strategic Boundaries between Order and Chaos in Organizations. Stacey (1992) San Francisco, Jossey-Bass – explores what it means to manage the unknowable.

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