Making Better Sense of Leadership Moments

Making Better Sense of Leadership Moments

Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen, The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014)

Malachi O’Connor and Barry Dornfeld, The Moment You Can’t Ignore: When Big Trouble Leads to a Great Future – How Culture Drives Strategic Change (Public Affairs, 2014)


The Moment You Can’t Ignore opens with a story about a funeral. It is an opportunity for the authors, Malachi O’Connor and Barry Dornfeld, respectively trained in folklore and communications, to discuss the meaning and operation of ‘ritual mourning’ in a specific community. Such an unorthodox beginning to a guide to business and management effectively illustrates the wider challenge the book mounts of understanding the perspectives we bring to events in the world – including in organizations.

Neither the fundamental questions O’Connor and Dornfeld pose nor the central approaches they advance are altogether new. For example, they consistently ask:

  1. What is our identity as an organization?
  2. Who’s in charge?
  3. How do I lead?
  4. What is our future?

To develop answers, they embrace ethnography, a fundamental social science approach to researching how people behave. In organizations, this form of systematic study has long been employed to reveal the typically unspoken rules of how people get work done and how they interact with one another. Yet by returning to some of the scholarly and non-business roots of ethnography and observation, they energize and add dimension to modes of analysis that have grown familiar to many. What is refreshing and valuable about The Moment You Can’t Ignore, drawn partly from the authors’ work at CFAR management consulting firm, is precisely its casting of new light on proven ways of seeing and understanding businesses and leadership.

For practitioners of ethnography in business, this places the book on a short shelf of accessible work that knowledgeably draws on more traditional social sciences to explore and analyze organizational or network cultures. Probably the most prominent exemplar is Canadian anthropologist Grant McCracken, author of Culture and Consumption (1988) and Chief Culture Officer (2009). Among a newer generation of analysts beginning to study behaviors and identities across physical and virtual communities, notable examples are Danah Boyd, whose It’s Complicated (2014) examines the social lives of networked teens, and ‘web anthropologist’ Stowe Boyd, who, as a leader researcher at GigaOm Research, writes broadly on topics related to the future of work.

Another related and current title is Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen’s The Moment of Clarity. Ethnography and participant observation drawn from the discipline of anthropology also figure importantly here as ways to better understand and respond to organizational needs. Madsbjerg and Rasmussen go further, however, and develop a more concrete and distinctive methodology. They are keen, for instance, to overcome the challenge of ‘making observations without presupposing a model.’ To do so, they strive not only to understand the social norms and context observable in specific organizational ‘worlds’ but the self-consciousness and feedback among observers and actors that allow us to learn that world’s rules.

A key method they advance to better understand human behavior is ‘sensemaking,’ which they define as:

A nonlinear process for solving complex problems that are hard to conceptualize and articulate. Based in the human sciences, sensemaking is exploratory rather than confirmatory. It seeks to address why-based rather than hypothesis-based questions in contexts of high uncertainty using qualitative data. It is a five-step process:

  1. Frame the problem as a phenomenon
  2. Collect the data
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Create the key insights
  5. Build the business impact

While often conceptual, The Moment of Clarity consistently offers concrete case examples of how its methods can illuminate and guide businesses through the challenges of uncertainty. Among the most persuasive are LEGO’s turnaround over the last decade (going ‘back to the brick’), Colaplast’s recent makeover (as a triumph of ‘product design’), and Intel’s and Adidas’s market re-positioning (crafting corporate strategy for the futures, respectively, of computing and of sport).

Some readers will justifiably associate the priorities and even methods in both books with the human-centered approaches of IDEO and other design thinkers and firms. While the emphases on observation, immersion and the questioning of perspectives and mindsets are similar, many of the intellectual and philosophical roots are distinct. These differences, like Madsbjerg and Rasmussen’s rooting of their work in phenomenology, may seem remote from everyday organizational or business matters. Yet the authors consistently demonstrate how deliberately shifting the ways we see and understand people, organizations and markets can enable very real innovation and advantage.

If ethnography and a more human focus give methodological shape to the two books under review here, organizational culture is the shared central topic of inquiry. Both pairs of authors bring broad expertise to bear on business settings because they recognize how culture can drive strategic advantage. Noting that when people talk about ‘culture,’ it often means their business is ‘stuck’ and they are unsure what to do, O’Connor and Dornfeld offer examples of how to us better observation to understand the ‘hidden assets’ of organization – people, places, projects – to mobilize people’s energy and effect change. These include a family-owned heating and cooling company that is about to be acquired and pharma giant Merck when it had to pull the arthritis and pain drug Vioxx off the market because of findings that it increased risk of heart attack, stroke and death.

These are examples of what the authors call a ‘superconducting organizations’ and provide the basis for the distinctive framework for cultural transformation proposed in The Moment You Can’t Ignore. Within this organization can take place the management, change, adaptation, identification and leveraging of the ‘un-ignorable’ moments of the book’s title. It is in these moments that the ‘stress of change’ erupts and stops the organization’s regular ways of working – and that opportunity also emerges for genuine change.

To build the superconducting organization and move beyond such moments of stagnation involves three overlapping imperatives. The first is to make the tacit explicit, a task fundamental to analysts of culture and prevailing ways of seeing. Second, echoing the work of other forward-looking business and organizational thinkers, like John Hagel and John Seely Brown, they propose to ‘Pull, Don’t Push.’ This means accessing and integrating people and resources for richer collaboration and greater advantage rather than working from discrete units or institutions. The third imperative is in moving toward, not away from, resistance, thereby acknowledging not just the value of interaction but the opportunity for learning and performance improvement residing in diversity.

Madsbjerg and Rasmussen’s guide to making the invisible visible and navigating the uncertainty of markets today is even more broadly-based. As practiced in the work of ReD Associates, their consultancy based in Copenhagen, they draw on ideas from anthropology, sociology, psychology, art, philosophy, and literature. Though unusual, a few others have demonstrated a comparable openness to thoughtfully applying fresh ideas to business thinking. Luc De Brabandere, for instance, a fellow and advisor of the Boston Consulting Group, has sought consistently to deploy philosophy and critical analysis into business thinking, particularly that related to creativity and change. His books, including Thinking in New Boxes (with Alan Iny) and The Forgotten Half of Change, argue for the use of philosophical ideas, methods and skepticism as means to change perception and paradigms.

The Moment of Clarity contrasts sensemaking with a ‘default thinking’ it contends has long predominated in business. The assumptions of the latter way of thinking, based largely in positivism and Taylorism, include rational, fully informed people, tomorrow looking like today, hypotheses being objective and unbiased, numbers being the only truth, and language needing to be dehumanizing to be effective. Together, these assumptions form a bit of a straw man, especially in creative industries that increasingly recognize the advantages of soft-skills and non-linear thinking. Yet in sketching out priorities beyond the rational and efficiency-seeking, the authors ably challenge the prevailing model of human behavior used in business culture and replace it with another more complex and less rational or predictable one.

The second and major part of the book, in fact, is called ‘Getting People Right.’ At the heart of the sensemaking approach to human behavior is prioritizing the ways people experience the world rather than the properties of the objects or properties in the world itself. Phenomenology, as used here, is a school of philosophical thought that accordingly focuses on ‘the relationships between people and objects, rather than on the essence of the object itself.’ For some readers, setting aside the intellectual labels and references, such an expanded focus may already have become more integrated in their business activities and decision-making.   For all, the proposal to adopt a more sophisticated outlook on human experience, and the rich ‘existential layers’ encoded within data and details, is compelling.

Adopting a different way of seeing people and organizations requires imaginative and open-minded leadership and both books make a thoughtful call to leaders to drive that change. O’Connor and Dornfeld do so by first assessing the larger backdrop of cultural shifts in business today. They cite three: the move from ‘tightly coupled hierarchies’ to ‘more loosely coupled ways of working’; ‘from autonomy and control to interdependence and collaboration’; and from leaders motivating and empowering followers to ‘lad leaders’ able to connect what motivates people, their interests and passions, to the desired change. The resulting priority for leaders is to be able to connect their own passions to those of others through a ‘command and collaborate’ style adapted to people and situations.

Madsbjerg and Rasmussen, not surprisingly, chiefly view leaders as decision makers or sensemakers. The authors also sketch out three priorities for leadership capable of thinking and acting differently. First, they must ‘care deeply about the products and services they make and the meanings that these offerings create for people.’ Next, they must possess ‘a strong perspective on their business – a perspective that stretches beyond the current time horizon and the current company boundaries.’ Lastly, they must be able to connect diverse skills within the organization ‘in order to understand the big idea, translate it into action, and maintain the operation.’ The leadership challenge, for them, is finally about pushing others to new ways of thinking that not only produce but turn on creativity and change.

As these conclusions about leadership may suggest, some of the insights and even practices proposed in The Moment You Can’t Ignore and The Moment of Clarity may seem familiar. Yet their thorough grounding in the social or human sciences and explanations of distinctive approaches to organizational and business challenges should still make both titles priority readings for creative leaders. Moving beyond generalities and buzzwords about re-framing problems, changing ways of seeing, and putting people first, both the books, particularly Madsbjerg and Rasmussen’s, offer valuable perspectives for those seeking to understand and engage business cultures and problems differently.

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