LeadershipNexus.com Interview - Thoughts on Square Wheels and Leadership

Scott J. Simmerman, Ph.D., managing partner of Taylors, S.C.-based Performance Management Co., has 22 years of training and consulting experience and a doctorate in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His presentations focus on topics such as leadership, motivation, change, team building, creativity and innovation.

Known for his low-key approach and his sense of humor, Dr. Simmerman gets audiences directly involved by making frequent use of interactive games and simulations. He is the creator of "Square Wheels®," a series of illustrations designed to improve performance and change how people think about communications and leadership, and "The Search for The Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine," a simulation that focuses on collaboration, team building, leadership and motivation.

In the discussion below, Scott speaks with Joel Groover and LeadershipNexus.com about his leadership philosophy and teaching approach.


Q: You’ve had a wide variety of experiences with people and organizations worldwide. And feedback indicates some very positive reactions to your thinking about how organizations work and what improvements can be made. Can you share a brief explanation of your model?

Joel, first of all, I really like Deming’s framework: "All models are wrong; some models are useful." More than anything else, I am interested in usefulness and practicality. My approach is to share a very simple and general set of tools to help in understanding organizational behavior.

I generally start by presenting Square Wheels One as, "a model of how most organizations really work" and soliciting the groups’ reactions about what they see and think. (shown below)

© 1993, Performance Management Company. Square Wheels® is a registered servicemark of Performance Management Company.

In this cartoon, the leader pulls the wagon forward with a rope, an efficient way to pull. It also offers good clarity of vision about the journey forward. But the rope also insulates and isolates the puller from the wagon. Note that changing directions is also difficult.

The wagon itself is also okay, capable of handling the task at hand. And the Square Wheels do work, although there are some obvious improvements possible.

The people at the back, who are effectively pushing, have a limited view of where they are going. But the nature of the job, including the wagon, and the rope, and the need to push and pull will make communications difficult.

By using this illustration, we can engage people in tabletop discussions about common themes in their organization and can link their thoughts from the illustration to reality. The critical message is pretty simple,

"Don’t Just DO Something, Stand There."

Take the time to stop pulling the wagon and go find some round wheels!


Q: In Square Wheels, you note that communications between leadership and support people often can be improved. Do you have any specific tips on helping leaders communicate more effectively?

One thought is that leadership needs to understand the need to keep perspective on the journey. One of the things leaders must do is take the time to stop pulling the wagon and go find some round wheels! Generally, they are already in the wagon.

It is my experience that the wagon pushers know more about the thumps and bumps of what is going on and what is not working smoothly. But they need to have the puller’s perspective and support in order to start discussing the round wheel possibilities. There are always better ways of doing things and they need to be considered.

And from a motivational standpoint, it makes sense to get people involved in implementing these best practices, since we then begin to do things with them rather than to them.

By asking "What are the Square Wheels?" leaders can generate involvement, gain support for change and start a process of continuous continuous
* improvement; after all, the Round Wheels of today will surely be the Square Wheels of tomorrow.

* from the Department of Redundancy Department

Most front line workers understand that many managers do not have a real understanding of what the workers do and what it takes to get the job done right. This illustration provides a simple tool for communications about the issues and opportunities in the workplace and builds connections between pushers and pullers. It can also generate the sense that someone is listening to them.

The other thing it accomplishes is that it closes the gap between the beautiful view of the journey at the front and the reality of the view at the back (boards and hands!). If people have a better sense of the journey, it is logical to expect them to be more motivated.

So, those are some of the links between the illustrations and the themes of communications within an organization.


Q: Another Square Wheels theme is that most systems and processes do not operate at maximum efficiency, and that bumps along the road are to be expected. Many leaders are, by their very nature, perfectionists. Is it possible to balance a desire to make things perfect with a more pragmatic approach?

Things generally don’t work smoothly and there are bumps in the road. It is how we handle reality, I guess.

One paradox of leadership is that the current expectations and goals are often based on Square Wheels. The goals are set based on an imperfect set of systems and processes (just ask the customers and the front line workers!). Thus perfection is an attempt to make a marginal situation perfect. And the challenge is that increasingly difficult goals are often met by working harder and reflecting less. This results in less time available to make improvements!

I think this is one of the reasons that so many people in so many organizations are frustrated. The isolation of leadership makes them less aware of the realities and the pushers wonder why no one seems interested in making things better. The further up one goes in the organization, the longer the rope.

If one considers that the round wheels are already being used by the exemplary performers -- in other words, the proven ideas already exist in the organization -- then the solutions are less a matter of invention and more a matter of communications and implementation. This is the criticality of my leadership model, taking the time to stop pushing and pulling and reflect on reality and opportunities.

Again, I do not think that this model is perfect, but there are plenty of round wheels right at hand in most of the organizations I have visited over the past 22 years. The workers know what needs improvement and often develop workarounds in many cases. It’s also why an outsider or new employee can see things that the management team might have missed...

Saying that leaders are perfectionists misses the key point, to some degree. Leaders want things to work smoothly, of course. But they ARE isolated from the "hands on reality." I find that leaders suffer from the problem that they THINK that they know how things work. And since the rope isolates them a good bit, it makes it hard for them to "get a grip."

From a slightly different angle, consider that:

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world."

The world is full of Square Wheels. And I keep trying to identify them in my business and I keep looking for Round Wheels to implement. Problems are a natural part of any business. Focusing on the system and processes is much more productive than blaming people. Deming, Peters and a number of other people have continually and elegantly pointed this out.

It is the wagon pushers, I think, that have the vast majority of the knowledge about what needs fixing and what is not working well. The challenge is to give them more of an understanding of the mechanics of the journey itself. They don’t always see the big picture...


Q: As opposed to merely making a speech, you strive to involve your audiences and make your workshops interactive. How does getting audiences involved in this way help convey the message?

Excellent question. One of my basic beliefs in human nature is that "Nobody ever washes a rental car." People need a sense of ownership in order to take care of things. I try to make this point by doing it in my sessions.

Now I know that "Nobody" really isn’t an absolute. But it is a common observation. And I think that any presentation must involve VAK in order for it to be remembered. V for Visual, A for Auditory and K for kinesthetic. So, I try to engage all the senses and give participants a stake in the outcomes.

I’m not sure about the readers, but how many sessions have you ever attended (school and professional) and how many do you remember? I thought about that one day a decade ago and the answer was pitiful.

Then, I thought about those I did remember and what things they had in common. In almost every case, I was somehow actively involved and there were memorable visible images and metaphors. Often, I participated in an activity as opposed to being lectured to. So, I try to do that with every presentation I do, even if it’s only a 15 minute program -- I don’t make speeches!

And let me take this ownership theme a step further and illustrate with a cartoon. I think that most programs fail for a simple reason that I illustrate below:

Most programs fail when leaders feel the pressure at their backs and they resist the pressure. This most often occurs when the wagons start rolling downhill faster than before, when a team of people reinvent how things get done. Because most managers are passive participants, they find that the rope goes slack and the old management strategies don’t work anymore. Thus the pressure.

It makes sense to do things WITH people, rather than TO them. And I encourage the managers in my sessions to do the same things with their people so I give them the main cartoon for free, and all the help I can personally provide.

I’m trying to change things one wheel at a time, I guess. And in a memorable way.


Q: Another of your themes is that different individuals bring different perspectives to the organization -- including resistance that can hinder progress. Do you have any tips for contemporary leaders who want to get the most from their team?

A:

There are always differences in perceptions and this is the source of a good bit of innovation and creativity. But I am not a big believer in resistance. Resistance more often occurs when things are being done TO people rather than WITH them.

My suggestion is to get people involved, give them perspective and support, help them with roadblocks, and encourage them to make as many improvements as they can in addition to focusing on their own personal improvement.

Teamwork is something that builds up over time. It’s built on trust. And trust is the residue of promises fulfilled.

Resistance is the result of pressure. Continuous pressure causes defense, and this makes it even harder to make change occur because people tend to defend positions.


Q: Could you summarize your approach to continuous improvement and the roles that you think leaders should play in that process?

Gosh, haven’t we been covering that?

I use the phrase continuous continuous improvement in the recognition that many people think that they have already completed their initial continuous improvement project. And note the past tense of this. In my thinking, round wheels will become square and it is critical that we recognize that reality.

It’s like the thought that "we just completed a change program." The only reality these days is that change is continuous, thus it is never completed and always ongoing. So we need to restructure organizations into teams focused on the definition of new possibilities and continuous process improvement.

I find that the resistance is more often IN the leadership roles. From a mid-manager’s perspective, once I am meeting my goals, why would I want to change the measurement system? It’s a reality. Ego and fear get in the way, as does success. It’s another of those paradoxes. Remember that many people in the middle of an organization were promoted for successfully implementing a round wheel -- and that many of these may be a bit square at the moment.

Again, we need to make sure that people at all levels of the organization feel ownership and see a positive stake in the outcome of continuous improvement.


Q: As you travel and speak, what are some of the common challenges that today's leaders ask you to help them with?

One of the questions that is often asked of me goes something like this: "How can I empower my people to get more done?"

This relates to a lot of my normal presentation content and is a good question. And my response generally results in a laugh and then some consideration.

I don’t think we can empower anyone except ourselves. And while the concept of giving people power is generally good, it is often not a reality in the workplace as we discussed in regards as to why programs fail.

I think managers need to focus on something that they CAN do -- I call it
"Dis-Un-Empowerment."

See Dis-Un-Empowerment and Roadblocks / Dis-Un-Empowerment


Most average workers are un-empowered. They have a variety of things that get in the way of them doing what they could do. Paradoxically, the top performers in the same workplace are not un-empowered and know how to manage around the roadblocks (actual and mental) and know how to get things done.

So, one of the things that managers can do differently is work to share these best practices, which are often little things and mental models as much as dramatic new solutions.

There is so much performance improvement available in the average workplace. People CAN get so much more done if they are involved in the improvements and feel like their efforts are recognized. And most of the survey results would lend support to the concept that workers are generally frustrated with the way things are now.


Q: How many presentations do you give in a particular month, and what are some of the programs you offer? In addition, what are some of the materials that you have available for purchase on your Web site?

My main focus over the past ten years has been to move away from doing a lot of workshops to packaging and marketing useful materials that people can pick up and use. Most of the presentations I do these days are on teambuilding or focused on managing and leading change.

The good news is that the leadership understands my goal of training managers as facilitators -- they let me build that simple piece in as part of the design. We then have the expectation that at least some of the managers will go away and actually deliver a simple Square Wheels session with their people.

Thus, my interactive presentation will at least have some impact and not simply be another in a continuing series of interesting speeches.

The bad news is that more organizations tend to rely on trainers to do the development and do not share the view of "managers as facilitators." In my view, this looks something like this:

where we are focused on building strengths and human resources, but generates a result that looks like this:

Granted that this is a bit of a joke, but the reality is that it is hard for even the best trainers to have much real impact on the workplace, especially the systems and processes.

My business is basically selling our Square Wheels toolkits (bundles of illustrations, guides and worksheets) as well as our team building simulations, of which there are many. We are doing some customization of products for end-users, as well as some eLearning development using our illustrations, and a fair number of large group presentations.

I like to present, but I also want these sessions to be remembered, so they are generally pretty interactive.

Joel, thanks for letting me share these ideas. I hope that your readership finds them to be of interest.

--

For the FUN of It!

Scott Simmerman, Ph.D.

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