IATEFL 2012 Opening Plenary: Adrian Underhill on “Mess and Progress”

IATEFL 2012 Opening Plenary: Adrian Underhill

Mess and Progress

On Tuesday 20th March 2012, Adrian Underhill opened the main conference with his plenary speech on Mess and Progress, putting forward the case for engaging systemic thinking and leaving behind heroic leadership.

What is the difference between difficulty and mess? Underhill suggested that the differences lie in the scale and uncertainty:

A difficulty is fairly clear cut and definable. It can be explained and labelled. It is probably solvable with current thinking. We may know what the answer will look like. A mess, on the other hand, is extensive, knows no boundaries, is uncertain and ambiguous. There is no single correct view of it. It resists change. Everything is interconnected so it is hard to know where to start or what the concern really is. There is no tidy fix within current thinking.

Underhill went on to contrast traditional and systemic thinking: The traditional view entails ‘things’ being considered as primary and relationships as secondary. Conversely, systems thinking ranks relationships as primary and things as secondary. Systemic thinking has developed over the past 50 years to make full patterns clearer, to see connections and relationships rather than isolated entities in a bid to see how to bring about effective change.

He explained that there is a tension between controlling and connecting. Our default preference is control however, while control may work with difficulty, it cannot work with mess.

Having established this premise, Underhill went on to discuss traditional leadership and its deficiencies.

New leadership is closer to teaching than traditional leadership. It is time for everyone to take responsibility for their influence. Until recently, the tendency has been towards hierarchical set-ups, also known as heroic leadership. This is changing, though that may not be apparent in the media. This change is obligatory because hierarchical leadership is not smart enough to handle today’s complexity, where you need intelligence dispersed throughout the system not just at the top.

Today’s leaders must

  • make decisions based on incomplete data
  • accept that cause and effect are disconnected, which makes it hard to learn from experience: there are layers of outcomes, we do not know what is due to what.)
  • face unintended consequences: each solution has an impact beyond what is expected.
  • serve people not themselves: people demand this, something that is also seen in the classrooms of today.
  • have self-knowledge and personal maturity

Heroic leadership cannot cope with all of this. Underhill shared a quote from Wheatley that summarises this: “The great thing is to realise that leaders’ work is essentially very different from the past”. (This, then, is presumably why leadership has had to develop accordingly.)

Underhill then moved on to considering post-heroic leadership:

In this model of leadership, instead of looking at a person, we look at activity. Then leadership can come from anywhere in the system e.g. teachers and parents as well as the head teacher. Perhaps there has been a paradigm shift from influencing the community to follow a leader’s vision to influencing the community to face its problems.

Will things fall apart with less hierarchical control? No, because values, meaning and purpose hold things together. When people are aligned to their purpose, when the gap between values and behaviour closes, what people experience is a stream of ease. A leader’s job is to help purpose and values line up. Peoples’ commitment can be developed by aligning with their values. This typifies a healthy organisation. If we engage systems thinking, then we do not damage one thing while trying to develop another: dynamic connectivity. This sort of connectivity cannot come from heroic leadership.

Systems thinking, i.e. thinking outside of the box, is not currently the norm. Underhill quoted Amanda Sinclair on this issue as follows: “we don’t discuss alternatives to heroic leadership because male heroic leadership archetype is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it has become invisible.”

Underhill continued by expanding on learning at organisational and individual level:

He suggested that there is much intelligence in schools but that it is not flowing. It is not allowing relationships to be created that would enable things to be done as fully as they could be. What is needed is, essentially, acupuncture (!), because disconnected humans do not yield human capital.

On the other hand, in a learning organisation, where the intelligence is flowing, the learning of all its members is facilitated and continuously developed. Individual learning can be wasted unless harnessed at organisational level. A company that does a lot of training is, however, not necessarily a smart organisation, as training can still result in an organisation full of smart individuals who are not connected, which does not make a smart organisation. Learning is a leaderly activity: leaders can lead through their learning. Systemic thinking requires slow learning, which is an attitude and outlook that allow different ways of knowing.

Underhill concluded that it is exhausting to maintain the pretence that messes are difficulties. We need to develop a new learning mantra. We need to see what is going on, as well as the impacts and results and the distractions interrupting the sight. Then we need to do something different, prod the system and find out a bit more about how it works. This can be done by doing what we do not usually do and refraining from blindly doing what we would usually do OR by doing what we usually do but watching it more carefully. Finally we need to learn from it and gain insights which should be taken and tested in what we do next. All of this is the key to thinking systemically.

In addition, you need to know your point of view but check out all the other points of view in the room too, as a matter of course. You need to thus depend on diversity. You need to give up on certainty, be uncertain and give up trying to be right. You need to look for unintended consequences. Look sideways at any simple action and you can float outside the box. You need to bother less about control and focus on connecting with others instead. It’s more interesting! You need to start conversations and see the whole school as an adventure park for learning. Hassle is part of learning: make plans but do not expect them to work out.

Adrian Underhill closed by reminding us that it is fun, inspiring and urgent to explore and that doing something different is an important method of enquiry, which should be fun. After a rousing rendition of reflective practice blues, he encouraged us to try out something different every day.

My reflections:

The world is a chaotic place, so systemic thinking seems, to me, to be a logical means of progression. Furthermore, such an approach is empowering to the individual. We are all capable of contributing through nurturing an enquiring mind and engaging with the diversity that all of our views and ideas embody.

I think the world of #eltchat and blogging is a fine example of systemic thinking, connectivity and expanding on learning. We lead each other forwards by sharing our own ideas and reflecting on those of our PLN, which in turn influence our own. The ELT world progresses, develops, and we are all part of that process. The intelligence is undoubtedly flowing and we all benefit from it as we try new things, inspired by what we read and discuss.

The challenge is to replicate this systemic thinking in our workplaces, embrace the mess and derive progress from it!

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One thought on “IATEFL 2012 Opening Plenary: Adrian Underhill on “Mess and Progress”

  1. Pingback: Mess and Progress – Adrian Underhill | Brent's Blog

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