Make the complicated simple

Many years ago I went to the Emmanuel College, Cambridge University May Ball. I had been invited by a friend from school who took a degree course there. I hasten to add it was only the May Ball I went to – that’s as close as I got to Cambridge University!

I hadn’t done particularly well at the Grammar School we were both at, and so I went with the view that I would meet with lots of people who I would struggle to engage with, and that I would know far less than them in all meaningful areas.

Nevertheless, I had agreed to meet my friend Steve a couple of days before the May Ball in order to spend some time with him, see a little of Cambridge and meet his friends – including my partner for the event as I not met her previously. When I arrived, he duly took me to meet one of his friends. I can’t remember the friend’s name, or much else about the meeting, other than when we went into his room he was there with his bicycle. The bicycle was upside down and the friend was scratching his head. He greeted us and then outlined his problem by saying, “I’ve got a slow puncture and need to mend it, but I can’t find out how to get the rest of the air out of the inner-tube.” I was amazed. One of the greatest young brains in the UK and he didn’t know how to get the air out.

I often think back to that experience. I think it was the point when I realised that there was a difference between knowledge and skills, and it was a reminder of how dangerous and unproductive it is to assume what people might know.

I was reminded of it again last week. I was working with some senior leaders and we were discussing leadership theories, models and practices. I decided to use John Adair’s Action Centred Leadership Model and asked who had heard of it and could explain it to me and the others present. None of the three people present had heard of it. I was astonished.  I (wrongly) thought that it was the sort of ‘foundation’ leadership theory that every leader knows about. And the reason why I haven’t blogged about it previously is because I assumed that it was too well known to be worth it. Perhaps I was wrong?

Some people also refer to it as the “I, We, It” theory, and others as the “Team, Task, Individual” theory. This is because of the naming of the three overlapping or interlocking circles (see the diagram above):

  • It / Task – the completion of the task, achieving the task
  • We / Team – the creation, sustaining and motivating of the team to ensure it works effectively
  • I / Individual – the individual development of members of the team

Adair’s view was that all three of these aspects are required to successfully lead (and manage) given situations. They are overlapping circles as each supports the others.

I personally see it as a foundation theory as it’s one of those that can be used in any situation – and if something isn’t going quite right, or things aren’t running as smoothly as perhaps the leader thinks they should be, it’s a great one to check against as to how they are leading. When doing this, it’s often possible to recognise that a leader is directing, conducting or encouraging more activity in one or two of the circles, to the exclusion of the other(s) – and there can lie the reason for things not being on track. In visual terms, one or two of the circles become disproportionately large in comparison to the other(s).

Whilst the theory is relatively new – having been developed and publicised in the 1960s – some people now see it as being too simplistic. This is not a view that I share – I think that there lies its strength and power. Leadership shouldn’t be seen as complicated as it really isn’t – if leaders make it overcomplicated, people will not follow. Simplicity is the beauty of this model, which then makes me wonder why it took until the 1960s for someone to come up with it!  Perhaps Charles Mingus had the answer when he said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creative”.

If you want more detail on the theory, there’s some useful guidance and assistance at Businessballs.

What the best Leadership Theory or Model that you have been introduced to, and what makes it so effective?


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