4P Model for Strategic Leadership: Process

In this BSC podcast, Salimah Samji interviews Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer in Public Policy and Leadership, Robert Wilkinson about his 4P Framework for Leadership and the second P: Process.

Listen to our podcast on the first P: Perception.

Read Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagelman.

Read Getting to Yes with Yourself: And Other Worthy Opponents by William L. Ury.

Read Wiser by Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie. 

Read Collaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems by J. Richard Hackman.


Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Building State Capability at Harvard University's podcast series. In this BSC podcast, Salimah Samji interviews Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer in Public Policy and Leadership, Professor Robert Wilkinson, about his 4P Framework for Leadership and the second P: Process. 

Salimah Samji [00:00:27] Welcome to the BSC podcast series. We are running a four part series on the 4P Model of Strategic Leadership that's been developed by Professor Rob Wilkinson. Welcome back, Rob. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:00:38] Great to be back again. Thanks. 

Salimah Samji [00:00:39] So in this podcast, we're going to talk about your second P called process and I wanted to start with you use this term 'the myth of the lone genius'. And I was wondering if you could explain to the listeners what you mean by that. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:00:54] Absolutely. It's definitely something that's a persistent idea that people have about great thinkers and great leaders. And if you want a great example of that would be someone like Thomas Edison. There's a wonderful book called Mindset by Carol Dweck, and she talks a lot about the idea that people, when they picture Thomas Edison, what do they picture him doing? Well, he's alone in a lab doing his research and experiments. And when you really look at what happened, he wasn't a loner. He was somebody who worked in teams, well-trained scientists. He had 30 assistants working around the clock to develop the light bulb, for example. And it's ironic because that's a little bit of the symbol. Now you're on your own and you get struck by this great thought. You know, the light bulb goes on. There's actually a team management exercise. Another really interesting example is Charles Darwin, a colleague of ours named Dacher Keltner at Stanford, wrote a book called The Power Paradox. One of the things he mentions is that Charles Darwin, people think of him alone in the Galapagos Islands or something doing his research. And he was out there in the field, of course, but he actually wrote fifteen hundred letters a year, about four a day to collaborators all over the world, people doing all kinds of things. You know, there were doctors and fur trappers and gardeners and there were in monasteries, there were religious leaders who happen to be in remote places and he would just exchange ideas and learn from them in a way that was not something that he would ever discover on his own. So it's rare that this single individual just shows up and has the bright idea that saves everything. It's actually group dynamics are at play in almost any leadership situation. So that's something that I start with to highlight the importance of recognizing that the second, we have groups, we now have group dynamics or process management that we have to think about. 

Salimah Samji [00:02:37] Great. So building on that. Why does process management matter? 

Rob Wilkinson [00:02:42] Yeah. Great question. Once we accept that, OK. Most of the time we have to deal with groups and teams and people. What we then have to recognize is that without any explicit engagement on how we manage the process, we tend to get suboptimal outcomes. There was a very influential thinker who is at Harvard named Richard Hackman, who looked just a team dynamics, and he did just an absolutely fascinating research study where he had a group of people put together to deal with a certain challenge they were given. They actually had one group that had experts and another group that had people really with no expertize of this particular task that they were asked to achieve. But then he created two other groups. So among the experts, there was two groups, one of which had a process intervention. They sort of gave some advice on how to manage their interactions. The other group, no process intervention. And then they had amateurs, no expertize with process intervention, one group and another group with no process intervention. So we have four groups: two experts, two without experts, two process intervention, two without process intervention. The result was kind of remarkable. The groups, without expertize, didn't do very well, unsurprisingly. And even with the process intervention didn't do all that well. Now we turn to the groups with experts in them. The first group of experts with no process intervention did significantly worse than all the other three. They were the by far the worse like way lower on the graph. And then the one that was experts with a process intervention outperformed everybody by far. So actually, experts with no process management can do much worse than experts with process management. They can do worse than amateurs if they don't manage their process very well. So it was really an eye opening kind of insight that, you know, we have to take this seriously. The idea you get the best people and you get out of their way. You hear this phrase all the time from leaders. That's really risky to just sort of say I wash my hands of it now and let them figure it out because we need good guidance on how to manage process. Otherwise, we often descend into completely unstructured, sometimes conflictual with no direction sort of debates instead of a structured process that actually gets the outcomes we want. 

Salimah Samji [00:04:51] Great. Thank you. So can you help our listeners with what works and what doesn't work when working together as a team? 

Rob Wilkinson [00:04:59] Very, very good question. Yeah, I mean, so one of the things we've learned is that there's these certain dynamics that come up in groups that are predictable problems that tend to happen when you get groups of people together trying to produce an outcome. One of the ones that many people have heard of is called Group Think. There's a very influential book came out 1972 by Irving Janis. And what he discovered was there's what he calls a desire for consensus, which takes precedence over the quality of the decision process. So it leads us to kind of want to just seek agreement because it feels like, OK, now we're getting somewhere, now we're making progress. And that kind of has some overconfidence associated with it. And so one thing to watch for is group think. A lot of people talk about the Bay of Pigs disaster in the Kennedy administration. If you read the 9/11 Commission report, they actually cite group think within the intelligence community as a major concern that led to some of the problems. So group think is a big one. There's another one is called the hidden profile problem. And what that just means is people have a lot of information and expertize and thoughts and ideas and knowledge. And if we don't explicitly manage a process to tap into that, we overlook it. And then we miss really important critical information. A third one would be herd behavior. Herd behavior, you know, we sort of without really paying attention to it, we have a tendency to look around at what other people are doing and then follow them. It's a little different than group think. Group think is we want to reach a consensus because it feels like we're making progress. This herd behavior is something very common and reflected in the world of finance, irrationality of investors. You know, these stock market bubbles form as a result of herd behavior. Interestingly, that was work done by a colleague at M.I.T. Bannerjee in 1992, and they recently won the Nobel Prize in economics last year in the work of behavioral economics. So there's a whole range of dynamics that are kind of predictable and expected that come up in these tough leadership challenges that we face. 

Salimah Samji [00:06:51] So for a leader, what can they do differently? How can they learn from all of this to change their own behavior in teams? 

Rob Wilkinson [00:06:59] I think the first step for me is almost the idea that recognizing how important process is. So just that first recognition is actually it's hard to overstate how important that is. Let me give an example. You know that we work in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative program, and a big part of that is bringing mayors and their leadership teams together and try to figure out how they can manage challenges at the city level. And Mike Bloomberg will often tell a story to the mayors about his experience when he started as mayor. And as you know, he was 12 years three term mayor in New York City. And the thing that he points out is that when you get any political job, you know, after the first hundred days in office, everybody wants to know, what did you do in your first hundred days? And he says, "You know, well, I put my team together and we decided who would have what's responsibility and how we were going to manage our decision making process." And the media said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah fine. OK. But it's 100 days. What policies did you enact? What did you achieve? What did you get done?" And he would say, "Well, I put my team in order. And then we decided who would have what roles and what our process would be." And that wasn't enough for the people. But in his mind, everything that they built afterwards would be on the foundation of that team process, decision making. And in the end, it turned out whichever political side of the spectrum you are on, a lot of people would regard him as incredibly effective in terms of achieving the task that they set out. And he says point blank, "If I hadn't set up the process early, then we would have had the outcomes we got." So that's just one example. 

Salimah Samji [00:08:27] So building on that example, what was striking to me about listening to Bloomberg that day was how he talked about everyone said he got so much done in his third term. And his response was, "It isn't that I did more in my third term. It's because of all the process I set in place in my previous two terms that you can see the fruits of everything happened in my third term." And that was really striking to me. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:08:51] That's such a great point. So that's absolutely right. And one of the implications of that is that the patience required early on to have the discipline to focus on process management creates tension, and they have to overcome that tension in order to get the results in the end. I mean, one other really striking example, I think, is George Mitchell, the U.S. Senator from Maine who was asked to oversee the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Accords. And you know it took a while. He was there for several years. But the first eight months, he knew this lesson as well. All he did was try to establish the Mitchell Principles on how they were going to go about the peace process. He didn't say we have to come up with a line here or decommissioning at this point or, you know, some majority rule in this area. That all comes later. The first thing is we have to figure out how we are going to work together, which did take a lot of patience for people. But in the end, amazingly, they did get an agreement in a place where he was saying grandmothers are walking up to him saying, you seem like a nice man, but this place has been in conflict for forever. You're never going to be able solve this. So they didn't have a lot of optimism initially, and he would look back and say, well, probably the most influential thing of getting an agreement in the end was that initial focus on process. 

Salimah Samji [00:09:59] So those examples are really great. Rob, thanks for sharing. What about for me as a leader managing a team, what some concrete things that can help me effectively manage a team? 

Rob Wilkinson [00:10:13] There is definitely some very specific and concrete tips to think about after all this research that we've been looking at. What does it mean for me concretely in front of my team? Well, a few things to think about. One is what we refer to as a self-silencing leader. So sometimes we see leaders, they go into a meeting and they have their team and they say, "OK, we've got this problem. This is what I think we should do. Does anyone have a better idea?" If they say that, guess what you've just done, you've set the whole environment up to be - well beat this. This is the best idea on the table now, which is mine beat it. 

Salimah Samji [00:10:43] No pressure.

Rob Wilkinson [00:10:45] Yeah, no kidding. You know what you've just done there? That's a process. You know, you don't think about it, but that's a process choice, actually, to say something like that. Even if you just said, "Somebody proposed this idea, which I like, but I'd like to hear other ideas as well." Well, now that you just sort of attached yourself to one idea, everyone's now going to frame whatever they say in contrast to what they already know you think about it. So a self-silencing leader could say something like, "What ideas do people have?" Just like that. Or, "I'd like to hear some ideas about how we might solve this." Now, you're already announcing that you believe there are ideas there in the group already. Right. And you just want to hear them. So you're having very different impact on the process that's going to follow by just how you frame it up. Another question is, how do we think about those people who don't tend to contribute as much, but they have valuable information to share? So another approach is called role assignment. This is all coming from this book, Wiser with Cass Sunstein. And he says, you know, sometimes people when they hear that your role has been given to you, check that the data is consistent or please critique how I'm presenting this or I want to make sure you help us understand what other organizations are doing in a similar space. Now, I have a role. I feel empowered to speak up, whereas without that role, it can be a little bit unclear whether you really want me to speak up or not. So you're signaling your seriousness about people's participation. I'll just share two final ones. A third one is priming. Priming is setting the stage for the kind of environment you want to create for that group's discussion. So they did this really interesting study where they had a game that people had to play. And the first group, they called it the Wall Street game and the second group, same game, they called it the community game. And the people with the Wall Street game were sort of primed to think a little bit more aggressively about competitiveness. Like sort of maximizing profits. And the group that played the quote unquote community game, again, the same rules were much more collaborative, even just the one word they change. So when you open up a meeting or you send out an invite or you frame up the agenda for the discussion, you're priming people, whether you like it or not, you're priming them. The message is let's be more purposeful or explicit about how we're priming them. One final one, which is very well known, and I just wanted to make sure we're clear about this, which is devil's advocate. So people say, "Let's have a devil's advocate." And they say, "Okay, you play the role, the devil's advocate." Now, here's what's interesting. And they're supposed to just kind of argue against whatever it is you're talking about. Makes sense. Not a bad idea. Trouble is, research shows it doesn't work that well. And you can kind of imagine why when you stop and think about it. You know, when people hear this person arguing against the idea you're presenting, they kind of know that they're just doing it to play the role you gave them, you know, and then maybe they don't believe in what they're saying. And, you know, it just doesn't quite work. So the different idea is called red teaming. And red teaming is basically devil's advocate, but a team and when a team is assigned that role, it picks up a life of its own and people really start to get into it. And they really get much more earnest about trying to find the flaws and the holes and the critiques in the original argument. So those are just four examples of self-silencing, role, assignment priming and red teaming. But there's lots more. 

Salimah Samji [00:13:43] Thank you, that's super helpful. So in your 4P Framework of Strategic Leadership, you have an internal and you have an external look. What would be the internal process management idea? 

Rob Wilkinson [00:13:55] Yeah, this one's a little less obvious, I think, than the other four P's when it comes to internal, because you sort of think, well, I'm one person and I know what I think about things. And so what else is there for me to do? Well, it sounds kind of strange, but even in our own minds, we do have a set of competing ideas that we have to sort through. And so one of the ways that I think it was put really well is by David Eagleman, who wrote a book called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. And what he says is that it's almost as if there is a team of individuals living inside your brain. His analogy is like the Team of Rivals book. I know it sounds strange, doesn't it? He said, you know, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote the book Team of Rivals about President Lincoln and the cabinet that he created that had competing views and brokering that cabinet, which, by the way, is process management excellence. And in your brain, he's arguing in effect, it's like there's a team of rivals. He says there's a part of your brain that's been evolved to crave sweet things in order to survive. But there's another part of our brain that's evolved to be concerned about our health and recognize problems in our health and try and change our behavior to stay healthy and stay alive. And those are competing functions in our brain. And he lists a whole range of different competing functions. So when you think about it like that, you know, you can kind of not along and say, "Yeah, you know, that's true. I am constantly wanting to do this, but also at the same time wanting to do that." And that means that we have to spend a good amount of time reflecting internally before we go into, say, for example, influencing a group of people in a team, being really clear about what the tradeoffs are of the various points that we're gonna put forward, which take some internal reflection. Another way that was, I think, captured in a fascinating framing of this was by William Ury. He coauthored a very famous negotiation book called Getting To Yes, I think a lot of people who went to business school or law school or school, they would recognize that book. Many years later, he actually wrote a book called Getting to Yes: With Yourself and Other Worthy Opponents. And the idea there is that in a way, this maybe should've been the first book he wrote because it was the precursor for getting your story straight in your mind about what it is your main interests are before you sit down at the table and start trying to convince other people. So there are some things we have to do before we act as a leader that require internal process management. And when you say internal process management, what might that be? Well, let me share one last idea from another thinker on this, Simon Sinek. He's an author and speaker on leadership, and he has some great explanations about what he calls the difference between consistency versus intensity. And so certain things in life don't work just by putting a huge amount of effort in a short period time. So he says, for example, you can go to the gym for nine hours straight and really workout hard, but you go back and you look in the mirror, you're not really going to see anything differently. So as opposed to going for a short while regularly over time, that consistency actually leads to change. The same with our thinking. If we have habits and practices and disciplines and behaviors that we integrate into the way that we reason through the kinds of goals we're trying to achieve with our teams. That's where you have internal process management, where you have a regular reflective habit of trying to think through the wide range of tradeoffs you're personally dealing with. And then when you sit down and try to engage with other people that thinking it really shows up that you've done that kind of reflection as opposed to just pushing your one idea. 

Salimah Samji [00:17:12] Thanks, Rob, for sharing the second P: Process in your Model of Strategic Leadership. In the third part of this podcast, we will talk about the third P, which is? 

Rob Wilkinson [00:17:22] It is People. 

Salimah Samji [00:17:24] Wonderful. We look forward to that. And thank you very much, Rob. 

Rob Wilkinson [00:17:27] So nice to be with you again. Thank you. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:17:31] To learn more about Building State Capability, visit www.bsc.cid.harvard.edu Thank you for listening.