posted 9 Apr 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 6
The profile: Arthur Shelley
The man behind The Organizational Zoo and Intelligent Answers is well-known for his innovative workshops on capability development and people management. Arthur Shelley chats to IK about his globe-trotting career and personal drivers.
Inside Knowledge (IK): As a qualified research microbiologist, what led to you pursuing a (very successful) change in career direction?
Arthur Shelley (AS): I’ve always been of the mindset that it is not the content that you know that is important, it is how you apply what you know to the situation at hand to create value and improve the circumstances. From this perspective, I have been doing the same thing in a variety of roles. I started as a research microbiologist, then a consultant, then the manager of laboratories, and then a quality manager. This led to project management in the international arena and eventually becoming involved in process design and IT systems to support transformational changes. In all of these areas, the basic approach of analysing the situation and opportunities, determining knowledge gaps, and creating or obtaining new knowledge to deliver improvement has remained a trusted and proven modus operandi.
So, despite the appearance of a diverse career, I would argue I have always been a type of ‘knowledge manager’ – it’s just that the term was not in general use in my early career. I believe that an eclectic background is a big part of this success, as it encourages you to keep an open mind and forces continuous learning.
IK: Perhaps you could take us through the ‘headlines’ of your career so far. You graduated with a BSc in Microbiology, then took a parttime MSc in Science… what next?
AS: I ran an analytical services and problem-solving consultancy, before being employed by Cadbury Schweppes
In the 90s, my role evolved into quality manager, and then I worked on Cadbury’s green-field business in
Once the Cadbury business model implementation project was established, I moved into a strategic knowledge role. This newly-created position required the establishment of processes and a supporting system for Cadbury’s global formulations, ingredient and packaging database. Later it involved the building of communities of practice for the scientific employees, who were spread across 34 countries and six continents.
After 17 years, it was time to develop a succession plan to hand over my role to someone else. The leaders agreed to provide me with a person to mentor into my role, which created a smooth transition and continued programme success. Even though there was a major restructure soon after my departure, Nancy Kinder continues to support the global knowledge programme and we chat regularly.
IK: And now you run the Intelligent Answers consultancy. That's quite a journey – who has inspired you along the way?
AS: It’s interesting that you tend to find relevant sources at the right time, if you look – and it’s useful to find people who reinforce your own views, as well as some who have divergent approaches to challenge thinking and actions.
I learnt to write from Dr Hilton Deeth, my masters thesis supervisor in the early 1980s. In my early career, I was able to open my mind with the work of Steven Covey, enhance my belief in continuous improvement with Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran, and I learnt how to apply some of these new theories through the work of Ken Blanchard, Peter Senge, Edward de Bono, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe.
It was only relatively recently (once I migrated from the science and quality fields) that I discovered a whole range of other interesting literature on what I learnt was emerging under the banner of ‘knowledge management’. Interestingly, by this time I found that building relationships with these people was now easier through both my international travel and evolving technology. Many were accessible through e-mail and online forums.
Those who have affected my thinking about knowledge and how it is applied most in recent times are Dave Snowden, Thomas Stewart, Richard Hamer, Daniel Goleman, Stephen Denning, David Gurteen, Patrick Lamb, Arie de Geus, Shawn Callahan, Dorothy Leonard and Rob Cross. Their approaches have reinforced my own experiences and observations – I now understand the criticality of the human factors when trying to make a difference. This triggered me to expand my capabilities and understanding in the soft-skills areas and explore subjects such as complexity, narrative, emotional intelligence, social capital, leadership-capability development, knowledge strategy and network analysis. Ultimately each author has added another piece to the foundation of my personal knowledge.
IK: In the past you’ve talked about the importance of passion in successful KM – watching others pass on something you’ve taught them to their colleagues, with the same commitment to the cause…?
AS: It’s absolutely essential. You can’t expect to motivate others if you don’t demonstrate that you care about the topic yourself and you can’t claim to be a leader if you don’t have willing followers. It is your demonstrated passion and commitment to your quest that inspires others to follow you and join a team – which, together, builds something worthwhile and that makes a difference. Without passion, there are no followers; without followers there is no success; and without success there is no knowledge programme.
IK: What’s your biggest passion?
AS: Developing others to become more capable and watching, or helping them to, succeed. There is a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that you have contributed to the ability of another person to make a positive difference.
IK: With that in mind, when did you start linking people’s behaviour to the animal world, which was the inspiration for The Organizational Zoo?
AS: I’ve been interested in animal behaviour most of my life. As a student, I watched David Attenborough documentaries and read a range of literature in this area. My university studies reinforced this interest, as did my observations of how humans in workplaces were somewhat similar in how they interacted with each other – who was prey, who was predator, and how some managed to remain out of sight. I first decided to write the book in about 2002, when I was having a particularly difficult time with a key project that was going off the rails. It is in such situations that you truly come to understand just how predatory a workplace can be and how we can revert to animal-like behaviour when the pressure is on.
IK: We’ve had great fun deciding which character we can most relate to. What animal are you?
AS: The trick is not to put yourself in one box, but to understand when to apply the right behaviour in each situation. Successful people know when to be each animal and how to ensure that they apply this in that environment to achieve the outcomes they desire. This does not mean compromising your values, it means behaving appropriately and professionally through them. One person might predominantly be a lion at work, but a sloth at home. Equally, a successful person has the ability to be a lion when they need to regain control of a difficult situation and only moments later switch back into owl or eagle mode to move ahead and inspire others to follow them towards an opportunity or solution.
Personally, I can role play any of the animals as I absolutely understand them all. Of course, I’m more comfortable with some behaviours than others, and there are a few that I would never apply in a professional environment (but some people do). The ones I most identify with are the owl (eternal mentor), the yucca moth (insect, beneficial or trusted adviser) and the gibbon, which I often need to be in order to generate a fun and engaging environment in my workshops.
IK: How have you embedded this theory into your change and project management leadership?
AS: Considering the behavioural traits of others before engaging with them is always a good investment and will increase your ability to influence them positively, and therefore, the probability of achieving the change you are seeking. The advantage of the Zoo metaphors is that they can be done quickly, simply and at no cost, without compromising the quality of outcomes. I have applied this to relationship building, communication, stakeholders engagement and team structures to good effect.
IK: What advice would you give to someone looking to implement change in a ‘negative zoo’ organisation?
AS: When you have diversity of behaviours and a balanced ecosystem you get more productive outcomes. As I mentioned earlier, it is about expressing the right animals in the relevant roles and situations. This is true for both individuals and the organisation as a whole.
Passion, persistence and a thick skin all help. Specific tactics and strategy depend on the situation driving the negativity. Dealing with dispassionate disengaged people (imbalance towards nematodes, sloths, piranha and felines) can be just as hard as turning around aggressive negativity (over-abundance of lions and vultures). I’ve found it’s best to find a few like-minded people and create success with these, then highlight the benefits of what the more appropriate and balanced behaviours can create. Starting with those easiest to engage enables you to create some early benefits with minimal resources. Communicating these successes draws others in and slowly creates a ground swell of success. It is not possible to force people to participate, but this approach enables you to move from a push to a pull strategy.
IK: There must be times when this is a real challenge – does anything spring to mind?
AS: Dealing with people who need your help, but don’t want it. It’s hard to come to terms with the situation where you know that your inputs will make a positive contribution, but you are prevented from being able to help. To some degree this lesson also applies as your children develop. Trying to tell them everything they need to know or force a path deprives them of learning from experience. However, allowing them to make mistakes you (theoretically) could have prevented is also hard to do. There is a balance between telling and providing advice that will guide them through a smoother path as they transition through the phases of their own life and career.
IK: What else has been taking up your time since leaving Cadbury in 2007?
AS: I jokingly stated that I ‘retired’ when I left Cadbury after 18 years. My eldest daughter quipped that this means I moved from working 70 hours per week to 40, which may be closer to the truth than I am prepared to admit to myself. The key difference is my focus has changed from internal benefits creation to those in the wider community. This is why I accepted the opportunity to return to teaching when it opened up. For me, it is easier to change the world in a bigger way by influencing how a significant number of postgraduate students think and act when they join the workforce (and hopefully apply what you have taught them), than to influence through blogs, speaking, writing and other interaction with those who are already more set in their mindsets (although it is important to act in this area as well).
IK: And what’s in the pipeline?
AS: I want to continue to add more back to the community than I had been able to previously. I intend to be more active in online knowledge-sharing networks and through the Melbourne Knowledge Management Leadership Forum. I’m also building a ‘Zoo Ambassadors Network’, a free network where practitioners who are using the Zoo metaphor methods are able to share their experiences and successes with these techniques to enhance relationships. I am mentoring a number of students with their early career development as well as remaining involved with coaching my two daughters as they embark on their own tertiary education and early career journey.
The Organizational Zoo was always designed to be a trilogy, so I have to come back to parts two and three sometime soon. I need to complete my PhD and I have been toying with the idea of completing an MBA as well (since I am teaching in the programme and learning is fun). I have always operated from a five-year personal development plan, so this is about as much as I can fit in along with the continuation of my consulting, coaching and speaking.
Arthur Shelley is the founder of Intelligent Answers and author of The Organizational Zoo, A Survival Guide to Workplace Behavior. For more information visit www.organizationalzoo.com
He has also recently written Being a Successful Knowledge Leader: What Practitioners Need to Know to Make a Difference. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Arthur Shelley
Place of birth:
Education: Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, currently PhD candidate.
Employment history: Research science, consulting, Cadbury Schweppes (18 years), Intelligent Answers (own consultancy business) and RMIT University Graduate School of Business (MBA programme).
Personal strengths: Adaptability, collaborative, approachable, open leadership style.
Must improve: Administration activities – boring, these are best outsourced
Biggest inspiration: My children and what the next generation can do that we could not – the ultimate continuous improvement?
What I do to relax:
Favourite film: ‘Dead Poet’s Society’
Must reads: Richard Hamer’s The Five Literacies of Global Leadership and The Assault on Reason by Al Gore.