The Several Habits of The Red Squirrel Who Ate My Cheese


A plea for simplicity from those who have been exposed to one too many team and leadership models.

As a leader, do you follow the way of the Goose, or the way of the Mongoose? Have you ever been perplexed by the synergistics circumplex? Do you have a predominantly red or yellow brain? Who hid your cheese? Are you a high D, or even an ENTJ? Would you like to hear the wisdom of the Red Squirrel?

In the course of our work with clients worldwide we are hearing from people that they are overwhelmed by too many models, books and profiles that they won't actually use at work.

The overload appears to be spawning more skeptics of learning and development in general amongst even the best managers. This can water down the ability of the truly effective models to get the attention that they deserve when real real solutions are required.

Whilst decent story telling and robust psychometrics are powerful in their proper context, we feel that there are too many “bell and whistle” models taking up space presently. A new one pops up every week it seems.

Apart from clogging up the web, bookshelves and workshops it also muddies the waters for those seeking practical approaches that will actually work. Occasionally a new gem of wisdom does arise, and new discoveries should be made welcome when they work, but there are regrettably a lot of fads around at present.

Jokes aside, if we wrote a convincing enough tome and model based upon the wisdom of our satirical mate the Red Squirrel (complete with exciting graphs, and tools to self score your inner “Squirrelness”), it might actually sell well in the current frenzy of new models and books. We are tempted to write a comedic parody, but the adverse impacts of too many new models upon the credibility of development and L&D is actually no laughing matter.

We regularly hear from managers who feel that they have to pay lip service to such models and books at company retreats, often nudging them towards skepticism of profiles and models in general.

Many say they are also reticent to openly speak their mind at such forums. To openly critique a supposed revelation can mean being branded “that person” by the proselytising host senior manager who has been bitten hard by the latest book or model.

Perhaps “that person” is being genuinely obstructive to new ideas on some occasions, but they may also be indicative of a silent majority feeling imposed upon by “yet another model” that will be dropped in 6 months anyway.

Upon returning to work they may even engage with their peers to lampoon the new model and its revelations, before getting on with things as usual, for better or for worse.

If we are honest, we’ve met some these folks at workshops, or even been one of them ourselves. We speak to such clients regularly, and that’s a sad indictment for the lack of uptake that most models will have in the real world once the bells and whistles have fallen off.

Managers and leaders crave simple tools that work, and can become skeptical of not just the fad models, but sadly also about the use models in general, even the good ones.

Perhaps I’m a little too skeptical myself?

This may be due to my first serious exposure to leadership and team development being within a military environment. It was here that a model had to be genuinely “tried and proven” before being presented to those trained to lead others. Bells, whistles, pretty graphs and marketing spin didn’t matter, what mattered most was “does this actually work in the real world?”

Amongst the more reliable models referenced in the Australian Army Leadership manual are those from the likes of John Adair and Meredith Belbin. These two (in my humble opinion), are amongst a minority deserving of a reputation for working where the “rubber hits the road”.

We strongly favour Belbin when working with our clients. It has the intellectual robustness and research to underpin it, yet also an “elegance of simplicity” that enables it to be reliably used back at work.

Approaches that translate to the real world, should be intellectually robust, but need not be rocket science. So why must consultants and creators of new models persist in unnecessarily complicating matters in business? It helps sell books I guess?

Now before you think “there speaks an anti-intellectual”, I can assure you that this is not the case.

I believe that pure academia has a crucial role to play in research, I’m just concerned that busy people are being confused with ever more complex diagrams, concepts and models that have no real hope of being used at the coal face.

Choosing models, profiling tools and books for your people naturally demands great care to ensure that a model’s credibility warrants the time and expense.

For experienced leaders, it can be perplexing as to why there are so many different ways for people to re package, re market and then sell back to them common sense. Perhaps it’s akin to that disparaging adage so often aimed at consultants of “stealing your watch to tell you the time”?

So, how do you pick the best model from amongst the thousands now chasing the management training and L&D dollar?

I like to compare it with the search for habitable planets orbiting a distant sun.

Here scientists will use the “Goldilocks” analogy, which helps describe optimal orbital placement of a planet from a host sun for sustaining life in terms of being “not too close, not too far away, but just right”.

I feel that there is also a “Goldilocks Principle” for selecting a good model for leaders and teams. For optimal results it’s often best to pick the one that’s not too simple, not too complex but “just right”.

This is why we continue to be great advocates for “just right” models like the Belbin Model. Here we find that credibility and academic underpinning does not need to undermine ease of understanding and use-ability for ‘real people”.

In the field of neuroscience experts are also making exciting advances in tracking the underlying ‘whys and wherefores’ of human behavior and why a model may or may not work in practice. We are fortunate enough to work with some great professionals from an organization called “Neuropower” who are leading the push in this field.

Current insights from neuroscience will often serve to invalidate some models whilst confirming the validity of others. Belbin is amongst those that “makes the cut” as a tool that explores and measures actual workplace behavior.

Elegant simplicity should be the aim of any model that you intend to actually use and then obtain results from at work ongoing. If people understand it, then they will talk about it, use it and spread its benefits like a “positive virus”.

Complex new models, or re-hashed versions of older ones can just become a burden to busy people and thus fall rapidly by the wayside. They can even cause more harm than good on the way out the door, making it harder to use a tool or model next time as people become accustomed to models coming and going.

Complexity is not our friend when trying to embed tools with real working teams.

As Sir Richard Branson said: “Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to make something simple.” That’s why the effective models are quite rare.

Many different models can of course find their place in L&D and management, I’m just arguing that some of the more complex models at one end of the spectrum, and the childishly simplistic ones at the other, may have little real place in business. Adding tools to the toolbox is fine, but where does it end?

In my humble opinion real leaders and teams don’t need more complexity, or children’s tales, they simply require tools that will work well “at work”.

An astute observer of the human and organizational condition (as a good leader should be) may intuitively know what makes them and their team tick, but a “good” model can help provide all with a common language for openly exploring how to make things even better.

Please consider whether your people will actually recall and use a model back at work. If they don’t, then you may have a very tough time convincing them to trust another model or profiling tool again, no matter how badly they may need it down the track.

It pays to choose and use your tools carefully, not just for the results they should deliver in the short, medium and long terms but also for the overarching credibility of the learning and development process itself.

You can of course try our patented "Red Squirrel 300 Question Self Scored Test" to plot your "Inner Squirrel" upon the complex "Chestnuts of Life" graph, but is it worth the time and money?

Our advice, use a proven, reliable and practical model (like Belbin) that your people will actually understand and then make constructive use of at work.

Talan Miller

Managing Director

Sabre Corporate Development

Talan is founder and MD of Sabre, and has been designing and delivering team and leadership development programmes for major corporate, government, defence, NGO and sports clients internationally since 1988.

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