Fish-bone diagrams and leadership

The following was part of a dialogue with a colleague regarding
leadership influence in an organization, problem-solving, and my
thoughts on my approach to leadership from 2007. The response uses
several concepts from books we were discussing regarding strategy,
change, and leadership to highlight one approach to leading change and
facilitating innovation. The references are listed at the bottom of this

As I was reading through the texts and from
the perspective of leadership and decision-making, I came across Geoff
Coyle’s book, Practical Strategy: Structured tools and techniques, and
the use of fish-bone diagrams, originally developed by Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa,
a Japanese quality control statistician. The diagram is useful for
understanding what is going on with a particular problem, process, or
activity by involving people from around the organization to participate
in the analysis. The process is beneficial to understand why problems
arise and how they might be addressed.

I raise this to say that
we don’t necessarily have to go outside of an organization to find new
ideas or learn. When leadership influences teams to critically think
about how processes work and where inefficiencies exist through the use
of tools like the fish-bone diagram, force-field analysis, environmental
scanning, SWOT, or STEP, internal thought processes are stimulated and
innovation can occur. I think every organization attempts to constantly
cross-pollinate the workforce via training, conferences, symposia,
education, and other fora, but my personal approach is to include all of
the fora plus the critical and reflexive thinking analysis to inform
decision-making, process improvement, and efficiency in the

There’s nothing revolutionary or different in my
approach, but the discipline of consistency over time is what makes
organizations grow and sharpen their competitive position as learning
organizations. In short, my leadership approach is to not become
complacent and to continually look for opportunities to innovate and
invent. Coyle (2004) provided some actionable approaches for me to
consider in my current work. I really like the simplicity of the
fish-bone diagram and the accompanying thought processes it provokes.

The book and ideas that capture my leadership style and the leadership necessary in today’s environment is Peter Vaill’s Managing as a Performing Art: New Ideas for a World of Chaotic Change (1989) and Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water
(1996). These two books are very applicable to what Dr Ward describes
as advocacy and inquiry in leadership and exhort managers and leaders to
be flexible and in a mode of constant learning to adjust to the
velocity of change and the demands of the 21st century.

point of posting part of the dialogue with my colleague from a few years
ago is to revisit my thinking at the time, evaluate whether the points
above are useful in my current organizational context, and to keep
learning. I challenged my colleague with the following question as part
of our dialogue and hope to generate some discussion here in the
context of leadership and innovation.

Do we need new ideas to
lead or do we need a learning organization where experience, intellect,
and sensing allow leaders to influence positive change that creates
measurable success and progress?


Coyle, G. (2004). Practical Strategy: Structured tools and techniques, (1st Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Vaill, P. B. (1989). Managing as a performing art: New ideas for a world of chaotic change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

P.B. (1996). Learning as a way of being: strategies for survival in a
world of permanent white water. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass


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Kitty Wooley

Joe, I like your concluding question so much that I’m going to repeat it:

Do we need new ideas to lead or do we need a learning organization where experience, intellect, and sensing allow leaders to influence positive change that creates measurable success and progress?

I would add “intuiting” because I’m an INTJ. 🙂 Fostering continuously learning cultures seems urgent to me.