As we referred to in our first article, culture is everywhere, just like the air we breathe. The problem is that we forgot.
The second layer to this is that we often hear that people need to “start” working on the culture. However, the culture has always been there and is continuously influenced by everyone — the way people behave, lead and manage; what leaders do (not what they say); how an organization compensates their employees; internal communications; who gets promoted; its values on the website versus what it has really done every day; the external marketing; and every single thing that lets people know “what’s valued around here.” This is all part of the culture. Culture is like a live organism; it is always evolving, moving and shifting. Whether you choose it or not, it’s there.
The question then becomes, are you going to let the culture drive you, or do you want to drive the culture and have it be more aligned with your business needs and emerging challenges?
To engage on a culture transformation journey, you will need to identify and assess the current culture. It is very important to understand where you are.
Did a new CEO, with a new vision and direction, join?
Is your CEO leaving and would like to leave a legacy?
Is the market steering you in a new direction?
Is the company growing so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up?
The answers will be unique for each organization and its leaders. What is critical is to understand what’s driving the change. Why are you embarking on this journey? Why do people need to be part of this? Having a case for change is a very important first step. The second one is to understand who is ready to understand it.
Once you have identified these points, the next step is to identify your key sponsors and champions who can connect with the need. We hear it over and over again — the belief or myth — that you need to have everyone on board to start the initiative. However, it is exactly that — a belief or myth — and it gets in the way of making change happen.
In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about The Law of the Few. In order to create sustainable change, you need to look for the connectors, mavens and salesmen — or as Everett Rogers developed his theory on “Diffusion of Innovations,” illustrated in the bell curve below.
Both authors describe that you do not need to have everyone on board. You need to look for the innovators and early adopters in your organization. Who can you work with to start the change?
As an example of how this works, I remember when we started working with a large manufacturing organization through the HR department. The team was really eager to start working on their culture. The main concern was that not everyone in the organization was ready to engage or even talk about culture change. Together, we identified a group of middle managers who were eager to change and develop new skills and who, at the same time, had a relevant influence in the business. We co-created a specific leadership development program for them. This group became the innovators and helped us connect with the early adopters. Through their leadership journey, they learned new mindsets, skills and behaviors. And as they implemented those new skills in their way of leading their departments and teams, it influenced the culture. Others in the organization noticed how the innovators and early adopters became more effective in their jobs, were more agile in their decision-making, and their overall performance improved, and they wanted the same.
Let’s start by talking about culture and what it means.
Every day, we breathe in order to survive. The air goes in and out of our lungs. We know the air is there, but we never think about it. The air allows us to do everything we do; and at the same time, we don’t even notice it. That’s the same with culture. Culture enables an organization to function. But as the air we breathe, it becomes invisible, and we forget how it affects everything we do.
We define culture as the messages, mostly nonverbal, that people in an organization receive about what is valued. Then people adapt in order to “fit in” (i.e., belong).
How is culture created? As an example, I’d like to refer you to the book “An Italian Education” by Tim Parks. It describes the life of a British expat family in Italy. The parents are starting to notice their children becoming more and more “Italian.” Initially, they are puzzled as to where they are picking it up. So then they tried to understand it: classmates at school, the neighbors, the media, and religion, among other things. In order to fit in, the children started to unconsciously embed some of the behaviors of the influencers that surround them, based on what works for them. Can you think about how all this is at play in any organization?
Think back for a moment to the first day you arrived at the company for which you now work. What did you notice? The way people talk, relate to each other, make decisions? What about the general communications? And the office look and feel? And what the boss does to be successful? And who gets promoted?
Understanding how culture is created and how it influences employees can become a lever as you work on culture change in your organization.
In recent years, culture has become a hot topic. You hear people talk about it often. Most organizations are involved in some kind of culture initiative. This is because we are getting more and more conscious about how important it is to get new strategies to work, to adapt to the new fast changing world, to be aware of the behaviors we are driving, by the context and environment we have created so far and for the strategies that worked in the past to be successful. There is much more consciousness about how the conditions, the environment, the incentives, the values and messages people receive are creating meaning for people to do what they do. The sense of alignment with a common purpose and way of working can become a competitive advantage. If the world is changing and our organizational strategies are changing, then our culture needs to shift to serve this new world of possibilities. We need to recreate the conditions for people to flourish and flow, making sense to a new world.
At the same time, the more and more we talk with people in organizations, in HR, Senior Leaders or CEOs, they all feel it’s hard to make all this change happen at the speed they expect. Many times it looks more like a burden than a great opportunity. How can we make culture change simpler? How can we make it happen?
In this series of articles, we will look at five beliefs (stories we tell ourselves as if they were absolutely true) that may even become myths. When it comes to culture change, the myths make it harder and may even impact the way we approach culture change and the tools we use for it. Are you ready to do some myth busting?
Not so fast. Going over the speed limit while trying to change the culture will cause chaos.
Before we dive into the myths, there are some things to consider. Nobody is a culture expert on day one. Most of us have taken a biology class in school and can name a decent amount of body parts, organs, etc. However, this doesn’t make us capable of performing surgery. Surgery requires a different skill level. The same applies to culture. We have some knowledge, but we are not anywhere near expert level. In our experience, this is something that is being overestimated. An organization will assign someone, often from HR, as the person in charge of culture change. Having the title does not make them an expert, but you can be an expert in the future, by knowing a bit more every day. Can you imagine how much more you can know in one year if you consider everything to be opportunity to learn more about culture?
You can start by acknowledging that you don’t need to know it all on day one. This is hard because in big organizations, people are expected to know. Actually, this is the first step for the change you would like to drive. The danger is when you pretend you know but you don’t. So we suggest, that you just stop pretending!
Start seeking the expertise. Think about what information you need to learn in order to be capable of delivering on this great assignment.
Don’t decide to focus on everything all at once. You can’t eat ice cream in one big bite (brain freeze anyone?), nor can you with culture. It might be overwhelming when you are in the middle of it, like standing in a crowd of people. Imagine what it would be like if you look out of the airplane window, when you are 30,000 feet off the ground, and you see the different landscapes of cities and suburbs. Start by looking at the bigger picture before you zoom in. Where do you want to focus your attention? I like to use the metaphor of the flashlight. If culture is a big, dark room, you can flip the switch and light up the entire room, but that becomes quickly overwhelming. If you take your flashlight, you can focus on a specific item or task without being distracted. But for that, you first need to see the big room; and then the opportunities will come. Because, what you focus on expands. A new process doesn’t change a culture. Processes help and are an integral part of culture change. But to create real and sustainable change, there is another layer.
Remember William Hung (aka Hung Hing Cheong), the now world-famous American Idol singer of Ricky Martin’s hit song “She Bangs”? We love William. Over a decade and a half ago (early 2004), he entertained us all with his charisma (he says) and with his unconscious example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (others say).
The Dunning-Kruger effect is “a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is” — Wikipedia. Psychologists Dunning and Kruger say that “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self.” They write that for a given skill, unconsciously incompetent people will:
fail to recognize their own lack of skill
fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only AFTER they are exposed to training for that skill
UNCONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT TO CONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT
William Hung’s (and many other Idol’s) example of unconscious incompetence on live TV in front of millions of people satisfies at least one of the primary premises of the show. It lets the audience feel superior and relieved (for the moment) that at least we’re not THAT clueless about our own talents and abilities — as far as we know anyway. However, the Dunning-Kruger effect (aka the American Idol effect), like most cognitive biases, is a condition that we ALL can suffer from in our professions as well. Thankfully, we can all overcome it too, with a deliberate approach to training, rewiring default/reactive habits, surrounding ourselves with reliable feedback loops, increased mental complexity, increased levels of emotional intelligence and expanded curiosity muscles. (Note: The best way to develop curiosity muscles is by first working on the humility muscles.)
We are often unconsciously unaware of our own incompetence, in fact, that David Dunning goes on to say in the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast that “of all the irony of the things we don’t know, the one thing we definitely don’t know is where the borderline is between our knowledge and our ignorance.” That, he says, applies to everything including our decision-making in everyday life, not to mention the highly valued business decision-making arena of our professional life. It applies to our role as leaders of our family, our community and our company.
This psychological insight illuminates one reason why so many executives have heard themselves (including myself) say that innovation is hard. Maybe we say that because we don’t want to take responsibility or blame. Maybe it’s because we like to self-congratulate and brag about ourselves for doing the hard things that others won’t. Maybe we’ve bought into the party line. Either way though, innovation (change) is not hard or easy. It just is what it is. “Hard” or “easy” is not an attribute of innovation or change but merely a relative comparison of two things: 1) the challenge and 2) our ability/inability to respond to the challenge effectively.
Whether the challenge is to sing a hit song on the American Idol stage, squat 300 pounds or respond to changing market conditions in my industry, there are two ways to approach it: I can say, “singing at a world-class level is hard,” ignoring my own competence/ability/skill level, or I can say, “singing at an elite level is hard for me. My vocal skills/muscles aren’t skilled/strong enough to sing at that level yet.” But we don’t say that. We say it’s too hard to do. “HARD” is only relative to our ability to respond to the challenge of singing the song (on key), lifting the weight or accomplishing the innovation goal. If our muscles aren’t ready for the innovation challenge, then the challenge/change is harder for us. But that same challenge is NOT hard for many other leaders. Change (innovation) is not hard for teams and leaders who operate from higher levels of consciousness — less subject to pitfalls of outdated thinking patterns. Conscious leaders make better innovation leaders. Their cognitive muscles, mental models, mindsets, relationship/teaming productivity and fear/stress management skills are developed/trained and ready to respond effectively to VUCA (i.e., volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). But you can’t work on it if you don’t even notice it. NOTICING THE GAP IS A GOOD THING
We likely don’t even realize that we are blaming innovation/change for our own lack of ability to respond effectively to changes in our business environment and market conditions. Years of neglecting the change-readiness individual and collective leadership development work are a root cause that explains the leadership complexity gap. That’s why we are unconscious and unaware — we don’t know we are. If we don’t notice it, we can’t work on it. Conversely, if we do notice it, then we can choose whether or not to work on it. Either way, it’s better than falling victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
We can’t just try harder. That doesn’t work. Trying harder is not the same as deliberately training our innovation/change muscles to be able to respond better.
Experienced innovation leaders and conscious business Jedi (like Oseas Ramirez Assad, co-founder of Startup // Cisco) inside of David’s (startups) and Goliath’s (large corporations) will agree that innovation/change is easier when you:
REactivating your company’s startup DNA will require you to face entrenched cultural norms, fear of change, career risk and other obstacles that will require you to be working from well beyond your current level. You will need to be working from your “next level” of thinking — more open and more grounded as a conscious leader. This grounding is the platform to recognize old/new paradigms (yours and others), to be less blissfully ignorant, to engage in difficult conversations/healthy debates, to untangle explicit agenda versus hidden/unconscious competing commitments, their feelings versus emotional triggers, etc. Getting to our next level of Jedi thinking and behaving takes practice.
Even the biggest companies were startups once
Design a grass roots effort and apply startup innovation best practices that are right for your company (e.g., lean startup, BMC, design thinking, service design)
Focus on training mindsets, biases and core values (to help amplify the new growth strategy and fulfill the company purpose). This is an essential part of an innovation-centric lifestyle. Innovation can only be driven by a conscious leader who embodies the right mindsets, is aware of his/her own biases, and actively works to defuse them. Otherwise, people will immediately spot the incongruousness and slew of organizational contradictions. This will speak louder than the mindset itself.
Build a strong cultural foundation of expanded capabilities that help increase conscious awareness, broaden cognitive diversity, and deepen mental complexity and emotional intelligence
Apply startup constraints and bend/ignore rules as long as it’s clearly aligned with shared goals and core values
Target corporate antibodies (e.g., the fear of failure). You will have to earn the right to influence the corporate system. Even if you have the hierarchical authority, you will need moral and social authority (e.g., trust, respect, confidence) for the community of people to want to follow you. You could try and force them to follow you via command and control techniques, but compliance does not generate the same energy or integrity as inviting voluntary commitment.
The moral/social authority that is earned by being a more conscious leader will always be surprisingly more powerful and sustainable.
Address the organizational contradictions, competing initiatives, undiscussables and cultural/social norms (policies) designed to preserve/protect the status quo
Don’t just train alone; train together (cross-functionally) in a way that builds relationships and engagement across the enterprise (breaking down silos)
CONSCIOUS LEADERS MAKE BETTER INNOVATION LEADERS
They consistently deliver better results to the organization — it is as straightforward as that — for the sake of better business outcomes. The current leadership complexity gap clearly suggests that innovation leadership and transformation is a learned capability — a muscle group that has to be developed/trained for the gap to be closed.
The only way for our businesses to be more conscious is for our leaders to be more awake/self-aware. We need more men and women working from higher levels of consciousness — especially those who are responsible for implementing innovation strategies and those pursuing a new master plan of any kind.
The goal is to help leaders of organizations see more, plus collaborate better, plus feel stronger, becoming more agile in the face of uncertainty and fear. “Getting in the reps” of deliberate practice is what helps leaders more quickly and more effectively get to the complex problem-solving.
We need to pursue mastery of the fundamentals of conscious business. This practical approach helps leaders respond more resourcefully under stress, and it upgrades their operating systems with the intent of shifting to a culture with higher standards of performance, relationships and purpose.
Then again, we could be wrong. What if William Hung can sing really well…and we are the ones who are all tone deaf?
I think that most of the important work that is done in organizations these days is done by teams. Even if people are not all sitting together in a room working simultaneously, their work is shared with others, revised, edited, informed, poked, prodded, enhanced, refined or otherwise manipulated into a product that features input from a number of people. And almost always, those other people think somewhat differently than we do. Maybe that’s because of where they’re from, or where they’ve worked, or how they’ve been trained, or the experience they’ve had in this organization or prior organizations, their age/generation, etc. In other words, their mindsets are different based on their background and experience.
In my work, I have often seen the impact of these mindset differences. And, importantly, another area of meaningful mindset difference is based on our functions. To be very clear, I am generalizing in making this observation. Not all finance people are sticklers for detail, and not all marketing people operate in the world of possibilities and potential. But many of them do—much to the dismay of people with other functional backgrounds. I think most of us would agree that organizations are much better off with the diversity of functional mindsets providing input into decision-making, idea generation, execution and other critical aspects of organizational success. But these differences can cause problems.
Have you ever been frustrated because someone across the table from you, or in one of your important meetings, rejects an idea on the basis of their legal regulatory experience? Or have you ever been flustered by someone on the team who insists that something can be done without providing any specifics about how? These are examples of cross-functional mindset challenges.
So what might we do about it? How can we work better together, have more shared success, as well as retain our sanity?
First, slow down, breathe and recognize that differences are part of our shared human experience, whether that’s convenient for us or not. Remember that those people across the table are almost always good human beings who are participating in a way that they believe is useful and effective, from the point of view of their function and their experience.
Second, take action to understand their priorities—the interests that underlie their positions. When you hear a “no” that feels like a door slamming, ask for a few reasons why that answer was given. Ask what would have to be true in order for you to hear a “yes” instead. There are other useful questions you could ask, of course. The important thing is to listen carefully to the responses. Doing so will not only provide a basis for understanding the other person’s thinking but also will very importantly provide you with key information about how to frame your response to them, such as a new proposal or suggestion.
Of course, this is easy to read here in a short blog and harder to do when the clock is ticking, the pressure is on, and we want to be finished with this conversation yesterday. Hang in there; make an effort. Perhaps others in the room will recognize how you are trying to move past differences and promote greater understanding and better results. They can join in as well. Share your intention with them and let your team know what you were trying to do and why. Chances are they will get on board.
Why Chief Innovation Officers (NOT JUST Chief HR/Diversity Officers) should be treating the “BIAS VIRUS” in your company… SUMMARY: The very same (explicit and implicit) counterproductive cognitive biases that fuel decades of micro and macro aggressions toward women/minorities in the workplace are also fully embedded in the anchors of corporate cognitive bias and mental models that are undermining your innovation strategy, collaboration, knowledge sharing, engagement, complex problem-solving, any/all change initiatives (e.g., fixed vs. growth mindsets, knower vs. learner mindsets, victim vs. creator mindsets). Unconscious bias (UB) is a virus that’s killing your strategy and disadvantaging your best people at the same time.
SAME BRAINS. SAME BIASES.
For example, a long-held belief/bias that men are better leaders than women is as counterproductive today as a long-held belief/bias that a business strategy focused on hardware and software is better than shifting to that new “cloud” thing. The old success formula is great until it isn’t. Then holding onto it is just stupid. But your brain doesn’t care, and it’s in charge — not you. The same mental models and corporate social norms that lock those ancient systemwide biases (e.g., men over women, powerful men and women over all others) in place also keep your individual and institutional biases (e.g., reactivity over creativity, reliability over eventuality, evaluative over generative, patriarchy over mutual learning) commanding and controlling your future right into the past. Chances are your innovation strategy is so corrupted by these biases that you’re unknowingly designing your company into the 1970s. Until your executive team recognizes and addresses UB and the realities of associated gender/race inequality paradigms in your organization like the mission-critical, customer-facing, fully integrated, strategic business priority that it is (rather than treat it like a board/CEO pet project, “pseudo priority”), your company won’t make much progress toward the future. If your company is stuck in the past, chances are you are one of the powerful executives contributing to the spread of the bias virus and bystander culture. MALPRACTICE AT WORST. INGLORIOUS “BYSTANDERING” AT BEST. IF unconscious bias were a medical condition (and leaders/teams were the patients), THEN…most chief human resource officers, chief diversity officers, chief learning officers, learning and development directors, gender diversity and inclusion directors, the Ph.Ds. who fill those departments, and all of the CEOs and boards that sponsor/approve most of today’s UB prescriptions/UB treatment plans would be jailed/sued for malpractice…or at least fired for their silence and Paterno-like inglorious bystandering. Unconscious bias IS the No. 1 business challenge from which all other business challenges arise. UB is silently killing your winning business strategy from the inside out. UB is stifling your business results and eating both your culture and your strategy for breakfast. UB doesn’t care. UB is sucking the energy, passion, engagement, trust, and commitment out of even your most talented populations while turning away the global talent and customers alike that you are trying desperately to attract. UB doesn’t care. UB doesn’t recognize what your company values, its purpose or business goals are. UB doesn’t care what kind of leader you think you are. UB doesn’t care what kind of leader (you think) your children think you are. UB is ruining your leadership impact. UB is making you (and your team of leaders) look outdated and oblivious. UB is killing you and the people you’re supposed to be leading. How tragic that you (should) know this already. How tragic and yet still so very little will be done about it during your tenure. To change this trajectory, the funding and focus of disparate UB training programs, corporate universities, leadership development and innovation/transformation leadership programs all need to be elevated, consolidated and then integrated into new corporate lifestyle habits that have the power to overcome all the maladaptive biases we carry with us.
Even though our executives and boards are supposed to be made up of our highest value decision-makers, complex problem solvers and action takers (that’s the primary output of professionals in the 21st century), they aren’t adapting quickly enough today. In the context of readying the corporation for the future, these most valuable executives are supposed to be leading current and future teams of leaders through a transformative shift in their thinking patterns (investing in elevating the mental complexity and emotional intelligence of the organization) to take action against the counterproductive thinking patterns of the industrial age and the outdated behaviors that undermine the company’s current and future business strategy, ROI and competitive market positioning. They may think they are doing just that, but they are likely themselves even more trapped by the visible and invisible biases than the rest of us. Even the well-intended (enlightened) hierarchies holding the most powerful senior roles are unconsciously more imprisoned (zombified) and entrenched in perpetuating these unconscious biases largely because a) once they reach a position of power, they are less empathetic/less aware of the disadvantaged plight of those with less power; b) they are personally benefiting from the biases and power structures remaining in place. The more intelligent, accomplished and successful you are, the less likely you are to believe that your thinking + behavior could possibly be suffering from these unconscious blind spots. That makes you a more dangerous decision-maker (a “walker”).
Even when corporate boards and CEOs finally declare that mitigating gender/race/age bias is a priority,most of their employees don’t believe it — and they’re right not to. That’s because when this “pet project” of the board gets handed off to someone in HR or L&D to design and implement, it is still treated like an optional, bolted-on sidecar to the business strategy. It is underfunded. It is underestimated. The leadership mandate to make it reasonable, practical and scalable (efficient and cheap) creates a superficial treatment and doesn’t provide much cure. It’s odd that executives aren’t more sensitive to what’s effective vs. what’s reasonable and convenient. The “bias virus” (as I like to call it) doesn’t care what else is on your calendar…you’re going down, and there’s no flu shot or pill you can take to wish it away.
Today, many of the people responsible for treating corporate cognitive biases treat them as if they were only a minor, social, HR issue — a case of the sniffles or a sore throat that’ll go away with words of encouragement, patience, sensitivity and a box of tissues. They treat cognitive bias like a minor illness instead of treating it like the most Pervasive, Advanced, Chronic, Malignant, Acute, Neurodegenerative (PACMAN) and treatable leadership condition that drives individual and team behaviors while negatively affecting business activities impacted by those behaviors such as innovation, strategy, execution, customer centricity, retention, recruiting, collaboration, agility, engagement, risk-taking, knowledge sharing and culture change.
Treating deeply ingrained mental models, mindsets and biases (the “bias virus”) with the equivalent of little more than edutainment, awareness programs and two-hour webinars is like treating the Ebola virus with a bouillon cube shortcut because the equally ineffective chicken soup remedy takes too long for busy executives. That’s negligent and blameworthy to address individual, organizational and systemic corporate biases and the need to shift mindsets with programs that minimize or skip the deep, personal adult development work necessary for senior leaders to shift. It’s the only proactive development work that has the power to influence the system in a meaningful way. These bystanders, on the other hand, recommending anything less or suggesting that somewhere in the organization they are indeed working on a “much more strategic/comprehensive effort” (REALLY? LET’S SEE IT!) are complicit with their cowardly silence and sensitivity to corporate norms rather than being more sensitive to what actually works. Instead of effectively supporting the expansion of leadership capabilities, helping them ready the company for the network age that’s already passing them by, most learning and development executives (and their programs) are trapped in the same culture shackles of learned helplessness that they are supposed to be helping liberate. 2016 HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: “The problem is, organizations are trying to reduce bias with the same kinds of programs they’ve been using since the 1960s. And the usual tools—diversity training, hiring tests, performance ratings, grievance systems—tend to make things worse, not better.” That’s what malpractice sounds like to me. THE MALPRACTICE IS DOCUMENTED. LEADERSHIP ACCOUNTABILITY, METRICS AND STANDARDS ARE PRETTY LOW (EVEN WHEN CLAIMING TO BE HIGH).
Even the more progressive silicon valley tech companies and venture capital companies mostly treat the UB problem by ignoring it altogether or treat it like it is a political/social/HR issue with regard to sensitivity training or some corporate social responsibility program…loosely connected to business. Again, it’s a business leadership issue; it’s a strategy execution issue. Most programs are largely limited by budget, power or sponsorship, evidenced by how the programs are implemented and how little progress has been made and exposed in this “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” article.
There are endless amounts of research and data in every industry, including life and death ones, like in the article Bias in the ER — about how doctors suffer from the same cognitive distortions as the rest of us. Endless amounts of research on adult development approaches to bias by Kahneman, Tversky, Kegan, etc., all say similar things about our explicit and implicit bias/limitation of the brain that gets in the way of decision-making — some that were published back in the 1770s let alone the more recent stuff in the 1970s. In 2017, senior executive professionals in the field of learning and development are aware of the research, data, lawsuits and impact that UB has on decision-making and outcomes. In 2015, 20 percent of most large companies had unconscious bias (UB) and gender, diversity and inclusion programs (GD&I). By 2020, it is predicted that 50 percent of companies will have UB and GD&I programs. But what kind of programs will they be? The “bouillon cube” kind? WHAT WORKS? VERTICAL LEARNING PROGRAMS SHIFT MINDSETS, CHANGE BEHAVIORS, AFFECT BUSINESS-RELATED ACTIVITIES AND CHANGE OUTCOMES.
Experts know that mitigating the negative effects of bias requires a special kind of transformation program — vertical (adaptive) learning programs — that unlock “next-level” mental complexity and emotional intelligence for leaders who want to pursue that. It’s an operating system upgrade. But most time-constrained and mind-constrained corporations deliver bite-sized, horizontal learning. Horizontal learning is adding skills at the current level of the current operating system. Horizontal learning is fine for many developmental needs but useless with regard to more complex adult development needs. To address bias with horizontal learning programs (or not knowing the difference) is useless, negligent and blameworthy bystandering.
Complex adaptive challenges (like culture change, mindset shifts and mitigating unconscious bias) require complex adaptive leadership training to overcome bias/beliefs (long rewarded and held consciously and unconsciously), creating blinds spots at the current level that block them from seeing the possibility of additional/viable perspectives, leaving leaders trapped by their prior success and by what they know, incapable of expanding their own perspective let alone facilitating a high-performance environment that can. Vertical learning programs include: a) stretch experiences; b) more direct applicable focus on the business challenges/goals, giving everyone a stronger reason to practice; c) new paradigms, frameworks for thinking, responding, practicing; and d) are designed to create long-term, formal and informal, peer-based (social learning) communities of practice that deliver depth over speed while being speedy. That’s how adult development is accelerated. That’s how adults increase their mental complexity and emotional intelligence.Complex adaptive leadership muscles are muscles that all leaders have. But for most, they have not yet developed them sufficiently to lead in the 21st century/Fourth Industrial Revolution. INCONGRUENCE — NOT WALKING THE TALK
I cringe when leaders say, “Our senior executives are all very aware of this priority, but we’re still figuring out how to solve it. They are all just so busy that it is not reasonable to expect them to spend more than a couple hours on this — though that’s all they need; they are very smart.” ARE YOU SERIOUS? That’s a real quote (from a distinguished Ph.D.) heard in similar forms from more than one diversity leader and more than one innovation strategy leader at double-digit, multibillion-dollar organizations. That’s what fear and confirmation biases sound like — unknowingly contributing to protecting the preference for the status quo = homeostasis at work.
Here are some additional examples of where the (“it’s a priority”) incongruence and appropriately labeled “bystander” behavior shows up:
Most senior executives don’t go through the training themselves. They don’t go through the stretch experiences and conversations that they want others to go through — and it shows.
Most executive sponsors demonstrate how they perpetuate organizational contradictions and how little they have prioritized the treatment of bias with their “cringeworthy” sponsorship speeches and oblivious comments like: “I don’t even think about gender bias; I don’t do that on my team” — only to embarrass themselves and undermine the integrity of the program and leadership overall.
Most programs only touch a tiny population of “high-potential” employees — with a tiny portion of content. In a company of tens of thousands of employees, they might only expose a couple hundred employees (at best) to the program over a year’s time and then send them back into the inertia of the organization where it’s quickly understood what is valued and what isn’t.
Most company leaders are visibly suffering from the leadership complexity gap, unable to respond better to change, lack of agility, curiosity, collaboration, engagement, etc., any better than they could decades ago.
Most company leaders still proudly protect their own status by showing a tendency to focus on short-term efficiency over effectiveness; cost vs. transformation outcomes; speed over depth; etc., contributing to a lack of progress closing the leadership complexity gap.
Why is corporate bystandering still so prevalent? We all know it’s happening, right?
Corporations have not invested in training their mindset shifting muscles. They don’t have an expert orientation to their role as culture or change leaders. L&D has taught them to prefer and settle for edutainment bu$$sh#t awareness programs. Power, it turns out, diminishes empathy and increases the “knower/fixed” mindset. And we all know that dominant power structures are biased and don’t give up their dominance willingly, even when it’s in their best interest and the best interest of the whole. Unless, of course, you are aware of your biases, then you can work on them. WHO’S BYSTANDERING THE MOST IN THE FACE OF BIAS AT YOUR COMPANY? IT’S DIFFERENT EVERYWHERE. YOU DECIDE.
CEO (chief executive officer)? Yes, ultimate accountability, but most hide behind their executive team and blame them or they blame the culture (everyone else but themselves)
CHRO (chief human resource officer)? Yes, they should have command of all things people related but are focused mostly on administrative, policy, procedure, budget and legal matters
CTO (chief talent officer)? Should be connecting future capabilities/resources and business needs (It’s rare to find one who has enough business experience and people experience to be consciously competent for this role.)
CLO (chief learning officer)? L&D? Should be the experts at prioritizing vertical and horizontal development needs but are trapped by the same learned helplessness as the general population — deferring to business short-term demands and power structures, living in fear from budget to budget, trying to justify their own job through self-preservation vs. effectiveness
GD&I (gender, diversity and inclusion) leader? Should be the powerful expert integrated into the business but typically reports to CHRO
BU (business unit) leader?
WHO IS WORKING ON IT LIKE A BUSINESS PRIORITY?
Chuck Robbins, CEO at CISCO, is very clear on the business benefits of addressing biases (conscious and unconscious) in a deliberate and strategic way. It is tangible in how the CISCO innovation team aligns with learning and development and gender, diversity and inclusion priorities as you can read what Robbins wrote in his blog post: “With the increasing pace and complexity of today’s market, it’s critical that our leadership team understands our customers, delivers results, brings diverse perspectives and experiences, and builds world-class, highly motivated teams. This will differentiate us as a much faster, innovative organization that delivers the best results for our customers.”
If victory today depends on sustained innovation, then our lack of cognitive diversity and our default/counterproductive biases will continue to be the primary obstacle (rock in the road) to designing and implementing a new, winning strategy. Our counterproductive biases are the No. 1 business challenge from which all other business challenges are born. Bias is a 21st century business issue, not a diversity issue. Are we doomed? What if we’re working for zombie leaders who are trapped by their biases? What if we’re the zombie leader? Is there an antidote that we can use to keep from becoming “walkers” ourselves? THE METAPHOR
Like the “Rock in the Road” episode from Season 7 of the Walking Dead when Rick Grimes tells a story about a rock in the road that nobody removes, it keeps causing all kinds of problems until finally a young girl digs it out. RICK: “Well, when I was a kid, my mother told me a story. There was a road to a kingdom, and there was a rock in the road. And people would just avoid it, but horses would break their legs on it and die, wagon wheels would come off. People would lose the goods they’d be coming to sell. That’s what happened to a little girl. The cask of beer her family brewed fell right off. It broke. Dirt soaked it all up, and it was gone. That was her family’s last chance. They were hungry. They didn’t have any money. She just… sat there and cried, but… …she wondered why it was still there… for it to hurt someone else. So she dug at that rock in the road with her hands till they bled, used everything she had to pull it out. It took hours. And then… …when she was gonna fill it up, she saw something in it. It was a bag of gold.”
The moral of the story is: Whoever has the perseverance, decency and determination to dig up the rock in the road, gets the gold reward.
It has a nice “better angels of our nature” storyline. But let’s not go there; that’s distracting. Let’s not attach this business antidote to a fictitious storyline or moral, intuitional, spiritual, anecdotal truism. Let’s not bring it up in the context of L&D, HR or gender, diversity and inclusion (none of which historically have had enough corporate authority or decision rights to drive meaningful change). That’ll just give us a reason to minimize the impact. Let’s not even attach the antidote to a legal argument. Let’s stay in the realm of objective reasoning and business logic. Let’s work within our reliability-oriented, overachiever, operational mindsets from the industrial age, where delivering business results is what matters. In business, we’re taught to “put up (the numbers) or shut up.” I’m cool with that. So let’s talk about this in the context of irrefutable evidence, observable math and real-world experiments that prove, without a doubt, exactly what to do for better business outcomes.
In our 21st century reality, we’ve been walking around our “rock in the road” for decades. Whether it is explicit or implicit (conscious or unconscious) biases, Drucker warns us that in times of change, the greatest danger to complex problem solving and effective decision-making is our tendency to act (unconsciously) with yesterday’s logic, beliefs and mental models (aka the leadership complexity gap).
But we’re all so smart and so successful that we can’t imagine that Drucker was talking about us — that other executive over there for sure…he is a classic example of being a prisoner of thought patterns, but not me…no way. The reality is that no one is immune. Our brains are always applying default biases and rules that are both productive and counterproductive whether we consciously know it or not. We’re biased about the biases that are counterproductive. We have HUGE blind spots and amazing powers of denial. We all have biases. The problem isn’t that we have biases; the problem is that we deny that we have biases.
Here is what it sounds like when we resist learning how to mitigate our biases: I don’t do any of that. This doesn’t apply to me. I’m not biased. If I am biased, it’s only a little, and I do not suffer from cognitive biases. I am not drawn to details that confirm my beliefs (confirmation bias and bandwagon effect). I don’t notice flaws in others more easily than I do in myself (bias blind spot).
I don’t fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities and prior history (fundamental attribution error, negativity bias). I don’t preference people I’m familiar with or fond of as better than others (in-group and out-group bias).
I don’t simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about (normalcy bias, gambler’s fallacy, neglecting probability bias). I don’t assume I know what other people are thinking. I don’t infer what others’ intentions are (illusion of transparency, projection bias). I don’t project my mindset and assumptions onto the past and future (self-consistency bias).
I don’t favor the immediate, relatable thing in front of me over the unknown future thing (hyperbolic discounting). I don’t avoid making irreversible decisions or making mistakes because I’m trying to preserve autonomy and group status (status quo bias). I don’t have a tendency to disproportionately advocate for or focus on things I’ve invested time and energy into (sunk cost bias).
You might think, “I get it, and I am humble enough to realize that, yes, I can make mistakes. Got it.” No, NO, NOOO. The point is that I/we do not/cannot appreciate the extent to which I/we have error-prone thinking patterns (biases), as evidenced by the near century of data (and neuroscience) illustrated in this beautiful graphic on the 200+ biases that our limited minds and egos can’t seem to comprehend.
That’s part of the problem. Most successful, smart senior executives “know” this on an intellectual level. We “know” too much, actually. We’re stuck in the knower mindset versus the learner mindset. Apparently, we don’t “know it” in a way that we’ve been able to consciously choose to do the things it takes to mitigate these biases when it matters most. Our biases from the industrial age have us trapped and make us unwilling to effectively change our corporate lifestyles/habits quickly enough to walk our talk when it comes to “leading differently.” Against Drucker’s warning, we have not prepared ourselves to lead more effectively in the networked age. In most cases, we are far behind where we should be. We need to drop everything and train on deliberate, focused lifestyle practices that help with readying ourselves to pursue a new master plan. Now is not the time to be defensive nor waste valuable time and energy enabling professionals who still choose to deny their own biases. THE WINNING FORMULA
Let’s get to the antidote — the best way to mitigate the limitations of our own brains. While taking a University of Michigan massive open online course (MOOC) on Model Thinking and Understanding Complexity, I came across Scott E. Page, a famous social scientist, professor of economics, director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems and author. He is best known for his research on path dependence, culture, collective wisdom, adaptation and computational models on how human beings work together. In his decade-old book, Page reveals the winning formula that every business professional can embrace as fact…the absolute fact…the undeniable mathematical rules…the gold prize under the rock in the road…the Diversity Prediction Theorem.
Companies that love the reliability of math, algorithms and big data, like Google, Netflix etc., have been putting the formula to work to improve predictions about the future, modeling consumer behavior and addressing previously unsolvable business challenges. The formula proves to be true, beyond any doubt. No assumptions have to be made. No conditions have to be considered. It’s just a mathematical fact. The math shows that the Crowd’s Error is the Average Error minus the Diversity. Said differently, our team’s accuracy is driven by individual’s accuracy plus the team’s diversity. Individuals make decisions/predictions based on models (e.g., mental models, math models); therefore, the more models/perspectives that we use, the more accurate our decisions/predictions will be. This is a very important concept, as it shows that optimal outcomes are attained with more diverse perspectives. Question: How can a group attain more diverse options to choose from and therefore better potential responses to challenges and circumstances?
Answer: By having different perspectives from a diverse group of people. “A perspective is the way in which an individual views the possible solutions to the problem. The way to attain a variance of perspectives is to have a diverse group across multiple variables. These variables can include age, race, gender, education, location, religion, sexual orientation, class and occupation. When people are different across these lines, they have different perspectives on many solutions. The different perspectives create the variance that is important to the Diversity Prediction Theorem.” Put more simply: The greater the number of perspectives, the more options we have. The more options we have, the better our decision-making and strategies will be. (Yes, I’m aware that my confirmation bias has led me to find this Diversity Prediction Theorem…bias strikes again. See how that works?) THE ABSOLUTE AND INEVITABLE
In the networked age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, VUCA is the norm. Global markets, interconnectedness, digital transformation, complexity and exponential change drive the need for expanded capabilities. Corporations in all industries are transforming themselves in pursuit of greater advantage from specific competencies and cultural attributes (i.e., collaboration, innovation, agility, building high-performance teams, attracting, hiring and retaining the best talent). Where leadership and culture transformation is concerned, the unit of work is dialogue. Problem solving and decision-making are the highest value products of professionals. “When solving complex problems, cognitive diversity beats talent, and when making a prediction, diversity matters just as much as ability.” Not “probably” matters — cognitive diversity ALWAYS matters. So when leadership transformation programs, immunity to change programs and/or gender, diversity and inclusion programs that are intended to address bias and shift mindsets are bolted on like an elective course versus integrated into business strategy, you continue to see the disconnect between biased behavior and what is in the best interests of the business. Investors, leaders and boards of directors who ignore this fact are enabling their organizations to continue to walk around the rock in the road. That seems negligent and unprofessional, like the childish ostrich effect (cognitive bias) in behavioral finance, which is the attempt made by investors to avoid risky financial situations by pretending they do not exist. The awakened market won’t let childish leaders/bystanders get away with that kind of “pretending” for long.
Here’s where we can choose to stay awake or give in to the temptation to go back to being unconscious. Conscious leaders make better innovation leaders — stay calm and be conscious.
Adult development and culture transformation are not mysterious black boxes. The solutions are simple but not necessarily easy. They’re not necessarily “hard” either. It depends on and is relative to your current individual and collective readiness levels. Do the deep work and train together to accelerate the transformation.
The majority of senior leaders want to expand their level of mental complexity and emotional intelligence so they can lead successfully in today’s business environment. They don’t want to be a prisoner of their biases, nor do they want their organizations to be limited by their collective biases. They want their organizations to break down the silos, be more open, collaborative, creative, curious, engaged, courageous and inclusive. Ironically, though, their own biases make them unaware of the impact that their mindsets and behaviors have on stifling the expanded capabilities of the organization they want to create. It’s a vicious circle. Leaders’ biases keep them trapped in the comfort zone of what they know (knower mindset). Leaders’ biases make them still want to be the ones who have all the power. Leaders’ biases make them think they can keep the power by having all the answers and telling everyone else what to do.
Leaders’ biases make them still want to believe that what worked in the past (the old success formula) will work today. Leaders’ biases make them still think they know which sticks and carrots (recognition and rewards) will motivate people to comply with company rules and be motivated to fulfill company goals. Leaders’ biases still make them think they can command and control their way through complexity and culture change.
Decade after decade, despite the irrefutable research on how adults can, in fact, update their mental models, the rock still sits in the middle of the road. It trips us up. We struggle trying to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. We struggle trying to shift from a victim orientation to a creator orientation. We struggle trying to wake up from being socially defined to self-authoring. Our organizations suffer unnecessarily until serious, permanent damage to the organization itself causes the long-awaited transformational awakening. Until then, most leaders will remain trapped by their (industrial age) biases like zombies/“walkers.” If they are trapped, then we all are trapped. If they are “walkers” (walking around the rock in the road), then we are destined for unnecessary suffering. CONNECTING THE DOTS
We will need to choose the deep work of individual and collective transformation in order to be leaders who see our own unconscious bias and try to understand it and mitigate it. The aware but “consciously incompetent” leader, pointing out everyone else’s biases, does us little good. Rewiring our default, industrial age habits for the age we’re entering into will lead us to our “bag of gold.” Today, a business leader’s job isn’t to just be better at responding to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; it is to nurture a more self-led, learning and adaptive environment while facilitating teams of diverse human beings to bring 110 percent of their passion, curiosity, creativity, intelligence, identity and courage to work. Leaders need to be working on elevating mindsets and putting wedges in place that make it impossible to regress to the default (old), counterproductive, less accurate ways of thinking. The ROI is there.
A powerful “connecting-the-dots” approach to business benefits will prove to be the only sustainable, proactive cure for these “walking dead.” And only a few of the best culture transformation programs — as well as gender, diversity and inclusion programs — have proven to be successful at facilitating the powerful mindset shifts (e.g., from knower to learner, from fixed to growth, from victim to creator) that lead to individual behavior changes, team behavior changes and organizational behavior changes that then lead to better business outcomes.
WHO’S DIGGING? WHO’S “BYSTANDER-ING”?
Who’s responsible for the road to the future at your company? Who’s responsible for digging out the rocks in the road? CEO, the buck (the rock) stops with you. Walking around the rock undermines your winning business strategy. Why would you tolerate that? Digging out the rocks will amplify your winning strategy and the desired results.
Let’s not keep walking around the rock in the road. Let’s commit to keep on digging.
This idea also is represented in the recent book “The Obstacle is the Way,” by Ryan Holiday. In the book, he shares a similar story about a “rock in the road” that blocks a common path of travel for the villagers. Each of the villagers who came upon the rock tried and failed to move the obstacle.
Strategy execution is a central issue for companies and their directors. Academics and executives have long been researching for the best theories, practices and effectiveness. Studies have found that two-thirds to three-quarters of large organizations struggle to implement their strategies. Figure 1 shows the average performance loss (by importance ratings) that managers gave to specific breakdowns in the planning and execution process
Figure 1 – average performance loss in specific breakdowns in the planning and execution process
All but one of the factors presented in Figure 1 is controlled by the leadership. In addition, the reasons for this high failure rate can be traced to both hard and soft skills. By hard skills, we mean the processes and methods to organize ideas and to establish indicators, among other management tools, that are taught at most business schools. On the other hand, strategic execution soft skills are the intra and interpersonal attitudes and behaviors that engage people to deliver the processes The hard side: the strategic execution and alignment process and tools
The term “strategic administration” (and, further, “strategic management”) comes from the 1960’s, when academics, especially Igor Ansoff, questioned the efficacy of performing the strategic planning process once a year. As a result, several models and theories were developed over time. One of the most popular of these models was introduced by Kaplan & Norton, and is illustrated on Figure 2. By management system, the authors refer to the integrated set of processes and tools that a company uses to develop its strategy, translate it into operational actions, and monitor and improve the effectiveness of both.
The model includes five stages, beginning with the strategy development stage, which involves applying tools, processes, and concepts such as mission, vision, and value statements, SWOT analysis, shareholder value management, competitive positioning, core competencies, etc. to formulate a strategy statement. That statement is then translated (Stage 2) into specific objectives and initiatives, using other tools and processes, including strategy maps and balanced scorecards.
Strategy implementation (Stage 3), in turn, links strategy to operations with a third set of tools and processes, including quality and process management, reengineering, process dashboards, rolling forecasts, activity-based costing, resource capacity planning, and dynamic budgeting.
As implementation progresses, managers continually review internal operational data and external data on competitors and the business environment. Finally, managers periodically assess the strategy, updating it when they learn that the assumptions underlying it are obsolete or faulty, which starts another loop around the system.
Figure 2 – Kaplan & Norton Closed-Loop Management System
Level order planning is a planning model based on the formal logic of cascading goals and strategies throughout an organization to drive action towards the creation of a future desired business state. In Figure 3, the formal logic of goal oriented planning is illustrated. Goals and strategies are cascaded throughout the organization based on the transfer of strategies from one level to the goals of the next level. This simple model describes how alignment of direction is achieved throughout different levels of an organization.
As you begin the planning process throughout the levels, it is important to understand the definitions of goals, strategies and tactics. First and foremost, the definition of a goal, strategy or tactic can be answered best in the context of the level within which it is being defined. One level’s goals may be another level’s strategies. For example, in the chart below, a second level’s goals are derived directly from the first level’s strategies and so on.
Goals define a future desired business state relative to the part of the organization that is defining the goal. Goals can be stated as measurement and this is often a clear way to define their intended purpose. Strategies are a statement of “how to” accomplish a goal. Strategies further define action for the organization. Tactics are most important at the level of planning closest to the customer. Although tactics can exist at each level within the enterprise, tactics always describe “what” actions need to be taken to fulfill a particular strategy.
Figure 3 – Strategic Alignment and Level Order Planning
The soft side: conscious business, alignment and coordination
Hard tools and processes are a necessary but insufficient condition for impeccable execution. Statistics show that alignment is not a problem. Coordination and collaboration are. A recent study showed that 84% of managers can rely all or most of the time on their bosses or their direct reports. However, when this question is about colleagues in other departments and external partners, positive answers drop to 59% and 56%, respectively. What it comes down to is that most executives are just not used to coordinate and collaborate
To increase execution effectiveness, then, we need to look at the “who”. The “who” refers to the people that control the tactics, that manage the systems and processes and that insure the execution of the strategy. No matter what type of business or situation, the only way to guarantee effective execution is through talented, motivated and conscious employees, led by conscious leaders in a conscious business context.
By conscious employees and leaders, we mean those that demonstrate seven qualities, as defined by Fred Kofman (Figure 4). The first three are character attributes: unconditional responsibility, essential integrity, and ontological humility. The next three are interpersonal skills: authentic communication, constructive negotiation, and impeccable coordination. These qualities seem obvious but they challenge deep-seated assumptions we hold about ourselves, other people, and the world.
Figure 4 – Conscious Business Principles
In addition, every organization has three dimensions, as shown in Figure 5: the impersonal, task, or “It;” the interpersonal, relationship, or “We;” and the personal, self, or “I.” The impersonal realm includes technical aspects. It considers the effectiveness, efficiency, and reliability of the organization. The interpersonal realm comprises relational aspects. It considers the solidarity, trust, and respect of the relationships between organizational stakeholders. The personal realm comprises psychological and behavioral aspects. It considers the health, happiness, and need for meaning of each stakeholder.
Over the long term, the “It”, “We”, and “I” aspects of this system must operate in concert. Execution (the “It”) will not be effective without equally strong interpersonal solidarity (“We”) and personal well-being (“I”).
Figure 5 – Integral Approach: Three Dimensions
Finally, as shown in Figure 6, our attention is normally drawn to that which we can see (the effect), which obscures the importance of what remains hidden (the cause). We focus on results (the having) and forget the process (the doing) necessary to achieve those results. We are even less aware of the infrastructure (the being) that underlies processes and provides the necessary capabilities for their functioning. Achieving specific results requires behaving in the way that produces such results, and behaving in such a way requires being the type of person or organization capable of such behavior.
Thus, the highest leverage comes from becoming the person or organization capable of behaving in the way that produces the desired results.
Figure 6 – Integral Approach: Three Levels
The path to impeccable execution
The path to impeccable execution is presented in Figure 7, where we compare and contrast the hard and soft skills, and how they interact with each other. The worst-case scenario is in the lower left-hand quadrant, with low soft and hard skills. This situation is very rare, since companies in this condition would not be sustainable in a competitive world over the long haul.
The most common case we see is in the upper left-hand quadrant, the one we call “Mechanical Process” (high hard, low soft skills). For example, we worked with a mid-sized service company facing this problem. One senior manager was consistently getting negative feedback from the CEO in every strategy execution meeting (stage 4, in Figure 2). However, he didn’t seem to care, didn’t seem to change his behavior and consistently failed to deliver on his commitments. After several attempts to identify the root cause of the problem, he finally confessed that he didn’t know how to coordinate his team.
The lower right-hand side (low hard, high soft skills), the situation we call “Unleveraged Energy”, is a strange case, but it also is present in a variety of companies. An example is a large telecom company we worked with, that had 10 regional units. In one case, they tried to develop an inventory of projects, integrating all the projects from all the units into a single plan. At the time, they had more than 300 initiatives, and many of these were identical to others in other units. Because of the work, they were able to reduce their investments by $6 million just by identifying repeated projects among the units and joining them.
Finally, in the upper right-hand corner (high hard and soft skills), we find the situation we call “Impeccable Execution”. In our experience, we don’t see many companies in this space, but we are encouraged to note some positive growing trends here.
Figure 7 – The Path to Impeccable Execution
One important case in this space was the successful design and implementation of a Strategic Alignment project (Figure 8) in our client, Microsoft LatAm.
Through a focused plan of alignment and coordination at all levels, that included more than 350 managers from across the region, all teams became aligned with common goals, interdependent strategies and detailed action plans. The employees’ individual commitments also were tied to the company’s strategic direction. The process created strong organizational alignment and a culture of accountability throughout the region, from the Leadership Team to individual contributors.
The results were nothing short of spectacular: The region’s revenues grew 49.7% in four years while the region scored the highest rating in the company’s internal organizational climate survey. The planning process itself became a company best practice.
Figure 8 – Strategic Alignment Process
As the Microsoft example shows, Impeccable Execution is possible when you have the right balance between hard tools and soft skills. All else depends on luck! It is time that more companies recognize the importance of these soft skills and move towards an execution mindset in addition to their tools and KPIs. In addition to alignment, this will foster coordination and collaboration, which will increase execution effectiveness.
“Change is hard.”
What if that’s just an opinion disguised as a fact? What if that is just a socialized complaint/expression that we’ve all been brainwashed into believing and repeating?
“Change is hard” can often be heard as an unconscious declaration of an inevitable, early surrender from the leader to the team that they are responsible for leading.
“Change is hard” often sounds like a veiled equivalent to: “Yes, I’m the boss, but I’m not going to be taking responsibility for implementing/supporting the new strategy or the business results….because change is hard.”
There are, however, many corporate executives and entrepreneurs alike who get excited about the possibility of change; they are masters at it; it’s easy for them. They would never say, “Change is hard.” So the “hardness” of change might not be an absolute truth. I’m not sure it’s true at all. “Hardness” may be a measure of mineral’s scratch resistance (e.g., Mohs’ scale), but “hard” is not necessarily an attribute of change. Is it?
“Hard” or “easy” (success or failure) is usually a relative comparison of two things: 1) the challenge and 2) our ability/inability to respond to the challenge effectively. Whether the challenge is to squat 300 pounds or to engage in expanding corporate competencies, there’s two ways to approach it: I can say, “300 pounds is too heavy,” or I can say, “300 pounds is too heavy for me. My leg muscles aren’t strong enough to squat 300 pounds.”
HARD is only relative to our ability to respond. HARD is not an attribute of change.
If our muscles aren’t ready for the challenge, then the challenge/change is harder for us. That same challenge may NOT be hard for others. Change (innovation) is not hard for leaders and teams whose muscles are developed/trained and ready to respond effectively.
Chief innovation officers (CINOs), transformation experts and executives who have learned from experience will agree that change (innovation) is harder when:
We wait too long to get started or lollygag through the process of starting.
We don’t prioritize it; we don’t have a plan or resources dedicated to it; we haven’t separated the essential from the important.
We treat it like an event versus a lifestyle; we don’t walk the talk.
We don’t use expert tools and processes; we wing it or “amateur-hour” it.
We don’t create the space (culture) for creativity, collaboration, etc.; we try to command and control culture change.
We’re not aware of our default, reactive language and habits; we hang on to old success formulas for too long.
7. We don’t ask for help; we pretend we know what to do when we don’t.
Experienced CINOs, transformation experts and executives will also agree that change (innovation) is easier when:
You see more: You’re more conscious (less likely to be driven by default, reactive habits), more awake, more open to learn and more curious to explore multiple perspectives beyond your own (conscious leaders make better innovation leaders).
You collaborate better: You’re more skilled at engaging and empowering people to use innovation tools/processes effectively; you’re more skilled at healthy debate, committed action and accountability; your leadership and culture of the organization help diverse groups of people feel powerfully valued and powerfully challenged.
You feel stronger: Your energy is sourced from a higher-order purpose — values and guiding principles are unconditional; you are grounded in sources of certainty that help you make decisions and take action in the face of increasing uncertainty.
We might expect to hear “change is hard” from stereotypical leaders/politicians when they shirk accountability and make a career out of saving face and preserving their innocence versus keeping their promises. But it never makes sense when accomplished, successful leaders responsible for change inside of powerful and abundantly resourced organizations say, “Change is hard.” However, we hear it all the time in reference to corporate initiatives that involve: a) doing something new versus doing the usual/status quo and b) letting go of old default habits in favor of more effective habits. You’ll hear it in every innovation/transformation and change management meeting. You’ll hear it in every systems implementation, digital integration and customer experience session when the experience involves a people-centric service or delivery system. When a leader responds to these kinds of challenges regarding learning, complexity and ambiguity (aka innovation/change/growth) with the “change is hard” hedge, the change does in fact get 1,000 times harder. It gives the organization permission (from the top) to lower their standards. It gives everyone permission to resist learning/training — permission not to grow — permission not to be a part of changing because, after all, “change is hard.” The boss even said so! In these contexts, it serves as an early and convenient scapegoat to hide the leaders’ inference that their teams’ muscles might not be ready to follow through and deliver. When the team isn’t ready, that’s the leader’s fault. Don’t blame the team and don’t blame the culture. Your team can do it. They need an innovation leader to lead them. That’s you.
In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, unskillfully declaring, “change is hard” is nothing more than an expression of the victim — a choice of powerlessness and incompetence hiding behind an external circumstance, portrayed as something out of our control. A creator/player would never say that. It is true that I won’t be able to change/innovate effectively if my muscles (and the organization’s muscles) are not ready. But the hardness is relative to my muscular readiness. If I were more ready (if my organization was more ready), I could do it more effectively. Instead, my mind will go immediately to blaming the change itself for being too hard.
If you’re the leader of your business, department, community or family, stop saying, “change is hard.” Try this instead: “I don’t think I’m ready” or “my team and I aren’t ready for change. We need to be more ready.” Ask, “How can my team and I get more ready?” That’s what a player/creator would do. Then we will see if that helps us focus and find an even more effective response to dealing with change. We might as well choose to change (and stop blaming it for our poor results) since change is going to keep coming, whether we are ready or not.
Being a creator/player does not mean that I/we will magically be able to change everything and anything. Being a creator/player means I need to train because the speed of change/VUCA and the challenges I have in front of me have exceeded my ability to handle them. It is essential for me and my team to develop an expanded capacity for change — or as Argentine Ricardo Gil, Axialent chief culture officer…aka RichiWanKenobi, would say,
“Learn to live at peace with the difficulty and suffering you’ve chosen by not developing (the appropriate growth muscles).”
Don’t be a victim. Victims can’t innovate, and they don’t usually change without creating permanent damage and unnecessary suffering. That can be avoided. Change is easier when you train for it. It’s harder when you don’t. Drop everything and train #d3&t. “Don’t just be a better leader, be an innovation leader.” Train to be a Jedi. See more, collaborate better and feel stronger (build those muscles and you’ll be more Jedi). The world needs more Jedi.
Focus on separating the essential from the important. It is critically important that we get the DOING innovation management stuff right (e.g., process, strategy, metrics). But don’t minimize the innovation essentials (e.g., people, leadership, culture) just because we think the people/change part is “hard.” Prioritize the essential and it becomes easier. The important goes on the to-do list. The essentials go on a to-die-for list.
An organization cannot evolve beyond the level of consciousness of its leaders.
Most of us are experiencing rapid change in our world. Whether it is career uncertainty, relationship challenges or disruptions and advancements in technology, the result is an undercurrent of overwhelm. In addition, outdated ways of thinking and leading do not address the level of interdependence and complexity we currently face. To address these challenges, our consciousness needs to shift, and we need to be open to managing change in an integral way that focuses on both internal and external transformation.
Organizational change efforts fall short when personal and cultural change are left out of the equation. A solid strategy is not sufficient. To be successful, we must attend to the three dimensions of business:
IT — achieving exceptional results
WE — embodying the best of the organizational culture
I — allowing for full expression of each individual’s gifts and talents
Corporations tend to focus least on the “I” dimension or development of the individual’s inner world. However, cultural transformation begins with personal transformation. For the system to evolve, people have to evolve.
Human consciousness grows through a series of stages. Robert Kegan, author and professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Lisa Lahey, advisory board member of Axialent, are the leaders in this research and theory. There are three stages of adult development including the socialized mind, self-authoring mind and self-transforming mind.
Socialized mind: The self is defined from the outside in and succeeds by acting within socially prescribed roles. Leaders at this level typically lack the capability of broadly sharing power.
Self-authoring mind: The self follows its own path, and action becomes an expression of inner purpose. Leaders at this level begin to share power.
Self-transforming mind: The self engages with shadow side and parts that have been ignored or not developed with curiosity and compassion. Leaders at his level become community oriented with a focus on sustainability and common good.
As the leader transforms into a higher version of himself or herself, the system and culture of the organization can transform as well. The evolution of both the leader and system is interdependent. The organization cannot evolve to a higher stage of consciousness than the leadership. Until the system organizes at a new level, it delays the development of people in the system.
What is it that allows us to operate more consistently at a higher stage of development? Practices do. Practices such as mindfulness, self-mastery of body, mind, heart and soul as well as dialogue are key to transformation. Without practices, shifts from stage to stage are less likely to happen. Mindfulness
Research strongly suggests that practices such as meditation accelerate the stages of development. Meditation is one way to cultivate mindfulness.
Mindfulness is being aware of or bringing our attention to this moment in time, deliberately and without judging the experience. When we are overwhelmed and stressed, the higher order executive functions of our brains literally shut down. Critical decision-making reverts to the more primitive and reactive brain centers, and we go on autopilot to cope.
Neuroplasticity is a process by which we train our minds and change our brains. What this means is that we can cultivate qualities and states of mind through mindless habit or intentional discipline. Through repeated practice, we can measurably reshape and rewire our brains. In as little as two weeks of a disciplined mindfulness practice, there are measurable changes in the number of connections between neurons and the thickness of portions of the brain related to increased self-awareness, greater self-mastery and higher mental processing. These potentials are only realized if we have the discipline to engage in the inner work to develop the neural connectivity. 4D Self-mastery: Body + Mind + Heart + Soul
Our human potential includes a range of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual capabilities. As we move through the stages of development, each of these aspects are developed and ultimately brought into balance. When we are young, our primary focus is body intelligence. In adolescence, emotional intelligence emerges. As we move into the socialized mind, we tend to focus less on our bodily and emotional intelligence and begin to favor rational capacities. Developing higher stages requires we reclaim our bodily and emotional intelligence valuing gut and heart.
So what is spiritual intelligence? It is a way of seeing and acting that focuses on doing the tough work of transforming body, heart, mind and soul. It is the practice of transformation itself.
If you are interested in assessing yourself in each dimension, take the 4D self-mastery assessment. This will give you an idea of what you are doing well and where you could focus your attention: 4d-self-mastery-assessment Dialogue
While individual transformation is essential for organizational transformation, we still need to find ways to work together so we can create higher order systems. Dialogue is a key tool for being in higher order relationships and accessing the deep wisdom that is in the collective. It is a means for both personal and collective transformation.
Dialogue practice involves suspending judgment, listening deeply, and balancing advocacy and inquiry. These are skills we teach as authentic communication. These can be practiced in 1:1 coaching, mentoring and team conversations. People share their truth and listen to the experience of others. Through dialogue, assumptions and beliefs have a chance of being exposed and reexamined in service of creating a higher order system.
Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Our task as leaders is raising consciousness. Choice follows awareness, and your choice has the power to transform. Through practices such as mindfulness, self-mastery and dialogue, we can lead transformation from within.
What is your current development goal?
Why Do It?
Empowerment seems to have become an over-used term, often regarded as too vague or fluffy. So what is the real meaning of empowerment and why do it? According to dictionary definitions, there are two sides to the empowerment coin. One is to invest someone with power or authority; in other words, to delegate. The other meaning is to equip them with the ability to use that power and authority.
Proponents of empowerment have hard-edged economic outcomes in mind, going beyond the goals of increasing happiness and satisfaction of individuals. They’re also seeking the practical and strategic goals of organizational innovation, customer problem solving and lifting productivity. They see empowerment as a path to increase pro-activity, autonomy and a sense of ownership throughout the company.
In today’s business world, the demand for agility and fast learning within teams and across organizations is even higher. In the face of the VUCA world (it’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), the ability to gain and discard knowledge, and to act without certainty or pre-established rules, is essential for survival and makes ‘empowerment’ a no-brainer. “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” –Steve Jobs
Why Not ‘Just Do It’? (or, what leaders are afraid of)
If the benefits of empowerment are so clear, why don’t we all ‘just do it’? What stops us from building a culture of empowerment? Maybe it’s the fear of what could go wrong – what if I empower people and they go too far and make a mess of things? After all, as a leader, you’re the one responsible for making sure that things run well. However, that fear of what might go wrong can lead to too much control, often called micromanaging, and that’s disempowering to others, who end up feeling their contribution is unimportant.
People need to have confidence that they have the resources to act and solve a problem. For that reason, the leadership mindset of ‘how do I set them up for success’ (rather than telling them how to do it), is at the heart of the matter. We must face our own fear of what might happen when we relinquish control, and do it anyway. As the economist, Friedrich August von Hayec, said, “Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances, but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad…. Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom.”
Forgotten Power (or, what we’re all afraid of)
It’s not only hesitation to relinquishing control in management that hampers the road to empowerment. Many people in organizational life at all levels have simply forgotten their own power. They have learnt to buckle under, to stick to the known and many live in fear. They fear their boss, fear losing their job, fear not getting on with their colleagues, fear failure… and this leads to a learnt helplessness and a lack of self-empowerment, often based on rational choices. You, as a manager, might begin to provide a culture of empowerment and find that your employees don’t take the initiative. This is because of learnt helplessness that has developed over the years. Employees with this challenge can be likened to the Thai elephants who were tethered with an 18-foot lead from the time they were young and didn’t discover they could break the tether as they grew stronger; even as adults without the tether, they won’t go further than 18 feet. Like this, in the context of organisations , we can fail to see how much choice and how much strength we actually possess.
These preconceptions of our own power can mean good intentioned “giving” of empowerment results in cynicism and even panic in the team. People might not see the benefits of empowerment, and only see unguided and unresourced work, which will cause them to feel panicked and unprepared. Human beings exist in three states: the comfort zone, where we function automatically, comfortably and often without even thinking; the stretch zone, which is the learning zone where we are consciously thinking about what we’re doing and applying effort to it; and finally, the panic zone, where things are overwhelming and happening too quickly and we are unable to think clearly.
What Motivates People?
A leader’s responsibility is to help people to expand their stretch zone: where they can learn, grow and be empowered. In the stretch zone, we’re curious, open, engaged, pro-active and present; we listen, experiment, learn and practice. This is a level of consciousness beyond the auto-pilot of sleep-walking through our workday.
The good news is that people want this level of consciousness for themselves. We all yearn for work that engages us this way. Take the work of Shawn Achor and Dan Pink . They notice people being productive in happinessand motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose.
But there is a hurdle to overcome, as we each must tackle the fear of failure that dominates so many of our organizational cultures. While most human beings want to do nothing but the right thing, our organizations hold fear as a driver, and in that context, people fear the eye of criticism far more constantly than they feel a hand of support at their back.
In the words of Benjamin Zander, who believes in giving his students an “A” at the beginning of class and then letting them live up to it — practicing the art of possibility in the very words we use to encourage and teach others (https://youtu.be/qTKEBygQic0). That’s an environment where empowerment can thrive.
High Delegation + High Support
It’s important to make sure that employees don’t feel that they’re being “empowered” to do more work without having the capability, resources and support for it. Like the metaphor of driving, if we want people to take high responsibility for how they drive their car, for the safety of their car and for their passengers, as we all do? for others on the road, then agreed upon rules and support for learning are also required. We call this ‘freedom within a framework’.
What does this high delegation and high support require in the context of your leadership and your teaming?
If you want to empower others, you should ask yourself how you can serve the happiness and empowerment of your colleagues and your teams. How can you make a difference? Consider the impact your own behavior has on others. Each of your conversations can bring increased power to the other person. Increasing both the authority given to the other person and your support will increase that person’s self-responsibility and sense of ‘I can do it’. Increased self-responsibility increases a person’s capability to live in the stretch zone.
One Conversation at a Time
By tacking this “One Conversation At a Time ” you cannot go wrong. You can change the culture of an organization step by step, one conversation at a time. You control yourself and your actions. If you don’t get it right the first time around, you can come back at it again and again. There is no a ‘wrong thing’ to do, there is only learning.
Three types of mutually empowering conversations are :
1. More Authentic Appreciation There are many times we think something positive about a member of our team, but we never actually voice it. The key to authentic appreciation is to be specific. Instead of saying, “Thank you for your work on this,” consider saying, “Meghan, last week when you offered to help me with my project, I felt really supported and relieved, whereas before I had felt stressed and overwhelmed. You have helped me a lot.Thank you.”
2. More Inquiry Put yourself in the shoes of the other person and ask that person to explain whatever you need to understand their. Be curious about what is happening for them especially when something goes wrong. Discover their perspective and listen to them with patience.
3. Mutual Learning Conversations These are conversations that are set up to solve a problem together, while always empowering and supporting the other person. Use phrases like: “What would you like to have happen?” “Given that, what is under your control?” “What could you do?” and “What help can I offer to help you achieve that outcome?” You can also ask questions that empower them to be part of the solution, putting themselves in the picture. That’s empowering.
And, in summary, these tips…
Listen, be curious, ask people what they think
Give honest and appreciative feedback as a way of life; catch people doing good
Freedom within a framework, be highly transparent about boundaries and expectations (not about the details)
Magnify courageous actions, expand confidence that risk taking is learning, is worthwhile
Encourage what is under their control, rather than focusing on them and theirs, look at me and mine, we and ours
Be available for mutual learning conversations
Put your “red pen” away
As a leader, asking yourself, “What will I do to serve the happiness and engagement of my colleagues and my team today?” – that’s empowerment.