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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Most company leaders are afraid to publish your numbers for gender and diversity pay parity, promotion rate, etc., because they haven’t changed sufficiently. They don’t publish the metrics, don’t have target goals, and blame the attorneys for that bad business practice (plenty of companies, with more attorneys than you, do publish), and the transparency tsunami is going to expose your numbers soon enough. Some are updated regularly in public Google documents (e.g., women in software engineering).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”

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[1]. Figure 1 shows the average performance loss (by importance ratings) that managers gave to specific breakdowns in the planning and execution process[2]

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[3].

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[4].

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)[5]. 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[6].
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[7].
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[8]. 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[9].
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.

[1] Source: Sull, Homkes & Sull, 2015.
[2] Source: Mankins & Steele, 2005.
[3] Source: Kaplan & Norton, 2008
[4] Source: Durig, 2010
[5] Fred Kofman, 2006
[6] Ibid.
[7] Fred Kofman, 2004
[8] Altaffer & Kallás, 2017
[9] Axialent


“Change is hard.”
Is it?
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:

  1. We wait too long to get started or lollygag through the process of starting.
  2. 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.
  3. We treat it like an event versus a lifestyle; we don’t walk the talk.
  4. We don’t use expert tools and processes; we wing it or “amateur-hour” it.
  5. We don’t create the space (culture) for creativity, collaboration, etc.; we try to command and control culture change.
  6. 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.
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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.
 

Disruption is fundamentally changing what defines a great leader in today’s world. Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore! In this disruptive world, the heroic, all- knowing leader is a relic of the past. Today’s leaders are responsible for re-inventing their business with a sense of purpose and the ability to create meaning for employees. These leaders have to have the agility, authenticity, and sense of self to do this knowing that control is a mirage.
If disruption weren’t enough, the very base upon which leadership is built—trust and authority—are being revolutionized in this VUCA world. Change, ambiguity, and uncertainty require stronger and stronger emotional bonds between leaders and employees than ever before, especially when leaders have to lead at scale and out of sight. It asks for leaders who are congruent in message and behavior; leaders who are role models of strength and humility.
Today’s strong leaders are described as collaborative, inclusive, engaging, and inspiring. Work groups are required to be team focused, democratic, matrixed, and participative. Everyone expects to have a voice.
Until now, the hard, cold masculine emphasis on logic, numbers strategy, and finance was pitted against the soft, intimate, feminine qualities of relationships and behavior. In today’s highly disruptive, competitive environments, decisions about the business are inseparable from concerns about how the culture, behaviors of leaders, and quality of the dialogue they create can enable the strategy given the context of their challenges.
Leadership used to be about maintaining order and replicating processes. Leadership of today is about navigating ambiguity. Leaders of today need to be catalysts and empowering and inspiring authentic storytellers of purpose and direction. No longer can leaders expect employees to perform solely in exchange for financial and job security. In today’s volatile economy, leaders are expected to provide individualized development and, most importantly, meaning for their direct reports in exchange for job performance. In order to do this, they need to have discovered their own sense of meaning and purpose.
By purpose, I mean the strongly felt sense of responsibility that a leader has for taking action even in the face of risk, conflict, and uncertainty. Purpose is the grounding that enables leaders to be agile amidst disruption, to earn the trust of others, and to lead without ascribed power and authority. It goes beyond talent, skills, or even knowledge. Unlike personality or behavioral approaches to leadership, purpose defies quantification, categorization, or assessment. Purpose can’t be taught, but it can be discovered.
When disruption hits an organization, the last place most companies think to look is at their purpose. Most try to come up with a new strategy to win, using their old Oz-style of leadership, in a game where they have already lost. If you look at the companies that have performed over time and outperformed all others, you’ll see a common thread around their purpose. Member of Axialent’s Advisory Board Raj Sisodia in his book Firms of Endearment articulates it best when he says “Providing shareholders a good return on their investment remains an important objective, but the idea is spreading that investment returns can be greater when wealth creation for shareholders is not the sole or even main purpose for which a company exists.” And indeed, the companies he researched — the Firms of Endearment — are characterized by leaders who pursue a purpose beyond returns and have proven to outperform the S&P 500 by significant margins, returning 1,026 percent for investors over the ten years ending in June 2006 compared to the 122 percent for the S&P 500.
The Oz model of leadership has been dismantled by disruption and we have entered an era of purpose-driven leaders at their best in the face of ambiguity.
Here are some ideas on how to start a conversation in your organization:
 Where are we fully aligned with our values; where are we not?
 What part of our rhythm of business challenges our most aspirational of values?
 Where in our system are we missing the opportunity to reward feminine leadership, regardless of gender?
 Where are we at risk of rewarding/celebrating only masculine traits? What is the cost?
What is the purpose of our business outside of financial performance?

by Fred Kofman

Combining the Basic Steps of the Dance of Communication

Conversations can change our beliefs, perceptions, and actions. When we converse skillfully we can help each other to expand our thinking, act more compassionately and wisely, and learn more deeply. When we converse unskillfully we can wound, confuse, manipulate and dehumanize each other.
We claim that the way in which we advocate and inquire at the workplace is based on our
desire to maintain unilateral control at all times. In business conversations we often believe that our definition of what needs to be accomplished, and how it needs to be accomplished, is the only valid one. We believe that we are right and that everyone else is wrong; that we are reasonable and open, while everyone else is not; and that unlike the others, we are acting for the benefit of the whole. From the unilateral control model, we will advocate by:

  • Proposing our views as finished products without revealing our reasoning processes. This prevents others from understanding our data, logic and concerns, and discourages others from asking questions, challenging our statements or offering alternative views.
  • Focus on being “right” and “looking good” rather than on being effective.

And we will inquire by:

  • Asking only leading or rhetorical questions.
  • Asking questions to prove others wrong rather than to learn.
  • Couching statements as questions.
  • Not asking any questions that could expose our position or mental model.
  • Discouraging inquiry into our own reasoning and data.
  • Using questions to show others’ lack of knowledge.

Using this kind of advocacy and inquiry we try to steer conversations in the “appropriate” direction. When different people have different ideas about what is appropriate, this unconscious pattern of unilaterally taking charge has dire consequences: high defensiveness, low commitment, political gamesmanship and escalating errors.
There is another way to approach advocacy and inquiry that can establish a new standard of productivity, one that promotes mutual learning, deeper understanding and increased commitment. This new approach uses the mental model: “We need to work together to understand and address the real issues. I don’t have all of the information. I may even be inferring incorrectly. My job is to learn and to help others to learn so that we can create the best possible outcome. That is how I gain respect in the company.” This model asserts that winning is possible only if there is learning, and that learning is paramount to creating success.
In this article, we will learn how to advocate and inquire productively. What we cannot do in this article is to instill the most important guideline for using advocacy and inquiry effectively—the genuine desire to relate to others with dignity and curiosity. You will have to find that in your heart.

Productive advocacy

Productive advocacy helps to move the collective thinking of a group forward, to create shared understanding and direction, and to turn words and ideas into coordinated action. It also helps reveal and resolve potential flaws in reasoning, gaps in information and conflicts in goals. Advocating productively requires awareness of yourself and others, skill in speaking and in listening, sensitivity, respectfulness and humility. Here are some strategies for productive advocacy:

  • Expose the key assumptions, biases and presuppositions of your mental model.
  • Expose your reasoning, your data, your concerns and your goals.
  • If you have doubts about your data or your conclusions, share them up front.
  • When making your case, use observations rather than assessments whenever possible to substantiate your argument (see the article, “Observations and Assessments”). If you use assessments, acknowledge them as such and take ownership of them.
  • Illustrate your reasoning with examples and concrete instances. (See the article “The Ladder of Inference.”)
  • Inquire into others’ reactions to your arguments.
  • Encourage others to inquire into your views: “Do you have different data?” “Do you see gaps in my reasoning?” “Do you draw a different conclusion?” “Is this taking care of your concerns?” “Is this congruent with your goals?”
  • Acknowledge that any inferences, attributions and assessments you make are your own.
  • State the observations and reasoning on which your inferences, attributions and assessments are based; let the others participate in your thought process rather than your thought product.
  • Acknowledge to yourself and others that you might be wrong.

Advancing your case with humility and being respectful of alternative positions does not weaken your advocacy; it redirects it. Your intention moves toward learning and not toward prevailing at any cost. Instead of “I am right and you are wrong,” the implicit message of productive advocacy is “I see the situation from a limited perspective, and through the filters of my mental model. I don’t think that this is the only possible way of making sense of what is happening. So I want to share my observations, thoughts and interests with you, and get your reactions to them. Together we can create a more effective outcome than I would on my own.” Here is an example of productive advocacy: Instead of declaring that “We should hire Bill, not Larry,” you could say, “I believe that Bill would be a better choice than Larry. I have met with each one of them for a two‐hour interview, read their résumés and talked with those who wrote their recommendation letters. Overall, Bill impressed me as more qualified. He has a degree in organizational behavior and has worked in the education area for the last fifteen years. Larry has been successful as an expert consultant in curriculum design, but he has never worked as a teacher. My view about this matter comes from limited observations and many inferences. I might be wrong, or incomplete. I would like to hear what others think of this matter.”

Productive inquiry

Productive inquiry is an essential companion to productive advocacy. This kind of inquiry is more than knowing what questions to ask and learning how to ask them skillfully. Productive inquiry is a method of engagement, a way to be present with yourself and with others. Attentiveness and genuine curiosity are your most important tools if you wish to
inquire effectively—that, and the willingness to really listen to the other person. The wonder of discovering the other person’s world is inversely proportional to our sense of self‐ importance. National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg, writing about lessons learned from having conducted more than 20,000 interviews, wrote, “The more carefully you listen, the more interesting the talk can be.”
Here are some strategies for productive inquiry:

  • Explain why you’re inquiring, and display your assumptions, biases and concerns.
  • Focus your inquiry on learning, not on proving yourself right or your partner wrong.
  • Hold your thoughts and judgments lightly.
  • Make your reasoning and your data apparent: “I believe that you want to minimize costs, so I am puzzled to hear that you intend to hire consultants who will charge us a higher fee.”
  • Be curious about the other person’s reasoning, data, concerns, and their mental model.
  • Ask open‐ended questions: “Do you have a different view?” “What led you to do or think that?” “What is your conclusion?”
  • Ask the other person about your role in the problem or the solution: “How do you think I am contributing to our continual breakdowns?”
  • Test what the other person says by asking for illustrations or examples: “How would your thinking affect this project?” “Can you tell me how your proposal would impact the current situation?”
  • Check your understanding of the other person’s position: “Let me make sure I understand you correctly.”
  • Write down or otherwise record in advance questions you know you want answered. That way you can pay more attention to the conversation itself, and also ask the questions that arise directly from what you hear in the exchange.
  • Don’t ask questions unless you’re genuinely interested in the other person’s response.
  • Listen, listen, listen.

Balancing advocacy and inquiry

The power of productive advocacy and inquiry compounds when you use them together. It is never enough in a conversation to advocate only or inquire only. If you only advocate, you will not learn about potential flaws in your own thinking. Neither will you learn about the other person’s reasoning, nor data that may conflict with your own. The practice of advocacy alone may prevent the best possible argument from being developed.
If you only inquire, you may deprive others from hearing an alternative view that could strengthen or change the direction of the discussion. By not exposing your views to public examination, you might perpetuate faulty thinking that can lead to faulty decisions later. Worse, you might use inquiry as a way of leading the discussion to validate your own views, views which you keep hidden.
Then there is the ‘water cooler conversation’ or ‘bathroom conversation’ syndrome. You might probe during a conversation or remain silent, keeping your real views to yourself—only to reveal them later around the water cooler or in the bathroom: “I didn’t say anything in order to avoid hurting his feelings, but I thought Alex’s proposal was ridiculous. It was based on numbers that were obviously fabricated.” This posture does nothing to advance the discussion, not to mention help Alex or the company improve their performance.
According to Diana Smith, different results are a function of the different levels of advocacy and inquiry in a conversation:

  • High advocacy and high inquiry lead to collaborating and learning
  • High advocacy and low inquiry lead to forcing and pushing
  • Low advocacy and high inquiry lead to easing and accommodating
  • Low advocacy and low inquiry lead to withdrawing and withholding

When you reach an impasse or a dilemma

Using productive advocacy and inquiry will help you to deepen and broaden your understanding of the other person and his position, and vice versa. It does not guarantee that you will reach an agreement that is satisfactory to everyone. This process may simply serve to expose deeper issues that are more difficult to resolve. If you reach an impasse or face a dilemma in your conversation:

  • State the impasse or the dilemma explicitly, and ask for help: “I’m feeling stuck. On the one hand we need to create a flexible system, and on the other hand we need to cut all redundancies. I don’t know how to do both together. Do you have any ideas?”
  • If others appear closed to inquiring into their own views, ask what data or logic might change their views: “Can you think of any logical argument or piece of information that might disconfirm your view?”
  • Ask if there is any way to obtain new information: “Is there an experiment we might try that will provide us with more data?”
  • Invite them to reverse roles and see the world from a different standpoint: “If you were in my place, how would you proceed?”
  • Ask others to teach you how to express your view productively, i.e., in a way that does not create defensiveness in them: “How could I tell you about my concerns in a non‐aggressive manner? Can you help me state my perspective in a way that respects your views?”
  • If others are hesitant to express their views, encourage them to talk about the barriers: “What is it about this situation, me, or others that is making open exchange difficult?” Use of the Left‐Hand Column exercise may assist this process (see the article, “Public and Private Conversations.”)
  • Design ways to overcome those barriers: “How could we work together to express our views?”

Conclusion

There are myriad elements and nuances to successful advocacy and inquiry which can be discovered and practiced over time. But at the core, there are just a few simple questions to ask, if you wish to advocacy and inquiry effectively:

  • What is my intention in this conversation?
  • Am I more interested in learning or in prevailing?
  • What are my beliefs and assumptions, and am I willing to change them?
  • What outcome matters most to me?

Then ask the same questions about your conversational partners. Learning the answers, and entering the exchange with a stance of awareness, openness, curiosity and reflection, may help you to have a far more productive and satisfying conversation than you had imagined possible.