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Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with people whose organizations are going through a not uncommon, but often painful and sometimes even terminal, phenomenon: questioning their relevance, their place in the world.
Even as I type those words they feel heavy. There is weight to the idea that a thing, once useful and full of life and purpose, is now struggling. The warning signs are clear: fewer dollars, programs that aren’t working, staff attrition and low morale, confusion over mission and leadership apathy. Look around. Things may even look dreary: piles of boxes and papers strewn about, too much furniture crowding the space, faded posters hanging askew.
The weight may have to do with grief over the loss of something once great; it may be about the lack of energy to face the situation; it may be because this time in organizations is metaphorical for something we also experience as individuals.
Think of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s 1949 play. It epitomizes the sheer torture of what losing relevance, one’s place in life can mean. It is one of the most brutal plays I know, and everyone should see it. Once. For my part, I will never, ever see it again because I am too afraid I’ll jump up on stage and shake the living daylights out of Willy Loman. Yell at him to wake up, to get him to see that he has choices, and they are way beyond what he has known. Poor Willy. There weren’t any coaches or transition consultants in his day.
Enter the good news: today we know that the phenomenon of declining relevance is part of a natural cycle, like the seasons. All living things, including people and organizations – for profit, nonprofit, and governments - traverse through stages in life. These stages of growth, maturity, harvest and repose may take place over different time spans (months, years, even eons – remember the dinosaurs?), but they are inevitable. And seasoned leaders are seasoned because they have learned to watch for the symptoms, the harbingers of each, and to act in accord.
Without such seasoned leadership, the first of these stages is usually the most uncomfortable in an organization. Each stage comes as a surprise, throwing people into a reactive mode rather than a responsive one. One on end of the cycle are start-ups. Many more start-ups fail than make it because the people running the start-up fail to recognize and anticipate the symptoms, have no plan for addressing them, and otherwise are as green as their organizations are.
On the other end, an organization that’s been around for a substantial amount of time and achieved relative success, even major success, can begin to experience signs of decline. (I can think of some hospitals and universities as cases in point.) If this is the first time this has happened, leadership is often confused by what’s going on and may or may not even be willing to name it. The more seasoned leaders utter the word “relevance.” The bold ones look it square in the eye and start getting creative (Steve Jobs is the stunning example of this kind of bold creativity at work).
Relevance is a great word. It stands for currency in the world. Does the organization do something, make something, serve something that is currently recognized and needed? Does it do this in a way that people respond to, that works now? Relevance is not about resting on our laurels. We once could have been the greatest thing since sliced bread (or Polaroid or Blockbuster), but now is what counts.
The key to relevance is knowing that it is all about currency, all about the NOW. And for this reason, everything, every organization has a shelf life. The question then becomes, how do we recognize the signs before we are obsolete? And what will we decide to do when those signs are in our sights?
How do we recognize the signs? Should we wait until the catastrophic ones like apathy, attrition and bankruptcy are looming? Of course not. The best way to see the signs is to develop a regular process for taking a look, for assessing institutional viability in the marketplace. Most organizations do this to some degree. Combine this with a regular process for looking out into the world, to watch for shifting trends that may affect your business, and now leadership can effectively maintain a course for continued relevance.
Then, when the signs are in our sights, what are we willing to do? Is leadership willing to act on the signs, swiftly and decisively? Are they willing to do what it takes, to reinvent the organization, if called for? This could mean shutting down a major part of the business or opening a new one on the other side of town or the other side of the world. It might mean giving away a whole line of products to ensure the continued vibrancy of the core business. (Sound familiar? Google does this.) It might even mean shutting things down altogether. If relevance is so threatened, is it better to choose death or to go down by increments, painfully, publicly, perhaps even infamously? (Circuit City comes to mind.)
I suggest choosing death, remembering that death too, is part of the cycle. Willy Loman killed himself, and maybe, in the end, it was his best choice. I like to think that, with a little, ok, well a lot of coaching and perhaps some skills development, Willy could have reinvented himself. But unlike Willy, in the case of organizations, even death isn’t final. It can result in rebirth, in a new beginning toward relevance.
At a conference I attended last month (blog post on it here), the keynote contained this nugget: the need for leadership to transform the relationship with risk. My ears pricked up as I wrote it down. I wondered how many other people heard it, registered it, wondered what it might mean? I noticed it because it gets right at how I think about leadership.
A leader without a vision is like a carpenter without wood. And we all know, having the wood doesn’t make a carpenter, making something from the wood does. For someone to be a leader, he or she must first have a vision, and then, make substantial progress toward it, if not achieve it in full. That progress is made by leading others to join in, to see the glory the vision holds, to believe it is possible and to make it so.
A vision is (or should be) something grand, luminous, audacious, perhaps even seemingly impossible. In fact, many of the very best visions teeter on the edge of insanity (and some even topple right off!) “Are you crazy? That will never happen.” A vision stands in the face of the naysayers, taunting them and inspiring others to do the extraordinary.
How about the dream of a country where race didn’t separate people at a time when schools, restaurants, buses, every facet of daily life was drawn by this line? Or the vision of a sovereign France and leading her countrymen to win it at a time when England ruled handily over the land, and men didn’t take orders from girls? And centuries before, the idea of a round earth when everyone else’s world was, and would remain for a very long time, flat. These visions were “out there.” And an interesting paradox is that the more out there a vision is – in other words, the more it differs from what currently exists – the more likely it is to inspire us.
What makes such vision possible? What enables some people to reach way beyond conventional wisdom, the norm, see far into future time, into what humanity will become, and lead us there? One important part of the equation is their relationship with risk.
This relationship is both an essential element of leadership’s ability to conceive a worthy vision and the ingredient that makes for how far leadership will get in achieving it. Too much risk aversion makes for lousy, uninspiring vision, or for overly cautious steps that take forever. Too little attention to risk, on the other hand, makes for flying blindly into the fire and being burned before anything much happens.
So, what is the meaning of “transforming leadership’s relationship with risk?” Transform it how?
- Does it mean get over risk? Stop being stymied by it? We have big problems in this world; we need big visions to address them and an aversion to risk results in winnowing vision down to so many tiresome to do lists.
- Does it mean pay more heed to risk? Use it to curb our impulsive activity? We are so busy and so apt to leap to solution before we truly understand the scope of the problem, let’s use risk as an assessment tool to focus our action on what is truly important.
- Does it mean get really good at identifying and managing it? “The times they are a changing” is the new normal, and we need experts at identifying risk and managing the unexpected as a matter of routine.
The answer is it means all of them.
The thing about risk is that it’s relative. One person’s risk is another’s walk in the park. If your leadership is lackluster, tending more toward a commute than a discovery of the unknown, you may be too risk averse, and your transformation is to move toward risk with more congeniality, even appetite. If your leadership style drives you toward many exciting opportunities all at once, while driving your team to distraction, your challenge may be to learn to use risk as an assessment tool that focuses activity with laser-like precision. And if you find yourself hanging solo and rope-less from a cliff, sweat loosening your grip, your work may be to stop dismissing risk and learn its value in developing strategy.
There are also different kinds of risk: risk of life and limb, risk of failure, of public ridicule, of wasted time and energy, of someone else getting there first. When you travel abroad, are you more concerned about getting sick, spending more than you budgeted, or not having as good a time as your friends who went last year? Knowing your risk awareness (what you consider risky and what you do not) and your risk tolerance (the level or amount of risk you can endure without compromising effective functioning), provides a valuable starting point for transforming your relationship with risk.
And risk changes according to context. Not only are there different kinds of risk, there are situations in which some risk is higher or more threatening than in others. An Everest summit expedition presents different types of risk than opening a new division overseas or developing national policy on climate change. This is one of the reasons why leadership can be off-the-charts amazing in one situation and a dismal failure in another. Are you considering the right risks given the context in which you are leading?
Whatever your particular relationship with risk, know that it is a defining factor in your ability to lead. It determines the scale of your vision and how far you’ll get in achieving it. It affects how you see and deal with those you lead (people more risk averse than you seem timid, and people less so, crazy). And the same principles hold true for leadership teams and organizations.
So, if you’re headed into leadership, learning about your relationship with risk and working to transform it to full advantage is really a darn good idea.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Jorge Haddock for putting the idea into his keynote.
What makes the difference between a collaboration that results in brilliant, new thinking and the ugly opposite: more entrenched, polarized, stuck thinking? One of my readers asked me recently, how do you deal with politics and power plays in collaboration? This is such a great question because it gets at the heart of exactly what makes the difference.
Let’s start by looking at what “politics and power plays” are. Simply put, they are some of the ways people get what they want. They are the way some people work when a clear, open process to get what they want doesn’t exist.
The more vested someone is, the more important it is to them to know how to influence decisions that affect them. And the more extreme their behavior will become in contexts where this is unclear, inaccessible or both. We want to be heard, and if it’s important enough, you and I will go to extreme lengths to be so, even if we look manipulative, rude or downright crazy to everyone else.
Every one of us has experienced areas of life where the way things work is murky, overly complex, and badly (if at all) communicated. Think neighborhoods, schools, municipalities, banking, the office, the tax code, even the produce section at your local grocery store – who is deciding produce selection and what criteria are they using, anyway? Do you take what you can get, or try to influence the process through the suggestion box or a visit to the manager? And if that doesn’t work, do you take your business elsewhere, throw your weight around, or jump up on your soap box?
So, if we all have the capability of extreme tactics to get what we want, what hope is there for collaboration? When we want to use collaboration to get something important done, like develop a plan for sustainable water use, or design and implement a major fundraising event, or develop new office policy around flex time? Won’t these efforts be killed every time by politics, power plays or people just giving up?
The hope comes from understanding these dynamics, what causes them and what to do about them. First, those managing the collaborative process need to remember that people come to the table because they care. They want something. And that’s a good thing. Second, since we want and need vested people in the room, we should anticipate that for them to participate in a productive, effective way (instead of resorting to more extreme behaviors like power plays) they need to understand a few key things:
- the scope of the collaboration – what is being addressed and, just as important, what is not?
- the role of those involved in the collaboration – is it to frame the issue, to develop recommendations on it, to provide expert knowledge, or…?
- the governance process – how will the issue(s) ultimately be decided (what, who, when)?
So, at the beginning, these questions are carefully considered and decided. Let me emphasize: this work happens well in advance of the start of the collaborative effort. These are NOT issues to “wing it” on or to address as you go! Then, communicate the decisions (referred to a “process parameters” or “rules of engagement” or whatever term best fits your situation) as an explicit part of the invitation to participants. Surprisingly, most people are pleased to see that this has been thought through.
Next, re-emphasize the process parameters at the first session, and at all subsequent sessions as needed (e.g., when the collaboration is open and new people come each time, review at each meeting is essential). And all while the collaboration process is underway, it must adhere to the scope, role and governance process as decided. This may seem terribly obvious, but the number of times I have seen people transgress their own process (scope of work, bylaws, charters, job descriptions, etc.) is both stunning and remarkably self-defeating.
People can accept rules and parameters, which are essential to well-functioning group process, but not if they change without warning or reason. And disregarding them wholesale is even worse. Managing the collaborative process in a way that honors agreements is exactly like a personal relationship: people trust people who do what they say they will.
And this trust is fundamental to achieving great things from collaboration. It’s simple: if people are always worrying about how something is getting done (process), they have less energy to focus on what is being done (content). In collaboration, the goal is to get the collaboration participants fully engaged in the content so that great outcomes can result. The more participants distrust or don’t understand the process, the more they will focus on it – with some people resorting to those negative behaviors that cause collaboration to fail. In countless such efforts, I have experienced the most seemingly aggressive and manipulative participants shift to invaluable members of the team simply because they come to trust the process.
By the way, this is not to say that process parameters can’t change – in multi-year collaborations, there is often a need to re-think them: scope may need to expand or contract, roles shift, governance change. When this occurs, giving participants the heads up well before changes are made and the opportunity to give input is the way to maintain credibility.
In summary, politics and power plays, as well as other challenging behaviors, show up in collaborative processes when there is:
- lack of clarity about the scope and intent of the collaboration
- lack of clarity about the roles and other process parameters of the collaboration
- weak or ineffective adherence to process parameters during collaboration
The good news is that, understanding this, you can see unwanted behavior not as a threat or failure, but as a terrific signal that it is time to re-look at and/or re-clarify these. And remember, basic sincerity about all of this goes a long way in repairing any mis-steps.
Ever noticed that governance only lasts so long before it shows signs of aging? Those signs that governance has lost its luster, its relevance, its meaning, some of which include:
1) Decisions don’t hold in the organization – they are second-guessed or ignored.
2) Decisions seem to made willy-nilly, in a duplicative manner, or take forever.
3) Governing bodies are apathetic, contentious, or both.
4) People complain about not knowing how decisions are made or how they can affect them.
Governance reaching its expiration date is a routine happenstance in organizations. What isn’t so routine is the ability to recognize the early symptoms of past-due governance and do something about them before the organization experiences what can result: low productivity, morale problems, and leadership turnover. The odd thing about governance is how little explicit attention is paid to it when, in fact, it drives one of the key assets of any organization: the ability to crank out robust, well understood, actionable decisions.
For this reason, at the outset of a consultancy, one of the first questions I ask is how well does the organization make decisions? Fortunately, people don’t need governance expertise to answer; everyone in an organization is usually aware of how well decision-making works. Think about your own. If your response is a grimace or a roll of the eyes, governance is likely at its expiration date.
One board I worked with complained bitterly that things weren’t getting done, board membership was down, and meetings were poorly attended. Staff pointed to board and board to staff as the source of the problem. When I asked if the board had committees and how they were working, the reply was they had them, and they used to work well, but now they rarely met and produced little. Why doesn’t a solid set of committees, with clear charters and a roster of able members last? Why does governance have an expiration date? The answer is simple: things change.
For instance, say you and I are going to dinner. The decision about where to go will be made fairly easily and will not require much governance, in other words, we won’t need formalized process, roles, responsibilities, or authority to make the decision. However, if you and I need to meet for dinner once each month, the decision about where to go may need a bit more governance. That is, if I always choose the restaurant, without an explicit agreement about this role giving me the authority to do it, you may become unhappy and after a few months, revolt. Or worse, you stop showing up for dinner.
Then let’s say we ask ten others to join us in our monthly dinner – now the governance needs to be designed in such a way as to consider all involved, be transparent to them, and perhaps even be written down to ensure adherence to what was agreed. People like clarity about how decisions are made; the more complex the organization and its decisions, the more important governance becomes.
And, no matter how well it is designed, just like planning and leadership, governance needs to be reviewed and refreshed from time to time. This is because there are many factors in play affecting governance that are in a constant state of flux. For instance, world forces change (e.g. new restaurants open), internal culture shifts (people with food allergies join in), people move about (some of us come from the suburbs), and skills develop (a few of us take a cooking class).
The more an organization understands that decision-making is one of its most prized assets, the more attentive it should be to governance. An organization’s ability to see its governance as simply the mechanism that produces efficient decision-making, and then to analyze governance effectiveness and redesign it when indicated, is an organization well-suited to today’s pace of change.
If governance seems like a bureaucratic annoyance, consider how decisions are made in your organization. Without clear, relevant governance, chaos reigns and people get cranky. Great governance, on the other hand, operates invisibly, all the while creating trust inside an organization and inspiring confidence outside it.
Is it time to check the expiration date where you are?
I attended a terrific conference in Hot Springs, Virginia this past week. The title was Management of Change. Those are three powerful words. Management of Change. They are what attracted me to the conference in the first place, and I’ve been contemplating them since.
Both the words “management” and “change” signify a range of possibilities of meaning. Let’s take change first. I generally think about change as something pretty big, substantial, but clearly, it can refer to something as minor as changing one’s socks. The range of what change refers to is vast, including personal or individual changes, corporate or organization changes, and even global change. So, change is a tricky term with its significance gliding between the insignificant (sock change) to the momentous (climate change).
Surely, our attention is needed more toward the momentous scale. And if so, there’s another word that comes to mind: transformation. Although often a synonym for change, transformation sounds bigger. It implies something more desirable, in a way. There’s a sense of evolution in it and something more proactive. It’s as if change is always occurring and transformation is how we (hopefully) deal with it. I was talking with a coach a few weeks ago, and he said that change is temporary, whereas transformation is permanent. Then, conference keynote speaker, Dr. Jorge Haddock (Dean of George Mason University’s School of Management), deftly explained that change signifies something different in what we are doing, while transformation refers to something new in how we are being.
The distinction intrigues me. I work with my clients on the being part of the equation, while the client is generally more focused on the doing part. They want to do something they haven’t, for some reason, been able to – build a building, open a new line of business, turn around lagging morale, identify innovative solutions to air quality problems, collaborate across traditional boundaries, etc., etc. In all these cases, I am much less concerned with what the client decides to do since I know whatever that is will come clear after the being part is transformed. The doing is actually the easier part. As Louise Hay says, “I don’t fix problems, I fix thinking. Then problems fix themselves.”
No one changes anything of any significance without the will to do it. And will is comprised of understanding, motivation, values alignment, and the aha! that means things have chinked into place. When this happens, get ready for mind-blowing leaps in thinking, making way for life altering transformation, explosions of realization from which spring entirely new plateaus of awareness, service, compassion and impact. Innovation in what we do becomes possible by what we open our minds and hearts to in who we are.
The experience of this, what we call epiphany or revelation or quantum leap, is far too rare and precious in this world. How many groups do I start out with who come to the process skeptical, with the expectation that all they will get in our process is something insignificant, if not downright negligible? That nothing will change and certainly not anything on the scale of transformation. It’s as if we are so used to disappointment, we walk around taking what we can get as a matter of course.
The biggest challenge I have is helping people believe that something else is possible – that perhaps, this time, we can dare to dream, to go for something bigger than we’ve seen before, something we might describe as our heart’s desire. The moment when the group begins to transform their stance of “take what I can get and protect it like hell” to “imagine what could be possible” is magic indeed, because then I know we will get to the brilliance.
This kind of transformation is my life’s work. Helping people, groups, organizations, communities reach for the impossible, imagine the unbelievable, design strategy, map new territory, and track discovery of worlds unknown. I watch as the individuals in these groups come alive again, inspired by renewed meaning and the promise of returning the infinite’s investment in humanity.
So, while at the conference, I listened carefully for how the barriers to change were described. What keeps us from realizing greatness, the extraordinary?
- Is it technology? Do our mind’s imaginings outpace what our engineering can build? Surely, but that is only a matter of time.
- Is it imagination? Does the complexity of the issues test the limits of our imaginations? Definitely, but that is exactly what drives us to innovate.
- Is it what we believe? Does our culture of beliefs and values, dare I say, our maturity, keep us from doing what we know to be right? Yes. And this one will stop us dead in our tracks every time until we face it head on.
The Peter Drucker quote, “culture eats strategy for lunch,” came up in a couple of different contexts at the conference as a way of naming exactly this: all the best strategy in the world will come to nil if the culture is not in alignment with it. Throughout the conference, I heard culture as the main barrier to implementing real change. So what’s to be done in the face of the big “it’s just the way we are” or “that’s how we do it here”? The inertia of the old cow path? That’s where the “management” part of the conference name comes in.
By definition, if we are managing something, we know what we are doing and are making sure it happens. But in large-scale change, in areas where we need transformation, we don’t know. That’s the whole point. We aren’t ready yet to turn things over to managers; what we need is leadership. As Dr. Haddock said, we need leaders who listen for the culture, for the context of an issue and help people hear the stories they tell themselves that are no longer useful. Not more information, more content on the issue, but more attentiveness to its context. And to the process by which people can come together, develop shared understanding predicated on shared language, transform their understanding at a cellular level, see something new, bigger than they have before, all of which enables doing something brilliant.
As our issues grow in number, complexity and scope – in our organizations, our communities and our world, and the pace of change continues to increase, it is leadership of transformation that will pave the way for successful management of change.
A hearty thanks to the ACT/IAC team for such a well-run and thought-provoking conference, and to all the attendees for making the conversation so rich.
Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s recent blog post, Cisco and a Cautionary Tale about Teams, deftly correlates several key factors challenging organizational leadership today. Kanter says: “With buzz about self-organizing social networks increasingly dominating the world, and organizations of all sizes in all fields seeking more collaboration, it is worth pausing to revisit exactly what teamwork means.” Exactly. Leadership must consider the kind of “teamwork” that is desired in their organizations and then build the structure and process to foster it.
First though, let’s consider what Kanter means by “teamwork.” She is talking about how groups of people are organized to make decision-making and work efficient and effective. And different organizations desire and require different types of teamwork: some more collaborative, some less, some more integrative, some more specialized. And what kind of teamwork is needed in different organizations, and even in different parts of the same organization, is what is being called into question.
The traditional models of organizational structure (top down, command and control, silos of activity) that operated as the gold standard are being challenged on a variety of fronts, and that means it’s time for innovation. But for this to happen, leadership needs first to increase their capability in discussing organizational structure, and see doing so as answering a set of strategic questions. What decisions are made and where, with what input, in what timeframe, with what impacts on the particular “product” and with what tolerance by the specific organizational culture are all fundamentals of the governance conversation. Indeed, governance lies at the heart of much institutional angst right now.
The types of governance that have worked in the past, in areas well-known and understood (like financial management, HR, etc.), are being called into question in the newer arenas of technology and knowledge management. And this development coincides with the democratization of information (24/7 access to just about anything) that technology is pushing, as well as the demand for greater transparency and involvement in decision-making, that is itself a product of access. Because of these forces, governance in all our institutions is in a state of upheaval, with leadership being pushed to transform it. But if leadership is not fluent in the language of governance and the questions that need to be asked, with a solid understanding of the forces at work that are applying the pressure, leadership will find itself repeatedly designing and redesigning its governance to little effect.
And we see this in the preponderance of reorganizations. But governance redesign is much, much more than a reorg. Governance redesign means asking and answering basic questions about the type of decision-making the organization desires – overall and in specific areas within it. For example, as Kanter points out, a technology company by definition needs to be more agile in its decision-making than, say, an academic institution, in order to remain competitive and relevant in the rapidly evolving marketplace. At the same time, innovation is often the product of collaboration and so both agility and a collaborative environment may be desired. But since agile decision-making is generally at odds with the pace of more collaborative decision-making involving varied groups of people, this inherent tension will need to be reconciled in the governance structure that is created. Finding this balance will require innovative thinking about and design of governance, so leadership needs to get much more agile itself in governance stewardship acumen.
Kanter also brings up the notion of accountability. One of the reasons for command and control is that both authority and accountability are clear - in fact, one client of mine went so far as to say that only an individual can be accountable, never a group. To the contrary, I have worked with highly successful nonprofit boards where both collaboration and shared authority are givens. As Kanter says, leadership still exists in collaborative governance structures, but only if it is well designed and communicated. Where the governance model includes broader input and increased transparency, the charter, in which clear lines of authority and responsibility are described – even if in entirely new ways, gains renewed prominence. Unfortunately, many charters sit on dusty shelves because they are verbose, unclear, and considered just a formality.
And this is perhaps the state of governance overall: dusty, verbose, unclear and considered a formality. When in fact, clear governance, whatever the particular model, is the very fiber of teamwork, the foundation of organizational culture, the catapult to greatness or to a stunning lack thereof.