Monday, October 14, 2019

How do leaders successfully deal with accelerated change, chronic uncertainty and rampant complexity? - part #4

When dealing with accelerated change, chronic uncertainty and rampant complexity, leaders need to role model not getting caught in silo based thinking or decision making. They also should not tolerate it when others do it. Instead, they need to make important choices.

David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone wrote an excellent article on this subject called “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” in the November 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review. As they explain, “As in the other contexts, leaders face several challenges in the complex domain. Of primary concern is the temptation to fall back into traditional command-and-control management styles - to demand fail-safe business plans with defined outcomes. Leaders who don’t recognize that a complex domain requires a more experimental mode of management may become impatient when they don’t seem to be achieving the results they were aiming for. They may also find it difficult to tolerate failure, which is an essential aspect of experimental understanding. If they try to over control the organization, they will preempt the opportunity for informative patterns to emerge. Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.”

One element of these choices is create and maintain a learning culture. Given the recruitment and retention challenges in companies across the country at this time period, a learning culture creates the capacity to promote from within and to create spaces where people can gather, share and expand their perspective about what is happening and how to proceed.

If we as leader reinforce and support mono-cultures of the mind, we are bound to repeat the same problems over and over. There are many paths to innovation, creativity and effective action. Expanding the capacity of people to think and learn is crucial to our success. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, October 7, 2019

How do leaders successfully deal with accelerated change, chronic uncertainty and rampant complexity? - part #3

This morning I have been thinking about an interaction I had at the Spring 2019 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable. Myself and another person were walking down the hall toward the conference room where the Roundtable was to take place. I turned to the other person and asked “How long have we been working together?”

He replied, “Since November 1999. Do you remember when we first met?”

I thought for a moment and said, “I am sorry to say I don’t.”

He continued, “It was November 1999. You keynoted a conference that I attended. I was a first time CEO and I asked you after your presentation what I needed to know and do as a new leader. You told me to read the book, Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring To Excellence, Learning to Let Employees Lead  by Belasco and Stayer, and then to call you to discuss it.”

I smiled.

He continued the story by saying, “I did read the book and then I called you.” And with that, he quoted two of the most powerful lines from this book:

“Transfer ownership for work to those who execute the work.”

“Create the environment for ownership where each person wants to be responsible for his/her own performance.”

In times of accelerated change, chronic uncertainty and rampant complexity, we want people to own the work they are doing. We also want these same people to have a clear picture inside of them about what is a “great performance”. And finally, we want all the systems and structures to align and support that “great performance” at the individual, team and organizational levels.

As I wrote last week, I believe the foundation upon which ownership, clarity and alignment is built starts with the senior leadership team. The challenge for us at this time is to realize that within complex change the leader’s job with their team and the organization as a whole is to engage in active inquiry. 

Many years ago Stephen Covey explained it this way: “seek first to understand; second to be understood.” Active inquiry is based upon persistent and thoughtful inquiry through questions.

This past summer I worked with many different leadership teams as they began planning for the future. In particular, I was working with a senior leadership team where I asked three foundational questions:

- What is going right?

- What shouldn’t change as you execute a new strategic plan?

- What does growth mean to all of you?

In one particular circumstance, every single senior leader at the table would make a statement. No one asked questions. The CEO was stunned. There was no thoughtful inquiry.

At the end of the day, the CEO asked me for my analysis of the day’s meeting and I respond with “I don’t know if you can get there from here with this group of people. The day was all posture and no dialogue. They are senior managers but there was little senior leadership behaviors displayed at the individual or group level.”

Upon considerable reflection, I have figured out that complex times and changes require more interactive communication at multiple levels within the organization. The goal of which is to create understanding, trust and a level of dialogue where by we may discover “positive deviance”, i.e. a solution or set of solutions that may already working within the organization itself, rather than looking to outside people and companies for best practices or clues about how to proceed. Furthermore, interactive communication can redirect our attention from “what’s wrong” to “what’s right” 
This week, sit down and do your own reflecting. Ask yourself the following two questions: 

- Where are we building safe, respectful, and trusting work environments so all involved will commit to decisions and plans of action? 

- Where are we building time and space into our daily lives so we have the courage to hold one another accountable to delivering those plans?

Now is the time to work for a better future.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, September 30, 2019

How do leaders successfully deal with accelerated change, chronic uncertainty and rampant complexity? - part #2

Picking up where I left off last week, my third thought during this recent diner meeting was that complexity is the enemy of execution.

In simple terms, there are two basic patterns of change: First, there is complicated change where we put forth great effort, track and measure specific variables and most of the time this will result in predictable outcomes. When thinking about complicated change, image a Toyota Prius. An expert mechanic can take it apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and therefore the whole is the sum of its parts.

On the other hand, complex change also takes great effort, and we track and measure specific variables. However, with complex change the outcomes are unpredictable. When thinking about complex change, image a Brazilian rainforest. The rainforest is in constant flux, and the weather patterns change daily. Animal species who live there change or go extinct. Local agriculture or forest fires impacts it’s water, etc. Given the rainforest is in a constant dynamic state, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, most of what we understand about the rainforest, we understand in retrospect.

Right now, many leaders and their organization are dealing with complex change. As Charles Massy wrote in his book, Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018: “The word ‘complexity’ has as its Latin base the root word plexus - braided or entwined - which leads to complexes, or ‘braided together’, and so to complexity. Thus, complexity results from the interrelationships, interaction, intertwining and interconnectivity of elements distributed over different hierarchical levels: first, within a system, and second, between a system and its environment…. when in unstable states, that give rise to discontinuous and unexpected changes - changes that are not explicable by a single causal factor and that feed back into the system to inform its ongoing interactions.”

When we think about complex changes and complex systems, we recognize that they have the following characteristics. First, they involves large numbers of interacting elements. Next, the interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences. In short, when the change or system is dynamic and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, then solutions can’t be improved. Rather, they arise from the circumstances. This is frequently referred to as emergence.

Not too long ago, I met privately with an executive in her office who was dealing with the fall out from a major reorganization plus the recognition that they needed to develop a whole new strategic plan. Around us were pages and pages of detailed information with dates and reports. She had many questions and she was seeking many specific answers. Finally, she realized that she did not know how her people were going to react to all that was happening and she was not certain how to proceed. Together, we discussed the concept of emergence and having the capacity as a leader to wait and see what happens. There were just too many moving parts. She needed to have the capacity to be patient with the process and let it unfold.

We as leaders need to remember that complex change and complex systems have a history. The past is integrated into the present and evolution is irreversible. Even if a complex change or system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and systems constantly change. 

So what do we do?

First, remember that a successful organization has four pillars, namely people, structure, systems and culture. Each of these are critical to short and long term success.

Second, you can have the best mission, vision and core values plus an awesome strategic plan but not be successful, because you may have the wrong people reporting to the wrong people, all of which is working within inefficient systems and a toxic culture. None of which will help you with complexity!

So, for me in the midst of complexity, the foundation upon which ownership, clarity and alignment is built starts with the senior leadership team. As Patrick Lencioni wrote in his book, The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive back in 2000, “Build and Maintain A Cohesive Leadership Team.” As he explains, “Cohesive teams build trust, eliminate politics and increase efficiency by: knowing one another's unique strengths and weaknesses, openly engaging in constructive ideological conflict, holding one another accountable for behaviors and actions, and committing to group decisions.” This is not flashy, hot-off-the-press, NYT best-seller, buzz based work. For me, this is old school, analog level work that when done well and consistently makes a profound short and long term difference.

From today moving into next year, I encourage all people in leadership positions to return to building and maintaining a cohesive team that can deal with conflict and differences of perspective. Given the ambiguities of the complex changes before us, we need a cohesive leadership team. We can do this starting today by role modeling collaborative behaviors and by being more visible across the entire organization. Next we can create role clarity for all members on the team and at the same time, living with the reality of task ambiguity within a complex environment. Finally, we can coach others on a formal and informal basis because some days you just need to go out for lunch and visit with people.

Complex change and complex systems are hard to work with. We as leaders need to embrace this challenge and get better at working with them.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, September 23, 2019

How do leaders successfully deal with accelerated change, chronic uncertainty and rampant complexity? - part #1

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down for dinner with three leaders from three different organizations from three different parts of the country. All of them were struggling with the same issues and problems. All of them were wanting to help their teams become much better. All of them were zooming in to fix things rather than zooming out to understand the bigger picture. So, I decided to open our dinner conversation about what each of these leaders were seeing as the big picture trends that were influencing their work and society at this time period. 

First, all of the leaders gathered talked about the huge retirement wave that is happening across the country. Many called it a silver tsunami with major implications, especially in the areas of loss of understanding, clarity and experience. 

Next, those gathered talked about the aging of society in general, healthcare challenges, and their intense worry about a possible recession in the midst of it all.

Third, many shared about how current political actions feel like we are perpetuating adversarial relationships more than building collaborative relationships focused on common goals.

Finally, all of them talked about the many challenges they are having with recruitment and retention of talent. Each acknowledged that If you don’t take care of your people, they will leave for better compensation. As I listened, I kept thinking of Packard’s Law which states that no company can consistently grow revenues faster than its ability to get enough of the right people to implement that growth with excellence.

The upshot of this big picture conversation was the recognition that leaders and organizations need to be more nimble - i.e. able to learn and understand things quickly and easily, agile - i.e. move quickly and easily, and flexible - i.e. willing to change and try new things.

Over the course of this wonderful dinner meeting, I had three thoughts and I will share two of them with you today. First, we are clearly operating within a VUCA environment which is a military meaning volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment within which we can rarely predict, influence or govern most events. We also are living through a “continuous series of not normal times”, referencing the work of Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen in their book, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, HarperCollins, 2011.

Second, all who were gathered that evening were worried about “knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” Former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld made this famous phrase in 2002. As he explained” “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And … it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” 

In a market-driven economy where every one and every thing is in the danger of being commoditized, we as leaders need to do some serious and in-depth reflection to determine if we as individuals and our organization have the capacity to be nimble, agile, and flexible. Given the world we live in right now, this is no longer optional. Understanding the bigger picture always helps us make smarter choices over time. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, September 16, 2019

Building on strengths takes time, thoughtful attention, and a series of short term wins.

A long time ago when I was much younger, I had the opportunity to visit with a very experienced and thoughtful consultant. He shared with me that after 40 years of consulting he had learned that successful leaders and organizations build on strengths. It was many years later that the Gallup Organization confirmed this through in-depth research.

Now, many decades later, the phrase “build on strengths” is routinely stated by leaders and managers at all levels of the organization. It makes sense to people and with the research to support it, people try to do this on a regular basis.

The one thing I have noticed is that many leaders and managers forget one simple but important fact about this concept. Building on strengths takes time, thoughtful attention and a series of short term wins. It is not a one and done sort of thing. The best leaders are continually taking the time on a regular basis to keep building on strengths.

Next, these same leaders are very thoughtful in the process. Once they think they have figured out the strength of an individual or team, they are constantly checking to make sure they are correct in their assessment and adjusting their building process to make sure they are being effective.

Finally, these same leaders embrace John Kotter’s idea of helping people achieve a series of planned short term wins, i.e. confidence building steps in order for people to learn how to build on their own strengths, not just to have a leader, manager or supervisor do it.

When we commit to building on strengths, we are committed to a long term and in-depth leading and coaching process. While it takes time, it is an investment that pays back over and over again. This week make sure you know your strengths and the strengths of the members of your team. Then set them up to routinely be successful. Then, you will have created a powerful flywheel for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, September 9, 2019

The goal of the plan is to have it be owned and understood by those who have to execute it; the goal is not just to get it done.

When a senior team comes to the realization that the organization needs a new strategic plan, it is “all hands on deck.” Meetings are organized. Charts and graphs are created. People go into a frenzy of goal setting. Metrics abound. There is a rush to create the document so that the really important work of execution can take place. 

Some times, a strategic planning consultant is brought in to make it go faster and to be better organized. If that person is me, one of the first things I do is to stop the entire goal setting madness and slow things down. I remind people that the purpose of strategic planning is way more than creating a document in record time so that everyone can get it done in even faster time period.

Instead, I point out that the purpose of strategic planning is to create a process and a document where by the people who will do the work own it and understand why this is the best plan given the challenges before the organization and their industry. When people understand the WHY behind the plan and feel like they had a voice in creating it, then, when it is time to execute the plan, the plan is framed up as “our plan” rather than senior management’s plan.

When we create a process that results in clarity, commitment and ownership, then we have created something that is amazingly powerful, namely the desire to want to execute the plan. This is the secret to creating a strategic mindset which will be the foundation for creating multiple strategic plans over time.

This week focus on the process of building ownership and understanding. It will make a world of difference.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Great leaders have allies and confidants.

With the large number of Baby Boomers retiring, there is a growing need within large and small organizations to do a better job of developing their new leaders. Clearly, one element to this process is in-depth training. When new leaders all have a common language and a set of tools for how to lead people and manage change, the entire organization will have the capacity to better rise to the challenges before it.

However, there is another element to helping new leaders become better leaders. It is the understanding that great leaders have allies and confidants. Allies are the people who a leader counts on to make sure they can successfully execute the company’s strategies. These are the key people who will work closely with them and assist them in making sure things are done right. Allies have a strategic mindset and the capacity to execute operationally.

Confidants, on the other hand, are the people who leaders visit with to explore new ideas, examine new perspectives, and with whom they can share their worries, challenges and points of frustration. Within this relationship is the potential to gain fresh insights and perspective in order to become better over time. The best confidants ask important questions and assist the leader in thinking through what it is they are trying to achieve.

Our challenge as leaders, especially those of you who are leaders of leaders, is to make sure all new and current leaders are building a larger network of allies and are working closely with a coach or confidant who can help them gain fresh insights and maintain perspective in the midst of their current and emerging challenges. It is the combination of having allies and confidants that differentiates good leaders from great leaders.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257