Monday, February 28, 2011

The Power of Observation

Retired FBI Special Agent, Joe Navarro in his book, Louder Than Words: Take Your Career from Average to Exceptional With the Hidden Power of Nonverbal Intelligence, Harper Business 2010, notes that when we perceive danger, our limbic system, the part of our brain that controls our survival responses, triggers one of three neurological responses, namely freeze, flee or fight. Since the September 2008 Great Recession began, many organizations have remained strategically motionless, hoping to conserve energy and assess the environment for alternative ways to survive. Although the cities and suburbs we live in today are far removed from the African savanna, the limbic system of the mind is still driving many leaders.

But as 2010 transformed into 2011, I began to realize that some organizations did not freeze, flee or fight. Instead they planned well, grew thoughtfully and continued to develop effective infrastructure and systems for success. When I reflected on what the leaders of these organizations actually did, I realized that there was one common thread, namely they deployed the power of observation.

Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin in their extremely well-written book, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, Harvard Business Press, 2010 (see my 9-7-10 book review for more details: or their web site: believe that “at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problem that confounds others.” With a documented approach to problem solving based on the assumption that “solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist,” Pascale, Sternin and Sternin focus less on “What’s wrong? and more on “What’s right?” Then, they build on these solutions.

From my vantage point, this is where the power of observation starts. The best leaders and organizations that have not been caught by their individual or collective limbic systems are the ones who spend considerable time and energy focusing on what’s right and exploring why it has taken place when others have struggled. They do this by noting who is uncomfortable and who is comfortable. They also note who is doing well in a “productive discomfort zone,” using a Ron Heiftez’ term. And from all of these observations, they build upon and support those individuals and teams who are being a catalyst for evolutionary strategic progress. Remembering that “prolonged equilibrium is a precursor to death or stagnation,” an observation by Richard Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja in their superb book, Surfing The Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business, Three Rivers Press, 2000, these senior leaders focus on building understanding and collaboration so that a culture of action is the norm.

One element of this process is their ability to listen well to those who are actively engaged in problem definition, inquiry, discovery, and implementation. When they hear every voice and understand what is being shared, the best leaders and organizations reinforce the new behaviors and make sure they are measurable. They know that the best reinforcer of behavioral change is the ability of people to measure progress and see results.

This week and this winter into spring remember Pascale, Sterinin and Sterinin’s advice from their PD approach that “telling people about a new behavior, tool or strategy is not enough. People have to actually practice in order to internalize things and see the benefits themselves.” This week make sure you give people time and support to practice better observation and better listening.

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

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