As I noted last Monday, when we reflect on the proverbial big picture, many people come to the conclusion that we will be navigating a prolonged period of instability and uncertainty. The vital question today is “How do we do this?”
My first answer is simple and yet complex: Learn to confront and combat the invisible obvious. There are days as a leader when everything is totally clear to us and yet totally unclear to our direct reports. I call this the “invisible obvious,” referencing the work of Richard Farson in his book, Management of the Absurd. The first step in this process is to identify and define the “invisible obvious” for all involved. For many, this will require a greater depth of analysis and reflection before action.
In the beginning, the challenge is to name the invisible obvious. It could be a problem with people, structure, systems, or culture. It also could be a problem with goals and planning. I have observed recently that when something obvious becomes invisible there often is fear and uncertainty about the future which clouds one’s perspective. There also could be grief and a loss of there no longer being a “normal” which so many people count on. As frustration and exhaustion with the constant adaptation and the pace of change takes place, that which is obvious to executives may become more invisible to others.
Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their book, Leadership On The Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), note that we often forget that “to lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what they hold dear...” We forget that most people do not resist change, per se. People resist loss. And we as leaders “appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.” When we get busy, we forget that being a leader means being able to disturb people and systems at a rate they can absorb.
Like Heifetz and Linsky, I believe that loss is one the biggest challenges of helping people through change. As habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, all of which are part of one's identity, become transformed, we as leaders are, at the heart of it, changing the way people see and do things on a daily basis. We are, in essence, challenging how they define themselves. Heifetz and Linsky in the above book note that the result of this action will result in four normal but difficult responses by followers:
- Marginalization: the keeping of the whole organization from confronting an issue.
- Diversion: to divert their attention by broadening their agenda or by overwhelming your agenda with seemingly logical reasons for disrupting your game plan.
- Attack: attacking you personally in order to neutralize your message.
- Seduction: loose your sense of purpose and are taken out of the action by an initiative likely to success because it has a special appeal to you.
As the authors note, “All four of these reduce disequilibrium that would be generated were the people needing to address the issues brought up by change.... all four restore order and protect people from the pains of adaptive work.”
When learning to confront and combat the invisible obvious, I believe we need to be more proactive in performance planning, management and coaching. We always talk about problems when planning, management and coaching, but, in my opinion, we do not spend enough time helping people to better define the problems. Hieftz and Linksy tell leaders to help their people to get up on “the balcony” so they can see the bigger picture. Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen in their book, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (HarperCollins, 2011), tell people that great leaders and companies zoom out rather than zoom in when dealing with problems. What ever the author and the research, the key for me is to help people to step back from SOP and see what is happening to them as it is happening. With practice and time, all involved will become better at seeing the invisible obvious. And the more we can do this together, the better we will manage in the world of change.
Let me close today with this Persian proverb: “Thinking well is wise; planning well, wiser; but doing well is the wisest and best of all.”