Power of uncertainty in changeIn the words of Voltaire, “doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd”. Change requires the acceptance of turbulence, uncertainty and disorder as natural characteristics of the modern business context. In this mindset, time that was once spent developing the perfect project plan is invested in understanding the environmental context and developing the critical relationships required for sustainable change to occur. Leaders are more interested in purposeful forward movement than reporting on the plan; they do not let perfect get in the way of better, and their definition of success is to have different challenges to overcome this year than last year.

A useful metaphor to articulate the new paradigm is to compare a rowing regatta to white water rafting. The regatta is conducted upon a calm lake with an even start and an agreed finishing line. The cox sits at the stern of the boat, is the only one facing forward and barks clear and constant instructions to a team of obedient athletes who dutifully deliver their strokes until the regatta is over for another week and everyone retires to the bar.

Fast forward to the current business context and we find ourselves in a kayak with room for only two people and no one to provide close supervision. The water is a ferocious mix of power, energy and unpredictability. The noise is deafening and communication is near impossible; trust in your partner becomes a critical variable. There are dangerous obstacles everywhere and one false move could mean disaster. Making it to the end is only a temporary reprieve because the current soon propels you to the next set of rapids which are waiting around the corner.
When we accept the loss of control and certainty incumbent in the old paradigm, we open ourselves up to the exhilaration and possibilities of the contemporary business context. After all, it is from uncertainty and the unknown that innovation emerges. At the very least, we develop a realistic set of assumptions and beliefs with which to better lead in the new context.

Barack Obama ChangeIn the 2008 US Presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, Obama claimed to be “the change we need” while McCain claimed to be a “maverick reformer”. The fact that both candidates on the world’s largest stage ran on a ‘change platform’ is symbolic of how much the concept of ‘change’ is a part of our contemporary lexicon. More recently, the claiming of a change platform by political leaders has spread across the Middle East, North and East Africa; as a desperate attempt to hang on to the last threads of power, or in attempt to replace incumbent regimes. But is change what the people of these nations really want?

Semantically, the definition of ‘change’ rests on the underlying concept of ‘different’; the implication being that we want something different to what we have currently. But different is a weak and unstable word, it lacks strength, a sense of destination, and personal accountability; it is too easy for people to say “something needs to change!” It also lacks any sense of continuity; people will rightfully want to know “what happens after we change?”

It is our contention that Americans do not want change as much as they want to realise the American dream and live their unalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Similarly, we contend that the stakeholders of our organisations do not want change either, but rather the realisation of the statements of mission, vision and values that appear prominently in corporate boardrooms and on company websites right around the globe.

To achieve our aspirations in the modern organisational context, we must move on from the concepts of ‘change management’ and ‘change programs’ which carry the emotional baggage of a 70% failure rate. In fact, the terms ‘change’ and ‘failure’ have become almost synonymous in many organisations. When a leader talks about ‘change’, or even worse a ‘change program’, what people typically hear is pain, loss, extra effort, increased risk and greater uncertainty. Change is not the goal. The goal is the goal.

Solid Foundation for ChangeLeaders often incorrectly assume a neutral starting point for change efforts. We assume that because our intentions are good, people will naturally trust and follow us. Change efforts never take place in a vacuum; there is always an environmental, organisational and personal context to be considered. After endless restructuring, reengineering, downsizing, and mergers and acquisitions; many people are scarred, tired, cynical, and focused on self-protection. Enthusiastically pitching another ‘compelling vision’ to this audience, no matter how well intentioned, is likely to be met with the cynicism it deserves.

Much has been written on the competencies required to lead and manage change; the underlying assumption being that there is a magic formula of technical skills that guarantee success. At its core, however, leading change is more like ten percent technical competence and ninety percent emotional intelligence. Put even more simply, the precondition for change is trust. For people to embark upon a journey from a known state, no matter how bad, to a largely unknown state, they must have a deep trust in those leading the change.

A key challenge with building trust is that we judge ourselves by our intentions and everyone else by their actions; as a result leaders often assume good will that is not there. In addition, today’s leaders are under so much pressure to produce short term results that they rarely take the time to create a solid foundation for success. Yet without such a foundation, our change efforts are effectively built upon quicksand.

puzzle pieceImagine trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. This metaphor highlights two key challenges facing leaders trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of change in the twenty-first century. Firstly, change failure statistics suggest that many of our leaders have not experienced successful change in the last decade. As a result, they do not have a ‘lid’ or are using a ‘lid’ that no longer serves them.

Secondly, our backgrounds, education, preferences and beliefs often determine which pieces of the puzzle we pick-up, or even notice. Stereotypically, the CFO may focus disproportionately on the metrics for change, while the Head of Business Development creates the perfect strategy, and the HR Director concentrates on developing the workforce capability required for change.

Our subjectivity, in itself, is not the problem; we all interpret the world through our unique lenses. The bigger issue is that we assume we are objective while we act subjectively. There are now biologists who claim that 80% of the information we notice in the external environment comes from information already in our brain. Consequently, change efforts often fail or are rendered unsustainable because crucial pieces of information and intricate interrelationships are overlooked or ignored by leaders who are blinkered by the human condition.

A third challenge of objectivity is the misalignment between leadership intention and behavior. At an executive leadership summit, I asked the 500 delegates to close their eyes and raise their hands if they considered themselves to be of high integrity. When the delegates opened their eyes, every hand in the room was in the air. We then asked them to close their eyes again and raise their hands if they agreed that their colleagues shared their same high level of integrity. When they opened their eyes this time, only a third of the hands were raised. The insight reached by the delegates from this simple exercise was that objectivity is impossible since we judge ourselves by our intention, while we judge everybody else by their actions.

Cascade StoryLast week I discussed the principles for communicating your story. In collaboration with Mark Fuda at Seven Stories, we have determined a number of principles to define, cascade and embed that story in your organisation.

To effectively define an engaging story, ensure you:

  • Have anyone who needs to approve it, in the room from the start.
  • Create context with a compelling backstory.
  • Have an inciting incident.
  • Articulate what has changed, and what’s at risk.
  • Express an aspiration; a desired goal that will not be easily achieved.
  • Outline the plan to achieve the goal; what we need to do.
  • Are clear on the challenges that will be faced in pursuit of the goal.
  • Articulate how it will feel when the goal is achieved.
  • Create a vehicle to deliver the story that captures their attention.

To effectively cascade the story, ensure you:

  • Align individual leader stories to the organisation’s story.
  • Keep the story current and relevant over time.
  • Tailor the story to key audiences.
  • Develop visual support material to reinforce the story.
  • Can answer the question “what does this mean for me?”
  • Roll it out with impact.

To effectively embed the story, ensure you:

  • Align all communication channels to the story.
  • Build leaders story telling capability by training them in the art and science of storytelling.
  • Create and share stories of success.
  • Utilise images and symbols that reinforce the story.
  • Regularly review and update the story to keep it current and relevant.

Story TypewriterBefore you begin the process to define, cascade and embed a story in your organisation, it is critical to create a setting for success with key stakeholders. In collaboration with Mark Fuda at Seven Stories, we have determined six critical story principles to set you up for success.
1. The best person to tell your story is you. Too often organisations outsource their story. No one knows your business like you do, so you are the best person to create an authentic and engaging story.
2. A great story is one you own. Whilst it is important to get feedback from a variety of sources when developing a story, ultimately there needs to be one voice. That is the voice that will ultimately own the story.
3. Speak from the heart. In business, there is a natural tendency to want to sound clever or to speak intellectually. People engage with emotion, so speak like you would if you were talking with friends.
4. Be authentic. Stories are not just about the good stuff we do or what we have achieved. They are also about the obstacles we have overcome and the challenges we face. The bigger the challenge the bigger the reward.
5. Keep it simple, but not simplistic. A story should be easy to follow and understand, but must walk through complexity to get there. It is in the layers of story that emotion and engagement are created.
6. Partnership is key to a successful outcome. Like most creative pursuits, it is rarely just one person who is able to create a great outcome. Working as a partnership is key to developing a rich and compelling story that engages audiences.

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Story ImageIn last week’s post I discussed why traditional communications fail to engage, and that communications must speak to our emotions. The simplest way to achieve this is through story.

In collaboration with Mark Fuda at Seven Stories, we have identified 10 benefits to communicating through story with your team and organisation. You;

1.Make people feel something; you will engage your peoples’ emotions and help them understand why what they do matters, and the difference their efforts make.
2.Cut through the noise; you will speak to people in the way they want to be spoken to about things that mean something to them.
3.Build trust; telling an authentic story that highlights both the good and bad of a situation, enables you to identify with the people you lead and demonstrate that you understand their experience.
4.Make sense of the world; you become a sense maker and demonstrate that you understand the world of your people and can guide them through it effectively.
5.Give facts meaning; you can connect your facts to emotions and demonstrate what those facts mean in the real world.
6.Communicate less and more effectively; you create a compelling story that can be shared across multiple channels that won’t be ignored.
7.Tap into the original social network; long before Facebook and Twitter, people communicated through story, and word of mouth remains a key way to spread a message.
8.Move people to action; you demonstrate the difference peoples’ efforts make and give them ownership of the story and the outcome.
9.Give people a story to share; you empower people to talk about your organisation and how they contribute to its success.
10.Shape the stories already being told; in a vacuum, people will create their own stories. You will fill that vacuum with the story you want told.

Communication NoiseEvery organisation knows that to be successful they need to engage their people. That’s why so much time and energy is spent on communication. Yet despite our best efforts, over 75% of people are disengaged or actively disengaged at work.

In collaboration with Mark Fuda at Seven Stories, we have identified four key factors that expand the gap between how we communicate and how people engage with that communication:

  • People speak intellectually but engage emotionally; in business we typically use intellectual rationalisation to sell what we do. We say things like “we are the biggest” or “we are the best”. The challenge is that we make decisions based on how we feel. To get people to engage you can’t just speak to the head. You have to speak to the heart.
  • Facts are hard to remember and easy to challenge; while being factually accurate is important, we don’t typically remember facts unless they are anchored to an emotion. We all know smoking kills but it is often not until we lose someone close to us as a result of smoking that we are able to kick the habit. People can also be distrusting of facts because it is often possible to find facts to support both sides of an argument.
  • If we only talk about our success people won’t believe us. Most corporate communication talks about how great things are and will continue to be, rather than acknowledging real issues and challenges. People engage with authenticity, and you can’t be authentic unless you tell the whole story.
  • If everything is important, nothing is important. Conventional thinking is “communicate more x multiple channels = greater engagement. In reality this approach results in greater NOISE. People don’t want more communication; they want meaningful communication.
  • To engage people, communications must speak to our emotions and the simplest way to achieve this is through story.

Meetings Photo 2Last week I discussed why effective meetings are so important, today I’d like to expand on that by providing some principles for making your meetings more effective.

Before you lead/engage in a meeting, ensure you:

  • Can take at least one decision; if you are having a meeting solely to share information, consider whether you can share that information another way.
  • Create a setting for success. There are five critical questions to be clear on;
    • Purpose; why are we spending our valuable time together?
    • Outcomes; what does success look like?
    • Decisions; what do we need to decide?
    • Questions; what are the questions we need to answer while we are together?
    • Impact; how do I/we want people to feel at the end of this meeting?
  • Circulate key content for the meeting well in advance; otherwise, people will spend their time in the meeting reading and reacting under pressure, rather than providing considered insights and suggestions.
  • Limit the number of attendees. Every member of a meeting should ask themselves;
    • Why am I really attending (contribution, habit, lack of trust, control, other)?
    • What is my specific contribution to the meeting?
    • Can I provide my input in advance and catch up on the outcomes afterward?

During the meeting, ensure you:

  • Set standards for the meeting; agree them at the start and measure them at the end to encourage the behaviours that you need to be successful.
  • Focus on “So what” and “Now what”; effective meetings spend no more than 15% of the time in “What” (description of the problem, issue or challenge at hand), up to 70% in “So what” (the insights, meaning and potential implications of the situation), leaving only 15% needed for “Now what” (the actions and next steps).
  • Work through a natural hierarchy of questions; structure the meeting from biggest to smallest question so that you build momentum from one decision to the next and avoid doubling back. For example, asking “what is the best strategy?” should follow “what is the outcome we want?”
  • Have rules for technology; use electronic gadgets to enable outcomes, not to divert or distract people from the agenda.
  • Lead with energy and end on schedule; with too much time, even the most unshakable decision will be reconsidered.
  • Agree next actions, responsibilities and messages; these basic disciplines encourage material outcomes from the meeting, and positively affect those downstream.

Meetings Photo

“Our leadership meetings are a good use of time.”

For 15 years now, we have tested this idea with more than 5,000 leaders, from 150 different organisations, across 4 continents. On average, these organisations score no more than 5/10. In other words, the best we can say is that the most important meetings in our organisations, attended by our most senior people, are half as effective as they could or should be.

The costs of ineffective meetings are huge. We waste the most important assets we have as leaders; discretionary time, money and talent. At a time of intense global competition, where the quality and speed of decisions can mean the difference between success and failure, 5/10 is not sustainable.

There are at least 10 benefits to increasing the effectiveness of your meetings. You:

1. Increase discretionary time; what would you do next week if you suddenly and sustainably got back 20% of your diary?
2. Reduce stress; you will get more done, in less time, with less effort.
3. Accelerate innovation; you will increase the quality, volume and frequency of strategic insight.
4. Increase speed to market; you will respond more quickly to customer needs and market opportunities.
5. Decrease cost; you will likely reduce the number of meetings and, in doing so, will dramatically reduce direct and indirect costs.
6. Increase engagement and teamwork; you will create meetings that people want to attend, and they will bring greater levels of passion and commitment every day.
7. Reinforce your desired culture; meetings are carriers of organisational culture. When meetings become demonstrably more effective, they spread a virus of energy and optimism across multiple dimensions of your organisation.
8. Increase accountability; you will create an environment where more people contribute to decisions more often, resulting in higher levels of personal ownership.
9. Provide a sense of purpose, every day; vision, mission and values statements can sometimes be viewed cynically by staff members, but productive meetings bring your aspirations to life every day.
10. Accelerate toward your aspirations; you will direct all available energy toward your goals.

Over the coming weeks I will discuss how to shift the effectiveness of your most important meetings.