leadership

How To Tip The System

Recently I was working with a group of about 20 people at a residential workshop. It was morning tea time and we were all gathered in a room relishing our caffeine top-ups.

As facilitator, it was my job to keep people on time. I considered how I’d let them all know when it was time for us to move back to the main room. I had a few options:

  1. Quietly walk through the group and tell each and every person individually that it was time to move.
  2. Stand up on a chair and holler to the whole group “it’s time to head back in!”
  3. Find an easier, simpler way to do it with minimal effort.

I experimented with the third way. This is what I did:

I walked to the back of the room, the furthest spot from the door. A couple of people were loitering there. I quietly let them know it was time to move back in to the workshop room. They started moving towards the door, through the crowd.

And what do you know? The rest of the people picked up on this slight shift, and within 30 seconds, everyone was moving back to the room. Job done. No sweat.

This is an example of what I call ‘tipping the system’. Seeing the group as a self-organising system, finding the points in the system that look like they will give you the most leverage for the least effort, and levering those to ‘tip it’.

Let’s look at the other options and their pros and cons.

Option 1: Tell everybody individually. Mechanical management. Inefficient. I would have ensured that everybody got the message, but it would have taken a long time. Meh.

Tip The System 1

Option 2: Stand on the chair. Hero leadership. Disempowering. It would have achieved the outcome, but it makes me the focal point. It sets up a subtle leader / follower dynamic where people can become reliant on me for telling them what to do. Double meh.

Tip The System 2

 

Option 3: Find the tipping points. The way I did it was through a systems lens. My role as ‘leader’ was to tip the system to effect the change I wanted to see. With as little effort as possible.

Tip The System 3

 

This is a micro-example from which the lessons can be applied to more macro situations. Large-scale change initiatives come to mind. Evolving team culture. Getting an idea to go viral.

It’s about seeing and working with the patterns. Similar to how the best surfers learn to read the patterns of the waves and currents, as I’ve written about before.

It’s also about not trying too hard. Here’s a great example of how to get a group of people to organise themselves in a certain way by providing just the merest of instructions:

 

Here are some guidelines for tipping your own system with more grace and less effort:

  1. Define the outcome you’d like to see.
  2. Notice the system that’s at play.
  3. Look for the leverage points.
  4. Lever those points.
  5. Get out of the way.
  6. Notice what happens.
  7. Repeat steps as required.

 

It’s worth noting that the points of leverage will often be a few key influential people. In my example above, the leverage points were the couple of ‘key influential people’ that were standing at the back of the room. Not because of any authority they carried, but simply because of where they were situated in the room.

The key is to adopt an experimental mindset. Be like a scientist. Treat it lightly and don’t force it. Be curious. You can learn more about this approach in my post ‘How To See’.

So, what outcomes are you trying to achieve? What is the nature of the system that’s at play? Where are the leverage points? Get experimenting, then get out of the way and notice what happens.

 

 

 

Meta-Skills For Interesting Times

 

Robert Kennedy Intersting Times 2

“May you live in interesting times.
May you live in an interesting age.
May you live in exciting times.”

This phrase purportedly has it’s origins in China.  Over the past couple of hundred years, its popularity in the western world has tended to peak whenever the world goes into turmoil. I think it’s fair to say that we’re living through interesting times right now.

Some might say the changes and challenges we face in the world today are unprecedented. While that might be true, let’s not get too excited. Back in the day people were saying the same thing. They got through it.

And, if you think about it, the challenges YOU face in your life and times are unprecedented, at least for you. Assuming you’ve only been on the planet this one time, you’re writing your playbook as you go. That takes some doing.

Interesting times test us. They challenge our assumptions and boundaries, and ask us to invent new ways of seeing and living in the world. That goes for whether we are talking about individuals, organisations or whole societies. The work of leadership is to step up to those challenges and create a way through.

There are a few key skills that make the difference to whether we thrive or just merely survive during interesting times. Beyond the technical skills required for specific roles or situations, these are meta-skills that are fast becoming prized in organisations and communities the world over. Savvy companies, particularly in disrupted industries, are looking for, and appointing, leaders who embrace disruption, can connect across diverse demographics and cultures, and are exceptionally curious, open-minded, and courageous.

The World Economic Forum, The Institute for the Future, and futurists such as Bob Johansen have all researched and reported on the types of work skills required for 2020 and beyond. In synthesising their findings, the conclusion is that we need to shift from a world that values Conformity, Competencies and Certainty to one that embraces Curiosity, Connectedness and Courage.

Six C's model v2

 

These are the skills we need to cultivate in ourselves and the people who will help us to navigate these interesting times.

Courage

To act without being assured of success, without needing approval or permission, to experiment, innovate and try new approaches, be agile, and to challenge existing ideas and practices. For more on this, see my post “Do You Need Confidence, or Courage?”

Connection

The ability to seek out and connect meaningfully with a diverse range of people, apply social intelligence, serve others, and to collaborate effectively in a wide array of settings. The ability to deliberately cultivate an effective network  is an essential skill in interesting times.

Curiosity

The insatiable drive to ask questions, learn, unlearn, sit with ambiguity and ‘not knowing’, to step back, critique, and make sense of things objectively, to seek and find deeper meaning in the patterns, and see things from new and different perspectives, to have novel and adaptive thinking. Leonardo Da Vinci was a master of curiosity, which helped to make him one of the most creative people the world has ever known.

What would be the value in having more of these three C’s, both in your organisation and for yourself?

While aspiring to having more of these three C’s, we also need to transcend (but not throw out) another set of C’s:

Certainty

We are wired for certainty. In fact, our brains crave it. Certainty helps us make predictions more confidently, so we can operate in the world without having to use a huge amount of mental resources for each and every activity. In interesting times, the challenge is not to get rid of the need for certainty, but instead to learn to live in paradox: to create certainty while knowing that nothing is certain (besides death and taxes).

Competencies

For a most of the latter half of the 20th century and well into the current one, the default method of thinking about development has been through the lens of competencies i.e. the behaviours and skills you demonstrate. This approach overlooks the fact that our behaviours are guided by our mindsets – the way in which we think and see the world. If we want to thrive in interesting times, we need to move beyond upgrading competencies to also upgrading our thinking. This is known as vertical development. As Einstein said “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Conformity

Like certainty, conformity has its place. We need standards, norms and laws to keep things running smoothly. In interesting times, it is often these norms, and their underlying assumptions, that are being tested. Rather than uphold conformity for it’s own sake, the more useful approach is to get behind the reason for the rule, and explore its usefulness in the current context.

Making It Happen

To cultivate your own three C’s of Courage, Connection and Curiosity, start with these tips:

Three Actions for Building Your Three C's

What Next?

If you’re interested in cultivating more Courage, Connection and Curiosity in your organisation, please get in touch for an interesting conversation to see what we can do together.

And download my latest thinking on how to future-proof your organisation by developing the three C’s in your next generation of leaders: How To Play With Fire – Equip Your Next Generation of Leaders To Deal With Anything

 

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Shine A Light

IMG_2036 (1)

 

When I was about 14 years old, I joined my school’s Army Cadet corps. It was attractive because I’d heard they did cool things out in the bush. I was having a bit of a hard time at boarding school, and I thought it would a great respite.

It wasn’t what I expected. The rule-bound hierarchy, the command and control culture, and the endless, monotonous routines of learning how to march in formation and shining your boots until you could see your face in them was not what I signed up for. For a boy seeking freedom from the confines of boarding school, it wasn’t cutting it. I felt small, unseen and unheard. In many ways, it was worse than school.

However, I chose to stick it out for a year. We actually did do some cool things in the bush, like learning how hike from A to B though rugged terrain using only a compass, map and your common sense. How to light a fire with no smoke so you could stay undetected. But, for the vast majority of the time, it was spit, polish and parade grounds, all the while being bossed around by a bunch of older boys and teachers. Blah.

Towards the end of the year, we had to decide whether we wanted to stay on the following year. A simple choice for me: “No”. Yes, I had learned some good stuff, but the way they did things in the corps was not for me.

A few days later, one of the senior officers came to me and said he was surprised and disappointed that I hadn’t chosen to stay on. He said that they saw me as leadership material. Would I reconsider?

This came as a huge surprise to me. When and how did they see my leadership potential? I had been given very little feedback during the course of the year, other than that I could shine my boots better. I thought they didn’t see me at all. To my mind, my leaving would be of no great consequence to them. And here they are telling me that I’m leadership material?

Of course, it was too late. I’d emotionally checked out a long time ago. There was nothing he could say or do to convince me to stay.

That incident has stayed with me ever since, and has fundamentally shaped my approach to leadership. A core responsibility of leadership is to shine a light on people and show them their potential. Especially if they’re not seeing it themselves. It is nourishment for the spirit. It is a catalyst for confidence and builds courage. When we fail to do this, we not only do them a disservice, we also do ourselves and our organisations one.

Most people think that shining a light is about giving positive feedback. That’s part of it. However the real gift is to let someone know the potential and power you see in them. Whenever someone has done that for me, my self-belief soars and the world opens up in front of me.

Where and how are you shining a light? Where and how could you shine it more?

Some guidelines:

  • For everyone you work with (not just your direct reports), find out something interesting about them.
  • Be actively curious about what makes them tick. Find out what drives them. Ask them.
  • Let them know what impact they are having – on the mission, on the team, on you.
  • Let them know the potential and possibility you see for them.
  • Work with them to set stretch goals that are important to them.
  • Recognise effort, and achievement. Let them know you see their progress.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these simple things, you’ll know how much they mean, and what they do for motivation, engagement and discretionary effort, let alone your relationship with them.

It’s not rocket science. It’s uncommon sense.

Make it common sense. Shine a light. Every day.

 

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Photo: Digby Scott

Work With The Patterns

IMG_4453_Antman _JamieScott

Late in 2015, I published ‘Three Things I’ve Learned This Year’. The most popular of those three with readers was the idea of ‘Be The Flower, Not The Bee’. In essence, strive less. I’m going to build on that idea here by showing you how to see and work with patterns to be more effective with less effort.

One of my favourite movies is ‘Surf’s Up’. It’s about a penguin wannabe surfer, Cody Maverick, who finds himself in the thick of the action at a world surf contest. He gets himself a mentor in Big Z, a legend of surfing in days gone by. Big Z has some wisdom for Cody:

“You let the wave do the work. You don’t fight the wave. You can’t fight these big waves.” (more…)

Three Things I’ve Learned This Year

Before you check out for the year (at least in the southern hemisphere, where summer holidays beckon!), now’s a good time to reflect on what you’ve learned in the past 12 months. You’ve come a long way since January. What has living another year taught you? Here are three things I’ve learned this year:

  • Experiment more.

    If you want to get an idea moving, frame it as an experiment. I’ve accelerated a bunch my initiatives this year because I decided I didn’t need them to be perfect before I started. More production, more learning. All good.

  • Be the flower, not the bee.

    Bees fly around chasing the pollen. Flowers have the pollen, and bees come to them. Strive less. Decide what you’re about, let people know, and do your thing consistently well. You’ll attract more of what you want.

  • Meet ‘em where they’re at.

    You might have the best idea in the world. But unless you can show people that you ‘get’ their world, their concerns, in their language, it won’t fly. If you want to influence, build and cross the bridge between your idea and their issue.

My most inspiring sources of insight? Besides life’s experiences, I’ve found the words of Derek Sivers (of TED’s “crazy dancing guy” fame) grounded and insightful. And for a rich podcast with a wide range of perspectives, I love The Tim Ferris Show.

So, now my plan is to carry these insights forward into 2016 and use them wisely. And to stay curious for what else I can learn!

Flower

What have you learned this year? Please leave a reply.

 

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Are You A Heat-Seeking Leader?

I’ve just spent the past week meeting with a range of leaders to debrief their 360-degree feedback. They work for the same organisation, which is going through a sustained period of huge turbulence and change (sound familiar?) As the week unfolded, I noticed an interesting theme emerging: the leaders who were rated the most effective in this environment, by far, had similar patterns in their own backgrounds. More specifically:

  1. They’d experienced a significant degree of change and stretch in their own careers
  2. They’d made sense of their story and drawn strength and wisdom from it to apply in the situation they found themselves in now

Let’s break these points down a little more:

First, their career paths weren’t linear. Their backgrounds included multiple roles in different industries, often in different countries. While their career paths told a story of ongoing evolution, as most resumes do, there was something deeper at play. Their changes weren’t forced upon them – they created them themselves. There was something in their stories about the courage to break away from the norm and pursue some sort of calling, even though they knew it’d be difficult and scary. I’ve noticed that that’s been a pattern of mine in my own career. Taking the ‘road not taken’, as Robert Frost would say.

Road Less Travelled

 

Second, they were able to articulate what they’d learned from their experiences – they could tell their personal stories of change. Stories about learning to be confident and resilient in the face of the unknown, about learning to be compassionate with themselves and others, about discovering their where their real talents and passions lay. In short, stories of self-awareness and discovery. And, I suspect, because they’d integrated their experiences into their identity, they were able to more confidently lead themselves and others effectively in the testing time they found themselves in now.

I observed a certain ‘unflappableness’ about them – not detachment; on the contrary, they were purposeful and passionate about making a difference – but more that they were like the person who steers the whitewater raft – there’s craziness all around them, but they’ve been similar situations before, and have a deep confidence in their ability to navigate the volatility. My guess is that you’ll agree that our organisations could do with more of this ability in this in our VUCA world.

These people are what I’d call ‘heat-seeking’ leaders – they’ve learned that discomfort and challenge is good for their own growth, and they seek it out rather than avoid it. And it’s something that you can do too, starting today.

If you think you could do with a bit more confidence about how you lead yourself, and others, through the turbulence you’re experiencing, try these ideas out:

  1. Remind yourself that you’ve experienced change all your life. Tap into your pivotal experiences – what have they taught you that you can draw on now? I’ve written specifically about learning to tell your story here – use the tools to help you.
  2. Get back in touch with your own purpose or calling. What it is that drives you forward each day, how do you want to make a difference? Listen out for the clues. Write them down. Use these tools to help you.
  3. Cultivate the habit of taking the first step, the one you don’t want to take, into the challenge you face today. Don’t plan it all out. Just step forward. David Whyte’s wonderful poem ‘Start Close In’ gives wise words here.

I’m left with questions about how our organisations could attract and develop more deliberately heat-seeking people, and cultivate a culture that includes that heat-seeking aspect. What would it be like it that was the norm? What would it take? Questions for another post, I think.

For now, let’s keep it focused on what you might do differently for yourself, as all change starts here. And let’s let Robert Frost give us the final words:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—  

I took the one less traveled by,   

And that has made all the difference.   

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Networked Leadership

Last week, I was invited, along with a number of others, to a lunch meeting to help out a colleague who was looking for fresh ideas on where to take her career. The conversation was lively and engaging, and my colleague came away with a plethora of new ideas – in fact, way more than she’d even hoped for.

As the conversation unfolded, I was struck by the diversity of the people in the room. Around the table were people from very different walks of life, with quite different perspectives on what our mutual colleague’s future could look like. Conflicting views often emerged, which caused disruption, debate, and some discomfort amongst us. Some ideas were built upon, some robustly challenged, others left hanging. In the end, they all formed the tapestry of our mutual colleague’s future possibilities.

Reflecting afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder whether she’d deliberately chosen such a diverse bunch. As it turned out, she’d done just that.

My colleague’s approach to how she chose the lunch participants is a great example of the benefits of having, and leveraging, a diverse network.

As leaders, we need to seek fresh perspectives and ways to innovate. The best innovations frequently come from a completely different field, and are evolved to be applied in our own context. To be effective, we need access to those different fields and ways of thinking. This applies whether you’re leading organisational change and growth, or shaping your own career.

How diverse is your network, and how well do you leverage it?

Brush Park by NZ artist Marita Hewitt

Brush Park by NZ artist Marita Hewitt

I frequently come across leaders whose networks have evolved by travelling the path of least resistance. The people they count in their network are the ones they’ve naturally come across in their day-to-day work, and / or are similar in mindset, experience and interests to their own. They’ve ‘collected’ people along the way without necessarily thinking about who will be the most useful people to associate with to get work done, design the future, or support them through tough times.

While collecting is fine, it’s not the most strategic approach, and can lead to a somewhat limited mindset that’s blind to new opportunities and possibilities. Researchers call this a ‘closed network’ (which, in fact, can have some benefits, particularly to help short term work get done efficiently).

Let me offer a different approach. One where you deliberately cultivate a network that works for you over the long term. It’s not size that matters. It’s the breadth, diversity and quality of relationships that does. 500+ contacts on LinkedIn does not necessarily make for an effective network, but, for you, and for the people in your organisation, ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’ if you care enough to put the effort in.

Experience tells me that the most effective leaders consciously act on the fact that networks matter. We all know (or at least we should know) that no one person has the answer to our most gnarly problems, and we need to invent answers through collaboration. And research tells us that high performers who are extremely satisfied in their work have these things in common when it comes to networks:

  1. To achieve high performance, their networks include people who offer them new information or expertise; influential people who provide mentoring and resources, and can help open doors; and people who offer developmental feedback and challenge.
  1. To ensure high satisfaction, their networks include people who provide personal support; people who add a sense of purpose or worth; and people who promote balance in their life.
  1. Their mottos are ‘build relationships before you need them’ and ‘give to get’. In other words, be proactive, and look for ways to help people, as well as asking for the help you need.
  1. The people in their networks are ‘energy givers’, not ‘energy takers’.

How does your own network stack up against these criteria? How about the networks of the people that report to you? By deliberately cultivating your own network, and encouraging the people around you to do the same, you catalyse collaborative, networked leadership – a phenomenon that’s increasingly important in our organisations and society today.

Take a moment to analyse your own network. Here’s an activity that will only take you 15 minutes (you can go here to download a template):

  1. Write down as many people as possible that you know who can help you achieve your work and career goals.
  2. Put a star next to the ones who energise you the most.
  3. Map the starred people to a matrix, using headings as described below. The headings are the types of roles people play in your network, based on the research (see points 1 and 2 above).

Network Matrix    4.Write down a result / goal you want to achieve in the next 6-18 months

5. Answer these questions:

  • How could you leverage the people in your network to help you achieve your goal?
  • Who else do you need in your network to help you achieve your goal?
  • How could you connect with them?

 

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