“Each morning I arrive at work, I feel I haven’t progressed anything substantial. The strategic commitments I made remain unattended as I keep addressing day-to-day operational issues. My team is tired, and we are short-staffed. I can’t find appropriate people to replace staff that are leaving. Existing staff can’t possibly cover the amount of work to be done. We need to do things differently, but we can’t for some reason.”
“I know what needs to be done … I can see the changes that are required to improve the systems we have. But I have had trouble gaining understanding of others, let alone their commitment to do these things – in fact I sometimes wonder if others care at all. Are they just too comfortable, or are they caught in an invisible trap and can’t escape? I oscillate from one view to the other – either way, we are not making improvements.”
Do these sentiments sound familiar? I’ve been working with senior managers and executive teams for a long time, and these are just a couple of examples of the sorts of challenges I’m involved in helping them work on. My new Energising Change workshop is designed to help teams find the energy to make necessary changes, and the commitment to stick to them.
I often think of leadership as the art of facilitating energy. Energy to do things and then energy to escape habitual ways of doing things and garner the courage to try new ways. It isn’t easy, and there are some common traps that people tend to fall into along the way.
There are some lessons I’ve learned over more than 20 years of working with senior managers and their teams. And I’ve tried to capture a few of them in this simple model.
Lesson 1: Diagnose your challenge
I know you’ve heard me talk about this before and I’m going to keep emphasising it. It is without doubt the single most important source of failure in your effort to generate changes.
It’s simple but not easy because the diagnosis itself contains an invisible trap.
A technical challenge is one that we can clearly identify and know how to solve. It does not require you or your team to explore underpinning assumptions, beliefs or values. A technical challenge can be addressed by issuing appropriate instructions and the solution should work – engendering a sense of Confidence in you and your people (Lower left quadrant). It is the space of planned change.
Of course, you may recognise that you don’t know the solution to your challenge, that is that it’s adaptive – read on…
Lesson 2: It’s normal to want to view all challenges as technical
It’s human to want to diagnose all challenges as technical – and this is the hidden trap in diagnosing the challenge. We all like to feel as though we know the challenge and the answer. And it is this naturally human dynamic that often means ‘leaders’ issue instructions as though the challenge was technical, when in fact it has strong elements of a complex and adaptive challenge. When they do this, others begin to become Cynical (top left quadrant) because the ‘solution’ doesn’t work as intended. It may also generate significant unintended consequences because most technical solutions are very narrow in their scope.
Lesson 3: Consultation to get ‘buy-in’ is not the answer either
Whenever I explain this model to people, I see heads nodding as I share my experience of answers from senior management to technical problems, being ‘sold’ to others in consultation processes designed to make people ‘feel as though they have ownership’. If it is truly a technical challenge – you don’t need to do this – it just creates time delays and Confusion (lower right quadrant) as people ask themselves if their input is truly being sought – or not.
Lesson 4: An adaptive challenge requires genuine engagement
Recognising a challenge as adaptive means that you know that you don’t know. As a leader, you can’t see all of the challenge but you do know that it’s a bit of a mess. To understand the real scope and nature of the challenge you need to get people affected by the issue together and engage them in changing what they are doing. In this instance, you recognise that “the people with the problem are the problem – and the solution”.
Adaptive challenges are unclear and require us to challenge assumptions, beliefs and values. Together you can share perspectives and begin to understand what an ideal outcome may look like. Most importantly, everyone starts to realise the ways in which their actions are contributing to the current challenge. You can begin to design changes that work towards that ideal. You collectively learn your way forward with ‘experiments’ to see what will work. This process of genuine engagement generates collective creativity and importantly, Commitment to change – emergently (upper right quadrant).
Lesson 5: Nurturing positive energy is paramount
This lesson was always present, but it’s importance today in a work environment of energy depletion from the pandemic, makes it even more significant.
As you work with your team, you need to employ an approach that builds on what is working to nurture confidence and courage that they can meet the challenge, as well as enjoyment in the process. Some adaptive challenges like reducing carbon emissions, achieving sustainability targets, addressing ongoing workplace cultural issues and even large systems changes, will take a long time to resolve – and some may not be solvable, but we can make improvements. We need to enjoy the journey while we are trying.
I’ve developed a one-day workshop, Energising Change, that has received exceptional responses to help kickstart the engagement required for adaptive challenges. Click here to find out more, and I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to explore what this workshop may look like for your team and your challenge.