Every leader I talk with today brings pace and complexity into conversations with an emotion described as “stressful.” Demands for more speed despite expanding complexity feel very tough to navigate. The challenge feels even tougher when multiple teams must collaborate to fulfill cross-functional objectives. One very important hack for leaders to adopt arises from perspective and learning how to shift attention to a systemic view of the situation.
In this blog I offer some ideas for how to navigate both external and internal influences on getting work done by working more systemically and share five key behaviors any team who seeks to sustain high-performance can benefit from adopting.
It depends. When I started my first significant corporate leadership role, I remember the feeling every time I asked my boss a question and received the answer, "It depends." How was I supposed to improve my critical thinking and discernment about managing risk in decisions? That was my boss's developmental feedback, and my development was not going well. I didn't understand what anything "depended" upon because each situation seemed unique. I realized over time that I kept asking the wrong question. The better first question to ask is, “What criteria shaped the best choice (which depended on the context)? The second question to ask became, “What perspective provided accurate and actionable information and data about those criteria (which depended on the impact wanted)?”
Pulling back for perspective means pulling back and looking at all the elements that influence our choices and actions. Influence arises from our daily experience of our environment; think of this as the external factors most often out of our control and yet create an impact on the results we want to produce. External influences can be visible; however, how to anticipate and respond versus react feels daunting, if not impossible, to achieve. I learned to catalog those external influences. I changed what I was reading and included that data in analyses. I changed the questions I asked of colleagues in other parts of the organization that influenced our team's daily decisions. I included colleagues impacted by our choices before making final decisions. What I am describing is the beginning of learning, as a leader, to see the entire system that my work operated within and impacted. Over time, I learned to recognize process patterns and business cycles. Those cycles identified how to anticipate the influence over the timing and scope of our actions. Adopting a systems perspective might seem more complex. Taking in all that data and collaborating with others improved the quality of our decisions. What we implemented consistently matched what we planned, and the results generated were more reliable than the expected outcomes. The greater discipline reduced the complexity and the rework that comes from prioritizing speed at the cost of thinking quality. The day I caught myself saying to one of my team members, "It depends," I realized the power of systemic perspective and the importance of modeling it as a leader, just as my boss had done for me.
Influence also arises from an internal set of habits, preferences, assumptions, and biases from our experience. Internal influences invisibly operate until something occurs that doesn't work or causes much disruption. Habits and the resulting preferences provide energy conservation in our brain, producing autopilot reactions. We are surprised that many of those work well for a long time and then, they don't. Recognizing and sustaining attention to the internal influences requires turning off the autopilot, no matter how uncomfortable and fatiguing. Perhaps you've been working to change a habit. Use that experience as a practical example of shifting perspective essential to responding rather than reacting.
While leading an enterprise Project Management Office, we designed and implemented a standard practice called "Worst Nightmare Brainstorming." The practice occurred during a meeting held four weeks and two weeks before any "go live" date on an initiative. During these sessions, all team members brainstormed why the project might not be successful. We purposefully challenged every assumption, every decision criterion, every connection point for the implementation team, and every test outcome. The processes known to "always work" were examined most closely because the projects were always creating change. Change meant that what always worked in the past was likely at the most significant risk of breaking now. We anticipated every possible failure point and left that meeting with a dashboard to monitor and a "plan B" in case any part of the worst nightmares might occur. Being in these meetings demanded that every team member suspend attachments to their habits, preferences, assumptions, and biases. As we all got used to the grinding and groaning in our discussion as we let go of preferences long enough to identify worst nightmares, something else began to occur. We were all getting better at valuing the quality of our decisions because we had fewer "worst nightmare" ideas to monitor and build contingency plans for. What a fantastic productivity hack this became!
Why does any of this matter? Pace and complexity. The modern age of business demands that all of us uplift our bravery to lean into our attachments to both. Seeing complexity as an invitation to shift our perspective about what matters and, therefore, becomes worthy of attention fuels anticipation and systems thinking. Relating to pace as negotiable empowers us to shift our definition of action to include the power of pause that turns off the autopilot on internal influences. These steps assist each individual in regulating paralyzing emotions and sustaining clearer thinking.
Teams and teams of teams are more the norm in business than individual contributors in most organizations today. The quality of teaming becomes a more critical factor in navigating pace and complexity. Ron Friedman's article in Harvard Business Review, "The Insider" blog from January 12, entitled "How High-Performing Teams Build Trust" reports that only 8.7% of 1000 US-based office workers surveyed gave their team a score as high performing. Wow, that's a challenging perspective to possess. The high-performing teams offered five key behaviors to build mutual trust. It's an excellent list from my nearly thirty years of coaching teams in Fortune 500 companies. Bring this list to your teams and practice a bit of compassionate honesty. Ask everyone how consistently you are modeling, expecting, and rewarding these behaviors as their team leader and what new choices will improve any of those actions.
1. They don't leave collaboration to chance.
2. They keep colleagues in the loop.
3. They share credit.
4. They believe disagreements make them better.
5. They proactively address tension.
Experienced with individuals at the Board of Directors, “C” Chair, Executive and Senior Management levels, Janet assists executives in adopting effective habits of perception and behavior to lead and accelerate corporate strategies. Typical engagements address executive development in the following areas: articulate and inspire through clarity of vision, enable respectful challenge, debate and catalyze synergy for strategic business choices, risk/reward critical thinking about investments and shareholder value, plan leader succession and architect sustainable cultural/strategic change.
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