Leadership

The New How: Five Practices for Busting Out

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No matter what you do or where you sit in your organization, you are always making choices. You make choices of action and inaction. You make choices about which ideas matter, which ideas you want to champion, when to assert your point of view, and what is worth advocating for the business to consider.

Some choices are about leading people and leading the processes. But right now, let’s look at how each of us can participate in strategy creation as a peer.

We want to achieve two objectives with respect to choices. First, we want to be more thoughtful and less automatic in all our choices, not just the big ones. And second, we want to establish a clear sense of “targeted intentionality”-that is, we need to be aware of the subtle impact on the big picture that we are looking to achieve through the sum of our small and large choices.

Five practices for busting out

The tools that we will use to achieve these objectives are embodied in five practices. These practices will help raise your level of consciousness about choices that you are already making at work every day. If the practices seem a bit edgy, it is because they are intended to stimulate your thinking as you reimagine ways you can be more influential in how strategy gets created and how you contribute your ideas to the mix.

Co-creating is also challenging, and you may find that some of the practices are at the edge of (or even a bit outside) your comfort zone. You may find that you will be expanding your comfort zone as you engage in co-creation. The practices are also designed to help you see the larger impact of your choices.

1. Call out

Often in folklore we hear about powerful magical dragons or beasts we could control if we just knew their names. Calling stuff out within organizations is just like that. When we call things out, we take away their power. Calling out brings issues to light and helps an organization address them. In our role as co-creators, we must fully engage ideas that matter, even when they are unpopular. Co-creators will make choices that demonstrate a bit of boldness as they challenge the status quo by identifying and discussing topics that may have been previously taboo. Such individual choices encourage everyone on the team to participate in a conversation.

Do you see the issues when revenue forecasts are missed? Do you see gaps between divisions where ideas are getting lost? Do you see pertinent information being withheld? This ability to see and-more importantly-to call out what you see is the first thing you can do to start leading change.

Calling out starts with understanding the current state of your organization with as much curiosity and clarity as you can. Your ability to call out depends on your ability to see. Get clear on where your organization has strengths, weakness, blind spots, and patterns that don’t serve the needs of the company. Identify where there are issues that need to be addressed. Find a way to talk about it that is direct and honest, but holds back on judgment or blame. When you call out, you say things like: “I see us addressing only A here and not B” or “It appears the root cause of this issue is X, Y, and Z” or “This issue can be traced back to last year, when we terminated a product line.” Seek to express observations without blame or judgment.

2. Be fully present

Woody Allen said that 80 percent of success is showing up. What is the other 20 percent? Fully showing up! Be fully present! Be bold! Show your views. Show your ignorance. Show your worries. Ask “dumb” questions. One of the most important choices you make at work every day-consciously or not-is how you choose to show up!

Many people think they are not supposed to question or weigh in, because they don’t have a certain title, or a certain authority, or a certain level of leadership. None of us needs a designated role to have a point of view. That’s old-school thinking, and it’s totally unhelpful when creating great strategy.

Strategy creation is about understanding, debating, and co-building ideas. Generating great strategies is the creative act of people on a team. Why does that matter? Because if you’re not in the room to advocate, deliberate, and contribute what you have to offer – essentially, to fight over the value of ideas for the benefit of the company-then you and your firm are missing a huge opportunity. Just by saying that you don’t agree, or that you don’t know enough yet, or that you’ve identified conditions that need to be met, your participation is key to making the whole thing work. Without each of us showing up with our best contribution, we cannot change the way strategy gets created. We must show up and engage.

3. Understand the why

Some people feel like they shouldn’t share why decisions are made the way they are. This can include sharing what data was used to inform the decision, which people weighed in, or what risks were considered.

If, say, only a small group of leaders knows why decisions are being made the way they are, it leaves the rest of the organization in the dark. It suggests to people that there’s some “all-powerful wizard” behind the mysterious curtain who is the only one with the ability to make things happen, and that each of us is not a co-creator. It can leave the organizational players believing they have no say I what is being decided. By now, you know these two outcomes are taboo.

Everyone is better off when they know why decisions are made with as much accuracy as possible. It gives them an understanding of what matters and provides information on which to base the trade-offs constantly being made at every level. It also boosts buy-in and energy from the organization. When reasons behind decisions are not shared, the decisions can seem arbitrary and possibly self-serving. That is, they may seem like they are made for the good of the decision makers, rather than the good of the organization.

4. Live in a state of discovery

How many times have you made a decision only to realize later on that you had neglected key evidence that was right there in front of you? Why didn’t you see it? Were you bound by your own experiences, a prior way of doing things, a preconceived notion of the way things are?

This is totally human. From time to time, we all find that the way we see the world is limited by unconscious notions of what we believe reality is. But there is a contrasting conscious choice any of us can make: it’s a choice to live in a state of discovery.

Great strategy is at its very core about designing the future, and what it will take to realize that future. If we are not in a state of discovery, we limit the number of possibilities we imagine, invent, and strive for in the future. When we endeavor to live in a state of discovery, we are willing to engage new ideas and revisit assumptions. With practice, we find it easier to let go of earlier ideas to build different ones, and thus tend to be open to the contributions of others. This has an interesting byproduct. When we loosen our grip on our own point of view in order to see others’ points of view, we stop appearing “political” to others.

Living in a state of discovery is an active choice. It means consciously continuing to expand our mental frameworks, and staying open to new knowledge, new insights, and new experiences. I call this “being curious”: being inquisitive about the world, about other people’s points of view, about how things work around you, and even about new notions of yourself. If all that sounds positive and exciting, understand that living in a state of discovery also means being willing to accept facts we don’t like, and being able to see old facts in a new way.

Staying curious and open helps each of us stay mentally agile. By contrast, when we treat our experience, knowledge, or insights as “complete” or “done,” we limit ourselves to the past rather than embracing the future. As long as we restrict incoming data sets, we screen out the good ideas along with the bad. We lose essential information, constricting our ability to invent, reinvent, and create (and co-create) the future.

5. Embrace contradiction

One of the toughest things about being a strategist and a co-creator is that almost all of the easy problems have already been solved by the time you arrive. The easy issues involve decisions that are relatively straightforward and linear, with clear cost-benefit trade-offs. This means that the investments and the barriers to action are largely about money and resources. An example might be a run-of-the-mill marketing program where the decision is clear and resources need to be allocated.

Difficult problems, however, occur when you are breaking new ground. Solving such problems requires that both the means and the ends be found. They are often intuitive or holistic decisions where even the process of discovery itself can be transformative. The complexity of these types of decisions usually means they are mired in resistance that borders on open conflict. To solve the problem, the organizations and humans involved will need to change and adapt in some yet-undefined way. A typical strategic decision is a new market entry or an integration of two companies.

Strategy creation for difficult problems, therefore, is incredibly complex by its very nature. It’s rarely clear what the “answer” is, because the problem itself often is not clear. When you roll up your sleevesand dig in, you find a situation of deep complexity where no solution appears ideal. The hallmark of thorny strategy problems is that they involve contradiction-that is, they contain a set of conflicting goals for imperatives that create a tension that defies objective resolution.

Either something about the future conflicts with some aspect of the present, or two aspects of the future conflict with each other. If this were not true, the problem would be straightforward. Your intuitive sense for resolution will often differ from someone else’s intuition. And that, of course, is the challenge to arriving at a solution many people can get behind.

Sitting forward, going forward

We are constantly facing choices in our workplace. On the one hand, we constantly see issues that ought to be addressed today, if not sooner. On the other hand, we are tempted to choose the safety and comfort of checking out and “going with the flow.

For those of us who seek to do the best thing for our firms, to be strategists and co-creators, the choices are clear, even if they aren’t easy. It might seem safer, more comfortable, and easier to sit back, but we know underneath, it’s actually not. We know that if we do this, we’re depriving the organization of what we know, our insights, and our particular perspective. Our viewpoints can be crucial to helping the company to win. And if the company doesn’t win, none of us win.

In order to fill in the Air Sandwich, we can’t afford to play only our formal, defined individual roles and neglect what’s going on within the team and the business’s “field of play.”

Adopting the five principles in your individual role is about sitting forward. Sitting forward is a way to meet the world so that you are ready for action-ready to listen, to learn, to connect disparate ideas, to help advance options, to create, and ultimately to make something real. You are engaging with the world, not witnessing it passively.

This article is excerpted from Chapter 2 of Nilofer Merchant’s new book, The New How: Building Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy.

Nilofer Merchant is CEO & Chief Strategist of Rubicon Consulting.

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