Monday, December 31, 2012

Will you be predictable in 2013?

The absence of predictability makes everyone more cautious.  People tend to prioritize safety over speed.  ~Dov Seidman

I had a bit of an epiphany this past week.  Over the past few years more and more people have been suggesting and arguing that strategic planning is no longer relevant or helpful.  Many times the argument is predicated on the belief that because we live in a period of ridiculously rapid change, that trying to "plan" or develop a "plan" is of little use.

Given that a good chunk of my work is in strategic planning, I've been contemplating this entire idea and approach to organizations.  Is it time for a change?  Maybe, but I certainly wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Here's why. 

One thing that nearly all authors, theorists, researchers and consultants agree upon is that trust is more critical now than it has ever been.  That's because the higher the degree of trust, the more quickly an organization can respond to change.  As Dov Seidman so appropriately states, "people tend to prioritize safety over speed."  If people don't feel safe, or don't fully trust their leader, they are going to be more cautious and therefore adapt to change more slowly. 

Trust is beyond critical.  It's vital to survival if our organizations are going to keep pace with the rate of change in the breakneck race in which we are all participating, by choice or by default.  Again, read a number of authors who claim to be an authority on creating trust and one of the commonly repeated key attributes of trust: predictability.  Are you predictable?  Without it, you are going to struggle to generate trust.

Here's where the epiphany comes in…focused, clearly articulated strategic plans demonstrate predictability.  A strategic plan is a tool that can generate predictability, therefore trust, which in turn will enable organizations to turn on a dime.  A good strategic plan isn't irrelevant; in fact, it could accelerate your ability to adapt to change.

Maybe our strategic plans need to change.  Maybe they've been too complicated, too detailed and too static.  Maybe they need to focus more on establishing unquestionable clarity of the mission, vision and values.  Maybe they need to emphasize priorities more than quantifiable goals so in the midst of change we don't lose sight of the direction by getting lost in the muck and mire of formulas and decimal points.  And maybe strategic plans need to communicate how we will make decisions as opposed to what specific decisions we will make so we will be trusted when uncertainty sneaks around the corner.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm somewhat of closet statistician and numbers geek myself.  I'm frequently quoting Drucker, "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it."  So not holding quite as tightly to the "measurement" piece of a strategic plan is a paradigm shift for me, personally.  But, using a strategic plan to establish predictability, and therefore, trust, makes a whole lot of sense to me.  Maybe it shouldn't be a strategic plan but a strategic direction.  

How will we be predictable in 2013 so we can create the trust we'll need to maneuver through the unpredictable changes certain to occur in the next year?  Is our strategic direction irrefutably clear?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Leaders think twice.

Our situation influences our decisions enormously.  One of the mistakes leaders make is the belief that our decisions are independent of our experiences.  ~Michael J.Mauboussin from Think Twice

While glancing through Michael J. Mauboussin’s book, Think Twice, I came across a study that I found fascinating.  The purpose of the study was to determine to what extent the situation and our experience influences our decisions. 

In a store that sold wine they had a display of French and German wine, the two wines were displayed next to each other.  For two weeks, they alternated what music was being played in this section of the store.  On some days the music was clearly French and on others it was distinctly German.  The result: when French music was being played 77% of the sales were French wine, when German music was being played 73% of the sales were German wine.  When questioned following their purchase, 86% of the customers denied that the music had anything to do with their decision.

This same phenomenon has been proven time and again in a variety of studies.  Yet, we still try to deny the conclusion that our experience (or lack of) really does have a significant influence on our decisions.  What if we just accepted this truth?

Reading this study caused me to think about the coming New Year.  What experiences should I intentionally pursue? What situation would enable me to make better decisions?  By better, I mean decisions that encompass a broad range of perspectives and align with my values.

One example that immediately came to mind was the number of clients I've worked with who say that diversity is important.  It may even be one of their espoused values.  However, when you look at their executive team it reflects a very homogenous group of individuals.  Because their experience does not include a great deal of diversity, they continue to make decisions that don’t really reflect diversity as a high priority.  If we want to make decisions differently in the future, then maybe we need to change our situation and expand our experiences.

A number of authors make the case that some of the most effective leaders are always learning something new, moving into a completely different industry, engaging in something others would consider adventurous.  They are constantly broadening their experience and, in a sense, expanding their situation.  Could this rich assortment of experience allow them to approach decisions differently than someone who is living more routine and habitual with a fairly narrow worldview?

If that's the case, then in 2013 what should we be doing to modify our situation or expand our experience?  Who are our primary mentors and confidants, do they need to change to include different perspectives?  What books are we reading?  Or maybe, are we reading?  What authors are we inviting in to our thinking?  When was the last time we learned something completely new and different? 

My intent was not to make 2013 sound daunting; but instead, to think about 2013 intentionally.  To embrace the fact that whatever experiences we choose and situations we create, they will have a significant influence on the decisions we make in the coming year.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Life itself is grace.

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.  ~Frederick Buechner from Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

I had selected this quote before the tragedy of December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut.  But of course now it feels even more poignant.  I chose this quote this week because I live within a community that has experienced an unusual amount of death and tragedy over the course of the past month or so.  A friend posted on Facebook the quote, “Life itself is grace,” commenting about some of the recent and sudden tragedies and how this emphasizes the fact that, “Life itself is grace.”  Then only days later, this same individual found himself also swept up in the tragedy of sudden and unexplained death of a close family member.

And now as a nation, we've all been swept up in the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut.  It's not hard to find individuals at Sandy Hook Elementary who were not only leaders but heroes.  The principal and the school psychologist were shot as they tried to tackle the gunman in order to protect the students.  A 27-year-old teacher shooed her first graders into closets and cabinets when she heard the first shots, and then, by some accounts, told the gunman the youngsters were in the gym.  She had put herself between the gunman and the kids.  She lost her life protecting the children.

These individuals knew, and lived, as if "Life itself is grace."

Does it really take tragedy of this magnitude for the rest of us to live as if "Life itself is grace"?

There are many definitions of grace and I certainly don’t want to spark a theological or intellectual debate.  But given the events of the past week, I like the definition that grace is generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.  Life is free and totally unexpected and undeserved.  What if we were leading, every day, from the vantage point of grace?

We'd be more grateful.  We'd be more generous.  We'd be more forgiving.  We'd be more appreciative.

Chuck Swindoll says "Grace isn't picky. Grace doesn't look for things that have been done that deserve [recognition].  Grace operates apart from the response or the ability of the individual.  Grace is one-sided."

The children who walked away from Sandy Hook Elementary and into the arms of their parents were recipients of one-sided grace.  They received something free, totally unexpected and undeserved, while their teachers sacrificed their lives.

As we've all witnessed in the past week, "in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."   Swindoll says, "Believing in grace is one thing, living it is another."  As leaders, are we living grace?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Leaders are possessed.

The most effective leaders don’t possess specific traits, characteristics or behaviors.  They are possessed by those traits, characteristics or behaviors.  ~Kathryn Scanland

I'm not intending to create a music theme, but we can learn a thing or two about leadership from musicians.  I attended a concert last night; the specific genre would be difficult to pinpoint, they call it folk/gypsy/swing.  The group included four musicians but it was the clear leader of the group who got my attention.  I've attended hundreds of concerts and many musicians are superb performers, but now and then you come across someone who appears to be possessed by the music.  Last night was one of those occasions. 

He was truly possessed by the music.  It was as if the music was flowing through every inch of his being.  His energy didn't waver for even a second throughout the duration of the nearly two-hour set.  There wasn't a moment that his intensity or passion lingered.  It didn't seem as if he was performing as much as he was just "being" a vessel for the music to flow through.

So of course I started to think about what a leader would look like if they didn't just possess specific traits but instead, they were possessed by those traits.  Imagine a leader possessed by passion, optimism, authenticity, and clarity of purpose.  They don't possess passion, optimism, authentic and clarity of purpose and then use those traits in their leader performance; they are possessed by those traits.

There are some leaders who fall into this category.  One who immediately comes to mind is Craig Kielburger of Free the Children.  He was caught by passion, optimism, authenticity and clarity of purpose at the young age of 12.  Yes, that's right; he started a nonprofit at age 12 sixteen years ago.  Free the Children is the largest nonprofit of children serving children in more than 40 countries around the world to free children from slavery.

So why aren't more of us possessed by leadership as opposed to performing as leaders?  Just like there are many wonderful performers in the music world there are also many wonderful performers in the leadership world so this is not intended to discount those individuals.  But how does someone move from performing to being possessed? 

I can only speculate, but when I think of specific leaders who are "possessed" and not just performing, they have something in common.  They all very intentionally open themselves to being impacted, inspired, and moved by others.  And they do this with a degree of vulnerability that few are willing to risk.

The musician I saw last night could have held back, he could have been concerned that some of his antics may have been viewed as odd or even foolish.  He could have given a "performance."  But he didn't, he allowed the music to possess him and instead his passion and authenticity were contagious.  The group was new to most of us in the audience.  But we all stayed and demanded an encore; we couldn't get enough of what possessed him. 

Imagine a leader, so possessed by passion, optimism, authenticity, and clarity of purpose that we just can't get enough, and we demand an encore.     

Monday, December 3, 2012

Leaders manage meaning.

When we connect with others through our framing, we shape reality.  What’s more, if we “manage meaning” when others are unable, we emerge as leaders.  ~Gail T. Fairhurst

This past week I experienced one of the many perks of living in downtown Chicago – a night at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).  The musicians casually filed in, warmed up their instruments, carefully tuned following the first violin’s lead, and then quietly and reverently waited for the conductor to enter.  He enters and is welcomed with applause.  The conductor could have turned his back to the audience, raised his arms, and began the first piece.  But he didn't.

Instead, the conductor turned to the audience and described the first piece in great detail.  He told us about the composer, Dvorak, and how the piece was written toward the end of his life.  He went on to describe the visual images throughout the piece, what we would sense, how it would flow, and what was being communicated throughout the music.

All of this reminded me of the very important and artful skill of leadership that we many times rush past – framing.  As Fairhurst states, we shape reality when we take the time to connect through framing.  Framing might be accomplished through a story, a metaphor, visual images, or group exercise.  As an example, it's taking the time at the beginning of a meeting to set the stage.  On several occasions when I've known that those in the meeting have varied opinions and the discussion could create tension, I tell the fable of Three Blind Men and an Elephant.  It acts as a reminder that even though we may see the situation from different perspectives given our individual experiences, that doesn't mean any one of us is right and all others are wrong. 

Framing can better prepare individuals for an effective meeting and framing can also communicate vision and priorities.  I recall a meeting with a college strategic planning committee that was struggling to articulate their collective vision.  At one point, the president (finally!) stated his vision through framing and it seemed to connect with the committee members.  Then the president, somewhat stunned at their surprise, said, “That's what I said in my inaugural speech three years ago.”   Somehow, he thought he could frame his entire tenure as president in one speech at his inauguration.  Framing vision and priorities is something that leaders must do constantly, not once a year at an annual meeting, or once in a career.

One of the most effective examples of framing might be Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech.  The vast majority of the speech was framing.  He was "managing meaning" when others were unable.  I'll admit few of us are orators even close to the likes of Dr. King.  But we can each find our individual art of framing.  My church has a periodic guest speaker who uses visual aids in the form of props to an extreme.  But he uses those props to "manage meaning" and frame his message.  I recently heard a speaker who artfully used fables to frame complex ideas.  I frequently facilitate meetings with leadership teams and I try to come up with a participative exercise that sets the tone and direction for the meeting.

Back to my evening with the CSO.  Because the conductor took the time to "frame" each piece, I have no doubt I that my concert experience was much richer had he not taken the time to shape reality for the audience.  Bravo, CSO, bravo!