The Cardinal and the Sparrow: Effective Organizational Change

You can’t make an omelet without breaking some legs. One of those legs is Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Cardinal Raymond Burke of the Roman Catholic Church was in the news recently, although perhaps not entirely in a way that he would have liked. The good Cardinal recently suffered a significant and dramatic change in status, sort of the equivalent of an admiral being demoted to swimming pool monitor: from Cardinal and head of the ecclesiastic church, he is now the patron of the Knights of Malta. This is not, to put it mildly, an upward career move. Indeed, one might well imagine that the Cardinal and the Bluebird of Happiness are not exactly on speaking terms right now.

The question, of course, is why did this happen? The ostensible cause is that the Cardinal did not agree with Pope Francis. While that may, in fact, be the proximate reason, the real reason is a bit more subtle. It has to do with the often messy and awkward process of organizational change. The world is constantly changing, whether we are looking at the religious landscape of the Church or the business landscape. Businesses rise up and achieve success within the environment in which they are founded. Many of them then go out of business or fade into the background: still important, but no longer dominant. Think Xerox, IBM, Microsoft, to name three, with Google possibly preparing to become a fourth.

Organizational change is never an easy thing. The larger the organization and the more deeply entrenched its culture and behavior, the more difficult it is to change. Few organizations are larger and have a more deeply entrenched culture than the Roman Catholic Church. Change can be a lot like trying to turn the QE II: it’s not something that happens easily or quickly. But Francis is making it happen. How?

To begin with, he is moving slowly. He is not trying to change the church all at once, but rather in small steps. He raises issues and then builds on them; he first suggests different ideas and gets people thinking about them. He then starts to act on those ideas and concepts.

Part of what makes change difficult is that an organization became successful by doing things a certain way. They have learned how to succeed, and everyone knows that nothing succeeds like success… except, of course, when it doesn’t. But trying to change those comforting habits is challenging: like throwing away that old coat that fits just right, the change simply feels wrong.

The first step, therefore, is painting a picture of the future: tell people what change will look like. This can be done through vibrant and dramatic speeches or through quiet questions. What matters is that it happens. Once people know where you are going, they are much more comfortable following you. It’s when they don’t know, or don’t want to know, that people dig in their heels. You have to make it easy for people to follow.

However, no leader can change a large organization on their own. There are simply too many people, too much psychological inertia. It is critical to get other organizational leaders on board. Show them the future and help them become comfortable with it, so that they will then share that vision with their followers. The more people who come on board, the more people will come on board: once change gets large enough, it starts to snowball.

But what about those who hear and refuse to follow? Often, they need to be removed from power: politely, calmly, and firmly. There can be no doubt, no question that the snowball will run over anyone who is refusing to move. Provided that people know which way to start moving, this approach can be remarkably effective at convincing those who have doubts that they should jump on the bandwagon. The catch, of course, is that you can’t get rid of too many or move too fast: scare people too much and they freeze or panic. If people are scared by the change process, they will swiftly become scared of the change itself.

By demoting Cardinal Burke in such a public fashion, Pope Francis is sending a very clear message. By finding a place for him, albeit a minor one, Francis is also recognizing his years of service. It is not always necessary to get rid of those who won’t change; rather, leading change involves moving them to places where they can still help the organization but can no longer impede the change process. Instead of being a focus of attention, they become boring and unimportant.

If you want to lead change effectively, you need to show people the future. Paint the picture that will get them thinking about how the world, or at least the company, can be a better place. Ask the questions that will get people to become unhappy with the status quo and start thinking about how change could be a good thing. Show them the way, recruit followers to spread the message, and strategically replace those who won’t move. Don’t be afraid to turn a few brightly colored cardinals into boring sparrows.

 

The Leadership Blueprint can help you with organizational change. Find out how.

The Leader Who Didn’t Play Well With Others

This article was originally published in Computer World.

 

If a leader doesn’t let anyone else shine, no one will engage

Once upon a time, for that is how these stories always begin, there was a brilliant engineer. He could come up with all sorts of creative ideas in a flash. Because of this, he decided to start a company. His company did reasonably well, although it did have some problems. One of the big problems was that this brilliant engineer, now a brilliant CEO, was not always all that skilled at playing well with others. He always had the best answers to all the technical challenges the company was facing.
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Now, to be fair, his answers really were the best, at least according to some standards. On a technical level, he understood the technology of his business extremely well. His solutions were always technically brilliant. And that is where the problem arose.

One day, an engineer in the company was charged with developing a solution to a particularly vexing problem. This engineer went off and studied the problem. He worked hard at the problem. On the appointed day and hour, he presented his solution. Everyone loved the solution except, sadly, for the brilliant CEO. He knew the technology like no one else, and he immediately saw A Better Way. The CEO proceeded to demolish the engineer’s solution. Indeed, he reduced it to metaphorical rubble. If the engineer’s idea had been a village in Eastern Europe, it would have looked as if the Golden Horde had just swept through, leaving no stone standing upon another stone nor any blade of grass unplucked.

And then the brilliant CEO explained how it could have been done better. Truly, it is said by some, he waxed poetic in his analysis of what to do and how to do it. And all (or at least all those who understood what he was talking about) agreed his analysis was brilliant.

There was but one tiny problem: When it came time to implement the brilliant CEO’s brilliant idea, there was no enthusiasm, no engagement. None felt they had a stake in the outcome. Not a soul among them dared to make suggestions, even though the most brilliant ideas invariably need modification as they are implemented. The engineer who had been eviscerated by the brilliant CEO never again volunteered to lead a project and never offered another idea for consideration. Others, who had witnessed the evisceration though they had not personally felt its bitter sting, developed a similar attitude.

In the end, the brilliant CEO’s brilliant plan languished. With no one on the implementation team to champion it, the idea remained mostly just that, an idea. The company was left with nothing. Rather than a functional idea and a staff of loyal engineers motivated and enthusiastic about carrying it out, the company was left with no plan at all. An imperfect plan — well, that can always be improved. But no plan at all? That can be a bit of a problem.

Sadly, for the brilliant CEO, this was not the first time this sort of thing had happened. Having the Golden Horde sweep across the landscape of ideas, leaving nothing but destruction in its wake, is not something that any company can long survive. In such an environment, it is not long before people stop suggesting ideas, lest they draw the attention of that aforementioned horde. The board of directors came to the same conclusion and decided that it was time for the CEO’s tenure to also come to a conclusion. He was forced out, and the company went on its way without him. Perhaps their ideas were no longer quite so brilliant, but they had ideas. Perhaps their plans were no longer quite so ambitious and clever, but they had plans. Perhaps their products were no longer quite so perfect, but they had products.

From this, we can draw several important lessons:

1. When you crush every plan or idea people propose, eventually they stop proposing ideas or suggesting plans. It is unwise for one person to be left as the sole source of ideas; just look at Apple after Steve Jobs.

2. Tearing people down does not motivate them. Indeed, it does precisely the opposite. If you want to motivate people, find ways to build them up.

3. If it can’t or won’t be built, it doesn’t matter how perfect it is. Insert whatever you’d like for “it.”

4. Having the best mousetrap today is less valuable than having a consistent, repeatable process for developing good, solid, buildable mousetraps.

5. Point 4 will only happen when you know how to connect with your team and build them up.

In the end, playing well with others might not guarantee that you will live happily ever after, but it helps.

Hidden Assumptions

We’ve been hearing a lot about how it now appears that two nurses working with Ebola patients in Dallas have contracted the disease. The big question is, of course, how did it happen? What was the mistake or violation of medical protocol that led to them getting infected?

When I ran a pandemic flu simulation exercise (essentially, an experiential assessment) in Washington DC, part of the exercise involved doctors coming down with the deadly flu strain. I received some very interesting feedback from one of the doctors. He told me about all the different simulations that they do: natural disasters, terrorist attacks, accidents, radiation poisoning, etc. Then he said, “But we’ve never done one where we get sick.”

Hidden assumptions: the things we so take for granted that we don’t even consider them. Doctors and nurses are used to working with sick people, and they are used to working through a lot of minor discomforts. They just don’t think about getting sick. Apparently, though, no one ever told that to the Ebola virus.

And that’s the key point: our hidden assumptions are great until they’re not. It’s like the old slapstick routine where the comic steps on a rake: it seems to pop up out of nowhere and smack him in the face.

The problem, though, is that hidden assumptions are just that: hidden. We don’t even realize they’re there until we trip over them. At that point, the damage is done.

It’s far better to find them ahead of time. Unfortunately, we can’t just ask about them: what are we not considering? Hidden assumptions are hidden; they are, by definition, the things we are not thinking about or even considering. They are the box we don’t even know we’re in. Experiential assessment can change that by forcing us into experiences that reveal the box.

Real opportunity comes when we realize what we’re taking for granted.

Make It So

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard had a remarkable superpower: he had only to say, “Make it so,” and things would get done.

To be fair, this power was not entirely unique to him. Plenty of leaders and managers have said, “Make it so.” Sometimes, “it” even gets done, whatever “it” may be. In fact, it’s really less about whether or not “it” gets done, as how well “it” gets done. That’s the real key: not getting something done, but getting it done well.

Okay, Star Trek is fiction. Are teams really capable of demonstrating the sort of performance that we see from the crew of the Enterprise? The answer to that is, perhaps surprisingly, no. The truth is, real teams can do much better, and real teams don’t need a friendly script writer to make sure it all turns out okay. The secret is to develop the mindset and momentum of success. This can be challenging, particularly when a team is new or if a team has suffered a setback. However, even when things are going well, actually harnessing success and making it build upon itself takes more than just luck and good intentions.

Successful leaders manage it not through chance, but through having a blueprint for success. This leadership blueprint is known as the High Performance Cycle. Despite its name, the High Performance Cycle is not something used by elite riders in the Tour de France. At its most basic level, the High Performance Cycle links goals, feedback, employee engagement, and commitment to the organization, into one virtuous circle. Properly managed, each turn of the cycle increases the competence of the individual team members and of the team as a whole. Furthermore, when implemented properly, even failure becomes a form of feedback: information that lets the team adjust its goals and strategies. As the cycle runs, team members take on ever more challenging goals, leading to increasing levels of productivity for the organization.

The trick for the leader is that the cycle isn’t something that just magically happens. The leader is key to each step of the process: when you are in charge, you are the face of the larger organization. Thus, it is the leader who transforms successful goals into feedback that builds job satisfaction; it is the leader who transforms satisfaction into engagement and commitment; it is the leader who inspires committed and engaged employees to stretch themselves and seek out ever greater challenges.

Initiating the High Performance Cycle does not happen overnight and it rarely does happen by chance. It is the result of knowing what to do and being willing to do it. It can be a particularly useful tool for new managers, particularly during the transition from individual high performer to enabling others to perform at a high level. Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of having a blueprint for effective leadership is that it enables leaders to engage in their most important task: increasing the performance of everyone else.

What can you do to set your organization on the High Performance Cycle?

Going Viral: What Ebola Can Teach Us About Organizational Learning

It’s been interesting listening to the news about the Ebola patient in Dallas. At times, it almost sounds like an ongoing soap opera, except that it won’t turn out to be a bad dream.

What was particularly noteworthy, though, was the news report that the hospital that incorrectly sent the Ebola patient home had just completed an Ebola simulation exercise. Assuming that the story is correct, this really makes me wonder about the simulation the hospital staff engaged in and its effectiveness at promoting organizational learning.

The problem, to be fair, with a great many simulations is that they are too scripted: the problems are presented with big flashing neon signs saying, “DANGER! DANGER!” and there is always a clear and correct solution. While this type of drill can be useful in basic skill development, it does not train people to handle real situations unless those real situations mimic the drill reasonably precisely. Effective simulations need to be more open-ended and ambiguous; people need to practice the much more difficult scenario of making decisions where the answers are not clear and the problems are indicated by flashing neon signs.

When I ran a pandemic bird flu simulation in Washington DC, I applied exactly those principles: the flu epidemic began quietly, the initial clues were subtle. Participants in the exercise, including doctors, military officials, businessmen, and politicians, initially missed the danger signs. No one wanted to be seen as Chicken Little, no one wanted to appear to panic or to be publicly wrong. As a result, they failed to stop the flu while it was still limited to only a few exposed people. Of the over 100 participants in the exercise, every one was exposed and over 60% “caught” the flu. Real changes took place after that.

Organizational learning is not just showing people what to do. Organizational learning is giving people the chance to practice skills in settings where they can experience success and failure, and where failure becomes an opportunity to learn and improve. That’s really what effective simulations are all about, at least if you actually want your organization to actually learn.

Going Viral: What Ebola Can Teach Us About Organizational Learning

It’s been interesting listening to the news about the Ebola patient in Dallas. At times, it almost sounds like an ongoing soap opera, except that it won’t turn out to be a bad dream.

What was particularly noteworthy, though, was the news report that the hospital that incorrectly sent the Ebola patient home had just completed an Ebola simulation exercise. Assuming that the story is correct, this really makes me wonder about the simulation the hospital staff engaged in and its effectiveness at promoting organizational learning.

The problem, to be fair, with a great many simulations is that they are too scripted: the problems are presented with big flashing neon signs saying, “DANGER! DANGER!” and there is always a clear and correct solution. While this type of drill can be useful in basic skill development, it does not train people to handle real situations unless those real situations mimic the drill reasonably precisely. Effective simulations need to be more open-ended and ambiguous; people need to practice the much more difficult scenario of making decisions where the answers are not clear and the problems are indicated by flashing neon signs.

When I ran a pandemic bird flu simulation in Washington DC, I applied exactly those principles: the flu epidemic began quietly, the initial clues were subtle. Participants in the exercise, including doctors, military officials, businessmen, and politicians, initially missed the danger signs. No one wanted to be seen as Chicken Little, no one wanted to appear to panic or to be publicly wrong. As a result, they failed to stop the flu while it was still limited to only a few exposed people. Of the over 100 participants in the exercise, every one was exposed and over 60% “caught” the flu. Real changes took place after that.

Organizational learning is not just showing people what to do. Organizational learning is giving people the chance to practice skills in settings where they can experience success and failure, and where failure becomes an opportunity to learn and improve. That’s really what effective simulations are all about, at least if you actually want your organization to actually learn.

To Siri, With Love…

I don’t know if “To Sir, With Love,” is one of the most spoofed titles of all time, but I have to admit I remember it mainly because of the Get Smart episode, “To Sire, With Love.”

The new “Hey Siri” feature is iOS8 is something I could easily get used to. It’s remarkably convenient, particularly if I’m not, or should not be, holding my phone.

Now, I realize that it’s easy to criticize Apple: Android has had that feature forever, with its “Ok, Google now,” voice activation. “Ok, Google” doesn’t even require that the phone be plugged in. However, I seem to recall that when Google introduced that feature, even their special low-power chip designed to listen for just that phrase wasn’t quite as low-powered as all that! In the interests of battery life, I can live with the limitations.

More to the point, though, this illustrates something very important about innovation: innovation is not necessarily about coming up with something totally new and different. Sometimes, often in fact, it’s about doing something common a little differently or a little better in some key way.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the MP3 player, but he made it beautiful and convenient. It was easy to get music onto the iPod. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the smart phone either; in fact, when the iPhone first appeared, Blackberries dominated the landscape. But the iPhone wasn’t just a phone: it was also an iPod, a video player, and a gaming device. Who said that business phones couldn’t play music? Research in Motion, and Steve Jobs didn’t listen to them.

In other words, Apple has a habit of letting other people show the way and then figuring out something that’s slightly better or more aesthetically pleasing. By limiting when “Hey Siri” works, Apple does two things: first, they solve the battery life problem: the phone has to be plugged in. Second, by focusing us on the situations where actually picking up the phone may be difficult or inconvenient, they remind us how handy this feature is.

Of course, if it doesn’t work, it’ll also remind us how disappointing it is, but somehow I suspect that’s not going to be the case.

Is Congress Running Your Business?

It’s been pretty impressive listening to the news lately. Will Congress deign to return from vacation to debate whether to grant military authorization to attack ISIL? It seems sort of odd to even be debating whether or not they should be doing their jobs! Now, I could at this point draw some trivial parallel to around how many people get to just blow off their jobs and not really worry about it, but that would be pointless. I doubt anyone is having any trouble seeing that issue!

What I find much more interesting is why they are so eager to avoid debate, and what that can teach us about similar problems in a business.

Politics is an interesting game: in a very real sense, it’s not so much about doing a good job as it is about looking good. Debate military authorization before elections? No matter what you decide, events might prove you wrong. In this case, prove really means that a completely arbitrary and unforeseeable event makes whatever decision you just made appear to be wrong in hindsight. Of course, once this happens, then it becomes an opportunity for your political opponents to swoop in and declare that they would have magically foreseen the future and made a different decision.

In the immortal words of Monty Python, there are three lessons we can take from this and the number of the lessons shall be three.

First, hindsight is very comforting, but is fundamentally an illusion. Hindsight only appears to be 20-20. In reality, what appears obvious in hindsight is frequently only obvious because we know the answer. Go read a good mystery, be it a Sherlock Holmes story or something by Agatha Christie, and try to figure out the clues. It can be done; Conan Doyle, for instance, played fair. You don’t need to know that Holmes picked up a particular brand of cigar ash from the floor; it’s sufficient to just know that he found something interesting. The problem is that it doesn’t help: even with the clues in front of us, it’s still extremely difficult to solve the mystery. Once Holmes explains it, however, then it’s obvious; in fact, it’s hard to imagine that it could have gone any other way. That’s the problem with hindsight: once we know how events turned out, clearly it was obvious all along. That’s why everyone bought Google stock the day it went public and held on to it ever since. While hindsight, used properly, can certainly teach us some useful lessons about our decisions, the hindsight trap teaches us to avoid taking action.

Second, how do we react when someone makes a mistake? In any business operation, mistakes will happen. Are those mistakes feedback or are they the kiss of death? Does a wrong decision become an opportunity to bring out the knives and get rid of a rival or find an excuse to not give someone a promotion or a raise? Or does a wrong decision become an opportunity to revisit the process of making the decision and learn how to make better decisions? In other words, are you fixing the problems or are you simply fixing blame? Fixing blame may feel good, but doesn’t actually solve anything: the same problems just keep reappearing in different guises.

Third, are you evaluating your employees based on results, strategy, or both? Even the best strategy sometimes fails, but when you focus on strategy your odds of successful results are much higher. If you only focus on results, you are telling people to not take risks, not accept challenges, but rather to play it safe. If you only focus on strategy, you lose the opportunity to reality check your plans: if a strategy fails, it’s important to understand what happened. Did the market change? Did something unexpected and unpredictable occur? What are the things that can derail your strategy and what can you do to make your strategies more resilient? What can you control and what is outside your control? Athletes who focus on strategy, process, and winning, win far more often than those who only focus on winning.

When you get caught in the hindsight trap, fix blame, and ignore strategy what you are really doing is telling people that inaction is better than action, pointing fingers is better than improving the business, and playing it safe is better than pushing the envelope and seeking excellence. Is that really the business you want? If it’s not, what are you going to do?

 

 

The Illusion of Control

While attending a 4H fair with my family, I had the opportunity to watch an owl show. Harry Potter aside, owls are not exactly the best of pets. Owls, even small ones, are birds of prey. The trainer commented at one point that the owl he was holding was biting his thumb with around 200 pounds of pressure, quite painful even through the thick leather gloves he was wearing!

What was particularly interesting was watching just how little the trainer actually did. It often seemed as though the less he did, the greater his control over the birds. Speaking with him afterward, I found that this was, indeed, the case. If he tries to force the bird to do anything, the bird expresses its opinion in an unmistakable fashion, generally involving three inch long razor sharp talons. Listening to his explanation, I was reminded of jujitsu training: beginners seek to control their partners through brute force and the application of painful techniques. The more force the beginner applies, the more their partner instinctively resists. When the beginner manages a successful throw, both partners are left sweaty and gasping for breath.

By comparison, when the master executes the same technique, she often seems to barely touch her partner. The partner punches, and almost magically flies through the air. Where the beginner struggles for control, the master effortlessly leads their partner around and around until directing them into the floor, the wall, or another attacker. The only benefit the beginner gets is that they don’t need to go out running or lifting weights in order to get a good workout!

Like the trainer and the owls, the more force the beginner applies, the less control they actually have. Conversely, the less force the master applies, the more control they actually have. Much of jujitsu training is learning to overcome that almost instinctive response to use increasing amounts of force to overcome opposition and learn to apply technique instead.

What is particularly interesting in considering these examples is that owls and people react the same way to attempts to compel them to act in a certain way. Even in a friendly training environment, the use of force causes someone who wants to cooperate to fight instead.

The same thing happens in business: far too often, I’ve seen people transformed from enthusiastic and motivated to oppositional and unmotivated by managers who felt a need to focus on the consequences of “not measuring up,” instead of building on the excitement and then getting out of the way.

At one large computer hardware company, a certain VP of Engineering kept complaining that his department refused to step up. The less they did, the more draconian he became; the more draconian he became, the less they did. This could have ended very badly, with people quitting or being fired, neither of which would have been good for the company’s product cycle. Both the VP and the department needed help learning to stop fighting with one another. Helping them rebuild trust wasn’t easy, and it required the VP to have faith that his department would perform if he just gave them the chance. Instead of threats and sanctions, he had to learn to think, and communicate, strategically: instead of focusing on the consequences of failure, he enabled the department to see how their contributions fit into the long-term strategic goals of the company.

The department, on the other hand, needed to be brought to the point where they were willing to give the VP another chance. This, too, was not easy, as the habits of conflict had started to set in and several senior employees were already starting to hunt for new jobs. Fortunately, it was possible to reframe the conflict to the point where the department was willing to listen to what the VP had to say, and have faith that he really meant it.

The more the VP was able to stop trying to control his department, the more productive they became. The more the members of the department were able to accept that his attempts a over-control were mistakes, the more they were able to give him feedback in ways that didn’t threaten his authority. The net result was that performance increased sharply, product quality improved, and customers took notice. This led to a substantial revenue increase for the company.

Letting go of control is not easy: all too often it feels unnatural or premature. When our own reputation or job is on the line, it is even harder to not attempt to control every detail and every person. The more control we attempt, the less effective it is; paradoxically, though, this only convinces us to attempt to impose ever greater levels of control. When dealing with owls, you get very rapid feedback when you’re attempting too much control. It’s a bit less obvious in jujitsu, and hence harder to break the cycle. The most skilled jujitsu masters can throw an opponent often without touching him, but it takes a leap of faith to abandon the use of force and develop that level of skill. The business environment is, fundamentally, no different.

What’s stopping you?

Organizational Psychology for Managers Interview

Difficult business problems?

Want to find out how to motivate employees?

Like to know how to create a high performance team… other than by hiring the village idiot?

I will be interviewed on “Tom on Leadership” this Thursday morning on the topic of my recent book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers.

Here’s the link where you can listen live — and stream it or download it once we’re done:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/tom-on-leadership/2014/07/24/steve-balzac-on-organizational-psychology-for-managers

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