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Passion, People and Principles

Creating A New Religion

post # 26 — March 7, 2006 — a Managing, Strategy post

A lot of my professional work for the past two decades has had the following structure. A CEO or managing partner calls me up and says something like this –

‘We’ve been managing this firm for profitability and cost control, and pulled it off. We’re in terrific shape. Now we want to initiate a new era of inspiration. We want our people to be client-centric, to become trusted advisors. We want them to collaborate across boundaries so we can become a one-firm firm, and we want them to focus on developing our juniors so we can be a great place to work. Can you come and help convince our people to do all this?’

Since these are all goals and values I advocate and believe in, I have (in the past) frequently accepted this assignment. I have often been successful at building enthusiasm for these strategies. It’s not because I’m so talented, but because most people, it turns out, would love to work in a company or firm that subscribed to those values. Getting buy-in is not that hard.

However, I frequently run the final strategy meetings with anonymous voting machines, and after everyone has voted that these are strategies they want to pursue, and that they want management to pursue, I then ask the question – how many of you think we will actually do this, will run the company this way, and actually will implement these strategies?

In the overwhelming majority of cases, people indicate with the anonymous voting machines that they do NOT think the new strategies and policies will be implemented. Notice that the people voting are not some group of lowly employees – they are the partners or senior vice presidents of the enterprise. If they are skeptical about the company’s own ability to implement its own declared strategy, can you imagine how cynical the employees are?

As I have touched on in two of my recent articles – Are You Abusive, Cynical or Exciting? and Strategy and the Fat Smoker people’s depressing view of their own future comes from two sources.

First, their fear that they will not themselves live up to their own high aspirations when faced with temptation. Second, they believe that those in leadership positions will not ‘keep the faith’ – leaders will continue to manage as they have done in the past (usually driven by short-term financials) rather than the way they say they are going to manage in the future.

During the past 20 years of doing what I do, I have seen leaders of all kinds. Some really DO want to change, and are sincere about trying to lead their organizations in new directions. Other leaders truly are as cynical as their colleagues suspect them to be. These leaders want everyone else to change and live to high standards, but fully intend to go on managing the same old way. This second type is just trying to get more from others (the organization) without having to give more.

What has been fascinating to observe is how hard it has been even for the sincere leaders to get their colleagues and subordinates to believe that they have changed, and that they will manage to new standards.

People almost never believe this. They just don’t accept that there has been ‘a conversion on the road to Damascus.’ They never believe there truly is a new religion in place. They always believe that their leaders are going to go back to managing the way they have done for the prior 5, 10 or 15 years.

When you think about it, the cynicism is to be expected. Why should people think the leopard has changed its spots? What could the leader possibly do that would get those closest to them, those who know them very, very well, to think that they have shifted the basis on which they will make decisions? And if those closest to the leaders have a hard time believing that the leaders have truly changed their thinking, what hope is there for convincing the rest of the organization?

I don’t mean to become a cynic myself, but I have to report that new strategies and change efforts are easier for a new CEO or managing partner to implement than for the existing CEO or managing partner to be credible about. Leaders who want to convince their organizations that they have changed have a very difficult task.

Anyone out there have suggestions about how to overcome all this organizational skepticism?


Shawn Callahan said:

Skeptics will continue being skeptical while the stories they hear stay the same. When I worked at IBM in the Cynefin Centre we ran a leadership training exercise for the top 20 people in the company (those that had newly arrived at the dizzy heights). Before the week of activities we collected stories about their leadership styles from four perspectives: people who report to them; experts who advise them; their close knot colleagues; people they worked with in a crisis. The spent the week working with these stories illustrating to one another what was good and bad leadership, all the time not knowing who the stories were about. At the end of the week we gave them a version of the stories where they could see the ones about themselves.

While the exercise was confronting it was designed to trigger self-awareness. Most importantly we told them that to change the way you are perceived you need to change the stories that are told about you. This is a complex intervention to a complex issue. A recipe approach would be doomed to failure.

posted on March 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Stimulating anlaysis, Shawn. I take your point about not looking for recipes, but you could also derive from your reporting that what a CEO or managing partner needs to do is to get ‘new’ stories circulating.

Does that mean doing something that will get people chatting, or is that too Machiavellian and too likely to backfire?

Personally, I’m nervous of attempts to create single symbolic gestures. Like you, I would try to help people re-examine their own ways of routine bahavior, not special behavior.

I ofen ask ‘How would a CEO who had been operating for the last ten years in accordance with your new strategy behave? What would he or she do differently than what you have been doing?’

posted on March 7, 2006

Shawn Callahan said:

I’m defintiely NOT and advocate of creating or crafting stories and getting them out. Rather leaders need to act in new ways that generate their own stories that get out in their own word-of-mouth ways.

Karl Weick says that an event doesn’t exist until it is talked about. So while leaders need to take action in alignment with their new direction, there also needs to be an opportunity to talk about what happened and where we should go next. I think the efficacy of long term planning in a complex and interconnected world will continue to diminish and in its place with be small cycles of action and sensemaking guided by broad principles. I think Etienne Wenger summed up the problem nicely when he said: “The farther you aim, the more an initial error matters.”

posted on March 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

OK, Shawn – I love the references (new to me.)

But from your email address, i’m guessing you really know a lot about anecdotes and stories. So can you be a littel more specific about what it means to (as you say) ‘act in new ways that generate their own stories’ but do it in a way that isn’t self-consciously crafting. That sounds very difficult to me!

Can you shed any light on how leaders can rconcile those two thoughts?

posted on March 7, 2006

Shawn Callahan said:

Yes, David, happy to. There two things that influence our work at Anecdote: an appreciation of complexity science and how it might be applied to business; and an understanding of how naturally occuring stories provide a real insight into how people really do their work and what values are driving action. Let me start with the latter.

There are two streams of activity in the field of narrative related to business: 1) storytelling, which is all about crafting persausive stories to affect change. We tend to steer clear of this type of work because of the dangers of creating a backlash and more cynacism; 2) story listening, which is a technique involving the collection of real-life experiences of how people do their work and then using these anecdotes to make sense (collectively) of what’s happening and then design interventions. We’ve called this approach business narrative and I describe it here: http://www.anecdote.com.au/archives/2005/08/what_is_busines.html

Narrative techniques provide a powerful way to make sense of messy and seamingly intractable issues because of their ability to contain ambiguity and stories are the natural way we make sense of what’s happening around us. If you see a senior leader go into the office of your manager, and this rarely happens, your create a story to account for the event that occurred. Stories are so ubiqitous we don’t notice most of them.

But and understanding of narrative is not enough to make headway. We believe that most organisations view themselves as a rational, linear machine (perhaps a little too strong) and think they can understand all the cause and effect relationships affecting the business. It just takes time and analysis. While this is true from some business problems we don’t think it is the case for issues which are highly connected, dynamic and non-linear (eg. a small event has a disproportional impact). Things like leadership, culture chanfe, innovation, trust are characterised in this way. So how do you manage in a complex environment? By noticing patterns and nurturing the ones you want and disrupting the ones you don’t want. It’s an ongoing, interactive process.

Narrative helps you notice new patterns. It’s one way to provide new perspectives. It is then up to the organisation to create small, tangible interventions, knowing for well that their impact is unpredictable in detail. These interventions enable the leaders to act in new ways to generate their own stories.

This whitepaper desribes the process further: http://www.anecdote.com.au/whitepapers/wp6.php

posted on March 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Shawn. I’ve got some absorbing and learning to do. Anyone else want to react to all of this? Either to Shawn’s points or other perspectives on whether and how existing leaders can convince the organization that there is a ‘new religion.?’

posted on March 7, 2006

Moe Levine said:

Are leaders truly are as cynical as their colleagues suspect them to be?

Yes—take an illustration of our Founding Fathers and the elimination of slavery.

Only Washington freed his slaves and he did that by will.

Any worker silly enough to buy in . . .

People who don’t get this don’t understand history. WWII had a good and a bad side. What we are talking about is the bad side. WWII was a lesson to millions on Americans on the power of organizations, especially how that that be bent to the greed and goals of the manager, boss, department, head, etc. etc.

Every step of the chain is always exploited for the boss. If you run a sales department and have a good sales person you do everything you can to keep them, including poor reviews, etc. It goes on and on

posted on March 10, 2006