Filed under: - Innovation, - People Change Management, - Strategy and Imperatives | Tags: Burning Platform, Culture, Effectiveness, Leadership, Planning, Politics, ROI, Transformation, Vision
Much has been made of Obama’s election campaign – on the public rhetoric of change. Certainly one cannot argue its effectiveness – regardless of your political persuasions - this man has become the ‘leader of the free world’.
I am currently reading “The Audacity of Hope”, author Barack Obama. It was a gift from a friend – we often talk politics and she had read it. I was skeptical – figured it would be a thinly veiled marketing pitch and, perhaps it is, but it is actually quite … good.
It is interesting to know learn what he professes, in his own (or authorized) words and to consider whether he is walking his talk. A couple of quotes to give you an idea:
- “… what’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem.” (p22)
- ” When we dumb down the political debate, we lose. For it’s precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet challenges we face as a country. It keeps us locked into either / or thinking.” (p40)
- “What are the core values that we, as Americans, hold in common? That’s not how we usually frame the issue, of course, our political culture fixates on where our values clash.” (p52)
- “In every society (and in every individual), these twin strands – the individualistic and the communal, autonomy and solidarity – are in tension ….”
These are not the typical manifesto rallies – these are more complex arguments. The challenges of getting enough of the voting public to understand these concepts to give him room to make complex change happen in an adversarial political arena is probably why most have never taken this approach. But it may be the only right way.
This is not to say that his politics are ‘right’. It is to say that the notions of a higher bar of political debate, developing resolutions for apparently contradictory policies, focusing on the values that bring a group together while recognizing the tensions that pull them apart … these are the real challenges of leadership.
It has become clear that no political leader is perfect (certainly Opposition parties never lets the public forget it) and that the current political environment focuses on those imperfections while real issues are undermined in the interest of getting elected in the next term.
Certainly a new order of leadership is required. After all, to quote a more widely recognized brilliant mind:
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Einstein
The honeymoon is over for President Obama. Although it does not appear that he has taken his foot off the gas from the moment his win was announced (something I do admire), the glare of the media and the frowns of the hawks must be wearing thin. Now begins the real tests of a “president” – action under the most intense pressure. This is a job I would not want – it’s grueling nature will run down the soul of any mere mortal, as lesser men have discovered some earlier some later.
His platform has been clear from very early on - some could argue from before this book. He has sought the counsel and engaged of both experts and partisans. The fact that he has not wavered much from his platform should not be surprising – the planks are macro in nature and he has also stated that his bi-partisan interest lies in how one gets there.
Is he an active and engaging sponsor – certainly publically this is an easy feat when compared to his predecessor but is it enough? Can he maintain enough Democratic support? Can he penetrate the political requirements of partisanship to get traction for his BHAGs? This is not for the faint of heart – at some point one hopes that the players will take a step back and consider that some are all or nothing propositions. The healthcare initiative faces extraordinary challenges from reaching a consensus (or close enough) appreciation for the definition of the current situation to understanding the agendas of the stakeholders (from the different segments of the population, to the different states, different government levels and agencies to healthcare providers). This cacophony alone would torpedo many an effort.
We have a unique opportunity in history – a President who has placed a value in transparency, in engagement (despite its risks and challenges) and front row seats. It promises to be an interesting four years.
“… professionalism is overrated”: in isolation this is an inflammatory statement for sure. And like all information, it requires context to be properly understood. How often do we assume context? How often do we get it right? What are the risks and downsides of being wrong? What difference does it make in planning and implementation of strategic change?
“… professionalism is overrated”
The statement ”Amateurism is underrated and professionalism is overrated.” was made by artist Jorge Colombo. He was quoted in yesterday’s Toronto Star article “iBrushes with greatness” by Isabel Teotonio (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/article/656235). The article speaks about the capabilities of technologies and a convergence with other disciplines, in this case art. Colombo is no ordinary street artist – his iPod art was recently featured on a cover of The New Yorker.
I take his point to mean that there is a place for both amateurism and professionalism and that intimidation of professionalism should not scare off those of who are learning or experimenting. That there is value in “amateurism” – this echoes the concept of the beginner’s mind and expands the calling.
This is an interesting thought on its own; however consider the critical difference that knowing context made in understanding this statement. Does a better understanding of context change the meaning, bring value? Yes, it definitely does.
Value of a better understanding of strategic context
Likewise a fresh look at planning and implementing strategic change is required - a perspective that considers what we think we know about planning and implementation. After all if we were truly competent our projects would always hit ROI, on time and on budget – but they don’t.
What we assume is often what causes re-work, delays and ROI shortfalls. Often it is understanding context that can improve effectiveness. Over the past fifty years or so organizations have developed disciplines around planning (e.g. market research, competitive intelligence, etc) – the front end of business casing has achieved a degree of approximation of reality, of context.
Then we transition into implementation, often assuming that this set of assumptions (a) is 100% valid and reliable (b) while dynamic the assumptions will not vary materially over the course of the project and (c) that all stakeholders in the project have the same understanding of the project, and context, as the leadership team OR that (d) the Project team will monitor and accommodate market forces.
Typically none of these assumptions are 100% true but for this discussion I would like to look at (c) ”all stakeholders in the project have the same understanding of the project, and context, as the leadership team”.
Strategic and tactical alignment
What would be the common denominator that many companies have invested in developing? How about a vision statement? With so much effort invested in building that common understanding how effective have we been? Stephen Covey illustrates this beautifully in a video (“It’s Not Just Important, It’s Wildly Important”) that describes employees’ “understanding” of their companies’ vision statements:
- the leadership believes that everyone “gets it”, knows the most important goal(s) - they say “They know exactly”, “Everybody here knows that goal. I challenge you to go find someone who doesn’t”. Interestingly some admit “Certain people on our team know that. Do they all know that know that, understand that, no they don’t.”
- What do their employees say? Sure some seem to know but many do not: ”You’d have to ask my boss”, “I wish I knew”, “Safety in the pool area at all times”, “it changes a lot”.
What are the risks and downsides of employees not knowing their organizations’ main goals? They are more significant the more instrumental the employee’s role is in shaping the strategic direction of the organization - perhaps as in a strategic change project team.
Note: There is a lot more to this video and I encourage you to watch it – you would join the Stephen Covey Community at www.stephencovey.com, go to the Resources tab, 8th Habit Offer List and find Chapter 15 “It’s Not Just Important, It’s Wildly Important”. I have found that this 5 minute video to be very effective with leadership teams to illustrate this point with some humor.
Does it matter – is ‘pretty good, good enough?” ?
Individually and organizationally, most organizations are pretty good – at strategy and execution. Enough staff ‘get’ the vision enough to function well enough. We approximate greatness – and executives and program teams fill the gap with individual leadership and talent – and decision making.
The question really is – is that good enough? If most competitors develop comparable capabilities how will any one competitor pull away. It may be fair to say that we have reached a plateau of competence where it now matters – that to pull away organizations will have to look harder at the finessing around delivery – ensuring a deeper mutual understanding and commitment around context. This will become increasingly important in markets where:
- Employees will collaborate across distances (in virtual teams)
- There is great diversity in our teams (personal backgrounds and ambitions, work experience, generational context [Boomers, X, Y], departmental agendas, etc)
- Turnover in organizations and project teams is dynamic (we cannot expect previous trusted relationships or networks in every project to be available to expedite delivery)
- Decision making is dynamic – has to be responsive to changing market conditions; the leadership team needs a base (a context) from which to have productive dialogue and debate
What does that mean for strategic projects?
Can we install transformational change and still FAIL? We sure can.
More in my next post.