It’s a rough and exciting time for our clients who develop their organizations and lead them towards a powerful and successful future; creating an exciting workplace where people love to work and spend relevant parts of their lives is key.
Let’s start with the key challenges most organizations struggle with, in different shades, varieties and aspects:
- Lack of speed, innovation and creativity, confused staff
- No clear direction and vision
- Overwhelming external and internal complexity, lack of speed and decisions leading to typical stress patterns of leaders: more control, more details, focusing on unimportant, but controllable areas
- Slow decision processes, poor cross/up-down/overall communication
- Lack of spirit and motivation
- External threats, new competitors, new business models, cost pressure…
- Internal threats, people disengagement, lack of talent, lack of leadership skills…
- Mental disabilities in reading the world and markets differently, especially on a management level
- Having gone through some consulting/reorganization/cost-cutting/efficiency programs.. nothing more to expect from that side
Boiling it down to two main challenges, we see the lack of strategic clarity and a lack of trust. Out of that revolving pattern, we take a strong stand for a simple (not easy) approach.
CLEAR MIND & SAFE SPACE
Imagine your organization as an organism, quite messy in shape, having its own patterns and subsystems, reacting slowly if at all to steering efforts from the top. This complex messy combination of people, rules, experiences, structures, products, machines, offices, interests, politics and personal relations is hard to lead by “command & control,” and the collateral costs (disengagement, loss of creativity, resources needed, slowness) are enormous.
In order to create alignment, clarity and direction, we work with leadership teams around four main areas, with a maximum of five lines as an answer for each one of them. We use existing explicit and implicit materials, develop some new approaches and dismiss what’s not urgently needed. Again, reduction is the only chance you have if you are heading for alignment and empowerment within an organization. Here come the four main areas:
- What is the core purpose of your organization? Why are you here? What is the added value you are creating for others and what should someone care about and pay for? Examples are IDEO (“creating impact through design”), Google (“organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”) or IKEA (“create a better life for people by offering home furnishings at such low prices that as many people as possible can afford to buy them”).
- What are the main strategic directions and financial goals? Everyone should be able to align around those and directly link her/his activities. Forget about complicated strategy papers. They don’t help in the midst of complexity. These four to five lines are enough and you can test them by asking: Are they of any help in making decisions about what to do and what not to do? An example is LEGO’s “making Asia a core market.” As for financial goals, you can reduce them to numbers, such as 10% profit margin, 5% growth, etc.
- What are our core principles when working together? This question points in the direction of culture and values but is much more tangible and specific. We especially like some tech companies’ principles as they are very precise and bold, such as Facebook: (“Give more than you take,” “Done is better than perfect,” and “No problem at Facebook is someone else’s”) or Slack (“Work hard, go home”). This sets the norms for the activities of the whole organization on every level and will change over time, together with the context of the organization.
- What are the few clear guidelines on “social technology“?What are key working formats people can align around: projects, task groups, circles. Principles such as “every meeting needs a facilitator,” or “create a circle with the people of concern for ongoing activities, like a key client, and projects in case the task is of limited time.” Every pattern is accepted as valid only if it serves the core purpose – by itself, it is of no purpose at all!
Boil it down, the only chance you have to be heard
Less is more, and more is less! This is one of our key learnings from decades of working in transformation and organization development projects: people remember less than you think and if they aren’t able to recall the most important principles, these principles are of no value but might turn dangerous instead.
These four areas are helpful in making clear, strong and aligned decisions at EVERY LEVEL of many organizations. Although these aspects are not fixed forever – they serve as provisional, fixed in time – fort he time being employees can rely on them, until further notice. More detailed strategies would be very fragile to external changes.
Empowering the organization
Next step: As soon as clarity emerges within and among the leadership team (usually four to five people on the first level, another maximum 12-20 people at the next level), they enroll every member of the organization. By sharing these four areas with and explaining them to them a powerful and focused conversation is started. Open and direct discussions, questioning it and having people themselves transfer it to their own areas in a guided process, this is what allows a strong, flexible, multi dimensional cultural net to be woven. A net called culture (cultural space) from which ownership, flexibility, joy, meaning, belonging, resilience, pace, innovative power, a greater self, etc. emerges. To lead this conversation is the most noble and essential activity of a leader in that process!
That ongoing conversation allows and creates a shared understanding on all levels for possibly everyone: what are we here for, where are we going, what is important, which might be the major obstacles, how will we overcome them and how will we join forces, work together, etc. The challenge is to give clear guidance and leave enough room for decisions at all levels, so that decisions can be made by the best-informed and skilled people and not (only) by the “boss.”
It is important to point out that we don’t use different levels of information for different levels of employees – there is only one deck for everyone. Most organizations have the 250 slide decks for the managers and nothing for their workers. This is not helpful.
This part is what we call the “Business Excellence” part of our approach.
By “safe space,” we address the emotional and mental territories of the organization. It happens together with the clear mind part. It is like the flip side of the same coin.
Most people play small because they don’t feel safe to speak up, share their ideas, their concerns, their questions. But that is exactly what is needed to enable creativity, innovation and breakthrough thinking to take place. All of the clear mind stuff is worthless when people are afraid to make decisions, to challenge the status quo or to address their questions.
Human empathy will be central
In fact, as machine learning and artificial intelligence penetrates more deeply into manufacturing and the workplace, the one arena that will never be covered by technology is human-to-human communication.
Unlearning how to hide and learning how to show up
This is the hard part. A lot of distrust and anxiety is ruling, especially within and across management teams which – along with the organization – are caught in their old and proven patterns. And this is where our external role and expertise as consultants and coaches adds most value: by our presence and by the way we hold the space for the team, giving them the opportunity to address difficult topics openly in front of others and by doing so overcome their usual defens lines and the comon narrative of “me against them” and vice verse. This is when miracles happen, where transformation takes place and new possibilities emerge for individuals, teams and organizations.
Starting with hosted conversations, deep dialogues, joint meditation, input and distinctions from our side – creating a safe space to address whatever needs to be addressed – this is the work we do. Methods we adapted from our Zen practice are our preferred tools:
- Meditation: sitting still together, creating a sense of deep interconnectedness and affection for each other. Clearing the mind and calming down, focusing together.
- “Dharma Talk”: input, distinctions, useful models provided, not in a way of training but rather following questions, tensions and challenges which emerge.
- Deep dialogues and hosted conversations: a special setting in which people feel safe to share, ask and give feedback, with some clear rules (no interruption, no discussion in the usual “yes, but” mode).
These formats help to create safe zones around a shared purpose and lead to more openness and over time a practice is developed amongst them of safety and trust. A different way of talking with each other emerges, more creative and fun ways of working together; a different quality of the corporate top level conversation is started. One of the most beautiful pieces of feedback we have received from one of our clients was: “The quality of conversations I am leading with my direct reports now has fundamentally changed and dramatically improved.” We believe this is the most important and valuable result of such a process.
Our work is challenging for leaders and organizations – on a very personal level
Leaders are confronted with their own patterns, beliefs, experiences, limitations. We address them in a very personal way, but always in their role as leaders setting the contexts, limits and possibilities for the rest of the organizations – by who they ARE and how they ACT. We cannot neglect these patterns when working with “the organization.” Unfortunately, this work cannot be delegated to consultants or next levels but has to start with themselves and their colleagues.
And results show that it leads to dramatic changes and desired transformations. We see our clients grow and their companies unfold their potentials, develop their own personal leadership skills, based on their own reality, regarding how they communicate, “read” the organization, the markets, etc. and how they unfold trust and start new options for themselves and others.
Integrating personal mastery AND business excellence
We don’t see much value in addressing only one aspect. We know organizations need both, in fact it is impossible to separate the front side from the flip side of a hand: developing clarity on the strategic part AND safe spaces and personal challenge on the trust part. You have to integrate both, as all aspects are interrelated and support each other. It might be good to conduct mindfulness programs or leadership development efforts, but those often lack real business impact when people are confused about the organization’s purpose and direction. And after all, business impact is very important: People want to be part of a successful company, as it secures their personal life and livelihood and is more fun. They love to get great feedback from customers, and that fuels the energy of the organization massivley. This is where money and relevant meaning comes from too. Organizations are not an inside job; they have a purpose that strives to be fulfilled