One of the great business stories of recent times has been the turnaround at Ford, which along with the rest of the American auto industry had been stuck in an era gone-by. Alan Mulally, who had the decided advantage of not being a car guy, took over in 2006. Through novel lenses and with fresh eyes, he could see what industry veterans could not. He countered the historical truths and givens and reengineered the way the organization worked. Ford had been discussing single platform designs for years, but couldn’t get unstuck from the unique requirements of different geographies. Mulally proposed the “world car” and kept asking “why” and “why not” while paring costs and increasing quality.
Overcoming patterns of success (and stuckness) doesn’t happen by osmosis. It requires a disciplined, deliberate and systematic effort. Our work suggests that the failure to respond effectively to powerful moments of inflection is symptomatic of an underlying gap in developing the readiness and agility required to learn (not just manage) our way through the risk and opportunity of new challenges. Unless we reexamine our foundations, i.e., the logic and assumptions we relied upon to operate our businesses, we should not expect to be successful in reframing them to meet the demands of a VUCA environment.
Addressing the Roadblocks
To begin the process, all that is needed is a simple request to design and deliver a senior leadership program. Through discovery, it will typically be learned that an organization was just about to launch an effort toward significant transformation which, unfortunately, is becoming repeatedly bogged down despite efforts to move forward. Just as typically, this bogging-down tends to derive from an over-reliance on some of the core tenets of the organization’s prior success in the form of performance models that had held both this firm and its industry in good stead for many, many years. It thus maintains an unconscious, very powerful stranglehold on the organization.
Addressing the roadblocks to implementing and leading the transformative shift creates a powerful context for helping the senior team get unstuck from outmoded assumptions and behaviors. Without such “confrontation” of these impediments, efforts to lead others through the needed changes would surely derail.
A series of interventions is the key to explicating the underlying mindsets (assumptions, beliefs and biases) that were the foundation of the performance model. Taken step by step, these interventions will include:
- Step 1: The leaders are given the opportunity to uncover and examine the “commandments” that they were following to run the business. Respect, however, is maintained for the critical components of the model that had made them successful, even as these longtime “strengths” are then challenged as to their relevance and potency going forward.
- Step 2: Elements of new and more appropriate mindsets are extrapolated, and mechanisms for their realization are developed.
- Step 3: Simultaneously, leaders are given the opportunity to learn and practice new routines for being deliberate and mindful about extracting lessons from their individual and collective experiences and reflections on the evolving transition.
Via this 3-step process, a self-sustaining leadership/learning process is established. This process then moves the organization forward as it both mobilizes the current effort while minimizing the likelihood of getting stuck again in the future.
Kerry Bunker, Ph.D., Art Gechman, Ph.D. and Jim Rush, Ph.D. are founders of MEM Partners (Info@MEMpartners.com), a leadership development and organizational advisory firm.