Today everything important comes shrouded in a veil of disruption, discontinuity, and a demand for quick action to calm the storm and satisfy the Street. There is great danger in treating these tumultuous dynamics as nasty interruptions to get past, rather than engaging them as powerful points of inflection and windows of opportunity for continuous learning and change. Nassim Taleb, a former derivatives trader who became a scholar focused on what to do in a world we don’t understand, argues that attempts to wipe away unpredictability by imposing control and overlaying structure do little to smooth out the constant waves of disequilibrium. Indeed, these efforts merely create the illusion of stability while actually elevating the risk of obtaining marginal improvement at best, and failing at worst. The true answer lies in cultivating leaders and organizations that can see around corners, handle first-time conditions, and recognize the shortcomings inherent in applying the tried and true to new and more complex situations.
A prominent financial services CEO we know likes to use the metaphor of adapting to a corporate house that was once provided as part of his financial package. Despite the generous use of property and the provision of a sizable budget for customization, his family never succeeded in making it their “home”. The design and layout they needed and wanted couldn’t be created on the old foundation. Nevertheless, he continued to invest in incremental “improvements” without confronting the foundational limitations that inevitably sabotaged his efforts. He told this story to caution against rebuilding and reinventing one’s organization using the old foundation, urging us to reexamine our foundations (assumptions) regularly. At the same time, he gave voice to the concerns all were experiencing in letting go and moving in a new direction.
This simple metaphor conveys much wisdom about organizational “stuckness” in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, or what we like to call “VUCA”. The demands for growth and immediate action can obscure the real solutions and block the pathway to reframing and transformation. Much is operating to keep incremental behavior in place. The global marketplace pressures CEOs to double down on maintaining some level of growth while continuing to meet analyst expectations. Accepting the vulnerability and risk that comes with letting go of conventional wisdom and prior success can be a daunting task for even the most robust of leaders and organizations. Witness how Dell and Blackberry are setting aside highly successful business models, in service of remaining viable and agile in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity, escalating financial pressure and relentless change. But having the courage to shift is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the learning mindset required to deliver on the new promise. We see three critical steps: getting unstuck; building new capabilities and routines; and sustaining the changes.
In terms of the first step, leaders and organizations are often stuck in patterns of behaving and operating that have kept them in good stead for years. Traditional approaches to development teach us to be successful by managing people, tasks and the business, but they often overlook getting unstuck from approaches that worked in the past but no longer apply. Consequently, we develop models or logic about our world that helps us read the environment and act quickly. As the logic gets reinforced it becomes second nature, almost unconscious. It affects what we see and the choices we make. As long as the world remains the same as when the logic was built, the models work well. But in a VUCO world, (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) all bets are off!
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.