Myth: The Executive Team Understands What It Will Take

Myth: The Executive Team Understands What It Will Take

When you’re significantly changing organisations, products, or services, strategic choices and directions will inevitably be challenged. The strangest thing from my perspective is that senior leaders seem to overlook or ignore this. The project is over there, resourced with people and funding; you should just get on with it and deliver! Why are you asking questions, aren’t you up to the job?

There will almost certainly be decisions along the way that will lead to the unpicking or undermining of today’s revenue, profit, or organisation. You innately assume your senior leaders will not only be prepared to work through these questions with you, but actively want to; but the questions may be considered uncomfortable.

Using a location analogy, we are not rearranging the furniture; we are changing the shape of the room, and there’s every chance that some of the furniture won’t fit any more. For example, when you develop a revolutionary new product, there is a strong chance that it’s going to compete with existing products. This results in the essential question of how to work through and make the hard calls, to answer questions that cannot be pushed to one side forever.

A Kodak Moment
History is littered with examples of companies letting go of significant market positions, because they couldn’t bring themselves to cannibalise their existing products to take advantage of new inventions. Kodak is a good example and one of the most recognisable – in fact, ‘Kodak Moment’ has taken on a new and unflattering meaning. Their executives ignored the potential of digital cameras (which they invented) because film was one of the most profitable areas of their business. Today you probably can’t remember the last time you bought film.

Environment of Group Think
There can be an environment of group think – yes, even amongst executives – which is the antithesis of innovation and entrepreneurship, and prevents gutsy strategic calls. Those who work in the corporate world can be doing so because they like the lower risk option of being employed, having a regular income and a clear status.

If strongly held, these preferences innately conflict with risking the business and sacrificing the short-term for longer-term gain. After all, that short-term outcome will affect the profit and share price of the organisation. Time may be devoted to exploring and debating new and exciting opportunities and scenarios, but the energy and commitment to the hard decisions necessary to pursue higher risk/reward options happens much less often.

Choosing the Right People
You need to distinguish between those of your executives who are willing to embark on the personal change and journey your program will require, and those who aren’t. This will increase the likelihood of you looking to the right executives for support and guidance, enabling better management of others in their capacity as stakeholders.

Understanding the skills and experience you need to deliver your program, and seeking these widely, will avoid the need to rely on senior executives inappropriately.

Developing a supportive peer group network across the organisation will broaden your awareness of the skills available and increase your ability to access them.

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Myth: Those Above Me Will Support Me Through Thick and Thin

Myth: Those Above Me Will Support Me Through Thick and Thin

Personally, one of the toughest transformation myths for me to deal with has been the availability of support from my senior leadership. It is an expectation gap I don’t think I ever really closed.

There was a part of me that always hoped I would be supported the way I look to support those that work for me.

It was hard to come to grips with the reality that many executive leaders in the corporate world prioritise power and status. When such leaders help others, it can often be to build loyalty and because it’s expected, rather than emanating from genuine altruism or a sense of the greater good.

The coaching training, and research into the world of neuroscience, that I embarked on in recent times has provided me with valuable insights into the behaviours I encountered.

In this article, I explore aspects of the understanding I have developed of what drives various behaviours, as well as the various types of support you may be consciously or unconsciously looking for – and when and where to access help when you need it.

What Drives People to Support or Not Support Each Other

It shouldn’t be so surprising, but from an evolutionary perspective, if empathy were too strong then humans wouldn’t have killed animals to eat. The hormone activated in this scenario is testosterone which, when elevated, reduces the level of compassion experienced by a person.
It’s important to note this is not a gender issue.
When any individual’s testosterone level drops, his or her oxytocin level rises, increasing the desire for connection and vice versa. It is no accident that we describe insensitive and competitive environments as testosterone-fuelled.

From a business perspective, we love the competitive, driven, and results-oriented attributes of this style. In today’s world, though, we are often looking for more balanced and considered behaviour, especially where it involves leveraging the skills and experience of a team.

These two modes of operating do not sit easily together without conscious thought and the understanding and willpower necessary to hold onto the best elements of each style.

How Our Brains Work

We can learn a lot from the insights we are progressively acquiring into how our brains work. The older parts of our brain, the reptilian and the mammalian components, still behave in ways that they have done for tens of thousands of years.

When humans hunted they benefited from working cooperatively but they also competed with each other. While it was vital to combine resources to find and kill animals to feed a tribe, it would also have been natural to use information about another individual’s weaknesses to ‘win’ the largest share of food or personal status within the group.

All mammals use some form of leadership model or hierarchy. Most are based on physical superiority and the ability to dominate their competitors within the group. Humans aren’t so different in this respect!

If a person in this mode is managing or dealing with someone who is in team and connection mode, both will feel confused and misunderstood. The same will hold true in reverse.
Paying attention to a colleague’s or manager’s current operating mode, as well as their default one, will reduce the chance of you expecting support from the wrong person or at the wrong time.
Increasingly, our society views the ability to think, plan, and connect as more important than physical prowess. Although we love our sports heroes and their impressive physical feats, we have also come to understand that their achievements are inevitably a combination of physical, mental, and emotional attributes. The ability to work well with others is as important as drive and focus.

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Myth: We Can Define Success in Detail at The Outset

Myth: We Can Define Success in Detail at The Outset

When we look at the definition of a project, it has an end. That end itself is capable of being defined reasonably firmly, so that all involved can know or see when it has been achieved. For transformation programs, today’s reality is being challenged to create a better, or more resilient, product, service, or organisation. Answering the question, “Are we there yet?” has a different level of difficulty to it!

One approach that you see playing out with high levels of uncertainty is to start with a high-level estimate of time and resourcing, add a decent contingency to deal with the uncertainty, and then attempt to get the resulting plan approved. Nobody I know has had any lasting success with this approach; as soon as the numbers and timeframes enter the realm of project approvals and senior management review, they are quickly rejected and, at best, rework is suggested.

It’s quite funny, really; most breakthrough thinking and revolutionary ideas took a long time to germinate and had many, many iterations and failures. Somehow when you’re in a corporate environment those realities are supposed not to apply. The challenge is how to build an environment where innovative approaches can be developed and tested.

Being Aware of the Outcome
What you can take advantage of is the creativity that’s derived from necessity and the accompanying restrictions. A famous example is played out in the Apollo 13 movie. It recreates the incident where the spacecraft has an explosion; the astronauts move into a capsule, and the most pressing problem is to remove carbon dioxide from the cabin. There are several highly skilled engineers and space experts who are given the challenge: “These are the tools and parts you have, this is how much time you have, and failure is not an option.”

They didn’t fail, but instead ingeniously solved the problem with the resources they had. Effective? Yes. Elegant? Certainly not! The result was hugely creative, but would you use it more than once? Of course not – that wasn’t the major requirement; speed and effectiveness were. The key is to be very aware of the outcome you are really looking for, before time-boxing or over-constraining a team.

Imposing Restrictions
Restrictions in funding, resourcing, or timing can also be imposed, based on factors like a competitive assessment, available budget or skills. The temptation in the absence of being able to detail a plan is to acquiesce, so that you can get going, believing that you’ll sort it all out later. Depending on the level of support and buy-in you have across the organisation, this may be okay. The more your organisation makes decisions behind closed doors, however, the less I would encourage you to consider this option.

The Power of Persistence
Consider the great inventors. The one thing they consistently did to create something completely different was to fail, sometimes hundreds or thousands of times, before they broke through. I’m suspecting you’re laughing at the idea of being allowed to fail a few times, let alone hundreds, and you’re right – the corporate world doesn’t typically work like the great inventors.

While learning to fail in order to break through is gaining credibility in many organisations, finding a way to experiment and learn in your own environment without it being seen as a ‘failure’ is critical. As you inevitably move through uncertainty to some form of certainty, the fact that you have been progressively building understanding can be overlooked – possibly because it feels that it takes so long.

An analogy I use is that the effort in drilling through a piece of wood is no different at the end of the process than the start. It didn’t require anything different to get through the last part – just persistence!

However, once you have pushed through the ‘last part’ and a concept or idea is clear, it can suddenly be treated as obvious. A colleague and I used to joke about this – the moment in a program when the conversation suddenly jumps from “Why are you doing this?” to “Why haven’t you done it yet?”

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Myth: Transformation Is A Project

Myth: Transformation Is A Project

The myth is that transformation programs are projects, and as such will have a clear start and finish, definable objectives, and can be managed using standard project management techniques.

Where Did This Myth Come From?
In the majority of large organisations, if an objective (or set of activities) does not fall under the heading of ‘operations’ or ‘business as usual’, then logic dictates it has to, by default, be considered a project.

What Is the Truth?
Transformations are not a set of steps that lead to a clear goal. Transformations are more akin to a quest to find a rare animal or plant, or to realise, as yet, an unachieved physical feat. You believe it is possible, but you cannot be absolutely certain that you will succeed.

The important truth is that while projects typically envision a better future through delivering outcomes and getting tasks done, transformation programs aspire to a desirable, visionary future without knowing exactly how to get there.

Outcome – Vision Versus Goals
When you embark on a transformation program with the belief that it’s a project, your approach is likely to be one of running a race, even if you are prepared for it to be a marathon. The importance of understanding the distinction rests in your mental, physical, and emotional approach. The preparation for a quest would be quite different to that for a race of a known distance.

Expectation-setting can be the most important exercise that you can do, particularly in relation to your own expectations. If you do treat your transformation program like a race, the chances are you’re going to have some unwelcome surprises. There is likely to come a point where you’ve run twice the distance you anticipated, you’ve burned three times as much energy, you’re exhausted, and you’re still not there.

As leader of the program, being exhausted is going to be one of the least helpful things you can do to yourself and your team.

“[W]hat is a project? It’s a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.

A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal. So a project team often includes people who don’t usually work together – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies.

The development of software for an improved business process, the construction of a building or bridge, the relief effort after a natural disaster, the expansion of sales into a new geographic market — all are projects.

And all must be expertly managed to deliver the on-time, on-budget results, learning and integration that organizations need.”

Source: 2015 Project Management Institute Inc) source: Project Management Institute Inc

Using the above definition of a project, it’s clear that while most transformations will have some or several of these attributes, there are also aspects that will distinguish your transformation program. One in particular will have significant implications. Does your program have a readily identifiable end? Or, at some point, will what you deliver be the ‘new world’ – the new ‘business as usual’ – for your team, department, or organisation?

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How patient do you need to be?

How patient do you need to be?

As a leader you will almost certainly feel a degree of pressure at some point when delivering change.

When this happens it can feel as if you’re the only one up for what it’s going to take to achieve the outcomes your organisation is looking for.

And it can be very lonely to feel you’re the only one who seems prepared to put in the hours and push through the work required.

But what if a different approach would get you results more easily and quickly?

In this blog I’ll look at how choosing to be patient can play a critical role when leading change and I’ll propose 3 strategies you can use to increase your feeling of being in control while delivering successful outcomes.

The topic of patience struck me as I was watching a group of pelicans the other day, seemingly lining up for the parts of their catch fisherman were throwing back into the sea.

As you can see from the photo there was a relaxed calmness to this process.

This struck me as odd, in my experience birds typically squabble over food, but not with this crowd. Maybe these pelicans have learnt one of three helpful life lessons:

1. Decide what to expend energy on / what to fight for

Is there any point in using up energy in trying to queue jump, or get ahead of others? Maybe yes, often no, especially if the energy I’ll use up on this battle may not leave any spare for an opportunity that matters more.

2. There are always options / choices

What other choices are there, and how does this one compare? There may or may not be a free feed coming up but if not, then there literally are more fish in the sea. Why risk injury or strife if another option is to go and find fresh fish for yourself?

3. What will be, will be

If a piece of fish flies my way, I can catch it with my enormous beak, but if not, is it worth getting agitated? Sometimes life gives and other times it takes away, going with the flow more often means I can conserve my energy for the times it really matters.

Thank you for indulging my musings as to what drives pelicans! But now we’re down that path what if we extrapolate these points into our world?

1. Decide what to expend energy on / what to fight for

We all can, and often do, waste an enormous amount of energy thinking about what’s not gone well, repeating slights and injustices against us, and worrying about things that are completely out of our control.

Take some time each day to consider what activities you are expending energy on. Are you spending most time on the areas that are going to make the greatest impact – the well know 80/20 rule?

This is particularly important with regards to emotional energy which is often the most in demand in situations of rapid or significant change.

2. There are always options / choices –

I can remember a time I felt completely trapped in my job, with seemingly no choices. A wise colleague counselled “Virginia, you always have choices” At the time I disagreed vehemently, but many months later I saw the truth in his comment.

When we’re caught up in a situation it can be very hard to look for other ways dealing with it. Speak with trusted colleagues, a coach or mentor to help you open up your thinking.

3. What will be, will be –

There are many many things we can’t control in our world. The truth is that the only one we truly have any say over is how we choose to think and react to what happens.

Take time to reflect as to how you use your valuable time and energy and what you might want to let go of to focus more on the opportunities that really matter to you.

How do you stay patient and manage your energy?

Please leave your thoughts and comments below or email me at I would love to hear from you.

Failing Your Way to Success

Failing Your Way to Success

Failing Your Way to Success

Commenting to a friend recently how much I was struggling with the issue of failing in relation to certain business goals, she replied “well…no one likes failing do they?”

And I don’t believe anyone does, but what about those who manage to see a failed attempt as education, as necessary feedback to see if a chosen approach works?

Isn’t the real issue how quickly we can put a failure in context, learn what we need to learn from a failure and move on.

Given we know that failing is typically necessary on the path to success, what if we could find a faster way to deal with this process?

In this blog I’ll consider why it is we don’t find it easy to fail, and propose a 3-step process you can use whenever you want to deal with failure in a more productive way.

When Did Failure Become Bad?

Failing to achieve goals or live up to standards we set for ourselves can deplete our energy and make us doubt our abilities. It can send us into black moods and take away our desire to tackle anything difficult. When we look back, however, we often see that our failures have contributed to subsequent success, so why can’t we make this connection earlier?

I have often heard the comment “If toddlers treated failure as a reason to stop trying, they’d never walk” And the vast majority of us are living proof we pushed through that challenge! What changed?
When we’re toddlers taking our first steps our environment is one of support and encouragement. No one comments “you’ve probably given that enough of a go why don’t you stop that and try something else?” Toddlers are also sponges for what is going on around them. They will see people walking and see no reason why they shouldn’t do the same.

As we grow older there’s no doubt that the expectation of others and ourselves start to colour our view of failure. When others achieve higher scores, complete things in shorter times or develop skills more easily we start to questions. Maybe I’m not meant to be good at that, maybe I should try something else.

Inspiration from “Eddie the Eagle”

But not everybody, the movie Eddie the Eagle is based on the real-life story of a boy who was absolutely convinced from an early age that he was destined to be an Olympian. He goes through some unbelievable hurdles and enlists support from unlikely places to finally achieve his dream. It’s inspiring, Eddie held onto his belief and saw every set back or failure as challenges to overcome.

While we find the end result inspiring, as is typically the case Eddie was viewed as crazy by almost everyone. Why couldn’t he accept ‘reality’ and stop pursuing what seemed impossible. The answer was that what drove him was much stronger than short term failure or other people’s views.

Turning Failure into Success

So I think the questions you ideally ask yourself are

How long should I reflect on a failure so you can learn what you need and let the rest go?

Is what I’m doing helping me learn what I need to get to where I want to go?

The next time you’re doubting your ability, or dwelling a lot on what’s not working out for you or your business, consider trying the following approach:

  • What is the truth? What actually happened, or what’s actually happening right now?
  • If you were to learn from this. What would the lesson be? What would you do differently? What else would you try?
  • Make a choice, and congratulate yourself for having the courage to try and risk failure.
    Rinse and repeat.

I’m very interested in hearing how you view and deal with failure. Let me know in the comments section below!