Everyone loves a hero. In the ultimate hour of need the hero appears, saves the day, gets the plaudits and sleeps soundly in the knowledge that the world appreciates them. A very attractive role, if you get the chance to play it.
The benefits are numerous and immediate – an adrenaline rush, exposure in a flattering light, positive feedback, instant gratification. In a business context, there are further benefits – the normal rules of bureaucracy get relaxed, there might be paid overtime to fight the fire, maybe even a performance bonus for putting the fire out.
But is the role too attractive? It’s considerably more appealing to fight fires than prevent them. Is the idea of being a hero so appealing that on some level, we seek to create the conditions that require it?
A situation that seems to be impossible to act upon because it contains two opposing commitments.
“I’m putting a man on the moon!”
What makes a strategic narrative compelling?
We all know this Kennedy anecdote, but what was it that made these employees proud of their contribution and inspired to play their part?
In 1961 Kennedy told the world that USA would put a man on the moon and bring home back safely by the end of the decade.
Somehow this compelling story inspired people to act to overcome the impossible and gave them a clear vision and a sense of their role achieving it.
We’ve found that for a strategic narrative to be compelling it needs to be:
• meaningful to those hearing it
• about something people care about
• exciting, dramatic and inspiring
• believable (no matter how audacious it is!)
Use this picture with colleagues to initiate a discussion about the strategic narrative in your organisation. Ask each other the following questions:
Q: As a leader, how do you know that you have these qualities in your story?
Q: As engagement champions how can you support your leaders to build these qualities into their stories?
Q: What do your people really care about? What do they most need to hear?
Let us know what you found in the comments section (below).
How can you possibly engage people when they feel like this?
When change is done to people rather than with them they feel paralysed.
What happens in your organisation?
A common theme we have been noticing recently is a want or a need to shift to a different style of leadership. This new way is dialogical, open and all about collaboration. It is a huge shift and with it comes the challenge of what it really means to transition to this new way of being. The implication is that it means taking a risk, and going into the unknown.
In this shift how easy is it to throw off your protective armour and be ok with being truly vulnerable?
What would it take for you to be able to do it?
I’m a big fan of Karl Weick. So too, it turns out, is Tom Peters, who was heavily influenced by him when he co-authored In Search of Excellence (still as far as I know the best-selling business book of all time).
Weick’s work centres around the concept of sensemaking i.e. what people do when they clearly need to take action, but the meaning of the situation is unclear. Weick realised that heavy strategic planning in these situations is of limited value, because it usually doesn’t bring a whole lot of fresh information to the problem. Peters went on to codify this idea as the “Bias for Action”, and made it his number one attribute of excellent companies.
I think I 95% agree with this. It seems to me that most of the large organisations I’ve worked with over the years have been way too pre-occupied with trying to achieve certainty, largely because the individuals within them were so worried about being blamed for making mistakes.
But this clearly isn’t the whole story – if all people do is take action independently of one another, they will generate ever more problems through lack of foresight and communication.
So when is a bias for planning more appropriate than a bias for action? Reading once more through Weick, I think there’s a simple answer to this question, and that is that people should have a greater bias for action the less clear the situation is, and a greater bias for planning the more clear it is. This is, of course, the reverse of what people actually tend to do in real life.
Lost in the Alps
Weick tells the story of a group of soldiers lost in a storm in the Alps in the Second World War. They gave up hope of ever getting off the mountains alive, until someone miraculously found a map that helped them find their way back to base. Only when they got back did they discover that the map was from the Pyrenees!
The story highlights what to me is the most important feature of sensemaking, which is that it is a retrospective activity. We’re so used to thinking about plans and projections as future-oriented that we forget that the only information we have to create them is derived from past experience. The future is by definition unknown – we predict it based on past events. The soldiers got off the mountain not because they had a map but because they started moving – and the movement created new history, replete with clues as to where they should go. The value of strategic plans is often not that they are right, but that they get people moving, and it’s the movement that yields the information about what to do next.
What this means is that when you encounter a situation that’s so new and so ambiguous that no one in the organisation even know what it means yet, what you absolutely should not do is form a committee and waste time trying to create a perfect plan for how to respond. Only by getting people moving, talking, investigating, trying out possible interpretations, making mistakes and learning from their experience will you acquire the new information you need to make sense of what’s going on and what to do next.
On the other side of the coin, plans are wonderful things if you need a co-ordinated response to a complex but well-understood situation. If the critical path is clear, don’t waste time having endless conversations about the possibilities when you could be planning and getting on with it.
Sensemaking for leaders
I’ll close with a direct quotation from Weick himself, which expands on the significance of this for leaders:
When I described the incident of using a map of the Pyrenees to find a way out of the Alps to Bob Engel, the executive vice president and treasurer of Morgan Guaranty, he said, “Now, that story would have been really neat if the leader out with the lost troops had known it was the wrong map and still been able to lead them back.” What is interesting about Engel’s twist to the story is that he has described the basic situation that most leaders face. Followers are often lost and even the leader is not sure where to go. All the leaders know is that the plan or the map they have in front of them are not sufficient to get them out. What the leader has to do, when faced with this situation, is instill some confidence in people, get them moving in some general direction, and be sure they look closely at cues created by their actions so that they learn where they were and get some better idea of where the are and where they want to be.
The soldiers were able to produce a good outcome from a bad map because they were active, they had a purpose (get back to camp), and they had an image of where they were and where they were going. They kept moving, they kept noticing cues, and they kept updating their sense of where they were. As a result, an imperfect map proved to be good enough.
Today, almost everything is up for sale. So says Michael J Sandel in his book “What money can’t buy”. The question is, says Sandel, do we want to live like this? Are there some things where it just isn’t appropriate to pay money for them? How about buying a prison cell upgrade (apparently a nicer sell costs you $82 a night in Santa Ana, California)? Or buying the right to shoot an endangered black rhino (yours for $150,000 in South Africa)?
Sandel makes the case that whether or not something should be up for sale depends on how we value it. Would buying and selling it somehow corrupt or degrade its nature? If so, then maybe it shouldn’t be traded for money.
The book got me thinking about the things that money can’t buy. In our work we get a privileged look into the world of our clients and the relationship between employer and employee. When employees “go the extra mile” it’s not because of their pay check. You can’t pay your employees to give something that is, by its very nature, discretionary.
What happens in the workplace when demand suddenly exceeds supply? Behaviours and processes can change when there’s pressure to find a solution quickly – the effects of which may only become apparent later. And what if that limited resource happens to be you?