A book-burning-library? Stoking controversy and changing conversations

Loving this story about successfully changing a conversation. It highlights the hidden power of language in how we think about the world. On the face of it, this conversation is about both saving a library and increasing taxes. It should be possible for people to hold both of those concepts in their head at the same time when discussing the topic. The reality though, is that by focusing on only one aspect of it (taxes) the other aspect (saving a library) can be occluded, even made invisible.

One of the key principles of Appreciative Inquiry is that the first question asked in any change is fateful; the question you ask, the issues you focus on and the stories you generate fundamentally shape the direction of conversation and the change that will follow.

Language and thought are more tightly coupled than we often think, and choosing a focus for conversation, and specific words to bring that conversation to life are far more important in change than we often give them credit for.

Don’t burn the platform – light the way

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“We will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea: Yes We Can”

Urgent! Urgent! Everyone be urgent! Our iceberg is melting, because our platform is burning. And even if that’s not technically true, we will tell you that anyway, and find data to support that argument, because good change management starts with a sense of urgency.

Sound familiar? Conventional wisdom has stated that any change effort needs to start with urgency: From Lewin’s “unmelting” phase (which Schein has expanded to include “disconfirming the current model”); to Kotter’s stage model – beginning with (you guessed it) stage 1: Create a sense of urgency. Steven Elop – Nokia’s CEO offers a textbook example of this approach – even starting his employee communication with the fable of the burning platform.

But is it really the right approach for every situation? Urgency gets things done – no doubt about that – and jumping off a platform into icy waters can be a sensible approach if your life is in imminent danger. But if the platform isn’t actually on fire, then people are going to see through the lie sooner or later.

There’s an unsaid assumption in this approach that in change, people need to be forced to do things that they don’t want to do. Kotter himself has started addressing this by talking about the importance of winning hearts as well as minds. It goes without saying that only exaggerating the negative aspects of what has gone before is going to win few hearts.

As an alternative – could co-creating a positive vision of the future bring about a more sustainable sense of urgency? David Cooperrider suggests that hope and a dream of a better future – a “burning vision” can catalyse action just as effectively. Moreover, there’s no “change fatigue” and a lot less resistance with hope as a foundation. Nobody has exploited that fact better in recent history than Barack Obama. And while there was no shortage of fuel for him to light a burning platform, his choice to focus on hope, and utilise relentlessly positive imagery led to one of the most impressive election campaigns in history.

New roles for new leaders (or what Rupert Murdoch can learn from UPS)

There have been a couple of really prescient examples this week of an old model of leadership proving defunct and irrelevant. Last Wednesday, Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone – a landmark judgment for the ICC. Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch was accused of being unfit to run a major corporation. Interestingly in both cases, there was insufficient evidence to directly prove either leader had actively done wrong. But whether Taylor ordered the rape and mutilation of thousands of civilians in irrelevant. Whether Murdoch explicitly ordered a cover up of phone hacking, or just created a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture devoid of moral questioning is moot. In both cases, leaders created a culture that allowed evil to occur. And in both cases, the leaders have been called to account, and have been found wanting – regardless of their plausible deniability.

Diana Whitney draws the useful distinction between leaders (as people with competencies) and leadership as an emergent process in an organisation that enables better performance. Given the rise of megalithic companies (or states – for that matter), it seems necessary to move past the assumption that an individual leader (no matter how competent) will be able to keep tabs on an entire organisation.

So if Taylor or Murdoch are guilty of enabling a culture where evil could occur, what does positive leadership look like through this lens? Arguably the most important aspect of leadership in a post-command-and-control space is to act as a moral compass. To ensure that good ideas are megaphoned, and ideas that can lead to evil are stamped out.

Beyond that, there is also the requirement to create a culture where everyone is enabled to question, experiment and engage.

In this respect, you could do worse than looking at UPS. At some point in the last couple of years, someone had the counter-intuitive idea to redesign all their routes so that trucks in the USA never had to turn left. No, it was not an ‘Ode to Zoolander’s inability to ambi-turn; the idea was to cut down the amount of time idling and sitting in traffic. The strategy has helped them shave over twenty million miles off their clocks in 2011, while delivering 350,000 more packages. They have also reduced their carbon footprint by 20,000 metric tonnes.

Regardless of Bob Stoffel’s (UPS CEO’s) charisma, personal insight, or knowledge of the activities in every nook and cranny in his organisation, he has created a culture where ideas like “let’s never turn left anymore” can not only be voiced, but can gather momentum and actually become reality.

The Twenty First Century Organisation

I was introduced to the Business as an Agent of World Benefit project yesterday. Rather than follow the current discourse of bashing capitalism and corporations for the damage they do to the world, the project takes a refreshing approach and inquires into how business can act as an agent for positive change in the world, while also sustaining its own profitability.

Sounds crazy – I know, but step back for a second and think about how much sense it makes. Big corporations are usually full of intelligent people; and intelligent people know that destroying the environment and squeezing an ever increasing proportion of the population into relative poverty is not a strategy for sustainable growth – or even survival. Moreover, who is better placed to make a difference on an issue like climate change than a company with the brightest engineers, billions of dollars to back them, and the selfish motive of healthy profits if they succeed?

David Cooperrider has outlined the three characteristics of model organisations he sees for the twenty first century:

  • Organisations provide a domain for the elevation of strengths – they provide the processes, tools, and mission for individuals to realise and grow their own strengths;
  • They enable the concentration of strengths – connecting different strengths in what Ken Gergen calls “an ever-expanding domain of relatedness”. Cooperrider argues there is a multiplier effect to connecting diverse strengths, and organisation offer a platform for more and more strengths to be connected with increasing potential and novel results;
  • Organisations should refract strengths outward into society. In a dawning age of collaboration, knowledge has no owner and the days of hoarding intellectual property are coming to an end. The twenty first century organisation will pride itself on sharing its ideas and designs in a collaborative way, acting as a lightening rod for further innovation.

Sound far fetched? It might be closer than you think. Melotte, a Belgian manufacturing firm is making waves with its digital 3D printing technology. Led by Mario Fleurinck, the company is using cutting-edge technology to rapidly scale down costs of manufacturing. The result is an eightfold decrease in carbon emissions (numbers to impress any environmentalist) and a revenue growth of 20% per quarter (something for the businessman too). Rather than pursuing a classic balanced scorecard however, Melotte has defined a new set of metrics. These not only highlight the root causes of the company’s success, but provide a framework for the company’s continued growth to benefit society in a much larger way.

Ilja Heitlager, Information Officer at Schuberg Philis told of an inquiry into what drove his company’s success. It led to the IT provider bucking the trend and doing away with a generalist call centre, in favour of employees building deep knowledge of the systems of a small number of clients. Giarte, an Outsourcing survey provider has found Schubert Philis to have the highest customer satisfaction rating in the Netherlands for the last six years, with an incredible 100% of clients saying they would recommend the company to others. By connecting the knowledge within the organisation Schuberg Philis came up with a model that made redundant the challenges they faced previously. Interestingly, the same approach to change has led them to agree a mission to build an organisation that, rather than focusing on shareholder value, “will make their children proud”.

Diana Whitney earlier suggested that “Appreciative Inquiry draws people who’s values are in-congruent with the old methods”. If Schuberg Philis’ and Melotte’s financial results are anything to go by, we may see a lot more organisations discovering the power of a new set of values. Welcome to the 21st century!

“Strengths perform, but also, strengths transform”

I am spending this week at the 5th World Appreciative Inquiry Conference in Ghent, Belgium. Appreciative Inquiry is a philosophy of change, based on the belief that the best way to enhance the capability of a system is to focus on what works well in that system currently; and to engage the whole system in the co-creation a new way of working.

David Cooperrider, father of the field gave the key note speech on the first day, offering a personal perspective on some of the most recent developments in the field.

A consistent theme in Cooperrider’s work over the last twenty five years has been the need to move away from a defecit-based view of change. Playing on Einstein’s truism that a problem has never been solved at the same level of consciousness that the problem was created, Cooperrider offered a corollary for organisations, suggesting that the greatest problems an organisation faces are never “solved”, rather, they are “eclipsed, made irrelevant, or saturated in strength”. Rather than identifying problems and proposing solutions to fix them, Cooperrider argues there is much greater value in identifying strengths and growing them to the point that the organisation evolves past the problems of yesterday.

Cooperrider drew on Peter Drucker’s definition of leadership, as “creating an alignment of strengths that renders a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

Inspirational, thoughtful, packed with practical examples, the session was a call-to-arms to scale up the generative power of AI to match the demands the world is facing today.