More Leadership jottings

Occasionally we include some practical tips for people involved in leadership and change management, whether in a church, workplace or other organisation. Here are some more thoughts. Hope you find them helpful

Results are vital to winning the argument

It’s sometimes said that if you are explaining then you are losing the argument. That’s not completely true. There’s a place for setting out and carefully explaining why you are making a change. There are however two partial truths in the claim.

First of all, explanations should be simple. They should mainly focus on highlighting what the problem is, why change is needed and possible, what it is you are aiming to do and what you expect the outcome to be.  The more obvious it is through simply telling people what the change is and why it is likely to have the intended result, the more chance you have of people accepting it. For example, when we moved to two services, we had to spend time explaining why it was needed and how we would deal with the risks but the reasoning for why adding a service is a low cost solution to a capacity problem isn’t that complex.

Secondly, if you are well into implementation and you are still explaining why you did it then you are probably onto a loser. There comes a stage where the reasoning should be less “this is the logic behind what we did” and much more “have a look at the results we are getting.” This means that as early as possible you want to be showing people how what you are doing helps.

It’s quite helpful to think about three types of results that you want to be watching. First of all, there’s the overall situation. For example, if you are in government, is the economy growing and the deficit shrinking. Secondly, there the specific areas where we used to have problems and the change was designed to specifically correct them. Is your Northern Powerhouse now contributing to the economy? Are the boys in the school closing the attainment gap? Have you got rid of the bottleneck in the process?  Thirdly, there’s my control group. I want to make sure that the change I made hasn’t had a detrimental effect at a critical point in the system elsewhere. Now, sometimes I allow for some cost elsewhere, e.g. removing the big bottleneck means that the previous part of the process now takes a little bit longer. However, there are some critical measures I cannot afford to lose. For example, in a school if I’m getting more people over the C/D grade borderline for GCSES but I’ve put all my best teachers onto that and my top A* grades have gone down then that’s not a good result. If my Northern Powerhouse relies on investment from taxing The City and so I start to lose investment there then I risk getting some short term improvement that isn’t sustainable.

Be ready for the long-haul

People don’t like change. People get nervous about change. People will use the change that you have made as something to hide behind when trying to excuse instead of change and remove another problem (regardless of whether or not there’s a genuine link).

So as soon as you are going to make a change, then be ready for opposition. Don’t assume that all the people who complained about the status quo will support your change. Some of them will actually have been content with grumbling. If they really wanted change then they would have done something about it. Some of them will be worried that your change will expose inadequacies elsewhere which either will highlight their own failings or will mean that the onus is now on them to do something.

So, be ready to stick at it. Be ready to grind out results. Be ready to conserve your energy and not to pick other needless fights.  Don’t look for instant rewards and praise.

Now, obviously, the sooner you are able to show some results, some early wins, some clues that it is starting to work the better. That’s not always easy. Sometimes, the nature of the change means that results will get worse before they get better. If you know that this is part of the process then say so up front. You need to be able to say when the pain hits “Yes we expected this. It’s part of the process.”

Sometimes, the tough period of opposition goes on for a long time. The first 4 years of my previous career involved relentless opposition and struggle. I was leading the implementation of a new business system into our part of the organisation. Really the system wasn’t going to deliver benefits into our part of the company but the overall benefits to the business outweighed the costs we would pay. Also, once the new system was in place, we were able to make actual improvements that would not have been possible with the old system. So there still was potential long term gain. Yet it was only a few years after the original implementation that we actually had something not just equivalent to but better than the original situation. So I was making a change that most of the day to day users were not happy about and that my own bosses didn’t particularly support either. How did I stick it out? Well one important reason was that I had allies alongside me who knew why we needed to do the change and worked with me. I also had allies and backers else-where in the company. There were people in Senior Management that were watching my back for me. So, there are two lessons here. First of all, if you are in the middle of the fight, know who has got your back. Secondly. If you are the senior leader putting someone into a difficult fight, make sure you watch their back. Don’t leave them behind, never offer them up as a scapegoat (even if you are not always happy with their methods, or performance).

Answer the hypotheticals

This week, the leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn was asked if he could envisage a situation where as Prime Minister he would authorise military action. He refused to answer, claiming that it was a hypothetical situation. Now, this isn’t an article about the rights and wrongs of war or of Jeremy Corbyn. I can see exactly why a politician would want to avoid a question that had potentially huge pitfalls. However, I do want to suggest that you should at least have answers for even seemingly hypothetical questions.

The “hypothetical” question is really part of your “what if thinking.” It’s part of your risk analysis. What if something comes in from left side that blows your plan out of the water? How are you going to respond? You need to show how you would respond in a way that protects the end goal, even if you have to take a detour or even a backward step. Secondly, you need to show how your principles will shape your approach to set backs.

In fact, “What if” thinking means that we not only answer the hypothetical question, we actually set them. This has the additional benefit of demonstrating that we have thought through the possibilities and are flexible not dogmatic.

Usually, the reason I see something as hypothetical is that I don’t want to entertain the possibility that I could have got it wrong.  This makes it less likely for people to follow me into the change. I look like I am rushing in blindly.  It also makes offers of trial periods look meaningless. You see when I say that there’s a trial period a lot of people hear me saying “We’re calling it a trial but it’s really permanent, regardless.” So some of them will treat the trial period as a last chance to oppose and fight my changes so that in the end they’ll wear me down and we’ll return to the previous status quo.

Now, there may be times when we get things so utterly wrong that the only way out is to go back to the original situation. However, there was a reason why you made the change so that’s probably your last desired resort. What you would prefer to do at the end of a trial is to adapt the process to make it work better. So say so. Outline your best, possible, worst options. Best case means keep going. worst case means abandon, possible case is that you have to adapt further. Leaders can and should listen. Leaders can and should change their minds if the facts change.

At some point you’ve got to narrow down the options

My friend Martin Salter has given a review and summary of Chip and Dan Heath’s book Decisive on his blog Salternlite. Now I don’t really want to cross swords with Chip and Dan because their writing is always so helpful and incisive and because Martin’s summary suggests that this book will be the same again. However, I want to challenge one area of common wisdom.

Their first point is that decisions are harmed by “narrow-framing” where we restrict the number of options and ignore other possibilities.  As always, there is a good point here. There is a vital place for divergent thinking when trying to overcome problems. There are many tools to help leaders, individuals and teams do this.  Edward De Bono with his Lateral Thinking tools and Six Thinking hats has been so particularly helpful. However, I think that the pendulum has swung  heavily towards creative/divergent solution generation over the past 15-20 years and not necessarily with a complete grasp of what this entails.

So we really need to emphasise now that convergent thinking is vital too.  In other words, there is always a stage in the process where you need to narrow down the field.  Now sometimes that means working through a process as a team or an individual where you overtly identify all the options before narrowing down. But actually, sometimes and in some situations people do have the ability to quickly identify through analysis and intuition the right course of action.  It is not that they are unaware of the wider range of options. It’s just that they quickly and almost invisibly work through the divergent-convergent phases.

For example, when I went to University, I knew from day one that I was going to Sheffield University to study Law. I was aware of the risks. I was aware of the other options out there but something had coalesced in my mind and gut that enabled me to make the decision. I didn’t bother visiting any other Universities. I knew Law was a good course and Sheffield was a good University. There were a thousand other courses and places I could go to if Sheffield fell through but the option was sound so I did not need to waste time widening out the possibilities. That’s not how everyone works and it’s not always how I work. But there is a time and place for it.

Now the important thing to do is to test the proposal. You don’t always have to do this by comparing it in detail against all other options. You simply look at the proposal and make sure that it meets the key criteria. In effect what you are doing is saying that this is a positive choice. I actively want to go for this because it fits my vision and aims.

If you don’t know how to converge then what happens is that people simply cycle through the same range of ideas again and again without reaching a decision. They bring options into the mix that are irrelevant. They mistake a long list of options that are actually more or less the same for genuine diversity.

So make sure you get focus as a leader. There’s a time to stop the brainstorming and reach a decision. Sometimes the time to stop the brainstorming is before you started!