Learning the lessons – building on what matters

Everyday I read sentiments to the effect that the virus and the lockdown have changed us forever.  Life cannot and will not go back to how it used to be.  I beg to differ.  I think once this is over the most likely scenario is that all the old pressures will come crowding back in and everything will fairly quickly revert to how it was.  All that we are experiencing now will fade into a tantalising dream/nightmare.  If we want things to change we had better learn the lessons now and act to make sure we don’t forget them.

“Key worker”
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Thinking allowed: why coaching might help

Leaders face many pressures and demands. Having a coach can help you perform better and feel better.

Are you a manager or leader, perhaps a CEO? In my experience most people in leadership roles have their heads down doing most of the time. As a result other things get lost – such as where you’re going, for example. How many of the following statements apply to you?

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What’s in a word? Mission

Nearly every organisation has a “mission statement”, to the extent that the concept provokes some cynicism. This is usually, I assume, because, as with “values statements”, mission statements are the sort of thing one now has to have, irrespective of their truthfulness or utility or however banal the sentiment captured by them. Maybe mission statements are sometimes composed and adopted without much thought, care or commitment. The written results are sometimes unimpressive. But it does not alter one of the basics of organisational success – that it is essential to understand and adhere to a clear understanding of what the organisation exists for.

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Reflections on what makes a good strategy

Photo by Steven Lelham on Unsplash

I’m working with a couple of organisations at the moment on their strategy for the next five years in one case, and ten years in the other.  Perhaps you have been part of such processes.  I wonder what your reflection on them might be?  What do you feel you have learned about the ingredients that come together to make a good strategy?  My reflections focus on the need for a strategy to make a difference.  It might seem obvious that strategies should have impact but I see many that (at least appear) to be designed simply to fulfil a perceived need to have “a strategy”, or as an organisational tool with an essentially bureaucratic purpose – that is, to keep things under control and, maybe, make incremental improvements in an essentially unchanging operation.

As I think back over what is now twenty plus years of helping organisations manage their strategic development I can identify a few ingredients that seem to me crucial but which are sometimes neglected or not understood.  The first is that a strategy requires a destination.  In other words, a good strategy starts with a vision, by which I mean an understanding of the desired future of the organisation.  You need to know where you want to end up, and, unless that is somewhere different from where you are today, you will hardly need a strategy to achieve it.  A vision tells you where you want to go.  A strategy tells you how you plan to get there.  Perhaps this seems obvious, but I see quite a few strategy documents that merely make sense of what the organisation is already doing, usually by organising current or approved activities under convenient headings.  It can be useful to be able to identify your key activities (it can help you, for example, to stop doing things that do not fit into your scheme) but it does not really amount to a strategy as I understand the term.

The type of so-called strategy that merely lists and categorises the activities normally undertaken by the organisation is also far too broad and unfocused to be much use in guiding you towards a better future.  Another feature of the effective strategy is that it makes choices.  It decides to do one thing rather than another, or at least, to emphasise one thing over another.  The strategy that merely says we will do what we normally do, only under clearer headings, is unlikely to make much of a difference.  Good strategies say we will do this or that new thing, or perhaps, that we will do this existing thing substantially differently, or, at the very least, that, out of our list of activities, we will put effort into this rather than that thing.  And, of course, these choices will be based on a conviction that they will provide a focus which is likely to deliver a successful transition to the desired future state.

That takes me to my third observation, which is that strategies need to be built on good judgement and discernment about what the organisation needs to do in order to thrive in its world.  This is partly about understanding what is happening in that world and developing considered responses to both threats and opportunities (the well-known SWOT analysis may well be deployed here).  But the necessary corollary of this calculation is to inquire more deeply into the identity of the organisation (its values, its beliefs, its assets) so as to ensure that future action represents not just a response to external challenges but also to internal aspiration and potential.  In other words, a strategy needs to be built on a sense of what the organisation needs to or could become.

And, finally, a strategy is not much use unless it actually drives what happens in the organisation.  Quite often strategies mean something to the specialists who create them but are a mystery, a source of resentment or an irrelevance to everyone else.   Strategy needs buy-in. But how do you achieve it?  The only way is to involve as many people as possible in the development of strategy – not as a post-hoc gesture but in a spirit of genuine collaboration.  Strategies developed this way are not only better supported, they are usually just better. This is because they take seriously the idea that wisdom is spread around the organisation and that a conversation which engages properly with the range of insights and viewpoints available from a range of stakeholders is likely to be more well-directed and more complete.  By all means employ the services of people who are skilled in strategic thinking and planning, but it is not a job that can be simply handed off to “experts”.

I could, no doubt, come up with additional reflections, but I would prefer to hear what you have observed.  You may find that your own reflections add further points or lead you to take issue with mine.  Please do use the comments box below to add your thoughts.

Top down or bottom up change – a false dichotomy

I recently helped organise a conference about “transformational change”.  The discussion ranged widely but two questions that came up have stayed with me. The first concerns the degree to which change can be “managed” and the second, whether change should be managed “top down” or “bottom up”.  I’d like to reflect a little on those questions, starting with the second.

The view that change should be managed bottom up rather than top down is popular at the moment and seemed to be favoured in remarks made at the conference. People are suspicious of top down approaches.  They seem, perhaps, old-fashioned, hierarchical, patronising.  Bottom up approaches seem more democratic, more egalitarian, more respectful of the knowledge of the people who “do the work”.  They may also be held to be more effective because change that people choose is more likely to “stick” than change that has been imposed.

I’m not so sure.  I think we are dealing with a false dichotomy here.  I think we have no choice, in fact, but to embrace elements of both top down and bottom up approaches if we want to see significant, lasting and appropriate change. Continue reading

Organisational and personal success: it’s not a sprint but a marathon

It’s a truism that the goals most worth achieving involve an effort more akin to a marathon than a sprint.  I work with several relatively long-lived organisations – one of them, a religious order providing residential care for the elderly, in five regions of the world, is over 150 years’ old.  There are very few businesses that have proved so enduring.  What do you need to do to be in it for the long haul?

I cannot claim to have run a full marathon, but I did complete a half marathon in Bath in 2013.  I’m still quite surprised at myself.  Before 2011 I’d never run more than a mile at a go and that was when I was at school (40 plus years’ ago!).  How on earth did I do it?  Looking back, here are some lessons I learned, all of which, on reflection, resonate with what I have experienced with the Sisters. Continue reading

Change: why leaders must relinquish control

In a recent blog I argued that one of the reasons people in organisations find change difficult to cope with is the loss of control usually involved.  Change in organisations is frequently done to people.  In order to minimise resistance to change it is vital to leave as much control as possible in the hands of those affected by it. But, as a friend pointed out to me, that means those in leadership relinquishing their control.  And that, for a variety of reasons, is usually unwelcome.  But if the change you make is to be effective, it’s necessary and here’s why.

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Addressing resistance to change

I recently circulated John Beckford’s blog  challenging some of the ways in which organisations delay or avoid necessary changes.  I got positive feedback from several people but also this comment: “I think much more management consultancy needs to attend to delivery and some of the deeper resistances that lie within any one of us. The how-to seems critical”.  As I said to my correspondent at the time, that gives me a clear steer on the subject for my next blog.  Here is a link to John’s blog – I see my response to my reader’s comments very much as a companion piece: https://intelligentorganisation.com/uncategorised/toddler-steps-change-management/

So, for this blog we will assume that the organisational leadership has recognised the need to make a significant change but feels concern about the extent to which such a project will be supported or meet resistance from individuals and groups in the organisation, including, perhaps, those in leadership at the next level down in the hierarchy.  How should those leading change proceed? Continue reading