Assigned. Chosen. Earned.

  • Job = what you need to do. May come with rank in a hierarchy. Assigned
  • Role = how you manage yourself in response to a constantly changing environment. Chosen
  • Authority = your leadership influence. Earned

Your job does not define how you behave in a situation or determine your leadership influence. Job, role and authority each come from a different source and respond to different circumstances. They will never perfectly align.

Your job may provide authority over some of your network. The impact you have in one interaction may give you authority in another part of your network. Frustratingly, it is equally likely that they both will not.  

When we see hierarchies, we confuse these three distinct concepts.  We think the hierarchy determines, and more commonly limits, our actions and our influence. 

The role you play is your choice. The influence you have can only be earned from others.

Hierarchies might give you a job. Hierarchies rarely help you do it. Let the poor hierarchy be. Stripped of roles and authority, a hierarchy is harmless enough.

You determine your actions in each context. Your network gives you the power.

Choose to have influence.

PS: For a richer discussion of these concepts and tools to help, read The Australian Leadership Paradox by Liz Skelton and Geoff Aigner

Don’t Burn Platforms

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead. 
– Casabianca by Felicia Dorothea Hermans

That boy didn’t jump ship. Never again use the phrase ‘burning platform’ to describe motivation for change. 

A Bad Metaphor

Spend much time creating change and someone will ask ‘but is there a burning platform?’  This question is usually asked:

(a) to demonstrate their knowledge of change management jargon and

(b) to insinuate there is no compelling rationale for the change.

The burning platform metaphor comes from a story of oil workers in the North Sea who confronted with certain death by fire, jumped to a likely death by freezing water. It is often attributed to the fire on the Piper Alpha.  That specific burning platform was made much worse by a belief that employees on another platform had that they were not allowed to stop the flow of oils and gas into a fire that was killing their colleagues. They lacked the discretion to do the obvious.

Need I go on. It is a really bad metaphor. Now never use it again.

The Wrong Mindset

The mindset behind the burning platform metaphor is no way to view real change.  The assumption is nobody will change without something akin to threat to their life and the best anyone need offer is a slight improvement.

Burning platform is embedded in a view of the world where smart management needs to get dumb employees to do something they don’t want to do. Like the boy in the poem above, employees loyally await orders before acting (& need prodding even then).  The same logic drives many performance management and incentive schemes.

Real Urgency Comes from Choice

A burning platform is often described as the first of Kotter’s 8 steps of change. It is not. The first step is ‘Create a sense of urgency’. A change imperative matters.  However, there are far better and more constructive senses of urgency than a risk appetite bending fear of certain death. Constructive urgency comes from choice and requires an active and creative engagement. Examples of constructive imperatives include:

  • Fulfilling a personal purpose
  • Realising one’s potential
  • Benefiting others
  • Collaborating with others
  • Collectively agreeing a path forward as a group
  • Autonomy & Accountability for achieving personal or collective goals, and even
  • A well reasoned request from a colleague who respects them and whom they respect

Start with a Conversation

However, to advance a change using any of these motivations you will need to engage people in conversation, to address their views, questions and concerns and connect them personally & collectively to change. You need to respect that people agree to change.  You don’t get to change them.  That’s hard work and it respects their intelligence, effort and contribution. Unfortunately, that’s how change usually works.

Stop dreaming you can light a fire under your people. You can’t. They are smart enough to leave before you get the chance to play arsonist.

A simple conversation about change is far more powerful. People are fired by respect, accountability and opportunity.

Put down the matches.

Too United We Fall

Uniting the like-minded agents of change is a common first step in creating change. Too much unity of the like-minded is also a path to failure.

Undoubtedly change agents benefit from connection, collaboration and collective force. The life of a change agent can be a lonely one. Having others to share the load matters.

Building an overly united collective of people equally oriented to change has its dangers for the success of any change:

Shared Context: People embrace ideas when they share sufficient context to understand them. Uniting a group of change agents can rapidly accelerate the sharing of knowledge within the group. Soon that group will have lost some shared context with those that need to embrace change.
Us & Them: Silos are inevitable in any attempt to draw a ring around a group united in purpose. Without great care, unity will also come at a cost of factionalism as people seek out those who hold views of those closer to their own. All of this connection is in the opposite direction to the external engagement that drives change.
Grand Plans: United we dream. We plan lots of steps without engaging those who must join us in the changes. United we dream. Dreams inspire, but don’t deliver.
Power of Conflict: Interaction, debate and conflict helps keeps ideas evolving and relevant. Flaws appear when ideas are challenged and when ideas are tested by diverse views. Unity will reduce conflict. No change prospers by talking only to the converted.
Compromise: Surrounded by those equally convinced, compromise can feel weak. Standing ground against the system looks like an option and is commonly raised. This gesture of pulling rank on the system may come with a giddy sense of opportunity but is actually a failure, alienating others and preventing further progress to change. Opting back-in later is always challenging.

So how do you get the benefits of greater connection without the risks?

Share your story: Work out loud. Keep putting ideas out and discussing them widely
Keep the doors open: Constantly engage with new people, both like-minded, neutral and opponents. Any time your ideas are not being disturbed once a day you are in an echo chamber.
Favour unity of purpose & action over dogma: People only need to be agreed enough on the direction to work together. The change agents don’t need to agree each last point of implementation yet. Details will come in time.