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Some enduring conflicts in business are caused by structural or systemic issues. Another large source of these enduring conflicts we encounter in our working lives are conflicts caused by a lack of shared context. In both cases, we can do better if we start the next debate by seeking to gain better context.
Understanding can be a Solution
Like everyone, I get frustrated when some arguments just won’t go away. That frustration is never constructive. It can cloud my judgement, cause me to miss issues and never helps resolve the debate. No matter how polite I think are my efforts to explain or convince, that frustration will be in the background and the other party can always sense it. We are finely tuned detectors of the emotional states of others. Anyone who senses frustration in someone with whom they are arguing is highly likely to interpret it as a lack of genuine intent, trust or respect.
Often when one of these conversations has gone on a long while it hits me that I don’t really understand what the other person wants. When I shift my focus from convincing them that I am right to seeking to understand their position, a radical change comes over the discussion. Firstly, I often discover some point of context I am missing or that I have misunderstood their position, concerns or their goals. Secondly, we slowly begin to rebuild the trust and respect that has been damaged by the conflict. Both of these are highly useful in finding a joint path to a solution
Often seeking to understand leads to an even more surprising resolution. When conflicts are caused by a lack of a shared context, some times the other party just wants to be heard. They want you to understand the context that you are missing. There might be nothing to do to fix things other than to listen deeply, actively engage their views and acknowledge what you have learned.
Context can show you the System
Seeking to understand is an important first step in the tricky issue of structural or systemic conflicts. These issues arise when parties are trapped in a system that pushes them into conflict, often without either side realising the issue. Think of your classic clash between organisational silos. Operations are trying to reduce the cost of the process. Sales are trying to increase revenue. Both parties are right in pushing to meet their KPIs. Both feel authorised to fight on, but the answer is that the organisation needs a balance of the two perspectives. In this context, it is easy for minor issues to become enduring proxy fights of the larger structural issue. I’ve seen teams fight repeatedly over whether error rates were driving cycle times or vice versa when the real issue between them was a need to better align their two businesses.
Changing the conversation to explore a wider context, to explore each party’s goals, concerns and views will help show the wider system at play in these debates. Opening up this broader conversation is how leaders can identify often hidden issues like culture clashes, misalignment of incentives or parts of the system working with unintended consequences.
It takes only a few minutes to ask a few questions to ensure you truly understand what the other party is seeking to achieve. The insights from that quest for understand will benefit both of you.
We don’t need to be told that work is busy. Pressures are everywhere. Finish one task or one meeting and there is a good chance that the next few challenges are piled up ready to go. We rarely get the time to reflect as we power through our work, unless we allocate time or are forced into reflection by the questions of others.
Without reflection, we all struggle to focus and question our priorities, our relationships and our performance. The value of coaching is that it can create this space in our work week and help make our work far more effective. The power of questions from others is that they force us to reflect, to consider a wider perspective on our work and can break the patterns that form in our busy thinking.
Great leaders coach. They know how to ask simple questions of their teams that foster reflection on goals, priorities, alignment of work and the effectiveness of work. Creating a supportive coaching environment in a team enables people to reflect on how to improve more often and more effectively. Great leaders encourage peer coaching too.
Peer coaching is a powerful technique and one that can happen in the flow of work. Taking the time to ask each other “How did we do? What can we do better or different next time?” is all that it takes to create more reflection in our work. We don’t work alone the insights and observations of others can help us become more effective. Working out loud, purposefully sharing our work with our peers, invites our peers into our work and facilitates this reflection.
In the coaching work that I do, I find asking the simple questions clarifying goals, the situation and opportunities to do things differently creates a space for a new and powerful conversation. The time invested can have dramatic returns by clearing blockages, building new collaborative networks and focusing the effort of work. Often the improvement opportunities are obvious when someone has time to reflect on how they can do things differently.
An added benefit of the time to reflect through coaching conversations is an increase in accountability in organisations. Regular coaching conversations with a leader, a coach or peers, create personal accountability to translate improvement opportunities into action. Knowing that someone will ask “what have you done differently?” helps us reflect continuously on how well we are delivering on our plans.
Reflecting with the support of others is the heart of learning and performance improvement. How are you fostering a coaching culture to benefit your performance and the performance of the teams around you?
Simon Terry is a coach and consultant who helps individuals and organisations to make work more effective. Reach out to discuss how more coaching can foster reflection for you and your organisation.
This International Working Out Loud Week we will be sharing a reflection on a different element of working out loud each day. We will be using John Stepper’s latest iteration of the five elements of Working Out Loud as a guide to those reflections. Our fifth reflection is on Growth Mindset.
We can be better.
Our talents are not fixed. Through effort, stretch and learning we can improve our abilities. We work every day to be better at what we do, to better fulfil our purpose and our potential.
If our talents are not perfect, that is because they never can be. There are no limits on our ability that work will not release. If our work is not perfect that too is because there is always more, always another better way to attempt. The way we do our work is but one of millions of paths to our goals. If our purpose or potential is never completely fulfilled, then that is because we strive for more. We want to make a bigger difference.
The value of working out loud is to help us see that everyone’s work is not perfect as it develops. We understand the edits, the changes, the false starts and the dead ends that lead to success. We stop comparing other people’s showreels to our own cutting room floor. We realise that embarrassment, failures and setbacks are temporary but abandonment of our purpose is final.
Working out loud brings us together with others who want to grow and to learn. We come together with others who want to improve their work and achieve their purpose in better ways. We are encouraged, challenged and supported to take on the daily work of getting better. Supported by a global community pursuing better work and a better life, we work together to grow.
We can be better. Together.
International Working Out Loud Week is from 6-12 June 2016
Design your organisation for the potential of its people and their capabilities, not the limits of an expertise.
I recently noticed that Capability or Competency? Mindsets matter was the second most read post on this blog. Part of the appeal of that post is that it addresses a critical shift in mindset for those grappling with the new dynamics of the future of work. We stand facing an organisational version of the personal insight Marshall Goldsmith described succinctly as “What Got Me Here Won’t Get Me There”
The Core Competency concept introduced by Prahalad and Hamel refined a concept that had been strong in management for decades. It is undoubtedly true that organisations compete by being better, more competent, at something than their competitors. However the mindset of being more competent differs from a competency. This subtlety was often lost as core competency flowed into the mainstream of management thinking.
The focus on core competencies created a mindset that organisation gets to choose its competencies as part of a strategic planning process and should set targets for competencies to fulfil its strategy. While Prahalad and Hamel spoke of the need for organisations to look forward to assess and build their competencies, much of the focus in organisations has been historical. The biggest outcome of the discussion of core competency has been a narrowing of organisational ambition and a focusing of activity on historical strengths. “That’s not our core competency” is more common than “We can leverage core competencies”.
Influenced by themes that go back to the beginning of scientific management, we have turned core competencies into rigid processes, standards and policies. We have judged these competencies by what sustained competitive advantage in past markets. We have spent less time on the changing customer perceptions of value and the ongoing dynamics of the future marketplace driven by new competitors. The list is long of disrupted organisations who felt safe because a new entrant lacked their core competencies. In many cases the infrastructure to reinforce and sustain these core competencies became a burden in their ability to adapt and survive.
The Big Learning mindset that pervades the future of work highlights that competitive advantage in the next century is based on the ability to build the capabilities required to compete in an environment of uncertainty. Rather than specifying a fixed goal of competency, we seek to build an open capability to fulfil our strategic intent and our customers’ needs as they arise.
Adapting organisations to foster autonomy, learning and change is what enables people to build the practical capabilities necessary to learn, grow and execute. The process you inherit is less important than the customer insight you gain in working to meet your customer needs. Prahalad and Hamel reinforced that in Competing for the Future their update of the core competencies discussion. The discussion on the need for organisations to build open capabilities that can help manage and drive adaptation. These capabilities include openness to their networks and environment, collaboration, ability to learn, share and drive change. Critical too is the development of purpose as the new focus for organisational activity and the inherent rationale for groups of people to come together in work to benefit others.
Design for Capabilities
Responsive Organisations need to design for a capability-led response to a uncertain future. They need to develop core Big Learning practices like working out loud, personal knowledge management, adaptive leadership and experimentation. They need to design their organisations to allow individuals and the collective to focus on the realisation of purpose.
This organisational design will leverage networks, transparency, autonomy, experimentation and the inherent motivation of employees in ways that we have not yet seen. Developing a new competency in holocracy, agile, lean product development, design thinking, big data or any other single practice is not enough. An organisation must build the capability to continuously adapt to customer needs in a changing market.
Ultimately, it will also focus organisations more strongly on realising the potential of people, customers and other stakeholders. We need to design our organisations to build the capabilities that realise human potential. That can only help make work more human.
Elite sporting teams build a development culture because they know their performance can be dramatically influenced by the bottom third of players.
Discussing the many upsets and surprises in the 2016 AFL season with friends I was reminded that the performance of an elite team can be heavily influenced by the bottom third of its players. A champion forward is of little value if the ball never gets there due to errors on the way. A champion midfielder loses value when their disposals are wasted. Even the best backs in the world can’t stop a consistent flood of attack due to the weakness of their peers.
Teams over Stars
Everyone has stars. Great stars will take you a long way. However exceptional talent is hard to come by and harder to retain. When it comes to the games that matter, great talents are also likely to be matched by great talent in the opposing teams. Everyone focuses on recruiting, rewarding and developing their stars.
When you get to the games that matter, team performance will win you the game. Team performance is about collaboration, people playing their role and outperforming the entire other team, not one or two individuals. In that scenario, where star power is usually closely matched, consistently high performance is about the performance of all players. The game can be shaped by the relative performance of the two bottom thirds in how well they execute, learn and collaborate.
Now many use this rationale to adopt ruthlessness to drive performance edge, cut poor performers and replace them with new talent. At GE, Jack Welch was famous for recommending the bottom 10% of performers be cut, a practice that is widely copied. Accountability through choice of who is on the team is required in any high performance environment.
Develop the Team
However, teams come together from groups of individuals working in concert. The stars need to work alongside everyone else. Stars need support. More importantly, better performances come when everyone lifts their performance together. The collective effort determines the outcome.
There is not always enough top talent available. The attraction of your organisation to top talent often depends on the team culture and particularly how you invest to develop everyone. Even Jack Welch and the successful GE organisation he led recognised that a development culture was important. Lifting the middle and bottom third through work on the development of people’s capabilities and by creating a great team culture is critical to sustained high performance.
Your Bottom Third
At an individual level, elite athletes recognise that there are good days and bad days of performance. Making sure that the bottom third of performance is better through mastery, practice and experience is critical to their ongoing careers. The bad moments are those where you fall back on elite disciplines and experience to see you through.
When you are good, you are good. How good are you when you are awful? How you use the least effective third of your time plays a key role in ongoing performance.
Talent matters. Investing in a team culture and the development of all individuals including the bottom third will matter to sustained performance.
Curiosity is a critical capability for the future of work. We have reached the end of stocks of expertise.
This morning I was lucky enough to be involved in a fishbowl conversation with Cheryle Walker, Andrew Gerkens, Renee Robson, Charles Jennings and an insightful audience. The final question of the engaging conversation about learning and performance was ‘What capabilities matter for learning and development professionals in the future?’ The question prompted a great discussion of the value of strategic, business, relationship and systems acumen as learning becomes more focused on performance improvement & more integral to work.
My contribution was that curiosity is an important capability. As the attention shifts to how organisations can manage big learning systems, those facilitating this change need to be curious well beyond traditional domains of expertise. When work is learning and learning is the work to quote Harold Jarche, there is a need for facilitators of this process to be looking at their system and looking beyond the organisation with an intense curiosity. The question is not ‘what do I or our team need to know?’ The question needs to be ‘what can we learn that helps us work better and be more effective?’
Traditional approaches to learning often have an implicit or explicit assumption that there is a fixed reservoir of knowledge to be known by employees. Global connectivity has shown us that the required knowledge is constantly expanding, being shared and being created as people experiment with the edge and step into new domains or engage with new systems.
Big learning processes are key to the future of responsive organisations. Performance will depend on how fast and how effectively we learn. To shape this we must remember, the future of work belongs to the curious.