A manager takes the right action because (s)he knows what to do. A leader asks the right questions when (s)he doesn’t know what to do. Success in leadership is about the ability to deal with situations and challenges that surmount the domains of the known and the possible.
In organizations, as in all life, there are two types of challenges. Dr. Ronald Heifetz, director of the Centre of Public Leadership at Harvard University, calls one type the “technical challenge”. It’s the type of challenge for which an organization already developed the capacity, the know-how and the solutions. The organisation has the expertise to solve this type of problem. These problems can be solved from an authoritative approach where the authority structure of the organization provides an answer.
“The classic and most common failure in leadership is the diagnostic failure, i.e. treating an adaptive challenge as a technical challenge.” Dr. Ronald Heifetz.
What happens when you misjudge an adaptive challenge for a technical challenge is that leaders try to apply an authoritative solution. They throw fixes at the problem, which obviously will not fix the problem at all. So the problem persists and the leaders lose credibility while they keep overpromising about the solutions they can deliver. Meanwhile, people are getting more and more disappointed that you have not solved their problem as this cycle continues until you’re thrown out for the next leader to come along.
From the bottom up, people will keep hoping that someone will come up with a solution, and from a state of dependency they will look at the authority in the organisation for a solution.
How do we stop this negative spiral?
The first thing, is to recognise an adaptive challenge from a technical one. Richard Mason and Ian Mitroff provide good indicators of a wicked problem:
Interconnectedness: strong connections link problems together, sometimes to form loops that circle between the problems.
Complicatedness: the challenge has many important elements with various relationships between them.
Uncertainty: the environment in which the problem exists is dynamic and very uncertain, leading to risk that may be incalculable.
Ambiguity: the challenge can be perceived in very different ways, depending on the viewers’ experiences, beliefs and values, and depending on the circumstances. And there is not a single correct view …
Conflict: often trade-offs are needed because of conflicting interests among the involved persons, departments or organizations. Maybe it’s unlikely that the involved parties will enter into full co-operation with each other.
Societal constraints: social, organizational, technological and political constraints and capabilities will impact the feasibility and desirability of certain solutions.
Even one of these characteristics can suffice to bring a challenge in the adaptive domain.
A collaborative approach to solution finding
Make a call on the people to participate in the solution finding. The participation of all people involved will not only integrate all possible views, it will also increase the chances of their buy-in into the solutions. The solution finding needs a couple of important steps that are driven by the type of questions that are asked, and not by the answers given.
1) Exploration, challenging and learning: people will see this as the “unnecessary” stage that is a “waste of time” claiming that “we all know the problem, so let’s get on with it”. That is why you need to spend most of your time and energy here. This is the essential step in which you collectively challenge assumptions, shift unnecessary beliefs and question the shared values, attitudes and perceptions. Assume that everything you know is wrong.
2) Creating new possible and impossible options: the question that leads this stage is “what do we really want?” and the answers may not be constrained by critique, beliefs about what is possible and what not, or by the current thinking. Everything seems impossible until it’s done.
3) Decide about the path with the most potential: making choices is also a collaborative approach. We are not looking for the right solution, or even the best solution, those are terms of the technical challenge, not the adaptive challenge, and would lead to a conflict of positions. We are looking for the most collective potential. As a leader, you might not like the decisions made. Remember, your task is to lead, not to impose.
4) Develop the road into the new direction: this is the step into the next element ‘creating collective change’. Developing the road means providing the way so that every participant finds their role in the change. What will each one of us specifically do different tomorrow and beyond?
Creating collective change
The change will come from the change of behaviour, attitudes, beliefs and values of everyone involved, including the organizations. It’s no longer the task of the leaders to provide the answers, but it’s to ask the right questions. The answers to these questions are developed over time by the collective intelligence of the people.
The ability to do all of this, as a leader, requires the development of skills: asking the right questions, initiating the change of beliefs and attitudes, the shift of values and the change of behaviour. The rational approach will not get you there. These are not skills that we are naturally born with, it takes continuous learning to impact the people around us at the deeper level of our thinking.
By Adrian Brown
Recently I’ve been looking more in depth at the business applications of NLP and there seems to be one thing that can completely transform a business overnight. When the people in an organisation examine their business and reconsider the basic assumptions about how things should be done this can radically change things.
In the late 90’s when I was working as a management accountant, one of the biggest furniture stores decided to radically change the way they organised their finance function. Faced with escalating costs to provide budget management, they decided to ask the question whether it was worth it and stopped using budgets all together. The general attitude at the time was “we must have budgets” and “everyone has budgets” but this organisation asked, “How do you know?”
In NLP terms, they challenged the presuppositions and from this new ideas started to flow. So let’s have a quick review of presuppositions. These are words or phrases that are included in a sentence which, in general, go unchallenged by the listener.
If I said, “Tom’s dog ran after the ball”, the listener would generally accept that a dog exists, a person named Tom exists, Tom owns a dog, the dog has the ability to run and so on. These things are seldom questioned and are just taken as fact since it would be a ridiculous conversation if you didn’t! The magic lies in being able to notice presuppositions and identify where it would be useful to examine them further.
As an NLP practitioner you are taught to either use presuppositions strategically to influence people or to challenge their validity by asking questions such as “how do you know?”
For language to make sense, there is a presupposition in every sentence, so which ones do we examine further?
In business there are lots of systems and ways of doing things that have been done since an industry was conceived. These are the areas that often hide potential for innovation and improved efficiency. Most people in an organisation have been operating in a particular way for so long that they would never think of questioning the approach. Often when a problem arises, a presupposition often dictates how things operate and hence limits the potential solutions. So, in the industry that you work in, consider what is presupposed by all those involved and see how many areas could potentially provide innovation.
Listen for phrases such as “Everyone knows that” and “We’ve always done it this way”. These are often indicators that there’s a potential for improvement.
For example, let’s have a look at book sales. Before online books stores, the following presuppositions existed.
Books are made of paper
People like going to shops to buy books
To look at the pages you need to have the book in your hands
To read a book you need to have it printed on paper
Your staff had to be knowledgeable on the books
As we all know, none of the above are true but the industry acted as if they were true until people challenged the presuppositions and from that came up with new ideas.
From your list of presuppositions ask questions such as
How do you know it’s true?
Will that always be true?
Does anyone think otherwise?
This all may seem very simple but if you have been involved in something a long time, you may not be able to spot them easily.
Innovation often comes from a person new to an industry who asks “awkward” questions. Remember that NLP was developed from a mathematician asking about psychiatry. So I challenge you to start thinking about what things are taken for granted in your business and the other areas of your life that, when examined, may give you new ideas on what’s truly possible.