[START Conversation Toolkit] Dealing with change

By Keith Coats 

We are frequently asked by concerned leaders how they can continue the conversations with their teams around disruption and the future of leadership.

Most of the senior leadership meetings that take place within a business focus on an agenda driven by operational concerns. This is the norm and exactly what is needed you might well be thinking. Of course you would be right. Any leadership team that doesn’t focus on the core aspects and metrics of that business would be irresponsible.

However, there is another equally important item that should be on the main agenda but isn't. These are the 'open discussions' that are driven by questions that the leadership team should be asking, but isn't. These are the type of questions that will unlock important and deeper discussions amongst the team that are often difficult to entertain and yet are essential to developing a future fit team and company. These are the unasked questions that lead to deeper engagement and result in better thinking (and therefore leadership practice) and emotional intelligence.

The purpose of START Conversations is to provide a practical resource for CEO's and team leaders to develop the critical thinking muscle within their teams. They are conversations that will help you 'look out the window' and over time, much like any fitness programme, will help your team become future fit: ready to meet the challenges and demands of an exponentially changing landscape and context.

You can watch this short video below for more information on how to use this resource.

Getting Started

You'll need to download the following 3 files below.

  • The Powerpoint presentation that hosts the image, the quote and the question that you'll be using to facilitate the conversation. Download here
  • The supporting article that you can either send to your team members before or after you’ve facilitated the conversation. Download here
  • The facilitators notes to guide you through the process of hosting this 'START Conversation'. Download here

Once you've downloaded these files, start with the facilitator notes which will walk you through the next steps. Good luck – we'd love to hear your feedback on how the conversations go this month.

Supporting Article
Change is hard - I'll be ready tomorrow

Having breakfast with a CEO recently and talking about organisational change, he came out with the memorable line, “change is hard – I’ll be ready tomorrow”. It wasn’t a personal reference but rather the unspoken response he seems to encounter from his senior leaders at every turn when it comes to the organisational change he knows is necessary and that cannot be delayed.

As TomorrowToday we have done extensive work globally and across multiple industries helping leaders and companies ‘look out the window’ and bring coherency to the ensuing conversations. Looking out the window is important work for leaders to do and those that fail to do so often end up running their company into a dead-end alley of oblivion.

What we have found however is that for the most part companies know that, (1) they need to change and keep pace with an exponentially changing world and, (2) they may even know ‘what that change is’ or looks like but often seem incapable of realizing the change they need.

There are internal inhibitors that militate against the ‘real’ change needed. Of course they appear to be changing but the unspoken reality is that the more they change, the more things stay the same. Things are shifted, given different names and maybe even a fresh coat of paint but the real change needed, change that is often all too apparent, remains untouched. The structures that need dismantling; the policies that need erasing; the experimenting being called for; the honest feedback to leaders; the revisiting of core elements, are all ignored.

If we’re honest, perhaps the biggest reasons for this inertia around real change has to do with leaders fearing the loss of control and / or an erosion of their own personal position both financially and status-wise. These are difficult barriers to breach and often constitute the ‘enemy within’ when it comes to the kind of meaningful change that is required in response to the dynamic and challenging external context.

Dealing with the ‘enemy within’ has become an increasingly emergent and dominant theme as we (TomorrowToday) have worked with leaders and companies in ‘looking out the window’. It has become apparent to us that looking out the window constitutes but half of the equation; it is the response to looking out the window that is where the real challenge is to be found. Having looked out the widow and understood the disruptive forces driving the change, the next step is to ensure that your organisation is ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

It is about helping companies understand that it is not merely their strategies that need to be overhauled nor is it simply about greasing the wheel by way of a change management process – it goes far deeper than both those elements; is about changing their DNA. It is about ensuring that we have the DNA that will allow us to thrive into the future. In any biological DNA evolutionary process three fundamental things happen: the metamorphous is shaped by what to keep; what to discard; and what to rearrange. ‘What to keep, discard and rearrange?’ is the underpinning question to be engaged if your company is to successfully meet the challenge that the unfolding future poses.

But what does this all mean for you as a leader? How do you lead in such times?

Of course there is no simple answer to that searching question but there are three pointers for you as a leader that are worth noting.

1. Experience is overrated.

This was the provocative subtitle on the cover of a recent Harvard Business Review on Talent. It is true. In a world in which the challenges that leaders are encountering are nothing like those previously encountered, the past offers little help in finding solutions. This is what Ron Heifetz of Harvard refers to as an ‘adaptive challenge’.

An adaptive challenge can be defined as, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’ and as such, any solution requires ‘new learning’. In an adaptive challenge even the problem itself requires ‘new learning’ – or it needs to be defined because the very nature of the problem is not immediately apparent. It is about getting to the ‘real problem’ – and the first step demands thorough diagnosis.

The danger is that too many leaders believe that they can solve adaptive challenges through their own – or the companies, experience. In fact to suggest otherwise is not always kindly received and it is often taken as an insult or interpreted as being dismissive of the road travelled and the many lessons learnt along that journey. To say experience is overrated is not to imply this nor is it to be dismissive of the past; it is merely saying that tomorrow’s challenges will not be solved by yesterday’s solutions.

Instinctively we all know this and yet we cling to experience as the means to navigate the future. It is like driving down a fast paced highway looking only in the rear-view mirror! It is only a matter of time before we have a fatal accident.

2. Questions are the answers

Smart leaders ask a lot of questions and I would go as far to say that the quality of the questions you (as a leader) are asking will determine the quality of the solutions and strategy going forward. The willingness to pose questions that go to the very heart of purpose, motivation and objectives; questions that are given permission to venture into territories that previously have had large ‘no entry’ signs posted; questions that go both ‘inwards’ and ‘outwards’ – these will be the means by which we find our way forward through the turbulence, complexity and ambiguity that obscures our way.

Questions serve to open the conversation and thinking. They invite others into the conversation and as we get more used to asking them – and more comfortable, so too will we get better at ‘holding’ them, engaging with them and strengthening the process towards new learning and solutions. Do a ‘questions audit’: At your next meeting, pay attention to the number and quality of questions being asked. What does this reveal about your team and company’s readiness to be ‘future-fit’?

3. Adapt or die.

Smart leaders understand that they need to become an ‘adaptive leader’. They know that they need to build organisational cultures that are agile, nimble and responsive and they are preoccupied with how best to do this. Well, the short answer is: It starts with you. You need to be an adaptive leader; you need to model what this looks like and by so doing, give permission to others to follow suite. It is about becoming ‘future-fit’ and as in any attempts to ‘get fit’ – hard work and discipline is required.

Unlike the many ‘magical’ or quick-fix solutions being offered to get in shape physically – becoming future-fit is not something that can be achieved overnight but it is possible and is attainable when given an intentional focus. It will require both a mind shift as well as behavioural practice before it roots and becomes something that is recognisable.

Leading in today’s context is tough and it is not going to get any easier. The kind of organisations that we have built from the past will resemble little likeness to those that will stand in the future. There are too many things changing for us to really believe that what has got us here will be sufficient to get us to where it is we need to be.

Technology, societal value shifts, globalisation, new threats and opportunities and a host of other forces and elements will ensure that our current ways of managing our enterprises will have to change. Recognising this reality and shaping the future is the leader’s responsibility. It is your responsibility and a fair question to be asking is, ‘so what are you doing about it?’