Sparking Change without Burnout

I recently read an HBR article from Stanford professor Sarah A. Soule and IDEO director Bryan Walker entitled Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate. The article is full of great insights for leading a cultural change in order to transform your organization. It pulls lessons learned from movement makers and applies them to business leaders.

I especially appreciated the advice they gave to leaders at the end of the article.

In a movements-based approach to change, a moderate amount of friction is positive. A complete absence of friction probably means that little is actually changing. Look for the places where the movement faces resistance and experiences friction. They often indicate where the dominant organizational design and culture may need to evolve.

The article also recommends leaders not overuse their authority to create change, advising they should do so sparingly.

When you’re striking a match, friction is helpful. But too much pressure can strip the head of the match or break it. The artfulness of leading is knowing how much pressure is just right.

Goldilocks was onto something.

When You’re Helpless and Things Go Wrong

Life doesn’t always go the way we want it. In fact, sometimes it can feel like it rarely does.

Unless you’re a spectacular hypnotist or sorcerer, you can’t control the decisions other people make. You can predict and persuade, but you can’t control others. Sometimes this creates circumstances that are out of our control, and we experience failure.

  • Customers choose your competitor
  • A relationship falls apart
  • Another candidate gets the job or promotion
  • Your child rebels
  • People don’t show up for your event

In situations like this, we can tell ourselves negative stories. Dr. Henry Cloud calls this the death spiral of a leader. In his book Boundaries for Leaders, Dr. Cloud argues that we learn helplessness through the “three P’s.”

We believe our problem is…

  • Personal
    “What ever made me think I could be a leader?” The reason we are stuck is that I am not up to the task. What ever made me think I was good enough to pull this off?”
  • Pervasive
    “It seems like everything I am working on is failing. Nothing is going the way I need it to go.”
  • Permanent
    “It is not going to change.”

Cloud encourages leaders to counter the “three P’s” by observing, logging and refuting.

The way to turn around the three P’s habit is to become aware of your own thinking patterns, first through self-observation, and then by writing these thoughts down in a log, journal, or notebook. Next, review each of the thoughts in the log and identify specific counterarguments and actual facts to refute them, one by one.

While explaining this approach during the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, Dr. Cloud emphasized that life is a movie, not a scene.

“Every great movie has crisis scenes in it. It’s the brains that see it (the crisis) as a scene and start doing the behaviors that end a great movie who win.”

This is where we DO have control. We don’t control the individual scenes, but we do create the narrative those scenes fit into.

We control the editing of our life.

We don’t run the cameras or control the actors, but we take the footage and give it meaning. What happens to us in life is momentary, but the stories we tell ourselves stay with us. Losing a sale, losing a job, losing an entire business (all of which have happened to me personally) do not define your life. They are each a scene.

How you insert them into the movie of your life is up to you.

As Garr Reynolds says on his blog Presentation Zen,

Editors are the unsung heros of film, but if we take a closer look even those of us outside of film can learn valuable lessons from their creative work. Whatever the medium, the key in storytelling is cutting the extraneous and the superfluous, keeping in only what helps tell your story.

We aren’t in control of our circumstances, but we are “ridiculously in charge” of how we tell our story.

  • Observe, log and refute what Dr. Henry Cloud calls the “three P’s.”
  • Realize your circumstances are a “scene” of your life, not the “movie.”
  • Take control of telling your story. Cut the extraneous and superfluous–keep what helps tell your story.

Are We Born into Greatness or Grown into It?

I’ve talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and its impact on creativity before. It’s a powerful model that changed the field of psychology. The needs at the bottom have to be met before the needs above it become relevant and accessible.

Patrick Lencioni’s model for 5 Dysfunctions of a team is very similar. Once again, the issues at the bottom of the pyramid have to met first.

In my opinion, the fact that these models have a certain order isn’t their most powerful attribute. I believe what makes these models profound is their assertion that people can grow into greatness. This is also the core of Stanford researcher Carol Dweck’s research on the mindset of learners.

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

—Carol Dweck, Stanford University

On the surface, this can seem simple and obvious, yet we label people–including ourselves–in “fixed” terms.

  • Smart vs Stupid
  • Creative vs Uncreative
  • Organized vs Sloppy
  • Entrepreneurial vs Predictable
  • Charismatic vs Dull
  • Successful vs Unsuccessful

If we understand this, then we stop seeing attributes as an either-or proposition…

… and we start to see everything as building blocks instead. Life becomes more than simply dealing with the hand you were dealt.
It becomes a series of steps toward our desired outcomes.

  • What attributes have you “assigned” to yourself and accepted as a label?
  • What qualities do you admire in others and not see in yourself?
  • If you see yourself as being on a lower level of that attribute, what would be the next level up?
  • What habits can you add to your life that would help you progress in this area?

Getting Unstuck

Understanding the System

As a follow up to yesterday’s post, here is more practical advice from the book UNSTUCK by Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro.

If you’re feeling stuck and wonder what the issue is, the authors suggest looking at the system–instead of focusing on symptoms. A balanced system should look like the model below.

Image © Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro, 2004

In this model, a balanced organization centers around its purpose. Its other elements revolve around the purpose like satellites.

  • Structure and process
  • Metrics and rewards
  • People and interaction
  • Culture
  • Even the almighty strategy

When organizations get stuck, one or more elements is out of balance. Often-times, an organization will center around one of the “satellites.” For example, people in an organization too focused on structure and process can begin to wonder where all the fun went. While those in a company without structure and process can easily feel overwhelmed.

Some may think defining and communicating the company’s purpose seems frivolous. When you see it is the center of your organization’s solar system, you understand how all of the elements of the company can become out of balance. This is why Simon Sinek’s message in his TED Talk and book, Start with Why, is so profound.

If your company feels stuck, you may want to get a copy of the book UNSTUCK (it’s out of print, but copies can be found. It gives several tactical options for alleviating the specific imbalance your organization may be stuck in.

If you personally feel stuck, you might check out the UNSTUCK website. I includes a free app, courses, kits and other materials.

Getting Unstuck

Crossing Chasms and Overcoming Crisis

When we start something, we envision progress being consistent and continual. A straight line up and to the right.

But that’s not what happens.

The reality is our efforts will have periods of highly productive progress, but also times when it’s a slog and it’s hard to push through. The worst moments are when we have no traction. It seems like no matter what we do, we don’t go forward. The wheels just spin and sink deeper and deeper into the muck.

We’re stuck.

The good news is there are ways to get unstuck.

In their book UNSTUCK, Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro share what leaders do in order to start moving their organization forward again.

  1. They diagnose why they’re stuck
  2. They are systems thinkers (not just fixing symptoms)
  3. They get wildly innovative and intensely tactical about activating different parts of their organization’s system

On his Accidental Creative website, Todd Henry adds areas where he sees individuals get stuck. He describes four areas of a growth cycle (Discovery, Emulation, Divergence and Crisis). Henry points out that most people get stuck in the emulation (emulating other people’s success) and crisis phases (your unique ideas are now commonplace).

In truth, Emulation phase can be very comfortable… You must choose between staying in a place of relative comfort and safety, and beginning to make bold, unique decisions with your work.

Many people wallow in Crisis phase, because they are afraid of trying something new.They feel that failure would be a stain on their reputation, so they would rather stay in a place of relative predictability.

This is similar to Geoffrey Moore’s observations regarding Crossing the Chasm.

Image courtesy WikiCommons

Moore popularized the generally accepted lifecycle for technology adoption. He identified that the most difficult area to navigate was moving from adoption by innovators and very early adopters, to the larger mass of early adopters and the early majority.

If we apply this same model to ideas and innovation, we see it may be easy to get innovative and open-minded individuals to jump on an idea. The harder part is getting buy-in and engagement from the majority. Notice that later in the lifecycle, we don’t see another chasm. That’s because natural momentum can work for us… then against us.

Toward the end of the lifecycle, we reach the crisis phase Todd Henry identified. Now we feel stuck because we realize we need to abandon the curve and return to our innovators. This is difficult because we encounter resistance (internal and external) to move away from something that worked, but innovators want something new.

This is why leadership skills are so important. In these times, true leaders have to overcome their own fears to challenge their existing models and embrace new ones. They also need to clearly communicate this to others in the organization and persuade them that the new idea/model/approach is worth the effort.

Questions to consider if you’re feeling stuck:

Where in the lifecycle are you stuck? 

What existing thinking do you need to abandon?

What new ideas do you need to embrace?

As you “cross the chasm,” how will you bring others with you?

Do Deadlines Foster or Kill Creativity?

A common method for getting productivity out of people is to set deadlines.

HBR contributor Elizabeth Grace Saunders promotes the use of deadlines, advising us to assign deadlines to work that matters.

So, if you want more productivity, then you should set tighter deadlines, right?


Setting tighter deadlines can actually HURT creativity and innovation. Unless people are performing purely rote tasks, this impacts the quality of their work.

The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem … The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can’t even see the box.
Richard Boyatzis, The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain

In the Handbook of Research on Leadership and Creativity, Scott G. Isaksen addresses the affects of time pressure on creativity in a chapter entitled “Leadership’s Role in Creative Climate Creation.” Isaksen shares research that affirms Boyatzis’ claim that high time pressure isn’t good for innovation. In some situations it helped when employees saw the time pressure as meaningful. It was also beneficial when leaders were supportive and gave positive feedback. Still, aggressive deadlines are generally unhealthy for doing innovative work. Research suggests that giving employees time to explore new ideas is more helpful than stressful deadlines.

Isaksen explains that leaders can influence idea time by:

  • providing more time for tasks that demand non-routine work (but not too much) instead of assigning similar deadlines for routine and non-routine work;
  • dedicating specific times for opportunity identification and idea-generation meetings versus asking employees to generate opportunities and ideas in addition to their day jobs;
  • joining in when they see employees having a spontaneous conversation about exploring new ideas and telling them the appropriateness of these conversations versus sending verbal and non-verbal messages telling them to “get back to work.”

Even though Saunders’ HBR article encourages readers to use deadlines, she also emphasizes the importance of pacing yourself.

Instead of setting one final completion date, like a final exam at the end of the semester in college, create mini-deadlines for pieces of larger projects. This strategy can work especially well if you have team members to help you refine your work prior to presenting it to a larger audience. Set a deadline for an initial draft, a run through, a revised draft, etc.

So, deadlines are important… but overly-agressive deadlines can kill creativity and innovation.

Infinite Creativity Part 2: Ever Zooming

Yesterday’s post focused on using combinations to expand your creativity.

Growing is one way to travel toward infinity, but it’s not the only way. We can also zoom.

Ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras established early western concepts of infinity. He stated, “Nor of the small is there a smallest, but always a smaller.

This shows up in science as physicists can now identify subatomic particles like quarks and leptons. It seems as though each time we discover the smallest particle, we later discover it is a collection of even smaller parts.

What does this have to do with creativity? Next time you feel stuck creatively ask, “Can I break this into smaller pieces?

Using our previous example of promoting a bakery, you could break the issue down two ways.

  1. The Bakery
    What aspects do you want to promote? You can break it down into quality ingredients, delivery options, speed of service, customizations, unique flavor combinations, location, supporting a cause, community service, etc. By zooming into the details, you can identify the strongest elements and combine them into your story. Each of these aspects could be broken down even further for greater specifics to differentiate the brand.
  2. The Promotion
    Promotion is a very broad term. Does this mean traditional marketing like broadcast advertising, print ads or direct mail? Does it mean digital marketing efforts such as a website, social media or online advertising? Is it a permission model through content and email marketing? It could also mean creating events, such as baking classes or “Cake Boss” style contests. Once you break down all the promotional ideas, you can selectively combine them into an integrated plan that aligns with your brand story.

So, if your creativity hits a brick wall, maybe you’re thinking too big. Take the time to zoom in and see the smaller parts. Then you can take things apart like a Lego creation, and form it into something new.

“Expanding” and “zooming” can grow your creativity… infinitely.