So, how do I see Lean Transformation Wisdom in an enterprise context?
I have come to realize that we can and must increase the success rate of transforming legacy businesses into modern lean and entrepreneurially thinking digital businesses. Anything else is a waste of human and other resources, in the face of real challenges in our world. Those businesses, which do not embrace the digital age, will become irrelevant, sooner or later. I am convinced that very few businesses are exempt from this mega-trend, if they are going to thrive into their future. In this sense, I include public benefit organizations, institutions such as those for education and government services.
Having said this, my sense is also that there is time to transform. My observation is that this wave has started, and the digital age is here. An astute leader might also notice that there are not yet many examples of large digital businesses in many industry sectors and areas of endeavor. This creates the opportunity of advantage through timing. At the same time I feel concerned that the natural human resistance to change is all too prevalent. Too many businesses are looking for quick fixes, easy paths, or ‘keeping a foot in each camp’.
At Real Wisdom I am actively engaging with particularly large legacy (traditional and well-established) business leaders. I am fortunate to be standing both on the shoulders of giants and on my own pile of mistakes during my corporate, and particularly entrepreneurial, experiences. I have learned some valuable lessons, and actively seek new learning. I understand and embrace the existing expertise in lean thinking, agile thinking and many other process or operations-oriented innovation or entrepreneurial (start-up) approaches to organizational transformation and success. As an entrepreneur myself, much of the theory, insights and advice ring true. We do not need to re-invent – it is a time to collaborate.
And, I see a gap, which I have attempted to explore through this series of reflection articles. Change is about our human mindset. As an individual human, my mindset shows up as a combination of my experiences and upbringing, my education and knowledge, my beliefs, what I say to myself and others, my culture and my environment. When people group together, for example as a group of friends, as a management or functional team, or as a whole organization, the dynamic becomes more complex. Now there are many different mindsets in the room – as many as there are people involved. Each is living their respective ‘own truth’. All of these different truths are equally valid, but not ultimate truth. And there is an additional mindset in any functional group – popularized in psychology as ‘group think’ or the group dynamic.
When it comes to change in people, we have to deal with deeply embedded, in our most ancient neural systems, patterns of biological resistance. The main driver is fear – which shows up as fear of failing, fear of the unknown, fear of losing ourselves, fear of losing comfort or the familiar, and fear of material loss (e.g. will I lose my job?). And yet we also know from evolutionary theory, and more recently from scientific research into neural plasticity, that we are biologically wired for change. These are two paradoxical, opposing forces. The question is: is your fear controlling you or are you taking control of your ability to change and evolve? In my coaching experience, this is a choice.
This is where wise leadership comes into play. A competent leader understands how to lead people through change. Such competence usually comes from many personal experiences involving failure, getting back up, learning and trying again. Actually, anyone who can walk or talk has learned in this way as a young child. But the difference between all of us and a competent leader is self-awareness. Unsurprisingly, our first step in designing leadership coaching in corporate transformation contexts, is to start with building the competency of awareness – personal self-awareness and group or organizational awareness. And we use very specific ways of coaching this competence, which can be learned, and by practice can eventually be hard-wired into our brain or organizational culture. Previously I indicated that we start with interviewing key stakeholders in an organization we wish to work with -why? We get to know who and what we will be working with, but more importantly, magic happens when we literally mirror their own quotes back to the leadership team – ‘this is what we heard you say’. Self awareness, as a team, starts to build.
The next step is to deal with fears. Fear is an emotion, which comes from deep within each of us, when triggered. The biggest triggers in our lives are danger and change. In a corporate context, these two become very mixed up. Biologically we are wired to run away from the danger associated with bumping into a Tyrannosaurus dinosaur taking the same elevator to the 5th floor. The reality is different (at least in all corporates I have worked in so far) – the danger is individually perceived. This is not to suggest it is not real. But it usually is relative – relative to each individual mindset, and then augmented by the organizational speak and belief system – the culture. This is why one person can feel really threatened by a particular decision in a board meeting, while the next milks the opportunity. Different mindsets. So, how do we overcome fear, and in this case, fear of change? How do we develop a more useful mindset?
Our collective wisdom suggests that the most effective way of working with strong emotions such as fears, it to face them. In a corporate transformation context, this means naming and describing the fear, exploring it from everyone’s (different) perspectives and mindsets, and facilitating the safety, trust, space and time for the fear to dissipate, and for obstacles and risks to be identified or removed. Humans do this best through conversation. Not just any conversation, but a skillful conversation, which builds trust, allowing for appreciation of diversity and inviting appropriate vulnerability (when last did you hear of the word ‘vulnerability’ as a business or leadership virtue – for more watch Brene Brown’s TED tak on the Power of Vulnerability). This is the second key leadership competency to coach: leading and inspiring powerful conversations to build trust.
The third key competency in enterprise transformation is a sustained and very clear (simple) sense of purpose and direction – what is often referred to as a ‘North Star’ or the ‘Why’. Leadership of self and others will stay on track through the inevitable and repeated messiness of navigating change within a complex environment such as a large organization, by allowing each person to remind and re-orient themselves with respect to what really matters, on a regular and mutually supportive basis. Keep asking ‘Why? – another great TED talk by Simon Sinek’. For many businesses, this sense of purpose is driven through its customers or beneficiaries. The customer focus becomes more compelling than any pressing or immediate challenge – allowing for clarity of decision-making and inviting change as one of the choices towards the ultimate purpose. No more ‘holy cows’ – just a simple question: Why?
An experienced leader, manager or consultant working with Lean, entrepreneurial venturing, Agile methodology and similar change process management approaches, may recognize the parallels in their own experiences – both failures and successes. Organizational change processes require awareness, overcoming resistance, fear of failing or any form of lag or waste, and a clear, compelling, customer-centric focus to define outcomes.
The key insight I wish to invite, is that organizational processes, not matter how well designed or smart, are still mostly inhabited and driven by people. Those processes, such as computation, which can occur without human influence or decision-making, do not require coaching. AI, for example, is making huge strides here. But for the remaining processes – these are inhabited by people. And people will naturally resist change – it is deep within our biology.
Therefore, we see leadership coaching as helping leaders and organizations to prepare the necessary, fertile and resilient seedbed for successful and sustainable change – which we see as a basic requirement, perhaps even the key competence, in the digital age. We work with the leadership and the culture of the organization, preparing them to not just accept, but to thrive within, change. And to be sensitive and engaging with the biological needs of each employee or business partner, for safety and simplicity.
“Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.” ― Pete Seeger
This is where any organization, serious about engaging with digital age challenges, could start. Starting with processes leads to resistance at best, and usually failure and/or substantial waste of resources, especially time. Starting with people and leadership, on the other hand, creates the resilience that sustained change will require.
I welcome your perspectives and questions – please contact me directly or comment below. We are all learning. This is a very exciting time for business and human endeavor. Scary, yes,…. And very exciting…