Leadership’s Most Vital T-A-S-K

Organizational dynamics today are bordering on the chaotic. Some would say that they are already out of control and cannot change, despite our best efforts. Some authors have even emphasized the “chaos theory” approach to understanding organizational life. They may be right.

Burnout is fast becoming a major problem for all types and sizes of organizations. If we were to believe what we read in the daily newspapers, it would seem that the human casualty list is growing. For leaders, this presents a problem of potentially gigantic proportions. Leaders who try to inspire their organizations to be innovative and reach greater heights too often run into barriers that seem intractable. These barriers include:

Not enough time to get things done, brought on by a number of things, including an extreme lack of focus on what’s important as opposed to what’s urgent. In a stressed out, time starved organization, vestiges of top down command and control leadership styles seem to resurface, just when leaders thought that they had them beaten and only serve to reinforce the ‘tyranny of the urgent’.

Attitudes that portray a resistant culture, such as “it’s not my job”, blaming others when things go wrong, and internal conflict seem resistant to antidotes, which include ‘(re)training’, accountability ‘contracts’, reengineering of performance management systems, and sheer bribery (aka performance based compensation).

Competency based approaches to human resource development (HRD) that tend to treat people as objects to be analyzed, put through ‘360 feedback’, and then have further ‘developmental’ tasks added to their already overflowing in-trays, all in the name of ‘upgrading’ their skill sets, much the same way that you would ‘upgrade’ your slow computer. Many competency-based models simply don’t achieve win-win outcomes. And to overcome ‘resistance’, many organizations make these HRD programs mandatory. In doing so they miss the point…competency development is an extremely personal endeavor, fueled by an inner desire to improve in ways that are meaningful to the person attempting the change.

Attempts at building and leveraging the organizations ‘knowledge’ that seem to end up in the IT department as another ‘megabucks system in the closet’ that only succeeded in adding more organizational stress. In a stressed out organization, clear thinking rarely prevails. And clear thinking is essential to tapping in to personal knowledge and finding ways to leverage it.

So what’s wrong, and more importantly what can you as a leader do about it?

First, keep in mind that organizations are not like machines. How often have you heard the phrase “we need to run this organization like a well oiled machine”? Machine like organizations produce machine like thinking and acting. Machines are designed to produce outputs that are replicable and predictable…people are designed to produce innovations that take their organizations, themselves (and humanity) to new heights.

Personal interaction, synergistic thinking, experimentation, and yes, forgiveness are essential to successful innovation, which in turn is essential to keeping an organization vibrant and alive…and simply won’t happen in a predominantly machine like organization.

Second, use innovation as a de-stressor. If you cut off the opportunities for people to do what comes naturally to them, i.e. innovate, then your organization will become highly stressed. If you build your organization and your leadership style around creating space for people to engage in face-to-face interactions, develop synergistic relationships and experiment (without ‘accountability contracts’ and ‘360 feedback’ boxing them in) then you will see amazing things happen.

Third, rise to the leadership challenge. So how do you as a leader make innovations happen, and still ensure that the organization meets it’s day-to-day obligations? Here are some tips…

Focus on what’s important to the long-term survival and success of the organization. Keep this focus simple, e.g. ‘be the number 1 or 2 in our respective sectors’. Communicate it day in and day out. Don’t stop communicating it, even when people shout ‘enough, we get it!’ Link innovations to this goal.

Be authentic, and be seen as authentic. What’s authentic? Well, it’s being seen as highly trustworthy, doing what you say you will do and not faking it. If you believe in innovation as a spur to greater personal and organizational development, then prove it by coming up with innovations yourself. Lead the way by living this belief.

Have the courage to remove policies and systems that are not working and that get in the way of innovation. That Knowledge Management System, or ERP system that is not paying off because it was designed by technocrats, with little or only contrived input from the folks who need it most, must be the first sacred cow to go to the meat factory. Remove anything that threatens to turn your organization into a predominantly machine like culture.

Empathize with those who are in the front lines, especially those who are not sufficiently involved in innovations that make the organization a great place to work in and do business with. Actively seek their counsel…their advice can be the cheapest form of consulting you will ever purchase. Have each person in your organization involved in at least one major innovation every year. Make absolutely certain that there is a clear line of sight between these innovations and the focus you have established (see ‘Focus’ above). Remember that people desire meaning in their work, as well as innovation.

Emphasize that value-adding innovations that are timely are the ones that generally make it. To achieve this, free up time – demolish all bureaucratic time wasting activities…you know where they are, don’t waste valuable time discussing their relative merits – just do it. For example, create ‘time-buster’ teams led by senior managers that remove deadly timewasters, (including policies and procedures) and then convert that freed up time to allow people to innovate. Personally lead the way by doing it yourself, now! Be relentless about this (see ‘Courage’ above).

The difference between destressing and distressing your organization is “I”. Ask yourself “Do I have the capacity to de-stress my organization and place it on the path to innovation and success? If not, how can I build my capacity and that of my team to be more focused, authentic, courageous, empathic and timely when it comes to innovations?” You’ll only know if you try…and that requires an innovative approach on your part!

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