A place to practice

The only way to improve performance is through a consistent practice of self-diagnosis, reassessment, and behavior change.

The prerequisites are the belief that we have the capacity to change and grow, and the realization that we have not yet reached our full potential.

This work is sustained by trusted allies who are willing and able to give us astute feedback.

It is steeled by our willingness to hear these allies’ truths, even when they feel like criticism.

And, as we hear these truths, and as we see ourselves and our behaviors more clearly, we must, ever so slowly, start acting differently.

But where to act differently? How to act differently? How does this process actually work?

Part of the answer is within the intentional groups we are part of, ones in which we commit to supporting one another’s growth as leaders. For example, both the Acumen Fellows programs and +Acumen courses are run in groups. We have found, like many before us, the tremendous power of cohorts who embark on a shared journey. A skillful facilitator coupled with a group that is willing to invest in a process of group formation can create a holding environment that can be transformative.

The more obvious tools in this process are the bonds of friendship and trust built in these cohorts. Sometimes these groups also evolve into places where open and honest feedback becomes the norm. Most useful, but often hardest to achieve, is for members to use a cohort as a testing ground for new leadership behaviors.

Cohort groups (or, indeed, any group doing intentional work together) are fertile ground for thoughtful, deliberate experimentation of new behaviors. If trust exists, if recrimination is unlikely, and if you’re willing to be a bit brave, you can (like at summer camp) show up in a new way in any of these cohort groups.

What does this look like? It’s as simple as this: if you’re someone more comfortable jumping to solutions, you can choose to spend your time with the group listening more deeply. If you’re averse to conflict you make the choice to step into the fray. If you like to raise your hands first you can see what happens when you give more space to others. If you’re someone who’s afraid to offend you can work on freely speaking your mind. You start as simply as this, and build from there.

It can help to think of the group as a practice ground, a place to break a new leadership behavior into its component parts and try it on for size. Just as a swimmer would never adjust her stroke at an Olympic qualifying meet, and a tennis player wouldn’t mess with the toss on his serve in the first round of a major tournament, we cannot expect ourselves to be suddenly bolder and more truthful when our salary, or our job, is on the line. Nor should we try to have our first courageous conversation when our bosses’ boss in in from abroad for one day.

Instead, we can jerkily try new leadership moves on for size in our cohort group, putting aside our natural desire for approval, or status, or recognition, or safety in service of learning behaviors we ultimately want to utilize successfully with our teams, our Boards, our business partners, or our bosses.

This is not easy to do. We tend to walk the deep trenches carved by the patterns of our own behaviors, hemming ourselves in with the expectations we’ve created in ourselves and in others about how we are going to act.

The peer groups we are already part of, or that we choose to create, are the best place to start breaking out of these old ruts

Choke points

Lately I’ve found Google Maps to do a pretty good job of predicting how long drives are going to take, with traffic.  That’s a huge plus in terms of planning, predictability and figuring out the best routes, and I’ve wondered for a while why traffic data has been available but estimated drive times have consistently been way off the mark.  My one remaining feature question is why Google or other maps applications don’t let you input the time you will be driving to get an estimate.  Obviously there will be idiosyncrasies on any given day, but they have all the data to tell you what normally happens on a given route at 5pm (though perhaps it’s not worth the trouble to store it all).Google maps

All this said, I do find occasionally that there are still big glitches, like yesterday when I drove to the airport for what was predicted to be a 38 minute drive on a route I never take – and which would have been 38 minutes had it not been for a tiny half-mile stretch on one exit that alone took more than 15 minutes.  That 50% variance on the drive to the airport makes a big difference.

That got me thinking about the pace at which complex work gets done in organizations.  The obvious, big piece is about the overall flow of traffic: how quickly does your organization move in its default setting?  This has to do with culture and norms and expectations, and I’ve never worked anywhere where we couldn’t do things faster most of the time.

However sometimes the slow doesn’t come from the overall pace of thing but instead comes from choke points, snags where everything grinds to a halt even though the general pace of things is otherwise brisk.

When these choke points happen, the first thing we need to do is name them.  “Hey, we got stuck in this situation – this always happens to us.”  Just that conversation – saying out loud which situations get you stuck – will itself be powerful.

And once that moment has been named and recognized, there are two (likely intertwined) things we can do.  The first just builds off the naming and says, “It’s really important for us not to grind to a halt here, so we’re going to consciously ignore the thing that has stopped us (the approval we need, the great counterpoint someone has made, the risk we are running, the unwillingness to make a big final push with a hard deadline) and just decide to finish.”  The active, shared decision that acknowledges a good reason to stop but says, “let’s push on apace” could itself teach everyone involved whether the stop sign was there for a good reason.  And it might have been.  Or not.  If you try it a few times you’ll find out.  (Results will vary).  Key to making this work will be a real postmortem that brings in all the relevant folks, to get everyone to discuss what happened and what was good/bad about taking this new approach.

The second, deeper intervention is to use choke points as opportunities to have courageous conversations about what is really going on, to address deeply held beliefs or behaviors that are holding your organization (and its people) back.  These conversation involve taking risk, being open to loss, confronting deeply held beliefs about what behaviors help your organization succeed. They’re called “courageous” for a reason.

Either way, it all starts with the decision that being ground to a halt, repeatedly, is no way to get from here to there.