A couple of years ago, I was working with a multi-billion dollar, global financial services company that had (pre-Covid) a vast network of on-location staff as well as remote online and call center staff to provide direct support to their customers. As we talked about growth and change in their company and their market, we explored if and how they were, or could be, learning from these front-line employees spread across the globe. What were these people hearing directly from customers that the company really needed to hear and understand?
We’ve all heard the saying about the importance of having “an ear to the ground” so we can sense imminent changes in our work environments and markets, but how well do we do it? Who has their ears to the ground more than those meeting our customers where they are? Dealing with their problems? Frustrations? Who has the potential to positively or negatively impact our customers minute-to-minute on a daily basis?
Too many of the people on the front-lines of our work think they are too “low on the totem pole” to speak up in our companies or don’t have the power to create change in their own work. And, too many companies think the same way. As a result, many of us are really missing the opportunity to become more resilient, adaptable, and creative organizations. When we don’t listen to our customers and the employees who interact directly with them, we run the risk of missing indicators of emergent change in our markets, products, and even broader society that can lead our products and companies toward their next iteration.
Through a simple, facilitated reflection process, this company - which thought it did a good job listening to its people because they could reel off some good anecdotes - realized that their listening to front-line employees across the organization was far spottier than they would like. They recognized that their anecdotes were about specific leaders or departments that carried this value of active listening rather than a reflection of a systemic approach or strategy by the firm. The implications from this kind of company self-awareness became pretty vast as they then considered who they needed to train, how they needed to adjust professional roles and expectations, and how a better process of listening could improve their product offerings.
To cultivate a powerful culture, people at all levels of our companies need formal and informal outlets to provide feedback, ask questions, and share ideas and solutions. This is just strategically smart. It’s not about being nice to our employees. Not only will listening to our employees make our company more resilient and adaptive, it will also make for happier employees and better products and services for our customers. When they know their ideas and insights are respected (even if not always acted upon), our people will more actively and critically identify customer patterns and frequent issues that we may never see, and solve them in ways we may never have thought of. They will own their work and the whole company will perform better because of it.
Powerful cultures don’t happen by accident. They result from powerful leaders, powerful relationships, and organizations that understand and leverage the power of their people at all levels.
Also relevant: “Does your organization have a powerful culture or a culture of power?”
I have written before in my blogs and books about the idea of creative tension and how it can help us understand and diagnose the challenges and opportunities embedded in our relationships and work.
At the end of this week, I am stepping away from a team with whom I have worked for many years and with whom I have sustained a consistent, productive, and genuine creative tension.
From a startup trying to take a mobile communication product into high schools to a pivot into healthcare, an acquisition by a healthcare company, and finally to an acquisition of that company by an even bigger healthcare company, we have worked and grown and learned and iterated together for the better part of six years.
We all brought different skills and perspectives. Our ages varied. Our backgrounds varied. Our approaches to creativity and problem solving varied. Ultimately, however, we aligned around a set of principles that I now discuss as the elements of creative tension, but identified and learned largely through our work together. We didn’t know them and then practice them. We practiced them and came to know them.
Shared Purpose: There is a common goal that necessitates working together to accomplish.
Ownership: The collective owns the goal and understands various roles, responsibilities, skills, perspectives, and relationships needed to achieve the goal.
Commitment: All parties commit not only to the process of working together but to their individual roles and responsibilities in the work.
Teaching/Learning: Everyone is a teacher. Everyone is a learner.
Collective Action: The act of working together creates tension that informs the evolving purpose and nature of the work as a whole.
Reflection: The collective remains vigilant and reflective, as individuals and as a group, so that the tension remains creative and not destructive.
Creative tension is a constantly changing dynamic of a relationship – a relationship between people and the work they are trying to accomplish together.
For a visual, take a look at the images above and imagine yourself holding one end of the rubber band(s) with your colleague(s) holding the other. Sometimes, we are pulling the band(s) too tight. We introduce too much tension, reduce the flexibility of the rubber band, and introduce a fear that someone may drop their end and pop us with it, or even pull harder until it breaks. This is destructive tension caused by too much tension. Other times, we aren’t pulling much at all. The band is limp, without energy or possibility. This is destructive tension caused by an absence of tension.
Creative tension is all about finding that right degree of tautness in the band where there is energy, and sound, and possibility, and the people holding it are relating positively and actively to each other and the band itself. The right amount creative tension is always changing, just as we and our work and our lives outside of work are always changing.
As people change and as work changes, maintaining this creative tension requires constant vigilance – and as I have learned recently, simply may not always be maintainable. As I move on to a new startup, I feel the sincere loss of the creative tension of my team – although I look forward to helping build it with a new one. But, as our work and the organizations in which it has happened have evolved over the years, I found myself no longer able to generate the sense of purpose, ownership, and teaching/learning I needed to hold up my end of the rubber band, maintain my part of the creative tension.
For me then, I feel a responsibility to move on. I genuinely believe that this is the creative act even as it comes with a significant sense of loss.
I was at a meeting recently where attendees were discussing innovation and how and where - and even whether - it should happen in large organizations. To innovate or not to innovate…
As sides made their cases for and against, I offered a comment to the group that while we appeared to be presenting contradictory positions we actually agreed on the problems large organizations face in innovating. And, there wasn’t really any disagreement about whether they needed to. The difference in perspective was that one group saw the problems preventing innovation in large organizations as too big and too entrenched to solve and the other group thought they presented the perfect opportunity.
In response to my assessment, someone commented: “Yeah, this group is the realists and that group is the idealists.”
Everyone seemed to agree.
And, I guess I didn’t immediately disagree, but it seemed way too simple, and it bothered me for some reason. For starters, I don’t like being put into an idealist box - which of course is where I was - simply because I believe human-created problems are solvable by humans.
But, I let it go, and just started furiously taking notes on my phone about all the ways I felt that this seemingly simple comment presented a patently unhelpful view of innovation, organizations, and the world.
Why do we attribute realism to the point-of-view that things cannot, will not, and perhaps even should not change? Why is that realistic in today’s world?
Why do we attribute idealism - as the counter to realism - to people who believe things can and should change? In today’s world, isn’t that a lot more realistic?
Isn’t it realism to know that change is inevitable? That innovation is necessary to keep learning, stay competitive, and to keep up with customers and markets?
Is it really idealism to try and predict, invest in, and prepare for not just reacting to but leading that inevitable change?
An idealist should be more than a dreamer, and idealism should never just be an excuse to pretend difficult problems are any less complex than they really are - or to deny that their solutions should be grounded in reality.
Alternately, a realist shouldn’t passively accept that the current state is inevitable, and realism should never just be an excuse to lie prostrate in the face of difficult problems because, well, that’s just the way it is.
Innovation is messy work and organizations are messy places. The most innovative organizations need idealistic realists mixing it up every day with realistic idealists.
Anything that makes the people or the process sound any simpler may make innovation easier to talk about but can also make it a lot more difficult to achieve.
In my last blog "Stop doing your part", I focused on building a do-what-it takes team. But, consider this the appended warning to that blog: you can’t just ask people to do what it takes as an excuse for not investing sufficiently in your strategy or improving your own leadership.
So, as much as we want the do-what-it-takes attitude and we understand and celebrate the successes that such an attitude can generate, we need to check ourselves to make sure we aren’t burning people out. Just because one of our people can step up and do extraordinary work in a difficult situation doesn’t mean we should allow that situation to persist - or chronically resurface. Their extraordinary work should not become the ordinary expectation.
Extraordinary individual effort is no more sustainable for driving successful teams over time than the do-my-part mentality that I discussed in the last blog. It leads to burnout and pushes our do-what-it-takes people to feel they are just being taken advantage of. It doesn’t take long for people to realize when they get recognized for doing great work simply by getting more work.
So, we must think critically about why we find ourselves in situations that require extraordinary effort from our people. Is it strategy? Resourcing? Skills/team/work mismatches? Unreasonable expectations? Or, is our leadership perhaps fomenting unnecessarily harried working conditions? It is probably some of all of these as they tend to be interrelated.
So, let’s celebrate our people for doing what it takes but build teams and organizations that aren’t always pushing them to the limit.
And start doing what it takes.
Teams are complex social systems with emergent dynamics among members and emergent contexts in which they operate. This is true of small teams and only more so as teams grow.
If people merely do their part, they are actually complicating things, forming a complicated system; and complicated systems are to complex work what the assembly line is to internet security.
In dynamic and growth-oriented work environments, your “part” is always emerging, so as soon as you start just doing it then you probably aren’t fully doing it anymore.
While you may be a high performer and may be surrounded by high performers, no mere collection of individual contributors will ever manifest in a sustainable, high-performing team doing complex work. A set of powerful parts will not inevitably make a powerful whole. In fact, the opposite is more likely true: the more powerful and simultaneously partitioned the individual contributors the less likely you are to build a powerful team that bridges them. The strength of the individual contributor mindset is too strong; the rationalization of the do-my-part mentality feeds itself and invites others to just do their part as well.
As a result, as do-my-part teams grow, they become increasingly less adaptive and less effective in responding to the emergent dynamics within and around them.
So, how do we build more complex teams and avoid complicated ones?
How do we inspire more people to do what it takes?
Hire for where you are going, not just where you are.
We often think about hiring for “fit” with our team and/or organization. While this may seem to make sense in the immediate term, we should understand that “fit” is a temporary construct that belies the change inherent in a growth strategy. So, fit today could easily not fit the future. Consequently, we should hire and invest in people who will help us deliver and define an emergent future. We need team players and learners who will not just do the work but will help create and define it.
Communicate the vision.
If our people at all levels are going to do what it takes to define our collective future, they must be organized around and feel a sense of ownership of some collective vision. They should also understand (and it should be true) that they are helping define how that vision evolves as the team and market context also evolve. Team leaders need to communicate and actively invite input on the vision not merely to try to get our people aligned around it but to more quickly identify the people who don’t, and perhaps won’t ever, own it.
Promote creative tension.
I have written about creative tension in both of my books as I continue to try and flesh out my thinking on team power dynamics. For this blog, I’ll just share below the core components of relational tension and illustrate how they differ in environments of creative versus destructive tension.
We all know the story about change: it’s the only constant, it’s happening faster than ever, if we don’t like it then we will like being obsolete even less.
It’s all true. But, most of us and most of our companies haven’t really internalized the implications. If any of these thoughts on change are to be meaningful, we best change the way we approach this not-so-new world order, not merely acknowledge that it exists. We have to change ourselves.
I was working with a company recently who as part of their work operates call centers to provide direct support to their customers. As we talked about growth and change in their company more broadly, we explored if and how they were, or could be, learning from these front-line employees. What were they hearing directly from customers that the company really needed to understand?
We’ve all heard the saying about the importance of having “our ear to the ground” so we can sense imminent changes in our work environments and markets. Who has their ears to the ground more than those meeting our customers where they are? Dealing with their problems? Frustrations?
Too many of our people on the front-lines of our work think they are too “low on the totem pole” to speak up in our organizations or don’t have the power to create change in their own work. As a result, many of our organizations are really missing the opportunity to become more resilient, adaptable, and creative organizations. When we don’t listen to our customers and the employees who interface directly with them, we run the risk of missing indicators of emergent change in our markets, products, and even broader society that can lead our products and companies toward their next iteration.
Through our discussion, this company realized that their listening to front-line employees was spottier than they would like - that the value of listening to employees was more ad hoc and leader-by-leader than a consistent, strategic value of the firm. The implications from this kind of organizational self-awareness are pretty vast.
How do we as an organization demonstrate listening as a value? How do we train our people and set management expectations? How do we hire and promote our people to support such a strategic value? How do we intentionally recognize good listening as good leadership? How do we openly celebrate the knowledge that our people at all levels are stepping up and sharing with us?
People at all levels of our companies need formal and informal outlets to provide feedback, ask questions, and share ideas for solutions. This is just strategically smart. It’s not merely about being nice to our employees. Not only will listening to our employees make our company more resilient and adaptive, it will also make for happier employees and better products and services. When they know their ideas and insights are respected (even if not always acted upon), our people will more actively identify customer patterns and frequent issues that we may never see, and solve them in ways we may never have thought of. They will own their work.
So, instilling a culture of listening that is supported by training, accountability, and processes up and down our organization is paramount to leading emergent change –the change we otherwise may not see coming.
Change isn’t what it used to be, neither are our organizations nor the environments in which we work and compete.
Change is no longer a discreet organizational development concept: what are the structures, policies, and practices that need changing (mostly from the top) to accomplish our business goals?
Change is emergent: how do we systematically identify the needs, gather the insights, and prepare and empower our people at all levels to make it happen? Emergent change and our ability to respond to it must be cultivated as part of our cultures, core to the people we recruit and hire, intrinsic to how we develop and support our existing people, and strategically aligned with our business model.
Despite this reality, it seems that most of the “best-selling” approaches for leading or managing change make the concept seem formulaic and finite rather than dynamic and perpetual. They make it seem organizational rather than relational. Even as many of these models readily identify change as the only constant in our contemporary business environment, they often present solutions as if it were time bound and discreet.
One of the most popular is the Kotter Change Model, which defines an 8-step process for leading successful change: 1. Create a sense of urgency. 2. Build a powerful coalition. 3. Create a vision for change. 4. Communicate the vision. 5. Empower action by removing barriers. 6. Generate short-term wins. 7. Build on the change. 8. Make it stick.
I don’t actually disagree with any of this and totally understand how such a list makes a powerful product for those who are struggling to lead change. I wonder, however, if those struggling the most to lead change aren’t often the ones who need a deeper understanding of it. Yes, in most cases, you will need to take Kotter’s steps to achieve the change you want, but is that all it takes? I don’t think so.
You know what will kill your change process before you ever take that first step? 1. A lack of trust in leadership. 2. Poor relationships with and among our people. 3. Ineffective communication from the highest level of values and vision down to day-to-day operations.
Let’s consider some basic questions:
I think for most of us the answer is at least “not likely” for all of these – which undermines the first four steps in the 8-step change process!
So, while I appreciate the concise steps for change provided by Kotter’s model and others that are equally consumable, they mostly represent the tactical investments that live on the tail end of any real change process. They ignore foundational concepts of readiness. If I might adapt the old adage: “Change is 90% preparation, 10% perspiration.”
The 8-steps are mostly the perspiration.
As leaders, we have to be mindful every day and in every interaction of what kind of organization we are building. We have to understand our power to engage and influence our people, to share power with them, and to prepare them to help lead and navigate change with us. We must work daily to generate energy and ownership of our vision, strategies, and work with others.
As leaders, we have to be willing to do the immeasurable and un-measureable work of building trust, modeling strong relationships, and investing in culture. If we do this work, we, and our organizations, will be ready for change as it comes. It will just be part of how we do business.
Power is at the core of your organizational culture whether or not you accept or even recognize it. In fact, if you don’t accept or recognize it, it’s likely that you are the one benefiting from it. You’re “in power”.
Regardless of whether you do or not, I promise that others see it, and they see you through it.
So, the question is: are you the facilitator of a powerful culture or are you progenitor of a culture of power? Understanding the difference and how your people interpret your culture, and your position as a leader in it, will determine the nature and effectiveness (or not) of your leadership over the long term.
Here are a few distinctions that might help clarify:
A powerful culture believes in its people.
A culture of power believes in the system, structure, and organization.
A powerful culture grows power.
A culture of power consolidates and organizes it.
A powerful culture believes that knowledge and ideas are everywhere in your organization.
A culture of power believes that knowledge and ideas come from the top.
A powerful culture celebrates people at all levels.
A culture of power celebrates a select few.
A powerful culture focuses on relationships, responsibility, and accountability.
A culture of power focuses on accountability.
A powerful culture seeks transparency.
A culture of power keeps secrets.
A powerful culture communicates.
A culture of power distributes information.
In a powerful culture, our people feel a sense of ownership for their work.
In a culture of power, work feels directive and even compulsory.
In a powerful culture, there is joy.
In a culture of power, there is fear.
In a powerful culture, everyone feels responsible for leading and following.
In a culture of power, there are a few leaders and many followers.
In a powerful culture, everyone teaches and learns.
In a culture of power, some are teachers and others are learners.
In a powerful culture, leadership is emergent.
In a culture of power, leadership is constructed.
In a powerful culture, change is both bottom-up and top-down.
In a culture of power, change is top-down.
In a powerful culture, people naturally create.
In a culture of power, people wait for others “above them” to create.
In a powerful culture, people are proactive.
In a culture of power, people are reactive.
In a powerful culture, people seek truth.
In a culture of power, people seek affirmation.
Reposting a blog about my book Creating Matters: Reflections on Art, Business, and Life (so far) originally posted here by Seton Catholic Schools' Chief Academic Officer William H. Hughes Ph.D.
Anderson William’s book Creating Matters is gaining traction. We are using Creating Matters as a guide in the development of the Seton Catholic Schools Academic Team.
Creating Matters is helping us to think differently about our work as educators: our priorities, relationships, and what we are creating – in this case high performing schools and effective leaders.
The world has always belonged to learners. Creating, building creative relationships, and purposefully reflecting can generate continuous learning and help us think differently about transforming a school, a business or one’s life.
We have to think differently or we won’t grow and understand the changing world around us. Lifelong learning opens our minds exposes us to new vantage points, more things to see, to touch, to explore. Lifelong learning is hard work. It is not for everyone, but for those who commit, the joy and engagement makes one’s life better.
To sustain lifelong learning, we must depend on our creativity. Creativity defines the nature of our relationships. It puts our learning into action. It is a philosophy of how we see the world and our role in it. Creativity will determine whether our efforts will ultimately create impact, whether we transform schools and build new leaders, and pass that work to a new generation.
Creating anything new starts with asking questions: questioning the perceptions of the others, the sources of accepted fact; the thinking that verified it; and how we rethink the work of transforming schools from scratch. Too many schools and districts are great examples of organizations that have failed over time to recreate themselves while convincing themselves they are better than the facts show. In the case of Seton Catholic Schools, Creating Matters guides us in creating with a focus on what kids should be learning and becoming: creative, lifelong learners who are ready to change and engage in their community. Isn’t that what schools are charged with doing?
Schools in transformation must ask this question: If we are starting from scratch and wanted the kids to become lifelong learners, is what we are doing now what we would design from scratch? Answering this question and wrestling with its implications require us to be more creative, to have stronger relationships that survive the necessary arguments and conflicts, and to build our work on a model of creating rather than constantly fixing.
At Seton, we are seeing some bright spots in teaching and learning along with better student engagement with faculty who are starting from scratch. We are collectively creating and questioning our own assumptions, learning new skills and creating lifelong learning across our school community. When we bring this shared purpose and focus to our classrooms and students, the transformation is palpable. We are building a community of students, faculty and staff who are committing to lifelong learning and to creating the kinds of schools where that commitment is put into practice.
Read Creating Matters and then put it into practice. This isn’t about “seven easy steps to a better you” or some other seemingly simple approach to creativity or leadership. It’s about renewing your awareness of who you are and what you can do when you commit to creating what matters in school, business, or most importantly, life.