For those of you who have travelled the London underground, you are familiar with this image and message mind the gap. It’s that intermittent audio warning as you step from the station platform, over the gap, and into the subway car. As travelers, we are being asked to pay attention to the structure of the gap so that we cross it safely in order to make progress.
As I sat there with that incessant recording in my head, a shift in my thinking occurred. The London underground is not asking us to “close the gap” because we can’t. Also, the gap is necessary to maintain the structure between the train and the platform. So, even if we could close it, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. It then occurred to me that beyond subway structure, we are more likely to make progress through a development structure that calls on us to mind the gap rather than close the gap.
“There are a whole bunch of things wrong with this linear, mechanical approach to goal accomplishment we refer to as closing the gap between current reality and desired end state.”
When it comes to personal, team, and organizational development, we can’t close the gap anyway. The metaphorical gap that exists between our current state and our desired end state sets up the creative tension that acts as the engine for our ongoing motivation for development. Current state shifts as we develop, but so does the ideal future state as they in turn interact with and impact each other. This interaction across the gap results in an ongoing reconstituting of where we are now and where we want to be in order to lead a more effective and satisfying life. This development process is always a work in progress, working more obliquely and iteratively when we mind the gap.
Closing the gap is the New Year’s resolution approach to development. When we talk of closing the gap, we typically think of a process where we firstly describe the current situation which is generally relatively undesirable. Secondly, we define the desired end state (goal). Once we establish the gap between current state and future desired state, we then formulate a set of actions that are intended to move us directly to our desired end state, thereby closing the gap. There are a whole bunch of things wrong with this linear, mechanical approach to goal accomplishment. An approach like this will lead to, at best, short-term but unsustainable improvements resulting in failure to reach and maintain our individual and collective improvement goals. This is why I refer to this process as akin to the proverbial New Year’s resolutions we make every year that generally end up in failure by February.
From Closing the Gap to Minding the Gap
“I had an espoused goal of losing weight, but the hidden goal of experiencing pleasure and relaxation had me.”
Let me share my own example where I ultimately made the shift of approaching my improvement strategy from one of closing the gap to the alternative and more successful one of minding the gap.
Part of me wanted to lose an extra 20 pounds I have been carrying around for years. My tummy didn’t fit the ideal picture of who I was.
Current state: 230 pounds
Desired future state: 210 pounds.
There is a gap of 20 pounds and my action plan for closing the gap is to change behaviours resulting in more exercise and fewer calories.
Result: A few pounds came off, and then they came back on.
Let’s try the more oblique approach of minding the gap; that is, paying attention to the whole structure of the gap, rather than the direct, unidirectional approach of trying to close the gap between current and ideal states.
Let’s “mind” or pay closer attention to current state. There are reasons why I have weighed 230 pounds for many years. It was important for me to discover and openly acknowledge these reasons.
When I seriously considered my weight of 230 pounds, I realized that I had other hidden goals that conflicted with my espoused goal of losing 20 pounds. One was a hidden commitment to reward myself with ample food and wine after a hard day’s work. Unconsciously I was telling myself I had worked hard all day and deserved a treat. A second hidden commitment I discovered was to relax and decompress after a day’s work through controlled alcohol consumption. A drink of alcohol (added calories as well) quickly dissipates my work-driven emotional intensity and helps me relax into the evening.
I may have a foot on the gas—that being my espoused goal of losing 20 pounds—which shows up in my short-lived dieting and alcohol abstinence. But I also have a foot on the brake, meaning a hidden goal (that has me!) to help me relax quickly and be rewarded with a pleasurable feeling.
The espoused goal of losing weight I had, but the hidden goal of experiencing pleasure and relaxation by 6 p.m., had me.
As I paid more attention to this mind-the-gap structure, it turned out that this hidden goal of achieving daily pleasure and relaxation was more important to me than the purported goal of losing the 20 pounds.
As I said at the beginning of this section, there are reasons I weigh 230 pounds and not 210. Through minding the gap, I realized that I had espoused the wrong goal for me at this point in time. Perhaps one day I will be motivated to figure out how to release my foot from the brake, through a calorie-free alternative for relaxation and pleasure, but until then I have decided to release my foot from the gas, and be at peace with my 230 pounds.
Individual Leadership Development: Mind the Gap
“He had an espoused goal to empower his subordinates, but through minding the gap, he realized he had a number of related and contrary hidden commitments to always be in control, look good in front of his peers and always know the answers.”
I work with senior executives who are often struggling with overcoming their need to “micromanage” their subordinates. They have likely received feedback that they tend to keep those subordinates on too tight a leash through telling them both what to accomplish and how they want it accomplished. Taking the improvement approach of closing the gap would be to commit to some new behaviours which would result in giving those subordinates more leeway and a less prescribed pathway over the tasks they are accountable for.
The feedback those micromanaging executive leaders have been given is to be clear and concise on what they want to have accomplished, but then back off and let those subordinates meet the expectations in their own way. More empowerment and less micromanaging.
As there were reasons for me to weigh 230 pounds, there were reasons that my client micromanaged. These reasons had to be addressed prior to him working directly on the goal of giving his subordinates more space.
A less direct and more oblique approach was required. In this case minding the gap involved exploring those reasons for micromanaging. My client had a boss who, in team meetings, demanded to know the detail of what was going on in his subordinates’ areas. After looking at this more closely, my client realized he had a “hidden commitment” never to be seen as not knowing the answers to the question his boss might ask him. Being in control of every interaction with his boss and others on the senior management team was hugely important to him. He realized he had a big assumption that was supporting this hidden commitment to always know the answers. That assumption was, “if I don’t know the answer to a question my boss asks me about my department, in the presence of my colleagues, he and they will see me as inadequate in my role.”
Being able to see and identify that big assumption that served to keep his foot on the brake allowed him to create more space between himself and that foot on the brake. Was the big assumption really TRUE? Was it ALWAYS true? He decided to test how accurate that assumption was with a small experiment. The next time he was confronted by his boss for some detailed data from his department, he said, “I don’t have that answer in my head right now, but I can get that information for you after the meeting. Is that okay?” He boss did not behead him, nor did his colleagues roll their eyebrows and laugh at him. His boss responded, “Sure that would be fine.” It turned out his big assumption wasn’t accurate. In other words his personal credibility with his boss and colleagues survived his not knowing the detail. This realization created even more space between him and that assumption, in that his fear of not always having the answer no longer had him. That big assumption no longer unconsciously controlled his behaviour and his need to always know the detail around everything in his department. His personal immunity to change system, as Robert Kegan would refer to it, was beginning to be overturned. He had released the foot on the brake and was now prepared to keep his foot on the gas. He was ready to give more space to his subordinates on managing the details of the business
Senior Executive Team Development: Mind the Gap
“As a senior executive team digs a little deeper into its non-team behaviours, they will come to realize there are some of them on the team who have hidden commitments to do what it takes to protect their personal egos and the status quo of their current relationships with one another at the expense of operating as a team.”
Here is how this works on a collective level. I don’t know of a senior executive team that doesn’t talk about getting better at teamwork. From the mental model of closing the gap, this seems so simple. We want to work more effectively as a team. Currently we are not, as evidenced by particular behaviours or lack of behaviours that we have received feedback on, either from each other, a consultant, our boss, or our subordinates. So let’s close the gap by just stopping those behaviours through articulating and committing to a list of team norms of behaviour. Like New Year’s resolutions the new norms of behaviours look inspiring and logical, but don’t change team behaviour for very long. Usually a stressful situation will result in the team reverting back to its non-team behaviours, or the unconscious foot on the brake gets applied. The immunity to change system, as Robert Kegan refers to it, kicks in as a mechanism to protect the individual egos or self-image of the executives.
Again, there are good reasons; the team doesn’t operate as a team. The team needs a process for addressing these reasons and talking about them. It needs to uncover its immunity to change (collective feet on the brake). Perhaps one of the new norms (foot on the gas) is to wear the cross-enterprise hat, and not just our functional hat when engaged in addressing organizational issues and challenges in meetings. However, as we dig deeper into our non-team behaviours, we realize there are some of us who have hidden commitments to do what it takes to protect ourselves through maintaining the status quo of our current relationships with one another, and what is going on in each of our functional areas.
This plays out in behaviour or a lack of behaviour that prevents each member of the team from taking interpersonal risks with each other in the meetings. This would include challenging each other on issues, or asking for help or advice. In a senior executive interview, I asked the executive what was the biggest barrier to teamwork. He said, “We protect each other’s asses too much. Our highest value has become saving face.” What he was saying is that they had a big foot on the brake that wasn’t being discussed. He was rightfully cynical about them getting better as a team until these things were openly acknowledged, discussed and dealt with as part of their minding the gap effort.
To increase the likelihood of sustainable improvement and change
- When formulating the improvement goal, make sure that it is right for you or your team. When you think about the goal, does it feel powerful and does it really implicate you or the senior team? Or is it a generic goal that you feel you “should” aspire to, because others think it important, but it is lacking in personal impact and investment? Once I took the mind the gap approach I realized my goal to lose 20 pounds was not that important to me.
- Then determine the behaviour(s) you or the team are engaged in that fly in the face of this goal. In the team example “not engaging in the conversation unless it was about our function” didn’t contribute to teambuilding behaviour
- Understand your reasons or the worries you have that are behind the conflicting behavior. Rather than just labelling these behaviours as bad or dysfunctional, determine the reasons or motivations for these behaviours. What purpose are they fulfilling? Why are some of us not willing to engage in conversations outside our area of control? Usually these behaviours are supported by big assumptions about what it takes to protect our survival that may not be true.
- Test your big assumptions with some small behaviour experiments to see if those assumptions are really accurate or true for you and the team. Politely and respectfully challenge a point of view that has been raised by a colleague and see what happens.
As you discover that these big assumptions are not true or accurate you will release your foot from the brake and have much better success with the foot on the gas or your development goal. Sustaining behavior change requires applying pressure on the gas, while you figure out where the brake is and release it.