Mark Ridley delivered a fascinating TED talk a few years ago, titled, When Ideas Have Sex. He maintained that our species competitive advantage over other species has a lot to do with our ability to communicate ideas, which ideally meet and mate with other ideas. This process gives rise to innovation and better ongoing adapting to our environment. But, not all do this well. Especially within senior executive teams.
It is becoming a cliché to say we live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) World. Personal and organizational fitness, within a VUCA world, demands that for senior teams to be effective leaders of change, they engage in high quality conversations, where their ideas are expressed and those ideas meet and mate with the ideas of the other team members. Those expressed ideas need to “meet and mate” in order to result in better ideas. Many conversations I witness during senior team meetings are more akin to early high school dances, where everyone was standing self-consciously and defensively, while checking each other out. In many of the meetings I witness, ideas get preached at each other from highly defended and defined positions. Multiple monologues, not a dialogue. Not a place where ideas meet and mate. Rather than a culture of playing ‘to win’ together, I have often witnessed a bunch of executives playing not to lose. This is NOT teamwork.
A Few Requirements, for Senior Teamwork
An individual requirement for executives, for good senior team dynamics, requires each member of the team to see themselves as an ongoing work in progress. This means being naturally curious, while committing to have one’s personal perspectives challenged and improved upon, through dialogue with each other. This needs to be done on an ongoing basis, enabled by a deeper form of listening to the other, as well as listening to the signals from their social and commercial environments. These days, these traits of curiosity and ongoing learning are critical competencies for top teams to maintain their leadership alignment and agility for quickly adapting to the changes around them.
Full disclosure. This point of view I have on senior teams reflects my personal bias and motive structure. What gives me great pleasure and satisfaction is seeing that the lens through which I make sense of the world around me is getting bigger, broader, and therefore more useful in helping me navigate life’s challenges. I am becoming more “fit” in a Darwinian sense. Isn’t this the purpose of life, or at least a strategy for personal success, to continuously increase our learning and understanding in order to improve our fitness level for life’s swerves. We have to become more complex, as the world around us becomes more complex. In my opinion, a prerequisite requirement for an effective senior executive, working in a team context, has to see this as critical.
One of the capabilities that senior executives are paid for is the quality of the ideas that they have and express with their co-workers, boss, and subordinates. We call it innovation, creativity, mixed with the courage, and right timing and conditions to express these ideas in order to influence others. These new ideas need to be heard and digested by others, and then refined through high quality conversation with other team members. This capability to listen to and absorb a new idea is another required executive competency, for senior executives on teams, dealing with a VUCA world.
This development and alignment of new ideas, often leads to new strategies and tactics that help the organization re-align with the changing environment. Good ideas are useless unless they meet and mate with other good ideas. Change and adapting comes through these ideas comingling with each other. For our ideas to engage in effective meeting and mating with other ideas, we need to be open, curious, relatively undefended, and equally as interested in the other as we are in satisfying our own needs.
I believe most senior teams could improve the quality for how they offer and express their ideas and then on how they enable those ideas to meet and mate with each other, leading to the emergence and birth of something new and useful. Something new, that all can commit to and align with, as a direction for moving forward.
Checking our Immunity to Change System, at the Door
We all have a particular and personal immunity to change system (Immunity to Change by Kegan and Lahey) which is designed to protect a particular image we have of ourselves. This story about ourselves we are embedded in, often, has us, rather than us having it. If we don’t see it, it can’t be challenged. This made up story is designed to preserve and protect a self-image that has worked for us in the past. We all have hidden (to us) beliefs and assumptions that are designed to self-protect, but in fact prevent us being open enough to listen closely to the new ideas of others, as well as the signals of change coming into the organization. These new ideas and signals may challenge our assumptions about ourselves and our way of making sense of the world. Team members need to commit to norms of behaviour that bring out the best in their ability to overthrow their personal immunity to change, thereby changing their story about themselves and the world, in order for ideas to get candidly expressed and then meet and mate with other freely expressed ideas.
In my view it was this immunity to change system that allowed the US liberal elites to ignore such a large part of the population for so long. This unconscious smugness, or perhaps blindness, paved the way for a Trump to gain resonance and influence. This resulted in him winning over such a large population, who felt left behind. These Trump voters had their own immunity to change systems operating to blind them from certain realities. This personal operating system, with its hidden beliefs, assumptions etc., played out within these 60 million voters who voted for Trump. It allowed these people to overlook the unsavory characteristics of a Trump, and vote him in anyway….for emotional reasons, and not rational ones. “Yes, he is a narcissistic bully, but damn it, he represents something different and promises change.” Trump is not our problem but a symptom of a bigger problem we currently have with our western democracies.
However, I digress, so back to senior executive teams.
No More Junior High Dances in the Boardroom
If senior team members want to improve the quality of their executive team leadership, they as individuals, all have to get better at parking their personal “immunity to change” systems, at the board room door. As individuals they need to commit to this, and then do the work that is required to overthrow their own immunity to change systems, and change the story they unconsciously tell themselves about who they are. This is necessary work before they put up the first meeting agenda item. I believe senior team effectiveness is a reflection of how the members norms of behaviour allow for ideas to get individually expressed and then come together to create something new.