The Leadership Immunity to Making Things Happen

by Brian Brittain on July 1, 2012


by Brian Brittain
Ivy Business Journal | Leadership | July / August 2012

What gets measured may get managed, but what if a leader doesn’t know what needs to get measured? In fact, what if a leader doesn’t even realize that certain assumptions, stored in his sub-conscience, are impeding the organization’s progress? These are the leader’s adaptive challenges and this author describes how a leader and an organization can them.

I have been making a decent living for 30 years by helping senior leaders in organizations address and manage strategic change. If I am being totally honest with myself, I am not sure I have been that successful, especially if we measure success by sustained implementation and execution of intended change ideas and strategies. Just why aren’t senior managers and executive teams doing what they say they want to do? Are they lying to me and to themselves? I don’t think so. In my experience most people by nature are well intended. Why is the execution of strategy so damned hard? I ask this question a lot, and so do my CEO clients.

I think I have finally found the answer, or at least a major missing piece of the puzzle. The answer or a key leverage point for overcoming this problem lies somewhat deeply or unconsciously within the human psyche. We all make personal and work-related commitments to change. Why do we fail so often to do what we say we want to do? It is because we have secret, hidden commitments beyond our awareness that counteract our espoused commitments. These hidden commitments are often based on false assumptions. It is as if we have one foot on the gas with our espoused commitments and another on the brake with the hidden commitments. This realization came to me clearly while I was recently reading the work of Kegan and Lahey (Immunity to Change)

Let me give you a personal example of how this works. I was committed to breaking a habit of compulsively grabbing a quick snack upon arrival at home, before dinner. I was putting on weight. My wife did not like witnessing the habit, and it offended her, as she was designing and preparing a nice evening meal. The problem was that my commitment to break this habit would only last a day or two, and then I would hit the fridge or cupboard when I arrived home in the evening. I finally broke this habit six months ago, when I became aware and addressed some of my hidden commitments that kept me from realizing my espoused commitment. I discovered that my behaviour was also being motivated by unconscious secrets I was keeping from others.

  1. A commitment to quickly dissipate energy, with food, so I could relax.
  2. A commitment to never feeling empty and experiencing hunger.

Until I became aware of these, and questioned the assumptions they were based on, I was controlled by the desire to instantly fill my emptiness. It wasn’t until I was able to articulate and say the above hidden commitments out loud — and realize some of the false assumptions they were based on — that I was able to move these things from being “subject” to “objectifying” them (having control of them). One assumption I was carrying was that in order to relax for the evening and be with my wife and family, I had to eliminate the distraction of hunger. Another assumption I had was that I deserved a reward and a treat, immediately, after a hard day’s work. Becoming aware of these hidden commitments and the false assumptions they were based on helped me gain control over this force that had me inadvertently keeping one foot on the brake. As the foot came off the brake, and while I kept my foot on the gas, my enjoyment of dinner increased immensely as did my relationship with Elizabeth, while preparing dinner. And, I have lost ten pounds in four months.

I think the above personal example has huge implications for the corporate world and the gap between its senior leaders’ immunity to espoused, desired change and doing the required work to implement that strategic change. I will go into more detail on this later, but before I do I would like to share with you the other pieces of the puzzle and how they all came together for me.

The capability to lead change
There are four key areas that contribute to leaders’ ability to do the work we are asking them to do. This model has been adapted from the work of Elliott Jaques (Requisite Organization.)

  1. Are they smart enough to manage the complexity of the judgments they will be asked to make? Can they get their head and arms around the work, or will it overwhelm them?
  2. Do they know enough for the role? Are the skills, knowledge, experience, and wisdom sufficient enough for the complexity of the role?
  3. Do they care enough about the work? Are they truly committed and without internal conflict about the nature of the requirements?
  4. Are they mature enough to manage the necessary relationships that they will need to do the work? Do they have the necessary interpersonal sensitivity and skills to do this?

I think that points 1, 2, and 4 really get to the issue of current potential ability to do the work, and point 3 addresses the issue of desire or will. Is there enough will there to liberate the energy required to activate and drive points 1, 2 and 4? The missing piece of the puzzle that I want to address in more detail here is point 3; do they care enough about the work, which for me addresses the conundrum of why people don’t, when we know they can and they say that they will.

Technical and adaptive challenges
Before we address this in more detail, I would like to add another framework (or an additional piece of the puzzle) for thinking about work. Ron Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers) differentiates between a technical challenge and the subsequent work required to address that challenge, as well as an adaptive challenge and the work that evolves from that particular kind of challenge.

By technical challenges and the subsequent work involved needed to solve those problems, Heifetz meant work that can be very complex and critically important (replacing a faulty heart valve) but has a known solution that can be implemented by current know-how, and doesn’t require any major reflection or change of or by the practitioner. When you consider the capability model above, this technical work can be resolved through the application of being smart enough (point 1) and knowing enough, point 2) and delivered through the existing structure, procedures, culture, and general way of doing things, with reasonable behaviour and interpersonal skills.

Adaptive challenges (e.g., We need to create a corporate culture and work climate more accepting of risk taking and applied innovation) can only be addressed through changes in peoples’ priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties, as we cannot solve these kinds of problems like we solve the technical problems, with current know-how. A surgeon knows how she is going to replace the faulty heart valve, but the business leader doesn’t know how she will change the culture at the outset. So this is where point 3 in the above model becomes relevant: Do they care enough about the work, and, are they really motivated to make the changes (personal and organizational) to address the adaptive challenge

Do you (really) care?
This issue is far more complex than I had thought, and it is CRITICAL that all executives involved explore this complexity carefully, respectfully, and introspectively in order to implement whatever fundamental change or innovation the business decides it requires for future growth and success.

I really believed that I wanted to break my habit of having a snack every night, until I actually saw the conflicting hidden commitments that were preventing me from making good on my espoused commitment. Leaders have to develop themselves (adaptive challenge, different from a technical challenge) and their people (beliefs, individual, and cultural assumptions, etc.), because there will be lots of hidden commitments and big assumptions that impede progress. These hidden commitments and big assumptions will play out in both the individual motive structures, and the organizational systems created from those historical motive structures.

This is the essence of an adaptive challenge and the associated set of tasks, which are very different from the technical work to be done. What I have discovered is that it isn’t enough to ask a subordinate or a leader, “Are you committed to the change?” because they will likely believe and say they are, but will also have conflicting, hidden (beneath their awareness) commitments and assumptions that are difficult to admit to and that will prevent the change from happening. Again, these hidden commitments will play out or show up in both individual behaviour and organizational systems.

Running the business while changing the business
I think of executive leaders as having to split their consciousness regarding the work of running the business (mostly technical challenges and work) vs. the work of changing the business (mostly adaptive challenges). By running the business, I mean the operational work, the here and now work of the business or the work of addressing technical challenges and solutions. It is the current way the organization makes its money along with the continuous improvement of its current practices and procedures. This is often what we call the shorter-term work. For executives who have been around for a while, it is the work that they grew up with. This is the work in which these senior executives demonstrated their superior expertise and authority, and likely, that authority and expertise contributed greatly to their rise to the top. Most of this work occurs within the lower three levels of the organization. This is the work system that runs the current operational effectiveness of the firm, delegated and monitored by the more senior executives.

On the other hand there is the work of changing the business or what we sometimes refer to as reinvention, innovation or strategic change. This is the work of conceptualizing, designing and testing the new business models, products, services, delivery channels and management practices that will take the organization to the next level, or ensure longer-term growth and viability. This is how an organization maintains its growth targets in the face of a slowdown of its existing business. This is the work of the business unit leader, his direct report vps, and their directors. This requires executives getting out of the weeds (running the business by solving technical problems) and getting on the balcony (changing the business through changing themselves and the work culture).

Every executive team that I know struggles with getting the tension right between managing the running of the business, while changing the business. And every executive team I know generally spends far too much time and energy in running the business and not enough attention on changing the business. Discussing the strategy for change and setting clear expectations for the change work addresses the technical side of this work, but not the adaptive challenges (i.e. the individual and collective leadership behavioural changes required to implement the change).

If you go back to the Capability model, you can address this change work technically by ensuring that the individuals involved in managing the change are smart enough, know enough and are mature enough to do the work. These three can be assessed directly and objectively. This is technical work.

As stated earlier, this assessment of the first, second, and fourth elements of the Capability model addresses the individual’s potential or answers the question, “Can they?” It does not address the question of “Will they?” Do they really care enough to do the work required to get it done? Often, at a deeper psychological or cultural level, they don’t, in my experience. Most big change projects fizzle from lack of execution. It is not difficult to get executives to think about the design of the future strategic priorities, but getting them to actually do the adaptive work of implementing these changes is another story. Even when they say they are committed to it.

Making change happen slowly, with the brake on
Let me show you how this played out in a large financial services firm I worked with. I was asked by the senior leader of a global business unit to help with creating a more innovative working climate. He was concerned with what he had observed as a sense of complacency, a corporate culture committed to playing it safe, not taking any big risks, being nice to each other, in a business climate generating acceptable results. My client could see the wall coming in two or three years, which would slow down the firm’s growth aspirations. He felt he needed his senior and middle managers to be focused on innovation as it applied to business models, client value propositions, products, services, and management practices.

Our first task was to get the whole senior leadership team focused and aligned with the particular innovation goals were, and then commit to these goals as a key strategic priority. We successfully completed these tasks! Our next task was to get the top 100 leaders understanding innovation as a priority and committing to the goals for innovation. We did this through two management “off sites,” where most people got very excited about the possibilities and again, committed to the objectives around innovation. However, we discovered that some commitments were lurking just barely under the surface, hidden commitments based on big assumptions that were going to take the wind out of their sails. For example, the executive team was committed to short-term, quarterly success (Hidden Commitment), but it believed that the board only really cared about the next quarter’s results. (Big Assumption).

Until these hidden commitments and big assumptions were addressed and put on the table, they owned the senior team and motivated its real behaviour, rather than the senior team owning and addressing those hidden commitments and big assumptions and thereby moving them from subject to object. In this case, I had mixed success in getting the senior-most leaders to address these adaptive challenges and act with courage to confront these big issues. Instead, they comfortably continued to address this change initiative as a technical challenge, developing a nice tidy set of objectives and initiatives. They invested in a new hire, which was a senior director-level resource, accountable for setting up frameworks and practices for innovation (mostly technical work). He did a masterful job of designing workshops and task groups to work on innovation, coming up with great recommendations for changing products, customers, business models, management practices, etc. Unfortunately, the best ideas and pilot projects didn’t get appropriately sponsored by the senior team, and many of these new ideas and projects were never successfully integrated into operations. For that to have happened those senior executives would have had to challenge their own beliefs, habits, comforts, attitudes, working relationships, and management behaviours (adaptive challenges). One hidden commitment they had was to not challenge each one’s personal accountability for doing their part in making the change happen. They were committed to being nice to each other, with the assumption that being tough on each other could destroy long-standing relationships. Unfortunately, this long-standing assumption never really got tested.

Having said this, the client would still say they were satisfied with the progress toward innovative practices that they have made as a result of this project. I can only imagine how much progress they could have made if they had been willing to address their personal hidden commitments and big assumptions that put the brakes on what was really possible.

A small success story
On the other hand, it was my privilege to be part of a major breakthrough with another client who realized he spent much too time telling his subordinates what to do and not enough time asking them for advice and input in creating accountability. His big “A-Ha” moment was realizing that he had a hidden commitment to being the smartest guy in the room, which he demonstrated by always having the best ideas and having the last word. This would shut his team down, and perpetuate this myth of Bill being the smartest guy in the room with most of the answers. This hidden commitment was based on the assumption that his value came from his ability to always outplay his subordinates. He felt (unconsciously at first) he was only justified in his position and pay if he was the one coming up with the answers. It wasn’t until Bill realized that at his level, his value also came from bringing out the best in his people. He then began to relax and facilitate many of his discussions with his team, rather than take those discussions over. When I tested his new assumption through interviewing his subordinates four months later, it turned out his leadership value had gone up and not down in their eyes.

The moment that I realized the need to address both the technical and the adaptive aspects of the work involved was a personal breakthrough. The technical work will involve a version of the following list

  • Define and agree on the outcome you are after
  • Set clear goals and/or targets, out 3-5 years, within the context of this outcome
  • Determine the change priorities
  • Align the senior team with the change work. Do team members have the following capabilities to deliver on the tasks at hand. In other words: Are they smart enough? Do they know enough? Are they mature enough?
  • Hold each of them accountable for the change work
  • Measure and monitor progress
  • Do they care enough to do the work?

How to know if they really care enough or are truly committed

  • Ensure that all executives know what the “one big thing” is that they need to work on, or will trip them up if they don’t.
  • Surface the hidden commitments (the noise! the brake pedals!) and the big assumptions those commitments are based on, which will prevent them from making progress on their one big thing and leading appropriately
  • Publicly move those hidden commitments and big assumptions from “owning them” to “holding them lightly with detachment.”
  • Do a team version of surfacing the hidden commitments of the team and the big assumptions those are based on. Hold these lightly and watch them with humour as you lead the change. These will include organizational systems and structures that will inadvertently keep the brake on and sabotage the change efforts.

For both the consultant and the client, it takes real courage and patience to address the adaptive side of change appropriately. We can both fool ourselves while playing it safe with the technical work of change and leadership. But if you don’t focus adequately on the adaptive challenges, dealing with the hidden commitments and assumptions for keeping the brake on, you will only get marginal improvements and sustainability in the execution of strategy, and will not adequately free up enough energy to stay the course on creating and sustaining fundamental change.

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