6 Ways to Change Business

The consistent question asked from any audience and group I work with is….

For us to do this high-performance collaborative work:
Don’t the leaders have to change their approach?
And, don’t the individual contributors have to change to step up to the game?

But these questions are never asked together — meaning, individuals ask “don’t leaders  have to change” and leaders ask “don’t the employees have to change”.  


(image is from ideachampions.com, don’t you love it?)

Both are true. Leaders and individual contributors will need to change. Why? Because we are all complicit in the current mode of working. Complicit is a pretty strong word but I use it because we have all bought into the current system so it’s going to take some serious consciousness on our collective and individual parts to change the system we’ve created.

First, we have let too many leaders own the role of “chief of answers” where we ask someone in the “right” role to make the decisions. 2nd, we don’t step up as much as we need to to advocate for what we believe is right because that’s not our “role”. We step back because we think “they don’t listen to people like me”. Or whatever.

But let me just say the obvious….that the way we’re working today isn’t working for any of us. Too many leaders are not enabling the whole organization to act nimble because they try to own too much. And they are tired because no matter how hard they work, the volume of strategies and such is increasing based on how fast the market is moving. And for all of us individuals…we see this: Too many really creative, educated and talented types are leaving organizations rather than work within them because they don’t feel they can contribute. While this might be the right decision for them personally, it is sad to see what happens to companies because of it.

It seems that we need some new rules to play the game of business if we’re going to create a better situation. Better as in, we can work in a more transparent, nimble, collaborative way that can result in better business outcomes. Better in that we can innovate faster and outpace the competition. Better in that we create a place of work where the talent of the organization can be brought to full force in a way Drucker could be proud of.

To get to this better place, it is going to require a change by all of us.

I want to engage the conversation about those changes. So let me put my neck out there, and propose some concrete steps as starters (please add comments to add to this).

I believe we can create a better workplace by each of us:

Stop wanting praise. We all want praise and to be told we’re doing a good job. And while that’s nice and validating, I just wonder if each of us really need that much praise. After all, you’re a talented person. You were hired because of that talent and creativity. I say, stop seeking permission and praise and ….Do what you need to do. You can check in and all that. But praise is the killer. You know why? You have given someone else power to like your work rather than respect your work. Focus on creating the right outcomes, and less on praise.

Stop focusing on Titles, Shmitles.We often pay attention to titles in meetings. As if Joe, the VP and what he says is worth more than what I the individual contributor is saying. My husband once worked in a place where (and this is no joke) people were debating an important issue to the business and clearly couldn’t agree, so someone pulled out their badge, and others followed. The one with the lowest employee # supposedly “won” the discussion. (Oy vey!) But we all do it at some level by deferring to others based on their position, title. Let me just say that the reason that any of us are “in the room” is to have the discussion is to think together. And I’ve gotta believe that if you were invited you have some data, perspective, etc to contribute that will educate the group and will ultimately lead to the right solution (executable solution) to get chosen. Don’t sweat the titles and grades. Rather, elbow your way to the table to make sure the company is doing the right thing. The right thing for growth and winning. And for you, leaders, that think your title earns you the right just “tell” people what to do, you are enabling (at best) only today’s win, not the organization’s repeated ability to win.  

Remember, be good humans. We often think that all the stuff like strategy, innovation happens “in the room”. But people watch one another long before we walk into the room to make the tough call, and we decide whether want to work together. Trust is built by knowing you, the person, not your role. I need to see how you open the door for the person in front of you, or whether you will hold an elevator when you can see me running towards it. It’s how I know that you’re not all about you, but about us. The underlying question that everyone is assessing is: “Will you give a shit for what I need? And what the business needs vs. what you personally need?” and if the answer is no, the right decision will never get made because we’ll never be willing to state what we really think or really need. Just like Adam Smith saw that economics had a behavioral component and Drucker saw business performance as human-centered, all of business is about how humans treat one another. Be the type of person I want to break bread with and you’ll be the type of person I want to collaborate with. It might take more time to say, hold the elevator, but it is time that comes back in spades.

I believe we can create a better place to work by:

Shooting the conflict avoiders. Really. They are going to do everything to avoid dealing with issues. And fundamentally business is about problem solving and going through the wall of fire to get to the other side. We can’t avoid the issues. We need to be able to name tough things, and ultimately we need to go through the difficult discussions to come together on the other side.  In general, conflict avoiders tend to shy away from engaging the issues in an effort to protect themselves. They fear difficult conversations, and they want to avoid feeling uncomfortable, incompetent, unsuccessful, or blamed.  They don’t want to be perceived as causing conflict. When a culture lacks a pattern of dealing cleanly and fairly with tension and conflicting viewpoints, those natural avoidance behaviors are understandable. Not healthy, but understandable. However, engaging the issues does not mean blame, judgment, or conflict. It does mean having conversations about present and future risks, such as customers defecting, competition winning,  or markets disappearing. We have these conversations because the benefits of engaging the issues will ultimately outweigh the consequences of staying silent or waiting until it’s the “right time”.

Discussing/Owning Failure. Be open about your own mistakes and culpability (if it exists). Be up front about your past contributions to the situation, if any, and own what you want to do differently. Talk about how you failed, or what it would look like to fail in this situation so it can be avoided. By doing this, you are showing a kind of fearlessness to learn. When you take the stance that learning is more important than being right, I think you are on your path to a high performance organization.

Killing Power-games. I have a current team I’m working with, where one guy really thinks he “should” be in charge and he plays some rather apparent power games and demonstrates passive-aggressive behavior. I hope the CEO does something about this because once you let these games go unchecked, you end up letting people work from positional power, which undermines the power of good ideas. People who have good ideas to contribute stop taking ownership for success because they know ideas don’t matter as much as power in this firm. So they step back, rather than stepping forward and do “only” what is in the box they are assigned. And who can blame them? I talked about this at my TED talk and other places. It is the gap between the boxes that often cause the business to fail. So we’ve gotta find a way for all of us to hire, reward, and manage so those gaps get closed. As long as we allow power-games, we’ll never close those gaps.

I believe that when we do these 6 things, we are on the road to a more transparent, nimble, collaborative place to work, that RESULTS in better business outcomes. What do you think needs to change to create this better place?

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  1. One of your first points, which I absolutely agree with, is about responsibility. And when we are talking about progressive change, the issue of responsibility is fundamentally different than it is in the context of “the firm”. The model of organization that has run from the start of the industrial era to present, has run for the most past on a command and control paradigm of authority. In this context, the authority for changing anything rests squarely those you call “chief of answers”: in other words, management.It is fundamental to all you say here (so it should be explicit) that you are concerned with a type of change we often call transformative. Transformative change is a requirement when something is fundamentally broken or in crisis.Of course, this is another assumption of all you say here (which I completely agree with), namely that the crisis we are experiencing is not isolated to some industries or companies: the “crisis” is pervasive.Many either fail to see this or disagree.There’s a piece in the 11 Jan issue of New Yorker by John Cassidy about the implications of the “crisis” for the laissez-faire Chicago school of economics. He makes clear that many of that school continue to stand by the view that “the crisis” is either episodic or idiosyncratic. By definition the laissez-faire view entails that the system (the mechanism of the market) is, if not perfect, incorruptible in itself.Many, I’d say most, in business (certainly much of management, but at every level of the business, to your point, a common view of roles and reality is in force) remain ignorant or unpersuaded by either the view that we are living in times of pervasive, systemic crisis. Certainly, these folks view design thinking and other recent innovative theories of a progressive practice of business as poppycock or worse, if indeed they are aware of them at all.I really like your list of prescriptions. I think they are all pragmatic and sound. Though I still find the likelihood of their uptake optimistic. Here, too, I think your “force the issue” prescription is right on.Here are some others that I think have something important to say/add to the context of your argument/points:Usman Haque’s piece, “How to Build a Next-Gen Business” is already on its way (deservedly) to becoming a classic: http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2008/09/how_to_build_a_nextgen_business_now.htmlGong Szeto has made several important contributions like his post on Capitalism 2.0 http://www.gongszeto.com/journal/2008/12/3/ethical-capitalism-20-towards-a-nationalized-executive-compe.html and his presentation “Design as Derivitive: Weapons of Mass DisuptionI would also recommend that all check out the collaboration of Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo on the Knowledge Games blog (a forthcoming book by O’Reilly due out in Q2?) has not only prescriptions, but tools & methods. Check it out: http://www.knowledgegames.net/

  2. Great post Nilofer. We need to be more willing and able to Look, See and Tell the Truth. I think that we are in desperate need of more adult – adult relationships in the workplace as titles, hierarchies, unspoken rules, inauthentic culture, ego and other stuff has gotten in the way.I love your comment on shooting the confilct avoiders! We need more vigorous, healthy conflict, but we seem to be short on the skills or the courage to do that…we choose comfortable, polite silence over the Truth and it costs us dearly.Great post, I think that your thoughts here and in your book are right on time!-joe

  3. Those are great links, Michael and i appreciate your thoughtfulness. We have an epic crisis. It would be easy to write off the business/corporate sector saying it’ll never change but think about the “Stimulus package” that happens if we do the #newhow? HUGE economic and social benefit will take place.

  4. Joe – i hope they are on time but i hope they get known. From what i can tell, this problem is in the crisis state but with government in crisis, or natural disaster causing crisis, this is one that could be left on backburner…

  5. It sounds so much like grade school boss=teacher “older” kids win by being “old.” What a way to run a railroad.

  6. Nilofer, you hit the nail on the head with this post. Fundamentally, every point you make points back to fear, and with your no-nonsense six points, you have shown clearly how pervasive fear is in the workplace and what we can each do about it. I would go so far to say that you’ve given us good advice for changing the game not just in business, but in ALL our relationships. When we give in to fear, we give up our power. Powerless people = powerless businesses & powerless lives.Thanks for this provoking post!

  7. I’ve been getting some offline comments about the post and they amount to “will business change” and actually i’m thinking of this more as “which business wins” — the ones who can collaborate inside will be more nimble, build products/services more in alignment with the market and ultimately win. So i guess the question is: are you acting in ways that let your business win? and are you enabling your team to be this #newhow?

  8. change is not enough. change is just rearranging the same old stuff.what is needed is transformation. new stuff … new definitions of value, purpose, profit, of what it means to be a human being.and the bad news, transformation only happens in one way, from failure and suffering. because, people DO NOT WANT CHANGE … they avoid it with every power they can muster … because it is suicide of the known self-concepts, and no one does this willingly.oh, there is a way .. yogis know of it .. spiritual practices .. but nobody in the west in their “right mind”, heh, will even look to that …so, pray for failure, pray for suffering, and pray for collapse … those are the only things that will change the consciousness of the culture …and enjoy

  9. Gregory – While no one wants to change, we all want to thrive. we’ll do a lot to be in a context where we can be fully alive. we will go to places that will let us thrive, we will put our extra effort in when we feel we can contribute. the question is how do we create more of those cultures?

  10. I’m optimistically going to quote Bryce Williams of Eli Lilly: “Culture can lead, so you better find tech ways that work for company goals” http://www.terrigriffith.com/blog/2009/11/06/transparency-the-new-how-e20/Bryce was speaking to the management of firms that have yet to embrace the changes Nilofer suggests. It will happen. It will either happen in extant firms because (we, we all) take the business in that direction — or it will happen in new firms that are built to run that way from the beginning. I suggest to my students that they each take a small bite of what needs to be done. We all control small (or sometimes quite large) pieces of our business and research shows that, much of the time, those who “write” the first draft have the most say in the outcome (first advocacy effect). Let’s take the time to write that first draft, be the one to push a group towards more transparent process, and practice transparency in our own work – even when it’s scary.

  11. Terri – those that write the first draft have the most say in the outcome — does that count for books, too? 😉

  12. Nilofer, spot-on description of what needs to change. And, I’m with Gregory… it’s about transformation. From petty to sane. From me to we. From pleasing bosses to partnering with customers and each other. From silent to engaged. From titles-and-levels to all-minds-on-deck.I just read Mario Vittone’s latest post on Weekly Leader. It’s a good piece, with similar themes.http://weeklyleader.net/2010/leader-killers-who-to-fire-and-why/What I’m wondering, though, is why the language of killing and shooting? Is it because we want to move fast to the transformed reality, and shooting is the fastest way? Exhausted from years of role-modeling, coaching, preaching, tweeting, teaching, developing, are we imagining ourselves Indiana Jones in the souk? Or, perhaps, are we aiming to gain credibility for level-adjusting transformation (arguably resonant with, if not driven by, feminine ways of relating) by using “male-resonant” language?I’m a huge fan of #newhow – the premise, the vision, the book, the author, the movement. And, I wonder how we can gird ourselves for the challenge of bringing people with us, of leading ourselves and each other to make the mental shifts above and then the behavior shifts we’re all just figuring out. Without leaving dead bodies in our wake. Without creating another culture of fear, which will also deaden creativity and depress truth-telling.This isn’t easy. There are people who “get it” now and others who may never get it, and a lot of people in the middle waiting for a more sane organization with leaders who walk the talk. We want to nudge the middle to stop waiting and start sticking their neck out for business dialogue/decisions that matter. That means seeing the current crap in a new light, finding internal courage/passion/commitment/smarts, connecting with even a few others to create/develop/model new ways, show results, and build support as they go.From what I know of the people in this stream of posts, we have the brainpower, experience, and strength to build a new way to talk about this — language that drives #newhow’s message of fearlessness to learn.

  13. Pam raises a really good point about my language choice — why do i say “kill the power games” and “shoot the conflict avoiders”? At some level it is my training to use bold language that gets the attention of a male dominated culture. Having worked in the male dominated cultures at Apple, Autodesk and then with leaders in tech — the people i’m often influencing need more 2×4 language and less nice-nice language. Just think, i worked with Carol Bartz (now of Yahoo) who uses the #f-bomb at the drop of a hat. Some of it has become so engrained that i’m probably not as conscious as i should be. That said, i find myself full of anger that we let passive agressive games go on. The situation i’ve been witness to over the last few weeks is literally going to cause the company to fail and the CEO really can’t see how letting this one guy treat his people like shit is really hurting anything. “let me talk to him”, he says, while the people within that team have all stepped back from the table after repeated tries to work together (so they probably won’t bring their best ideas, their clarity of what the business needs and won’t lobby –why, they’ll be overruled by the power driven guy–for what is right.) this is a business that has done so much right in collaborative work and is an organization that is close to embodying the #newhow. I think at some level, i think if they can’t do it with all this help, who will? and my anger comes through in my language choices. Not necessarily right, but my truth. SO let me ask you — does the language of “kill the power games” get in the way of the idea? what is better way of saying? (i still want a binary, forceful way of saying it because it is in my mind the only choice towards healthy #newhow conditions that lead to better outcomes.) (sorry for the ridiculously long post)

  14. Nilofer on Twitter: “Am i using too many methophors of “kill” and “shoot”? LMK ” Why not just “terminate” it’s well understood and something business knows how to do with people, why not methods and practices.

  15. First of all, NEVER apologize for long posts; only short ones with no comments. :)In addition to you (episode 33), we’ve had some amazing guests on the Weekly Leader podcast including Marty Linsky (episodes 14 and 15), Harvard Kennedy School professor, co-founder with Ro Heifetz of Cambridge Leadership Associations and co-author with Heifetz, of Adaptive Leadership. To paraphrase from another of their collaborations, Leadership on the Line, “Leadership has always been and will always be dangerous and difficult.” In that vain, using language like shoot and kill might not be off target. (pun intended)”Can we change the game of business?” seems a little too broad and Utopian in perspective. To me, the more relevant and realistic question might be “How can WE change the way WE play the game of business?” with the “WE” being more tightly focused on the organization, team or individual. To look beyond what WE can control or influence, over the short and long term, is akin to taking our eye off the ball and when that happens, we usually lose. Finally, this post makes we think of another Weekly Leader, Ed O’Malley (episodes 22 and 23), ceo of the Kansas Leadership Institute, who told us a great story about one of his leadership life lessons. He was a very young state legislator in Kansas who though full of great, innovative governance ideas was self aware enough to know that his greatest impact on a major issue that was effecting his state and dividing the legislature would be to facilitate the process. Ed’s leadership was perfectly suited to that challenge at that time and he was able to have great impact. While I am not all that optimistic that we will ever have the power to change the game of business, I do believe that we have the ability to adapt to the challenges. But like nearly all things leadership, the road to change start with self. Thanks for a thought provoking post. Fair Winds,Peter A. MelloWeekly Leader (http://weeklyleader.net)@weeklyleader + @petermello

  16. Great write-up Nilofer. I am struggling with adding anything original to the dialog as some great points have been raised and good ideas brandied about.You got me thinking about change, in that what you are proposing is much more than substantial than at the corporate level, its at the cultural level as well as much of these behaviors such as deferring to the person with the lowest number, are ingrained in us as a sign of respect, and acceptance. Moving beyond that acceptance takes people out of their comfort zones.I think figuring out how that can change will solve the problem you identified early on about asking the right questions together. How to get people to ask the right questions at the right time will lead to answers – the problem is how to get them to do it. Further, as Peter points out, it starts with a sense of self, and those questions ask what the other party can do to change, when what should be asked is what we can do to change and improve the situation.

  17. Your comments are making me ask: I wonder how much of this change can happen by thinking/redesigning the corporate rituals around respect/deferance to authority. 2nd question: i wonder if organizations that hired and rewarded based on EQ (not IQ) could outcompete the ones that didn’t. I haven’t seen any data on that.

  18. Nilofer, if only I had read this 10 years ago, I would have been much happier. Since that time, success and happiness in my own career have been because I followed points 1, 2, and 3. I myself am a recovering “conflict avoider” and that was due, in part, to being at places that didn’t follow the other tenets, my own fear of failure, and being a praise monger. When I changed my attitude, my environment changed, too. Correct me if I’m wrong, but “The New How” happens when a company supports ideas from anyone, lets members own up to failures, and grow in spite and because of them. It then becomes less about the person who made the mistake and more about learning and moving forward. I love the concepts in the book and find myself nodding along and having lots of light bulbs go off above my head. Like Pam, I too wonder how we can bring people along with us — especially those who don’t yet get it. I’ll keep reading!

  19. I think strong language is less about being male and more about being strong: not in any way a male only trait. And I believe that language matters and that conviction isn’t conveyed (particularly in writing) without the strong, binary language you used in this post. Words to one side, I also believe that what you are asking for from business requires a collective maturity that simply doesn’t exist. Peter is right – we shouldn’t be asking “can we change the game of business?” All we can do is change the way WE play it with the others in the room. The mature ones will follow – those learning the game will take the lesson – the immature will rail (secretly in closed rooms – sissies) against you. In the end the business may not change and perhaps it will still fail, but you get to sleep knowing you are living a better life than the conflict avoiders, sycophants, and other “players” who….well….really do need to be shot (metaphorical speaking).Mariohttp://www.weeklyleader.net@mvittone

  20. Mario – glad you contributed and i started following you on twitter! cause anyone who can use sissies in a post gets me interested. 😉

  21. Alex – recovering conflict avoider — read crucial conversations book when you get a chance. good skill to build up.

  22. i don’t disagree with anything you say — yet i do think that this can only truly happen within an organization if leaders start to demonstrate each of these behaviors and to accept them from others. as much as we would like to believe we can start a movement from below, transformations of this ilk need the support and commitment from leaders at all levels to get legs. and no praise? what?! how about a trophy then…f

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