Category Archives: Leadership

Intuitive Skill, Center of Emphasis, and Mutual Trust

Intuitive Skill, Center of Emphasis, and Mutual Trust

GUEST POST from Mike Shipulski

Mutual Trust. Who do you trust implicitly? And of that shortlist, who trusts you implicitly? You know how they’ll respond. You know what decision they’ll make. And you don’t have to keep tabs on them and you don’t have to manage them. You do your thing and they do theirs and, without coordinating, everything meshes.

When you have mutual trust, you can move at lightning speed. No second-guessing. No hesitation. No debates. Just rapid progress in a favorable direction. Your eyes are their eyes. Their ears are your ears. One person in two bodies.

If I could choose one thing to have, I’d choose mutual trust.

Mutual trust requires shared values. So, choose team members with values that you value. And mutual trust is developed slowly over time as you work together to solve the toughest problems with the fewest resources and the tightest timelines. Without shared values, you can’t have mutual trust. And without joint work on enigmatic problems, you can’t have mutual trust.

Mutual trust is a result. And when your trust-based relationships are more powerful than the formal reporting structure, you’ve arrived.

Intuitive Skill. In today’s world, decisions must be made quickly. And to make good decisions under unreasonable time constraints and far too little data requires implicit knowledge and intuitive skill. Have you read the literature? Have you studied the history? Have you drilled, and drilled, and drilled again? Did you get the best training? Have you honed your philosophy by doing the hard work? Have you done things badly, learned the hard lessons, and embossed those learnings on your soul? Have you done it so many times you know how it will go? Have you done it so many different ways your body knows how it should respond in unfamiliar situations?

If you have to think about it, you don’t yet have intuitive skill. If you can explain why you know what to do, you don’t have intuitive skill. Make no mistake. Intuitive skill does not come solely from experience. It comes from study, from research, from good teachers, and from soul searching.

When your body starts doing the right thing before your brain realizes you’re doing it, you have intuitive skill. And when you have intuitive skill, you can move at light speed. When it takes more time to explain your decision than it does to make it, you have intuitive skill.

Center of Mass, Center of Emphasis. Do you focus on one thing for a week at a time? And do you wake up dreaming about it? And do you find yourself telling people that we’ll think about something else when this thing is done? Do you like doing one thing in a row? Do you delay starting until you finish finishing? Do you give yourself (and others) the flexibility to get it done any way they see fit, as long as it gets done? If the answer is yes to all these, you may be skilled in center-of-emphasis thinking.

The trick here is to know what you want to get done, but have the discipline to be flexible on how it gets done.

Here’s a rule. If you’re the one who decides what to do, you shouldn’t be the one who decides the best way to do it.

Yes, be singularly focused on the objective, but let the boots-on-the-ground circumstances and the context of the moment define the approach. And let the people closest to the problem figure out the best way to solve it because the context is always changing, the territory is always changing, and the local weather is always changing. And the right approach is defined by the specific conditions of the moment.

Build trust and earn it. And repeat. Practice, study, do, and learn. Hone and refine. And repeat. And choose the most important center of emphasis and let the people closest to the problem choose how to solve it. And then build trust and earn it.

This post was inspired by Taylor Pearson and John Boyd, the creator of the OODA loop.

Image credit: Unsplash

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Nike Should Stop Blaming Working from Home for Their Innovation Struggles

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

“But even more importantly, our employees were working from home for two and a half years.  And in hindsight, it turns out, it’s really hard to do bold, disruptive innovation, to develop a boldly disruptive shoe on Zoom.” – John Donahoe, Nike CEO

I am so glad CNBC’s interview with Nike’s CEO didn’t hit my feed until Friday afternoon. It sent me into a rage spiral that I am just barely emerging from. Seriously, I think my neighbors heard the string of expletives I unleashed after reading that quote, and it wasn’t because it was a lovely day and the windows were open.

Blaming remote work for lack of innovation is cowardly. And factually wrong.

I’m not the only one giving Mr. Donahoe some side-eye for this comment.  “There were a whole bunch of brands who really thrived during and post-pandemic even though they were working remotely,” Matt Powell, advisor for Spurwink River and a senior advisor at BCE Consulting, told Footwear News.  “So I’m not sure that we that we can blame remote work here on Nike’s issues.”

There’s data to back that up.

In 2023, Mark (Shuai) Ma, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Yuye Ding, a PhD student at the university’s Katz Graduate School of Business, set out to empirically determine the causes and effects of a firm’s decision to mandate a return to work (RTO).  They collected RTO mandate data from over 100 firms in the S&P 500, worked backward to identify what drove the decision, and monitored and measured the firm’s results after employees returned to work.

Their findings are stark: no significant changes in financial performance for firm value after RTO mandates and significant declines in employee job satisfaction.  As Ma told Fortune, “Overall, our results do not support these mandates to increase firm values.  Instead, these findings are consistent with managers using RTO mandates to reassert control over employees and blame employees as a scapegoat for firm bad performance.”

Or to justify spending more than $1B to double the size of its Beaverton, OR campus.

When you start blaming employees, you stop being a leader.

CEOs make and approve big, impactful, complex, high-stakes decisions.  That’s why they get paid the big bucks.  It’s also why, as Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.” 

Let’s examine some of the decisions Mr. Donahue made or supported that maybe (definitely) had a more significant impact on innovation than working from home two days a week.

Ignoring customers, consumers, and the market: Nike has a swagger that occasionally strays into arrogance.  They set trends, steer culture, and dictate the rules of the game. They also think that gives them the right to stop listening to athletes, retailers, and consumers, as evidenced by the recently revealed Team USA Track & Field uniforms, the decision to stop selling through major retailers like Macy’s and Olympia Sports, and invest more in “hype, limited releases, and old school retro drops” than the technology and community that has consumers flocking to smaller brands like Hoka and Brooks.

Laying off 2% of its workforce: Anyone who has ever been through a layoff senses it’s coming months before the announcement and the verdicts are rendered.  Psychological safety, feeling safe in your environment, is a required element for risk-taking and innovation.  It’s hard to feel safe when saying goodbye to 1500 colleagues (and wondering if/when you’ll join them).

Investing too much in the core: Speaking of safety, in uncertain times, it’s tempting to pour every resource into the core business because the ROI is “known.” Nike gave in to that temptation, and consumers and analysts noticed.  Despite recent new product announcements like the Air Max DN, Pegasus Premium, and Pegasus 41, “analysts point out these ‘new’ innovations rely too much on existing franchises.”

Innovation is a leadership problem that only leaders can solve

Being a CEO or any other senior executive is hard. The past four years have been anything but ordinary, and running a business while navigating a global pandemic, multiple societal upheavals, two wars, and an uncertain economy is almost impossible.

Bosses blame.  Leaders inspire. 

Mr. Donohue just showed us which one he is.  Which one are you?

One MORE thing

This is a losing battle, but STOP USING “DISRUPTIVE” INCORRECTLY!!!!  “Disruptive Innovation,” as defined by Clayton Christensen, who literally coined the phrase, is an innovation that appeals to non-consumers and is cheaper and often lower quality than existing competitors.

Nike is a premium brand that makes premium shoes for premium athletes.  Employees could spend 24/7/365 in the office, and Nike would never develop and launch a “boldly disruptive shoe.”

Image credit: Pixabay

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Playing Both Sides of the Equation

Playing Both Sides of the Equation

GUEST POST from Mike Shipulski

If you want new behavior, you must embrace conflict.

If you can’t tolerate the conflict, you’ll do what you did last time.

If your point of view angers half and empowers everyone else, you made a difference.

If your point of view meets with 100% agreement, you wasted everyone’s time.

If your role is to create something from nothing, you’ve got to let others do the standard work.

If your role is to do standard work, you’ve got to let others create things from scratch.

If you want to get more done in the long term, you’ve got to make time to grow people.

If you want to get more done in the short term, you can’t spend time growing people.

If you do novel work, you can’t know when you’ll be done.

If you are asked for a completion date, I hope you’re not expected to do novel work.

If you’re in business, you’re in the people business.

If you’re not in the people business, you’ll soon be out of business.

If you call someone on their behavior and they thank you, you were thanked by a pro.

If you call someone on their behavior and they call you out for doing it, you were gaslit.

If you can’t justify doing the right project, reduce the scope, and do it under the radar.

If you can’t prevent the start of an unjust project, find a way to work on something else.

If you are given a fixed timeline and fixed resources, flex the schedule.

If you are given a fixed timeline, resources, and schedule, you’ll be late.

If you get into trouble, ask your Trust Network for help.

If you have no Trust Network, you’re in trouble.

If you have a problem, tell the truth and call it a problem.

If you can’t tell the truth, you have a big problem.

If you are called on your behavior, own it.

If you own your behavior, no one can call you on it.

Image credit: Unsplash

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Happy Employees Make Happy Customers

Happy Employees Make Happy Customers

GUEST POST from Shep Hyken

Often, the best companies to do business with are the best companies to work for. When you look at the Google ratings for Round Room Holdings’ TCC and Wireless Zone, two Verizon Wireless retailers with approximately 1,200 retail stores throughout the U.S., you’ll find they are “hitting it out of the park” in both customer reviews and employee satisfaction. I had a chance to interview Chad Jensen, president of TCC and Wireless Zone since 2019, and he shed light on their incredible success, how they do it, and how any company can have similar results.

We can break down the company’s success into three areas: employees, customers, and community.

1. Employees: It all starts with the employees. Jensen’s company has a 90% employee satisfaction rating and 70% employee retention in a retail industry with annual employee turnover rates that are well over 100%. Why? Because Jensen made it abundantly clear that the company puts employees first. The best example of this came not even a year after he took over as president when he and the rest of the world faced the pandemic. His leadership style was immediately put to the test. He was adamant about taking care of the employees. First and foremost was safety, as well as a concern for mental health. And he was determined to keep people employed, saying, “Even if it meant we took a hit on our financials, we were okay with that.” He understood early on that the decisions they made would define how they came out of the pandemic. Employees knew the company had their backs. In exchange, they were confident, fulfilled, and engaged with their customers, ensuring they had an experience that would bring them back. Employee satisfaction is at 90%. As I’ve mentioned many times in my past articles, what’s happening inside an organization is felt by customers on the outside. Jensen’s strategy shows this concept can be tremendously successful.

2. Customers: A focus on the employee experience turns into a positive customer experience. The goal is to provide “the best customer service.” Being the best is a lofty goal. While it’s not a contest, the comment speaks to the commitment the retailer has to its customers. The numbers tell the story. The company’s Google score ranges from 4.7 to 4.9 out of five. Jensen beams with pride over the customer satisfaction numbers, as companies he admires, such as Disney and Chick-fil-A, don’t have numbers quite as high. Jensen said, “We checked, and Disneyland’s Google rating was a 4.5. We’re literally (making customers) happier than the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’” While a high Google rating is validating, Jensen emphasizes it’s really about the experience that gets customers to come back.

3. Community: Jensen’s efforts to give back to the community create positive results on several levels. He explained, “The more we give back to our communities, the more presence we get, and the better employees we get.” Many companies have a purpose beyond profit. It’s typically a recognizable cause, such as sustainability, poverty, medical research, or other popular causes. Companies like Ace Hardware have raised more than $140 million for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Patagonia gives 1% of its sales to the preservation and restoration of the environment. TCC and Wireless Zone take a more grassroots approach and give back to the communities their stores serve. They sponsor community events, local pet shelters, food banks, school events, and more. They have given more than 1.3 million backpacks filled with school supplies to kids in their communities. While the corporate HQ is behind this “give back” program, it’s the employees who get the most joy out of being a part of it, once again creating a great employee experience.

By prioritizing the TCC and Wireless Zone employee experience, combined with efforts to create an amazing customer experience as well as support for the communities they serve, the result is a company with some of the lowest turnover in the retail industry, higher Google ratings than “The Happiest Place on Earth” and loyal customers who keep coming back. That’s what happens when you create a company that has what Jensen refers to as “a culture of good.”

Image Credits: Pixabay
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com

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Managers Make the Difference

Four Common Mistakes Managers Make

Managers Make the Difference

GUEST POST from David Burkus

Senior leaders set strategy. But middle managers and front-line managers make the difference in whether that strategy gets executed…and in whether or not people are engaged and motivated in an organization. According to Gallup, 70% of an individual employee’s engagement is determined by the manager of her team. In turn, this means that managers have a significant impact on an organization’s success or failure.

In this article, we will discuss the four common mistakes managers make and how to avoid them.

1. Talking First

The first common mistake managers make is talking first. This one is really common. Presumably managers were promoted because they solved problems and generated ideas faster and better than their peers. And there are times when quick decisions need to be made. But not always. Most often, they should facilitate discussion and allow everyone to share their opinions. This encourages collaboration and creativity among team members. By doing this, managers can create an environment where everyone feels heard and valued. Getting everyone’s ideas out gives the team the best chance of finding the optimal solution.

In addition, managers should avoid talking first because often the first thing they say can easily be misconstrued as a command. The higher you go in a hierarchy, the more likely it is your casual suggestions will be misinterpreted as stern commands. And that not only tricks the team into taking a potentially wrong action, but it also robs them of their sense of autonomy and could degrade the quality of team culture.

2. Avoiding Conflict

The second common mistake managers make is avoiding conflict. No one wants to be the bad guy on the team—much less the manager who is also negative or confrontational. Somewhere in management training, conflict resolution workshops gave off the misconception that conflict is always to be avoided. But sometimes, in the service of avoiding conflict—managers actually avoid confronting the people and situations the team needs. Managers need to address underperformance and insubordination. And their team needs them to do it even more.

In addition, managers should encourage positive conflict over ideas, which can lead to better decision-making and innovation. When team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas, it can lead to new and innovative solutions. And when they know that their ideas will be improved by the discussion with the group—the ideas get even better. Addressing conflict in a positive way can help to create a culture of open communication and trust.

3. Reacting Urgently

The third common mistake managers make is reacting urgently. To be a manager is to deal with problems. Forces outside (or inside) of the team’s control can force the plan to change or be scrapped altogether. Unexpected roadblocks can appear randomly on the horizon. And what was supposed to be a smooth, easy project can turn into a big problem. When problems (or changes) occur, many managers react as quickly as possible—but don’t think about whether that first, default reaction was the right one. Perhaps if given some time and a little discussion, the team would have found a better solution.

In addition, reacting urgently can succumb the whole team to the tyranny of the urgent—where a small but unexpected problem now appears more urgent than more important projects simply because it’s the new fire to put out. But doing so steals time and attention away from those more important projects and harms the team’s productivity even more than the initial problem would have. Managers need to respond to problems, but to respond deliberately and not urgently.

4. Assuming Availability

The fourth common mistake managers make is assuming availability. Many managers just assume their team feels free to come to them. They’ll say, “ask me anything” or claim they have an “open door policy” (assuming they even work in the same office as their team). But in reality, the first time a team member approaches their “available” manager and finds their boss to busy or less than focused, they realize how available that manager truly is—or rather isn’t. Your door might be always open, but if you’re always on the phone it doesn’t matter.

Instead, managers would gain from being deliberate and intentional about their availability. They shouldn’t promise to be available all of the time. Instead, they should be available at specific times and block them off in their calendar. That way they can give the team members their sole focus. Even better, if working colocated, they can take specific times of the day to leave the office (should be pretty easy…the door should be open) and walk out to check-in on each team member individually. Doing so not only helps team members feel seen and heard, but it also helps the manager hear more too.

In fact, being deliberately available helps to avoid the other common manager mistakes as well. By being available and listening intently, managers talk less. They become more aware of conflicts that need to be instigated. And they’re able to access more information and react less urgently. By being deliberately available, managers help build a team where everyone can do their best work ever.

Image credit: Unsplash

Originally published on DavidBurkus.com on April 24, 2023

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AI Strategy Should Have Nothing to do with AI

AI Strategy Should Have Nothing to do with AI

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

You’ve heard the adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  Well, AI is the fruit bowl on the side of your Denny’s Grand Slam Strategy, and culture is eating that, too.

1 tool + 2 companies = 2 strategies

On an Innovation Leader call about AI, two people from two different companies shared stories about what happened when an AI notetaking tool unexpectedly joined a call and started taking notes.  In both stories, everyone on the calls was surprised, uncomfortable, and a little bit angry that even some of the conversation was recorded and transcribed (understandable because both calls were about highly sensitive topics). 

The storyteller from Company A shared that the senior executive on the call was so irate that, after the call, he contacted people in Legal, IT, and Risk Management.  By the end of the day, all AI tools were shut down, and an extensive “ask permission or face termination” policy was issued.

Company B’s story ended differently.  Everyone on the call, including senior executives and government officials, was surprised, but instead of demanding that the tool be turned off, they asked why it was necessary. After a quick discussion about whether the tool was necessary, when it would be used, and how to ensure the accuracy of the transcript, everyone agreed to keep the note-taker running.  After the call, the senior executive asked everyone using an AI note-taker on a call to ask attendees’ permission before turning it on.

Why such a difference between the approaches of two companies of relatively the same size, operating in the same industry, using the same type of tool in a similar situation?

1 tool + 2 CULTURES = 2 strategies

Neither storyteller dove into details or described their companies’ cultures, but from other comments and details, I’m comfortable saying that the culture at Company A is quite different from the one at Company B. It is this difference, more than anything else, that drove Company A’s draconian response compared to Company B’s more forgiving and guiding one.  

This is both good and bad news for you as an innovation leader.

It’s good news because it means that you don’t have to pour hours, days, or even weeks of your life into finding, testing, and evaluating an ever-growing universe of AI tools to feel confident that you found the right one. 

It’s bad news because even if you do develop the perfect AI strategy, it won’t matter if you’re in a culture that isn’t open to exploration, learning, and even a tiny amount of risk-taking.

Curious whether you’re facing more good news than bad news?  Start here.

8 culture = 8+ strategies

In 2018, Boris Groysberg, a professor at Harvard Business School, and his colleagues published “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” a meta-study of “more than 100 of the most commonly used social and behavior models [and] identified eight styles that distinguish a culture and can be measured.  I’m a big fan of the model, having used it with clients and taught it to hundreds of executives, and I see it actively defining and driving companies’ AI strategies*.

Results (89% of companies): Achievement and winning

  • AI strategy: Be first and be right. Experimentation is happening on an individual or team level in an effort to gain an advantage over competitors and peers.

Caring (63%): Relationships and mutual trust

  • AI strategy: A slow, cautious, and collaborative approach to exploring and testing AI so as to avoid ruffling feathers

Order (15%): Respect, structure, and shared norms

  • AI strategy: Given the “ask permission, not forgiveness” nature of the culture, AI exploration and strategy are centralized in a single function, and everyone waits on the verdict

Purpose (9%): Idealism and altruism

  • AI strategy: Torn between the undeniable productivity benefits AI offers and the myriad ethical and sustainability issues involved, strategies are more about monitoring than acting.

Safety (8%): Planning, caution, and preparedness

  • AI strategy: Like Order, this culture takes a centralized approach. Unlike Order, it hopes that if it closes its eyes, all of this will just go away.

Learning (7%): Exploration, expansiveness, creativity

  • AI strategy: Slightly more deliberate and guided than Purpose cultures, this culture encourages thoughtful and intentional experimentation to inform its overall strategy

Authority (4%): Strength, decisiveness, and boldness

  • AI strategy: If the AI strategies from Results and Order had a baby, it would be Authority’s AI strategy – centralized control with a single-minded mission to win quickly

Enjoyment (2%): Fun and excitement

  • AI strategy: It’s a glorious free-for-all with everyone doing what they want.  Strategies and guidelines will be set if and when needed.

What do you think?

Based on the story above, what culture best describes Company A?  Company B?

What culture best describes your team or company?  What about your AI strategy?

*Disclaimer. Culture is an “elusive lever” because it is based on assumptions, mindsets, social patterns, and unconscious actions.  As a result, the eight cultures aren’t MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive), and multiple cultures often exist in a single team, function, and company.  Bottom line, the eight cultures are a tool, not a law (and I glossed over a lot of stuff from the report)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Great People Are the Reason Companies Become Great

Great People Are the Reason Companies Become Great

GUEST POST from Mike Shipulski

You can look at people’s salaries as a cost that must be reduced. Or, you can look at their salaries as a way for them to provide for their families. With one, you cut, cut, cut. With the other, you pay the fairest wage possible and are thankful your people are happy.

You can look at healthcare costs the same way – as a cost that must be slashed or an important ingredient that helps the workers and their families stay healthy. Sure, you should get what you pay for, but do you cut costs or do all you can to help people be healthy? I know which one makes for a productive workforce and which one is a race to the bottom. How does your company think about providing good healthcare benefits? And how do you feel about that?

You can look at training and development of your people as a cost or an investment. And this distinction makes all the difference. With one, training and development is minimized. And with the other, it’s maximized to grow people into their best selves. How does your company think about this? And how do you feel about that?

You can look at new tools as a cost or as an investment. Sure, tools can be expensive, but they can also help people do more than they thought possible. Does your company think of them as a cost or an investment? And how do you feel about that?

Would you take a slight pay cut so that others in the company could be paid a living wage? Would you pay a little more for healthcare so that younger people could pay less? Would you be willing to make a little less money so the company can invest in the people? Would your company be willing to use some of the profit generated by cost reduction work to secure the long-term success of the company?

If your company’s cost structure is higher than the norm because it invests in the people, are you happy about that? Or, does that kick off a project to reduce the company’s cost structure?

Over what time frame does your company want to make money?

When jobs are eliminated at your company, does that feel more like a birthday party or a funeral?

Are you proud of how your company treats their people, or are you embarrassed?

I’ve heard that people are the company’s most important asset, but if that’s the case, why is there so much interest in reducing the number of people that work at the company?

In the company’s strategic plan, five years from now are there more people on the payroll or fewer? And how do you feel about that?

Image credit: Unsplash

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Agile Innovation

How to Embrace Agile Leadership to Innovate at Speed

Agile Innovation

GUEST POST from Diana Porumboiu

In a world dominated by uncertainty, how can we prepare for the unpredictable and keep innovating in what seems like a highly chaotic environment?

We simply need to be faster in adapting to change and navigating uncertainty. Studies show that organizations that move faster achieve significantly better results across various metrics, including profitability, operational resilience, organizational health, and growth.

How to make sure your organization is fast enough? Innovation at speed is more relevant than ever, but someone must put the pedal to the metal. Typically, that someone has to be a leader, because in the face of unprecedented change, leaders are needed to get us through the transformation.

However, unless organizations rethink leadership, they won’t be able to innovate systematically. In this day and age, great leadership requires a different mindset and a new approach to drive innovation and keep pace with change. We call this agile leadership.

This article, the second in the series dedicated to Agile Innovation Management, explores the critical role of agile leadership in innovating at speed.

Discover the key challenges and misconceptions surrounding the topic and understand why many leaders struggle with it. We’ll also provide practical steps and examples that will hopefully inspire you to increase the agility of your organization.

From Old Leadership Models to Agile Leadership

Let’s begin by clarifying what we mean by agile leadership and its position in relation to established leadership models.

The history of leadership traces back to Frederick Winslow Taylor, American engineer renown for his methods aimed at enhancing efficiency and productivity. Innovative at his time for shaping industrial management, his legacy still lives on today.

Unfortunately, his methods are not adapted for this century. Despite this, many leaders and managers still adhere to “Taylorism”, a top-down approach where leaders make the decisions and plans, and employees are tasked with executing them.

This model conflicts with the flexible and adaptable mindset required for agility. The gap between employees and Taylorist leaders trying to implement agile practices often leads to frustration and inefficiency.

Even if they introduce squads and sprints, Taylorists maintain a top-down approach, telling people what to do and how.

For successful agile transformations, you need to move away from rigid, outdated models. As we saw in the ING examplepresented in the “Guide to Business Agility” article, simply copying other companies without suitable leadership will not produce the desired outcomes. Therefore, fundamental change is needed.

True agile leadership allows for rapid decision making, resilience, adaptability and innovation. It requires leaders to embrace new ideas, offer clear direction without micromanaging, and create a culture that supports speed and innovation.

Agile leadership is about rapid decision making, resilience, adaptability and innovation.

It’s also important to remember that managers and leaders are not the same. Leadership goes beyond overseeing a group and delivering desired outcomes.

As Seth Godin stated in his “Leadership vs Management” speech, “managers do things right, leaders do the right things”.

While it would be ideal for all managers to cultivate leadership skills, the reality is that their primary focus is on increasing efficiency and productivity within their domains, often overlooking the broader picture. Such skills are essential in leading people, lifting them up and empowering them to become agile, innovative problem solvers.

Despite the progress of AI and technology automating mundane tasks, we still need leaders capable of making decisions that address both present and future challenges. Effective agile leaders should be able to navigate failure and complexities, and map a way to move forward.

To succeed, we need to hone in on critical thinking and those often overlooked “soft skills” like navigating tough conversations, giving and receiving feedback, and showing empathy. No matter where you fall on the org chart, mastering these skills can be the game-changer between just getting by and achieving excellence.

While agile leadership might not be about the “Agile” way, being familiar with the agile values and principles can be useful on a practical level.

For example, the authors of Doing Agile Right help leadership teams shift to agile methods by tailoring the Agile Manifesto’s core values to fit their unique situations. It’s about adapting and making it work for you.

Viima design created from Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos

To give another example, think of the principle of self-organizing teams. It’s important to know how to build self-organizing teams that thrive, collaborate and continuously learn from each other through continuous feedback and transparent communication.

We’ve seen this time and again in how teams use Viima to collaborate on their ideas, assess, prioritize and develop those that have been discussed openly. We noticed that most successful projects created using Viima have strong leadership too.

But moving away from the practical details to the bigger picture, how much can leaders influence the speed of innovation at an organizational level?

Can Agile Leadership Drive Innovation?

We established in The Guide to Agile Innovation Management that agility enables innovation by embracing experimentation and learning, implementing adaptive planning processes, emphasizing cross-functional collaboration and bringing together diverse perspectives and expertise.

All these elements would not be possible without the guidance of a great leader. So how can a good agile leader unlock innovation in an organization?

Adapting fast by building trust

Agility in leadership is about adapting to changing environments quickly, often under the pressure of performance.

However, this can have negative consequences. The Work Trend Index from Microsoft surveyed over 20,000 people across 11 countries and found that half of them reported experiencing burnout. Although 83% of employees claimed to be productive, only 12% of leaders felt confident their teams were genuinely productive.

To build trust and participation in feedback systems, leaders should regularly share what they’re hearing, how they’re responding, and why. — Work Trend Index 2022

As a leader, offering support and trust can help balance the pressure of performance. Including people in the organization’s narrative and showing them where they fit in helps build trust and provides a sense of purpose.

This sense of purpose encourages people to commit, learn, grow, improve, and innovate. Which brings us to the next point: agile leadership nurtures not only the ability but also the willingness of people to innovate.

Speed requires commitment

Many large firms still rely on outdated “industrial-era management” models. These models focus on hierarchical organizational charts, emphasizing static reporting relationships.

In such environments, it can be extremely difficult for ideas and initiatives to navigate through the many layers of hierarchy and reach the right decision-makers. If they do make it through, the process takes so long that the opportunity may be lost by the time an idea reaches approval.

This approach can lead to a culture with limited transparency and collaboration across teams and departments, along with an attitude of “every man for himself.”

It’s no surprise that over 70% of workforce is disengaged or quietly quitting, which significantly stifles an organization’s ability to innovate. When employees lack motivation, everything slows down. But when there is a sense of ownership and pride, there is higher commitment.

An agile leader fosters a sense of community and nurtures people’s commitment and dedication. This leads to speed and adaptability.

While the right mindset is crucial, using the right tools can also help build trust and promote collaboration. Many leaders use Viima to create processes that enhance idea sharing at all levels, collaboration and trust. They can provide feedback and follow up on people’s ideas in a timely manner, while employees can see the progress of their ideas.

But to reach this level, it’s important to understand the behavioral changes needed. In the next section, we’ll dive into practical tips on how to adapt your mindset by examining leaders who have successfully guided their organizations to thrive and innovate.

How to Be an Agile Leader

How can you become a great leader who adapts to change and guides others into the future? To provide some practical examples, I turned to Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation by Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback.

The authors conducted a decade-long research study of 24 leaders across different organizations and industries. They offer valuable insights into how exceptional leaders cultivate environments that foster collective creativity, collaboration, and experimentation.

In a nutshell, the authors describe the ABC of leadership which drives innovation and makes the shift from “vertical ideology of control” to “horizontal ideology of enablement”.

Their research has identified that to lead an organization that innovates at scale with speed, you need leaders that fill in three different functions:

  • the Architect — to build the culture and capabilities necessary to collaborate, experiment and work.
  • the Bridger — to create the bridge between the outside and the inside of the organization by bringing together skills and tools to innovate at speed.
  • the Catalyst — to accelerate co-creation through the entire ecosystem.

The Architect: Create the right environment

The paradox of business agility is that it takes time to build the capabilities needed for fast response and adaptability. Even if you want to move quickly and encourage others to do the same, you can’t force change.

Achieving agility requires a different mindset — letting go of some control that conventional leadership often demands. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect for many leaders who believe their power lies in maintaining control.

However, as an agile leader, you must recognize existing interdependencies. You rely on employees’ willingness, commitment, and ability to drive progress. Your success depends heavily on others, which is why it’s crucial to create an environment where people can ideate, create, and execute. As we will see in the next chapter, agile leadership involves balancing relinquishing control with providing enough direction and guidance to prevent chaos.

Many elements are at play here, but one of the most innovative animation studios, Pixar, offers a clear example. They created the first feature-length computer-animated film, Toy Story. What’s remarkable about Pixar is that every film they released after Toy Story became an instant commercial success.

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, is a mastermind of innovation and a pioneer in technology and storytelling. His legacy offers numerous inspiring lessons for leaders, but here are some key points on how he and other company leaders fostered an environment where innovation thrives.

Pixar’s culture is built on two essential elements: diversity and conflict.

  • Diversity

In this context, diversity means intellectual diversity — bringing together people with different perspectives, skills, working styles, and problem-solving approaches.

At Pixar, three different worlds converged: creative, technical, and business. People from all areas were treated as peers, and all perspectives were valued equally. Among visual artists and tech people, you could also find cultural anthropologists, music producers, and even a professional cheerleader.

When different views come together, great ideas, solutions, and innovations can emerge. But inevitably, disagreements and conflict can also arise.

  • Conflict

Conflict is something many leaders fear and seek to minimize. When conflict becomes destructive, personal, or a battle for who is right and who is wrong, nobody wins. However, at Pixar, feedback is honest and direct. Sometimes even brutal. But the aim is to improve things and find the best solution.

A confrontation becomes a debate in search of a better solution that serves everyone’s goals. Those who receive and provide feedback should always keep this in mind.

Naturally, this is not always achievable, and tempers can flare quickly under pressure, frustration or when passionate people clash. When conflict turns into a fight to win an argument, you should intervene, remind people of the greater purpose, and bring them back on track.

As a leader, community building should also be on your radar. Foster a strong sense of “we” and psychological safety. This encourages people to stand up for their ideas and pursue the solutions they believe are best for the greater good.

This is what contributed to Pixar’s continued innovation. As a leader, Ed Catmull realized early on the critical role of leadership in creating the context for innovation.

I realized the most exciting thing I had ever done was to help create the unique environment that allowed that film (Toy Story) to be made. My new goal became … to build a studio that had the depth, robustness, and will to keep searching for the hard truths that preserve the confluence of forces necessary to create magic.

The Bridger: Decentralize decision making

Decentralized decision-making is key to breaking down silos and eliminating bottlenecks, enabling faster experimentation, learning, and improvement. Although this approach is increasingly popular and recommended for driving innovation, many struggle with its implementation.

Decentralization demands strong leadership that empowers teams to drive progress, avoids micromanagement, and provides the right support while removing barriers and building innovation capabilities.

For teams to collaborate effectively, they need a leader who plays a central role — not to manage decisions, but to facilitate innovation.

Take the example of Volkswagen. In 2010, Luca De Meo was the CMO for VW, a group of nine brands, helping the organization achieve its goal of becoming a leading car manufacturer.

VW’s marketing decisions were decentralized, with local marketing teams independently creating and implementing their own strategies based on general guidelines from headquarters.

However, this approach led to a lack of communication and collaboration among marketing teams worldwide. Marketing spoke with different voices in each market, lacked alignment, and had no clear strategic role within the organization.

To build mutual trust and respect De Meo organized a two-day design lab where he brought together over seventy people to collaborate, ideate and work together to build a global brand. Of course, a one-time brainstorming workshop is not enough, so this became a recurrent event. Each gathering had different goals or action points on which diverse teams had to work together, bring their own experience and expertise to the table.

He also took a new approach in handling launches by creating a cross-functional team that brought together fresh perspective from young employees in marketing or other fields. He created a small team and gave them a free hand to come up with an integrated marketing strategy for the launch of a new city car model.

De Meo did not interfere and did not tell them how to go about it. Instead, he encouraged them to work as intrapreneurs within the larger organization. He set high expectations and tried to nudge them in the right direction when needed. Most importantly, he encouraged them to take risks and allowed them to make mistakes. The agile way.

A very important thing to highlight from this story is that De Meo made sure that minority voices were heard. In setups with a conventional approach to leadership, the loudest (or more experienced) voices usually get their ideas across. This means that many opportunities can be missed.

Long story short, leadership created the environment for people to innovate and removed barriers and enabled people to move faster. The efforts paid off and VW grew both as a recognized brand and in financial results.

The Catalyst: Grow capabilities of everyone around you

Visionary leaders made history, but if we take a closer look, it was not all about vision. It’s not enough to have a vision and expect others to follow you. You also need to set direction on how to get there, not just by dictating but by unleashing and amplifying people’s own capabilities, talents, passion and strengths that are useful for the bigger goal.

In our latest conversation in The Innovation Room podcast, we had the great pleasure of talking to John Bessant, an innovation veteran. From his vast experience he shared a few examples of how innovation leaders focused on facilitating conversations and debates to lead people to the future.

Such leaders can cultivate agility, and what is called dynamic capability: the ability to integrate, build and reconfigure internal and external competences to address rapidly changing environments.

To illustrate dynamic capability, Bessant gives the example of Procter and Gamble. P&G made a major change after 150 years of excelling in R&D and market research. They switched to a model they called “Connect and Develop” — their open innovation approach — well ahead of the open innovation trend. This shift involved a significant change in mindset and took them 20 years to get through it. They stepped back, reassessed, and adapted to the changing world.

This is a summary of their achievements, but reaching such results required an internal shift in culture. P&G needed to get everyone on board with open innovation, not just to embrace external ideas, but internal ones too. Early on, they recognized this model as essential for adapting to future challenges.

P&G leadership understood the critical role of employees in driving these changes. The new approach required employees to be more agile and flexible, to develop skills like curiosity, collaboration, and connectedness.

They worked to support employees who were inclined to control more, were insecure, or were resistant to sharing and opening up. P&G set new challenges and increased the complexity of some tasks to push employees’ capabilities. They ensured that employees worked across the business in different markets. As employees gained experience in different areas and improved at identifying and solving problems, their mindsets began to evolve.

Cultivating an innovative mindset is a process that takes time and a structured, intentional approach.

These are just a few examples, and although summarizing them may make it sound simple, each of these leaders struggled in their journey to achieve the desired outcomes.

Excellent agile leadership is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. Let’s explore these challenges in more detail to help you assess what you can realistically implement in your own leadership role.

Challenges and Limitations of Agile Leadership

Being a great leader is never easy and being an agile one — navigating through uncertainty — is even tougher. Whether you call it agile leadership or not, your role as a leader is to create spaces for your teams to adapt quickly and steer the organization toward future success.

Let’s see what are some of these challenges and how you can address them by leading with agility.

1. Providing a sense of certainty in an uncertain environment

Certainty is an emotional state that can influence how we perceive our work environment. While you can’t control uncertainty, you can manage the fear of the unknown by being transparent. The least transparent environments often breed anxiety, rumors and speculations.

Remember: Share the big picture with your team, and don’t shy away from the truth. Provide updates on ongoing projects, successes, and setbacks. This way you build trust and foster a sense of purpose. Balance transparency with discretion — too much detail can overwhelm people, but too little breeds suspicion.

2. Managing the chaos

You want your team to take initiative and explore new ideas, but a lack of guidance can cause confusion and inefficiency. I’ve seen leaders struggle with this balance, either micromanaging their teams or stepping back too far.

Remember: Define clear ground rules and processes to guide your team. Support people to innovate within a framework that provides structure. Encourage ideas to surface and provide top-down guidance to turn them into actionable innovations.

3. Adapting to a new leadership model

Embracing agile leadership requires stepping out of your comfort zone and taking others with you. It demands discipline and a low tolerance for incompetence, with a focus on striving for excellence.

Remember: Encourage a disciplined approach to experimentation and ensure that failures lead to valuable lessons rather than wasted efforts. Candid feedback should flow both ways. Both leaders and employees should be open to having their ideas challenged. Embracing this kind of culture fosters growth and adaptability, but it also demands discipline and high standards to strive for excellence, as mediocrity thrives in comfort zones.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a leader or aspiring to be one, it’s important to recognize that perfection in leadership doesn’t exist — everyone has their own shortcomings and challenges. While we should empathize with these struggles, we must also hold leaders accountable.

Today, speed is a crucial competitive advantage, often going hand in hand with scale. Agility at the team level alone may not be enough; you need speed and scale in innovation to drive meaningful change.

Achieving this requires responsible and committed leadership that understands the need for both rapid and large-scale innovation. As you navigate your leadership journey, strive to lead with accountability, adaptability, and a focus on accelerating innovation.

Article originally published on viima.com/blog

Image credits: Unsplash

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5 Ways to Create a Sense of Belonging at Work

5 Ways to Create a Sense of Belonging at Work

GUEST POST from David Burkus

A sense of belonging on a team is crucial for its success and productivity. Belonging is that sense of acceptance and inclusion when people feel they can bring their authentic self to work. When team members feel included and valued, they are more likely to be engaged, motivated, and contribute their best work. And on a diverse team, belonging determines how much the team taps into diverse perspectives, opinions, and ideas. As a leader, you encourage that sense of belonging through the habits, norms, and behaviors that you model and that get mimicked by the rest of the team.

In this article, we’ll outline how to create a sense of belonging at work through five actions leaders take that get emulated on the team and make everyone feel included.

1. Share Information Openly

The first way to create a sense of belonging at work is to share information openly. Open and transparent communication is the foundation of a cohesive and inclusive team. When team members have access to all relevant information, including financials and decisions, they feel trusted and respected. That transparency fosters a sense of belonging, as everyone is on the same page and can contribute effectively.

Sharing information that is not typically shared can also increase the sense of belonging. By going beyond the basics and providing insights into the organization’s goals, challenges, and strategies, team members feel more connected to the bigger picture. This understanding helps them see how their individual contributions fit into the overall team’s success.

2. Share Credit Widely

The second way to create a sense of belonging is to share credit widely. In a collaborative work environment, it’s essential to recognize and appreciate the contributions of every team member. Sharing credit widely means acknowledging and celebrating success as a collective effort, rather than attributing it solely to individual achievements. Avoid taking credit for yourself—even if senior leaders attribute the win to you—and instead attribute success to the team. By doing so, you create a culture of collaboration and unity, where everyone feels valued and recognized for their contributions.

Teach team members to share credit for their wins and acknowledge the contributions of others. Encourage a culture of gratitude and recognition, where team members actively appreciate and celebrate each other’s achievements. This not only strengthens the sense of belonging but also promotes a positive and supportive work environment.

3. Create Rituals

The third way to create a sense of belonging is to create rituals. Rituals play a significant role in creating a sense of belonging within a team. They provide a shared experience and a sense of identity, fostering a feeling of unity and camaraderie. Rituals can take various forms, from formal traditions to informal inside jokes, and they contribute to the team’s culture and cohesion.

Whether it’s a team chant, a recurring icebreaker game, or a team-specific acronym, rituals create a sense of meaning and belonging. They establish a sense of familiarity and shared history, making team members feel like they are part of something special. However, it’s crucial to ensure that rituals include everyone and do not create an “us versus them” dynamic. Exclusionary rituals can have the opposite effect, alienating certain team members and undermining the sense of belonging.

4. Ask for Advice

The fourth way to create a sense of belonging is to ask for advice. Asking for advice is a powerful way to show team members that their knowledge and perspective are valued. It demonstrates trust and respect for their expertise, fostering a sense of belonging and empowerment. When team members see that their input is genuinely sought and considered, they feel more invested in the decision-making process and the overall success of the team.

Regularly ask for advice before making decisions, especially those that directly impact the team. This not only allows you to gather diverse perspectives but also reinforces the sense of belonging by involving team members in the decision-making process. When decisions are made, make sure to show how their advice contributed to the final outcome, further reinforcing their value and impact.

5. Model Active Listening

The final way to create a sense of belonging is to model active listening. Active listening is a fundamental skill that leaders and team members should cultivate to create a sense of belonging. It involves giving your full attention when team members are speaking, showing genuine interest and respect for their ideas and opinions. Non-verbal cues, such as nodding or smiling, can also signal active listening and encourage team members to share more openly. Additionally, asking follow-up questions and seeking clarification demonstrates a genuine desire to understand and engage with the speaker’s thoughts.

Leaders who model active listening train the team to respond similarly when interacting with each other. And that creates a culture where everyone is engaged because everyone feels respected. That not only increases a sense of belonging but increases how much information is being shared between teammates—and how many different ideas are being generated when problem solving.

Creating a sense of belonging within a team is essential for its success and productivity. By taking the actions discussed in this article, such as sharing information openly, sharing credit widely, creating rituals, asking for advice, and modeling active listening, you can foster a positive work environment where team members feel included, valued, and motivated. Remember, creating a sense of belonging takes time and effort, but the benefits are worth it. When team members feel a strong sense of belonging, they are more likely to be engaged, committed, and willing to go the extra mile. In other words, they’ll be better able to do their best work ever.

Image credit: Pixabay

Originally published on DavidBurkus.com on July 17, 2023

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A Case Study on High Performance Teams

New Zealand’s All Blacks

A Case Study on High Performance Teams

GUEST POST from Stefan Lindegaard

The New Zealand All Blacks’ rugby team exemplifies high performance through a blend of deep cultural traditions, continuous improvement, and exceptional teamwork. Renowned for their winning legacy, the All Blacks have harnessed their unique team ethos and operational strategies to maintain dominance in international rugby.

Deep Dive into the All Blacks’ Team Dynamics

1. The Essence of Their High Performance Culture: At its core, the All Blacks’ success is driven by a strong team culture that emphasizes collective responsibility and personal excellence. Each player is selected not only for their athletic prowess but also for their ability to contribute to the team’s ethos, which is famously encapsulated by the mantra, “Better People Make Better All Blacks.”

2. Leadership and Collective Responsibility: The team operates under a shared leadership model where senior players are tasked with mentoring younger teammates, fostering a sense of responsibility and continuity. This structure enhances cohesion and ensures that the team’s values are imparted effectively across generations.

3. Continuous Cultural and Performance Improvement: Inspired by the concept of ‘Kaizen’, or continuous improvement, the All Blacks strive to enhance every aspect of their performance, from on-field strategies to mental preparation. This approach keeps them adaptable and competitive, regardless of the evolving nature of the game.

Lessons from the All Blacks’ Team Strategies

1. Unity and Shared Vision: The All Blacks’ unity is their strength. A shared vision guided by their cultural values leads to cohesive team efforts. Leaders can learn the importance of aligning team members towards a common goal and the powerful impact of a united front.

2. Cultural Legacy and Identity: The integration of cultural rituals like the Haka into their routine not only intimidates opponents but also strengthens their identity and resolve. This teaches leaders the value of embracing and promoting a unique team identity to enhance solidarity and pride.

3. Mental Toughness and Resilience: The mental preparation of players to handle high-pressure situations is a testament to their resilience. Developing mental toughness is crucial for teams to perform under pressure.

4. Adaptability and Tactical Innovation: The All Blacks’ ability to adapt their game plan in real-time according to the situation on the field underscores the importance of flexibility and innovation in achieving superior results.

5. Empowerment and Accountability: Empowering players to take ownership of their roles and the outcomes teaches accountability and encourages individual contribution to the team’s success.

Reflecting on the All Blacks’ Approach to High Performance

While the cultural and operational strategies of the All Blacks are deeply integrated into the fabric of New Zealand rugby, they provide universal lessons on building and sustaining high performance teams. The key is not merely in adopting specific tactics but in cultivating an environment that promotes continuous improvement, unity, and resilience.

Key Insights for Leaders:

  • Building a high performance team requires more than skills; it requires cultivating a shared culture and identity that can inspire and unify team members.
  • Flexibility in strategies and adaptability in execution are critical to staying competitive and relevant.
  • Continuous improvement and learning are essential for sustaining high performance and should be integral to the team’s operation.

The All Blacks’ method, though deeply rooted in the specific context of rugby and New Zealand culture, offers great insights for leaders in any field aiming to build high performance teams.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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