Taking the Fall without becoming the “Fall Guy”

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    When leading Adaptive Change, you have the opportunity to design the journey initiated by Destabilizing Events so that you can reach the future you desire. Because the actual path you take is unknown and can’t be predicted your leadership provides direction but you cannot control the process. As each person, team, or division moves through Adaptive Change, the organization experiences divergence and convergence. Your ultimate success depends on your ability to lead a portfolio of change. Regardless of your scope of leadership, your actions widely impact other people, functions, and clients.

    I once tried to graphically capture this portfolio concept and it is worth looking at the mess that change creates. Without trying to explain this picture, you can see the mess. Clearly we are working in a connected, interdependent system.

    Look at the left side of this picture, the place where Destabilizing Events pull us away from the Status Quo, the organization reacts by initiating transactional change, and the Red Line is induced – we call this initial phase of Adaptive Change “The Fall.” It is like stepping off a cliff and being both weightless (exhilarated) and speeding toward some unknown “down there” (scared breathless).

    Most leaders are totally unprepared for the mess that occurs at the beginning of Adaptive Change. It is hard to see any patterns in the graphic, let alone a single overarching theme, and, for those of you down in the mess, the way forward is anything but clear. Yet there is something beautiful about it. But when things are unclear and we feel that rock in the pit of our stomach, what do we reach for?? Command and Control – the Alka-Seltzer of management!

    So here is an alternative way to lead the system during the Fall – Appreciative Inquiry[1]. There are many ways to use Appreciative Inquiry (AI), and many practitioners out there using it if you want some help. For Adaptive Change I use a version developed by Bruce Flye.

    Conversations for the Fall

    During the Fall, everyone needs a rudder so they can navigate the mess, leaders included. This iterative AI cycle is that rudder. Using it in the form of a conversation, you can continuously find your way forward through the mess.

    Going all the way back to the PDCP change initiative I believe the key to success was the conversational format I used. As the facilitator, I asked questions and then created the space (context) for them to be answered (content) by the teams I worked with. I learned early on (mainly because I was overwhelmed with meetings) that the teams had to own the work. I left every session empty handed and they took the flip charts and created the outputs.

    Lest you think this was easy, give it a try. I often spent the first half hour trying to convince the group that they even had opportunities, aspirations, and a vision. Because people are operating from a predictive and often negative mindset, change and the future seem too “squishy” – certainly not something you can plan toward. Mess, yes. Squishy, no.

    Go in to these conversations prepared with stories such as the 1960’s “man on the moon” challenge or the beginnings of Amazon. Jeff Bezos[2] has built a company on rapid prototyping Adaptive Change. Ask them how Oprah Winfrey[3] constantly stayed ahead of the competition without mastering Adaptive Change. As a leader you will have to hold the organization’s feet to the fire and you can only do this if you take a positive stance. AI lets you do this. The AI conversation can be held anywhere and everywhere in the organization. The output generated provides the directional leadership that people and the organization need to navigate the mess that they are experiencing.

    The conversation goes something like this:

    Inquire: Begin by identifying the positive, set the stage for engagement and look for who is already succeeding.

    Imagine: Explore the Vision that is pulling you forward. Let people dream and connect with each other; this includes other parts of the organization, community, and stakeholders.

    Innovate: Take what you have Imagined and make it real. Innovation requires sensing the environment, testing your ideas, and adapting them as they are implemented using rapid prototyping.

    Implement: I often ask groups to write down 3 things they can do in 30 days. Help people find the obvious next step and do it. When that is finished, the next step always shows up.

    This brings you back to Inquire and off you go on another conversational cycle.


    [2] http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/bez0bio-1

    [3] http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/win0bio-1