In this assignment I am tasked with discussing how I propose to lead strategic change. The obvious role for me to use as context for this is the company I founded, but I hope to be able to understand how to apply the same learning to organisations where I do not hold an official leadership role. That seems an impossible pipe dream right now as I start this in a place of paralysis. When I consider I am trying to lead strategic change in an environment where “70 to 90% of organisations consistently fail to execute strategies effectively” (Morgan, Levitt, and Malek, 2007) and “75% of all change programmes seem to fail” (Grint, 2008); I wonder what I can do differently to ensure those strategies and change initiatives I am involved in are successful. In my first assignment I discussed the humble servant leader captured for me by Lao Tzu:
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.
As I approach this assignment, I do not feel I am in a place of humble serving. Serving requires action. I feel paralysed by fear and unable to act, mostly because I seem unable to see where best to serve.
This feeling of paralysis began with Kegan and his three plateaus in adult mental complexity: the socialised mind; the self-authoring mind; and the self-transforming mind (Kegan, 1994). The suggestion in his study of over 300 people, and Torbert’s similar study of nearly 500 people, was that Stage 5 and the self-transforming mind was the Nirvana (Kegan, 1994; Torbert, 1987). Less than 1% of those surveyed were at that plateau, with 6-7% transitioning there; but, upon first reading, Kegan presented to me the “self-transforming mind” as goal to work towards. Initially I was more than happy to accept this idea. Kegan’s plateaus presented as a linear chart of increasing mental complexity over time echoed with my understanding of success. My strategy to any change initiative, whether that be in my personal development or in an organisation, has been to set a goal and work through the linear stages in order to reach it. Once the goal is reached, I have success. Kegan‘s plateaus reminded me of Noel Burch’s Four Stages of Competency framework, which is something I reference frequently when learning a new skill. I start as “unconsciously incompetent” and move through the linear stages to become “unconsciously competent”. Bushe and Marshak call this the “performance mindset” (2016) and it seemed to have served me well so far. Yet, in 2015 I learnt to speak in public, which previously was a skill I did not own. I achieved “unconscious competence” until Christmas 2016 when I was asked to read the lesson in St Mary’s Church, Warwick for Myton School’s Carol Concert. I was very nervous. The skill was the same but the circumstances different enough to send me back to “conscious incompetence”. Luckily, I remembered most of the crucial techniques and read the lesson adequately. Yet, those who knew me well did detect a slip in my usual speaking confidence. And this is where my paralysis began. If I can slip between Burch’s stages due to situation and circumstance, then I can slip between Kegan’s. Even if I become one of the very few to reach a “self-transforming mind”; I know I will not stay there indefinitely. I will slip back. There is no Nirvana.
In my first assignment I began to deconstruct my view of a leader as “libertarian paternalist” (Sunstein and Thaler, 2008) and I was left with a Moses who could see the Promised Land but did not know the path to get there. This process of deconstruction continued and now Moses has realised the Promised Land does not exist at all. On this course I have read over and over again about the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world we live in, but in 2016 I really experienced it. If the “heroic, strategic thinker who can envision viable futures and the path to those futures” is unable to face the “complex, ever-changing challenges” (Bushe and Marshak, 2016) of a VUCA world, where does that leave me? How can I move past my paralysis? It is time to go back to primary school (which my daughter begun this year) and throw out all my old learning and assumptions. It is time to begin again with childhood’s “experimental learning” (Dewey, 1915) and examine the “wicked problems” (Rittel and Webber, 1973) my organisation faces that I have not been able to solve to date. A “wicked problem” is one with “many stakeholders with different values and priorities”; “roots [that] are complex and tangled”; a problem that “changes with every attempt to address it”; which “has no precedent”; and “nothing to indicate the right answer” (Camillus, 2008). I have chosen the call-handling issue we have with the First-Line Support team. The stakeholders run into the thousands if you consider every member of our company, our client companies, and our suppliers. I cannot know all the values and priorities of those individuals. The roots are certainly “complex and tangled” (Camillus, 2008) and the problem has changed following each attempt I have made to resolve it. It has no precedent as I have not faced this problem and succeeded in the past and there is “nothing to indicate the right answer” (Camillus, 2008) which explains why I have developed a deep frustration for it as an issue over more than a year. I have reached the point of trying to convince myself it is not that important in a desperate attempt to save my sanity.
I care so much about this particular problem because it is more than important. It is fundamental. Our business is founded on one principle: to keep our clients operational. It is why we are here as an organisation. When someone calls the Technical Support desk they have an issue that is stopping them from working and we need to address it promptly. The client often believes that the quickest way to resolve their issue is to speak to the member of the team they remember. That might be the last person they spoke to or it might be the salesperson or the project manager. The client is occasionally right in this assumption; but, as the team grows, the probability of them being incorrect increases exponentially. We will always know the expertise of our team better than the client does. When I first came to this issue, in 6 out of 10 cases the First-Line Support team would agree with the client and transfer them to the named person without any fact-finding. If First-Line could not get hold of the named colleague (in 15-20% of cases) they would email internally with the instruction to call the client back. Meanwhile, the client remains not operational and the process of finding the right person for the actual issue is no further towards a conclusion. Worse than that, the process is paused until that individual picks up their email which might not be for 24 hours.
Diagnosing our organisational culture using Cameron and Quinn’s (2006) paradigm indicates a need for structure and hierarchy. This is not a surprise. Firstly, because I completed the diagnosis and I had already recognised my own desire for more structure; and secondly because an individualistic start-up culture has become our dominant logic. In our “fraternity”, the “social glue” holding us together is our difference from each other which we frequently assert, often aggressively, through our own “scripts” of “dependent disobedience” (Mangham, 1988). When I first explained to the First-Line team how I wanted them to answer the phones, I was following Grint’s (2008) “elegant” Ten Commandments starting with a “viable vision/alternative state” of a First-Line Support team that gathered all the information needed confidently 100% of the time. Exactly in the way I felt I did and had demonstrated to them. I was reacting to our established culture based on the assertion of difference with a “suppression of difference” by wanting to create a team of clones. The assertion of difference and individuality frightens me because it suggests an undermining of the “belonging” in the “fraternity” (Mangham, 1988). This is especially concerning to me at a time when I want us to pull together to cope with the challenges we are facing as a growing company. I recognise my “inability to define identities and roles … are products of inexperience and unfamiliarity” and “a working agreement is thus a delicate balance of identities and tasks” (Mangham, 1988). To “lead to the toning down of polarities” I need to allow the “revealing of a point of view and its opposite” (Mowles, 2015).
Instead of the “exploration of difference” (Mowles, 2015) I could have been seeking, I adopted an “integrated transition programme” (Grint, 2008). I began with infrastructure as we invested in a new IT system to collect all the information we needed in one place. I moved to the organisational mindset and explained to the team why the new process was so important to us. Keeping our clients operational is our core value, our shared belief, our reason for being. A “compelling story” (Aiken and Keller, 2009) but one that does not mean the same to the team as it means to me. The First-Line team are all dedicated to excellent customer service; but in their view customer service is giving the client what they want. If the client wants to be put through to Colleague A and he/she gets put through to Colleague A, irrespective of whether A can resolve the issue the client has or not, First-Line felt they had done a good job. The team were struggling with the “competing commitments” (Kegan and Lahey 2009) of having an angry client whose short-term request they would not grant, even knowing that they would be operational again faster and happier in the long-term. In my programme for change, I had overlooked the personal mindset of individual beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, and habits and forgotten “what motivates you doesn’t motivate most of your employees” (Aiken and Keller, 2009). I struggle with my overwhelming desire to project my values onto everyone I come into contact with. People should be socially responsible. People should care about improving the world in which they live. All value based judgements because I care about those things. I felt the First-Line team should care about keeping clients operational first and foremost because I founded a company based on the fact I care about it. Obviously keeping clients operational will make them happy in the long-term; but explaining that prioritising their operational capability may cause the client to incur short-term pain and feelings of frustration is a difficult task for customer service individuals who want at all times to keep the client happy. I did not find out what the First-Line team cared about and did not allow them to “write their own story” (Aiken and Keller, 2009). Instead I tried to force them to keep copying out mine.
When I saw little improvement from my “elegant approach” (Grint, 2008) to change, I decided confidence was the issue. The First-Line Support team are 75% female in comparison to the rest of the company where it is less than 30% female. They are the newest members of the team and 50% had made career transitions from retail and hospitality sectors into technology. These same team members were also back-to-work single mothers. I had struggled with confidence myself returning to work and being the only woman in a male-dominated industry. I was still trying to make them write my story. Aiken and Keller warn of the “leaders [who] believe mistakenly that they already are the change” (2009) and I certainly fell into this trap. The team had confidence training which resulted in improvement for a number of months and I relaxed into a false sense of fait accomplit. I believed my “elegant approach” had solved my “wicked problem” when it “can only ever address elements of” such an issue (Grint, 2008). So I crashed to the ground a few months later when I heard one of the team answer the phone falling back into old habits. My heart sank further when I was presented with an email trail showing a client left for five working days with no response while internal emails travelled around departments. Paralysed, I chose to ignore the problem and pretend it wasn’t that important until it was raised by one of the First-Line team members in her review before Christmas. She cared about keeping the clients operational. She understood my “compelling story” but saw that “good intentions aren’t enough” (Aiken and Keller, 2009) and wanted me to wave a magic wand to ensure she was always “unconsciously competent” on the phone. I saw clearly for the first time the anxiety created by the inspirational dependency I discussed in my first assignment “for followers who expect leaders to provide answers” (Bushe and Marshak, 2016).
A New Year and time for a new approach. To find a “clumsy solution” (Grint, 2008) I need to adopt a “dialogic mindset” (Bushe and Marshak, 2016) and understand people “are what they think, feel, and believe in” (Aiken and Keller 2009). When the team don’t sound confident and are too flustered to collect all the data we need, it is because that is how they feel. There are traits, beliefs, and values below the surface of the iceberg (Goodman, 2002). I want to support them to “write their own story” (Aiken and Keller, 2009). I have booked mental health sessions for all the team with an external consultant, which are optional. I am managing my “own anxiety about letting go” (Bushe and Marshak, 2016) and not insisting that everyone takes part in every activity I decide is good for them. I recognise “it takes a story with both + and – to create real energy” (Aiken and Keller, 2009) and we need to look at both what is wrong and how we would like it to be. I used this approach to speak to the whole First-Line team. One team member said that it was only certain clients who flustered her with a direct or dismissive manner. That was what was wrong and she wanted them to stop speaking to her that way. I have no control over the behaviour of clients but I do have influence. I am sending a regular communication to all our clients stressing the value of the First-Line Support team and highlighting the training they have had. This will hopefully increase confidence in their abilities for both the clients and the team. I am planning client visits for the First-Line team so everyone can meet the people behind the voices which could lead to a better relationship on the phone. I have told the team any difficult clients to pass them to me if I am in the office or take a note for me to contact them personally, and so far we have had only one of these in over a month. I know that it will not be a journey to the Promised Land. I know that there will be days from the sublime “unconscious competence” to the ridiculous “unconscious incompetence” and everything in between. And I will still feel paralysed by what is wrong as well as empowered by what I imagine it could be.
As I conclude this, I am reminded of a scene from the Rugby World Cup in 2003 that showed the England team in training. All the players ran across the pitch in a diagonal line passing the ball from the centre to the winger who scored a try. It was easy without the opposing team, the expectations of the crowd, and the pressure of performance. Learning about strategy feels like that. I sit in a classroom. I read articles and books. I consistently think I am better than I am, like all human beings (Aiken and Keller, 2009). I believe I will reach Kegan’s “self-transforming mind” (1994) and meditatively make my home there like Buddha on the mountain. But in that classroom or quietly reading that book, I am just passing the ball on a rugby field without an opposing team. Without a crowd. Without the pressure of knowing this time it matters. It is what I do when I get on the pitch for match day that counts. When I am back in the thick of it. Tired sometimes. Under pressure. Stretched. Will I remember what I learnt in that classroom? What I read in that book? Will I enjoy moments of “unconscious competence” again? Before I began this course, I was a leader of vision and action. I then became a leader paralysed. “It is hard to stand firm in the middle” (Ezra Pound, 1967). “It is harder still when, to find the middle, one must first sound out the extremities” (Mangham, 1988).
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