Forbes - John Kotter's Change Leadership
Rules can get in the way of the goal. If someone messes up, should they get fired? Your average manager’s pat answer is always “yes, it sets a ‘what not to do’ example for the rest.” An exceptional leader would answer “it depends.” My colleague Ken Perlman offers a clear example of why punishing failures is the fastest way to stifle innovation in your organization.
Last week, in the New York Times Corner Office column, when Jeffrey G. Katz, a successful start-up veteran was asked how he builds a successful corporate culture, he said he tells his people, “Look, you can make any mistake, and I guarantee you it won’t be a fraction of the mistakes I’ve already made, and you won’t be chastised for failure. But if you tell a lie, you’re fired.”
When your people have that to hang their hat on, they’re far more likely to take the risks that lead to innovation. If you have to ask (that’s a warning sign right there) where the people in your organization fall on the scale ranging from risk-takers to zombies, here’s a litmus test. These four questions can tell you all you need to know about your team’s culture.
- What are some examples of big wins for the team?
- What are some examples of big failures for the team?
- How did the team celebrate the win?
- What happened to the people involved in the failure?
I was recently visiting a very cool, local startup. They had read the article, “Engage the Unengaged,” that Jimmy Leppert and I wrote, and asked if I could come by to talk about it. I’m a huge extrovert – of course I came over.
I got the chance to talk to some executives and staff members. They were concerned that their young, talented, enthusiastic employees, who were given a huge range of permission, were not stepping up and taking as many risks as the leaders had hoped.
I began by asking a few questions to understand the culture a bit better and try to uncover any barriers. It was clear the executives were as young, talented, and passionate as their employees. They didn’t seem to have any of the traditional command-and-control challenges. It sounded like they wanted their teams and team members to make decisions on their own, and take time to work actively across silos. What was holding them back?
Then I asked the four questions above.
In response to the win question, the lower staff members brought up a highly visible and risky project that created great press and thrilled clients. They talked about having t-shirts, sharing some of the graphics and media they created throughout the company, and celebrating the project’s completion.
Then an executive added, “We lost a lot of money on that project.” So, while it was celebrated as a huge success, it was not a great path to profitability. When I asked what happened to the team that put all that together, they replied that most were no longer with the company.
Then I asked again why people weren’t stepping up to take on special projects.
In short, think about the behaviors you want to see from the members of your team. How do you want them to contribute to the success of their team and to the organization? Now, ask members of your teams the four questions above. See if the answers create an environment where you would feel safe working outside your role, contributing over and above. If so, carry on and continue winning. If not, then your leadership team needs to work on creating the type of environment where people will dare to be bold.
More often than not, if the smart, talented, passionate people you hired aren’t stepping up to help the team win, it’s not them – it’s you.
Ken Perlman is an engagement leader at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. John Kotter is the chief innovation officer at Kotter International and is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School.
For more about how organizations can develop the agility required to succeed in today’s rapidly changing world, read my new article, “Accelerate,” featured in the November issue of Harvard Business Review.
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Dennis Goin, a colleague I’ve worked closely with over the past several years, has a gift. He has a natural ability to weave experiences into stories that inspire. You’ll enjoy this one, about the importance of vision in achieving your goals.
This past weekend, while watching golf on television, I noticed that every golfer, before they hit their ball, got behind it and looked out at their target. First, they visualized their shot. They saw how high and how far the ball would go and even whether or not the shot would have back spin.
Some years ago, I watched Kristi Yamaguchi prepare for her gold medal try in figure skating. She was sitting on a stool with her eyes closed, and you could see her head and body visualizing her routine.
A while back, I was asked to talk with the president of a hospital who was retiring after 30 years. On the wall in his office he had pictures of the hospital, in 5-year increments since the 1940s. In addition, he had drawings of the hospital in 5-year increments for the next 15 years after he retired. I asked him why.
He stated that each day he would come into work and move from one picture to the next. He would remember each of those years and what was happening. But, most importantly he said that when he stood in front of the picture that was 5-years out from today, it allowed him to focus on what needed to be done to achieve that picture.
Finally, my father was part of the “greatest generation” who stormed the beaches of Normandy and was lucky enough to return whole. While he would talk little about the war, I asked him one day what was his picture that kept moving him forward. I thought he would say something about getting rid of the enemy or fighting for your country. But, he said something I’ve never forgotten. His picture for getting through the war was going home. And, the only way to do that was not back to England, but through Germany.
Pictures and visions may be the most powerful tool the human mind uses to decide whether we can or we can’t.
When the picture is clear we can take action to move towards it. When the picture is cloudy, then we cannot take the actions necessary to move forward.
A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Party Pushes Obama to Sharpen His Message,” begins: President Obama has a policy agenda. But, what he needs, some Democratic allies suggest, is a better story. He is on the airwaves constantly talking about immigration, gun control, drone strikes and natural disasters. But in his many public appearances, some Democrats say, Mr. Obama needs to draw a clearer picture of the larger purpose of his second term.
Over my 25 years of working with senior leaders and organizations wanting to accomplish their policy agenda, many fail to create a clear picture of the larger opportunity that exists. My experience is that when the picture of what we want to do, or where we want to go, is not clear we have a tendency to stay where we are or defend the status quo – or even point out why other elements won’t let us move forward. Rarely do we come to the conclusion that our picture is not clear.
However, when leadership has a clear picture of the future – and they’re able to articulate that vision – the whole enterprise has the ability to:
• Align itself to the picture.
• Allow more and more people the opportunity to help the picture become reality.
• Begin to see the actions taken towards the picture as wins rather than barriers.
• Once the enterprise successfully realizes the picture, they can sustain the picture.
• Begin to create policy agendas based on clear pictures.
Why is it that many of us start with what we want to accomplish, rather than a picture of an opportunity? Could it be that we are not sure what the real opportunity is or what it looks like? Do we settle for just hitting the ball rather than visualizing the shot, or not falling when we ice skate rather than seeing the whole routine completed flawlessly?
The evidence is clear, when senior leaders focus their people on a very clear picture of an opportunity for the future, they will become urgent and move towards it.
To Tiger Woods, it means breaking the record of Jack Nicklaus.
To Kristi Yamaguchi, it meant a gold medal in the Olympics.
To my father, it meant fighting and defeating an enemy so that he could come home.
PJ Chan works closely with one of Kotter International‘s oldest clients, and she’s experienced first hand the failure that follows a project-managed approach to innovation. Here she details why you cannot “force” innovation to happen, but rather, how you can shape your corporate environment so that innovation can be possible.
Innovation is a big corporate buzzword, and it’s one of the hottest topics on this blog. That’s because it’s one of the biggest mysteries to business leaders. A new study from Accenture, “Why Low Risk Innovation Is Costly,” revealed that fewer than one in five chief executives believes their company’s strategic investments in innovation are paying off. Because of the high percentage of failure, nearly half of the executives surveyed said their companies were less likely to risk implementing breakthrough ideas.
While some companies are wildly successful with their innovation attempts, we also know that at least 70 percent of change efforts fail and, by definition, innovation ranks as the biggest change effort out there. The question is: What are these unsuccessful CEOs and their people doing wrong with their strategic investment in innovation?
Innovation only happens in the right environment, one where everyone is not only allowed to innovate, but they are actively encouraged to speak up and bring new ideas to the table. This may sound like common sense, but it is far from common practice.
How do you create an innovative environment? While I can’t prescribe how to make your organization innovate, these tips can help you breed a culture that contains innovation in its DNA:
- Innovation only comes by invitation. Invite people to bring forth their new ideas. True innovation takes place when people are free to raise ideas, take ownership of them, and then implement them. If people are required to ask permission for every step they take, they will stop asking permission.
- Innovation is not a solo sport, it requires a group of players with skills specific to the effort. Many companies appoint an innovation department or hire a chief innovation officer, which can make innovation just another stovepipe in the organization. The message this sends to your organization is that innovation is “their job” and “not mine” – siloed off. While an idea may come from one individual, it’s the cross-functional creativity, trust, and collaboration that bring innovation to life.
- Encourage everyone to put their ideas to test fast, fail fast, and then reiterate. If people wait for perfection before they put the idea to work, the effort will lose steam before it ever gets off the ground.
- Value the lessons taken from failure as much as your successes, and apply those lessons toward each new attempt. This makes it safe for everyone to innovate. The idea is not to encourage failure but to foster innovation that leads to winning success as rapidly as possible.
- Ensure this behavior gets modeled at every level, from the very top to individual contributor. That means the senior leaders must be actively involved, not just mandating the change.
- Resist the desire to project manage your way to innovation. It cannot be generated by focusing solely on budgets, resources, and timelines. If you try, you can guarantee your innovation investment will be wasted.
You can even get a little, ahem, innovative with your strategy for encouraging innovation. Consider offering awards for innovative attempts – both ones that may have failed, like the Heroic Failure Award, and even silly, risky ones that led to a breakthrough like the Golden Goose Award. Or, set an example by taking the Marshmallow Challenge with your teams, which teaches that success comes only by trying often, failing often, revising, and trying again. Once the focus changes from winning to trying, your company will go from incremental gains to game-changing innovations.
Dr. Kotter’s most recent article, Accelerate!” available from the Harvard Business Review, describes how your organization can develop the agility required to succeed in today’s rapidly changing world.
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