Finding Your Own Truer Leadership

shutterstock_2970933John comes to me saying he wants to work on a pressing dilemma in his job as CEO. As we work together, he resolves the dilemma. He also clarifies his own truer leadership, meaning both the values he leads by and the leadership capabilities that make him effective.

John’s initial dilemma sounded like this: “We’ve signed an MOU with another company, so now I’m leading two organizations. One is in crisis and the other is growing, so every day I’m in reactive mode. I just never get out in front. I signed on to this because I think there’s real potential for both companies. But the workload is crushing me, and I’m dizzy from reacting.”

Learning, which is the essence of coaching, begins with exploring. John and I start our exploration with his real, current experience. John feels crushed and dizzy, and I’m curious to know more about what that’s like for him. Well, he says, the stress is terrible. He feels terrible about reports and deadlines that are way past due. He’s been sick twice in four months. He hardly sees his family. He’s an athlete and he has no time to exercise.

“Wow, that’s a lot to bear,” I say sincerely. “Yeah, it is a lot,” John says, and I see him nodding as he thinks about it. Often in a coaching session (it happens to me when I’m working with my own coach) we say things we sort of already know. But things have more impact when we hear ourselves tell our story or piece together a pattern. At the end of this early session with John, he says one of his takeaways is that he saw more clearly the relationship between stress, little exercise, missing his family, and two bouts of flu.

Other “ah-ha’s” lead to deeper discoveries that are the heart of transformational coaching. John realizes that he’s not just trying to climb out of “reactive mode” or “get out in front.” He realizes that in his current situation he’s not being the leader he wants to be and has been in the past: a strategic thinker, relationally connected, a person with a passion for achieving the mission, and who knows how to work with others to get there.

Over many coaching sessions, John grows really clear about his own truer leadership. Clarity comes from John’s reflective process, my questions, recognition of patterns and themes that surface over time, trying out and then reflecting on new behaviors, planning, and taking action.

As coach and client, we are often working on multiple levels, for example: co-creating strategies for John to carve out “think time” at work; noticing the positive results of taking small steps toward John’s strategic vision; noticing how his senior managers respond to his warm and collaborative way of working; problem solving specific managerial challenges; discovering and “growing” new capabilities John didn’t know he has.

John is a hero. All my clients are, because it takes great courage to find and practice YOUR truer leadership. Here are some exercises to help.

  • Periodically ask yourself questions such as, What values do you try to follow in your work? What work is joyful? How do you lead?
  • Every day for a week (or more), use the last ten minutes of the work day to take stock. What (and who) did you enjoy today? Why? What “good work” did you do? (Define “good work” for yourself.) What is one thing you will do tomorrow that will be “good work?”
  • Do a thorough values clarification exercise. There is a really good one in Becoming a Resonant Leader, chapter 4.

Board Strategic Readiness, a Checklist

shutterstock_426708937Board strategic readiness means a board knows and meets its responsibilities for strategic planning and ongoing strategic thinking.  Here’s how:  a checklist of 10 questions from my new book Strategic Planning Guidebook.

  1. How does the board regularly pay attention to the changing strategic landscape and engage in ongoing strategic thinking?
  2. What is, and how do you evaluate and improve, the board’s role in your organization’s periodic and ongoing strategic planning?
  3. How do you ensure that every board member is familiar with your strategic plan?
  4. How does your current strategic plan figure in or guide the board’s work?
  5. What is the board’s role in ensuring your organization’s financial sustainability, including fundraising and development that are needed to achieve strategic plan goals?
  6. How does the board regularly and formally evaluate its composition, structure, and practices—and continuously improve?
  7. What does each successive strategic plan suggest about board composition, for example, the kinds of expertise and stakeholder representation the board needs?
  8. How do you ensure diversity and inclusion that will contribute to strategic thinking?
  9. How are board committees organized to align with strategic plan goals?
  10. When and how does the board plan an annual calendar, and how do you ensure that strategic discussions happen throughout the year?

Naturally, board strategic readiness implies that you continue to learn and improve by asking the questions over and over.

Sometimes you’ll need some help. In my book, I talk about how to decide when to hire an outside consultant, and when you probably don’t need to.

Rutledge Strategic Planning Guidebook 2016 coverWhen you do need help with board building, think about bringing in a qualified team coach to help the board assess its readiness, have the rigorous discussions needed to make new decisions and plans, and adjust group norms and habits.  A team coach works with the board during its meetings, using strengths-focused questions and real-time, on-the-spot feedback. When I am coaching a board, I invite a different board member at each meeting to pay attention to specific aspects of the board’s process. This is one way to help boards learn to self-monitor and continuously learn.

10 Ways to Be an Effective Leader

shutterstock_282591626What can you do to be the most effective leader you can be? A Center for Creative Leadership report affirms that relationship management,” that’s, “how you interact with others,” is key to leading effectively. How can you assess how you are doing, and then improve?

Start by asking yourself these ten questions:

  1. Do I follow through on commitments?
  2. Do I stay curious in conversations, and listen to others?
  3. Do I mentor others?
  4. Do I give tough feedback in straightforward and relationally savvy ways?
  5. Do I work through conflicts in productive ways?
  6. Am I clear with others about their role in decisions (for example, giving information as input, giving informal advice, giving a recommendation, or participating in consensus-building)?
  7. Do I say when I’m wrong, and apologize when I make a mistake?
  8. Do I explicitly acknowledge others’ achievements and contributions?
  9. Do I actively promote diversity and inclusion?
  10. Do I have a reasonable, sustainable work/outside-work balance?

There are many ways to use the ten questions. For example,

  • Answer each question using a scale: always, most of the time, often, sometimes, no.
  • For every question, ask yourself, how do you know? What information supports your answer? Is there information that contradicts it?
  • Get other people’s input. Your leadership coach can do this through 360 degree interviews or surveys.

In other posts, I’ve explained how to use the Learning Compass as a tool for improving leadership. The Compass, a visual representation of the Learning Cycle, brings awareness to your thinking-learning-doing process. As you follow the steps below, notice that you are moving clockwise around the Compass to learn about your leadership and then commit to action.

  • First, gather information by asking the ten questions. (Compass Northeast: Imagining)
  • Then, reflect on your answers and analyze them by asking, for instance, where am I strong and what are areas for improvement? (Compass East and Southeast: Reflection and Analysis)
  • Next, stand back and reach conclusions. What do your discoveries add up to? (Compass South: Thinking and Synthesis)
  • Finally, make a plan and commit to carrying it out. (Compass Southwest and West: Deciding and Planning for Action)

It isn’t easy to be a leader. Nearly half of new CEO’s fail. The good news is that with attention, and supports like coaching, you CAN succeed.

How to Support Managers as Coaches

supporting others to climb-chalk drawingIf you believe coaching is a great way to approach supervision and develop people, great. But do you give your managers the know-how and time to coach? When I ask managers I work with whether their bosses support their talent development role, many say, no, or not much. Their performance is too often evaluated based only on their functional roles as program managers, sales team heads, etc.

If you expect managers to be coaches, you have to invest considerable organizational resources to create and sustain a culture that is consistent with a coaching approach. Culture building has to come from the very top—as an organizational strategy, with resources. Once you commit, there are many ways to start; I gave ideas in an earlier blog. In today’s blog post, I want to emphasize that after you teach managers coaching skills, you have to continue to give them resources that enrich their skills—forever!

There are lots of teachable ideas for skill building. Here, for instance, is a framework managers can use to bookend check-in meetings with supervisees. The acronym TOSS will help you remember how to start the meeting.

  • Topic. Some weeks you’ll bring the topic. Sometimes, though, begin the meeting with an open-ended question. Ask, what topic would you like to focus on today?
  • Objective. State or ask what the objective is for this meeting.
  • Success. When the meeting objective points to a specific action or plan, be sure to ask how both of you will know the coachee has been successful.
  • Support. Ask your coachee what you can do to support him/her during and after this conversation.

At the end of a meeting, the TAPAT questions invite the coachee to consolidate her/his learning and commit to action.

  • Take aways. Ask, what are your take aways from this meeting?
  • Actions and/or a Plan. What actions will you take, and/or what’s your plan?
  • Accountability. How will you make yourself accountable for your action or plan?
  • Thanks. Express appreciation for something specific that has happened during the meeting.

At first I chafed at this structure, a version of one used by the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, where I have been a mentor coach. You also may share the skepticism of one of my clients there, who wondered how she could use TOSS and TAPAT while guiding a gracefully fluid coaching session.

Then I started seeing how TOSS and TAPAT questions enriched my practice. The opening questions help the coachee focus and help the coach serve learners’ real needs and goals. At the end of a meeting, the TAPAT questions invite the coachee to consolidate her/his learning and commit to action. I ALWAYS learn from the coachees’ choice of take aways. These help me understand what is meaningful for them, how they see their own challenges, and how they learn.

Years ago, when I was a young teacher, my wise mentor Pam told a story that taught me a lot about a coach’s helping role. During an alumna/e weekend, a former student ran up to Pam, exclaiming that he had learned so much from her. Pam waited to hear confirmation of her classroom skills. Instead, the young man said that one day, as he and Pam had walked together across the snowy campus, she had wondered aloud at the lovely snowflakes swirling about. “You taught me to notice small things,” the young alumna said.

Coachees’ answers to some of the TOSS and TAPAT answers often surprise me, and that’s a good thing. The surprise reminds me to be present for this person, here, now.

How Hopeful People Affect Us

We have only to consult our experience to know that our leaders’ and co-workers’ moods and outlooks affect us. My colleague Cheryl radiates sunshine and hope; they “power” her life. During a year-long collaboration, I marveled at her earnest friendliness, genuine curiosity about others, and often-expressed appreciation. When we faced challenges, her hope buoyed me.

Poet Emily Dickinson pictured hope as a bird—fragile and strong, delicate and unstoppable, freely given and giving generously.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

And sweetest in the gale is heard:
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea:
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Try an “awareness experiment” about how hopeful people affect you.

  • Begin by thinking of two or three people you know well who have a sunny outlook, a hopeful approach to living.
  • Now focus on one of these people, or all of them, one at a time. Reflect on what it is like to be around them.
  • Notice your thoughts. Jot them down. Then see if you notice patterns.
  • Notice how you feel, and jot down these feelings. Are there patterns?
  • Notice your body. For instance, are you inwardly or outwardly smiling? Feeling “up?” How is your breathing?

Now complete your Learning Cycle by asking: What did you just learn? What is one thing you will do differently today to sing hope’s song?

Here are suggestions for exploring further.

  • Look up Positive Emotional Attractors, of which hope is one, on the web.
  • Read some of the brain and social science research that explains how we boost our own growth and inspire others with Attractors like hope.
  • Do the exercises in chapter 4 of Resonant Leadership.
  • Do more “awareness experiments” on your own.

Have fun.

Work Cultures–Not Like Amazon

fish jumpingWhen I read the recent New York Times piece on Amazon’s ferocious work culture, I felt sad– because it isn’t only Amazon. Americans are working harder, longer, and under fiercer pressures. Instead of being wowed by Amazon’s growth and dominance, let’s create workplaces where:

  • Work is creative and challenging AND
  • Values and practices support developing people
  • Policy and practice support balance.

Here’s a key: in organizations where work IS learning, work will be creative, and talent management will emphasize growth and development. What do I mean by “work IS learning?” Coming to work everyday, you tackle tasks that ask you to create, analyze, decide, plan, and act. If you intentionally think about how you will do a task, reflect on what you’ve done, and then ask questions like, “what can I do the same, differently, better, etc.?” that’s learning. And it doesn’t take extra time. If, as a supervisor, you are encouraging others’ learning, you help them work smarter and perform better.

David Kolb, the master of learning, says, “The process of experiencing with awareness to create meaning and make choices is what we call deliberate experiential learning. Deliberate learning requires…a personal understanding of one’s unique way of learning from experience and the ability to intentionally direct and control one’s learning. In short, one needs to be in charge of their learning to be in charge of their life.” (D. A. Kolb, 2015)

You take full charge of this learning by:

  • Understanding how learning happens
  • Knowing your unique way of learning
  • Tracking where you are on the Learning Cycle throughout the day
  • Making intentional choices about where on the Cycle to move to.

Understanding how learning happens
The Learning Cycle describes an orderly process for learning. To help our clients picture the Cycle, Kay Peterson and I show it as a compass.

Compass-4-Modes small image

The orderly process of learning goes like this. Moving clockwise, you:

  • Have experiences—due North on the Compass
  • Reflect on the experience, facing East
  • Step back, think, and reach conclusions, facing South
  • Decide what to do next and then initiate these actions, facing West.

To further illustrate how the Learning Cycle works, try this experiment. Re-read Kolb’s quote. Reading the quote is an example of what Kolb means by “experiencing with awareness.” We’ll use this mindful experience to prompt learning. Re-read Kolb’s quote now.

Ready to practice going around the Learning Cycle? Here is a guide:

  • What, if anything, struck you—both individual words or phrases in the quote, and also your own thoughts or feelings. You are now facing East on the Compass, where meaning-making begins with reflection.
  • Mentally sort through your reflections on the quote. What do they suggest? How do they relate to your work, to opportunities for your growth, and to yourself as a leader/role model? As you answer these questions, you are moving South, to “Thinking,” which involves analyzing and reaching conclusions.
  • Because Kolb is inviting us to be more intentional about learning, what is one thing you will do more of, less or, or differently? Now you are facing Compass West.

Knowing your unique way of learning
Thanks to Kolb, everybody in your workplace can “understand one’s unique way of learning.” The Kolb Learning Style Inventory 4.0 (KLSI 4.0) tells you about your learning style. The nine style preferences are habitual places we start from—like default modes on a computer. Unlike the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, for example, which uses complicated terms and four-letter Type codes that take awhile to understand, or Emergenetics, which uses color codes that users have to memorize, KLSI 4.0 is both profound and accessible. You can readily see how you typically operate in relation to other people. You can also learn to use the capabilities of every style. To use the compass metaphor, you can orient from any direction on the Compass, depending upon what a particular work situation calls for.

Tracking where you are on the Learning Cycle
Kolb is asking us to be explorers, noticing ourselves as both the subject of our experiences and an intriguing object of study. Understanding your learning style immediately helps you recognize the way you habitually operate. Once you notice how you operate, you can, following the the Learning Cycle, see and make better choices.

Nellie’s preferred style (called “Imagining”) accounts for the ease with which she thinks of possibilities and opportunities in almost every kind of situation. In a coaching session, Nellie uses her style to explore a frequent work challenge: When she faces a high stakes decision in her work as Director of Development, she easily imagines a hundred possible paths, and then has trouble deciding and acting. In my coaching sessions with Nellie, we co-create ways for her to practice deciding and acting.

Making intentional choices about where on the Cycle to move to

When Atul’s KLSI shows that he prefers quick and sure decision making (called the “Deciding” style), he understands why he gets so impatient when, as he tells me, “a meeting has too much process.” As teammates on an IT project, COO Nellie and Atul learn that they prefer styles that are exactly opposite. Now they see why they get impatient with each other in meetings. Acknowledging that there are times when he knows his decisions are rash, Atul gets curious about Nellie’s strong suit– Imagining. As for Nellie, she realizes she could use Atul as a resource when she gets stuck in a popcorn popper of possibilities.

Use the Learning Cycle and learning styles to help people take charge of their work. Doing so will energize them and expand the power of work–throughout your organization.

Coaching Cultures

Organizations where coaching skills are infused in day-to-day practice have “higher employee engagement and stronger financial performance.” So says a 2014 International Coaching Federation (ICF) research report.

As I see it, more traditional approaches to leadership development involve three components: leader training programs, formal mentoring, and/or coaching offered to senior leaders (and sometimes to a select group of rising stars.) Comparing these three components highlights special features of coaching.

  • Coaching is a partnership in which the coachee sets or, even where HR or Talent Management is involved, co-creates her/his goals. The coach, using skills and frameworks he/she has learned, co-creates paths for learning
  • In contrast, “training” means that the program developer—not the learner—determines the learning objectives and creates a course of study.
  • Although mentoring is more organic than training, it is still teaching. The mentor guides learning from her/his own experience and expertise in a particular area.

pink tree blossomsIt’s great when organizations offer training programs, formal mentoring, and/or some coaching. I wish more organizations had all three! Fundamentally, though, I would like all managers to be able to use a coaching approach to supervising employees. And I would like to see more employees have the experience of coaching.

Why? Beliefs that underlie coaching cultures build resilient organizations.

  • People’s strengths, resources, and experiences are the wellsprings of growth.
  • Inquiry and exploration are important both for employee growth and business outcomes.
  • Both coach and coachee are learners. Everybody is a learner; work is about learning every day.
  • Supervision is collaborative.

According to the ICF report, organizations with strong coaching cultures share several attributes.

  • Coach training and coaching skills training are dedicated line items in the corporate budget.
  • Leaders and managers use a coaching approach to supervision.
  • They have coaching skill training that has been approved by an an accrediting organization (such as ICF).
  • Both internal and external coaches are certified. Certification entails completion of a course of study approved by a certifying organization, adherence to ethical standards, verification of coaching experience, and ongoing continuing education.

Especially if your resources are limited, you may not think a coaching culture is within reach. Don’t give up; here are ways to get started.

  • Help managers and organizational leaders learn more about coaching. For example, there are important differences between leadership coaching, consulting, mentoring, training, and sports/wellness/voice coaching.
  • Host brown bag lunch discussions where leaders compare their mental models of coaching.
  • Invite a panel of coaches to explain and demonstrate aspects of their practice.
  • Discuss the supervision practices you now use, such as performance reviews. What assumptions about supervising, teaching, employee motivation, and correcting underlie your current practices? What would be different if managers adopted a coaching stance as the norm?
  • Offer a coaching skills course so managers can learn to use a coaching approach to supervision.
  • Support one or a few employees at a time to enroll in an accredited coaching program. (I’m happy to offer recommendations.)
  • Create a multi-year plan for building a coaching culture, and welcome small steps. Some experts think that with large scale change, it may actually be better to implement the change over a period of time.

As organizations grow more complex, people at all levels need the very skill sets that coaching encourages and teaches: the capability to heighten self-awareness, cultivate critical and strategic thinking, see from multiple points of view, and communicate with people who are very different from oneself.

For Sustainability, Develop People

shutterstock_282591626“Stark underinvestment in leadership development undermines nonprofit leaders” and weakens their organizations, a new report by Third Sector New England warns.

 

The over 1,000 leaders and board members surveyed strongly support the need for sustained professional development for staff.

  • Leaders “who do invest in professional development were significantly more likely to think their organizations have enough bench strength” for sustainability and leadership transitions.
  • But staff professional development is a budgeted line item in just over half the organizations surveyed in New England.
  • Although acknowledging the value of coaching, just over half of leaders have invested in coaching.

What can you do in your organization? Here are some approaches I use.

  • Create a culture based on learning, embedding learning in every work process. The Learning Compass, based on David Kolb’s Learning Cycle and the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory 4.0, provides an excellent basis because you can use the Compass in business process improvement, problem solving, decision making, innovation, planning, team development, and communication.
  • Create a performance management system based upon facilitating growth, not evaluating or “appraising.” Teach managers to approach supervision as coaches. Of course, all managers need a firm understanding of what a coaching approach is and is not, and they must be supported with skill development.
  • Build bench strength by targeting rising leaders for formal mentoring and coaching. Peer problem solving, using methods such as the tuning protocol (adapted for using in the business sector) or the GROW coaching model, teaches coaching skills and fosters creative solutions to day-to-day work challenges. These problem-solving processes are especially powerful when facilitated by a certified coach who helps the group deepen its awareness and be more intentional about skill-building.

The Third Sector (TSNE) report points out that with baby boomer Executive Directors retiring, nonprofits’ lack of succession planning is a serious problem.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the 877 internal leaders surveyed said they intend to leave the organization in one to five years.
  • Almost two thirds (64%) do not believe there is an internal leader who can succeed them.
  • The report calls for preparing for leaders’ departures by developing “deep sustainability,” including strong leadership systems. No organization should be dependent upon individual leaders.

Here are steps to strengthen your leadership system.

  • Imagine what would you be missing if the Executive Director or CEO were to leave next month? What if your top four or five leaders were to suddenly leave? This exercise will focus your attention on the need to identify the capabilities and skills that your organization must have in order to thrive. You and your board will likely also experience a sense of urgency about developing people and creating systems that are not individual-dependent.
  • Create a plan for developing leaders. It is all right if it is not a comprehensive plan. When change is complex, sometimes more incremental approaches are even preferable (Senge et al, 1999).

These examples may help you see what I mean.

  • Recognizing that she would leave before long, one CEO worked with her senior staff to consensually re-configure job responsibilities so that one team member became COO. Over the next year, that person grew in her ability to lead all aspects of the organization. In addition, all senior team members identified and trained direct reports to step into new responsibilities.
  • Another organization created distributed leadership by first training about 10% of staff, including some supervisors, some managers and two senior leaders, in Culture of Quality Improvement (CQI) methods. Once these folks became certified, they further “seeded” shared leadership by heading up CQI project teams with manager and non-manager members, some of whom became the next cohort to receive training in CQI.

The TSNE report decries “the paucity of resources to support the success of nonprofits” in the Northeast and throughout the country. It challenges the long-held belief that low overhead for nonprofits is good management. Starving leadership development is, in fact, shortsighted, inefficient, and ineffective. In order to serve others, you have to take care of yourself and your staff.

Speed Limits and Slow Living

railbed_1893My town recently lowered speed limits from thirty to twenty-five. Adjusting to a slower pace set me thinking about habits, change and slow living.

At first, driving more slowly was an unwanted constraint. Over time, my experience shifted. I brought the shift into clearer focus by reframing, a skill that is useful in coaching and conflict management. To reframe, we put a new frame around an experience in order to shift perception and try on a new reality. For the new speed limit, my new frame is, “I drive more thoughtfully.”

Reframing a negative experience may take effort and seem artificial. This time, however, reframing arose spontaneously from a new internal experience. I noticed myself paying closer attention to driving. As I drove along, I also noticed that spring was coming on, kids were walking to school and the street sweeper had wiped away the winter detritus. I enjoyed being part of the scene instead of racing by it.

Learning #1. Speed is limiting. Like you, I have projects and deadlines that make me speed. Oops, notice how the phrase “make me speed” attributes my behavior to external causes? I bet I have more choice about varying my pace, and I imagine you do, too. How can we deliberately and thoughtfully vary our pace throughout the day and work week?

Learning #2. Only after the town speed limit changed did I notice that driving fast was a habit. By circumventing choice-making, some habits helpfully guide our behavior and simplify life. Habitually pushing the speed limit is not this kind of habit. Pushing the speed limit took me away from being present to safety, responding to the weather, noticing my internal “weather conditions” and much else around and inside me.

Learning #3. Watch the rush: rushing to get there quickly, cover ground and get work done. “Watch the rush” suggests noticing any internal “high” like, “Wow, what a lot I did today!” “Good for me, I beat that deadline!” or even, “Aren’t I valuable. Look at all I do!”

Learning #4. Don’t rush to change. I am inviting us to heighten awareness before making any change. When we rush to change, in this case, hurrying to slow down, we miss information. We rush past “ah-hah’s” that would suggest new behavior to try on. The “ah-hahs” are also valuable because they propel and sustain motivation to change. This “notice more and don’t change anything” dynamic (called the paradoxical theory of change) is a way of thinking about change that is key in my coaching practice.

Learning #5. Learning takes practice. On a recent vacation to Lisbon, I noticed myself rushing around (again.) Over many days, I slowly slowed down. On the last day, I ambled along the riverfront watching fishermen catch blowfish. Even on vacation, I confuse accelerated output with quality results.

I learned to slow down my driving. When I went on vacation, I went back to my speeding habit. I need more practice. So, some tips for you and me.

  • Notice what rushing is like. How and where is the breathing? What is happening in muscles, head, trunk and limbs? Track thoughts. Try exaggerating any one thing, for example, shallow breathing, a tight jaw or a pattern of thought. What is that experience like?
  • Vary the pace of the work day. Take short breaks to get up and stretch.  Breathe slowly for a full minute, focusing only on the breath or on a pleasant experience or loved one.
  • Practice saying no. Start with oneself, saying no to the inner perfectionist or achiever who tempts us to agree to unrealistic tasks and deadlines. Negotiate with these inner drivers.

New Approach to Guiding Change

Inspired by Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, I found a new approach to guiding change: I created a checklist.

Organizational change is often a complex undertaking that takes place in an already complex system. As a surgeon and health reform thought leader, Gawande understands complexity. Think about an operating room. A team works under intense pressure on a patient whose body is complicated; there are both strict procedures and emergent challenges; systemic issues like the nurse-doctor hierarchy are entrenched; errors can cost lives. Sound in some ways like your work place?

Gawande shows that checklists have lots of appeal as a way to get complex processes right. They:

  • Make a “cognitive net” to catch gaps in knowledge, memory, and attention when individuals or teams are busy doing intense and complex work.
  • Identify critical decision points. Each decision point is reached by using process tools that go with the list item.
  • Are created from knowledge (how to do a surgical procedure); experience (how critical incidents have been handled in the past); input from many people (how various neighborhood Ebola response teams worked); hard data.
  • Teach and improve a whole organization, industry, or sector.

fish jumpingHow would I create a checklist for guiding change? There are so many theories and models of change that it is hard to wrap your arms around them. As I worked with clients and refined my MBA course in managing change, I searched, not for a “theory of everything,” but for a practical approach that would be deliberately eclectic, flexible, and also coherent. I wanted clients to avoid the mistakes I often see and that research verifies: failing to include the right people, not communicating enough with stakeholders, failing to anticipate obstacles, and neglecting to anchor change through skill building and new business processes.

Here are the first of eleven items on my checklist.
1. Have initiators firmed up the rationale for the change project, including timing and resources?
2. Have initiators evaluated the complexity and impact of the change?
3. Have initiators done stakeholder analysis in order to make three key decisions (3a-c on the checklist)?
4. Have initiators formed the change project team based on steps 1-3?

Like a Gawande checklist, the change checklist is built on a body of knowledge. For example, for #2, users need to understand what “complexity” and “impact” mean and how to evaluate these factors.

For each item, a set of process tools shows people “how to.” Clients choose the tool(s) they need in order to complete each checklist step. For #2, there is a complexity/impact grid, for instance. For #3 you can choose from several ways of doing a stakeholder analysis.

The checklist reminds you to:

  • Talk about each important step in a change project.
  • Thoughtfully choose the process tools you need.
  • Make decisions based on process tool results.

With the checklist, people realize that change management is a body of knowledge that can be grasped and learned. You do not make it up as you go along. You no longer manage change by following a leader whose experience may not be relevant to this change. Leadership for guiding change can come from anywhere in the organization. The checklist complements and “completes” what are primarily technical approaches to change, like Project Management and Quality Improvement. The checklist is marvelously suited for responding to complex situations because it is both step-wise and flexible.