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Ordinary Leadership Week Note: Strategy Challenge

Week of 03.07.23

What leadership themes stood out this week

The challenge of strategy – both development and execution – has been on my mind this week. I find that there is a tendency for people to either be planners or doers when it comes to strategy. The planners want to come up with a really good plan. The doers want to try something. As someone who is probably a bit more of a planner, I’ve been experimenting with being more of a doer this year – and still find myself tending towards wanting to plan, to have more information, to know the next step before taking action.

Reading Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World has really brought this point home; as we operate in more and more complexity, the idea that a plan or strategy can be fixed, pre-determined and therefore right is going out the window. When I work with businesses, I see that this tension between the planner and doer tends to play out differently, but if it's not called out, it can lead to stagnation. It becomes the roadblock to getting anything done. The planner keeps trying to bring the doer back to define what needs to happen, and the doer keeps trying to get the planner to do it. The result is a lack of focus and frustration.

The solution lies in not making the planning process too large, complicated or important. Focus instead on agreeing on the direction, key leading and lagging indicators, and the first three to five actions required to get there. Don’t be afraid to re-group on the strategy monthly, even if briefly, to meet the planners' desire to agree to next steps without holding back the doer.

Three interesting leadership ideas/quotes from the week

The role of the middle manager needs to be reimagined. HBR makes the argument that the role of middle managers needs to be reassessed to maximise their value. In part, HBR argues this is important as individuals look for jobs with more purpose in them. For me, this is too simplistic. In a complex world, creating space for leadership at all levels of an organisation is critical to enable organisations to flex, adapt and create positive change.

I think we’re still too focused on building leadership skills for people to move up – instead, we need to think about building leadership journeys. “‘Soft skills’ and ‘people skills’ are used to refer to a wide range of competencies and capabilities”, which is just confusing. For individuals at any level to build their leadership skills, we need to create space for leadership at all levels and create leadership journeys that everyone can go on. To do this, we must create an environment that allows individuals to explore and develop – with support. Organisations can support this by creating a learning context and putting in place mentoring and coaching support so that anyone in a leadership role can build their capacity to flex their style and engage with impact in any situation.

“True resilience involves more than recovering from or resisting the effects of adversity. It’s the ability to emerge even stronger.” I agree with this statement. When I think about the various transitions I’ve gone through in the past few years, I’ve increasingly realised that resilience is about accepting challenges, stepping back, and finding your way forward. In my leadership journey, I’ve increasingly realised that resilience isn’t about always being “rock solid”. Instead is about demonstrating humility in the face of challenge. Acknowledging your own fragility and where pressure hits you, and then working with others to find a way through. I certainly haven’t always gotten this right.

I struggle – personally and professionally – with the idea of ambition, which is why this Adam Grant podcast with Agnes Callard was so cool. There were many great parts in it, but the main point for me was the argument that you need to decide if you have a platonic view of the world (constant improvement) or if you take Aristotle’s point of view – am I improving enough? I’d never thought about aspiration and ambition in this way, that at some point, aspiring to be perfect gets in the way of just getting on with life and contributing the best you can. Food for thought – especially as I can absolutely trap myself in the aspiration camp.

How to communicate about the elephant in the room. Think about how you frame the topic. It might feel like it takes more time, but it is really worth it. According to HBR, there are 5 steps in framing: identify to yourself what’s impeding progress; be curious about the situation; name what you observe to others, without judgement; set an intention of learning with others; invite reflections and input from others.

This framework aligns with one of my favourite ways of thinking about facilitating discussions; from the book The Skilled Facilitator, the framework focuses on observing (internal), making sense, deciding to say something, and then making an observation. Here’s a great question/way of framing a challenging situation from the HBR article: “I notice everyone has different ideas about where the problem lies. And I also notice that we’re not analysing or discussing any of the ideas in depth”

Helpful leadership links from the week

Innovation doesn’t have to be disruptive: a really great table and an important case for the value of non-disruptive innovation.

Fixing a self-sabotaging team: great article on why teams don’t make progress or manage to change.

Think about how to use AI to help recognise patterns: “AI is better than humans at identifying patterns, so we should be looking for place where we can tap into this technology to help us determine which areas of the business need more attention.”

“When Your Boss Gives You Bad Feedback, Badly,”: Tough feedback can be hard to process, especially when it’s delivered poorly. This is a nice article on how to manage this what happens when you get bad feedback.


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