“People won’t engage in that which they don’t co-create.”

As we have seen time and time again – new leadership arrives with a mandate to “shake things up.” Sluggish performance, declining share – the need for change is usually evident – and not entirely understood. Every system is perfectly aligned to produce the results they currently create – every organization, community and family. The assumptions are often – the organization has lost its way, lost its edge. This framing of the problem drives new leadership to come up with a new vision, new plan and new approach. The underlying assumption is that the people within the organization are just waiting to be told what to do – which of course will deliver the promise of the new leadership group. Don’t get me wrong, new ideas and approaches can invigorate organizations. Unfortunately, more often than not, the turnaround falls somewhat short of the hype. Its lack of success is blamed on “old-school people” who don’t want to change, or in many cases the shortfall gets glossed over by not reporting the outcome at all.

So what is to be done?

Determine how the system currently works, not what is wrong with it

I met some time ago with the presidents of Police Unions from across the country. They were complaining about the lack of engagement, commitment and interest from their membership – even when the members were facing real risks to their workplace and benefits. As they spoke it became clear that they had created perfect “member alienation machines.” Not surprisingly they found that interpretation disturbing – mostly because it didn’t line up with their intentions – which I am sure were noble.

Upon reflection, the presidents were able to see things not visible to them before – the lack of input members were given, the focus on issues more pertinent to the older members who made up the leadership team and most insidious, the command and control method police rely on in the field, was less than effective as a model for union interactions. In other words, their members weren’t interested in something they didn’t identify or prioritize. (We also suspect there were cultural, generational issues at play. It was clear the problem wasn’t as simple as “they don’t get it” – or didn’t care.) I hold up my brothers and sisters in the police unions only as one example. We have seen the same pattern in other sectors – from banks to British civil servants.

The people with the problem are the problem – and the solution

As described by the headline quote, the solution can only come from the source of the problem itself. If the solution comes from anywhere but the source of the problem itself, it will not be organic, and will most likely act as nothing more than a temporary fix. Not only will this solution most likely miss the underlying systemic causes of an issue, but it will fail to change the pressure in the system that is driving the current patterns of behavior..

How do the current patterns make sense to the people in them? What losses are they trying to avoid? What is being reinforced and rewarded? Understanding these will help you uncover how things work.

We’re pretty sure those of you reading this feel you would never fall prey to this trap. Take a moment with your team to answer these questions, the answers may surprise you.

–          How do the people in our organization feel about being a part of this organization?

–          How do those feelings help the organization? How do they hold the organization back?

–          What do the “trouble-makers” (aka the “voices of leadership from below” or “those who don’t feel the protection of authority”) say about our organization?

–          How are our leadership behaviors contributing to the outcomes that serve us best? Least?
Good luck. Check back next week for the next edition of “Food for Thought.” Lead on!