10 Rules to Guide Our Dialogue About Creating the Future

July 9, 2020

Classroom to boardroom, organizations are pondering how to adapt to a world that was unimaginable just three months ago. For most, the “new normal” promises to be far more new than normal. Success will require imagination and experimentation. It will require discipline. And it will force us to embrace the discomfort that arises from wrestling with issues that lack clear solutions.

Effective innovation nearly always begins with a deep and candid understanding of our strategic advantages—and whether they’re sustainable in the future. This type of examination calls for us to embrace a diversity of opinions and the inevitable conflict that surfaces as we challenge our long-held beliefs about what creates success.

Though this sounds simple, in practice, it’s far more complicated. Individual and cultural self-examination sparks anxiety and can elicit defensive reactions that inhibit learning and engagement.

Ten rules for discussing the future

By embracing the following 10 rules, we’ve found that teams can be far more effective in creating discussions that better inform future actions.

1. Understand the enduring principles that supported past success.

Which foundational principles, rather than current practices, supported the growth of your company? Are these principles needed for your organization’s future success? Ask yourself:

·       Why did we succeed initially?

·       What actions fueled our growth?

·       Why were these practices important?

·       Have we changed these habits or processes?

·       Were changes driven by the value we deliver to customers, or by internal efficiency and comfort?

·       How did we evaluate the effectiveness of these changes? Did we just assume they were effective? Did we overlook any negative or unintentional effects?

2. Be passionate about the mission of the business.

If you aren’t passionate about it, why would others be?

Beware of creating a business vision or strategy that you can’t get behind. People can feel our enthusiasm—or lack of enthusiasm. In order to create the changes that are needed, we need highly engaged people who “feel” an emotional connection to our cause. Leadership passion is contagious. A lack of leadership passion is deflating. We can only be successful if what we are trying to achieve in the future excites us.

3. Be remarkable. No one gets excited about being average.

The essence of leadership is leading a team to a better and different place. No one gets excited by a vision that says we’re going to be “like we were yesterday,” only 15 percent better. People won’t turn their lives upside down to achieve what they’ve already accomplished.

We need to be mindful that few successful transitions in business are created by consensus; our shared decisions of the past created the challenges we face today. Being different is always more difficult than most teams assume as they begin their discussions.

4. Don’t confuse ‘getting stuff done’ with learning.

Management teams tend to make bad decisions when they give in to the pressure of “feeling like” they’re making progress. Learning takes time. It rarely comes without some conflict or anxiety. Our discussions are less effective when we begin with the premise that productive dialogues must get to the point quickly.

5. Beware of unfocused attempts to innovate.

These attempts are ineffective and often distract us from the actual effort it takes to develop tactical proficiency in our core business. Too many dialogues about the future focus on how a new strategy will solve what ails the company. But an existing company rarely succeeds in new businesses without first fixing its core business.

6. Don’t make growth your strategy (or your mission)

People want to win and progress. They want to grow and make even greater contributions. However, growth is almost never an effective goal when it becomes the overarching reason for acting. Growth is a natural consequence of doing something important and doing it uniquely well. As celebrated Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s once said:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”

7. Discover and develop core competencies.

It’s ineffective (and usually costly) to invest in endeavors where you lack the core competencies to be the best. Core competencies—those abilities that add to our competitive distinctiveness but are difficult to replicate—make it possible for companies to provide compelling value to those they serve.

8. Face tough issues directly, even when these issues make others uncomfortable.  

We can no longer afford to gravitate to responses that amplify positive information and discount the negative because they support peoples’ need to feel comfortable and in control. Yes, we must ensure a safe environment where people are willing to share. But we must also come to grips with the fact that having different opinions is never that comfortable for most. We must learn to be comfortable in the discomfort that’s required to challenge the status quo.

9. Be wary of people who have strong opinions without supporting data.

Experience is important. But it’s also insufficient. People who come to the discussion with strong opinions based on years of experience can be invaluable, but they can also inhibit our understanding of the issues we face. Whenever possible, we must ground our expertise in data.

10. Resist the temptation to place blame.

Placing blame is the first sign of a losing team. Rarely is a person or group the root cause of an issue. It’s far more probable that the root cause is in the process—how the work has been organized. It can’t be acceptable to say, “It’s not my fault,” or “If only they would do X, things would be better.” We are one team. We all must be accountable for building bridges and solving problems.

Gary Heil and Ryan Heil, Ph.D., are internationally acclaimed experts in the fields of leadership, management, and organizational culture. Their work has helped some of the most prominent leaders and companies in the world—including former presidents of the United States, Fortune 100 companies, and professional sports coaches—become more innovative and culturally vital. They share their wisdom in the new book Choose Love Not Fear: How the Best Leaders Build Cultures of Engagement and Innovation That Unleash Human Potential. Learn more at garyheil.com.

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