How to we add value to teams that are already excellent, even standard setters? Let’s begin by looking at the dark side of achieving excellence. One pitfall for teams that have achieved a level of excellence is to rest on their laurels and lose their hunger for improvement. The danger of being the best is complacency or even arrogance.
And even with a hunger for improvement, the challenge can be to get beyond the limits of the current thinking that have enabled the current success. We can fall into the assumption that the world of the future looks like the past, and become blinded with the answers that have worked for us, assuming the world will always ask us the questions that we have answers for.
Yet another challenge can be changes in the world and market that turn a unique winning game into a commodity, and eventually into a losing game. How do we as leaders and coaches help organizations see their future as possibilities both positive and negative, and to build the foundations of capability that will serve in either case?
Although a team can continue to refine past successes, eventually “higher levels of accomplishment” will always require creating new kinds of value in a changing world. This is different that just working more or harder, improving efficiency, increasing profits by cutting costs, or trying to polish what is no longer valued. Creating new value also allows members of an organization to enhance their meaningful work and contribution rather than just deliver more sacrifice.
We have found that a powerful perspective in evaluating organizations is to see what dominates their focus, mood, and behavior. Organizations generally fall into one of three states that characterize their focus. One condition is being dominated by breakdowns, where the present and future is overwhelmed with problems, perhaps survival is at stake, and the attention of everyone is dominated by addressing large or numerous breakdowns.
Another condition is achieving excellence. When transitioning from breakdown organizations can achieve basic competence and can fall either into a complacent drift or enter into ambition. Ambition takes them to a pursuit of excellence. Their perception of their situation, as well as their mood and focus, is on achieving excellence.
Once excellence is achieved, there are additional assets available to the organization for the future. Their excellence will have produced forms of power such as identity, know-how, and financial resources. The question they face is what to do with these assets. These assets provide the possibility of a new focus – innovation. This is a turn towards the creation of new value. It requires new focus, new attention, new skills, and new conversations.
Organizations face all three categories of concerns all the time, but its future will be shaped by what dominates their culture and attention. Organizations in breakdown must innovate and produce excellence to shift to a new condition. Organizations in excellence must still deal with breakdowns, but have the opportunity to enter into innovation and value creation. Organizations focused on innovation can do so only by building on their excellence, their ability to handle breakdowns well, and if fact are usually also good at creating creative breakdowns – the break-open that comes from declaring a new vision and future for their commitment.
What is crucial to see as leaders and coaches is that these states of an organization and what is done with them arise from their people, their interpretations and awareness, and the conversations that produce and shape perspective, commitment, and action. Effective leaders, organizations, and professionals that go beyond excellence must master the conversations, skills, and practices of managing breakdowns well, achieving excellence through practice, and entering the practices of value creation and innovation.
To generate new value and a new future brings us actions and skills where leadership and innovation overlap. These skills require competencies to engage effectively with the moods and emotions provoked by change, the body reactions of entering the unknown, and the conversational skills that evoke commitment and shape the actions of teams and communities. Leaders must bring others to adopt something new.
The path of going beyond excellence to innovation is one that constantly reenters the unknown where we must explore and experiment to discover new possibilities. A culture that has taught us that we need to know in order to act, that we need to be expert and have expertise, has neglected our learning of the power of not knowing – the power to explore, discover, invent, experiment, design, and play to create new possibilities. Yes, we need to focus on the execution of today. And for leaders and innovators that execution includes the invention and design of the future.
Excellence is a tremendous asset to each of us as professionals, and a tremendous asset to organizations that have achieved it. But the future belongs to those to invent it and share it with others through innovation. We must go beyond today’s excellence to make our place in the future. We must learn the excellence of value creation, the conversations, moods, and practices of creating in the edges of the unknown.
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