Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, identifies only a small number of companies that create an extraordinary level of success compared to the mainstream. It’s possible but rare.
There is an even bigger challenge for teams and organizations – survival. The business literature is also full of stories of successful companies that don’t sustain their leadership. Pan Am, for example, was once the number one airline in the world, but it no longer exists. The seeds of losing a leadership position are planted when you are on top. Past success doesn’t guarantee future success over longer periods of time. Things change.
From our work with the perspective and skills that we call “generative leadership,” how do we help high-performing teams elevate their level of success? How do we enable them to avoid the pitfalls of success that eventually lead to decline?
Let’s begin by noticing that when our actions succeed again and again, sometimes spectacularly, we can become convinced that our skills are the root of our success, the world is stable, and our approaches will continue to produce success. The dangers of success for a high-performance team or organization include these assumptions and the moods they produce of complacency, arrogance, and the loss of curiosity. We take a perspective that only shows the world that we succeeded with in the past, and we focus on applying the approaches that worked so well before.
In our work with leaders, managers, teams, and organizations over the years, we have found a number of fundamental perspectives that help with these challenges. We look at conversations as the place where actions, and their results, are initiated and shaped. This makes observing, assessing, and even intervening quite accessible.
There are two important classes of conversations that drive team performance: conversations for action, and conversations for possibility. Teams that can continually increase their ability to create value must be excellent in both conversations. But our cultural tendency is to focus on results and therefore execution. We tend to be addicted to an action and production focus. When things begin to not work as well as planned – when we face a breakdown – the usual reaction is “do more,” and “work harder.” This leads to blindness as to what is going on, shuts down curiosity, and eventually winds up producing exhaustion.
What we need when the prior success formula isn’t working isn’t just harder work, but the ability to call a timeout, take a step back and look at what is different about the situation. We need to determine if the engine needs a tune-up, or do we really need a new engine, or perhaps even a new vehicle. This takes us to change our work processes, and perhaps even how we frame the situation. We need to design something new and use a design approach that produces better outcomes. This requires skills in the conversations for possibility. Distinctions that are very powerful for this kind of design are “value” and “waste.” This enables us to evaluate the outcomes of actions, processes, and practices as valuable or wasteful. My colleagues and I have found that how teams have conversations can be a major source of both value and waste.
But what if the available options, and even the available redesign approaches, don’t work. Then we are facing a bigger scale of change, what is sometimes called a “complex” situation. In my career, I remember the times I worked hard at redesigning a process without success – I didn’t realize that my design approach was inadequate for the challenge. Again, we have to go to conversations about possibilities, but in this case not directly go to a design approach. Instead, we need to find out more about what is different in our world. This requires experiments, usually high volumes and frequencies of them. We need to reinterpret the fundamentals of our world and our response to them, and then develop a new design approach.
Another valuable perspective when we are in possibility and design is to understand the dual roles of conservation and adaptation. Conservation is keeping what is necessary and valuable; adaptation is letting go of something to produce adaptive and valuable change. The art of this perspective is not to become overly conservative, nor overly adaptive in how we modify our relations to our world. In addition, the repertoire of productive change must include the capacity to “pivot.” This is the capacity to change directions, sometimes radically, when the situation demands it.
The process of making a productive change can be understood as innovation. Invention is coming up with something new, and innovation is getting people to adopt it. In the book, The Innovator’s Way, my colleague Dr. Peter Denning and I lay out the essential practices of successful innovators. There are eight practices and all involve particular conversational skills. I won’t unpack those conversations here (see www.innovators-way.com), but the point is that getting new value and practices to be adopted by teams, including high-performance teams and by customers is a process that is observable, executable, and learnable.
I invite you to explore the power of conversation, a power that is already shaping your successes and failures. As leaders, coaches, and teams, we have the opportunity to go beyond hard work and the formulas of the past to new capabilities to create value. That future takes us to a path of curiosity and observation, design, experimentation, adaptation, and innovation.