How to Get the Anchor Off Your Neck

I’ve been on my annual pilgrimage the last couple of weeks to my childhood home. Of Hawai’i. I know.

During the handful of hours to sleep on the beach contemplate that I have at my disposal, I have been mulling over various ideas and theories that I affectionately call the chaos inside my head. (Yes, there are voices… but they are harmless).

One of the rants themes that keeps popping up is the idea that Do Not Changerunning/leading an organization (any organization – business, church, government agency, etc.) often becomes ensnared in what I will call the historic anchor. What I mean by this is that the definition of so-called “good leadership” is often boiled down to protecting history. To maintain the status quo. Or even building defenses to perpetuate the status quo. You know what that looks like.

Financial numbers are always set as a percentage of last year’s performance.

Popularity Attendance Participation becomes the key metric for defining success.

“The way we’ve always done it” is not so much a fact of history as it is an excuse to refuse change serve as the starting point for all new plans.

Frankly, none of these belong in the definition of healthy leadership.

Healthy leadership is certainly about moving in a new direction. Taking people to a place that they have never gone before. Not only moving the cheese, but taking on the responsibility for making the cheese.

The problem is that many folks take this definition of leadership and condense it to simply being about creating change. But creating change is not what sits at the core of healthy leadership. The core is about solving a problem. (Oh, here we go.)

Hear me out.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a consultant/strategist/coach is to get my clients to properly define the problem. As a sales person, it is the same principle. Clients will say they want one thing when they really need another. But if we can get that single piece of the puzzle nailed, if we can get the problem properly defined, we can do incredibly awesome things. But if the core problem is not properly defined (or worse, the wrong problem gets defined), all other activities – leadership, sales, and otherwise – are basically moot.

Which means that all the metrics, dashboards, and stuff-that-makes-it-into-the-weekly-conference-call are basically moot.

But we HAVE to have something to talk about, don’t we? So what do we often do? We talk about history. We talk about last weekend. We talk about last month. We talk about last year. And we anchor all of our metrics and other things against that history. Why? I don’t truly know. Sure, I have ideas – like…

  • We find comfort in the simple act of “knowing”
  • We believe that the past is the best way to predict the future (even though the present is constantly evolving)
  • We are afraid of the consequences of not having answers/not being able to predict the future
  • We make stuff up create information to discuss and to motivate others to follow us

Whatever our motivation(s) may be, I would like to offer a different way to look at this topic.

Instead of looking at our role in running/leading an organization with the lens of history, we should look at our role with the lens of “is the problem going away?”

UpBecause, if we are doing a great job, the problem will either go away or evolve over time (because it cannot maintain its current state under our relentless attack). This means that sales projections should not be based on prior year performance, but on what stage the problem(s) our products/services exist to solve is in. This meansDown that church programs should not be based on a monthly or annual calendar, but on what stage the problem(s) our church programs exist to solve is in. This means that the budget for the government agency should not be based on what was spent last year, but on what stage the problem(s) our government agency exists to solve is in.

Imagine it this way: a business that sells a specific product actually begins each year by defining the current state of the problem their product addresses for their customers. Is the problem in the early stages of being addressed, has it reached the tipping point of decline, or is it somewhere in between? Not only is the strategic plan for the product anchored against this state of the problem, but also everyone is given goals that either attack the problem or drive the identification of a new problem to solve for their customers. The annual sales meeting does not kick off with the previous years’ sales results, but with the state of the customer’s problem and how the sales organization is going to tackle it for them. Metrics and dashboards are calibrated to track not only sales results, but also how the team is doing in relation to addressing the problem (which helps to illuminate if the sales team is doing better than the competition in solving the problem – or is simply getting good numbers because the opportunity to solve the problem is so wide open). Hopefully, the company develops a reputation as THE player to solve the problem. Until the problem is gone or changes, and a new cycle of innovation takes over.

I really believe that this kind of clarity – about the problem to be solved, not history – will allow organizations to thrive. Genuinely good things will be done. People will have focus on their activities in a new way, regardless of role in the organization. People will be proactive, knowing how they contribute to solving a problem beyond simply showing up to “work.” Strategies will have focus on their impacts in a new way, regardless of function in the business/church/government. Strategies will be on target, driving toward a future reality that is measured by effectiveness – not history. And tactics will have focus on how they are used, regardless of their reputation. Tactics will be relevant, fitting each situation appropriately.

And with people, strategies, and tactics thus aligned, our organizations create a world where instead of adding to the complexities of the problem(s) we are responsible for, we actually solve them.

What a concept…

 I mua. Onward and upward.

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5 Responses to How to Get the Anchor Off Your Neck

  1. Mark Wayland says:

    Tim, Your rant… oops … post got me thinking (I know) about an article by Harvard’s Clay Christensen and his idea of “what is the problem?” This is my (oversimplified) take on it.

    Companies have a natural attachment to their products rather (despite all the blah, blah, blah) than their customers. It’s their baby. And they approach customers with the mindset that “if I can convince them well enough they will love this product just as much as we do.” When we do this well, we’ll have solid customer loyalty.

    The thing is customers don’t comply, or indeed live their lives, with the same kind of company mindset or focus. Instead they decide (probably unconsciously) on “what job needs to be done?” and “hire” a product rather want to “own it.”

    The other good news is that he also says that market data is only about the past and organised the wrong way, so you’re in good company.

    http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6496.html

  2. timohai says:

    Thanks for the positive reinforcement, Mark. I think part of the problem lies in a tendency (by us all) to shift our focus from external stakeholders (i.e. the customers/people in our communities) to internal stakeholders. This makes the definition of the problem go askew. We become subconsciously convinced that the internal view is prime because that is the one we know the most about. Sadly.

    And I loved the article – thanks for sharing.

  3. Dennis says:

    The reason we have eyes in the front of our head vs in the back is because to survive for thousands of years, we had to look forward, not back. The same is true today for the real leaders.

  4. Just a quickie Tim as I haven’t the luxury of hours to contemplate on the beach!!
    I align myself to Mark’s remarks that salespeople become ‘attached to their product’ but go further and suggest they are passionate, even in love! This makes any objective analysis of client’s problem areas, impossible. On our workshops learners have to “divorce” themselves from their product/service – they are not allowed to mention it.
    Phew radical thinking here Tim, people have a penchant for historical benchmarks. To shift to the present is a mammoth challenge. Well done on a provocative article – one for the thinking man.

  5. timohai says:

    Thank you, my friend. And I love that you run an exercise where people “divorce” themselves form their products/services. I can imagine it must be incredibly difficult to do. We ask sales people to only talk about their clients for 10 minutes. Most cannot get past the 2-minute mark before they start talking about themselves.

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