-reading time: 5 minutes- / -audience: leaders, teams and team members-
Find your gateway to change on the right side of the bell curve
‘Let’s get Jack to run the innovation project, he has a proven track record and we all know how fantastic he runs steering committees, keeps us informed and sticks to deadlines.’
Jack gets promoted to run the new project and he is very excited. Full of energy, he starts outlining the project: objectives, deliverables, risk assessment, root cause identification, stakeholder inventory, milestones, sprints, progress tracker templates with the compulsory traffic light system, and of course the financial plan.
Jack has made his bosses happy before and he will do it again, he is determined.
In most organisations, Jack’s leadership style is the dominant approach to getting things done. It’s the administrative leadership style: problems are analysed, so-called solutions are developed, policies are written and roll-out efforts are initiated and coordinated.
Is this type of leadership suitable in transformation and change projects with a high level of uncertainty and disagreement? Probably not. But which type of leadership or approach works in these situations? Let’s have a look.
Tool: agreement/certainty matrix
If you still run the place like Henry Ford, you are not really in touch with reality and you should probably take a break. I would not classify Jack to having such a leadership style, however it lacks the skills and competencies that are required in this fast-paced, ever-changing world we live in.
Agreement, engagement and involvement is a choice nowadays (hopefully), so telling your team what to do is unlikely the most effective type of leadership you can demonstrate.
To find out which leadership style works best, you need to understand the context. A good tool to use, is the Stacey/Zimmerman Agreement/Certainty Matrix, which you see here.
Zones 1 – 4: telling, selling, consulting… avoiding
Zone 1 TELLING is Jack’s zone: a high level of agreement within the team and with stakeholders, facing a very low level of uncertainty. Administrative leadership works well for straightforward implementation of initiatives.
Zone 2 SELLING is a call for coalition building: the decision maker has a clear vision for what needs to be done and what the beneficial outcome will be, and other decision makers need to be influenced to share that perspective. Leadership skills such as modelling, creating pilot initiatives and sharing stories and data are effective approaches here.
In Zone 3 CONSULTING, all decision makers agree that a particular type of change is needed, but what the outcome of that change should be is uncertain. Simulation, modelling and experimentation with rapid learning can be useful frameworks here.
Zone 4 EDGE OF CHAOS represents an area in which organised change initiatives should be avoided. When there is no agreement regarding the type of initiative to launch or what the impact of any approach to change would be, leaders should steer clear of attempting to initiate any improvement effort. They should do something, look for signs of an emerging sense of more certainty and agreement and then proceed accordingly.
Zone 5: the zone of complexity, the zone outside of the norm
When change is required in situations in this zone, there is a need for diverse perspectives regarding what to do next. In addition, the network of interconnections and interdependencies associated with the challenge makes it impossible to predict what the outcome of an intervention will be in advance.
Zone 5 is the zone where entrepreneurial leadership is particularly valuable.
To get started when working in Zone 5, a best guess about what is needed (next) is identified, and that should be the starting point. Using the power of the network to initiate the decision making process, receive and respond to feedback and learn and modify, the system will adapt and improve.
Entrepreneurial leadership is manifested as the ideas and behaviours that can potentially be more effective than the current state emerge. Some of these behaviours will need to be newly created through experimentation and learning. However, some of these behaviours may already be in existence in isolation, unbeknownst of the team or organisation.
Such pockets of excellence, hidden in plain sight, are referred to as positive deviants.
Adaptive Space for positive deviants
When there is tension between top-down leadership efforts and bottom-up entrepreneurial leadership efforts, that are struggling against day-to-day challenges, there is an adaptive space in the organisation when attention is called to this tension.
This adaptive space allows organisations to press pause before they deal with the complex challenges they are facing. These organisations recognise that learning and a change in behaviour will be required for improving, and that time and resources for experimentation are needed. These leadership skills are different than what are typically thought as being required.
A framework for dealing with high level of complexity, such as in Zone 5, is the positive deviance approach: finding pockets of excellence by using existing resources differently.
positive deviance in practice
Innovation does not mean that new solutions need to be created. Utilising existing resources differently can be innovative too. The positive deviance approach originated within public health and is more recently applied to healthcare.
Positive deviance is a bottom-up approach which identifies and learns from those who demonstrate exceptional performance on an outcome of interest. The approach assumes that problems can be overcome using solutions that already exist within the organisation.
Positive deviance is a strength-based approach which is applied to problems requiring behaviour change. Positive deviants – whether they be individuals, teams or organisations – can be defined and identified in 4 different ways:
- Statistically, think of outliers
- Based on their extreme conformity, when groups suppress dissent
- Through other’s reactions, such as immediate adoption
- In comparison to norms, when norms are not questioned
positive deviance process
Stage 1: IDENTIFY
Use routinely collected data to identify positive deviants who consistently excel in the area of interest
Stage 2: STUDY
Qualitatively study positive deviants to generate hypotheses about the strategies they use to succeed
Stage 3: TEST
Quantitatively test these hypotheses in larger, more representative areas of the organisation
Stage 4: Go!
Disseminate the positively deviant strategies to the organisation with the help of key stakeholders
In order to make a positive deviance approach work, make sure that you create the adaptive space for voluntary behaviors, significant departure from the norms, and honorable intentions.
Depending on the organisational culture (or even the cultural dimensions of the country you operate in), this may be a big step. In particular, consider the following dimensions: power distance, or strength of the hierarchy, and the level of uncertainty avoidance, or the tolerance for ambiguity.
Also, ensure the psychological safety for employees to behave differently, outside of the norm.
And focus your leadership efforts on changing the mindset, rather than changing the actions to come to better results.