The constantly changing nature of our human systems is the very elixir we need for navigating our constantly changing world
In a recent article, I talked about our tendency as leaders to rely on strategies and mindsets that have worked in the past. Approaches that are no longer relevant—and are actually counter-productive—to leading effectively in our new, uncertain, and wildly changeable world.
I suggested a strategic planning approach of finding your "True North," adjusting as the new course takes effect, and tacking and jibing as changing reality demands. This approach is based on five key concepts.
A True North strategy is aspirational. It’s the ideal that may never be achieved. Yet the vision is clear, consistent, and personally relevant. That last part is vital because if it’s not personally relevant, it won’t stick in the minds of those responsible to getting us there.
Great storytellers bring “True North” so alive that listeners want to go there; they want to see and experience the new and beautiful, high-performing reality. Thus, great leaders have cultivated the art of great storytelling. Make it easy for me to see how I thrive in that ideal vision of the future and I will build it for you. Personal relevancy means each stakeholder sees how who they are and what they do fits into the larger vision of the future.
Our reality is distorted so culture is key: By recognizing that we as individual leaders do not have all the answers, the perspectives of stakeholders at all levels become critical in creating the most accurate possible picture of where we are today. So, creating a culture that supports the ongoing contribution of those different realities to be explored, digested, and aligned behind in something close to real time is critical. Culture is the antidote to expensive out-of-date systems that try to do this. Create the behavior, or habit to think this way and systems become less relevant.
Since our collective reality changes on a daily basis, putting systems and structures in place to institutionalize ways of working quickly become irrelevant. These systems and structures soon begin to become barriers to the very efforts they were designed to support because by their very nature they are typically inflexible. I’m not suggesting you throw away all, or even most, systems and structures, but rather embrace the theory that when people are clear and aligned on where they need to go (True North), left to their own devices they will self-organize in a way that is most effective to get them there (If you're skeptical, ask any HR professional about the creative ways people collectively circumvent very clear policies on how they should work because they know there is a “better” way to get their work done..). Investing and reinforcing a strong culture and systems-light organization is more agile and a lot less expensive to maintain.
Take one step forward, then another. Organizationally, this means that people at all levels of the organization are clear on what they can do within the context of “True North” and are empowered to take a step. Whether dozens, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of stakeholders are taking a step, they're doing so as a chorus, not as soloists. That's why culture is key—it holds the chorus together.
Reorient ourselves, based on our new realities, to “True North” Version 1. After that first step, complexity hits us like a ton of bricks. Our organization is different. We need new systems, new talent, new ways of working together based on the new reality. And the external reality is also completely different. A scandal, change in economic or political climate, a real tsunami, something outside the organization, and outside our control, affects the environment in which we work—causing a ripple effect on every system we interact and every individual who has a stake in our success. That’s that complexity we have been talking about.
Reorient ourselves, based on our new realities, to “True North” Version 2. New realities require new and constantly changing leadership styles. As a leader, you probably already know this, but being a leader of change doesn’t eliminate you as a stakeholder in the change. Just like your employees, you will resist, you will be blind, you will experience fear, confusion, groundlessness, and you will grasp familiar identities and ways of working to feel safe, just like everyone else in your system.
In fact, you may have been rewarded the longest, and the most generously, for being capable of leading in the old paradigm. As you are extremely visible, you have the most at risk. Your stakeholders want to believe in you and don’t want to see you fail, yet they'll be scrutinizing every breath you take.
Find external support that you respect; support that will create a refuge for you to experiment with new ways of working in low-risk, low-visibility ways, but also hold you accountable to facing the realities of your system, where you might have blindspots. Ally with an advisor, skilled in the art of change, deeply committed to you and your organization, and equally committed to your capacity to be accountable to the outcome.
The "True North" approach is a strategy, but it is a fluid strategy. It is not a plan. It not only acknowledges the unpredictability of our business realities, it depends on this unpredictability—and it has dramatic repercussions on how we lead and how we behave in our systems.
It is a straight-forward approach to managing all the areas that we do not have control over (which, if we're honest, is a lot of things).
Put a stake in the ground, based on what you know to be true today, on where you are today, knowing your knowledge is incomplete. Confess to yourself that you don’t have all the answers. Embrace your curiosity, your sense of exploration, opportunity, and excitement—but be clear where you want to go.
Define a theory of change to get you from here to there. Take a step. As Bertha Calloway once remarked: "We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails."
About the author:
Managing Director | Waldron
Luisa’s experience, insight, and foresight have enabled her to guide social entrepreneurs, CEOs, and leaders of governments and international development agencies (NGOs) in achieving the potential in themselves and their organizations. She thinks and works globally, across cultures, borders, and industries—recognizing that every transformative result is driven by great minds, passionate engagement, and empowered people.