Culture change and the changing nature of leadership that exists within our working environments right now is significant. The workforce is changing and we are seeing people coming into employment that are very different from those that have been in employment for a number of years. People who are more adaptable and collaborative in their leadership style.

This change means that many organisations face the challenge of successfully working with two very distinct leadership styles. The traditional leader who tends to operate with a command and control perspective and the younger, more agile leaders who are all about staff empowerment and tend to have a single purpose rather than having business silos and quite a flat organisational structure.

In this podcast we take a look at this dichotomy and look at how important it is for us to understand how we can start to deal with this change and shift in culture towards a style which challenges our thinking.

Listen to the podcast:

Full Podcast Transcript can be found here:

The changing face of leadership

Hi folks, what we’re going to talk about in this session and on this podcast is around culture change and the changing nature of leadership as we start to grow into a more modern and digitised age. And I suppose that’s the first thing really to take into account is that we are seeing now changes in society, we are seeing people coming into an employment that are very different from those that have been in employment for a number of years.  And this is just normal stuff. This is just what’s happened for decades but it is important to take it into account because what we are starting to find now is that leadership within organisations and the way in which we go about things is fractured across the organisation.

So, you have leaders within organisations still who are pre-digitisation and who still have very traditional leadership ways. They tend to operate with a command and control perspective. They tend to operate project management in a waterfall process. They tend to operate within business silos and occasionally be fairly hierarchical. And they see IT as something that is difficult to get on with.

And then at the other end of the organisation, people coming into it now within employment actually are all about staff empowerment. They are happy to fail fast, rather than being risk averse. They are quite happy to do agile project management and operate in scrums and collaborative processes. They tend to have a single purpose rather than having business silos and quite a flat organisational structure. So, you end up with this dichotomy within the organisation of leaders who are used to leading people in a particular way and have been led themselves in a particular way for a long time confronted by a very much of a change in the employment demographic which is coming into their organisation and starting to take on junior leadership roles.

Thinking differently

I went along last year to Leadercast 2016 which is a simultaneous leadership broadcast around the globe with speakers on stage in the U.S., in the UK, in the Caribbean and Canada etc. And one of the U.S. speakers was a chap called Andy Stanley and a quote that I noted down within his presentation was this: “Next generation leaders are those who would rather challenge what needs to change and pay the price, than remain silent and die inside.” And I think that really captures how this new demographic is coming in and how they approach things and think about things. And so the more in-place traditional leaders need to start to get comfortable with being challenged first of all and to thinking in a different way.

And thinking in a different way took me on to one of my favourite books which is “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman, in which he talks about the difference between System 1 and System 2 thinking.  System 1 thinking being intuitive, what we react to day in, day out and System 2 being more of the slower paced thinking which is rationalising what we’ve come up with.  So, System 1 almost generates the thoughts and then System 2 decides whether to accept it or not.  And System 1 thinking, if you like, falls into the gut instinct piece, which is what a lot of leaders tend to use.

But the problem that is identified within Daniel Kahneman’s book is that this System 1 thinking can be influenced by patterns and has been shown in psychological studies to be influenced by different psychological patterns and by repetition.  So simply by something being repeated our System 1 thinking tends to accept that as always being valid. It’s a pattern that we recognise and therefore we always go with it.  And so actually our gut instinct can be flawed because we can find ourselves adopting thinking in decision-making based on influences that have simply happened to us.  They aren’t necessarily always valid or always the case, and so it is really important to understand how we can start to deal with as well, that change and a shift in a culture towards more System 2 thinking ie challenging our thinking, slowing down a little bit, validating the assumptions that are being made.

Organisational change

This starts to get closer to more, what I guess we could call in the modern terminology, agile thinking and working within scrums and things like that and being more collaborative and challenging our thinking the way we go about it.  And that’s why agile is starting to become so popular.  Because it allows senior management who are more used to a traditional approach to mix and to mingle in a scrum environment with some of the people who are much more next generation leaders and digitised and therefore more comfortable with challenge etc.  So, if that’s the way in which things are starting to shift towards and if that’s the way that leadership needs to move and to change to deal with the changing demographic and changing societal trends, how do you go about it?  Well, there are those out there who are strong proponents of the Big Bang Theory, if you like, that unless you go for a big bang change that is organisation wide and fairly abrupt, you don’t really wake people up and shake people up to what’s going on and therefore it just doesn’t happen.  So these tend to happen around major events, like complete CRM changes  or information technology changes or a merger or a joint venture with another organisation or some sort of matrix system development.

But Philip Atkinson in his book “Creating Culture Change: Strategies for Success” argues that whilst a Big Bang approach can be good in the long term it can also be very damaging in the short term, mostly due to poor delivery of that Big Bang change which then starts to then have people become disillusioned with it. And perhaps a Kaizen approach of continual improvement is better because that starts to mitigate the risks of the Big Bang, become more effective, it’s more gradual.  The other book I’ve read recently which I’d recommend to anybody out there trying to improve business performance or if you are a business performance coach is “Inspired – Performance coaching insights from the front line” by Tim Wigham.  In it he takes 52 really brilliantly short and concise notes, puts them all into a single book where he speaks  of different aspects of performance and how to go about them.  Things like what can learn from the All Blacks.  But he also talks of his experience around bringing in marginal gains, so this starts to reflect and echo what Philip Atkinson was talking about. And in Tim’s book in Chapter 37 he talks about the marginal gains to step change and I think that I probably subscribe to Tim Wigham and Philip Atkinson’s point of view on this.  I think that change, although it can be very powerful if it’s done in a Big Bang is probably likely to be longer lasting and to gain more traction and to be delivered in a more seamless manner if it’s done a little bit more gradually.  There’ll be people out there who will disagree with me and that’s absolutely fine, that’s what the whole purpose of these podcasts is about.

Culture change – creating a safe space

But if you are going to bring in then a gradual culture change around improving leadership in a digitised age, allowing greater challenge – how do you go about it? Because these more traditional leaders who are much more command and control orientated are going to be uncomfortable with being challenged and you can’t simply start to say we are just going to start challenging our thinking because it’s going to cause chaos.  And this is again where I think that wargaming or some sort of pressure test can come into it’s own.  Because it creates a safe bubble – it creates an environment within which it’s ok temporarily for leaders to be challenged, for thinking to be challenged, for accepted ways of going about things, accepted processes, the status quo to be challenged.  Because you give people permission as they come into the room to do that.  But by doing it temporarily in time and space i.e. in a wargaming workshop, you’re controlling the amount of echo that might work out into the organisation because everybody agrees and it’s laid out very clearly in terms of the ground rules before you walk into the session that this is a session where temporarily we are going to flatten the hierarchy.  And once we walk back out of the room, we are back to normal business and the session has helped us with our thinking.

But if you start to use that technique, if you start to use that pressure testing technique in creating a safe bubble on a more frequent basis, if you bring it in as part of your governance process, so that say for every project initiation or project review or stage gate that it’s going to go through, that you are going to run one of these sessions, you start to shift the way in which you operate within your organisations to become more accepting of challenge.  To become more accepting of critique, to see the benefit that it brings.  To see the benefit that approaching failure and considering failure brings but doing it in a safe environment.  So, if you like, the wargame or the pressure test, done properly, acts as a series of stepping stones that progressively take you towards a place where the organisation is more comfortable with those difficult conversations, with that disruptive thinking that is so vital to creativity, vital to innovation, but also needs to be delivered in a way that isn’t going to cause the hierarchy or the way in which the organisation is structured to fundamentally break apart and fail.  So, I think that it is an important thing to consider and to grow over time and perhaps a pressure testing workshop done on a regular basis is a way of delivering that difficult change.

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