• STRATEGY

    STRATEGY

    leads to confident rest while its adversaries toil.
  • STRATEGY

    STRATEGY

    is  both an art and science. Good strategy will result from neither independently.
  • STRATEGY

    STRATEGY

    can be overlooked when resources are abundant and margins for error are wide. But when environments are competitive, strategy separates those who survive from those who perish.
  • STRATEGIC ABSENCE

    STRATEGIC ABSENCE

    kills organizations. It’s people drown in an ocean of activities whose undertow moves faster than it’s the strongest swimmer.
  • STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP

    STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP

    organizes and induces a resonant oscillation that knocks down every obstacle, scales every wall and wins every battle.
  • STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP

    STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP

    never  tires. It only expends critical energy and resources on the highest value activities.
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In the world of travel, some exciting things are just around the corner - 700 mile per hour “trains” may be here sooner than you think. The way Elon Musk and other innovators propose to get there begins with a scientific foundation that is not new  – low frictionhigh performance. A system operating at these speeds, like Musk envisions - Hyperloop, will need to glide along a “rail” with virtually no friction.

Today, Maglev technology (magnetic levitation) is being used to propel trains in excess of 250 miles per hour using electromagnetism to suspend the train slightly above the rail. Hyperloop will use this, air bearings and “fly” through a tube with no air resistance, no friction, to allow the “train” to “glide” at speeds just below the sound barrier – low friction, high performance.

Social scientists and leaders have known for a long time, that centralized, authoritative leadership does not result in sustained high-level performance – this idea is not new. It is by definition, high friction leadership. Employees or associates navigate through a world of obstacles and head-winds – often created by the leader. Eventually, they focus energy on their own energy conservation over the performance of the team. Little important gets done – high friction, low performance.

Another idea that is not new is that organizations who design for no friction culturesactually create high friction, low performance ones over time. Leaders who allow for too much autonomy, too much freedom create organizations who at best are headed in too many directions and at worst are immersed in daily, nuanced arguments over purpose, intent and respect for each other. Here too, little important gets done – high friction, low performance.

The creative minds at SpaceX and Tesla are using “old ideas” yet engineering them together into new creations - of low friction, high performance. Likewise, today’s breakthrough leaders must engineer authority and autonomy together in ways that will unleash organizational speeds never seen before – low friction, high performance cultures.

In part one of this series on ABC cultures (Attitudes, Behaviors, Capabilities) I wrote about this type of culture, where these three critical areas are always the leader’s central focus. In an article I wrote last year, I described this leadership in practice with Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks Coach) as the innovative director of it. He, almost artistically, balances the use of his authority with the empowerment of his player's autonomy. He has created “Super-Highways” with authoritative guardrails but very open, fast and low friction roadways on which his teams race toward victory.

Whenever I sit down with leaders to talk about creating ABC cultures, I find two things that will eventually lead to success or failure.

1.      Understanding your strategy enough to define (in detail) what constitutes a “guardrail” and what does not.

This is one of the hardest thing to teach emerging leaders because they are fighting two natural, human forces – impatience and the fantasy of total autonomy. Conventional wisdom teaches leaders things like “inspect what you expect”, “if you walk past something wrong you are endorsing it”, and “nip it in the bud” to mention only a few. And then, when you add substandard organizational performance, most leaders cannot hold back. Their impatience lashes out and they grab the reigns of authority tightly and attempt to wrestle the beast back onto the right path. Attitudes are soured, behaviors (good and bad) are stifled as friction builds and slows performance.

This is not new in organizational dynamics. It is normal for people get off track with their attitudes or actions. We know this is an inevitability when an “owner” hires her first employee. Multi-people organisms do not always stay on track. This is where the strategic leader elevates above all the others. She looks into the future and anticipates where her employees (human beings) may veer. Then she constructs the least intrusive, least onerous, simplest – yet most clear guardrails imaginable to guide her teams gently along to path to her strategic end. And just as importantly, she tests them with other leaders in her organization –

1 - Do these guardrails lead everyone to the right behaviors?

2 - Do they promote the right attitudes?

3 - What contradictions might arise?

4 - Are there ways to make these simpler, less petty, less entangling?

The fantasy of total autonomy is a trend through which business has labored for the last three decades. There has been an academic theory that teams can learn to “self-direct”, that they can learn to operate without a leader. If only we can teach them enough, if only we can motivate them enough…

And so, some leaders operate with a voice coming from one of their shoulders that says, ‘anything that restricts the creativity, the freedom or the autonomy of an associate is by nature, bad’. They restrain themselves from “giving direction” from engaging attitudes and behaviors that are sub-optimal.

It is for this reason that strategic leaders must not only cast their visions and articulate the guardrails, but they must also rehearse them in their minds and with their subordinate leaders.

·      When someone “bumps into” a guardrail but can find their way back into the “flow” should we let them do this and learn whatever they learn on their own? Or should we make sure they know we saw them bump into the rail and tell them what we think they should learn from it?

·      When someone stops moving along the highway, yet is not bumping into a guardrail, how should we address that? (Unanticipated behaviors and attitudes along the path of strategic execution).

When leaders are confident about where authority should be asserted and what it should look like guardrails become clearer and clearer to the organization. And, when leaders are confident that they are supported when they allow autonomy to flourish within certain boundaries no matter whether it is productive for results or only productive in building individual capabilities for future performance (short term negative affect) virtually frictionless work is empowered.

Word of caution – this cannot be done through vision casting and communication alone. This is a process which requires constant closed loop cycling. Set vision – communicate – learn – re-evaluate – refine - communicate – learn… repeat.

2.      Let “minimally-governed-freedom” work.

This is perhaps the hardest thing leaders must do to unleash a low friction, high performance culture. Just like engineers must trust that the train’s rails will provide the direction from which the forces of magnetic levitation guide it along a low friction path. Strategic leaders must engineer their guardrails precisely and then trust them. Very few, if any, do that well. Unlike physical principles, we are organisms. We act and react in varied and sometimes unpredictable ways (again an argument for mental rehearsals).

Example - As I’ve coached many middle school aged basketball teams, I have seen this human instinct at work over and over again. When the season starts, I gain alignment with the parents, that the most important part of the season is that their sons learn and grow. Winning, getting “just calls” from referees and mistake free play is counter-productive to the strategic goal of learning and growing. As you can imagine, parents eat this up, they love it… ‘someone cares about their boy like they do’, they think. But, when the pressure comes, when we’re two-thirds of the way through the season and we’re in a tight game, their aspirations as a purely ideological parent are thrown out the window. They watch in horror as someone else’s son tries to throw a pass across the court to a teammate who is too tightly defended – and it is intercepted. Whether it is yelled aloud, or just bangs within the hearts and minds of the parents in the stands, it is still palpable, “why did you throw that pass?”

But our guardrail was that these 6th grade boys will only learn what passes are open by throwing that pass away twenty times. The freedom to make mistakes is NOT the “Super-Highway” to winning, but it is the “Super-Highway” to maximize the growth of individual 6th graders . Yelling at that player, even telling him “that wasn’t a good pass” causes a friction that is unnecessary. Yet it is totally human to want badly to say it. As I have rehearsed this in my mind for years, I know that even though I want to pull this player from the game and tell him immediately that we have talked about that pass “a hundred times”, it is only counter-productive. And so, I know ahead of time, the right thing is to wait until the next practice and ask something like, “what did you see and what did you hope would happen when you threw that pass?” “What can you focus on in practice to train your decision-making habit to work faster?” Often boys will simply say, “I don’t know”, and that’s OK, they learned what they are capable of during the game.

In your organization you need to be very clear about your strategic goals – often more with yourself than with your organization. As with my basketball example, winning was simply not one of them – basketball skill and character growth were. Once you are clear about them you must decide upon, test, rehearse, implement and refine guardrails that lead the organization towards your strategic goals. And then, you must allow your teams to create, fail and flourish within those guardrails. If you do this in a disciplined and consistent way, you will use old ideas, yet create a rare, new way at low friction, high performance speeds on the way to strategically led, dramatic success!

At Strategic Accelerations, I help leaders think through their strategic goals, how they can erect the right guardrails and how they might message and iterate to maximize their organization's success. If I can help you with these, please schedule time with me to discuss.

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