Monthly Archives: December 2014

Managing continuity and change

Best of 2014, first published on April 14, 2014
Understanding how paradox or polarities work in organizational life is critical to effectively leading change. One paradox that I’m especially fond of is “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Put another way, a leader must actively manage BOTH change and continuity in order to be effective with any change effort. Here is a blog post from April that highlights how this paradox or polarity works. –Anita Rios

“If there is any one “secret” to an enduring great company, it is the ability to manage continuity and change—a discipline that must be consciously practiced, even by the most visionary of companies.” –Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last

Sometimes in setting strategy for change efforts, it is easy to forget about what we need to do to actively manage continuity in our colleges and universities. In their classic 2004 publication of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Collins and Porras, identified great companies as those who had the ability to “preserve the core” by staying true to their core values and core purpose, and at the same time “stimulate progress” through cultural and operating practices and setting specific goals and strategies.

But how do we actively manage continuity, while leading change? Collins and Porras suggest that instead of asking ourselves “How should we change?,” we should be asking “What do we stand for and why do we exist?” and then feel free to change everything else.

035Last Friday, I was able to witness a university community that has clearly answered the question, “What do we stand for?” Throughout the inauguration ceremony for Dr. Connie Gores, the ninth president of Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU), I heard story after story from alumni, students, faculty, and staff about the value and impact that SMSU has had on transforming lives. Born on the prairie, as a result of people who envisioned the possibilities of having a college in southwest Minnesota, SMSU has a clear identity and core purpose that was easily understood and communicated and provided a sense of pride for the community. In her inauguration speech, Dr. Gores honored the people and the accomplishments of the past by highlighting what SMSU is best known for and how it will continue to maintain continuity. At the same time, she positioned the institution for future progress through increased collaboration among institutions and partnerships with business, by focusing on possibilities. The inspirational theme for the inauguration: The People. The Prairie. The Possibilities., clearly captured this important balance of preserving the core and stimulating progress.

Here are a couple questions to consider when actively managing both continuity and change. After clarifying your core values and purpose, ask your team:

  1. How do our operating practices align with and support our core values and purpose?
  2. What new methods, new strategies, new directions would propel us forward?

What have you done to actively manage both continuity and change in your institution?

Anita Rios

Dancing with change, and watching the dance

Best of 2014, first published on February 7, 2014
“The  view from the balcony” continues to be one of the most useful leadership ideas for participants in our leader training programs. Balancing big-picture strategy with day-to-day details is an ongoing challenge for academic leaders.

–Dee Anne Bonebright

ballroom-dancing free to use

One of the first elements in leading change is to assess the current state. When we’re busy leading day-to-day efforts,  it can be easy to lose the sense of the big picture. We can forget to take time to think about where we are now, and where we want to go.

Ron Heifetz is one of my favorite authors on change. His concept of “getting on the balcony” has been useful to me and to participants in our leadership development programs.  Here’s how he describes it in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers.

Rather than maintain perspective on the events that surround and involve us, we often get swept up by them. Consider the experience of dancing on a dance floor in contrast with standing on a balcony and watching other people dance. Engaged in the dance, it is nearly impossible to get a sense of the patterns made by everyone on the floor. Motion makes observation difficult. Indeed, we often get carried away by the dance. Our attention is captured by the music, our partner, and the need to sense the dancing space of others nearby to stay off their toes. To discern the larger patterns on the dance floor – to see who is dancing with whom, in what groups, in what location, and who is sitting out which kind of dance – we have to stop and get to the balcony.

What helps you to step back occasionally and take a look from the balcony?

Dee Anne Bonebright

What do you need to give up?

Best of 2014, first published on January 22, 2014
Change is a bumpy and twisty road. Each of us will experience some sort of loss as we work together to reach our goals. I like to keep that in mind as a reality check whenever I get frustrated with the slow pace of change. This post highlights what leaders have to give up as you step forward and lead our system into our future.
–Todd Thorsgaard

Change is exciting. Who can argue with  new ideas, innovation, continued success, and the mission of higher education to deliver knowledge and learning to our students? Certainly not me! As Anita reminded us, Dare to Dream. We have a compelling future in front of us and it is exciting. Yet, deep down, something about the future and change seems to evoke hesitancy, debate and even the dreaded word, resistance.  In fact, leaders often struggle with their own development because of this hesitancy and the challenge they face acknowledging it.  weighingyour

Ram Charan, in the Leadership Pipeline, describes the hesitancy as a part of the transition that leaders face as they develop and change to meet new challenges and new expectations. Each transition presents you with an exciting future and new possibilities as a leader but it also demands that you give up a piece of your past leadership role. You must lose a part of yourself to develop as a leader that can succeed in the turbulent higher education environment we face today.

Specifically, leadership transitions require changes in:

  • your time horizon
  • your priorities
  • your relationships
  • your leadership skills or style

Successful leaders take on larger and more complex priorities, and a greater time frame, but to do that need to give up priorities, change relationships, delegate tasks and stop doing things that they are very skilled at doing and value. These losses lead to hesitancy and not acknowledging and accepting the required losses can derail the development leaders need to change and succeed.

How will your role need to grow to help you lead your team through change? What will you need to give up to succeed?

Todd Thorsgaard

No is the beginning of commitment

Best of 2014, first published on June 16, 2014
Given the recent conversations conducted in offices, hallways, restrooms, boardrooms, classrooms and the media around reactions to Charting the Future, I thought this blog was particularly relevant. It helps remind me that dissent conversations can help us get to a better result and is actually needed to build accountability and commitment for any change effort.
–Anita Rios

“…if we cannot say no, then our yes has no meaning.” – Peter Block

block2In his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block helps leaders understand how to build accountability and commitment for transforming our organizations and communities through six important conversations with stakeholders. One of those conversations focuses on dissent, which can seem counter-intuitive in our American culture. Dissent can be perceived as being disloyal or negative. And those who voice dissent can be branded as someone who is not a team player.

However, Block makes a good point that each of us needs the chance to express our doubts and reservations when we are part of a large collective effort to transform an organization. And he aptly points out: “creating space for dissent is the way diversity gets valued in the world.” It is the role of leaders to allow space for people to say no.

In working with leaders over the years, I’ve observed that many find it scary to allow space for dissent. It can feel messy. Leaders may also worry that allowing for dissent can send the organization’s members into a negative spiral. That’s where it is helpful to construct questions and facilitated conversations that allow for stakeholders to voice their doubts. Block suggests some of the following questions:

  • What doubts and reservations do you have?
  • What is the no, or refusal, that you keep postponing?
  • What have you said yes to, that you no longer really mean?
  • What is a commitment or decision that you have changed your mind about?
  • What resentment do you hold that no one knows about?

Allowing organizational members and stakeholders space to express their doubts and reservations can be powerful, especially as a leader listens deeply and with curiosity. Block also states that “the key for the leader is not to take the dissent personally or to argue in any way with the doubts that get expressed.” If a concern can be addressed, a leader should do that. If it is too complex to be addressed, which many doubts are, it is enough for a leader to just listen.

Allowing public space for dissent takes those conversations out of the hallway and restrooms and makes it safe for people to say no, so that when they move on to conversations about possibilities, their yes has true meaning and builds commitment towards a shared and desired future.

Anita Rios

Who’s not at the table?

Best of 2014, first published on May 23, 2014
Diversity is in the news a lot these days. This post from last May reflects on the importance of listening to many different voices when leading change. 
Dee Anne

Did you know that women with diabetes are 44% more likely than diabetic men to develop coronary heart disease? Neither did anyone else, until a recent research study was released.  In fact, there are a lot of things that we don’t know about women and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Since coroheart researchnary heart disease is a leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., how did it happen that early research included almost no studies focused on women or minorities?  I’m fairly sure no group of white male doctors deliberately said “it’s easier to focus our research on white males, so let’s just do that.”  Rather, I believe they didn’t think about it at all.  They looked around at who was at the table, and assumed that their findings would apply to everyone. We now know that’s not the case.

One of the most challenging leadership tasks is to examine our assumptions about who is at the table, and to seek out those voices that may not be represented. That’s one of the reasons why stakeholder analysis is so important.

I’ve frequently been part of organizational change efforts in which the leaders say they’re open to feedback and suggestions.  And I believe they really mean it.  But at the same time, I’ve talked to line workers who have information that would be helpful, and no real means to share it.  The student services workers who spend every day with the students may be in a good position to comment on how a policy change will impact registration. Students themselves would certainly have opinions. But without a good plan for proactively seeking that information, a management team may make policy decisions without it.

Next time you’re leading a change effort, ask yourself who else you can talk to. Who is impacted by the change, but not at the table?  Find the people who may be opposing the change and listen carefully to their concerns.  It may not change your direction, but you may learn about potential problems early enough to address them more easily.  Or, like the heart research community, you may discover that key assumptions need to be re-examined.

–Dee Anne Bonebright

You’re not listening…

Best of 2014, first published on May 21, 2014
When people disagree it is hard for leaders to step back and actually listen to what others are saying. We tend to try and “solve the problemby describing all the good reasons for change, which can backfire.

“Ok, I can do this. This is actually pretty fun. I am glad I joined in today. You know, I may actually end up liking this.” ……….  “What do you mean we are starting already? I just got here! Yes, it is fun, the trail looks great. No, I didn’t fall. No, I don’t want to hold everyone back, but I need a quick break. Oh, ok, I guess I can start right away……”  hikeabike

This was my internal dialogue when I started mountain-biking. My friends had only started riding about a month before I had but they were in a very different place than me. They were enthused and excited and wanted me be as enthused as they were! I was ready to try something new but I wasn’t as confident on the trails as them and the uphills were hard. They could ride faster and would get ahead of me. I would struggle up a hill, panting and gasping for breath, and they would be ready to go. I just needed a moment to catch my breath. They were lost in their excitement, had been resting for a few minutes and were raring to get started again. To me it felt like they were not listening. They felt like they had to cheer me on. I didn’t need cheerleading, I just needed 60 seconds to get my bearings. This is an example of the marathon effect. 

As leaders of change, the marathon effect can inhibit your success engaging your people and you won’t even be aware it is happening. Think back to times when you have worked hard to explain the benefits of a change to your team. What type of response did you get? Did it feel like you were speaking a foreign language? That is due to the marathon effect. You, as a leader, are already at the top of the change hill and you team is panting to get there. They can’t see the fun downhill that you can see and they are not going to react well when you try and cheer them on.

The marathon effect is a metaphor that highlights the different view a leader has from their team and provides insight to help leaders change their communication to better engage their teams. In large marathons the “leaders” are at the front at the start. When the gun goes off they get to start running and they can focus on the wide open options ahead of them. The leaders are enthused, they can see the change ahead. The rest of the “team” is lined up, often blocks back, and when the gun goes off nothing happens! They are still standing there. They can’t see the change and they are focused on what they need to do to deal with their crowded reality.

As a leader your initial communication efforts need to focus on the crowded reality your team is facing, not the wide open changes ahead. Your team will be more engaged if you can demonstrate you are aware that they are slightly behind you. Initial engagement messages need to focus on the hill your team is climbing and not on the downhill you can see ahead.  The challenges they are facing, their struggles, and most importantly, recognizing that they are trying.

It can be hard to rein in your focus on the future but recognizing the marathon effect will keep your people engaged. In the end they will join you and race to the finish, like I have done with my buddies on the trails out west.





Todd Thorsgaard

“It’s déjà vu all over again”

It’s been a wonderful journey exploring the stages of change through our blog over the last 11 months. To cap off the year, DeeAnne, Todd, and I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect on some of our best blog articles of 2014 and share them with you once more.

Many of the articles on leading change may seem new to you, especially if you didn’t get a chance to read them when they were first posted. But even if you start to get that sense of déjà vu from reading our blog this month, we hope that the “Best of 2014” blog posts cause you to stop and think, share a message, or even better: add your comments to the mix.

We encourage you to join us this month in a community dialogue on leading change.

Anita Rios