How Things Spread

As some of you know, I write and teach about how change happens without authority in organizations. So in listening to this TED Radio Hour podcast on my walk into work, I found a lot to get excited about.

Did you know that sliced bread did not take off as a product immediately? And yet now it is held up as the best thing ever. We even compare how compelling a new idea is to sliced bread. So why did sliced bread take ten years to get traction? And why did it finally take ten years to take hold? Seth Godin tells this story, and perspectives from Bill Gates, and Nicholas Christakis on network science were other highlights in this TED Radio Hour slot.

In particular, Christakis’ systems-level approach to identifying and mobilizing allies was fascinating and consistent with the tactics that Jerry Davis and I (and others, like Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point) advocate.

Please Reject My Idea

When was the last time you made a proposal at work that was rejected? Was it quickly out of hand? Or was it “death by a thousand cuts”?

This experience has happened to almost everyone at work. Depending on how it is handled, rejection of ideas can feel like incivility or even discrimination. It can lead good employees to disengage from their work, metaphorically hiding under the table rather than risk feeling like they and their ideas are being shot down again.

Recently, I had an idea rejected at work. Fortunately, my boss is possibly the most thoughtful person in the world. But that does not mean we always agree. We can disagree yet maintain mutual respect, trust, and appreciation. Nevertheless, it was frustrating, and it was disappointing. But it led to something better.

Let me explain: Over the past year, demand our programs at the Center for Positive Organizations has grown pretty much across the board. We have more students in our learning programs, more people attending our events, and more leaders in our co-learning community. This happened in a year when our budget was reduced by 30% due to the expiration of a major gift. As you can imagine, this has put a lot of strain on the team. I am ever so proud of how they have responded to the challenge.

Simultaneously, my own role has become more complex. I feel a constant tension between supporting internal operations and connecting with external partners. This is a dilemma familiar to anyone building a business (or, in our case, a social enterprise).

We needed to evolve how we work in order to match the changing demand system. I proposed that we hire or promote someone to spend more time being a servant leader to our staff, and I would focus more externally. The idea was given consideration, but the response was no. The rejection was swift and it was consistent. Yet the decision was not accompanied by any viable alternative suggestions. “Go figure it out,” was the implicit message. “Find something better.”

I felt grumpy about this rejection but was still committed to the goal of finding a way to manage what needed to be done for us to be successful. Living in that uncomfortable creative tension of having a pressing goal but no clear path, new options gradually started to emerge. By serendipity, Rice University Professor Scott Sonenshein (a member of our Research Advisory Board) recently released Stretch, a fantastic book on doing more with less. Scott gave a Positive Links talk at Michigan Ross which helped me reframe the problem. I then had a walking meeting with my colleague Brian to swap notes on team structures, which gave me new ideas. Finally, planning for three weeks of leave this summer for my wedding and honeymoon, while very exciting, also forced me to think creatively about how things will get managed without me being so hands on every day.

The resulting idea was better than the original band-aid solution of adding staff members. Drawing on some of the principles of self-organizing teams, I decided to democratize our team processes. Companies such as Cascade Engineering have skillfully experimented with enabling people to manage themselves with great results. Why couldn’t we take a step in that direction?

We are now running an experiment where each meeting has its purpose and design laid out for anyone to run it. This means that as our personnel changes over time, we can easier assimilate new people to our way of working. The person running each meeting is selected based on a principle, not a title or a name. This means that although meeting attendees may vary, there is always someone clearly responsible for running each meeting. For instance, our morning stand-up huddle is run by the newest person on the team that is present, and I happily defer to her. Our monthly lunch and learn meetings are led by whoever signed up to offer the first update. If I have to miss meetings, whether it be to give a presentation to executives or to get married, it is clear how things should run, and how to support each other.

We came to what promises to be a better way of doing things: a way that is potentially more effective at supporting people, providing leadership development opportunities, and creates stronger social fabric on the team. And we did it without increasing headcount or budget.

This process of finding opportunity in disappointment can be applied elsewhere. There were five important steps:

  1. The intention was clear. As my colleague and transformational leadership expert Bob Quinn asks so often: “What is the result we want to create?”
  2. The constraint was clear. What can’t we have or do in pursuing this goal?
  3. The mental reframe. How can this be the catalyst to coming up with something even better?
  4. The solutions emerged. Who and what can we turn to for further ideas? How can multiple ideas be combined to achieve our goals?
  5. The experiment. How will we test potential solutions?

Having our ideas rejected is not a pleasant experience. But there are a million ways to do everything. With the right perspective and approach, we can turn it into an even better outcome for everyone involved.

Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com, chriswhi@umich.edu) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

 

Originally appeared at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/please-reject-my-idea_us_59120586e4b0e3bb894d5b12

Everyday Courage in Organizations

When you think about courage at work, what comes to mind? Maybe it is fire fighters going into a crumbling, burning building to rescue people. Or our armed services deployed overseas, facing the threat of injury or death every day. Or even a pilot safely landing a plane on the Hudson River in critical conditions.

For me, the first image that comes to mind is taking one of the first flights back from New York to home in San Francisco after 9/11/2001. For a few days, no flights had taken off from New York as experts raced to understand and adapt to a new threat of items in our day to day experiences being weaponized. Throughout the flight, all passengers were told to stay in their seats. This wasn’t a recommendation, as it sometimes feels today. We were being closely watched by the multiple air marshals on the flight. After the plane safely landed, the flight crew hugged each other, the tension and relief evident on their faces.

These are examples of physical courage. Although most of us do not have working conditions that place us in harm’s way on a daily basis, we can recognize and appreciate the courage of those who do.

A simple working definition of courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one”. If we are being honest (or self-aware), what scares us goes well beyond the threat of physical harm. Indeed, psychological fear is probably much more prevalent for most of us than fear for our physical safety. Let’s call managing this fear and moving ahead anyway “Everyday Courage”.

One of the ways that we have the opportunity to experience and enact Everyday Courage is in standing up for our values. Bullying is all too prevalent in our organizations, as it is too in other parts of our society. In fact, 20 years of studies by Christine Porath and others suggest that 99% of people have either experienced or witnessed incivility in the workplace. Taking a stand against toxic behaviors – whether toward ourselves or others  – is an important and inspiring form of Everyday Courage.

We also express Everyday Courage in what we stand for, not just what we stand against. When we take action to create change without authority, we can often be entering into psychologically threatening territory. It is likely that all of us have experienced being excited about an idea we have had, that we think will really help a colleague, our team or organization, or other stakeholders. It is equally likely that we have experienced our idea being rejected. In some cases, we may also have had our wrists slapped for making the effort. Stepping on invisible landmines in organizational politics can be treacherous!

It is not pleasant to experience these mini (and sometimes not-so-mini) electric shocks from the organizational system. It is tempting to internalize them as a message to stop trying to make a difference. After all, as any parent or leader knows, we humans respond to pleasure and pain as we learn behaviors. We learn to do what earns us pleasure (or praise, or a bonus, or intrinsic satisfaction), and we learn to avoid what brings us pain (or criticism, or rejection).  I believe that this cycle is a significant contributor to so many people checking out at work. Sure, they show up, but they stop trying to make a difference. Or, worse still, they ally with those knocking down the folks who are still trying. Because it is so much easier (i.e. Requires much less psychological courage) to be a Monday morning quarterback than the guy (or girl) on the field trying make plays.

So what can you do to bolster Everyday Courage in your organization?

  1. Give yourself – and others who try to make a positive difference – credit for your efforts. This is an act of Everyday Courage. By giving this behavior this label you are narrating a positive identity for yourself and others. In doing so you are bolstering the resilience needed to keep going even when you run into resistance.
  2. Prepare yourself psychologically for the interaction. The father-son team of Robert and Ryan Quinn suggest asking yourself four questions to help enter the “fundamental state of leadership”. What is the result you want to create? What do other people think about this? Who would I be in this situation if I lived up to the standards I expect of others? What are 3-5 strategies I could employ here?
  3. Build your skills at creating change without authority. When plotting how to advance your idea, my co-author Jerry Davis and I recommend you consider four factors: When to move ahead? Who are the allies I need on board? Why is this a good idea for the people (and organization) affected? How should we organize around this?

Thank you for everyday courage in making a positive difference in your organization and the world. You inspire me!

Chris White (@leadpositivelyleadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
Post originally appeared here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/58767913e4b0f8a72544843d?timestamp=1484162172876