The Walk-Talk Gap

“Change is hard.”

“You’ve got to show up every day.”

“To learn new skills, you must to push through a period of incompetence.”

“Self-knowledge is hard-won.”

“True acts of leadership are rarely praised.”

“We only grow when we’re willing to let go of some of our most deeply held beliefs.”

“Sometimes you just have to compromise.”

I’m reminded of the time I spent in Indonesia nearly 20 years ago, and my going-in expectations about learning Bahasa Indonesia, the fifth language I had studied.

“I’m good at languages,” I thought, “so this shouldn’t be so hard.”

And then I remember the blindingly obvious observation I made about a week in: how, to speak this new language, I’d have to learn a new word for nearly every single thing on the planet: types of food, trees, animals, verbs, possessive…the list was endless.

As if there was going to be some way to skip those steps.

Just because we possess hard-won knowledge of what the path looks like from here to there, just because we’ve walked that path a few times before, does not mean it will be a breeze to walk the path this time. Far from it. It just means that we might walk it with a bit more perspective and perseverance, a dash more courage and determination.

Being in the trough, though, that valley in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an important compromise, feedback that cuts deep, or the recognition that, this time, the person who is set in his ways is us…

The question we’re faced with at that moment is the only one that matters: this time, are we going to be willing to do the hard work?

What does the Hippo think?

I was in a meeting recently with a successful startup CEO who was sharing how he runs his teams for best results. He finished by by saying, “…and that way we make sure we don’t end up with ‘hippo’ decisions.”

And I thought, “Heavy decisions?” “Decisions that are big and more dangerous than they appear?”

No, “hippo” decisions are actually HIPPO decisions, ones in which the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion rules the day.

There are entire organizations and cultures built around HIPPO decision-making. You’ve worked at these sorts of places–maybe you do right now. In these cultures, in meeting after meeting everyone is holding their collective breath waiting for the HIPPO to speak. Or, whole conversations happen and ultimately the HIPPO tells everyone what she thinks of the conversation and tells us all what we’ll do next.

Some anti-HIPPO resources that might be useful: the original HBR article on Adaptive Leadership and the great +Acumen course that will help you learn and apply the concepts. A powerful book by General Stanley McChrystal on Teams of Teams.

The funny thing about HIPPO cultures is that they let everyone off the hook: you’d think the non-HIPPOS might feel frustrated that their voice isn’t being heard, but often it’s a relief to have someone else decide, to know that you’re just pitching in some thoughts and that someone else will be on the line.

(And to all you HIPPOs out there, while it’s possible that you’re consistently the smartest, most experienced, wisest person in the room in general, what are the chances that you’re the smartest, most experienced, wisest about all things all of the time?)

Lest we forget forget…hippos are the most dangerous animal on the Savannah.

“They Just Don’t Get It”

What do you do when the values, the culture, or the (new and improved!) strategy of your organization aren’t translating into the behaviors you’d like to see? What steps do you take when the shifts in thinking and action that you worked so hard to develop aren’t visible in how people show up every day?

Often, when a message isn’t resulting in visible change, it’s tempting to rewrite or to double underline the message. A diagnosis of a communications failure means that it’s time to communicate more and better – to shout more loudly clearly until the message lands.

But what if something else is going on?

There’s a theory that each and every organization is perfectly aligned to deliver exactly the results that it wants to deliver. Not the results (and accordant behaviors) it says it wants, but the results it actually wants.

Under this view, it’s not that people aren’t hearing the message. Rather, they are attuned to multiple messages on multiple levels, and the messages that are landing the most are the ones that are 100% aligned with the way they’re behaving today.

If this is what’s happening, then shouting louder accomplishes nothing. Indeed, it could feed a credibility gap if you insist you want a set of thing but your day-to-day actions, policies, or language express something else.

The bigger lift is to look in the mirror and ask if the new message is true:

Where do we talk about a set of values but fall short of demonstrating them?

Where do we espouse that we want to see a set of behaviors and then fail to support the people who try to demonstrate them?

Where do we come up short in living the message?

Things we’ve done before

The things we’ve done before get less scrutiny. We did them last year (or last quarter, or last month) so when the time comes to do them again, we turn the crank and start.

New things, on the other hand, get all the tough questions.  Why?

Did we know more last year about what needed to happen today than we know today? Probably not.

Rather, the things we’ve done before, collectively, add up to our sense of who we are. Organizationally, we are the sum the things we do – our programs, our initiatives, our product lines – and cutting one of those away creates a sense of loss.

Worse, that loss may arrive special delivery from the outside.  Those close to you – customers, donors, friends – are quick to say, “I miss that thing we used to do.”  But they’ll never bang on your door with nostalgia for the thing you’ve never done.

If you’re in the “creating new things” business, your job is to understand how much the people around you resist white space and how much loss will be experienced by letting go of something familiar. Then your job is to work through these tough, personal conversations, not to pretend they don’t have to happen.

Remember, old versus new isn’t a fair fight based on the merits what makes the most sense today.

Strong ideas, loosely held

One of the best pieces of advice I got about five years ago was that I should have “strong ideas, loosely held.”

The feedback I was getting was on the “loosely held” part. At the time people experienced me as having “strong ideas, strongly held.” I think I’ve made some good progress on that.

Five years hence, as I come back to the central paradox inherent in this notion, I’m understanding that the suggestion isn’t to have any less conviction around my ideas. Indeed nearly all of the time we need more conviction, more passion, greater commitment, and greater follow-through.

The real point here is that the passion we have for our own ideas must be coupled with a core, deep-seeded belief that most ideas, most of the time, get better when they interact with, and are changed by, other ideas.

Solving big thorny problems

I like to divide big thorny problems (aka “the fun ones”) into three parts:

  1. The easy bits
  2. Parts that will be hard to get done, that will take a lot of work, but where directionally I have a pretty good hunch about what the answer is
  3. Parts where I truly do not know the answer

I often find that the trick to making progress on these sorts of problems is to think about them as if everything in the first two buckets is solved.

For example, imagine you (as I am) are trying to transform your organization into one that systematically produces insights worth sharing, in order to transform your own work and the work of your peers.  Clearly, this is a big, thorny problem.  And there are limitless things you can do to work on this problem.  That’s your first challenge: where to start, and how to spend your time.

This is an idea we’re working on at Acumen – in order to “change the way the world tackles poverty” we need to push on our own ability, globally, to synthesize what we’re seeing on the front lines; turn what we are seeing into insights that drive how we make and manage investments, the types of funds we raise and deploy, how we invest in leaders, etc.; and share what we are learning with the world.

The core, hard parts of this problem that are staring us in the face are: how we go about creating the process and the ongoing culture change required to make everyone a more integral part of producing insights?  How do we take the amazing experiences and observations that are living in people’s heads, globally, and help get these ideas out more regularly in a more synthesized, formed way that can drive our own strategy and influence how we share what we are learning with the world?

When I was talking to my colleague Venu about taking this all on, we agreed, counter-intuitively, that all of that important work feels like a “bucket 2” problem.  Meaning, we don’t know exactly how to do it, it’s a lot to do and a long road ahead, but on some basic level we know how it will be solved, what the solution will feel like, and what the result will be if successful.

The part where we really didn’t know the answer was: imagine if we had, at our fingertips, a deep reservoir of our best insights – on everything from how cold chains could be improved in rural, developing markets to how to build business models with cross-subsidies that drive inclusiveness and reach to the poor – what would we do with those insights to drive large-scale improvements both in how we do our own work at Acumen and how the world at large addresses issues of poverty?  Yes, we know that we would share more of what we are learning, in blogs and articles and op eds, at conferences and the like, but that really doesn’t mean much.

If what we’re talking about is driving real change through insights, then the big questions are far beyond whether it will be valuable to have stronger, more codified insights on what we are learning on the front lines of the fight on poverty – of course it will.  But, before we start, we must be clear on how we will drive change once we have this deeper well of insights.  Will we drive big new initiatives like creating an Acumen publishing imprint akin to the McKinsey quarterly; will we start a large-scale global consulting practice to share insights with peers and those interested in getting into the space; will we create a filtering and voting process whereby the best ideas that bubble up are shared with a group of potential funders who will be given the opportunity to put capital behind the opportunities that have been surfaced?

None of those ideas is real, yet, not even a little bit.  But I’m sure we’d never get to thinking about them if we didn’t give ourselves and our team the piece of mind of knowing that we will pull off the hard bits, and it’s the unknown bits that we have to wrestle with from the outset.

If we put off the work on figuring out these sorts of truly big, truly hard questions in deference to the big but sort-of-known questions, that on some level we are putting off the hardest, most important work for later.

The hard parts

The parts that are uncomfortable

The bits that no one else really wants to do

The things that make you feel exposed

And stretched

And outside of your comfort zone

The things that make it clear that what you thought it was going to take to get this done wasn’t right at all.  The funding isn’t there. The strategy hasn’t been sorted out. The roles and responsibilities aren’t clear enough. The team is too small and it doesn’t have all the right skills.  We’re just not where we need to be, and fixing things is going to be a heck of a lot harder than we expected.

All this really messy stuff?

That’s why we need you.

It’s because it’s hard that the work hasn’t been done….yet.

Full and hopeful conviction

One of the great nuggets – that I’d otherwise have lost had it not been for the visual notes I took – from the Adaptive Leadership piece in HBR that I talked about yesterday is about how to run experiments in adaptive settings.

Since adaptive challenges have unknown solutions, by definition we must make adaptive leadership decisions with incomplete information.  Even better, often the biggest breakthroughs come from holding two seemingly opposable ideas, goals, even values at the same time and trying to meet two seemingly incompatible needs.

In these adaptive situations, our only choice is to run experiments – to make a decision based on the information we have, with a clear statement of our hypothesis and an articulation of what data we will use to determine if the experiment is working.  (Very Lean Startup-y, in a very different context, which is always nice to see).

The soft underbelly of these situations isn’t WHETHER to run experiments (we have no choice) it’s HOW we run these experiments.

It’s all too tempting to view these tough calls at 51-49 situations, to continue to see all sides of the argument even after you’ve started running the experiment.  This is even more tempting in situations in which you disagreed with a decision – it’s so alluring to talk about the path not taken, to keep on hedging your bets just in case this path doesn’t work out.  Think how smart you’ll look if you have an “I told you so” moment three months from now.

Here’s another way to look at it, from the Adaptive Leadership piece:

Holding incompatible ideas in your head at the same time is a little like deciding to get married. At the moment you decide that this is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you have to fully embrace your choice; you have to believe wholeheartedly that it is the right decision. But your practical self also knows that you probably would have fallen in love with someone else under different circumstances. So how can your intended be the only “right” one for you? If you treated the decision to marry this particular person at this particular moment as a 51–49 question rather than a 90–10 question, you would never take the leap. The same paradox applies to adaptive leadership interventions. You have to run the experiment with full and hopeful conviction.

I’m much more of a romantic than that, so the analytical approach to the decision to get married just doesn’t sit right with me.  But that’s another conversation.

What I like is the memorable analogy and the great last sentence: “You have to run the experiment with full and hopeful conviction.”

Not doubt, not worry, not with side conversations about how this will never work or with hesitation or second guessing.

Full and hopeful conviction.

How do I learn?

Back in May I realized that Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself was a cornerstone piece of writing that I need to reread annually.  Its simplicity of language belies a depth of clarity and analysis about what it takes to understand oneself and, from that strong foundation of self-knowledge, build a successful personal and professional life.  I’m grateful to my friend and colleague Ankur Shah for sending it to me.

While most of the topics Drucker covers about self-knowledge and taking feedback were topics I’d expected to see, I was pretty taken aback by the section titled “How Do I Learn?”  I’d just never given the questions he asks any thought.  An excerpt:

How do I learn? The second thing to know about how one performs is to know how one learns.   Many first-class writers – Winston Churchill is but one example – do poorly in school.  They tend to remember their schooling as pure torture.  Yet few of their classmates remember it the same way.  They may not have enjoyed the school very much, but the worst they suffered was boredom.  The explanation is that writers do not, as a rule, learn by listening and reading.  They learn by writing…

Some people learn by taking copious notes.  Beethoven, for example, left behind an enormous number of sketchbooks, yet he said he never actually looked at them when he composed.  Asked why he kept them, he is reported to have replied, ‘If I don’t write it down immediately, I forget right away.  If I put it into a sketchbook, I never forget it and I never have to look it up again.’  Some people learn by doing.  Others learn by hearing themselves talk…

Am I a reader or a listener? and How do I learn? are the first questions to ask…

I found this perplexing because I honestly had no idea if I was a reader or a listener.  I didn’t find school torture at all, I read like crazy, so it seemed like I had to be a reader.

But the more I sat with that answer the less right it felt.  My best insights come by talking things through with people.  It’s only through hands-on, digging in conversations that things become real to me, that I can imagine how a solution will interact with the real world – what will and won’t work, and what’s holding something back.  I’m a talker/listener.

And then I started to think about all the reading that I do – what do I make of that?  Specifically, I started thinking about how well I recall things.  There are a lot of people in my life who have incredible memories; my wife is one and I know I don’t hold onto information the way she does (wish I did).  As a stark reminder of this, last month, just before I threw out 15 feet worth of 10 year old business school cases, I flipped through a few of the binders and was humbled by how little I recalled of the more than 1,000 cases I’d read. (Existential crisis on the cost of business school left for another day)

If I’m a listener and a talker who loves reading, and if I read to push my thinking, then I have to do something about reading differently.  It occurred to me to make my reading a bit more like blogging, by forcing myself to process information by capturing it and writing it down.  My parameters were to make the notes as visual as possible, to keep it to a page, and to focus on big concepts.

I had my first go at this for another “must read and reread piece” last week – The Theory Behind the Practice: A Brief Introduction to the Adaptive Leadership Framework by Heifitz, Grashow and Linsky.

What I’ve learned so far from this is:

  1. The decision that something I’ve read is worth processing in this way is itself important
  2. The little drawings of people and all the visuals help a lot.  For example the person holding the flag is the “leit,” (source of the word “leadership”) who went out ahead of the army carrying the flag.  He was often killed.  Kind of impossible to forget the heat you take as a leader with that little drawing floating around in my head.
  3. For the way my mind works, all I need the notes for is prompts, so they can be brief.  That is, without the notes a year from now I’d only remember 25% of the big concepts in the piece (e.g. the difference between technical and adaptive leadership will stick either way), but the moment I see high-level prompts in my notes I’m transported back to the full concept.  No need for the notes to provide all of those details

Creating these notes was easy enough to do with a 31 page HBR article.  I suspect for a 250 page book it will take more doing, but I’m going to give it a go, because if I can’t boil it down what are the chance that it will affect my actions for more than a month or so?

What about you?  Do you know how you learn?  Once you’ve figured it out, what do you do differently?