Updated: Dec 27, 2019
Ask a child to complete a maze in an activity book. If they are the savvy sort, they will likely begin at the part marked “end” and not at the place marked “start”. Through direct experience, children learn that it’s easier to complete a maze successfully when you do it in reverse.
This was a recent lesson from a strategic planning mentor. Like a child staring at a maze, when an organization has a vision for how it wants to expand, evolve, or level-up, there’s usually a spaghetti plate of twisting routes between “where we are now” and “where we want to be”.
In this early stage of change, leaders face the dual challenge of too many options and lots of potential dead ends.
Leaders that like a challenge and dislike uncertainty will tend to plunge ahead and trace their path by instinct. That feels bold and exciting, but you typically wind up with a lot of tracing, erasing, and re-tracing of paths through the labyrinth of change.
You’re also likely to become myopically focused on overcoming the immediate obstacles in front of your face and lose sight of whether your overall direction is taking you toward the intended destination.
A wilderness survival expert once told me, “As soon as you suspect you’re getting lost, go back to the last waypoint where you knew your precise location.” This is sound advice for life as well as managing change in an organization.
It's a simple instruction. However, ego will conspire to drive most people forward anyway. They will tell themselves, “When I top that ridge, make it out of this valley, or find that lake, I’ll know where I am. I’m not really lost.” All the while, they move deeper and deeper into unknown terrain until they lose their bearings completely. They might make it out, but they’re unlikely to arrive at the destination they intended.
It takes discipline to stop, think, and act strategically. It also takes humility.
Children are often much better at mazes than adults. They have less ego. Children assume that mazes are hard. They don’t feel pressure (like adults do) to make the task look easy. So, they’re more likely to think it through first and look for an advantage. Children also know that there are traps built into every maze and take them seriously.
However, those traps are really designed for those working from start to finish. When you work from the end backward to the starting point, you bypass most of the dead ends, distractions, and paths to nowhere. This is true with strategic planning. It’s also true when leading conflict and changing relationships.
Principle 9, Lead from the Future, means this:
When seeking to transform a relationship with a difficult colleague or shift the culture in your organization, behave as if the thing you want to be true has already happened. Then work backward to fill in the relational or cultural architecture that will cement that reality into place.
Let’s say staff behavior is rife with mistrust and gossip. You have a vision for a new organizational culture that is frank and transparent, while also being kind and understanding. The problem is, when you start from the beginning and plunge ahead, every move you make toward that new culture will be obstructed by the very behavioral habits you want to change – just like the traps in a maze.
The way to work the maze backwards is to immediately begin to behave as if the cultural and/or relational change you seek has already happened. In other words:
Become the outlier that is first to embody and model the future behavior change you seek in others, while simultaneously treating unwanted behavior that has been the norm as the aberration.
When practiced consistently, this immediately resets the baseline of what is considered to be normal behavior in the relationship or organizational culture. When a leadership team does this in unison, change happens rapidly.
In the case above, mistrust and gossip has been the norm in the organization. You would “start from the end” by strenuously and publicly modeling the opposite healthy behaviors you want to see in others – even if you need to fake it until you make it.
Ensure that your modeling stands out and is noticed. You will feel alone at first. It will feel weird. After all, you’re disrupting fixed patterns of behavior.
Even if existing patterns are unhealthy, people are used to things being that way. “Bad” is often more comfortable than uncertain.
Additionally, new instances of gossip and untrustworthy behavior should be met with shock and strong immediate disapproval.
Instead of responding with statements like, “I know this has always been a gossipy workplace. We need to change this.” … The response should be, “The amount of gossiping here is shocking to me. This is not who we are as an organization, it’s harmful, and no one should tolerate it.”
At this point most people will feel puzzled or disoriented. Some will be thinking, “What is he talking about? Gossipy and mistrustful is exactly who we are! It’s always been like this.”
The first response rightly points out the problem (i.e. the gossipy culture), but implies that someone else, at some undefined point in the future, needs to change that behavior. In a workplace already marked by mistrust, good luck waiting for someone else to take the first risk if you’re not willing to do it yourself.
Calling out a problem is the easy part. Being the first person to embody the alternative behavior is the hard part.
The second response (i.e. leading from the future) not only rejects the unwanted behavior, it also actively models the desired new behavior, and immediately sets a new expectation for what will be considered normal.
At first, you will be inhabiting a future populated by only one person, you. Over time though, others will join you. This happens slowly at first. However, once enough numbers have been accumulated to provide a feeling safety to the reticent, culture can shift quite quickly.
This works the same way with any shift. Maybe your organization's mission is evolving. Perhaps you want a new R&D team to move from a fixed to a growth mindset. Or, you just want people to start cleaning up after themselves in the break room.
Whatever that shift is for your team, it's far more likely to happen when the leader starts from end of the maze, stands in the future where the change has already happened, and says… join me.
Check out the the other principles of Leading Conflict here. Over the next few months, keep an eye out for some fun (and occasionally unusual) case studies that demonstrate these principles in action.
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