Stop Undermining Your Efforts

Tripped UpMy agency does a fair amount of training for other professionals. It is from that vantage point that I would like to offer a bit of advice for leaders who are investing in increasing their organizational capacity. First, congratulations for recognizing the critical importance of supporting both your staff members’ professional development and continuous improvement for your organization. That kind of commitment is critical for high-performing organizations. So please, stop undermining your efforts!

How exactly is it that leaders are undermining their efforts? Far too many leaders send their staff to training with the best intentions, and then the staff members — armed with new ideas and information — come back from the training excited and ready to hit the ground running . . . only to quickly hit a brick wall. No one is intentionally trying to thwart their efforts (or at least I hope not), however that is what often happens when no one has taken the time to consider an organization’s readiness to benefit from the new ideas/change effort/best practice information.

Organizational systems are designed to maintain the status quo . . . and that’s a good thing. In most cases consistency and predictability are what we want. However, when you are intentionally trying to infuse something new into a system, and do nothing to alter that system, if the system is working well the result is that the new idea/approach will likely be, if not shut down, certainly diluted in its impact. In effect, the effectiveness of your current systems is undermining your efforts toward change.

There is a way around this dilemma. One effective strategy can be to pilot the new approach — pulling it out from the current systems that are designed to support another way of doing things — to test its effectiveness. If you find that you want to incorporate the new learning on a larger scale, then you can make the appropriate changes to the systems. A similar but slightly larger scale strategy is to try the new way of doing things in a single department or program. Let a small group of staff members work out the bugs in the new system (yes, even the best plan will probably need tweaking to be most effective in your environment) before you try to roll it out agency wide. The most challenging path (but still better than doing nothing at all) is to try to change systems within the entire organization to accommodate a new approach. In most cases, starting small is the best strategy. Gaining little victories, adjusting as necessary, and then expanding the effort makes it easier to convince skeptics that the change is a good idea.

Organizational resources are precious commodities and as leaders we want to make sure we are getting the biggest bang for our buck. The best way to make sure you aren’t undermining your efforts — take a moment to make sure your organization is ready!

Stop the Insanity!

Afro American Businessman

Albert Einstein is widely credited with defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Upon hearing this, people often nod or smile, logically agreeing with that statement . . . and yet so often leaders fulfill Einstein’s definition. They want a change to take place, and yet do nothing to alter the systems or processes designed to make sure that change doesn’t happen. It is time to stop the insanity.

It’s not just leaders who struggle with this concept. Many of us have lots of information on good nutrition, the need for exercise and what causes weight gain, and yet if we don’t change our “systems” (fast food, sugary drinks, a sedentary lifestyle, etc.) knowledge alone is not going to give us a different outcome. In fact, knowing what we “should” do, but not figuring out a way to do it, only adds frustration/guilt/judgment/disappointment to the mix.

Apply that same concept to organizations. When we are faced with a challenge and need to consider a new way of doing things, some kind of training is often the answer — give the staff more knowledge, build their “capacity”. While this is an important part of the change process, training alone is not enough. Far too often, after the excitement of new information fades, those who received the training are frustrated because they run into roadblocks when they try to implement a new way of doing things. Likewise, those who commissioned the training are frustrated because they aren’t seeing the intended change.

What to do? Stop the insanity. How? Start by looking at your systems — those policies/procedures/ways of doing things designed to keep things running smoothly (and from a systems perspective, smoothly means consistently!) Systems are designed to preserve the status quo, treat every case the same, and deflect anything that doesn’t align with the set way of doing things. That is a good thing in many circumstances . . . unless you are trying to infuse new information and new ways of doing things based on changing variables. In those cases, engrained systems become a problem . . . even more so because they sometimes are almost invisible. They simply become how we do things, an almost unconscious barrier that can stop progress in its tracks. And adding new processes on top of old systems is not an option. Just pick your favorite bureaucracy and see how well that works.

We have to stop the insanity. And that often means exposing the hidden barriers. (Why do you think most diet plans have you write down everything you eat – people often don’t “see” the issue.) There are structured ways of doing this, such as lean problem-solving, or you can just ask your people. Those who have run up against your systemic barriers know where they are. Help them find a way around them.

That’s it. Pretty simple formula: new approach – systemic barriers = stopping the insanity. Einstein would be proud.

The Seeds of Leadership

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” — Mexican Proverb

When I first read this quote, I felt it at a gut level . . . as in, I have experienced this and know its truth. I’m guessing most leaders who have led a major change initiative or championed an innovation effort also know the dank, dark feeling of being buried by those committed to the status quo, and also the inexplicable inner drive to nurture an idea until it takes root and breaks through to the surface. Seeds indeed.

In most cases, it’s not personal . . . those who would seek to bury us. Bureaucracies, and really most organizational hierarchies, are designed to maintain the status quo. Conformity is what makes such systems efficient and predictable. And to those for whom efficient and predictable are the goals, cloaking themselves in rules and processes feels safe, allowing them to be in control. Such a system works as long as the variables with which you work don’t change . . . as long as the winds never shift and there are no seeds trying to take root. I hear that happened once, back in 1953.

Once the keepers of the status quo come to the realization that seeds are sprouting up, a frequent response is to try to route the young vines through the established systems. “This is how we set rates, so send us your information in this format and we will consider it . . . (to which the seed responds) This new program doesn’t work that way, here is the cost . . . Sorry, we really want to access the service but we have no mechanism to accommodate that funding model.” At this point the seed can decide to become something it’s not, and usually wither and die in the process, or it can find another path that will allow it to flourish. In my experience, seeds will find a way. Sometimes they have to send out long shoots to work around deeply rooted vegetation in their path . . . or have you ever seen a flower spring forth amid the cracks in a slab of concrete? Seeds will find a way.

Systems and processes are a necessary part of organizational life . . . but if you are going to be successful, so is a willingness to nurture the seeds of new ideas whose time has come. That means not burying the crazy suggestion or the voice of dissention, even (and especially) if they come when you are already overwhelmed by the crisis du jour. You never know which of those might represent the seeds of your future success.

So how do you know which ideas to nurture? It’s not about how easily it fits into some current structure, or adheres to someone else’s guidelines. It’s about furthering your mission — which may require an approach that no one has considered before. Viewed through the lens of mission, seeds of potential begin to stand out. It is your job as a leader to nurture those ideas — to keep them from being buried, or to help them break through to the surface if some external force has tried to stuff them underground.

If you don’t, someone else will. After all, seeds will find a way.

Breaking Away from the Herd


In today’s world, where best practice and evidence-based practice and the push to achieve specific performance measures are often heralded (and funded) as THE path to success, it seems we have lost sight of the fact that while these things may be effective in achieving one specific outcome, they are not the panacea for organizational impact or finding new ways to solve stubborn challenges.

I’m not saying there is no value in “best practice.” I think there is. We have trained our staff in six different evidence based practices, and I believe they are an important part of our success . . . but no more so than our willingness to also try new, untested, creative strategies for overcoming our biggest obstacles. When we stop looking in new directions because others have chosen to fund and build rules around following one single path we, in effect, give up on finding new, perhaps better, solutions. Are you willing to sacrifice that possibility for the comfort of following the herd?

As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan noted in their book The One Thing, “Anyone who dreams of an uncommon life eventually discovers there is no choice but to seek an uncommon approach to living it.” Translated into organizational language, if we want to have an uncommon (new/breakthrough/life-changing) impact on those we strive to serve, it is unlikely we will get there by simply following the “standardized” path. We have to break away from the herd and chart our own course. Granted, that sounds great in theory, but it can be much harder in actual practice. For example . . .

Our organization provides services to struggling children and their families. We are paid to provide services to kids. We believe the best way to have a lasting positive impact on a child is to serve the whole family — in fact, the first item on our list of “how we do things around here” says “The client is the family system.” We are paid to provide services to kids. So we have to make hard choices about investing in a new path, one that we believe will yield better results for our young people, even if the current rules and funding are a deterrent to forging that path.

If being successful were simply a matter of following the status quo, we wouldn’t need leaders, just obedient followers. The leader’s challenge is to determine when to follow the proven path and when you need to step out in a new direction — because to do any less would be to settle for stopping short of your mission.

Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and break away from the herd.