Lean Transformations Group

The Modern Leader Creates the Conditions for a Problem Solving Culture

Perhaps you are a senior leader who is facing significant business challenges. You may feel the need to put more pressure on your team members to achieve this year’s goals because of some unachieved goals from last year. You may have even tried out some of new “leadership behaviors” you’ve read about, but you still are not seeing significant improvement in performance. Close friends give you advice, but your sense is that what they’re telling you to do won’t move the needle either...

So what do you do?

Start by considering whether or not you are operating within an outdated model of leadership, one that is based on a slower moving, relatively stable marketplace. How can you tell? Ask yourself, are you pretty sure that your employees are not effectively aligned with each other or the larger purpose of your organization? Do you pay exhaustive personal attention to metrics to motivate people to achieve their goals? Are you concerned that your employees are not fully engaged? If any of these statements ring true, then you are likely operating inside the old paradigm, typical of most companies, that imposes blanket solutions on performance problems without first understanding your organization’s real, most urgent business problems.

There is a better way to lead your company in today’s tumultuous, rapidly changing business environment that can enable your team to perform at extraordinary new levels. This new way requires that you challenge your own thinking. Based on what we know about complex adaptive systems and brain science, the new role of leaders is to recognize the flaws of your existing leadership model and then step into a new mental model that takes advantages of the properties of the new sciences. Then, you can stay focused on creating an energetic and adaptive problem solving culture.

If this sounds right to you, then it’s time to step into your role as an agent of culture change. Let’s get started.

Recognizing the Old (and Totally Outdated) Philosophy of Leadership

Although every leader is different, there are some common leadership practices that consistently create poor outcomes. For example, leaders typically feel responsibility for setting strategy, deploying that strategy with specific goals and objectives, and monitoring performance through regular performance reviews. This may sound like a fine approach, but it’s outdated as these practices are directly connected to thinking that emerged over 300 years ago during the early scientific revolution (1685-1739).

The predominant worldview of leaders at the time—at least in Europe—was that they had control over their destiny. It was a clockworks, mechanistic universe. Thinking was grounded in Newtonian Physics and the belief that the world was controllable and deterministic. Most leaders today unfortunately still operate with this same worldview. We think we can control outcomes through tracking metrics and measuring achievement goals. We think that improvements will happen by changing the parts (people), hiring and firing people, and reorganizing the org chart. We think we can command and control things to achieve performance improvements. But again and again, it just doesn’t work.

Leaders today also tend to be results oriented rather than means/process focused. Peter Drucker, a well-known management guru introduced Management by Objectives, a results-oriented management principle in his 1954 book, The Practice of Management. Most organizations are driven by some derivative of this model and expect their organization to achieve results-oriented goals, usually on an annual basis. The problem is, most goals and objectives are rolled out by function, meaning they often overlap and are disconnected, which causes confusion. Most goals are also not directly connected to real business problems. To make matters worse, more often than not, leaders also set too many goals for their team which adds to non-value-added work and overburden.

Another outdated idea? Most leaders today still believe that maximizing profits is the purpose of the organization. In 1970, the well-respected economist Milton Friedman wrote the article, “The Social Responsibility of a Business is to Increase its Profit” in The New York Times. Soon after, nearly all the business schools began teaching this to students. Maximizing profit is built into most companies’ policies and procedures through the emphasis and monitoring of cost goals and budgeting.

Finally, when things still don’t go as planned, there is the all too common practice of rolling out blanket solutions across the organization instead of clearly defining and deploying business problems to solve. This is so commonplace that we usually don’t recognize it when it’s happening. Typical blanket solutions to poor performance include new IT systems, moving operations offshore, company mergers, reorganization, and again, hiring and firing people. Sound familiar? And with each of these “solutions”, there is no clearly defined contribution to a specific business problem.

Perhaps the worst result of this blanket solution orientation? Teams never learn how to do effective problem solving.

The Role of the Modern Leader

Wise leaders have the courage to transition their organization to a new set of principles and practices where every person, every day is working to make the entire system better through a standard problem solving process. I’ve dedicated the last 15 years of my career to developing a simple mental model that can help leaders guide their organization in this transformative work without needing to go back to school to pursue a degree in the latest Organizational Change concepts. This mental model is based on years of experience working with clients through my firm, Lean Transformations Group, and the latest techniques from the OD community.

The 3 parts of this model must be practiced concurrently. They must also be managed through small experiments, with small groups, working on real problems.

1)   Build a framework for problem solving. This part breaks the existing fragmented organization and creates a shared focus on the problems of delivering your products or services to your external customer. It addresses the focus on customers vs. profits.

2)   Grow respectful social connections. This part is about the interaction between you and your people. It sets up the social system, the culture for people to feel safety in working with others. It creates trust among people so they can be more effective at solving the really difficult and complex problems.

3)   Accelerate organizational learning. Here you are focusing on growing curiosity. This transitions the organization to a culture where everyone is looking for new and creative solutions to problems. It emphasizes a passion for getting better every day.

Before we spend more time on this mental model (discussed in my next article), I recommend spending some time thinking about where you and your organization are now:

Consider the following:

  • How much of your daily efforts are tied to attaining annual goals without deeply understanding the processes that are connected to these goals?
  • What percentage of your goals are functional vs. customer delivery problems?
  • What percentage of your daily activity is tied to maximizing profit (sales growth and cost savings) vs. improving value delivery to your customers?
  • To what extend are you able to connect your core processes to customer delivery problem gaps (and determine changes to the process steps in relation to their contribution to these gaps)?
  • How many of your initiatives (projects) are blanket solutions vs. activities around a well-defined problem gap you know you need to close?
  • To what extent do your value creators (your team members) work every day on improving their processes for closing the problem gap at the delivery point to the customer?
  • How often do you visit your team members and ask how they are thinking about their work processes and making them better?

You might consider spending 30 minutes each day to simply observe, interact, and reflect on these questions. This article is article 1 in a 3 part series. Read article 2, "The 'First Principles' of Extraordinary Organizational Performance" and "Putting Leadership (AKA Problem Solving) Principles Into Practice." Learn more about all of these ideas in my book, Transforming Leader Paradigms: Evolve from Blanket Solutions to Problem Solving for Complexity

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