Outshine other organizations in 2021 by answering these three questions

2020 was a year we will be remembered as a year that deeply impacted so many of us. We are all well aware of how the events of 2020, not just COVID, have affected all the systems that contribute to fulfilling lives; social, economic, political, belief, and environmental. Coined the year of “great reflection,” “great transformation,” “great awakening,” it has transformed the way we perceive, interact, design and operate within our daily lives. It has challenged us to think at the macro level and be more considerate of our relationships with each other, the planet, and technology. Now more than ever, individuals and organizations are being challenged to rethink and innovate their lives and their businesses.

With this new awakening, I have observed organizations continue to apply simple, siloed approaches to solving systematic organizational challenges — often overly simplified techniques or beyond an organization’s capabilities.

The methods are usually not holistic, do not support intrapreneurial thinking, and most importantly, their cultures, processes and operational mindset often limit the collective potential of an organization.

Holism is the theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts. Holism is often applied to mental states, language, ecology and organizational design. Healthy, capable and successful enterprises are built on holism’s idea, where the strategy, structure, talent, and culture are the key foundational components of an organization.

Foundations of an successful enterprise

Culture sits in the middle as both the catalyst and hindrance in how well your organization operates and interacts which each other area. Each component is dependent on the other, creating a symbiotic relationship.

How we nurture each area in supporting the idea of holism becomes the difference between organizations that thrive and organizations that wither.

To outshine other organizations in 2021, and develop into better versions of yourselves, start with exploring these three questions. These questions uncover your people’s rich imaginations and help you design a strategy for your organization’s unfolding story. It is a method to identify and improve all the essential human elements that drive the purpose, motivation and capabilities behind your culture and products.

Are you creating the conditions for developing intrapreneurial leaders?

The greatest threat to successful businesses today is the EVP, the employee value proposition. Vancouver, like many markets in the world, has a severe deficiency when it comes to talent.

With this ever-growing buyers market, there is fierce competition for this talent. This is especially true for companies entering a hyper-growth phase in the $5-$25M revenue range, looking to become the next billion-dollar company. Organizations without clear purpose and brand face increased employee acquisition costs, turnover and a shortfall in access to top-tier talent. The greatest challenge for these organizations is their leaders’ ability to inspire, mobilize and retain their best talent by providing their teams with mastery, autonomy and purpose.

Every organization’s opportunity is to identify and develop future changemakers who are insatiably curious, creative, and adaptable. Emerging leaders who have a growth mindset can navigate complexity and are unafraid to think big.

Developing a capability strategy for how you invest in your future leaders and how those intrapreneurial leaders role model your enterprise values will become your greatest asset. These intrapreneurial leaders foster cultures of safety, learning and experimentation and ultimately fuel your organizational growth.

A bi-product of an underdeveloped leadership team and one of the greatest threats to innovation and growth are cultures that disempower their people.

If you love or hate the Netflix culture, their organization is based on a simple premise: an organization’s job is to remind people that they walk in the door with power and then create the conditions for them to exercise it. We are all mighty; the trick is the application and practice required to develop and apply those capabilities in the right way.

Developing intrapreneurial leaders starts with organizations uncovering what they reward in their culture. What you reward in your culture will ultimately be determined by your enterprise values. Once you identify what this is or what you aspire to be, determine if your leaders and culture rewards behaviours that support this.

Alignment is critical to activating and provides the foundations for autonomy and purpose within your organization. Seeking out future employees who share these values and are philosophically aligned with your intentions as an organization is a key to your success.

Enterprise values supported by a growth plan.

Activation is not possible without developing an intrapreneurial strategy with the annual planning process. Most growing organizations develop internally and support the community. Intrapreneurial cultures provide their future leaders with a breadth of opportunities to explore and diversify their experience and develop new perspectives within the organization and beyond its walls. They recognize the benefits of a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce and understand it takes time for seeds to grow.

Over time, an investment in intrapreneurial leadership becomes the catalyst for creating a virtuous cycle of innovation within your organization.

Key takeaways for developing a foundation intrapreneurial leadership.

Be clear and authentic about your purpose.

Be intentional with what you reward as a culture. Titles and compensation will only go so far — reward team performance over individual performance. Focus on creating conditions vs directives.

Identify the most critical leadership capabilities for the success of your organization and create a capability development plan.

Support your leaders to gain perspectives outside your organization.

Work with industry, coaches, and organizations to help you create more diverse ways of thinking.

Tap into support. The Canadian government is spending billions of dollars to stimulate innovation, and intrapreneurial leadership is at the centre of this movement. Looking into Supercluster, SR&ED IRAP, and other support programs will unlock opportunities for your organization.

Do your processes and structure stretch your culture to be continuously open?

I have sat in several senior/ executive leadership meetings over the years, and I am surprised at how often structure is suggested as a primary method of solving organizational challenges. The dialogue can be divisive and overly simplified (another challenge shared later), into a binary conversation. I am not suggesting that structure is not an area of opportunity; I am suggesting that in most instances, Culture, Strategy and Talent are where you should look for opportunities first. What you reward and encourage as a culture will determine the efficacy of your strategy, talent development, and structure.

Open cultures invite diverse perspectives and operate with a community mindset. It is a culture that understands anyone can own a specific initiative. These “WE” cultures will be effective at having creative sessions and quickly moves through a process.

A champion with leadership support builds the appropriate team to experiment, test, and validate the idea.The team takes on ownership; prototypes and learnings are shared. It is agile and moves through a series of iterations. It is an investment in process and learning and is a nimble way of working. It is the scientific process, and design thinking (pioneered by IDEO in the 90s) at it’s best. The old concept of t-shape individuals shines. Everyone has a profound amount of value in an area of practice and enough insight and skill development to pollinate and impact other business areas.

Symptoms of “ME” cultures include lots of conversations around ownership, moving to solutions too early, and when the structure becomes more important than a fluid process. In these cultures, a level of mistrust lives.

Often a ME culture is a symptom of an organization that has overinvested in structure as the primary way of solving its enterprise challenges. Team members are worried about ownership, roles, and stepping on toes. Will the process be fair? How will we know which is the best idea, and what happens if I am not involved in the initiative?

Trusting cultures understand the value each team member brings. A recognition there is a responsibility to perform a role, but the accountability is to support the company and team.

In the majority of circumstances, your role is the “hat” you wear on a team. In other cases, you are playing a supporting role. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but these are the opportunities for teams to stretch into something new. It provides lateral growth and expands the team’s network and thinking.

The most common example of this in SaaS businesses is the relationship between Product Management, Marketing, Sales, and Customer Success. Product Led growth (using the product as your primary acquisition channel, which also reduces your CAC: Customer Acquisition costs) requires a healthy relationship between these groups. This is where structure and process collide, and what often happens during an annual planning cycle is each of these groups will be looking to impact company level metrics. To “own” the impact on these metrics, they will make siloed decisions defaulting to structure/ their group/team.

Applying a method of holism is a competency you build as an organization over time and is a result of a strategic process. For many organizations this manifests in the development of annual OKRs. If in your annual planning KPIs dangerously become the objective, and key results are actions or measured by completion then you might be inadvertently creating a ME culture. This a a larger topic, to be covered in a future story.

A cycle of competency and capacity development

Open cultures are also influenced by how leadership frames and communicates inside your organization, which influences how much autonomy teams will have. This fundamentally is controlled by two things, developing a shared understanding of language and how intentions are framed.

Daniel Kahneman, the Princeton professor and first psychologist to win the Nobel in Economics, awarded for studies he conducted with Amos Tversky, attributed market manias partly to investors’” illusion of control.” They called the illusion “prospect theory.” A theory where our choices are influenced by how a situation is framed. A positively framed situation will have a perceived probability of resulting in a positive outcome. Employees will become risk-averse and look for certainty with a lack of information or a negatively framed message. A $ 1 loss is more painful than the pleasure of a $ 1 gain. Framing/positioning becomes a key ingredient in how you create psychological safety in your organization.

SaaS companies are in the business of “solving customer pain.” and create painkillers and not vitamins. The tricky is pain and problems are associated with negative things, where opportunities, hypotheses, and experiments can be frame as positive outcomes. We are protecting, saving or growing revenue by “X.” This is a simple statement that can have many interpretations and create healthy tensions in your organization.

Managing healthy tensions between maximizing your gains and minimizing your losses is something leaders must manage and nurture. It requires adaptability and resilience and is a beneficial by-product of diverse cultures. It will exist at all levels of your organization, depending on how you are structured.

A couple of examples that are generalizations, but I hope it illustrates some of the healthy friction.

  • CEO and CFO/COO, where one is accountable for strategy and growth, and the other is accountable for risk mitigation.
  • Product Management & User Experience, where lean product development is to try and learn (learning and adoption), vs UX methodologies which support observe and design (reducing customer pain and improving quality).

These are healthy organizational tensions that invite a spirited debate and reveal opportunity in conflict.

Enterprises are more successful when they focus on building “WE” cultures, and leaders commit to a practice of developing awareness for how they impact others, the language they use and how they frame their communication.

Key takeaways for stretching your culture to be continuously open:

Sustainable hiring practices that no only consider diversity but all consider seniority and growth. Ensure you are not creating any bottlenecks for growth, and don’t underestimate new graduates’ enthusiasm to impact your business.

Be explicit on meetings intentions and agenda: Information Sharing, Solutioning (GROW Model), Brainstorming/ Idea generation,

Try to work through small six-week or fewer initiatives, try a Google design sprint and run more experiments.

Consider how you are designing your teams. We have used tools like Strengthsfinder, and when displayed at a team level, you will see patterns and understand where some capability gaps might exist.

Be clear on your intentions and outcomes; IE protects, save or grow revenue/ customer value, employee value.

Embrace a scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation

Focus on measuring success, learning, improving collaboration and process vs rewarding specificity on metrics

Build out a shared vocabulary as an organization, get rid of TLAs (three-letter acronyms)

Understand the risk level as a leader, exercise mature judgement, ask for help and always aspire to create psychological safety.

Do you use an agreed framework to support strategic decision making?

Most of us have sat in a kickoff meeting where your organization is facing a challenge, and the leadership team is trying to determine the correct course of action.

As humans, we must recognize we will interpret a situation based on our personal preference for action.

In my experience, the majority will defer to “simplifying” the problem and offer immediate solutions. There is an urgent desire for action or to “fix the problem.” Applying a “solutions” or “simplifying” approach is not an incorrect response if the challenge or problem is simple or obvious and well understood. It can be problematic to attempt to simplify complexity without taking people through a process of understanding.

A simplifying mindset can lead to a few challenges within the workplace, and the biggest I have experienced is the erosion of trust.

If a leader suggests something is simple, this is often associated with a solution. It can take many forms, such as a problem statement that has a solution baked into it or a KPI that infers or limits the solution. Offering a solution before a problem is well understood will result in less divergent thinking and disempowers teams.

It is understandable for most organizations to be uncomfortable with complex systems. It tests our comfort with ambiguity and our ability to see the world as non-linear or systematic. Workplaces are complicated; they are a system of diverse skill sets, processes, structures, and subject matter experts. Depending on the challenge you are facing, there will be personalities in your organization better suited to solve some problems vs others. Also, more diverse organizations will have more perspectives and often a more extensive list of alternatives to evaluate.

If you are a systems thinker, your personal preference will often be to introduce as much information as possible, and curiosity will lead the way. Other reactions to this approach can often be; “That sounds complex,” or “you are making this complicated or are complexifying.” System thinkers intuitively recognize and strive to connect dots in where they see complexity. They are also searching through that complexity to ensure any patterns that exist or are used to accurately identify the exact problem. System thinkers are going through a process of system identification and problem definition. The goal is to apply the right decisions to the situation.

The most useful framework I have practiced to help with decision making is the Cynefin framework.

The Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework (kuh-NEV-in) is a conceptual framework used to aid decision-making. It was created in 1999 by Dave Snowden when he worked for IBM Global Services. He describes it as a “sensemaking system” and not a categorization system. Categorization systems are 2x2 frameworks, where the framework precedes the data. Categorization is useful for exploitation and speed; it is inadequate for exploration or during periods of change.

If you are a user experience professional, this would be similar to a closed vs open card sorting exercise. The challenge with close card sorts is you often force up to half of the data into a category. Wherewith the Sensemaking models, data precedes data. Data can be used to inform and learn. The framework is as follows:

Obvious/Simple Systems — Apply Best Practice

The simple/distinct/clear domain represents the “known knowns.” If it simple or obvious, then there are rules in place (or best practice), the situation is stable, and the relationship between cause and effect is clear, predictable and repeatable. If you do X, expect Y. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. The framework recommends “sense-categorize-respond”.You will establish agreement on the facts, categorize, then respond by following a rule, procedure or applying best practices.

Friction can happen with people who identify as bureaucrats (procedural correctness over all else) see most problems as a failure of process.

Complicated Systems — Apply Good Practice

The complicated domain consists of the “known unknowns.” The relationship between cause and effect is not self-evident and requires analysis or expertise; there is a range of right answers. The framework recommends “sense–analyze–respond”: You assess the facts, analyze, and apply the appropriate good operating practice. Here it is possible to work rationally toward a decision, but doing so requires refined judgment and expertise. The approach is an analytical method; a complicated problem is looking at potential scenarios, sequences or outcomes.”

Friction can happen with people who identify as experts (comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill) see all problems as a failure in providing enough time or resources for analysis.

Complex Systems — Emergent Practice

The complex domain represents the “unknown unknowns.” The relationship between cause and effect is not understood. Complexity is not about the makeup of the parts of a system, but more about the complexity found in relationships each part has with one another. The framework recommends “respond–sense–probe It requires a process of learning. “You conduct experiments that are safe to fail, not a method of fail-safe design. “Learnings and instructive patterns generally emerge. You apply amplifiers and dampeners depending on how the experiment is progressing. It is an emergent way of doing something, it’s unconventional, different and unique. A learning/emergent practice is generally how high functioning engineering teams are operating.

Friction can happen with people who identify as experimenters who see problems as a lack of autonomy, diversity, and perspectives.

Chaotic Systems — Novel Practice

In the chaotic domain, cause and effect are unclear. Entering into a chaotic domain intentionally is for innovation. Entering into Chaos accidentally requires the situation to be stabilized immediately. Events in this domain are “too confusing to wait for a knowledge-based response,” Any action or taking actions is the correct response. In this context, managers “act–sense–respond”. A leader’s immediate job is not to discover patterns but triage the situation. To read the situation and apply the most appropriate action. A leader must first act to establish order, then sense where stability is present and from where it is absent, and then respond by working to transform the situation from Chaos to complex.

Friction can happen with people who identify as commanders (from Strengthfinder) who see problems as a lack of folks doing as instructed.

and as people who identify as innovators (a person who introduces new methods, ideas, or products) who see problems as discomfort with the unknown.

As an intrapreneurial leader if you find yourself in a situation where you believe colleagues are oversimplifying complex portions of your organization, the Cynefin framework can be a valuable framework for those conversations. Inversely, the framework will also help you identify if you or other colleagues are attempting to turn something obvious into a more complex or novel opportunity.

Key takeaways for using frameworks for strategic decision making:

The boundary between simple and chaotic is called the complacency zone. Also, know as a cliff. Complacency is where you have a pattern of believing that everything is simple; success and past blueprints will make you invulnerable. If you invest in your ideas and myths, this eventually leads to falling over the edge/cliff in a crisis. All other areas have transitioned, but the line between simple and chaotic is a ledge, and once you fall off, recovery is costly.

Think about how governments responded to the Covid-19 Pandemic. How many fell off the cliff. Many early countries were thrown into Chaos and taking action. Because there were some learnings, other countries had the benefit of starting in a complex system. Their response will fall into this framework nicely.

Leaders who live in complex and complicated domains can use this framework to recognize the differences between different systems and have a more meaningful dialogue with stakeholders.

Leaders who simplify complexity without taking people through a process of understanding will create confusion and erode purpose.

Leaders who offer solutions before alignment on the problem, or leaders who believe all problems are simple, will remove mastery and autonomy from teams. If you are not in a creative or brainstorming context, offering an uninformed, overly simplified solution to a complex problem is one of the most destructive actions a senior leader can do to a team of builders.

If you are new to the Cynefin framework, there are tons of great articles at cognitive-edge.com.

Please comment, ask questions or contribute to this article. Stay tuned for future articles that explore how design thinking, intrapreneurial leadership, innovation and holism can be applied to help you develop capabilities and capacity within your organization.

Big thanks to Pok Rie for all his amazing aerial photos courtesy of Pexels.

Executive Product, Design, Innovation and Culture Leader | Serial Intrapreneur | Building more innovative products & cultures