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“What’s Next?” A Powerful Change Leadership Tool

“What’s Next?”  
 
Jim Harvey
Partner, NextBridge Consulting
 
Why question-asking is a critical leadership tool and should be one of the sharpest in your change toolbox.
“What’s Next?”  It’s a simple question, really. Yet it has the power to dramatically improve your leadership, your team and your organization. The power lies in the ability to create forward-looking, curious, engaged individuals. And, more broadly, to build change agility into the DNA of your organization.
In recent years, neuroscience has confirmed and explained much about the longstanding wisdom and effectiveness of asking questions. With greater use, it builds relationships and improves learning. Those, in turn, are fundamental to effective change leadership, team performance and building an agile culture.
We’ll circle back to the particular effectiveness of “What’s Next?” and what you can do starting today to improve your leadership. First, why are questions so effective?
“We run this company on questions, not answers.”
 
– Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google and current Executive Chairman of Alphabet –
Why Do Questions Matter So Much?   
 
In part, the value of questions is directly related to their scarcity.  Too many leaders spend too much time telling and not enough time asking. According to Gary Cohen, author of Just Ask Leadership, “95% of leaders prefer to be asked questions, rather than told what to do. And yet, according to a survey I conducted, these same leaders gave instructions 58% of the time rather than asking coworkers for their input.” There’s a persistent belief that managers are supposed to have all the answers. Additionally, most business cultures place a premium on acting and doing. It’s no wonder that taking time to simply ask and reflect isn’t a consistent part of most leaders’ repertoire. The power of questions, and their impact on performance, lies squarely in their simplicity and their fundamental connection to relationships, learning and creativity.
“Telling creates resistance.  Asking creates relationships.”
 
– Andrew Sobel, Author of
Power Questions –
Questions Build Relationships.
 
At the heart of great leadership, teamwork and cultures are relationships. Their importance can’t be overstated. Years of research and practical observation demonstrate this. So how do you build relationships? Building rapport and trust are a good starting point. Fundamentally, people want to be listened to, understood, and even empathized with – no surprise to those familiar with emotional intelligence. Asking questions is a powerful way to do all three.
Neuroscience sheds some additional light on the impact of questions. MRIs show that when asked a question, there is greater neural activity in the areas of the brain related to reward and pleasure. Serotonin levels also increase. This is especially true when you’re asked for your opinion. Asking someone a question is like giving them a shot of chemical brain energy. The more important the question is to them, the bigger the shot. No wonder people rate those who ask questions as being friendlier.  Consider it yourself – would you prefer to be asked or told something?
“Without questions, there is no learning.”
 
– W. Edwards Deming, renowned expert in quality, continuous improvement and management –
Questions Increase Learning and Creativity.
 
Since Socrates developed (you guessed it) the Socratic method, the use of questions to promote learning has had an impact on everything from education to problem-solving to self-reflection.  More recently, research done by Clayton Christensen, Hal Gregersen and Jeff Dyer demonstrates that being inquisitive pays off. Their work shows that the most successful and innovative executives are the ones who ask great questions. They challenge the status quo, looking at everything from their business model to their strategy to their planning methodology.  Importantly, they also question their own assumptions.
Furthermore, neuroscientific research on learning shows that asking questions creates mental dexterity. It creates new neural pathways instead of deepening existing ones. Literally and figuratively, it keeps us from wearing mental ruts into our brains. A workforce with greater mental dexterity is exactly the kind of thing that helps build change-agile DNA into your culture.
“A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions.”
 
– Michael Parker, former CEO of Dow Chemical –
What’s the Connection Between Asking Questions and Better Change Leadership and Teamwork?
 
Business research consistently bears out that the quality of the relationship an employee has with their manager is one of the top determinants of everything from engagement and retention to development and performance. Likewise, learning also impacts leadership effectiveness. Nimble learners on your team develop skills more quickly and become more versatile and useful to unit performance. The greater the opportunity and ability to learn, the more engaged and career-focused they become. All this bodes well for change agile employees.
Relationships and learning are also essential to high-performing teams. Openness to feedback, conflict resolution, collaboration and decision-making all benefit greatly from the quality of relationships among team members.  If you have a team of people who are good at asking questions and are used to being asked themselves, you have a team that – all other things being equal – will work more productively together. Their collective curiosity and openness to new ideas will engender more creativity and innovation.
Whether your team is engaged in basic problem solving, product development, or process reengineering, a team culture that is comfortable with and good at asking questions vastly outperforms more traditional, hierarchical, stoic teams.
What’s the Big Deal About “What’s Next?” 
 
It’s forward-looking. It encourages people to think and act in ways that are conducive to change and innovation. Asked regularly of ourselves and others, it creates a mindset and habit of behavior that finds its way into the culture. What’s more, this question engenders a bias toward continuous improvement, which is essential in a change-oriented organization.
“What’s next” is also the Swiss Army Knife of questions.  It’s relevant to just about any aspect of development, client relationship management and leadership.  What’s next in my career?  What should my team be focused on next with client X? Who should be next in line for that senior leadership role?  Where will our greatest competition be coming from over the next 3 years?
In most companies, there are business and HR processes and tools that help us ask and answer many of these questions. If effectively managed and genuinely embraced by the organization, they are enormously helpful in supporting the business and the underlying culture. But that’s the point – if the underlying culture discourages people from regularly asking good questions, those processes are building on an uneven foundation. Day-to-day conversations, relationships and team norms over time do so much to build culture.
“Instead of a ‘to do’ list, consider creating a ‘to ask’ list, to see what questions you really need answers to.”
 
– Andrew Finlayson, author of
Questions that Work –
What Can I Do Today? 
 
Certainly, there’s a lot more to building great leaders and great cultures than just asking questions.  But asking questions is a critical building block and a relatively easy skill to learn.  Where to start? Look at your schedule for the rest of the day. Add two questions you have for each major meeting or to-do item left on your plate. One question is for yourself (perhaps around a tough issue you haven’t figured out yet) and the other for an employee, a peer or your manager. At the start every day, do the same thing. Not only will you be asking more questions, you’ll be building in some valuable reflection time.
To accelerate your skill development, you should seek feedback on your questioning skills. At the end of a conversation or meeting ask: “what didn’t I ask that I could have?” People may shy away from providing honest feedback at first. Don’t let it deter you. Be creative.
Finally, get those around you to ask “what’s next?”  In the long run, acting as a role model is the most effective way to do this, but directly encouraging people to ask questions will help others develop the habit more quickly.
Is This the Magic Bullet?… and Other Caveats. 
 
Of course asking questions doesn’t solve all your problems.  However, if done genuinely and regularly, it sure does change the way others perceive you. And it makes you a more curious and knowledgeable person. That said, here are a few important caveats.
First, build trust within the relationship and within the conversation before you ask “what’s next?” You want to make sure your audience knows you value their past accomplishments and respect their ideas and feelings. For example, make sure your employees don’t think you’re never happy with their performance because every time you do something good, you’re asking for more.
Second, make sure you’re walking the talk. Demonstrate that you’re open to questions from others and that you ask yourself “what’s next” on a regular basis as well.
Third, it’s possible to ask bad questions, ask them at the wrong time, or ask too many of them. Here’s a way to think about it. You want to push the boundaries at least a little.  If you’re not making yourself and others at least a bit uncomfortable, you’re probably not asking the right questions.  But if you’re making them really uncomfortable, you’re probably not asking questions in the right way. Start small, learn from your successes and mis-steps, and keep at it.
“Poor leaders rarely ask questions of themselves or others.  Good leaders… ask many questions.  Great leaders ask the great questions.”
 
– Michael Marquardt, author of
Leading with Questions –
Being asked a question makes people feel good. Done regularly and effectively, it helps builds rapport and trust. And trust is arguably the most critical element of a strong relationship between manager and employee, and among high performing team members.
Executive-level role modelling is critical for speedy cultural change. The higher up in the organization it starts, the more comfortable others are doing it and the more fully it cascades. But for your own effectiveness and for your career, it’s important to start where you are. Asking good questions makes you more effective in your job and it enhances your credibility. It also demonstrates intelligence, curiosity, and your interest in others… without monopolizing the conversation. And asking “what’s next” encourages people to be future-oriented and change-focused.
Asking good questions should be a priority for every leader, and one of their go-to tools.  Don’t you think?
Would you like to talk with someone about specific ways to improve the change leadership skills and change-agility of your organization?  NextBridge has been doing just that for nearly 20 years.  How can we help you?

 

We’re please to share Edith’s recently published article on Forbes!

Developing a Change Leader Mindset

Focus on Effort not Difficulty

 Focus on Effort not Difficulty

You know, I’ve occasionally caught myself saying ‘change is hard.’ I’ve recently seen an interesting new insight into the power of language during change or transformation. In an article on HBR.org, Nick Tasler discusses the negative bias we create when reinforcing that change is hard.

For decades, we’ve heard statistics about how infrequently change initiatives and transformation are successful. We hear that 70% of them fail. We hear that 50% of mergers don’t achieve their desired results. In addition, we’ve all had our own experiences with changes that have had varying degrees of success. The message this reinforces is that change must be really hard.

What Tasler argues is that part of the reason change is often not successful is that by saying it is ‘hard’ we are creating a negative bias that impacts the actual outcomes.  He recommends that rather than focusing on the difficulty of change we should focus our messaging and conversations about the effort involved in change.

Let me give you an example. We all know that part of success in any endeavor comes from the effort you put in to it.  Some pursuits are more difficult and require more effort than others. Completing a marathon takes more effort than jogging around the block (although for some of us, they both seem daunting). However, we usually believe something is achievable when we focus on putting in some effort rather than simply focusing on how difficult it is.

At NextBridge, we focus on helping our clients successfully change and transform. We help clients think about the effort needed for successful change and help them achieve it.  I encourage you to think about change that is impacting you. Are you focusing on the difficulty or the effort?

When is Loyalty a Disadvantage for Change Leaders?

When is Loyalty a Disadvantage for Change Leaders? 
by Edith Onderick-Harvey & James Harvey 

 

When it’s the wrong type of loyalty.

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of building trust in leading change efforts.  Change creates discomfort and disruption to the way people do things and how they interact with others – sometimes in profound ways.  In short, it puts a strain on relationships, and therefore, on loyalty. And what does a leader under pressure to manage a significant change often do, almost reflexively?  They try to leverage the loyalty of others.

There’s good news and bad news in this.   Here’s the good news.  The right kind of loyalty provides a solid foundation for the trust and leadership people are looking for from others during challenging situations.  It makes it easier for a leader to convey the value of the change and enlist others in making it happen.

The bad news?  It’s all too easy to misunderstand the nature of loyalty or to disregard the consequences of “fake loyalty.”  You risk building a house of cards that falls apart under the high stakes and duress that change often brings.

You want to build the kind of solid relationships that allow you and your management team to build long-term change agility into your organization’s DNA.  You want to avoid:

  • Blind loyalty.  This is based on the premise that an idea or argument is right simply because it comes from someone who is in a position of leadership or iinfluence. But great ideas come from robust conversation and differing perspectives.  Blind loyalty doesn’t question. And blind loyalists simply execute the plan.  Don’t count on them to take a lot of initiative to uncover or find solutions to problems that inevitably pop up.
  • Forced loyalty. If someone is demanding loyalty, it is given out of compliance and fear. Forced loyalty may look like engagement to an outsider but it’s not. Underneath the surface is resentment and anxiety.
  • Favor-seeking loyalty. This individual laughs at even your worst jokes and is often way too eager to support your ideas – even the ones you’re not too sure of yourself.  It isn’t about the team or the larger vision. It’s about being rewarded for being a favorite. This type of loyalty is toxic to the team. People recognize what’s happening.  It often creates distrust, jealousy and behaviors that undermine rather than elevate.
  • Conflict-avoidant loyalty. Some people go along to get along.  They always do what’s asked (i.e., they’re loyal) because even modest amounts of conflict make them very uncomfortable.
Loyalty naturally feels good.  Even “fake loyalty” does.  And in the short run, it can have its uses.  But in the long run, it erodes the very relationships you need in order to thrive in a changing environment.   At the very least you can end up surrounded by “yes men.”  There’s an old business adage: if two people always agree, one of you is unnecessary.

When you are a leader implementing change, ask yourself: how do I create buy-in and enhance loyalty? Have you and the organization helped people move through the change curve or have you tried to go from awareness to commitment in one giant step?  We work with leaders every day to create loyalty and move people through the change curve. Read about one of our client’s results.

Leading Change

change-constant
Over the past several years, this saying and many others about change have become trite. “Change is everywhere and to be successful you must embrace it.” “Change is the new normal.” “Champions eat change for breakfast.” You’ve heard it all before.

What is somewhat new about change is the sheer pace of it. With the advent of breakneck technology advances, change is not only constant but accelerating. Every few months a new social media outlet comes along that can help you reach your customers while you’re still trying to figure out Twitter. In other cases, some businesses are wondering if they should create an app for their services. Messages travel throughout your company, not to mention the world, in nanoseconds. Besides keeping up with all the technology, there are still the normal business changes like new product introductions, reorganizations, and new workflows. What do you have to know and how should you take a leadership position around change in today’s workplace?

  • Answer the big question, “Why?”: People yearn for context. They want to understand why things happen and how they fit into that equation. As things move ever more quickly, we often forget to answer this simple question of why (is this important, is this necessary, does this impact my business, etc.) in our haste to just get things done.
  • Listen to the reactions. Sometimes we think that in order to lead change, we need to be the cheerleader, playing down the realities that change is hard and there will be bumps along the way. We become better leaders when we take the time to listen and to respond in a realistic way to the reactions people have to what’s going on around them, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. In some situations it’s okay to say, “Yes, this stinks and at times it is going to be difficult. When we get through this, here is how we will be in a better place…” In other situations it’s okay to say, “No, that isn’t as good an option as it looks on the surface, and here’s why…”
  • Understand that some people will be more ready to change than you. When it comes to introducing technological change, there are people in your organization who will be asking why the company isn’t moving more quickly, or they may not ask, but their actions show they want to move faster. We have a whole generation who have grown up with Instant Messaging (IM), texting, Facebook, and other forms of social media. They’re comfortable with the fast pace of change technology has taught them. Harness their enthusiasm to learn all they can about the benefits and the drawbacks of various technologies. Engage them in understanding how a change could be used in your business or, just as importantly, why your business isn’t ready for whatever the change is.
  • Be a storyteller. Think back to your childhood. I could mention something about a story you haven’t heard in thirty years and you could probably tell most, if not all, of the story to me. If I asked you to explain freshman algebra concepts to me, that would probably be more of a challenge (at least it would be for me). We are wired to remember stories. They help us relate to concepts and ideas by putting ourselves in situations and thus remember information better. Tell your people stories about the successes of previous changes where first there were doubts. Tell stories about how a team worked together to make something happen. Tell stories that help people paint a picture, create a vision, and understand how to move forward to accomplish change.
  • Use social media. More and more organizations are using social media as way for people within the company to communicate with each other. Use social media yourself to ask questions, share updates, talk about successes, and ask for ideas. Encourage your team to use it as a way to have a productive conversation about the changes that are occurring . Soon you’ll see leaders emerge on your team, taking the reins of championing change. Again, if you need help in this area, there are people in your organization who are social media savvy.

Change and Keeping the End in Mind

change_innovation

Trying to promote change and innovation? Keep the end in mind with a robust, vivid, compelling vision that you keep front and center. It can unleash innovation and be a touchstone, barometer and guide for what and how things get done.

When you have a robust vision of the future, it opens up possibilities. Rather than closing down options, it can allow for change and innovation. With a robust and compelling vision, the focus becomes on achieving the vision — on moving forward — not just making the here and now more efficient or productive or less risky. It allows people to engage in creative thinking about how to get to that vision because ultimately there can be a wide variety of ways to achieve it. Without a vision:

  • people and organizations become overly focused on what and how things are done now
  • change represents uncertainty and as humans, we hate uncertainty
  • there is no gauge to measure a new idea, which makes the idea that much harder to justify pursuing

The vision provides a road map for how something new or different is, indeed, not leading us into uncertainty but closer to the ultimate destination.

And it’s important that the vision not just be a statement that hangs on the wall. It needs to serve as a tool to guide conversations, to help make decisions, to determine how resources are allocated and to promote debate.

How are your vision helping promote change and innovation?

Creating Silos

Silos

Is change breaking down your silos or creating more?  Here’s what we know about change.

  • Change creates feelings of uncertainty.
  • When we are uncertain, we don’t believe we have the answers, so we look for them elsewhere.
  • When looking elsewhere, we look to those sources and people we know and trust.
  • At work, that includes peers and leaders.
  • The peers and leaders we know best are those we work with most closely.

If this is the impact of uncertainty, what psychological incentive do you have to reach out of your comfort zone and breakdown the silos?  How do you encourage collaboration?

  • Create forums to meet people in the other silo(s). Earlier in my career, the bank I was working for acquired a competitor.  We were going to combine teams, bringing together two silos.  After the acquisition was finalized, we held a daylong meeting with the sole purpose of understanding what each member of the new team did and our approaches to our work.  After the meeting, we each had a far better understanding of who each person was and how we each worked. There was less uncertainty.
  • Find the common areas of uncertainty.  Talk about the elephant in the room.  The meeting I mentioned above reduced some areas of uncertainty and, honestly, created others.  What are we all unsure or unclear about?  During change we can feel that we want to be perceived as highly competent and in the know. Admitting we are uncertain about something requires vulnerability but it opens the door for real understanding.  Knowing others are going through the same experiences of uncertainty, especially because it feels negative, can create a sense of camaraderie.
  • Find or create the answers together.  Change can feel like it is happening to us and we have little control.  The reality is that we have significant control over how change is executed and how we interact with it.  If you don’t know something important, determine how you will find out.  Often, the way you’ll find or create the answers is by bringing others in, not shutting them out

Your Brain on Change

man on elephant

Those of us that are of a certain age probably remember the ad ‘this is your brain on drugs’ with the egg sizzling in a frying pan. A very effective visual. You can argue whether it was an effective campaign.

There is a visual I’ve been using recently to help explain the neuroscience of change. Jonathan Haidt originally talked about it in The Happiness Hypothesis and it was made famous by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch.

Picture a rider and an elephant going down a path. The rider is the rational, thinking part of your brain. The elephant is the emotional part of your brain. The emotional brain is far older evolutionarily than the thinking brain. It is so old that some people refer to it as the reptilian brain. This is the area of the brain that responds to the environment. When danger is perceived, it triggers the flight or fight response. It is here that you determine whether you will take on the ‘danger’ or flee from it.

Under normal circumstances, it is surprisingly easy for the rider to control the elephant. The rider can guide the elephant down the path and make it comply to his or her wishes. Now introduce change. The brain perceives change as a potential danger. Why? Because it is uncertain, something we can’t predict, something that we have less control of than our current situation. And, with this potential danger, the emotional brain takes over. Think of an emotional elephant. One trying to decide whether to fight or flee what it has encountered on the path. How easy is it for the rider to control that elephant? The rider needs to put the rational aside and work with the emotion.

So, when you’re leading change, you need to make sure you are communicating to both the rider and the elephant. The rider needs to talk about what is happening, what the timeframe is, how it will be implemented, etc. The elephant needs to talk about the fact that change can be difficult and scary, it needs to have its emotions recognized, it needs to have an opportunity to vent its concerns and to replace the negative emotions with positive ones that allow it to move forward. Once the emotions are part of the conversation, the rider and elephant can begin working together again.

Try Evolution Instead of a Resolution

gym-treadmill-people 240x160I went to the gym the other day and saw what you can count on every January — the results of resolutions. Anyone who is a gym regular knows that in January it’s a crowded place. People are there working up a sweat, moving muscles they haven’t moved in a while. It’s a place where people are making resolutions and, sometimes, deciding to break resolutions.

The problem with many resolutions is that they represent a radical departure from what we are currently doing. Rather than talking about resolutions, let’s talk about evolution. The evolution of your business. The evolution of your team. The evolution of your capacity to lead and manage others. We spend so much time talking about radical or transformational change, we forget about the benefits of purposeful, measured change. Spend some time this week thinking about what can evolve in the way you work, in the way your team works, and in the way your business works. What can you adapt to take advantages of the opportunities that are here today? What can you adapt to address the challenges of tomorrow?

How To Build An Agile Organization

change 228 x 202

i4cp defines agility as ‘the ability to move quickly, decisively, and effectively in anticipating and taking advantage of change.” The question is, how do you create this ability in your organization? According to i4cp and based on my own experience, high performing organizations instill agility by being prepared. That’s right. You manage change by anticipating, planning and taking advantage of it.

How can you make that happen?

    • Make it a regular practice to look outside the organization to see what may be just over the horizon. Most organizations only look as far as the trends within their industry. The best organizations look at the broader context. They look at other industries from which they can learn lessons. They look at societal, political and economic changes. Opportunities are often identified where on the surface, none may seem to exist. When people are mentally able to analyze, play with and explore potential change, they are more easily able to embrace it when it actually occurs.
    • Assess your organization’s capabilities in the context of those potential changes. Do you have the talent and resources you need to take advantage of what the future may hold? If not, how will you develop or gain those capabilities.
    • Determine how agile people are in your organization. Do you hire for it? Is agility an expectation? Is it rewarded?
    • Leverage what makes you successful now but don’t rely on it for your future. Often, success can reduce one’s ability to change. However, when success is paired with the expectations that change is part of success and that change will happen, starting from a position of strength can make change more powerful.

How many of these characteristics describe your organization?