Organisations are being born, growing, consolidating, sometimes evolving, sometimes collapsing and then recovering. Or they can die with the components being assimilated into other things. There are infinite possibilities but all are following a similar pattern, the universal life cycle.
It’s been said that an organisation’s greatest asset is its people. This may be true, but it takes an enlightened leader to guide those people. A leader needs to be able to recognise what reality is occurring in the moment and where the team are heading. Along the way there will be paradigm shifts. When the behaviours that led to success up to a particular point, will not get the team to the next level. Knowing what these paradigm shifts look like, helps leaders generate the appropriate message to inspire new behaviours.
Metaphors, stories and analogies are powerful tools in a leader’s repertoire. A relevant story told by an inspirational leader can cause an immediate shift in perspective and direction. Research by McKinsey suggests that telling meaningful stories which include various themes leads to higher engagement. It makes sense when presenting the case for change, to attend to the various personalities of the audience.
Four points to consider when preparing for a paradigm shift:
Rewards and recognition: Explain how individuals will benefit from successfully completing the new mission; should they choose to accept it.
Creativity and connectivity: Note the opportunity for the team to bond together and tap into the collective intelligence of the group to provide innovative solutions to tackle the challenges ahead.
Support and familiarity: With the possible stormy weather ahead, encourage everybody to support each other as a family unit.
Quality and focus: Encourage a quest for excellence pointing to the team’s ability to design the best products and services, redefining the beliefs about what is possible.
To make the story inspirational leaders should also include how the work will contribute to the larger world, what Simon Sinek refers to as the big ‘Why’. Revealing to the team which paradigm they’re shifting too and why the change of course is necessary, will give clarity of direction.
Here are some universal paradigms to consider:
Setting sail on a new adventure
This is the entrepreneurial stage when a leader may have to galvanise a small team to overcome the trepidation of setting sail on a new adventure. It could be the start of a new business or project, but like any new idea, it takes a lot of energy to create something worthwhile. It demands extraordinary courage, determination and resilience. It is the beginning of a heroic journey of which the spoils will go to the brave. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:
“To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.”
Growing from good to great
If the entrepreneur survives the first stage of business creation, confidence increases as the product or service attracts an increasing client base. From here, the group needs to become cohesive, focussing on higher standards of aligned performance so that they can achieve greater levels of success. The leader has to help the expanding team programme themselves for success. Systems and training should be introduced to strengthen the performance and culture. A story of going from good to great inspires greater levels of determination as well as boosting pride and esprit de corp. As Jim Collins espoused:
“… it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work. Perhaps, then, you might gain that rare tranquillity that comes from knowing that you’ve had a hand in creating something of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution. Indeed, you might even gain that deepest of all satisfactions: knowing that your short time here on this earth has been well spent, and that it mattered.”
Too much of a good thing
Of course as organisations grow, they can become too hierarchical and bureaucratic. Work can become frustrating for the team and leader. It’s usually as a result of thinking that because systems worked at first, adding more will help. The reality is that satisfying the system, not the purpose of the organisation, becomes the overall aim. Now is the time to relax the systems and introduce some autonomy and entrepreneurial spirit back into the company. A leader aware of the universal life cycle will know it’s time for change as the resistance in a formerly successful companies grows. Think about the decline and fall of the Rome Empire. As Marcus Cicero pronounced:
“The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we have to contend.”
The butterfly effect
A strange thing happens when a caterpillar transforms. Cells within the caterpillar, known as imaginal cells, begin to resonate at a different frequency and act completely differently. Even though they are attacked by the immune system, the imaginal cells continue to proliferate. They then begin to cluster together into small friendly groups, sharing information. Eventually the clusters begin to join together inside what is now a chrysalis. It is believed that when the imaginal cells reach 10% of the whole, a tipping point occurs and the organism realises it is transforming. It gives birth to the Butterfly.
This analogy is a great one for leaders who want to guide an organisation to the next level of success. This is not a quick fix and relies on lots of little changes of beliefs and behaviours which build up over time. It is a time for deeper connection with customers to understand what they really want. Helping people collaborate and contribute more of themselves to the whole to enable something completely new to evolve. This paradigm shift occurs after the present business has reached a threshold point of growth and has to look for new ways to pivot the business. People may not realise the best is yet to come but as Buckminster Fuller wrote:
“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
Leaning into the slope
Invariably shifts happen. System thresholds are reached, disruptive innovations appear on the horizon and increased competition arises. If an organisation is unprepared and the leader is unable to accept reality, the first line of defence is usually denial. The financial crisis was just such a story in the beginning.
At this point an enlightened leader knows that now is not the time to be shrinking back into a comfort zone. It’s time to face reality and rise up to the challenge. Those that did at the beginning of the latest recession, we’re more likely to weather the storm.
When a skier navigates down a tricky mountain pass, they realise that they must lean down the slope otherwise their skies will slide from beneath them. So too the fell runner traversing the rocky scree slopes and the boxer who’s opponent is advancing. You can’t lean away if you want to stay on your feet, you must advance if you want to survive. As Seth Godin informs us:
“Discomfort means you’re doing something that others were unlikely to do, because they’re hiding out in the comfortable zone.”
Discovering diamonds in the dirt and gold in the grit.
When an organisation is heading toward a systemic challenge, mental flexibility from the leader is essential. When the doo-doo has hit the fan, problem solving leaders know they must attend to various aspects all at once. But an enlightened leader will also encourage some of the team to look for the opportunities. There is always balance in the universe. For the Chinese, crisis and opportunity are represented by the same symbol.
Some great companies were formed during economic recessions. If Kodak had ‘leaned into the slope’, they might have realised the potential of digital photography which one of their own people had discovered. Even in the worst of times and in the darkest of places, you can find hidden gems. Of course you’ll miss them if you don’t programme the mind to look. As John F Kennedy encouraged:
“In a crisis, be aware of the danger but recognise the opportunity”
Endings are the new beginnings
Some philosophers believe there is a whole other realm of potential from which we and everything that exists, all arise and return to. Endings are inevitable. Sometimes it is necessary for a leader to kill off a project, product, department, idea or even a business so that new ventures can grow. If Richard Branson hadn’t let his music business go, he probably wouldn’t have got the airline off the ground and with the later paradigm shifts in the music business, more than likely would have lost everything.
If a business closes, all the ideas, experiences and learning that was created, will move on to become part of something new elsewhere. Nothing in the universe is ever wasted. In the cycle of life, death plays an integral part. As Cheryl Strayed described:
“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realise there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
The great turnaround
Once the reality of a collapse has been accepted by a leader it becomes time for the great turnaround talk. A time to galvanise everybody behind the recovery. It feels similar to the setting sail, entrepreneurial period. High risk inspires engagement, a clear vision and mission inspires boldness in the face of imminent disaster. There are many examples of businesses that have been able to claw their way back from the brink of death to become successful and profitable enterprises once again.
Apple, was at one stage on the brink of bankruptcy and borrowed funds from its nemesis Microsoft, to survive. It later became the most valuable company in the world. Fed-Ex’s boss Frederick Smith had to gamble his last $5000 in Las Vegas to pay off a fuel bill. Lots of companies go through desperate times and have had to take desperate measures to become great companies later on. Steve Maraboli explains that:
“Happiness is not the absence of problems it’s the ability to deal with them.”
Lessons are repeated until they’re learnt
It’s important for a leader to recognise what type of challenge they face and be able to design appropriate solutions. Of course in most instances, there is a temptation to plaster over the cracks. When a system has failed, patching up the system will still not allow you to overcome the systems previous limitations. Most people believe that humans are scared of change. That’s not quite correct, people make small adjustments continually so they can stay in the same place. But sometimes a fundamental transformation is required.
Of course a good way to recognise the lesson is for a leader to enquire if this type of thing has happened previously. Problems do and will return. Moreover; the same problems will become more frequent, will stay longer, be more painful and eventually lead to collapse. As Aldous Huxley wrote:
“That men do not learn from the lessons of history is the most important lesson of history”
Brave new world
As we’re on the Aldous Huxley theme, entering the brave new world is a necessary component of an evolving business. A lot of traditional businesses have had to evolve in order to survive the passage of time. Sometimes, one must experiment as if standing at the beginning of a corridor. So many doorways present themselves, but you have to step into the unknown to uncover the reality behind every door. That requires courage. All systems have an optimum state, they all reach a limit to growth and so bold leaders have to look for new ways of doing business and create new beginnings. As Peter Drucker realised:
“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision”