Archive for December, 2008

Did the Global Economic Crisis Kill the Aspirational Leader In Us?

On December 30, 2008, the Long Term Future made a cameo appearance on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) after a prolonged absence…

ROUND ROCK, Texas — Computer giant Dell Inc. said this summer that it has become “carbon neutral,” the latest step in its quest to be “the greenest technology company on the planet.” [full article]

hidingfromtime255The Dell article is remarkable not for its content, but that, as a story about a longer timeframe, it even made it to the front page. The bigger headline is that the recession of 2008 drove the discussion about the ramifications of the long-term future of the planet and its inhabitants off the table. Many in business and government  dropped the environmental agenda in an instant. In its place, a worldwide, short-term focus on the immediate crises. Clean-energy firms watched their stocks fall and funding dry up. Two days later, in the WSJ 2008 markets and finance roundup, the environment’s chief competitor, oil, is mentioned 15 or so times; the environment, two times:

April 17, 2008: Changing course on global warming, President Bush calls for halting the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025 but provides few specifics.

November 26, 2008: Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reach record highs and show no signs of leveling off, a U.N. agency says.

So here’s a question: How many trillions of dollars will it take to restore the economy, short-term, while glossing over issues of food, air, water, population, climate and peace, long-term? What happened to our leaders? What happened to their stated aspirations? What happened to the future?

Reaction vs. Aspiration:

In this turbulent last quarter of 2008, we have seen the leaders we observe and interact with sharply divided into two camps:

  • Reactive: What are we going to do about the crisis at-hand? Get rid of the problem.
  • Aspirational: What are our long-term goals? How do we pursue them? Create the future.

This is not to say that those focused on their long-term goals do not also address the short-term crises. It is simply that the driving force is long-term, and their short-term actions are aligned with the longer goal. We are pleased to report that most of our clients are doing well, and pursue their aspirations while quite sensibly dealing with the current reality.

But we are most concerned that the reactive orientation seems to be ruling much of leadership in big business, government and the general public. At conferences, in boardrooms, and across dinner tables, the discussion has collapsed from years and decades to days, months and quarters. The 3-year plan (does anyone recall the 5- or 10-year plan?) has been replaced by the emergency / bailout plan. Even many whose hope for change is invested in President-elect Obama are shaken by the enormity of the circumstances his administration faces as they take office.

When the reactive orientation rules the day, the way OUT of the crisis is not necessarily the way FORWARD to our desired future.

Head in the Clouds; Feet on the Ground:

Leaders practiced in organizing around their aspirations in less-than-ideal circumstances have developed certain disciplines around envisioning a goal, assessing the situation and taking innovative action. Following are a few tips in each of these categories.

Focusing on the future goal:

  1. Start with the End in Mind: When it comes to discussing situation (present) and goal (future),  choice of sequence really matters to one’s ability to focus on true aspirations. This is doubly so when up to one’s hind-end in alligators. Talk about the present before the future, and we might as well launch the discussion saying, “Given the dire circumstances, what can we get away with, here??”. Start by talking about the future, and the tone is quite different: “What matters, here? Independent of circumstance, what do we truly want?”.
  2. Avoid Mixing: In a crisis, bringing up future goals can start a tennis match. The first speaker serves with: “We want to release a fully-electric car.” The second returns with: “But oil is $40 / barrel today, and the price fluctuates! That’ll never happen.”
    Instead, split the discussion into two short rounds. For the first couple of minutes, focus on the goal. If someone (or the devil’s advocate in our brain!) tries to counter the goal with details of the current situation, assure them (or ourselves!) that it will be up for discussion momentarily.
  3. Be Concrete, and use Dates and Measures of Success: It won’t work be vague about goals that matter to us. What if we are moved to “do something about US residential carbon emissions”? That’s vague, and even smacks of problem-solving. Consider instead:  “By 2050, all homes in the US are heated and cooled with renewable energy, and require 60% less energy, overall, than in 2009.”William O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance once said, “At the end of the day, you ask yourself, ‘How did our vision influence our actions?’ If the answer is ‘It didn’t,’ the vision is just words.” [pp331-332, The Necessary Revolution]
  4. ChangedPrioritiesCropChoose Where to Focus: In good times, it’s easy to pursue what we want. In our minds, the outcome can seem virtually guaranteed. But when times are tough, and we remove the guarantee, we often learn where our focus has been – and that we now have a choice.If our senior motive was not reaching the goal, but instead achieving the Return on Investment if the goal is reached, but we now lack a guaranteed ROI, we are apt to abandon the goal. If, on the other hand, we find we are focused on realizing the goal for its own sake, we have a different relationship with the goal, and are more likely to follow through.Please don’t read a value judgment about pursuing ROI. The essential question is: which motive is dominant in driving our involvement with the goal? If our dominant focus and motivation is to realize the goal, rather than reap its benefits, the goal is more likely to be realized. It’s a key choice.

Focusing on the current situation:

Since we led with the goal, we now can take a different tack with our situation assessment:

  1. Keep it Relevant: Given a clear goal, one has a new, more efficient way of organizing the discussion about reality – facts relevant to achieving the goal, and facts that are irrelevant to the achievement of the goal (and now don’t need to be discussed past the test of relevance).
  2. Keep it Real: Separate fact from opinions and assumptions, and be vigilant for deeply-held assumptions and beliefs masquerading as fact. Identifying what we don’t know is every bit as useful as confirming what we do know. Brain expert, John J. Medina points out that the brain isn’t interested in reality. It is more interested in survival, and as a consequence, [unattended] memory is not reliable. The brain will change the perception of reality to stay in survival mode. The key to reliable memory is to consistently reexpose oneself to the information. [HBR May, 2008, reprint R0805B]. So stay grounded in the facts of reality.
  3. Don’t Navigate by Emotion: There is nothing wrong with emotions. They simply don’t happen to be a reliable indicator of the situation, or of progress toward long-term goals. As heretical as it might sound, you might well benefit from ignoring yourself in this department, and refocus on the goal and the situation.

Taking action in complex times:

  1. A Time for Learners: When presented with smooth trends, the human mind is good at guessing what will happen next. In times of great and rapid change such as these, it is not nearly so good at prediction. Experience and formulas and best practices fail us. Students of Complexity suggest a different strategy for effecting change where past performance has proven unreliable for predicting future outcomes: Probe, Sense, Respond. It is virtually the same process used to find one’s way across a dark bedroom without stubbing a toe.
  2. When At A Loss: When we don’t know what to do next – and it happens to all of us – what DO we do? Focus on the goal. Locate current reality. Study the difference between the two. Then invent a set of actions to move from reality to the goal. The result of any action can be evaluated and learned from, and our action plan adjusted.But when disruptive forces hit a company, all processes are up for re-evaluation. Why are we still executing this process? Is the goal still valid? Is the current situation different from the circumstances under which the process was created and refined? Given a clear goal and accurate current reality, we can determine what to keep of the process, and what to change.

Two points of light:

While we realize that times are truly challenging everywhere, we are inspired by the human capacity to transcend circumstance and envision a desired future. At its simplest, to organize around aspirations is to focus on not just one, but two pictures at once: current reality and the goal. Reconnect with what matters. Treat the current situation not as an adversary, but as a starting point on the journey. Continually test the actions in relation to the goal. By doing so, we improve the odds that the way out of the present crisis is also the way forward.

© 2008 Gary Ralston and the respective copyright holders.

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