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Lessons from Dr Who

Lessons for Leadership from the Classic TV Series, Dr. Who

The iconic Dr Who first hit the screen in a BBC broadcast in 1963.  It’s now the longest-running program in TV history.  Its longevity is due to its clever format that allows it to refresh with new scenarios and periodically new doctors.  Like many TV shows, there is a subtle message built into the show – good over evil, success over failure, risk-taking over risk avoidance, collaboration over isolation, to list a few.

Each episode offers a different scenario and they are quite ambiguous, meaning the viewers really don’t know what to expect from episode to episode. Bouncing around through history, from the past to the future, allows many themes and concepts to develop, it really is like a free (and entertaining) education on how to engage and build creative workplaces – critical elements of great leadership.

What are the takeaways from the show, particularly for leadership?

  • First up, hopping into an ex-police phone box and appearing in a new era that throws out new challenges should be like our modern day work environment. Imagine a Dr Who where every time he landed he found himself in the same place and era; it simply wouldn’t compel viewers to ‘stay tuned’. A stifled workplace with no buzz of excitement simply does not compel employees to perform! This is a challenge for leaders.
  • Next, Dr Who depends on his helpers to get him out of tight jams. He’d have been long demolished by a Dalek or Cyborg if he’d been going it alone. What is the nature of the help? It is collegial and independent.  By collegial I mean working together for the overall good; by independent I mean it’s distinguished by allowing the helpers to use their initiative to get out of jams.  Dr Who doesn’t have all the answers and needs the help of others to survive.  Imagine a show where the ‘star’ told everyone what they had to do; it would be boring, a bit like a command and control workplace.
  • Then, the show doesn’t just focus on history it jumps into the future. It allows the imagination to roam about ‘what could be’.  Does your workplaces lack imagination?  Imaginative and creative leaders think about the future and embrace the ambiguity of future events.
  • Dr Who is a calculated risk taker. Whenever he hits the button in the Tardis to a new adventure, he does it in the confidence that risk is not unhealthy; it is the essence of being alive.  If the shows’ viewers knew where the next adventure was it would be boring, turning up to work every day with a scheduled and configured routine makes for boring work.  Great leaders aim to make the workplace interesting; it increases productivity!
  • When a Dr Who runs out of steam, interest or hits the time to go and smell the roses, the producers cleverly introduce a new Doctor. Always resplendent as a new character and different to the previous Doctors.  A clever way to maintain viewer interest and to refresh the show; some workplaces need to institute a ‘Dr Who replacement program’, particularly when things begin to flag. This could mean new faces or a new style and approach to leadership; regardless, variety is an imperative!
  • Dr Who never forgets the importance of lightness and humour, while he faces tense situations he always paints a positive view and optimism for a successful result; he’s also comfortable with self-mocking and not taking himself too seriously. We the viewers know he’ll be back next week with another dose of optimism and self-deprecation.

What are your takeaways from Dr Who?   How can this formula be implanted into the workplace?

Embrace Ambiguity

Embrace Ambiguity – creating legacy with the agile mindset

This article was previously published in the July 2016 edition of Entrepreneurs and Innovation Magazine (a UK publication) and just in case you missed it, the full article is below; 

‘Change’ is occurring at a pace unprecedented in history.  By example, the Roman Empire essentially used the same military strategy to create its empire over 700 years with little modification, a successful model that had longevity.  By contrast military technology today is changing at lightning speed, it is not that long ago that ‘drone warfare’ entered our vocabulary, the ability of a ‘pilot’ to sit in an office in Arizona and fly missions anywhere in the world.  The next step will be ‘drone warships’, obviating the need to have crewed ships.

‘Change’ is no longer a matter of choice.  If you fail to change you will be left behind.  Amazon is currently developing the capacity to deliver parcels by drone.  The recipient will spread out a receiving mat in the backyard and the drone will land and leave the parcel.  Is the courier industry contemplating this development with their fleets of vans?  It is easy for an industry to miss the wave, who goes to a video store any more?  Movies are delivered to you, streamed over the Internet.

No industry is immune to ‘change’.  In fact ‘change’ is probably a wrong descriptor, it sends the message that this is a momentous exercise that once completed will provide breathing space till the next ‘change’.  An unnecessary impost imposed by a new management regime to make its mark.  Preferable sets of descriptors to ‘change’ are ‘evolve, adapt and mitigate’ with ‘agility’.  ‘Evolve’ indicates you have read the winds and your business is at the cutting edge, leading the pack.  ‘Adapt’ is reading the metadata to tell you what is likely to happen, not what is happening, making sure you do not get left behind by the evolutionary businesses.  If a company is reading the traditional ‘measures of performance’ it is probably at risk of missing the next adaptation.  ‘Mitigation’ is something you want to avoid; it means you are peddling hard because you missed the wave to ‘evolve and adapt’ – you lacked ‘agility’.

To ‘evolve and adapt’ is a 24/7 event; it requires an organisation to be ‘agile’.  Everyone in the organisation needs to be ‘agile’, not just those defined as managers.  This universal requirement reflects the one critical change from the 20th to the 21st Centuries.  ‘Knowledge and information’ in the 20th Century were largely controlled by a limited number of people.  Teachers, for example, were ‘knowledge and information experts’, a position attained by their education, experience and what they had read in books; there was a ‘monopoly’ on knowledge and information and its dispersal.  Now there is no limit or control on the access to knowledge and information, it is no longer a monopoly or a ‘top down process’.  The Internet potentially make everyone an ‘expert’.  Managers should no longer be appointed on what they know, it should be on their agility to consume and interpret new information and reformat it to define how the organisation needs to evolve or adapt.

The term ‘disruptive industries’ has entered our vocabulary.  Essentially people thinking with ‘agility’ outside the box to deliver an old service in a new way.  Disruption is really just evolution, turn an industry on its head and become a monopoly supplier is a smart strategy to making significant revenue quickly.  Why enter a business sector and mirror the way it currently operates, taking the small, start up margin you can eke out while you establish your business?  Shooting to undermine the margins of your competitors by a new way of operating makes more sense, agility at its best.

Established businesses operate with a mindset that the counter to ‘disruptive players’ is to ‘change’.  This is usually an expensive and disruptive process.  It can impact on the ‘bottom line’; the assumption is short-term pain for long-term gain.  Unfortunately most change is premised on what is happening now, or in the immediate future.  ‘Change’ rarely discriminates between previously ‘good and bad practice’; everything goes.   Change is usually based on an embryonic understanding of the future and a large dollop of experience of the past, however, what if the past experience is invalid for the future?  Surely it makes more sense to continuously ‘evolve’ with ‘agility’ as the accepted best practice.  Sequential ‘change’ is a hangover from the 20th Century.

‘Agility’ is an organic process.  It is a mindset that needs to be embedded in the operating style of everyone in an organisation.  It is the only counter to the increasing number of ‘industry disruptors’ and dynamic change.  The key features of this organic and agile process are:

  • It shouldn’t involve expensive, time consuming and disruptive change and restructure
  • It should ensure that everyone is empowered to be an ‘agile contributor’ to the evolution of the organisation
  • It should be non-hierarchical to ensure that a master-servant attitude does not stifle creativity
  • It should encourage networking, knowledge accumulation and sharing – it should encourage self research and the contribution of ideas
  • It should value knowledge, ideas and ‘out of the box’ solutions’ by demonstrable reward
  • It should encourage free thinking and support education
  • It should value ambiguity and uncertainty and celebrate ‘jumping on the next wave’
  • Most of all – it should value ‘agility’ in personal contribution, structure and investment decisions

Importantly the mandating of ‘agility’ to the people in an organisation should not be open slather.  There is ‘good and bad agility’.  ‘Bad agility’ is the actions of rogue traders in the financial market, while making money for their company and themselves it is done unethically.  ‘Good agility’ is framed by ethical standards and clearly enunciated values and principles that are understood and persistently reinforced.

The business world will increasingly become ambiguous – the only solution is to embrace ‘agility’ and to join the team pushing the  ‘evolutionary’ envelope.

Join the Movement

One of my favourite TED Talks is Derek Sivers’– How to Start a Movement.  It is a great resource that is often used in leadership development programs to start a great conversation around the role of the leader.

At Change2020 we sometimes start “dancing by ourselves” particularly when we commence partnering with businesses to transform and transition. This soon changes as the “first follower” joins the dance and then the second until the movement has started.   We love this element of our work.

Recently we started a business changing movement – and while there was limited dancing – we officially began the movement for leaders (and subsequently organisations) to Embrace ambiguity. (Change2020’s vision)

Joining the movement to – Embrace ambiguity. –  will result in leaders remaining relevant.  The skills that leaders have are excellent and will continue to remain relevant but this will not be enough in a world where change is the way of life.  Embracing ambiguity will also enable opportunities to be seized, complex problems to be solved, creativity to be released and stress levels to decrease.

BUT, how do leaders Embrace ambiguity?

Leaders will need to do things differently. We have developed 9 habits that will assist leaders to Embrace ambiguity:

  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Take the reins
  3. Focus on what matters
  4. Rewire expectations
  5. Hatch butterfly moments
  6. Open the floodgates
  7. Challenge idea killers
  8. Be courageous
  9. Let go and move on

This movement is not going to happen overnight and it is going to be challenging for leaders to “flip” the way many currently operate.  It will require focus and support from colleagues and friends.

A starting point for embracing ambiguity is working out your tolerance of ambiguity – low, moderate or high.  Change2020 has designed a survey to assess your tolerance of ambiguity.

To be part of the movement, take our survey by clicking here and we will provide you with your tolerance of ambiguity score and some tips on how to join the movement to Embrace ambiguity.

Be a first follower and join the movement…..

Change is occurring at a pace unprecedented in history. By example, the Roman Empire used the same military strategy to create its Empire over 700 years with little modification – a successful model that had longevity. By contrast military technology today is changing at lightning speed. It is not that long ago that ‘drone warfare’ entered our vocabulary, the ability of a ‘pilot’ to sit in an office in Arizona and fly missions anywhere in the world. The next step will be ‘drone warships’, obviating the need to have crewed ships.

Amazon is currently developing the capacity to deliver parcels by drone. The recipient will spread out a receiving mat in the backyard and the drone will land and leave the parcel. Is the courier industry contemplating this development with their fleets of vans? It is easy for an industry to miss the wave. Who goes to a video shop any more? Movies are delivered to you, streamed over the internet.

Being Memorable

Getting Your Message Across and Being Memorable

Anything to do with change can often be challenging to communicate. To be memorable and to get your key messages across, you need not only need to think about the why, how and the what (ie. Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework) you also need structure.

A presentation, meeting or discussion has three elements to it, the beginning, the middle and the end, obviously. Each part is critical but each has a different effect.

The beginning links into the term ‘primacy of learning’ – this is when you are likely to have the greatest effect. This is where you need to make your key points in putting forward your proposition. It is what the listener is most likely to retain cognitively. Many people thread their key thoughts throughout a presentation but this will only dilute the effect.

The end is also critical as it benefits from the ‘recency of learning’- we all know that what you hear last is likely to remain with you, but not to the same extent as what you hear at the start.

Primacy of learning is king in the process.

This brings us to what you say in the middle to be effective and to reduce the clouding over effect in the eyes of the people you are presenting to.

So how do you make this section effective?

Hedwig von Resotrff (1906-1962) a German psychiatrist identified what she termed the “isolation effect”, now known as the von Restorff effect. Essentially when multiple homogeneous stimuli are presented, a stimulus that stands out from the rest will be remembered more effectively.

What does this mean for your presentation? You’ll need to seed the middle with interesting inserts to break what could be the monotony of the middle. This is not to say the middle is not important but it’s likely to be filled with ‘what, when, how’ type details. For example, while providing details you might want to throw in an interesting story, experience or anecdote.

The logic of this is simply demonstrated, if you were given a list of tasks to undertake and all the tasks were in black ink but one was in blue, the one you’re most likely to remember well is the blue.

The other important technique in the middle section is to selectively use repetition, particularly for the information that is important for the listener to retain. However, repetition should be used sparingly as it can become annoying if you repeat everything. To quote William Rastetter, CEO of IDEC Pharmaceuticals, ‘The first time you say something, it’s heard, the second time, it’s recognised, and the third time, it’s learned.’

Another important technique is to make the middle interactive – ask questions and seek input, particularly if it supports your proposition. Participants aligning their comments to your comments will either directly or indirectly lead to greater retention in their memory. I like the observation that ‘when you’re introduced to someone the only name you’re likely to hear is your own’.

These are some simple techniques to help you communicate change (or anything actually) with impact and therefore making the message memorable.

The Importance of Being Prickly

Effective Leaders are ‘Prickly’

We read many, many leadership blogs and articles around how a leader should behave and be. Change2020 works with a range of leaders who exhibit behaviours and attributes that you wish were possible to clone. The DNA of these leaders is worth replicating and could be sold for millions.

While these leaders are all unique they do have one thing in common – they are – at times “prickly”. The definition of prickly it is usually associated with negative behaviours. For example: irritable, cantankerous, petulant, surly, bad-tempered and impatient.

However, prickly is not always a disadvantage.

The Australian mammal – the echidna – is a prickly creature that erects its spines for protection, to anchor itself, to help it climb, and to help it upright itself after it has fallen.

Why Leaders Need to be ‘Prickly’

At times, leaders need to be ‘prickly’ to:

  • Protect their organisation;
  • Stand firm in turbulent times;
  • Tackle the challenging conversations;
  • Help their organisations cease growth opportunities; and
  • Regroup when unforeseen eventualities come out of left field.

A ‘prickly’ leader is needed in order to embrace the ambiguity of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world where there are constant threats; pressure to out-perform and the need to be able to respond quickly to see the opportunities within change.

The very best leaders that Change2020 works with are ‘prickly’. They are great to work with, and just like the echidna they are strong, clever and have a good grasp of their environment. Their effectiveness is evidenced in their annual reports – with increases to revenue and profit and margin growth and importantly employee engagement and satisfaction.

Are you a prickly leader?

Building Trust and Promoting Collaboration in the Workplace

The modern corporate office environment is generally open-planned, minimalistic in style, decorated with lush wall-gardens, and furnished with generous plump lounges and long meeting tables with sophisticated coffee machines and a dozen or more Twining teas on offer.

These environments have been developed to foster collaboration, information sharing, inclusive behaviours and work practices as well as building employee satisfaction. I applaud the clever architects and interior designers, the blond wood and the modern white amenities look and feel clean, modern and inviting. So, what is not to like?

Well, I wonder about the behaviours in these environments. How do you have a full and frank conversation when you are surrounded by dozens of eyes and ears? Meeting rooms are a rarity and if you can find one, they have floor to ceiling glass walls which means privacy is difficult to achieve.

The real issue though is how conversations play out in the open plan environment. It can be loud, it can be chatty and at times disruptive, but that is real life, that is how we engage and behave in our social and family environment. What is not normal, at least in my social and family life, is whispering.

Whispering is Rude

Whispering sends a very clear message to all of those around the whispers – “I don’t want you to hear what I am saying”! Whispering is almost the opposite to collaboration, it creates an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’ and it is very obvious which group you are in. At it’s worse, whispering is a form of exclusion at best, it is rude.

Whispering works directly against trust; without trust, we struggle to generate happy and productive employees which of course has a direct impact on the success of the business.

A simple message really, I was taught that whispering in front of others is ill-mannered, I have passed this message to my children, why then does whispering seems to be so common and ok in the workplace?

I understand that private conversations are important and necessary, my suggestion is to consider what it looks like to others – if you must have a very important and very quiet conversation, move to one of those rare meeting rooms or perhaps the plump lounge or one of the numerous coffee shops we are blessed with in most work environments. We don’t want to go back to stark white walls and high loop-carpet desk dividers, so we need to be more conscious of our behaviours and the associated messages.

But the point is, while you are trying to whisper, the message it sends is very loud indeed.

Building Resilience in an Ambiguous Environment

At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, one of the memorable stories was from US star swimmer Michael Phelps. ‘Swimming blind’ his goggles filled with water during the Butterfly final, an event that he went on to win. “I didn’t panic,” he said. “I went back to all of my training. I knew how many strokes it takes me to get up and down the pool, so I started counting my strokes I didn’t reach the time I was aiming for, but I did win the race.” Of course, this is a story of great talent, discipline and training – his coach had prepared him for such an eventuality – but given the pressure of the event, the huge expectation and his own personal goals, it is also a tale of great resilience.

“More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”

Resilience and Constant Changes in an Organisation

The volume and pace of change in organisations, whilst perhaps not quite an Olympic event, is a constant and relentless cycle. It necessitates resilience from individuals’ time and time again in order to sustain the pace and focus that is needed during a transformation. Beyond personality attributes, such as optimism and humility, the process of building resilience is a well debated and discussed topic. Yet, resilience is still a key challenge and often creates real risk in the delivery of change. In our experience, the key element for embedding resilience lies in an appreciation of the context – one that is shaped by ambiguity.

Ambiguity is the norm in change and also the opportunity. Internal and external factors impact the change process and create an uncertain environment. One of the major impediments to building resilience is often a lack of connectedness as this impacts not only on the individual but also on morale and team dynamics and can lead to a breakdown in communication or working relationships if an individual ‘checks out’ of the process.

So what are some of the key considerations for building resilience in an ambiguous environment?

  1. Be optimistic – this does not mean that everything is to be seen as positive, rather visualise a successful outcome and ensure this remains the focus in spite of setbacks;
  2. Analyse an activity at work and see how many alternatives you can come up with;
  3. Be curious: ask open questions and listen actively;
  4. Think in reverse: instead of brainstorming how to solve the problem, ask what has caused the problem;
  5. Hold onto your sense of humour, be prepared to laugh at yourself and with others;
  6. Take charge of thoughts – as they are not facts;
  7. Make a note at the end of each day about what went well, not so well – reflect on the note the next morning and make any adjustments/refinements you need to make.

There is no shying away from the fact that resilience is hard, particularly in challenging and unpredictable environments. It is essential to embrace this reality in order to build resilience: this is the opportunity and the common denominator for all involved in change and will provide the basis for success.

Who is your “True North”?

Change2020 works with a variety of industries and many different leaders. Within this diversity, the one thing that resonates as critical for the success of these individual leaders is having either someone or a small number of people who are their True North.

Bill George’s book – Discover your True North: Become an Authentic Leader (2015) – building on his 2007 book (True North) – confirms that authentic leaders are true to themselves and to their beliefs. Authentic leaders are needed for future and this has become the “gold standard”.

A person who is a True North is someone whom the leader trusts explicitly, is able to act authentically with and whom he/she can express vulnerability. They are people who can provide a leader advice, support, guidance and feedback as they manoeuvre through the complexities of the changing and ambiguous business environment – filled with challenges, opportunities and risks.

Every leader needs a True North – no matter how experienced, competent or successful.

As a senior executive, my True North was a person over 10 years my junior. Her name is Monica. Monica understood me as a leader – my motivations, drivers and values. She was courageous enough to tell some home truths or suggest alternatives for me to consider. At times, Monica was just there to listen when I was trying to work through a problem. She didn’t always agree and she told me when she thought I was wrong.

Monica was initially a fellow employee who had a matrixed reporting relationship with me. The trust-based working relationship developed over time as we worked towards the common purpose and achieving business results.

My True North made me a better person, a better leader with better business outcomes.

I gave my True North “permission” to:

  • Tell it like it is
  • Challenge my assumptions
  • Work with me to resolve problems
  • Push me outside your comfort zone
  • Remind me to remain optimistic
  • Get me to think differently
  • Make me laugh when I was starting to take myself too seriously

It is sometimes lonely as a leader and having at least one True North should assist you to be the best version of your authentic self while delivering business results in an environment of continuous change and ambiguity.

Do you have a True North? Or have your identified your True North?

Values-Based Partnering

Shared Values and Trust are Essential For Organisational Transformation

Change is an opportunity not to be feared; a Change2020 mantra.  To seize these opportunities requires individuals to be open-minded, curious and agile,  to respond to new requirements or expectations as they inevitably arise during major transformation. Crucially, this means that trust is a key currency of partnering in change programs to ensure the delivery of outcomes in complex, multi-stakeholder environments. In our experience successful change is also shaped by a context of shared values in order to create an agile approach to organisational transformation.

Organisation and Change Partner

Shared values are a key aspect of the fit between an organisation and change partner. Change partners, like Change2020, create a level of trust that supports a positive and forward-thinking approach, as there is an implied willingness to collaborate in order to undertake the constant analysis and review required during a change program. However, values can become conflicted and lead to unsettlement that is disruptive to the implementation process.  Larger transformational change programs with multi-stakeholder demands and colliding change initiatives increase in complexity and this scenario, in particular, can lead to values conflict. The risk of communication breakdown also increases, leading to a reduction in focus on partnering in change, resulting in an erosion of trust.  A climate of uncertainty can quickly unfold as behaviours are often being demonstrated which are counter-intuitive to shared values, resulting in blockages and barriers to the change program.

Leadership, and specifically change leadership is necessary for preventing blockages and barriers and for keeping real partnership as the priority. Shared values are often about keeping hold of basic principles, such as standing side by side with each other and remaining cognisant of day-to-day realities.

As a change leader you can build your approach to values-based change by:

  • Always knowing what your values are and what you stand for: we are all change leaders;
  • Understanding the values not process or power-underpin your change program;
  • Keeping an open mind and an agile mindset so that you can address ambiguity and uncertainty;
  • Remembering that the specific change program is a moment in time, it is not the absolute conclusion;
  • Considering your behaviours, including your body language and basic manners, when dealing with others; and
  • Communicating, engaging and collaborating as widely as possible– there is no gain in deceptive behaviour.

If change is the one true constant in organisations, today, then ambiguity is the one true certainty underpinning a transformation program.  Shared values drive trust and collaboration and are needed amongst all stakeholders in order to manage fluctuating demands and evolving expectations.  Often the real need for leaders’ is just to keep perspective.  Embrace ambiguity: see change as the opportunity.