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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.

Change2020 – a perspective one year on

Reflecting on one year as a consultant with Change2020 has been a happy experience… it’s hard to believe that it’s ‘only’ been 12 months.

For me the year has reinforced that the greatest learning we have is from each other. Although the opportunity in change is immense, the pathway to delivering outcomes is often complex. The only true formula to successful change is to drive broad ranging, relentless engagement and to be responsive to these discussions. I call it the change within the change, and successful change leaders are agile and recognise this nuance. Having worked with clients willing to adopt this mindset as part of transformational change has been to see genuine partnership, collaboration and courage. To shape a program and implement at the right time, with the right level of emotional investment, is a two-way process that involves a balance of intuition, judgement and ongoing adaptation. It is also an investment in trust and this is fundamentally the central premise of partnering in change.

Embrace ambiguity. The creation of this new Change2020 vision has been a very exciting development in our journey over the past 12 months. Embrace ambiguity is the essence of who we are as change consultants, but also much more than that. It’s the world we live in, the business context we operate within and a shared awareness amongst the people we talk with each day. To be able to genuinely live this vision is, for me, everything to do with leadership, change, strategy and engagement. Ultimately in any change program there are essentially a set of variables and a set of values – marrying the two together is the currency of change management and it’s not straightforward. To build the Embrace Ambiguity vision is the greatest opportunity in change for any organisation and one that we look forward to continuing to evolve.

Over the last year I have also met some truly fantastic people who have joined the Change2020 team and it has been inspiring to see our numbers double in size. These individuals bring diversity and perspective, and the exciting aspect has been the immediate alignment with our vision and values, and the collective recognition and connection that this has provided. These individuals live our story and talking about it really has been a lot of fun. (NB: We couldn’t do what we do without all of you).

Everything Change2020 does aligns with its core values and it drives a proposition that is focused on relationships and delivery. This is a point of difference that is very exciting and rewarding. It provides a working environment that genuinely respects and invests in individuality, and this has been the biggest change for me – to appreciate true authenticity.

To see change delivered is the ultimate learning experience as a consultant. The past year has reinforced that to listen, learn and adapt as needed is essential and, above all, just keep it real. Here’s to the next twelve months of working with amazing team members, clients, new clients and collaborators – and to embracing ambiguity.

The Challenge of Trust

Trust is Essential in Building Better Organisations

Trust is the currency of strong values, successful service delivery and great relationships.  Put simply, we work to build trust and break down barriers in order to transform organisations, teams and individuals. However, when the level of expectation between two parties differs it can lead to an inherent conflict of trust that is difficult to overcome. While this may seem straightforward, the question for leaders’ is: do we really demonstrate trust in our people, despite what we say?

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The Innovation Statement

The Innovation Statement: a new mindset for an era of ambiguity

Australia needs a significant shift in ideology when it comes to promoting innovation and entrepreneurialism, both essential to long-term economic growth. The Innovation Statement made by the Prime Minister yesterday was important to signify this inherent requirement to shift perspective in relation to our country’s future and welcome an ‘ideas boom’.  A more agile culture, a more nimble government and more tolerance towards risk, to capture but a few of the messages, aligns strongly with the business agenda.

Innovation is needed within organisations to create opportunities and differentiators for products and services by collaborating effectively and pushing boundaries in thinking. One commentator in the Australian Financial Review called yesterday’s statement the first intelligent set of policy initiatives to boost the innovation ecosystem that we’ve seen from government, noting that the real test now for Malcolm Turnbull will be how quickly he can turn these interdependent policy initiatives into law to create the ‘Ideas Boom’ that he spoke about. Part of the opportunity for businesses is to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach in the collective leadership mindset, one that is open to new ideas and accepts failure as a potential outcome and encourages debate and discussion.

Innovation and The Implementation of Change

Another key message relates to the link between innovation and risk, which is often a fundamental challenge towards the implementation of change.  As Ben Schulz, co-founder of Bastion Cycles, comments in The Sydney Morning Herald, innovation is really about managing risk.  He says “To have an idea is easy, to implement it is all about how much are you willing to risk to get it to market.” In reality, there is often a requirement upon leaders to make decisions in spite of a lack of cohesive information and in short timeframes. A willingness to take risks is central to agile leadership particularly given new priorities are emerging driven by an environment of complexity, uncertainty and rapid digital transformation.

Inevitably there will be questions about this announcement including the scale of investment and scope of impact.  However, one of the pillars of the Innovation Statement, and arguably the real call to action, is inspiration. Putting aside the skepticism, it is clear that the government is seeking to define a new leadership agenda and one that is weighted towards opportunity, change and creativity.

Leadership and Innovation

As advisors on change and leadership, this statement is a ‘sit back and think’ moment for leaders.  Ensure that you initiate discussions with your team on the culture you want to create and really engage your workforce around a discussion on innovation. Take a step back and challenge your own thinking to ensure that you have the discussion and feedback processes in place to ensure that all of your people have an opportunity to contribute. Formal or informal, the conversation needs to start, and now!  And remember, be agile and willing to change tack on the way – there is no silver bullet, but there are opportunities in ambiguity.


Performance Management

Performance management is an act of leadership, not a system.

Performance management has become one of the most pivotal features of organisational development in their pursuit of growth – and also one of the most controversial. A system, or not depending on your viewpoint, it is a strategic agenda where organisations often struggle between the balance of process versus engagement, and the end result is often a less than empowering experience for all parties involved. Whether it be a two-way dialogue, 360-degree feedback, online performance management or outsourced systems, chances are that as leaders’ we have all considered new ways of ‘doing’ performance management, often time and time again.  So much of the true value of performance management gets lost in this analytical aspect and the opportunity for organisations to actually drive results plays second fiddle.

The Disadvantage of Systemising Performance Management

Unfortunately, the systematisation of performance management has evolved in tandem with the increase in employment legislation in the workplace. We manage performance formally, at least in part, in order to ensure we can tick the boxes if something goes wrong.  In fact, we tend to evolve the ‘system’ because we need to ensure compliance and effectively manage risk, in as much as we like to ensure that our core products and services are up-to-date with current trends.  The paradox is that performance management is often the one big statement towards proactive, structured people development in an HR strategy, but at the cost of absorbing these compliance issues and creating cumbersome workloads, leading to confusion.  As a result, we have lost the art of what improving performance is meant to be about as a result of an overly systematised approach.

Role of Leaders in Developing Performance

Performance excellence through people will drive success and build the cultural DNA of an organisation. These are real differentiators and it absolutely starts with an engaged, focused and motivated workforce.  Developing performance is an act of leadership that needs to be imparted from everyone responsible for a team; the word management is misleading.  The real need in performance discussions is to provide ensuring clarity of vision and purpose and to deliver constructive, ongoing feedback.

Tips for getting the most value out of the discussion include:

  • A discussion! It is not a ‘tick and flick’ process
  • Develop leaders as coaches and equip them with skills of delivering constructive feedback in multiple scenarios;
  • Engage with employees about performance management to encourage buy-in and personal ownership of their role in the process – it is a two-way dialogue;
  • Remember that performance management is really about reflection and discussion, so keep this at the centre of the process, rather than the latest ‘trend’;
  • And last, but by no means least, keep the procedural aspects to a minimum and ensure they are simple and clear for all concerned.

Build a culture where regular conversations around performance are the norm rather than the exception.


Change Agility and Leading Change

Being Agile Amidst Constant Changes

Organisations are in a constant state of change, whether it be working towards ‘the big idea’ or the impact of multiple cycles of change taking place simultaneously (or more often than not, the combination of both).  These journeys provide real opportunities for innovation and growth.

Better Approach to Change Management

However, the implications of leading ongoing change mean that traditional models – the ‘linear’ approach to change management – are no longer working.  Ambiguity is the currency of ongoing change and necessitates a shift from focusing on the individual aspects of change, such as a new system or process to a constant state of readiness and adaptability, or in other words: change agility.

Change management is an approach to transition individuals, teams, and organisations to a desired future state. It is often viewed in a project management context where change is ‘an event’.  In contrast, change agility is a state of being, behaviour and a critical enabler.

Our traditional ways of thinking are concerned with judgement, but it is not our answers and solutions that need to define us – it is the way in which we think and critically assesses ideas that best supports us to be ‘change agile’.

Change agility looks like:
  • Being flexible and able to shift gears
  • Suppressing the need to control
  • Operating effectively with risk and uncertainty as a constant
  • Accepting that all the information is not going to be available
  • Trusting your gut and backing yourself in the face of the unknown or unexpected
  • Dealing with ambiguity and reducing the impact of ambiguity for your team

Building Change Agility

In order for leaders’ to build change agility, the first step is to adopt a growth mindset; one where the opportunities for improvement and is characterised by effectively coping with change, deciding and acting without having the total picture and comfortably handling risk and uncertainty. Studies show that with a growth mindset, people are more likely to focus on performance over time – where they were before, where they are now, and where they are headed.

As Kathryn Shulz so eloquently puts it in her TED Talk ‘On Being Wrong’ – being agile means you thought one thing was going to happen …. but something else happened instead (and you don’t fall apart as a result of it).