The power of the question

I recently had the privilege of working with the executive Board of a global organisation and was asked to observe a Board meeting and Strategy session and then provide feedback on their performance against the characteristics of a high performance team.

The team was, as you would expect, very male dominated in terms of both gender and behaviour, and discussions were dominated by knowledge holders.  One of the few women in the team was very evidently the most strategically capable and yet her contributions to the strategic debate totalled less than 10% by volume and certainly less than 10% by influence.  Each time she raised an opportunity or discussion point one or other of her male colleagues would point out that, in their considered experience, they had tried this before and it hadn’t worked, or that her idea would never work, or worse of all, that she clearly did not understand the complexities of the business in the way that they did.  Gradually, and somewhat expectedly, her contributions diminished and the old guard maintained their control over the discussions.

We had a short coaching session part-way through the meetings and explored how she felt about the way in which she was being treated, how she was doing and how she could enhance her style to secure greater leverage within the debate.  I pointed out that a number of her colleagues were adopting the position of expert, either through knowledge or experience, and, as such, were difficult to deal with in the debate, prior to suggesting that she should consider using questions to steer the debate.  We discussed the fact that an insightful, well-phrased and well-timed question has tremendous power to significantly influence others’ thinking.

The impact on the group of her new approach was dramatic – her questions imposed a rigour and depth to the debate that was previously missing.  The group began to more fully debate their strategy, their context and circumstances, their competitive positioning and their value proposition.  Through her questions she was able to exert influence on the group and her male colleagues were able, in time, to look beyond the perspective of their expertise and adopt a more open-minded, questioning approach.

She was incredibly pleased with the process and the outcomes, as was the group.  All was going well until, after one particularly insightful question that acted as a catalyst for one of her colleagues and challenged him to change his thinking, he responded with a new position.  Her thought was “Fantastic, I have really influenced him,” but sadly his closing comment was, “I had never thought of that before – I have inspired myself.”

Perhaps real self-awareness and change takes a little longer than she expected.

Vmax is supporting International Womens Day 2013.  To find out more about the challenges still faced by women around the world, visit

The dance of change

I was reflecting on the nature of organisational change recently and thinking about the relatively short half-life of behaviour change stimulated from development programmes.  Participants return from the programme with great enthusiasm to put their learning into practice in the workplace and are met with resistance and, indeed looks of incredulity from their colleagues.  If we listen carefully we can hear work colleagues asking, “What’s happened to John?” and hearing various forms of the typical reply, namely, “Oh he’s been on a course – he’ll be back to normal in a couple of days.”

Of course, what typically happens is that the norms and conventions of the team and the business, both explicit and tacit, exert conscious and subconscious pressure on our programme participants and they, inevitably, return to their pre-existing patterns of behaviour and the hajourneylf-life of knowledge and efficacy of change is once again reduced.

The reality is that we are each of us engaged in habitually conditioned patterns of behaviour with others and any unilateral change is likely to be met with resistance as we are, in effect, changing the pattern.  This is akin to a dance. There are specific steps and patterns which each partner knows and understands and, from that level of understanding, flows an expectation of behaviours from themselves and their dance partner.  If, in a dance, I suddenly start to change the steps then any partner is highly likely to be confused and try even harder to pull me back into the established dance.  In essence, they will seek to exert pressure on me to help me to conform to the dance.  In this way, my new and innovative dance steps are likely to be a short-lived change and I will quickly revert to ‘being back to normal’.

If I truly want to change the dance, I need to be clear and explicit about my intentions.  I need to ensure that my dance partner understands my intentions, sees a clear value to themselves in changing with me, and works with me to establish a new pattern, a new dance.  If, during the period of changing the dance, I revert back the previous dance steps then we will probably both feel comfortable and dance the old dance.  Establishing the new dance takes perseverance, fortitude and commitment from both parties.

Changing a dance involving people is relatively straightforward and the process to achieve the change is clear.  I would suggest that the same process of change applies in our organisational lives where we also engage in a series of dances.  When we join a team or organisation we quickly understand the dance and learn to follow the rules and thereby lies the route to the status-quo that change agents always want to change.  The status-quo is, very often, a comfortable and comforting dance within the organisation and one which leaders need to recognise and value if they are to change it in any meaningful and sustainable way.  Similar to changing the dance, leaders need to make their intentions clear and we suggest they always do the following:

  • Expressly recognise the value of the current dance – people are accustomed to this and to bluntly seek to change it without understanding and valuing it is, in effect, showing a lack of value and respect for their work in the past.  Not the best foundation for taking a team with you.
  • Expressly recognise the changing business context and the fact that the old dance is not as effective in the new context as it was in the old, and therefore create a compelling case for change
  • Clearly state the new dance – the purpose, the principles and the behaviours that you want and, be equally clear in the outcome that you wish to achieve.
  • Ensure that this positive outcome focus addresses the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) factors at all levels so that you have the leverage to engage people in the changes
  • Engage people in the change – don’t impose it upon them.  Set the direction and outcomes and then work with people to create the journey.
  • Recognise and value contributions as and when they arise, from all parties
  • Be insistent, persistent and consistent in driving the new dance steps.

How will you manage change?

Sustainable organisational change often requires a philosophical leap, a change of attitude and behaviour.  It also requires a lot of hard work, and the traditional rigour of project and programme management techniques.

It never ceases to surprise people the sheer amount of work that takes place in an organisational change programme.  Even in a modestly sized business, the amount of activity required to maintain engagement, control and forward momentum can be quite overwhelming for the uninitiated.  To further complicate matters, this activity often has to take place in an environment of turbulence or perhaps even secrecy, dependent on the nature of the change.

Never lose sight of the fact that organisational change is a project or programme like most others.  If you apply the rigour of traditional project and programme management techniques you will increase your chances of maintaining engagement, momentum and ultimately success.

10 tips for managing organisational change

  • Adopt and adapt a methodology for project management that suits you.
    There are lots of standard models and methods, none of which are likely to suit you ‘out of the box’.  They will however provide a useful template to build an approach that suits you.
  • Define the roles of those involved.
    A project involves a discrete team and does not necessarily have to respect the current job titles of those involved.  Take time to define the roles you need within the project and who is going to fulfil each one.
  • Wear multiple hats.
    Defining roles becomes quite scary as it often makes the project feel large and unwieldy.  Don’t forget that people can wear multiple hats in a project context.  In fact there are very few roles that can’t be combined.
  • Respect reporting lines.
    Your methodology should define reporting lines – respect them!  Nothing is guaranteed to collapse a project structure more quickly than people missing steps in reporting.
  • Define success early and revisit often.
    Don’t be afraid to change the parameters that will determine whether your organisational change project is a success.  The world changes, so can your goals.
  • Create a baseline and track progress.
    People often forget what yesterday looked like.  Make a baseline, track against it, and report often
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
    You can’t communicate too much during organisational change, and you can’t work too hard to ensure clarity.  To use an old adage, “tell em, what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em”.
  • If it feels too complicated, make it simpler (part 1).
    Organisational change can be a complex beast.  Respect the complexity and manage it as multiple projects.
  • If it feels too complicated, make it simpler (part 2).
    Don’t feel obliged to track EVERY detail.  Manage only what needs to be managed.
  • Celebrate success.
    Never let an organisational change project fizzle out.  Always declare an end, celebrate the efforts of those involved and recognise what you’ve achieved.