It is probably true that: When we describe and aim for a preferred future, understand what matters (what has impact) and when we are fanatically disciplined and deliberate in delivering the few (one) things that really matter…we bring new light to what life might be. … and achieve unusually well.
So, what if we were better at balancing three things?
- Our ability, based on the WHY, to describe the future, the destination, the dream? – to set sights on an extraordinary end point?
- Our understanding of what matters, what makes the difference, what achieves impact?
- Our fanatical discipline to deliberately focus upon and deliver the One Thing(s) that align with our dream and matter most.
It is at the intersection of these three things that we have the chance to accelerate improvement by:
- Aligning strategy toward our dream, ambition, destination or preferred future.
- Focusing on the few areas that have impact (our positive deviant practices)
- AND maintain the fanatic discipline to deliberately deliver our preferred future.
Or we might consider that when we have a focused strategy that aligns to our dream and when we are fanatically disciplined and deliberate in the delivery of the few (one) things that make a difference (have impact) we achieve unusual improvement over time…
What if: We start by finding our organisation’s WHY? and seek to describe a preferred future … maybe then we can point to the destination and follow strategies that align and accelerate towards that dream.
“Inspired leaders, organisations and teams find their deepest purpose – their ‘why?’ – and attract followers through shared values, vision and belief.” “this has the ability to transform the fortunes of a group or enterprise – activating individuals, providing a cultural glue, guiding behaviours and creating an overall sense of purpose and personal connection.” (James Kerr, Legacy, 2013)
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” “All organisations Start with why, but only the great ones keep their why clear year after year.” (Simon Sinek)
Simon Sinek has been very influential in ensuring that the basis of strategic planning and the focus of work is located around the moral purpose – the why. His golden circle has framed an approach, language and strategic focus. Sinek identifies that human motivation is emotionally linked, meaning that when people start with why (the moral purpose) this secures early emotional buy in. Just as Martin Luther King composed the “I have a dream” speech and described the future and not the “I have a plan…first we…” speech (taken from Sinek), school leaders have a responsibility to describe the desired future or destination.
Emotional connection is also crucial:
“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking, than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” (Kotter)
Question: How far have you/your organisation identified the WHY – how well is the moral purpose communicated/shared? How often is it articulated? is it taken for granted? is it a comfort blanket or even an excuse when improvement is slow?
What if: we then used the WHY to describe a preferred future (a dream) and ensure that urgency is in the system to drive toward the end?
John West-Burnham highlights the importance of describing a preferred future.
“Successful and credible leaders are able to tell compelling and credible stories about the future – they are leaders to the extent that people accept and value the future they describe. – In the 1970s Shell developed an approach that required identification of preferred scenarios…that are essentially descriptions of a preferred future.” (John West-Burnham, 2012)
If leaders create compelling stories of the future (a dream), attach meaning to them and embed the why, they have the chance of connecting peers with purpose (Fullan). Such ownership allows change and strategic improvement to be owned at a greater depth within the organisation. Tim Brighouse describes how schools are on journeys and that the best schools ask where they want to be and take small steps on a journey toward that goal.
“What we can do and what the best schools do already – is ask where they would like to be in five years time and what steps they will take to get there” … ” the best schools accumulate these small steps and describe themselves as being on a journey.” (Tim Brighouse)
What if: we ensured that there is an appropriate level of urgency in the system.
There is little point in having a compelling dream unless there is in-built urgency (often beyond that provided by the WHY). John Kotter uses the word urgency to emphasize the need for a heightened sense of focus, readiness to act and determination.
Kotter’s urgency describes the force that is released when people feel a quest, a purpose, that their work is meaningful and has a greater purpose than themselves. It is not to be confused with panic or knee-jerk leadership that is reactionary. This is the type of urgency that inspires and moves people to action.
Great leaders understand that generating and highlighting urgency is important as it creates forward motion.
Great organisation often need to generate urgency. For Academies, a poor set of results or pending Ofsted, for example, should not be the driver for the required urgency…neither should it be knee-jerk, reactionary responses to temporal problems or transient political directives. Great organisations are naturally urgent – the moral purpose is deep, the preferred future is compelling, the strategic focus aligns to the need to improve – there is a deliberate and discipline pursuit of what matters. It is this that generates and embeds the urgency in the system.
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough-time.” (Leonard Bernstein)
Ken Segall, in Insanely Simple (2012): “Though it may defy logic, the easiest way to screw up a project is to give it too much time – enough time for people to rethink, revise, have second thoughts, invite others into the project, get more opinions, conduct tests, etc…you invite overthinking…only when people are kept in constant motion do they stay focused with the right kind of intensity…keeping the team in motion is what gets you there.” (describing project management at Apple)
What if: Based on the why, the described future and the built in urgency…we are able to focus down to the one Thing(s)? based on what matters and what makes a difference – those positively deviant, hedgehog ideas and core practices that have impact?
“What is the ONE THING that you need to do, such that by doing it, everything else is either easier or not required.” (Gary Keller, The One Thing)
…because not everything matters equally.
How often do we ask this question? based on where we need to get to what do we need to do in a years time, a months time, next week, tomorrow….what is the one thing that needs to happen now, such that everything else is easier or not required? Keller describes that if we are to tip our preferred future (dream) domino then we need to set a series of dominoes back to the present…the job then is to realise the one thing that now has to happen to tip the very first domino that is uniquely aligned to the dream future.
The One Thing needs to also have further qualities:
- It needs to have impact (more than any other strategy/focus) – be a positive deviant – and this requires measurement of impact and deep questioning.
- In all that we do there are things that have real impact, things that appear to have impact (but are proxies) and things that have limited impact. Finding the one thing that really makes a difference requires evaluation and measurement. The aim is to identify the positively deviant practices, often referred to as bright spots (Heaths). Beware fads, trends, promising innovation or popular approaches – it is impact that counts – things do not matter equally.
- Our perception of what is possible is obstructed by historic assumptions about what is possible – they stop us considering game-changing innovations. Clever questioning has the ability to unlock possibilities and the true impact of approaches (Barber).
- It needs to be what you have to be the best in the world at (hedgehog concept).
- The hedgehog concept represents the intersect of three circles: what you can be (need to be) the best in the world at, what you are deeply passionate about and what best drives your improvement/outcomes (Collins). Just like a hedgehog is excellent at One Thing (rolling into a ball for protection) – the key to success often lies in the ability to be the best in the world at one thing – it is amazing how this makes you better at other stuff and how wide the influence of this one thing travels.
- It is absolutely at the core of what you/your organisation is about. – aligned to the dream and reflects the brutal truth of your present performance.
- “have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins)
- It needs to be sticky and timeless. This is Collin’s Fly-wheel.
- Success and improvement resembles relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond. This is not temporal innovation or reaction this is a systemic focus on the thing that matters most.
Of course the key is to simplify to those strategies that matter most … it is unlikely to be one thing…but it might be three things that matter (not 20) and these need to be sticky, and aligned to the dream. Great organisations KISS (keep it simple stupid).
“Simplicity is power, whether it’s used by individuals or organisations. The question is, do you have the insight and skills to turn this power into your own advantage?” Ken Segall (2012)
What if: we are fanatically focused on deliberately delivering the thing(s) that matters.
Delivery never sleeps.” (Barber)
Collins writes, “discipline, in essence, is consistency of action – consistency with values (why), consistency of method, consistency over time. True discipline requires the independence of mind to reject pressures to conform in ways incompatible with values, performance standards and long term aspirations (dream). …having the inner strength to do what ever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.” (Collins)
Great organisations balance this unswerving fanatical focus on delivery with an agility that enables innovation around what counts. This is not about jumping, adopting new ideas, this is about being the best in the world at what matters most. Kotter identifies the need to balance the hierarchy required in great organisations to turn the flywheel with the agility to to free individuals to connect and innovate around what counts (below). Firing bullets before cannonballs (Collins). And there in lies the contradiction – to be great you focus on the things that really matter, that are sticky, that are timeless – whilst maintaining the innovative agility necessary to stay ahead, to be leading edge, to path find.
Maybe then: more organisations would be strategically led through:
- A strong WHY and moral purpose – communicated and compelling.
- A clear DREAM of the future described at 1 month, 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years …2040?
- An URGENCY that is embedded in the organisation from a deep moral purpose, the compelling preferred future and the aligned deliberate strategic focus.
- A clarity down to the ONE THING(S) that matter, that have impact – the positive deviant practices, the hedgehog, that address the brutal truth and are sticky and timeless.
- A FANATIC DISCIPLINE to deliberately deliver the few things that matter. Such that change is sticky.
- An AGILITY that allows the organisation to innovate in these core things that matter. Firing bullets before cannonballs.
And Finally: none of the above sustains improvement or change unless…
“our actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more.” (J.Q. Adams)
“Leaders inspire others to take charge … they guide us through the journey.” (adapted, Simon Sinek)
“leaders create the choice architecture in an organisation to free individuals, to lead the way to the preferred future (dream). Building on a foundation of strong values and principles, a compelling purpose, great capacity is released to do something great.” (adapted, Seth Godin)