My experience of being married (and dealing with difficult people at work) shifted unexpectedly while taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of New York City with my son, Damon. It was 2010, and Damon and I spent five days on the prowl, hunting for settings we’d seen in movies and on TV: Central Park, Ground Zero, Museum of Natural History, Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, Times Square, the New York Public Library, and many others. We indulged on sights like an overeater consumes a buffet.
Several weeks earlier I had watched a TED Talk by Simon Sinek entitled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” For reasons still unknown to me, ideas he presented in that talk reared from my subconscious mind and landed in my sphere of awareness with a thud that week.
Sinek distinguished how innovative ideas spread. He said 2.5 percent of the population are true creators and innovators, 13.5 percent are early adopters of new ideas and products created by others, 68 percent are evenly split between the early and late majority, and 16 percent are laggards or defiant resisters.
Business owners know that giving birth to new ideas in a society of risk-averse over-thinkers is no picnic. Newness threatens the status quo, raises red flags, and triggers defensive alarm bells. The moment that I stood in New York and fully grasped that ideas travel with a predictable timing delay, I knew what was eroding my marriage and creating self imposed limitations for me at work.
It dawned on me that I am an early adopter, whereas my husband, Randy, trends with the early majority. The repeating pattern in our communication was suddenly obvious. I would present a new idea or a solution to a problem we were facing (that’s you presenting a new idea in the boardroom). My well-intentioned contribution would trigger defensiveness and an automatic “no” from Randy (imagine the deerin-the-headlights looks from your staff). Each time this happened, I collected more evidence to support my belief that my life sucked and he was to blame. (Have you ever said to yourself, “I’m surrounded by idiots!”?)
On the streets of New York City, with Randy nearly 5,000 kilometres away, I realized the stories I’d made up—about my life, our marriage, and Randy—were untrue. My experience of life shifted with my point of view.
I entered conversations with an expectation of what the outcome would be. I may have been thinking of the idea for days or weeks, but I’d drop it on Randy’s lap expecting an instant positive response. My expectations were rarely met. I would then react to Randy’s initial response.
Poor Randy. He was never trying to rain on my parade! What he needed was time to process his thoughts and add his own magic. His brain is oriented to consider details, resources, timelines, and budgets— all the essential aspects of a successful conclusion. My impatience for him to buy into my idea triggered pushback from him.
Seeing this dynamic for what it is, naturally, was life altering. Once I returned home, I decided to test a radical theory: present my idea and give Randy time to mull it over. Sure enough, I found that within a day or two of presenting my idea, Randy would circle back to the topic, adding a different perspective and specific details to make the concept immediately actionable. We crossed the full spectrum, from polarization to connectedness, to form a team; independent, yet interdependent.
I fessed up to having an “automatic no” response, too. Mine gets triggered when someone makes a request of me when my attention is on something else, or when I judge that person’s idea as not taking important factors into consideration. In true Crazy Canary fashion, it irritates me when people go for the quick fix without having considered the whole system or start something new when the last innovation hasn’t been implemented yet.
Human beings are like dominoes. One new idea—or a well meaning comment, or a derogatory eye roll—sets off a chain reaction of responses that spill across the imaginary borders we erect in our minds to separate personal from business, private from public. We automatically run everything through the filter of our lived experiences.
When I had my a-ha moment on the streets of New York, all the difficult people in my life disappeared without ever going away. I no longer label resistance to change as a character flaw. When I am triggered, I look at the situation and circumstances as the start of a new Possibility Process. Instead of getting wound up, I can relax and come from a peaceful knowing that I have a system to guide me forward with purpose.
No matter the scope of a project, I have only one person to manage from moment to moment, and that person is me. With that discovery, I was granted instant access to the central control panel of my life.
In Countdown to Liftoff, I revealed that profit is a formula. What is the profit formula?
Profit flows when communication, collaboration, and leadership (CCL) are aligned with systems of service (SS). In other words, profit is a product of CCL and systems. Improve both and watch it multiply.
CCL is your business oil, the lubricant that keeps everything running smoothly. How you feel on the inside, and how you leave others feeling, is the true measure of leadership success. Integrity and emotional connection lubricate against friction and build employee commitment.
Looking at communication, collaboration, and leadership with the innovation curve in mind positively influences how new ideas get implemented. Organizational leaders can see interpersonal conflicts and departmental rivalries in a whole new light. Resistance shifts from being personal to predictable.
We think other people’s reactions are solely theirs, something we can’t control. Although it’s true we can’t control the outcome, we can have a positive influence on the process by altering how we introduce and communicate our ideas. If we don’t consider the process, we’ll encounter headwinds of resistance and be frustrated with people not getting on board.
I call it the uphill battle. People respond to change in five ways, four of which slow innovators down.
The uphill battle is one of the first principles I introduce to teams. When people discover where they fall on the curve in relation to others, their perspective shifts.
For business owners, the uphill battle answers the rhetorical question, “Why do I always have to be the one to bring X forward?” The answer is simple: You have your sights set on the future! If you want the early and late majority to think differently, you’ve got to understand how they think and meet them where they are by addressing their concerns. People at all levels of the organization are helped when they understand that the dynamics they are facing (headwinds of resistance) are natural.
Two additional factors worsen resistance. First, we fail to recognize operational inconsistencies as systems design flaws and attribute them instead to personalities or external influences. We’re misdiagnosing the problem as interpersonal conflict.
Believe me: Symptoms catch our attention. However, the root of the problem is in a part of the system you are not examining.
Second, timing isn’t what it seems. All systems have a built-in delay. Results are not immediate. Because of this inherent delay, inconsistencies may take time to undermine the business. Nearly everything is a pattern, not a one-off. By the time the impact is felt, new technology is available, or the economy has changed, or your contact in an organization has left, so the business failure gets attributed to an external factor rather than poor systems design.
If you have a nice pointy tip to your rocket—in other words, a strong and inspiring vision and message—you’ve got some aerodynamics to cut through the headwinds of resistance. This fits the common conception of the leader as being out front, showing the path to follow, inspiring and teaching.
Let’s relate this image to the skunkworks project we talked about in the last chapter. You’ll want to invite the innovators and early adapters among your team to participate in your demonstration project. They are naturally more open to trying new things and seeking solutions than most of your staff.
Start by introducing the Code of Honour as a structure (another word for system) to help them stay on task while collaborating to work the bugs out and develop an outstanding system. When testing a new approach or implementing something new, it’s better to assemble a small cohesive team with the right mix of competencies and attitude to rapid prototype the idea. You want the pioneering team to demonstrate how effective results are produced. Then have them document precisely how they produced those results. If you invite initial participation based on tenure and job title (status), you are likely to end up with the wrong mix of skills or a team of resisters looking for reasons “it will never work.”
Of course, powering through resistance and winning the uphill battle also require thrust, and in your business thrust comes from how you communicate, collaborate, and lead from within the trenches. Robert Greenleaf calls it “servant leadership.” Servant-leaders rely on communication and collaboration, rather than positional authority, when making decisions. They engage others in a meaningful way by first understanding their points of view, rather than coercing compliance. As Jesse Jackson said, “There is no forward thrust in cynicism.” I agree.
Have another look at the image of the uphill battle on page 76 to see how good ideas (your skunkworks project) spread naturally. Start small with a clear vision of the desired outcome and share why it’s important (lead). Empower your skunkworks team to find the best way to produce the outcome. Once discovered, have them document how they did it, step by step (documentation prepares them to teach). You want the positive energy associated with this innovation to build curiosity and excitement, enticing others to want to get involved and perform at that level (inspire action).
At a conference I recently attended, I learned it’s common for women invited into politics to shut down the idea without any serious consideration. As soon as I heard this statement, I knew it to be true.
I was once asked by an influential businessman, a man I admired for his business acumen, if I was interested in running as a political candidate. I was flabbergasted. I blurted “no” and fled the conversation like a scared rabbit.
Opportunity knocked again four years later. That beastly reaction welled up in the pit of my stomach. This time, I had more self-awareness. Instead of reacting, I calmly replied that I’d like to think about it.
For two weeks I held the space of possibility. I was neither a yes or a no. I talked to leaders who had run in an election or had held office. I spoke to people who ran campaigns. I even spoke candidly to the spouse of a politician.
I was leading an inquiry, gathering information from a variety of perspectives, just like I do for my clients. My heart and mind remained open. I inquired with genuine appreciation and curiosity. I learned many things while exploring my options and carefully considered all angles.
I declined the second opportunity. To an outsider, the outcome looked the same. On the inside, though, I felt completely different. Declining the opportunity the first time was a fear-based, reactionary response. The second time, I made a powerful choice. Years later I have no regrets.
When we experience fear, anger, or self-doubt when making a decision, our body is flooded with emotional tension. Creative tension— not knowing what to do or where to start—does the same thing. We feel this tension internally, and it’s uncomfortable. To avoid the discomfort, we move hastily toward a decision (usually a rejection).
Holding tension is like holding a glass of water with an outstretched arm. The glass is not heavy. But if you hold it for thirty minutes, your mind will fling reasons at you to set it down. The longer we hold creative and emotional tension, the more it burns. Many bright ideas and business strategies are abandoned prematurely for precisely this reason.
If this is the case for one person, imagine what happens in groups. When people with diverse needs and interests get together to form a plan or make a decision, the pain can be excruciating. Groups make emotional tension exponentially worse!
Understanding emotional tension in group dynamics is an indispensable skill for any business owner or leader. Facilitation expert Sam Kaner notes that staying open-minded, calm, and rational as a group results in insightful, innovative thinking. The more stress a group can tolerate while working together, the more likely the outcome or solution will be creative and widely supported.
In Chapter 2, Invisible Barriers, I wrote that breakdown precedes breakthrough. In collaborative group efforts, breakdown happens in what Kaner calls the “groan zone.” But since breakthrough follows on the heels of breakdown, I prefer to think of this space as the Possibility Zone.
The Possibility Zone is an environment where appreciation, trust, and abundance thinking are the norm—by design.
Staying in the Possibility Zone is like building muscle at the gym. To be an effective trainer, supporting others on your team to build this muscle, you must first condition yourself. That means learning to steer straight toward your strategic priorities without being thrown off course by outside political interference or the inner cautionary voice from your backseat driver.
You’ve entered the groan zone when different points of view and opinions start to clash. Emotional tension rises. The atmosphere is awkward and uncomfortable. Other people’s ideas get shot down, so we suppress our own. A few people, the Crazy Canaries, keep repeating themselves, or withhold participation. In informal networks, the group decision-making process is known to be a waste of time because the person with the most authority consistently resolves disputes or cuts off discussion. A “why bother” attitude settles over the group and no one wants to get involved.
Most negotiations and meetings break down at this point. I talked about individuals trashing opportunity in Chapter 1, Step into the Stream. The same dynamic happens in groups.
Inclusive solutions are not compromises. They emerge, often quite unexpectedly, through discovery of an entirely new option that works for everyone. Your group will never reach this outcome if you practice we’ve-always-done-it-this-way thinking. When people step over awkwardness and pretend they didn’t feel it, they’ve just lost the biggest opportunity they had all day. To ignore or deny tension is to turn your back on possibility.
Before systems can be innovated, you’ve got to understand resistance. The concerns your innovative solution needs to address become clear in the groan zone. If you can get your team to stand in the heat of discomfort and not be reactionary, you’re on the precipice of innovation, and a breakthrough.
Standing in the heat to work through misunderstanding and miscommunication is the secret sauce of mutual understanding. Yes, it’s uncomfortable—at first. That’s because it’s disruptive and new. Over time, using the tools I share, you’ll achieve small wins, eventually getting to the Possibility Zone quickly and with regularity—individually and as a collective.
I present the concepts of the groan zone and the Possibility Zone at the beginning of strategic planning retreats and group meetings I facilitate to normalize the emotions people feel when the conversation gets tough. Someone will speak up and say, “Hey, we’re in the groan zone!” This awareness immediately cuts the tension and makes it bearable. Most important, participants begin to reframe the discomfort as a pivotal stepping stone to possibility.
By default, most people interpret discomfort negatively. One of my favourite reframing quotes is this quip by psychologist Dr. Murray Banks: “Where there’s shit, there has to be a pony!”
Your team needs reassurance that tension and discomfort are a natural part of the creative process. Reverting to the Consoler, the Warden, the Avoider, the Captive, the Romantic, the Mercenary, or the Playmaker won’t work here. As leader, it’s important for you to be the Generator, to hold the space for new possibilities to emerge. That means learning to spend more time in the Possibility Zone yourself so you can model the way for others. Research shows that emotional energy from one positive person can affect the team and instill confidence in others.
When a small group of people commits to the purpose and outcomes of a project, the power of their intention creates energy that attracts the people, opportunities, and resources needed to make things happen. They demonstrate what’s possible in a resistance-free environment.
Even a cohesive group will have to work through team dysfunction and deal with resistance of thought, emotion, and will. Prototyping on a small scale is an opportunity to invent appropriate systems and co-create structures that integrate thinking, feeling, and diverse operational expertise. Convene the right set of skills and players by allowing people with a possibility mindset to choose to participate. The group must commit to find ways to make the skunkworks project a success, not to find reasons it won’t work. Include and empower front-line people as they can engage and encourage their peers in ways that managers may not.
As the pioneering team perfects new behaviours and begins to cocreate systems of service in the Possibility Zone, the early majority will be intrigued and want to join. As the new system continues to displace what had been, it will become accepted as the new norm.
In the coming chapters, I provide practical tools and strategies to implement the ideas of systems leadership, emotional resonance, and the Possibility Zone. Rip them off the page and infuse them into your day-to-day business operations.
Remember: We respond to resistance personally, but it’s not personal. Resistance is just part of human nature. If you want your people to anticipate challenges, look for ways to attract clients, and increase your capacity for success, learn about resistance so you can blast through it with ease.