The construction firm’s senior management agreed: Diane’s attitude was problematic. She resisted, complained, and dug in her heels. They knew she had to go.
One extraordinary conversation, intended to be her dismissal, revealed that Diane was a Crazy Canary. She was intuitively aware of an inconsistency costing the firm tens of thousands of dollars. The moment the owners understood what Diane had been trying to tell them, everything shifted. They had tapped a hidden asset.
Just as business entails more than stringing together a bunch of tasks to produce an outcome, systems design is more than defining functional and financial procedures. If your attention is on the tip of the iceberg, you’re working really, really hard … and missing out. Success is so much easier than this.
Research shows that only one-sixth of people’s work produces meaningful value. Studies also show that it takes twenty-four times as long to fix mistakes after the fact than to stop and deal with deficiencies as you go. The Gallup organization has been tracking employee engagement since the year 2000. Data consistently show that less than one-third of employees are enthusiastic about and committed to the work they do.
What is the level of waste in your organization? When I approach a new business, I assume eighty percent of its human assets are untapped, waiting to be discovered.
Untapped potential is the biggest type of waste in organizations today, leading to inefficiency, complacency, and burnout. When we erode the human spirit, we water down performance, decrease profits, and impact the bottom line. Even when people coast at work and do as little as possible, they still expend more energy than needed in the form of passive resistance. They go home frustrated and unfulfilled.
When owners and managers caution employees and suppliers to “leave your emotional baggage at the door,” they keep one foot on the brake—nothing compares to the power of passion. Unleash passion into a business environment and people become unstoppable, with unprecedented results.
Organizational performance and profits flatline in most organizations. Instead of taking responsibility for our role in capping human potential, we say we need different people, more staff, or workers with better skills. Blaming our circumstances on specific people, lack of talent, or scarcity of resources is a sign of fixed mindset thinking.
You must learn to look at the organization, and all the people in it, as if for the first time—with beginner’s mind. Prepare your mindset for the journey beneath the surface, so you can identify the energy blocks and hidden assets that are right under your nose.
The interests and talents we hold close to our hearts are hidden assets. These under-utilized resources are the ocean barges in our midst, unseen because we are using antiquated methods to build organizational structures. To see clearly and release these assets, we must first understand the human dynamics that suppress worker talent and dial down passion.
This effort is not about unpacking baggage and blame. Create a safe space to get the truth up on the table, where “safe” is defined as reaction-free listening. You’ve got to know what the people you work with are saying to themselves about the current situation. Get curious about the stories your staff tell themselves on the drive home at the end of the day. This awkward period of growth-by-listening will help you redefine what success looks like.
I have a client in mining production and transportation. He had been planning and working toward succession for fifteen years, but neither he nor the incoming successors were getting what they wanted from the process. They were trapped in a catch-22.
For several years, the founder’s trusted confidants had questioned him about his choice of successors. “Are you sure they have what it takes to run the business?” This line of questioning caused doubt to creep in.
During a full-day workshop, we discovered that each successor had interests that could remediate the founder’s concerns. With each epiphany, a shift of mind occurred and hidden assets were revealed. One successor had an eye for visual aesthetics, spatial design, and real estate. These competencies had the potential to enhance site clean-up and operations. In a strategic development exercise, it became clear his passions could ultimately diversify the business into commercial and industrial real estate development. New opportunities for the business were identified the moment he saw how his talents could be expressed at the senior leadership level to drive new growth.
Recurring conversations about cost-control measures, purchase orders, and payment authorizations had been met with resistance by the other successor. His complacency toward budgeting, cash flow management, and paperwork raised serious doubts about his ability to lead the company. When this successor saw how his interest in accounting could enhance the weekly financial meetings, his perception of paperwork shifted. The conversation shifted from complaints about sloppy and missing paperwork to one of leadership accountability and structures for sound fiscal management.
Both successors were busy managing day-to-day operations, including staffing, production, equipment usage, maintenance, and service. In the trenches, they were blind to strategic development needs and to people’s need for clear and open communication. Their true potential lay dormant under mounting operational pressures.
The managers needed to look at the organization’s needs ahead of their own. The shift occurred when the team grasped the potential the successors could bring to the table, when they could see their latent talents expressed strategically in the company’s vision. Everything shifts when corporate needs and interests align with personal needs and interests.
What if we could free people from constraints and help them realize their true potential? Work should not be about completing tasks but rather finding an outlet to express ourselves meaningfully. There is a place for everyone to bring passion and meaning to the work they do.
A high-functioning system creates an enlivening environment. Match people’s natural aptitudes and passions with the organization’s operational needs. Don’t bend the system to suit a personality; don’t blindly assign people to tasks. Meaningful work is like a dance: beautiful when partners are well matched, and painfully awkward when they aren’t.
As I discussed in the last chapter, we sort people and experiences into neat little categories and label them with interpretations we make up. Then, we tend to surround ourselves with people who share our viewpoint. “Birds of a feather flock together,” as the old saying goes. We trap ourselves in the overly simplistic world of us versus them, heroes versus villains.
Government forms and paperwork used to boil my blood. Filling them out reminded me of what I disliked about school: There’s only one right answer, and if you get it wrong, you’ve failed.
I began to expect to encounter roadblocks, red tape, and hoops to jump through when I worked with government agencies. Soon I was guilty of characterizing the people who worked in government. I passed judgement on civil servants based on my interpretation of what a government job would be like. I sarcastically assumed they were power hungry and saw it as their job to delay me or hold me back in some way.
I could meet the friendliest person. Then I’d hear, “Hi, I’m Bob. I’m an [insert any civil servant title.]” My guard would shoot up. In the blink of an eye, and without my conscious awareness, I would stuff Bob into a box in my mind. Villain!
I commiserated with entrepreneurial friends and business colleagues. Most had unpleasant stories to tell about their encounters with government. They cited outrageous examples of government waste. I cast my entrepreneurial colleagues in the hero’s role, saving the day by creating jobs and boosting the economy. I saw small business owners as winning underdogs, courageously living life with no safety net. Enter the villain. With the stroke of a pen, Bob could put their livelihoods at risk with deal-breaking delays, a sudden shift in policy, a denied stamp—it could all be over.
There’s a flip side to every coin, though.
I’ve worked closely with many government employees and academics. I found it disconcerting that some of them cast my heroes as the villains in their stories. What? I heard tales of corporate greed and self-serving business owners using their money and influence for personal or political gain. Just as I expected bureaucracy, my government colleagues expected poor attendance and low participation at business events they hosted. They chalked it up to the small business owner’s lack of interest or unwillingness to learn.
The irony is that nobody is “right.” Broad brush generalizations are never accurate. The first step in generating miraculous outcomes and unprecedented results is shifting your point of view.
You won’t spearhead systemic change by hanging out behind closed doors with your heroes. Whole system transformation becomes possible when you can befriend your enemy.
I chose my book coach because he’s a straight shooter. When I shared an early concept with him, he interrupted me.
“Stop right there,” he said. “I’m not going to read that analytical crap. Go back and figure out how to tell me about systems leadership in plain language.” I felt myself react momentarily (in the yellow zone) and then centered myself (back into the Possibility Zone).
I knew then that he was the right sounding board for me. The world is full of consolers who tell you what they think you want to hear. But we don’t grow in a superficial environment. I need to trust the people around me to deliver the bad news before I can believe the good news.
Whether you’re starting a new business venture, transforming a process that’s not working, or replacing a worker, you’ve got to take a complete inventory. Otherwise, I guarantee you will be blindsided later by whatever you left out. What are you doing—or not doing—to hold the current reality in place? What are others doing or not doing to hold recurring behaviour patterns in place? Are you deceiving yourself by pretending never to veer into the yellow or red zones?
There is always a pattern, and you’ll find it more easily if you surround yourself with truth tellers. Why? Because we all have a blind spot. We don’t know what we don’t know.
If you are serious about driving growth, invite divided stakeholders into the same room. If trust is low, you may need an experienced facilitator with no stake in any camp to hold the space for a common vision to emerge. You’re not there to negotiate an agreement presented by one party. You’re there to examine what is and is not working in the system from each stakeholder’s perspective.
In Chapter 8, Process Prevents Politics, I outlined my stop, drop, and roll technique to put the fire out when discussions get heated. Shifting the focus from the person to the system changes the dynamic.
Rather than sitting on opposite sides and blaming each other, we become allied in finding mutually beneficial solutions. We sit on the same side of the table to evaluate the system together.
When everyone is sitting on the same side of the table, the group has a common outcome all parties can work toward. Resolution comes not from negotiating issues but from analyzing the system from multiple perspectives. What’s the current reality? How do people feel? What’s the predictable future if no action is taken? If people are impacted by the issue, they are already present to the pain and are motivated to find workable solutions. Invite them to collaborate in discovering new opportunities.
Keep these seven elements in mind as you build collaborative teams:
So. You’ve begun to lay the foundation to build trust and enable innovative thinking in the Possibility Zone. Now, for an octane boost, add the power of play.
Play at work is far from inappropriate, distracting, or a waste of time. Neuroscience has uncovered impressive benefits for introducing play in the workplace, including decreased absenteeism, reduced health care costs, and more creative and energized employees. It’s a great way to lessen stress and prime the pump for creativity before entering the Possibility Zone.
At 6’6”, with a booming voice, Richard was gregarious and engaging to his retail clients. He openly admitted he liked to talk but was a poor listener. Richard wanted to improve his customer service and do a better job of marketing his retail grocery business. He had implemented several strategies with marketing specialists but was dissatisfied with the results.
I pinpointed the root cause of his lackluster growth: All but a few of his thirty-plus employees were intimidated by his authority and stature.
Knowing Richard’s staff couldn’t get a word in edgewise, I proposed a two-part workshop for his team and reserved a special role for Richard. After hours, we reconfigured the coffee shop area of the store as a boardroom. The Apprentice was a popular television show at the time, so I cast Richard in the role of Donald Trump (this was long before his presidency). The motto for the event was, “Nobody will be fired.” Staff were allocated to teams of four, and each team was assigned a different task. After graciously thanking his team for their participation, Richard left them to manage their tasks in private, reappearing in week two for the final presentations.
Each team presented simple yet creative strategies to delight customers and provide memorable shopping experiences. Some had prepared prototypes of themed gift baskets, produced delicious recipes that enticed shoppers to try less-well-known or exotic ingredients, or created nutritional benefits signage to display above fruits and veggies. Others made practical suggestions to enhance the business by sketching newspaper advertisements or recommending better workflow configurations.
Richard listened in stunned silence. Staff recommendations exceeded his wildest expectations. What’s more, the teams took full ownership of implementation. By introducing a playful theme, staff could shine in the presence of their boss. They discovered he was a gentle giant.
People need practical processes they can apply with some assurance of success. If the defined processes are ineffective, those responsible for doing the work must have a safe space where they can explore what is and is not functioning—free from criticism.
So many of us feel powerless to transform our current reality. When the blame drops away and the goal is to create systems of service, hidden assets can be tapped. Opportunities are everywhere! Passion, energy, creativity, and resourcefulness can emerge—right under your nose. When you tap hidden assets, results happen easily.
Remember: It’s really not about the other person. It’s about how we respond. If we notice our own reaction and know the difference between what’s theirs and what’s ours, we can learn from it.