Effectual leadership or the 5 principles of transformation: 1) Start with what you have
In an article for Harvard Business Review, I showed how the entrepreneurial principles of execution can be used to transform organizations. In essence, the argument is as follows: if these principles allow entrepreneurs to transform the outside world (new markets, new products, new attitudes, new values, etc.), they must also allow managers to transform the inside, that is to say the organization. Appropriation of these principles should allow the development of what I call the effective leadership. These principles are five in number.
Let’s look at principle number 1: “Start with what you have. “
Start with what we have at hand: entrepreneurs
While we often present the entrepreneurial process as guided by a vision that must be defined beforehand (we start from an idea and we implement it), the observation of entrepreneurship as it occurs shows that this is rarely the case. Ikea was created in 1943 and took ten years to have its idea of selling kit furniture. Facebook starts off as a schoolboy joke. The big idea is the result of an entrepreneurial trajectory. It is not necessary at the start even if some entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk with Tesla, are brilliant counter examples.
Most entrepreneurs, on the contrary, start with what they have at hand, ie their available resources. Instead of saying to themselves “I want to invent Internet 5.0”, they say to themselves: I have 10,000 €, a lot of time, I am an expert in plastic molding and I program a little in Java. And I know quite a few people in the plastics industry. What can I do from this? Metaphorically, they open their fridge and wonder “What can I cook with that?” “
Starting from their available resources, rather than from a dream, they can therefore start immediately without having to ask anyone, and starting from concrete material. They don’t dream of what should ideally be done, they start doing something right away. They don’t plan on a comet. They are immediately in action from concrete material over which they have full control.
Interestingly, organizations spontaneously apply this principle in the event of a major crisis. They then forget organizational charts, job descriptions, annual objectives… Everyone is mobilized starting from what we have and from reality (the crisis) to ask themselves “what can we do?” It is therefore a perfectly conceivable mode for any organization, including outside a crisis situation.
Vision moves away from action
The transformation plans of organizations generally proceed from an infallible logic: they paint the vision of a future to be achieved. This vision is then expressed through the objectives and evaluation interviews, at the team level through the definition of its strategic contribution, at an organizational level through the vision and mission of the organization. Once this vision is defined, they determine the steps to be taken to make it possible. They remain in the so-called causal logic: first define an objective, then find the means to reach it. In doing so, they look away from the current situation of the organization.
This approach is based on an obvious assumption: before committing to a transformation, you have to know where you want to go. Because, like in Alice, if you don’t know where you want to go you have little chance of getting there. But transformation is born from the uncertainty of our world full of ruptures. We are precisely in a situation where it is difficult to know where we want to go! Freezing a vision too early can therefore be counterproductive.
We observe that very often, the transformation process is based on what in Frenglish managerial jargon, we call the “as is / to be”, that is to say the description, on the one hand of the current state ( “As is”) and on the other hand the final state to be reached (“to be”). The opposition between the two is supposed to represent the two possible states; the first unsatisfactory, the second desirable. Both are like the banks of a river without a bridge in between; This implies a big leap, a big discontinuity which blocks the action: the link between the two will be provided by abstract strategic plans whose concrete translation “for me Monday morning” is difficult if not impossible, especially as I am. already his head under water. Focusing on the vision therefore moves us away from the material to be transformed, that is to say that it moves us away from the action.
It’s not over there very far (go for it), it’s here and now (go from it)
What the first principle tells us is that everything must start from what we have on hand. And the only thing we have on hand is the organization as it is, here and now, i.e. individuals linked together by individual and collective mental models (M & Ms) (beliefs, values, etc.) It is these M & Ms that must serve as raw material because it is they who determine the decision-making. They are the ones that must be transformed, modified, invented.
Example: During a seminar, a leader tells us: “To contradict his leader leads to anarchy”. Behind hides a very strong M&M, and which seems perfectly natural to whoever utters this sentence, on the link between criticism and anarchy, and between anarchy and organizational risk. On the contrary, one could consider that contradictory discussion is a way of advancing the knowledge and wisdom of the world (this was the case with the Greek philosophers). We could also consider that contradiction is the basis of innovation, or even that it is a duty of each employee to prevent their organization from making a blunder. Anyway, the sentence is an entry point towards a strong belief (element of mental model or M&M), the questioning of which can allow an opening.
It is not (only) the others; it’s you
Many executives of large companies feel blocked; they are unable to change their organization and find that their room for maneuver, their autonomy, is reduced from year to year. Very often they tell us: “the problem is my boss. If only he could make an effort everything could change ”. But such reasoning is problematic: on the one hand, the leader is also subjected to pressures which, whatever his good will, prevent him from loosening the noose, and on the other hand, it leads to disempowering himself. If it’s the chief’s fault, then we have nothing to blame ourselves for and we have found a good reason not to do anything: suffering is easier than acting. Because naturally when we go to see the chief in question, he or she tells us the same thing. If we go back to the top, the CEO tells us “It’s not my fault, it’s the shareholders’ fault. Because of them I can’t do anything ”. The so-called shareholders, who are representatives of investment funds, will no doubt say that they too have their hands tied. A chain of disempowerment is thus set up which suits everyone, in a certain way, but which is fatal by the resignation it induces.
The first principle tells us, on the contrary, that you have to start with yourself, not others. In a way, the principle puts the ball back in our court. Before talking about others, you have to talk about yourself. The question is not “what could my boss do?” or “what could the CEO do?” but “What can I do”. Specifically, “What can I do where I am with what I have on hand?” There is no point in complaining about levers of action that are not ours, and which are often largely imaginary; on the contrary, we must determine the possible levers for us and use them. It’s the version of “one yours is better than two you get.”
And the thing to do is to highlight the M & Ms, that is to say to make visible the hidden springs of the action, to make explicit the implicit. Once these M & Ms are brought to light and freely discussed, we can talk about them and make them evolve, and the transformation of the organization through its culture can begin.
It’s not you, it’s your M & Ms
Even if of course individuals are at the center of organizations, they do not in themselves constitute the real “raw material”. As we have seen, the raw material is mental models (M & Ms). Very often, when we are faced with a situation that we deplore, we are tempted to find the responsible. If something happens, it has to be someone’s fault. However, more often than not, the context is produced because of the existing M & Ms.
Example: the visit by the CEO of a department of the company, designed by him as a way to do the meal round in a relaxed way, is prepared two weeks in advance in great detail, and the visit takes place in extreme stress for the members of the service, afraid that a wrong note could occur. This scare is probably not wanted by the CEO, but it is generated by him due to the context his M & Ms and those of the service members create. The latter are just as responsible for the fear as he is because they subscribe to the collective fiction implicit in the omnipotence of the leader and the absolute imperative not to make mistakes in his presence. Maybe he doesn’t see any of this, but he should. Like any emotion, this fear is a powerful revealer of M & Ms. Being able to analyze it explicitly (probably after the visit) can be extremely beneficial.
Principle 1 also states that we must consider the raw material available with benevolence. It is not a question of knowing oneself in order to judge oneself, but of knowing oneself in order to transform. We start with what we have, and the question is not whether we like what we have or not, because that’s what we have, period. Many studies show that the condition for transformation, on a personal level, is acceptance of who you are. By highlighting the personal and collective M & Ms of the organization, we will refrain from any judgment even if it is sometimes very tempting. Thus, the proponents of a traditional approach reluctant to switch to digital are not necessarily out of date; they may just be attached to the way they do things and see the benefits, which may be real.
By putting the ball on the manager’s side, principle n ° 1 frees the possibilities and makes concrete action possible from the only malleable material: the mental models of the organization which govern its functioning.
Article written with Béatrice Rousset. See the HBR article, also written with Béatrice Rousset: How to transform large companies by drawing inspiration from entrepreneurs. See also the video of my conference on the subject at Lab Postal 2018 here. To learn more about the implementation, see my article:Effectuation: How entrepreneurs think and act… really. On the learned helplessness of managers, see: Turtles to the top: Managers guilty, but not responsible for the lack of innovation.
Philippe Silberzahn is professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at EMLYON Business School and associate researcher at thePolytechnic School (CRG), where he received his doctorate. His work focuses on how organizations manage situations of radical uncertainty and complexity, from an entrepreneurial perspective with the study of the creation of new markets and new products, and from a managerial perspective with the study management of disruptions, strategic surprises (black swans) and complex problems (“wicked problems”) by large organizations.