This blog post is the first of a two-part series on getting unstuck. This post focuses on organizations, and the next will focus on individuals.
Is your organization defined by a “culture of stuck” where the conversation gets mired in all the negative what-ifs instead exclaiming “Why not? Let’s make this happen!”
I recall when I led a team at a university and we tried a video contest to increase student engagement. Back then, making videos was just becoming popular. Nothing like our idea had been done before in the college, and we were excited about a new approach using technology in a new way. We even had generous company sponsorships for winners. But there were no winners — because there were no entries. We were stunned but not daunted. We had learned what didn’t work and assessed why.
But the reaction from other departments astounded me.
They seemed shocked that we weren’t embarrassed and were curious why I was supporting the employee who spearheaded it. Shouldn’t we be hanging our heads low in shame? My reaction was,
“Why not try something new? If we never fail, we have never tried anything innovative.”
This culture of asking “Why not do it this way or change this?” led to significant performance improvements. One person reduced the time it took to complete her work by 30 percent by asking “Why not?” and was able to contribute more value on high-level responsibilities.
I get that some businesses need to be highly deliberative. I want you to be focused on the negative what-ifs if you are my doctor or sending me to Mars. However, even in most of those organizations, many departments could achieve higher levels of performance by being more innovative, taking risks, and trying new approaches.
When someone proposes a new idea for a product, service, or process change in your organization, what is the most common reaction? If people are focused more on the negative what-ifs, you will typically hear all the potential problems, the costs, and why it was tried before and didn’t work. But if people focus on the why nots, your conversations will center around solutions to these issues, all the upsides, the value added, and more.
The following are some other clues as to how open or closed your culture is to new ideas:
- Has someone challenged a current perspective or process in the last month?
- In the last three months, has your organization tried something new?
- When someone shares an idea, what is the typical reaction? Do others seek to understand and find ways to make it work? Do they attack like a pack of wolves on all the reasons the suggestion won’t work?
- Have your recently praised someone for challenging your team’s status quo?
- When a new idea fails, is the organization’s reaction to ferret out learnings? Or is it to cover it up, blame team members, and pretend it didn’t happen (or remember it did happen as ammo for next time someone tries something new)?
Let’s look at six things you can do as a leader to change the culture in your organization.
1. Push for resolutions, not objections.
For every what-if objection you hear, push the group to find a resolution to the potential problem or assess the likelihood and cost of the problem. Often, ideas are shot down based on highly unlikely objections that have little cost.
2. Praise the lessons learned from mistakes.
When mistakes are made, praise the postmortem learning effort. As long as people performed competently and diligently, you all should hold your heads high. If leaders act upset, embarrassed, or worried, it sends a signal to the team to be more risk averse.
3. Embrace agile.
I love the concept of how agile organizations function, and it works here. You don’t always have to have everything solved before moving forward. When possible, see whether you can move forward with 80 percent developed and continue to tweak as you collect new information.
4. Ask ‘why not?’
Ask “why not?” when someone proposes an idea. Encourage team members to find reasons for why it should be done and how it could work instead of focusing on the potential downsides.
5. Use strengths to your advantage.
Looking at your organization’s culture through the lens of Gallup CliftonStrengths can sometimes give you insight into your cultural tendencies. Organizations that have many people with deliberative, analytical, context, consistency, and discipline strengths — especially coupled with having adaptability as an inferior strength — tend to get stuck on the negative what-if questions. The key to building a positive “why not?” culture is including people in the discussion who have ideation, learner, maximizer, activator, learner, strategic, restorative, or adaptability strengths. These people will bring fresh ideas and focus the conversation on possibilities and problem-solving the negative what-ifs.
6. Shift from a negative to a positive what-if culture.
When we were kids, we used to imagine all sorts of things — our what-ifs were positive (one of mine was what if chocolate milk came out of the water fountain). But as adults, our what-ifs seem to shift from the world of possibilities to the world of protecting ourselves and identifying everything that could go wrong. To reverse this:
- Encourage people to generate even seemingly wild ideas — you never know where they can lead.
- Have what-if brainstorming sessions that only focus on possibilities. The in-person energy is powerful, and taking time for this says your organization values creativity and continuous improvement.
- Create a what-if whiteboard or discussion board for people to post their ideas and spark new ones.
Your challenge: Resolve to try one of these actions in the next seven days.
Loriana Sekarski is founder and president of BONSAI, a consulting company that transforms leaders (and businesses) into the best version of themselves. As a leadership coach, Loriana teaches leaders how to hone soft skills, spur workplace engagement, and achieve untapped levels of potential. Outside of BONSAI, Loriana serves as an adjunct professor at Washington University’s graduate student program. Additionally, she’s fine-tuning her passion project, TakeFlight, a program that addresses domestic abuse within the Christian community.