How collaborative is your leadership team?

Put a group of smart, creative and committed leaders together and you don’t automatically get a high performing, collaborative leadership team. You’ll often get something that looks more like a polite cage fight, with each player jockeying for position, working hard to avoid losing and maximize winning (winning = more authority, recognition, control, territory, headcount, being right, whatever). These struggles can be pretty subtle, but the result is easy to spot: critical problems remain unaddressed; small-picture thinking; low accountability and trust; and of course, disappointing business results.

To be really collaborative, a team needs to consistently do three things very well together: Learn, Design and Commit. These are not platitudes—they each represent concrete and learnable skills and they are essential for collaborative performance. Moreover, they are skills that collaborative teams practice together day in and day out, just like the practices that sustain elite athletes, martial artists, musicians, dancers, soldiers, and high performers in any discipline that demands deep skill, precision, and coordination.

Learning Together – this entails the ability to listen astutely to the concerns, commitments and possibilities behind what people are saying; and, reflective inquiry, which is the ability to formulate and ask powerful questions—and to be genuinely curious about the answers. Reflective inquiry allows us to observe and respectfully challenge the underlying interpretations and narratives that always accompany the facts, assessments, assumptions and explanations about what is going on, why, and what it might mean. When it’s missing, so is important feedback and data about the business. Without this capacity to learn together, teams have a hard time making decisions and “designing” the future together. They often end up solving the wrong problems or solving the right problems in superficial ways that don’t actually work long-term. In addition, successful innovation is almost impossible, and the organization’s ability to respond quickly to changing conditions goes way down.

Designing Together – This is all about shaping the future. Collaborative teams integrate what they learn together into a shared picture, a narrative, about the future they want to create for their organization. This narrative spells out what success looks like, what milestones are important, and how to get there together (typically referred to with words like vision, mission, goals, objectives, strategies, standards, behavioral norms, etc.). Because they’re tuned in to their organization, the market and their industry (they’re continually learning together, remember?), high-performing teams understand that part of their job is to continually update and refine their narrative about the future and how to realize it. Nothing stands still for long, so neither should an organization’s ends and means. In addition to KPI’s, we like the idea of KLI’s—Key Learning Indicators, to help leadership teams stay focused on what matters and the key to what matters—learning, design, and…meaningful commitments.

Committing Together – this sounds pretty vague, but we at GJC are almost obsessively specific about the nature and practice of commitments. There are really just two ways that we human beings commit ourselves to anything: by physically doing it with our bodies (like throwing out all the sweets in the cupboard when we commit ourselves to eating better, or throwing our bodies in front of the bus to save our child, for instance), or by uttering certain words (through language). Words like Yes, No, Stop, Go, Because…, I will, We won’t, You may, I promise, Will you?…and the list goes on and on. But these are not just innocent throw-away words—the words we use to commit ourselves, our teams, our organizations, our assets, even our lives—can be as concrete and powerful as any physical move we might make to commit ourselves. And often much more powerful.

This is because language is the primary way that we get things done in organizations. For leadership teams (or project teams, management teams, or any other type of team), clearly understanding and learning to harness the “linguistic action” inherent in our everyday language makes the difference between alignment, accountability, and performance…and just hot air. There are several ways that we commit ourselves with language, but the one that is most obvious is by making a promise. As obvious as promises may appear however, there are all sorts of ways that individuals and teams can and do inadvertently weaken, confuse, inhibit and poorly manage promises (and therefore performance).

So learning to recognize, make and manage promises effectively (among other linguistic commitments) is not just a good idea. It’s the only way teams get the right stuff done together. As coaches and consultants, we have worked with lots of teams and organizations, and there has never once been a case in which poor performance was not linked to wea promises. (As you may be guessing by now, of course, weak promises are one of the casualties of weak team learning and design.)


Transforming a Customer Care Organization

The Customer Care organization at this global tech company needed an overhaul. Customer issues took too long to resolve, live support was spotty in some regions, and customer satisfaction wasn’t what it should be. Instead of helping sales, the company’s sales reps saw their customer’s support experience as an impediment to sales.

Rather than attempt to patch the holes, Lucy, the recently hired Global Leader of Customer Care opted to transform her entire organization from the ground up. “Nothing is off the table, and none of us knows what our job may look like in six months,” she announced to the 25 or so folks sitting around the circle in the hotel conference room just outside of London on a freezing and wet February day.

Silence. It was the kick-off meeting of the Customer Care transformation initiative. Sitting around the room were managers and support analysts from each of the main product groups and global regions, as well as marketing, finance and customer care operations people. It was the first time many of these folks had ever been in the same room together and some had never even met before.

We spent the entire morning of that first day just setting context and asking questions: Why was this change effort necessary? What problems were we really trying to solve? What would happen if things didn’t change? What was expected of the people in this room and why were we invited? What would a world class Customer Care organization actually look like, feel like, act like?  What were meaningful, but achievable stretch targets for the new Customer Care organization? And many more questions.

Some of the questions could be answered on the spot. Others needed data or input that wasn’t available. Still other questions were unanswerable because the answers would only be known over time, as the change process unfolded. Like the burning question: What did Lucy really mean when she said that none of us knows what our jobs will look like in 6 months?  Was she just being dramatic?  (as in “I’ve been working here for 16 years with good performance reviews– she couldn’t be talking about me…could she?”)  And so on.

Lucy clarified: What she meant was that the priority for this organization and for this change initiative what was best for the customer. This meant that no position, no organizational structure, no reporting lines, nobody’s job was exempt from thoughtful scrutiny and redesign. And any process, position or person that did not contribute to a stellar customer support experience would likely not be part of the organization by the end of the year. 

Our commitment in this change process, which we stated up front in that first meeting, was to have candid, straight-talking conversations and to listen to each person’s perspective regardless of their role or status in the organization.

Whenever feasible, decisions would be made by the group, but some decisions would likely be made unilaterally by Lucy or some subset that she designated. Lucy promised to be completely transparent with the group about which those decisions were, so that nobody would find themselves wondering whether they were struggling to reach decisions that had actually already been made.

The commitment to redesign the entire Customer Care organization around the customer’s experience was one of those unilateral decisions that Lucy would make. As it turned out, Lucy made far fewer of these decisions over the course of the transformation than even she anticipated. Almost all of the major decisions wound up being made by the full working group or some variation of the group, with continual input from the rest of the Customer Care organization as well as folks from other departments. Built into the change process were conversations with many different people to get feedback, test hypotheses, refine plans, and build commitment to the changes.

Over the course of that initial three day meeting, the team examined performance data and industry practices, exchanged theories about what was working and what wasn’t, and began challenging assumptions. It also started weaving together a shared vision of a transformed Customer Care organization that the team members found inspiring. This led to the drafting of what we called “design principles” to guide the change initiative.

It wasn’t until the next team meeting a month later in Amsterdam before the design principles were finalized (with lots of research, planning and data collection happening between the two meetings). The design principles the group agreed upon were:

  1. Resolve customer problems on first contact – 100% of the time, which was above and beyond the company’s published Service Level Agreements with customers.*
  2. Make it easy for customers to prevent and solve their own problems whenever possible via self-service support features
  3. Put the most knowledgable and skilled support analysts closest to the customer (which challenged the existing 3-tiered support model currently in place)
  4. Provide live customer support in every region for every product group, 24/7 (“Follow-the-sun”).

*Agreeing to resolve customer cases on first contact 100% of the time was a major challenge for the team. The conversation spanned many weeks, radically opposing views, and volatile emotions. At the heart of the issue was the concern about declaring a performance target that everybody agreed was probably impossible to achieve given the technical complexity of customer cases. At the end, the team came together on the 100% target, agreeing that the possible “negatives” of never hitting their target was outweighed by the positive focus and “pull” that such an audacious target would have on every aspect of the organization (not to mention on the design of the still young transformation effort).

Even once they agreed on these design principles, folks still didn’t know how they were going to achieve all of them.

Over the next nine months some variation of this steering team would meet in person at least monthly, with many ad hoc teams meeting in between to gather new data and work on specific projects and deliverables. Throughout this period, every individual in the Customer Care organization was engaged in the change process in some way. There were one-on-one conversations, product group and regional meetings, workshops and all-hands presentations, training sessions and other activities in which people throughout the organization provided input and ideas, and helped identify and solve problems.

Not all of the conversations were easy. Some, like the “Resolve on 1st Contact” conversation, were messy and contentious. Emotions often ran high and the path forward wasn’t always entirely clear to anyone. In facilitating many of these conversations, we encouraged folks to raise and explore opposing perspectives rather than avoid them or rush to closure on issues prematurely.

To support the learning process, we incorporated educational sessions on collaboration, managing performance under pressure, and other themes into the various team meetings, and also provided coaching to select individuals. By the time the major structural organizational changes were completed (roughly 9 months or so), the conversations that people were having together were fundamentally different. As Lucy said, “Because team members learned how to express and discuss their different perspectives (and even disagree vehemently with each other at times), the decisions we reached were much stronger then if one or two of us had just tried to ram our views through.”

Within 12 months of that initial meeting in London, the Customer Care organization was unrecognizable. The traditional 3-tiered support model was replaced with four global “Product Groups” made up of technical experts from every region and skill level. Focused training programs have continued to “up” everybody’s game, both technically and in the “soft” customer service skills.

As for the data…

  • The unresolved case backload dropped by 30%, while the same number of customer cases has remained steady.
  • The department’s Net Promoter Score (NPS), jumped from 39 to the 70’s, and has continued to climb (not factoring in a new product line and support analyst group that has been incorporated into the Care organization during this period).
  • 60% of all cases were now being resolved on first contact. Keep in mind that Customer Care provides support for literally scores of highly complex, technical products and product combinations, on multiple platforms. While Resolution on 1st Contact was not measured prior to the transformation (most of the measures prior to the change were internally focused), consensus within the organization is that 60% is orders of magnitude higher than before the transformation, because now customers are connected immediately to the most skilled experts, instead of being “handed” off to a Tier 2 or Tier 3 expert to get help.
  • Four of the six leaders in today’s Customer Care organization have been promoted from within the department or from elsewhere in the company, with a similar percentage of the newly formed Technical Management Team also stepping up to significantly new leadership roles and responsibilities.

Customer Care has gone from being a backwater that people left in order to pursue career opportunities elsewhere in the company, to a place people are now transferring into in order to be a part of this high performing, energized organization.

The performance numbers continue to improve today. And not insignificantly, the entire Customer Care transformation involved zero increase in budget and no interruption to customer service, even while simultaneously integrating a major new technology platform and a major new product line and customer base into the organization.

Five (predictable) reasons change initiatives fail

Organizations must be able to change to stay alive. But most change efforts, no matter how sincerely attempted, fail.

Here are five reasons why change fails:

1. Solving the “wrong” problem.

“Solutions” only work if they solve the right problem. And identifying the right problem to solve isn’t always as easy as it seems. Even though the desired outcomes for a change initiative may seem straightforward, the organizational problems that are fueling the need for change are often elusive. Identifying these problems requires high-quality, “courageous” conversations. People must be able to raise sensitive issues, give and receive honest (and sometimes difficult) feedback, question long-held assumptions and test hypotheses together. If they can’t do this, they won’t arrive at shared understanding about what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Many teams don’t have the skills or resolve to have these kinds of conversations. Instead they end up designing “solutions” that by-pass real problems. The company may commit tons of organizational time and resources to work-arounds that look like solution but that don’t actually work. There may be some incremental improvement (just focusing executive attention often gives a temporary performance boost), but the same or similar problems always resurface., along with renewed cynicism about “yet another failed change initiative.”

2.  Manufacturing disengagement

When senior executives feel the pressure to change now, the temptation is to just figure out what needs to change and then make it happen. Even in “participatory” organizations, change often still ends up being designed, planned and rolled out by a small subset of folks. Who then push the change down to the rank and file. With predictable results. 

Let’s say you really want to learn something new or to change something in your life—you’ll put your whole self into it, right? It’s your life, your future, your change, so you keep moving forward despite set backs, despite days of discouragement.

Now imagine that somebody comes along and tells you that a steering team made up of smart folks (not including you) has gotten together and determined that you need to start thinking and behaving differently because they have figured out what is wrong with your work and what you need to change. Right now. There are some people who simply want to be told what to do, but most don’t. For all but the most simple changes it just doesn’t work.

Real engagement is non-assignable and non-transferable. It requires designing a change process in which the actual people who are expected to change can participate and experience a sense of personal investment in the game. It does take more time and planning up front, but going slower up front enables the organization to go much faster and farther later on.

3. Confusing resistance with commitment.

Let’s say you are working hard to effect the change mandated from on high. You want to change and help the company but instead of enthusiasm, all you feel is anxiety, resentment, perhaps even despair. Ironically these experiences are an expression of commitment.

But managers (and most consultants) interpret these experiences as resistance. And the typical reaction is to try to make it go away, to fight it, to resist the resistance. As in…

Buying it off – with bonuses, incentive packages or promotions

Scaring it away – with overt or buried threats and mixed messages to the effect that “you’re either with us or your against us”

Talking it away – explaining why the change is necessary and how good it will be for the company, the employees and even the customers (this may all be true, but it rarely helps)

Some of these management tactics may alleviate symptoms, but overall they don’t work. Instead, they drive the so-called “resistant” emotions and behaviors underground and increase the sense of distrust, fear and cynicism about change. It makes the problem worse.

So now you’ve got two problems–the original problem (the one the change initiative was intended to address), and the problem of employee disengagement, distrust and the cynicism that goes with it. And a new “us/them” arms race with management turning up the pressure in response to employees ratcheting up “the resistance.” (see #1, above – “Solving the wrong problem”).

People rarely “resist” change just to resist—they’re not trying to undermine or thwart the organization. They’re just trying to retain a healthy sense of control in their lives, to handle the discomfort of uncertainty and change. They are expressing an understandable desire to feel included, valued and respected. In biological terms, this is called homeostasis—a organism’s healthy response to circumstances it perceives as potentially threatening (even if the changes are for the better). In fact, the managers and consultants who are leading the change have identical concerns, but because they are “in control” of the change, they generally don’t feel as threatened in the process.

4. Conflicting commitments.

Let’s say that your company’s new change initiative aims to generate new sources of revenue growth. One of the prongs of this initiative is to have every agent in the Tech Support department up-sell or cross-sell opportunities with the customers they help. Makes total sense to leverage all of those customer encounters into new sales opportunities, right? It’s obvious that the agents will need some sales training. And of course, they’ll need some metrics and performance targets to monitor how they’re doing. So management launches the initiative, creates a new performance dashboard, kicks off the training and…the new sales aren’t happening. Management did everything “right,” but its not working.

What management didn’t recognize was that in order for the agents to be successful at generating new sales opportunities, it would (they believe) require them to less successful in doing their “real” job, which is resolving the customer’s technical problems as quickly as possible, documenting the interaction appropriately for the knowledge base, and so on. After all, that what they were originally hired and trained to do, and more importantly, its what their boss, the VP of Technical Support, evaluates and compensates them for. Sure they’d like to help generate revenue for the company, but taking the time to do that would actually diminish their performance in their real job. While their boss understands and supports the idea of revenue growth, the last thing she is willing to do is compromise her department’s performance (and her own executive performance and bonus) in the process.

There are literally countless examples of these types of conflicting commitments. Scratch the surface of most disappointing change initiatives (and most organizational performance problems) and you’ll find one or more conflicting commitments within and between an organization’s…

• Business objectives, metrics, compensation and incentive plans
• Hiring, orienting and training programs
• Stated cultural values and actual behaviors, beliefs, policies and processes

As with the other reasons outlined here, identifying conflicting commitments within the organization requires a high degree of “conversational competence.” When leadership conversations inhibit candor, sidestep around sensitive issues, or don’t encourage collaborative reflection about real problems, commitments that may conflict with one another never get addressed. They remain hidden and then leaders wonder why their change efforts flounder.

5. Leading with impatience.

When change is driven by impatience, the first organizational casualty is focus. Except in the simplest types of change efforts, it takes time for people throughout the organization to absorb and integrate the new thinking, understanding and behaviors required for successful change. Pushing for immediate results forces people into a short-term mindset, which spawns incomplete and rushed conversations, short-sighted metrics, unrealistic targets and defensiveness. It inhibits the ongoing assessment, reflection and course-correction (learning) that must be built in to any successful change effort. Leading with high standards and a sense of urgency is important, but that’s not the same as leading with impatience. Usually, moving too quickly slows you down.

Welcome to the typical change initiative. These are five ways that most change efforts actually generate and reinforce the very behaviors that the change leaders try so hard to avoid. Because many of these patterns are embedded within the organization’s culture, they can be difficult to observe from the inside, much less to change.

This is why we say that the most important leadership skill is the capacity to design and manage effective conversations. Because good conversations are where learning happens. It’s where leaders build shared vision about the future and make good decisions. It’s where they make meaningful commitments to one another and manage those commitments in ways that build engagement, trust and confidence. It’s where collaborative change and leadership happens.