Noticing and Influencing, not Controlling

We’ve all experienced a shift in the landscape of life over the last few months. For many, it is still shifting. Many small decisions about what to do at work or home. Projects to start or stop. Bigger decisions about our employment or that of others. Various actions to survive or thrive in the current uncertain environment.  

We want a feeling of control and stability. This is not wrong. The problem arises when we try to assert this control in a situation that, by its nature, is uncontrollable. This often relates to how we think about working with groups of people. Especially leading people towards an objective. Heifetz describes leadership as a practice rather than a role. Something we can all do irrespective of our role. 

Leading by controlling often shows up when someone dictates how others do their work. Often leaning on authority that comes from their experience or position.

As we went into lockdown in NZ, I heard stories of managers trying to tightly define the ‘ways of working’ when working from home. A mix of trying to control and needing to have the answers. Yet, people in the organisation were already finding effective ways to work from home. In their desire to control, the managers missed out on noticing some new and innovative ways of doing things. Not to mention the unnecessary removal of autonomy. 

Controlling comes with an opportunity cost. 

It’s an easy trap to fall into so let’s look at some underlying assumptions of leading by controlling.

Assumption 1. We know the right way or best outcome.

Assumption 2. To lead is to direct others and have the answers. 

Assumption 3. We can know the context well enough to predict what will happen.

The situation we’re facing is complex in nature. We can’t predict outcomes with any great certainty. We don’t have all the answers. We can’t see a lot of what is happening in our context. We’ll find these assumptions are often incorrect.

So, what can we do instead? How can we lead in uncertain and unpredictable times? I want to offer some thoughts on two aspects of leading in complexity.

The first is noticing. Scanning the environment to see what patterns and trends are emerging. And where there are outliers, things that don’t fit with the pattern. Think of your situation as an ecosystem in which the parts (people, technology, structures etc.) interact dynamically. We try to notice how the parts are connecting rather than focusing on the parts individually. Looking at how information flows across the organisation. Or what is impacting distributed decision making. Over fixing a specific piece of technology or a dysfunctional team. We aim to understand our ‘ecosystem’ as best we can before evaluating it.   

Noticing is best done as a group activity to avoid our own individual biases. Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Complexity Check-in is a team conversation  format to help with monitoring. Questions like:

What has surprised us recently? 

What patterns did we notice in our answers?

Where are the examples that don’t fit with the pattern?

What did we not see? 

Second, we look at influencing. This is how we work with what we’ve noticed. Influencing means to experiment with elements that enable the patterns of connection we see. Think of it as probing the system to learn rather than manipulating things behind the scenes to get a desired outcome. We use questions like:

What operating principles, policies, processes and structures enable connections and flow of information?

What kinds of small changes to these do we think would give us more of the interactions we want?  

I saw a couple of examples of effective influencing during lockdown. One team manager put in place daily, optional team check-ins.  The agenda wasn’t rigid, the purpose was to see how everyone was doing. They influenced by creating space for connection. The team was more collaborative as well as feeling more connected.

Another group decided to gather ‘tips and tricks’ for working from home. They then shared this with their networks in the organisation to support people. Still leaving room for individuals or teams to figure out what worked best for them. They influenced by assuming flexibility around how work got done but providing some options for those that needed a place to start.

So, if you want to have impact in your environment, notice what is going on right now. Scan as widely as you can. Ask more questions about patterns than specific problems. Then find small ways to influence what is going on around you without having to control it.

We may be out of lockdown in NZ but the complexity hasn’t gone away. It is just changing shape. Noticing and influencing is how we can lead more effectively in the uncertainty and unpredictability.

Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.