By Charles E. Smith Ph.D. and Suzi Pomerantz, MT., MCC
As a corporate c-suite executive you know that significant development projects too often do not fulfill their promise. In business, the public sector, academic, and military sectors, failure and missed expectations plague innovation projects, technology implementations, and other programs. The root cause of the problem lies not in failed technology or even failed strategy, but in the leaders’ failure to recognize and attend to the duality of the two worlds required for business success in today’s complex market.
At a recent Innovation Conference in Shanghai, a global corporate executive discussed broadly-based research which showed that 90 percent of companies did not sustain innovation projects or other long term efforts involving change management. While success is sometimes achieved, many organizations place too great an emphasis on technical solutions and fail to anticipate how the perspectives and interrelationships of key participants can create obstacles that yield failure and loss.
As a change management and leadership coach in companies and government agencies facing such challenges for 40 years, I’ve observed that projects usually start with great energy, big goals, and lots of enthusiasm. Then, over time, energy slowly slips away. Misunderstandings, corporate rules, leaders who don’t pay attention to team spirit, and the pressure of getting the job done in time and on budget get in the way. People stop cooperating and going the extra mile to contribute and add value. Eventually they let their commitments slip and it begins to feel like the whole thing was not really committed in the first place. Eventually, a new project comes along. People become resigned about change, and about winning, bit by bit.
There are two parallel worlds in a business.
There is the world of technology, machines, objects and design, and the simultaneous world of people’s feelings, relationships, and that which animates their spirit, engages them at the level of inspired contribution, and moves them to cooperate. While business leaders often acknowledge the importance of the human world in public conversation, most operate in a technical-, process-, and object-based engineering reality.
The relational world is always decisive.
In watching hundreds of cases in search of the distinguishing element of what causes sustainable innovation, the difference has always come from the power of clear relationships and the alignment of values and commitments. Managing team spirit is as important as measurement, and too many leaders pay lip service to team performance but are not committed to doing what it takes to align a team for engaged peak performance in a meaningful and sustainable manner.
Projects with the greatest available energy win.
Engineers have extraordinary talent, and at the same time, linearity kills human energy. Success depends on constantly expanding human energy in the project while maintaining technical excellence and integrity.
This points to an education problem; specifically, a training and coaching problem. These failed projects need leaders who are able to inspire people to do and be what they are capable of, and not just what they already can do. Leaders must understand how to motivate and develop their people, how to lead with individualized connections to what matters most to each employee. Without this training and coaching, the marvel of superb processes and great technology will too often go forward in half-baked projects or be lost in failed projects.
We need to train the leaders to do and be that which the innovation world needs and not just work with what we’ve got. Success is possible.
In the world’s largest consumer goods company, when the skill of enrolling other people was made the context of projects, those projects became more effective. People were trained to stop thinking that the merits of their case would always win the day. They came to see that their success depended on the quality of their relationships and their willingness to listen and engage others meaningfully.
At a leading diesel engine company, engineers were trained to move beyond linear analysis and a pure implementation focus to paying attention to the energy level among their colleagues and interfaces. They began taking responsibility for keeping the place feeling alive. As a result, there was substantially greater cooperation, cost reduction, and reduction of emissions in a relatively short period of time.
The CEO of a large energy company shifted his attention from operations to creating alignment; getting people in the same boat. The result? They had their best year ever during the recent recession.
The solution is available to your organization.
All it takes is for senior leaders and project managers to see the two worlds of technology and relationships, machines and humans, systems and feelings at the same time, and take responsibility for both. Without people at the top encouraging and rewarding this relational-technical point of view, nothing will change.
This is an easily solved training and coaching problem. If you take it as such, you will see it as such. If you make it a technical problem, you will not see what is really going on in your organization, and the impact of this blindness can cost millions of dollars. It calls for a shift in what leaders look for, what they act on and what they believe is really happening in their projects and with their teams. Otherwise, companies will keep looking for the key under the street lamp of technology, and not where they lost it, which is in the land of not paying attention to the way people really are.
To succeed, organizations need extraordinary training, coaching and practice in what engineering and technical leaders see, not simply what they understand. This will make money, save loss in wasted projects, and create a more satisfied work force.
Distinctions of the often overlooked world of people:
1. Human beings require genuine human connection and a sense of belonging.
2. People need to feel important, valued, special, respected, appreciated, and useful.
3. True leadership requires the ability to identify the unique motivators and leadership needs of each individual member of your team, staff, or organization.
4. Leadership influence is not about charisma, extroversion, or being liked, but about understanding and serving the needs of both the individuals you lead and the greater organizational or societal objectives.
5. People contribute greater value than is asked of them when they trust and respect the leader’s intentions, character, integrity, and honor.
6. Leaders can be taught what to see and what to listen for in order to attend to the world of people while managing the technical integrity of the project.
The bottom line.
Projects are human enterprises, advanced through strategic conversation while leveraging the tools of technology, systems, machines, objects and design. When leaders and organizations expect results in both worlds, success is guaranteed.