Taking off the blindfolds

Why HR needs to help guide reinvention in the age of disruption
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/27/2016

By Liz Bernier

Good leaders must be able to deal with a world in motion, according to Kate Sweetman, founding principal and chief client officer at SweetmanCragun in Boston.  

“We’ve got speed and we’ve got complexity — and it’s only getting faster and it’s only getting more complex. And unless we can help leaders to deal with that, we’re not doing much good.”

There’s plenty to read about how to be a good leader, but the primary things you need to deal with right now are speed and complexity.
So, how does one effectively deal with these?

“You need everybody to be doing the same thing at the same time,” said Sweetman at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

But in regards to the fast pace of change right now, is this just a weird blip people are collectively facing at the moment — or is this something that’s going to continue? 

Rapid change is going to keep happening and it’s going to intensify, said Sweetman, citing the modern era of change, “which we consider to have started in 1981.” 

That’s the year Toyota arrived on the scene in America and shocked the big three auto manufacturers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler). 

“It really was an amazing globalization of manufacturing, and so we consider that to be the start of global competition,” she said.

Then, in 1989, there were huge technology shifts coupled with geopolitical shifts, in addition to thought-leadership shifts.

Outsourcing began to sweep the way business was done, as did smartphones, according to Sweetman.  

And then came the crash.

“Why is it in our era that organizations slide into irrelevance and failure so quickly — seemingly overnight, sometimes?” she said. “It’s because all this stuff is happening and they’re not far enough ahead of it that they can actually make their own shifts.

“How is it that some companies can live for hundreds of years, but most companies only live for 20 years? How is it that companies like Nokia, which at the time had 34 per cent of all the phones in the entire globe, and within a few years, they’re basically out of business? How can that happen so quickly?”

One answer is those companies failed to reinvent themselves, said Sweetman. 

“We define reinvention... as quantum individual and organizational change accelerated. So what we try to do is help create leaders who breathe life into whatever it is you’re trying to do. Because too many people suck life out of it, and we’re trying to breathe life in.”

Six blindfolds
There are six “blindfolds” common in organizations that can lead to a failure to reinvent, said Sweetman. 

“They all basically boil down to ego, but the ego has many different facets to it and faces to it.”

The six blindfolds are: arrogance; believing problems don’t exist; dismissing competitors’ success; not acknowledging negative feedback; an inability to “know what we know”; and “assuming we know what’s best for the customer. “

“We define arrogance as an overbearing and unwarranted display of superiority, self-importance and false pride,” said Sweetman. “We know that people at the top of organizations unwittingly fall into that same place… it happens all the time.

“When we get power, we all fall into this. You have to be very aware of it, and you have to fight it.”

As an example, retail chain Kmart was doing really well years ago but it comopletely ignored the rise of Walmart, and by the time it did take notice, it was too late.

As for believing a problem doesn’t exist, Sweetman cited as an example GM and the ignition switch issue in 2014, asking, “How could they not know the problem exists?”

“Somehow, you’re either completely blind to a problem or you simply dismiss it because it’s inconvenient to think about, you don’t want to deal with it.”

As for failing to learn from what the competition is doing, “there’s nothing wrong with being a second mover sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Sweetman. “You can learn a lot from other people.”

Another common blindfod is failing to acknowledge negative feedback, she said.  

“You’ve got agendas, you’ve got deadlines, you’ve got people being rewarded for staying on track — you can’t afford to hear something negative about it.”

It’s the “hope and pray” method, and people can literally die — as seen with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

“It was known, it was known. And yet feedback was brought and yet it was ignored. Why was it ignored? Well, because you’ve got agendas, you’ve got milestones, you’ve got deadlines, you’ve got people being rewarded for staying on track. And so you can’t afford to hear something negative about it,” said Sweetman.

 At the very least, organizations can get into hot water by failing to acknowledge the feedback, said Sweetman.

It can be very difficult to have leadership hear unpleasant feedback — which is frustrating for team members trying to bring problems to light and being continually unheard. 

“That’s why our retention rates are so low, here’s why our engagement scores are so low,” she said. “The people we’re trying to influence have blindfolds on that we can’t figure out how to help them take off.”

When it comes to the blindfold of “We can’t know what we know,” sometimes it is about corporate politics and egos — but sometimes it’s just about missing systems. 

“There’s some kind of inability to transfer learning, knowledge, ideas and information across boundaries that result in actual action taking place,” said Sweetman.

“Sometimes, there just isn’t a system that can sync up to allow a bunch of noise and data out there to become information and knowledge.
“So are we doing everything that we can to ensure that that actually happens — so these blindfolds come off and we can do what we need to do?”

When it comes to the assumption “We know what’s best for the customer,” that can be a particularly insidious blindfold, she said. 

“It’s an inability to have empathy for customer frustrations and needs — to really connect into who they are and what their issues are. Because when you have a customer, whether it’s an internal customer... or external customer, you have to realize what you do absolutely affects their own success, their ability to deliver what they need to,” said Sweetman.

“Unless you empathize and understand that, you’re never going to succeed because they’re not going to connect with you and trust you. You have to have inquisitiveness to really say, ‘What matters to you?’ And then through that conversation comes a real answer.”

To remove those blindfolds, organizations must realize they are self-imposed. 

“Every single one of those blindfolds, if you have the self-awareness, you can take off yourself,” said Sweetman. 

If people can shift that mindset not only in themselves but also in senior management and teams, it’s incredible how quickly change can occur.

The core re-invention principle is simply to see reality for what it is, she said.

“Have information coming into you and be willing to see it.”

Are blindfolds rooted in egotism?
Four SCNetwork members engage in a back-and-forth on Kate Sweetman’s presentation

Ian Hendry, president of the Strategic Capability Network and vice-president of HR and administration at Interac in Toronto
Paul Pittman, founder and president of the Human Well in Toronto
Ray Johnston, president of RD Johnston Associates in Toronto
Tracey White, owner and managing director at Strategy in Action in Toronto

Ian Hendry: I thought Kate’s case studies using well-known companies (such as Louis  Gerstner at IBM) brought the six blindfolds to life. My sense is they percolate in most companies, to varying degrees. It was interesting that she rooted them in egotism to a large extent.

Paul Pittman: If I am honest, it didn’t feel totally breakthrough and I felt I had heard some of it before. Nonetheless, it was compelling and contemporary. I don’t believe all of the blindfolds are ego-driven. I think quarterly shareholder pressure to keep mailing the dividend checks affects the willingness of management to change a winning formula — even when a visible storm is on the horizon — if they are not incented to act “out of the box.” 

Ray Johnston: If “ego” was at the heart of them all, I’m not sure that “humility” and “self-awareness” are the silver bullets. Steve Jobs could be the poster boy for a number of the blindfolds and certainly he wouldn’t have won a Mother Theresa humility award but, nonetheless, Apple has been pretty successful. 

Ian: Jobs happened to be right but there have been lots of CEOs who made bets that companies never recovered from. Using English history, I must confess Sweetman’s case study was very powerful.  

Tracey White: If you take (Sweetman’s) example of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic: Scott was part of the Royal Geographic Society and had a career as a British naval officer. His experiences, social standing and education led him to pursue an expedition strategy that relied on conventional technologies (horses for sled pulling).  
The story of Scott’s failure later became one of misfortune. A competitor who was not bound by these things readily adopted new learnings from a culture the British would have considered inferior.  Roald Amundsen’s success was credited to luck when penned by the Royal Geographic Society who wrote the history.

Ian: This was a classic case of blind ignorance and sadly it would have been too late for even a “whistleblower” back then.   

Paul: The Scott of the Antarctic story was interesting but, closer to home for many of us, the IBM organizational environment and the fact base that led to Gerstner’s decisions was more compelling. Environment and available information play a big part in the position a CEO takes. 
In retrospect, we all like to retrofit a crime to our latest theory but how do you know when an environment that is going to prevent the crime is necessary? 

Tracey: I was glad Kate referenced Carol Dweck’s work on mindset because this, combined with loss aversion, are what I believe is at the root of our current corporate malaise. I agree with Paul about meeting quarterly shareholder expectations. Dweck talks about fixed and growth mindsets. 
I will go farther to say the rewards on offer to executives promote a fixed mindset. This, combined with a desire to maintain privileges, leads to behaviours that create blinkered decision-making.  
(This is another topic but things like excessive short-term focus; share buy-backs over capex spending are examples).

Ian: Most people know that I am somewhat empathetic to the role of the CEO. Often times, it’s a pretty lonely spot. I think that sometimes they are forced into taking positions because the support around the executive table is weak. 
The board expects decision-making and if professional sports players can stop playing for a coach, executives can make a CEO fail as well. Exactly how well are executives plugged into their areas of expertise? 

Ray: Kate made that point about the stance executives take in the way they connect to both internal organizational and external shockwaves. Actively scanning for new information/trends, translating them into threats and opportunities, and then mobilizing the organization to respond characterize the role of a leader in this model. 
(It’s about) suspending preconceived notions (blindfolds), being receptive to new thinking and able to focus and energize the organization to action. Confidence in one’s ability to search out and genuinely create the culture needed to succeed requires a genuine curiosity, a thirst to grow and a desire to have real impact.

Tracey: This would reflect a “growth” mindset. So executives who are part of a privileged social class, with experience and education from a different economic, technological and social era, are tripped up by fixed mindsets. Hence, they fail to spot a new technology that is completely disrupting their business model: Digital. 
This caused the departures of CEOs at three of Canada’s best known corporations in July.  

Ian: I think we agree that blindfolds are an organizational leadership issue, not just a CEO failure. I think her ROI formula though made it clear that leadership is the key multiplier. 

Paul: I really liked the ROI formula and would have liked to spend more time on that. I don’t agree that the important things can’t be measured — if they are important, you find a way to measure outcomes through proxies. 
Otherwise, how do you know you need to change and whether the change is a success? It is the emergence of poor outcomes projected or otherwise that tell you that you need to change. 

Ian: I actually think change is now passé. Disruption implies something much more dramatic. I think Kate was persuasive in making that well-understood. And I’m sure her book has some of the answers.

Fine old wine, new bottle

By Michael Clark

The irony is author Kate Sweetman’s model of reinvention is not a reinvention. Her new book, Guiding Reinvention in the Age of Disruption, presented rapid fire to SCN, appears actually to be a repackaging of time-tested change heuristics and common sense.

Don’t get me wrong, common sense is, alas, not as common as we hope, so there is no real downside to drinking old wine in a new bottle, as long as it gets us back to drinking the good stuff. It remains disconcerting, though, when the design of the bottle — Sweetman’s reinvention framework — appears to lack logic and rigour.

For example, though Sweetman’s reinvention stifling “Six Blindfolds” are valid and powerful — and were just as valid and powerful when we studied bias — what distinguishes the six from each other is not clear. Doesn’t the blindfold “Arrogance” subsume the blindfolds “Dismissing Competitor’s Success” and “We know what’s best for the customer”? Even Sweetman mislabelled other blindfolds as “Arrogance” during her presentation.

Her reinvention model — the intersection of Vibrant Innovation, Change Mastery and Shared Energy — is so self-evident as to be reductive: “Do we want to be good at change? Then let’s be good at change!” Further, is there something about a 90-minute presentation that precludes any speaker demonstrating “how to” to back up her claims of “should do”? The elements of the model are all valid but if there was something new that Sweetman was bringing regarding execution, we didn’t hear about it.

Her Reinvention Formula provided for me the single powerful take-away; her formula is multiplicative, not additive. In other words, if any of the formula’s factors: Dissatisfaction, Focus, Alignment, Execution or Leadership, are missing, the reinvention effort is for naught. This goes a long way to articulate why even large-scale transformation failures so rarely leave even incremental change. Particularly laudable is how Sweetman has isolated Leadership from other factors, giving it due pride of place in change initiatives, or any initiative for that matter.

That fact that the formula’s Dissatisfaction is not syntactically isolated the way Leadership is, carries with it implications that are likely unintended. It oddly suggests that Dissatisfaction must be cultivated the same way that Focus, Alignment and Execution need cultivating. It provoked in me questions about whether Sweetman’s breathless rallying cry for re-invention is overwhelming the opportunity to ask ourselves if reinvention in our particular organization at this particular time is really a strategic imperative. Sweetman started her presentation with the vision of a future of perpetual disruptions, but is this truly the case for all of us, and, if so, to what degree?

She seems to be suggesting that there will be no status quo for anyone, and subsequently we all must direct resources toward change for change’s sake. Though she points out that reinvention only works when its multiplied factors are greater than the costs of reinvention, I hope her book comes with a warning to open only if needed, i.e. after some sober risk assessment versus jumping on a bandwagon.

 “If you take this very seriously, you will make change happen”, Sweetman exhorted SCN attendees. Yes, we do need to take this seriously, but we have been taking this seriously for some time now. If only someone could bring us some innovative new tools for reinvention. In the meantime, pass the bottle.

Michael Clark is director of business development at Forrest & Company, an organizational transformation firm with 30 years experience in developing the organizational and leadership capacity in organizations. 

Accelerating results in the age of disruption

By Barbara Kofman

The story of the race to reach the South Pole by Captain Robert Scott and his Norwegian rival, Roald Amundsen, as viewed through the leadership lens by Kate Sweetman, proved to be an effective narrative around which she built the case for the criticality of leadership and organizational "reinvention."

Why one man failed and the other succeeded will be woven into many future conversations with leaders along with the new leadership competency of reinvention, that aptitude for rapidly building and expediting individual and organizational change.

How does reinvention differ from competencies like strategic orientation? The key distinction is the timing and urgency with which this capability must be applied in today's warp speed world. Sweetman contends great leaders understand what worked yesterday won't necessarily work tomorrow a view that echoes that of one of the seminal futurists of the 20th century, Alvin Toffler, who asserted that “the rate of change has implications quite apart from, and sometimes more important than, the directions of change.”

Linked to this "new" leadership competency is a greater emphasis on the value of taking calculated risks and engendering a culture that accepts failure as a necessary step towards achieving organizational fluidity and the "survival of the species." Many leaders have failed to apply this Darwinian lesson. To illustrate Sweetman, focused on NOKIA, the Finnish company that dominated the early cell phone market only to fall prey to "Scott-like" thinking and become outdated due to ostrich in the sand leadership.

But how to make ideas like Sweetman's stick? Most HR practitioners "know" what needs to be done to bring about the kind of leadership required to create companies that are "built to last" but knowing, and having their leaders apply these best practices continues to be a challenge. Jim Collins used the metaphor of the mirror to make the point when things go wrong great leaders look into the mirror and sees themselves but when they go right they see everyone else.

Great leaders are willing to take risks. They're not complacent or content with the status quo. They approach mistakes with the question “What can we learn?” and when something goes wrong, they don't look for someone to blame.

A brief encounter after the SCNetwork session provided an opportunity to chat with Kate about her journey as a public speaker. She recounted the story of how she had learned to be an effective presenter, maintaining it was not a natural strength of hers, but that the single most important piece of feedback she received which helped her to change her perspective and become an effective presenter was from a coach who, after listening to her speak, told her the one thing that was crucial for her to change was her perspective, specifically to understand what she was saying was not about her but about her audience and how what she imparts will be of assistance to them. 

Many leaders suffer from a "me"-centred perspective. They are the ones who look in the mirror when things succeed and see themselves and when they fail see others. They are victims of one of Sweetman's six blindfolds

reinforcing the criticality when it comes to instituting change, that leaders begin by examining their own "mindsets,"  attitudes and beliefs and learn to be at ease challenging the way things have always been.

Its time to add to the list of core leadership competencies "nimbleness," the ability to swivel quickly, to understand the implications of global events, and to engage others in the opportunities they present, or as Sweetman labelled it "reinvention," and in so doing to ask our leaders some hard questions: Are they content with the status quo or seeking to champion innovation so their organizations can stay a step ahead of the competition? Do they view mistakes through the lens of, “What can we learn?” or “Who can I blame?” Do they see themselves as a Scott or an Amundsen?

Barbara Kofman is one of SCNetwork’s commentators on leadership and organizational effectiveness and founding principal of CareerTrails, a strategic coaching and HR Solutions organization focused on enabling individuals and organizations to resolve their work-related challenges. She has held senior roles in resourcing, strategy and outplacement, and taught at the university and college level. Barbara can be reached at bkofman@careertrails.com.

Thumbs down, thumbs up: Reinvention as a cutting edge change mastery approach

By Karen Gorsline

Kate Sweetman’s basic premise is that companies fail or become irrelevant because they do not look far enough into the future.  Reinvention is seen as a competency both for both individual leaders and companies. Reinvention is defined as “quantum individual and organizational change accelerated.”

This competency involves learning “how to leverage and actually accelerate results when disruption hits”.  Sounds great, but here are three things that I don’t like and three things that I do.

Don’t like:

  1. While there was a passing reference to the Shell experience in scenario planning, The Living Company (1997) by Arie de Geus, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?  (2002) by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., and Agility and Mindset concepts, there was no clear acknowledgement that many people have been working on these issues for a long time. The world is not suddenly turbulent and disruption during change is far from new.  Hyperbole and snappy language don’t contribute to building on a body of knowledge and connecting with other great thinking on the topic.
  2. Using the words like “quantum,” “accelerated” and “disruption” which are used in physics and have found their way into idiom gives the illusion that there is science or measurement involved. Using these words and having a “reinvention formula” does not make conjecture into science. The “formula” is only a handy way of pulling thoughts together as to what comes into play to result in Reinvention.
  3. There is a claim that by following four strategies/intangibles outlined that companies can achieve “a widened economic moat, remarkable results, and a sustainable competitive advantage despite outside factors.” It sounds too good to be true.  The insights may be very helpful, but the claim oversteps substantive proof.

Do like:

  1. The “Six Blindfolds” outlined are: arrogance, believing a problem does not exist, dismissing competitor success, negative feedback not acknowledged, inability to know what we know, and belief that we know what is best for the customer. These are very helpful reminders of how ego and self-imposed views of the organization and the world can result in misinformed decisions which lead to inadequate or disastrous results. Probing these questions as part of strategy or decision making processes, introduce and acknowledge that there are potentially different scenarios or realities that need to be taken into consideration to produce good results.
  2. There is a focus on leadership “mindset” and behavioural models that incorporate innovation, mastering change and tapping into shared energy.  These point to a more proactive response where organizations change before they are forced to do so. If these are the cultural components, is scenario planning the infrastructure /tool used to organize knowledge and lay out options?
  3. The entrepreneurial feel of reinvention is appealing. Many qualities described are those that successful start-up or emerging companies have that somehow get lost as they grow bigger or mature. Entrepreneurial companies are flexible and adapt to threats in their environment, know who they are, recognize and build on opportunities, and have to be able to manage the financial aspects of growth. They don’t sit back on their laurels but look for the next challenge. It suggests that corporate reinvention is about successful evolution versus revolution.

When it comes to leadership and change, there is no silver bullet. Leaders and organizations need to constantly re-examine their thinking and assumptions. They need to think about where they are today and what will be required for tomorrow.  Reinvention, as a concept, offers a great deal to think about in terms of this reality check and reaffirms a belief that you can “teach and old dog new tricks.”

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork's lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function adn directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

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