Read an Excerpt
Building the Bridge As You Walk On ItA Guide for Leading Change
By Robert E. Quinn
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-7112-X
Chapter OneBuilding the Bridge As You Walk On It
"I decided to acknowledge my fears and close off my exits. Suddenly, my workplace became a place filled with people doing their best to either avoid deeper dilemmas or face them and grow. The previous importance of titles and roles began to melt away before my eyes.... My own change of perspective led me to see a new organization without having changed anyone but myself." -Jeremy Fish
How do we create extraordinarily positive organizations? This is the central question that integrates the research of my colleagues at the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship.
The organizations we study tend to excel in two areas. They do very well at accomplishing their central, instrumental task, like making quality products, educating people, or providing health care. And they also excel in a second domain. The people who work in them tend to flourish. They are deeply connected to the objective, and they are deeply committed to one another. As a result, the organization can do things that other organizations cannot do.
I usually refer to such organizations as productive communities. They are not only highly productive but highly nurturing places. They are places where people live by the highest of human values, extending themselves for the instrumental purpose and for one another.
Recently my colleagues and I visited such an organization. We went with the director of nursing at a large hospital to visit one of her outstanding units. As always happens when we visit these kinds of settings, we were inspired by deeply committed human beings performing well beyond normal expectations.
We asked some questions about their culture of success, and they spent a half-hour describing the innovative practices that had developed in the units. These practices were unique and very impressive. It would have been tempting to believe that they were the explanation. Eventually the director of nursing shook her head. She said, "Don't be fooled by these practices. They are important, but they are a consequence, not the cause."
The other people in the room nodded. They all knew what she was talking about. One of them began to speak of the woman who had run this wonderful unit for over a decade. They spoke of her in reverent tones. We posed probing questions, asking them to describe specific incidents. Some of the respondents spoke in tears as they shared the ways this woman had changed their organization and their lives.
Afterward the director told us that of her sixty managers, she has five or six like the woman we just heard about. No matter where she assigns them, they build units that achieve extraordinary performance.
One of my colleagues asked, "What do they do?" There was a long silence. Finally the director said, "That is the wrong question. It is not what they do, because each one of them is unique in how they pull it off. It is not about what they do; it is about who they are."
In that last sentence is a key to positive organizing and productive community. Management and leadership books are naturally preoccupied with the search for behaviors, tools, techniques, and practices that can be exported and imitated elsewhere. It may be that they are telling us about the wrong thing. Organizational excellence tends not to be a function of imitation. It tends to be a function of origination. It begins with one person-the one in ten who has the capacity to create productive community. In this hospital, five or six out of sixty supervisors fit this category. If we examine one hundred plant managers or one thousand CEOs, we tend to find the same pattern. The majority are normal. And a few are extraordinary in that they know how to enter a creative personal state that gives rise to a creative collective state. I call that personal state the fundamental state of leadership. The collective state is productive community, which emerges as someone in the fundamental state of leadership attracts others into the process I refer to as "building the bridge as you walk on it."
THE ORIGINS OF THIS BOOK
As I noted in the introduction to Part One, this book originated in the messages I received from readers of my book Deep Change. The people who wrote to me usually told me how they had used the book's concepts to navigate a personal crisis or lead the transformation of their organization. Later, I contacted them and asked them to write a full account of what had happened. They shared cases ranging from very personal transformations to the transformation of major organizations. As I read those cases, I began to have new insights about the process of deep change. Eventually I began to formulate a new concept: the fundamental state of leadership.
In this book, you will meet some of these people. You will discover what the fundamental state of leadership is and what practices are likely to help you enter it. As preparation and background, let's do a quick review of the notion of deep change.
An anchor on a ship is a device attached by a rope or cable that is cast overboard. The anchor digs into the bottom and holds the ship in place. The anchor is thus a useful tool that keeps the ship from aimless drifting.
In a dynamic world, the tools that we usually see as assets can turn into liabilities. I remember, for example, watching a movie about a ship caught in a sudden storm. As the storm grew in ferocity, the sailors realized that they had to cut away the anchor. They chopped madly at the rope so they could avoid being swamped. Their only hope was to ride out the storm on the tumultuous sea. They needed to be free from what was normally a useful source of stability. Their lives depended on it.
Over time, it is natural for both individuals and for organizations to develop anchors. Individuals, for example, develop a system of beliefs about how they can best cope in a world of scarce resources. This system becomes a personal identity. We sometimes refer to this anchor as an ego. Organizations also develop systems of belief about identity and coping. We refer to this anchor as the organizational culture. The individual ego and the organizational culture are normally valuable sources of stability.
Yet like ships, individuals and organizations are often confronted by storms. As individuals, we may need to cope with physical illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, abusive treatment, burnout, job loss, or other life demands. In organizations, we may need to cope with recession, new competitors, regulatory changes, evolving customer preferences, and many other such challenges.
These storms are usually preceded by dark clouds and other signals of danger. While the signals often call for a transformation, or what I call deep change, we tend to resist. When our old habits of thought and action seem to be ever less effective in the face of the change, we are slow to abandon them in favor of learning our way into a transformed state. To cut away our anchors and move forward into the storm of real-time learning is no easy decision.
In fact, rather than accepting the need for deep change, most of us practice denial. We rationalize away the signals that call us to courage and growth. We work very hard to preserve our current ego or culture. To give them up is to give up control. Normally we work hard to avoid the surrender of control. Instead, we strive to stay in our zone of comfort and control. Given the choice between deep change or slow death, we tend to choose slow death.
Yet nature tends to have its way with us. The path to slow death still ends at death. For individuals, it can be the death of the ego or the body. For corporations, it can be the death of a particular set of assets or the overall enterprise. As we progress down the path of denial, our agony grows. The growing pain tends to force us to do what we do not want to do. We make deep change.
When we make deep change, we enter the fundamental state of leadership. This central concept will be developed and defined over the next several chapters. Here we meet some people who have learned to make deep change. Their stories provide a first look at what it means to enter the fundamental state of leadership. From these stories, we can also specify the objectives of this book.
OBJECTIVE ONE: HELPING PEOPLE WHO ARE ASSIGNED TO LEAD CHANGE
Jeremy Fish is a physician and an executive who was in charge of a transformation at a regional medical center in California. He found this task most challenging. In fact, he describes his feelings as the "emotions of a patient facing cancer." As he moved forward in the transformational process, he felt a combination of fear, hope, and dread.
Most managers charged with leading a transformation have such feelings. As they move forward, they become increasingly aware of the political dangers. They begin to feel more and more insecure. While trying to convey confidence, they find themselves contemplating escape strategies that will minimize the political damage to their careers. As they do this, they deny that they are doing it. Integrity decays, and insecurity grows. While verbally they continue to call for the commitment of others, they implicitly, but clearly, communicate their hypocrisy. In response, people espouse commitment while actually withholding commitment. Frustration, distrust, and conflict expand. The leader becomes even more insecure and intensifies the effort, which makes everything worse. The vicious cycle then continues to expand, sucking the leader and the project into the vortex of failure, the very thing the leader feared in the first place.
Jeremy reports reading Deep Change and how he came to recognize his self-deception. In his words, "My fear of being fired, ridiculed, or marginalized at work was impairing my ability to lead. I also saw how my 'exit strategy' of leaving if things got uncomfortable rather than face my fears and discomfort was impairing my ability to commit fully to leadership."
Jeremy was an executive, yet he was no different than most first-line employees. It is normal for all people in organizations, from the janitor to the CEO, to live in fear. It is normal for people in organizations to say one thing while believing another. This means that hypocrisy is normal. The recognition of his hypocrisy led Jeremy to make a decision that was not normal. Since the decision was exceptional, the results were exceptional as well. He reports:
I decided to acknowledge my fears and close off my exits. Suddenly, my workplace became a place filled with people doing their best to either avoid deeper dilemmas or face them and grow. The previous importance of titles and roles began to melt away before my eyes. Feared organizational figures became less menacing.... My own change of perspective led me to see a new organization without having changed anyone but myself. I brought my new perspective to my role.
Although Jeremy made a fundamental commitment, he still did not know exactly how to get where he wanted to go. In a transformation, we never do. Nor did it put him in control of the process of transformation. During a transformation, we cannot be in control. So what good was the commitment? The commitment moved Jeremy to a new state, or way of being: the fundamental state of leadership. In this state, we see ourselves differently, more positively. We therefore see others differently, more positively. What were once constraining problems are suddenly seen as rich opportunities. When we enter the fundamental state of leadership, we tap new sources of power and, as the next case shows, attract others to join us on the transformational journey.
In this illustration, we find the first objective of this book: to help people who are in charge of change efforts to enter the fundamental state of leadership. As we will see, when this happens, a unique set of behaviors, tools, and techniques will naturally arise to facilitate the emergence of a more productive community.
OBJECTIVE TWO: PROVIDING A NEW LANGUAGE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE ALREADY ENGAGED IN TRANSFORMATION
Mike Alvis is a retired military officer who now works as a consultant. He spent much of his time with General Eric Shinseki, former chief of staff of the army. Shinseki's vision for the transformation of the army was one of the most ambitious undertakings of any chief of staff since General George Marshall. The vision called for a dramatic shift to a lighter and faster army.
The concept was simple, but the amount of change involved was staggering. Although Shinseki had a vision, he did not have a map telling him how to negotiate his way through all the required changes. No visionary ever does. When we commit to a vision to do something that has never been done before, there is no way to know how to get there. We simply have to build the bridge as we walk on it. I sometimes refer to this process as "walking naked into the land of uncertainty" or "learning how to walk through hell effectively."
The early years of army transformation were very difficult. Shinseki did what he had to do. He pushed on, taking one step at a time. Shinseki's role became punishing. He experienced many dark nights of the soul. With each big, symbolic move, he came under intense criticism. He was privately criticized by those on the inside and publicly attacked by the media. What was particularly remarkable about Shinseki is that he never displayed any ego needs. Unlike Jeremy, who was initially afraid of what might happen to him, Shinseki was fearless. He was not concerned about looking good. And although his critics questioned the wisdom of his every move, they never questioned his motive. It was clear that he was doing what he thought was best for the army. So he just kept doing what he thought was right, absorbed the pain, and pushed on.
Mike Alvis had an inside view of each move that Shinseki made. Watching the chief of staff had a major impact on Mike. His own level of commitment began to deepen. As this happened, Mike, like Jeremy, began to see his world differently and to relate to people in a new way. He stopped seeing the resisters as "the enemy." He says, "I started to meet people where they were." And as he started to see them differently, he began to work with them differently.
Mike shares another interesting point about the transformation of the army. Outsiders assume the army changes when a commander gives an order. As with all other organizations, when the army culture is threatened, people resist. In fact, it is often the people at very high levels who become the invisible resisters.
Excerpted from Building the Bridge As You Walk On It by Robert E. Quinn Excerpted by permission.
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