Tag Archives: Neuroscience

Can we solve complex leadership challenges with simple habits?

Feeling overwhelmed by the pace of change? Does it seem that the complexity of our world is outpacing the ability of leaders (political, business, NGO) to manage? Me too, and we are not alone.

The latest survey of international NGO (INGO) CEOs demonstrates that leaders are deeply concerned about the multi-factor changes buffeting our sector and the ability of their organizations to respond in an appropriate and timely way. Sixty percent of CEOs reported that their organization is not matching the rate of change and complexity. Notably this is higher than a similar survey conducted by Toffler Associates which reported 42% of private sector CEOs reporting that their organization is “challenged” to weather change. This makes sense when you look at the types of concerns reported by INGO CEOs: digital transformation (#1), rising inequality, migration flows, climate change, changing financing models, financial disintermediation, and declining trust in civil society institutions.

These are global, complex and multi-variable problems with no simple solutions. And they are in strong alignment with how Toffler Associates summarized the disrupting forces in their recent report including societal collisions, power dynamics, human and computer interactions all evidenced by eroding trust, digital confusion, innovation and regulation misalignment. (Note: the CEO of Toffler Associates discussing these factors in more depth in this podcast.)

So, what to do?

The Toffler Associates report advocates for leaders to re-commit to building human-powered organizations. Despite all the tech and digital solutions, Toffler Associates believes that we are in the midst of another human-centric revolution, but worry that leaders are losing sight of that fact. “ Recent studies illuminate that many of our current leaders are inclined to forget that the modern organization is human-centric. Globally, around 85% of employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their job. In the U.S. that number is closer to 69%, but it still lis woefully concerning.” They advocate for leaders to increase their investment in culture and aligning their culture with organizational values and human-capital and performance programs to increase engagement. 

That sounds great, but if you are like me, don’t you want to dig deeper into the how? 

If culture was so easy to change, every organization would be doing it easily—and CEOs would be less worried. Well, recent work from the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) suggests, by applying what we know about brain science, that much of what leaders have been historically doing to change culture has been wrong (or at least less effective). Organizational leaders tend to over-emphasize communications, awareness building and developing organizational competency and employee skillsets. Their research and recent work with companies such as Microsoft and GE has focused on simpler and potentially longer lasting approaches.

First, organizations, like individuals, need to adopt a growth mindset in order to increase resiliency in the face of these societal changes. Just as research indicates that focusing on effort rather than performance measures (like grades) builds more adaptable and resilient minds in individuals, adopting the same approach when used by leaders can increase innovation, risk taking and agility in organizations. It’s about organizations learning to learn! As they note, one of the key aspects of the growth mindset is the fundamental belief that growth is possible When INGOs are facing such complex challenges, we MUST believe that change is possible for our organizations and our society, otherwise, the challenges we are facing will be interpreted as threats—increasing organizational stress, paralyzing decision making, and reducing our ability innovate.

Now comes the simple part. 

They advocate a focus on Priorities Habits, and Systems (PHS) to drive culture change in organizations. As a self-improvement junkie in my personal life, I was immediately attracted to the idea that if you can help an organization build new habits, you can facilitate long-term change. It seems so obvious—but somehow feels like it is overlooked as an approach to change. The NLI Guide, How Culture Change Really Happens, points out that most of the time leaders describe why we need to change, and maybe what we want to change, but NOT doing the day to day work of helping people understand how to change—at the individual and the organizational level. At Microsoft, for example, they helped leadership distill their leadership focus down from 100 priorities to three really simple ones: “create clarity, generate energy, deliver success.” This simplicity and clarity of focus enabled their employees to align new work habits to an easy-to-use and even easier-to-remember framework. (Disclaimer: in full disclosure, this sounds simple in concept, but is hard to implement in reality; I know that I am struggling with converting priorities into habits with my work at Humentum.) 

I often listen to the Tim Ferris podcast, where he asks his guests to describe and deconstruct (in great detail) their own personal habits that lead to success. He recently interviewed Jim Collins, author of Built to Last and Good to Great—two books in the 21st century business leadership canon. In the interview, Jim describes his own system that ensures that he is focusing the right amount of time on his own writing and creative work. First, he has identified a metric to help him stay on track in terms of the number of creative hours worked per month and year. He backs that up with a a daily habit for recording his time each day. But, more importantly, he records not just the time, but the qualitative information about how he spent that time, and how it felt. Doing this step enables him to adapt and adjust throughout the year to overcome barriers and obstacles to achieving his goal (growth mindset in action!). Describing his approach using NLI’s framework, he has a priority (spend 1000 hours per year writing and creating), a habit (of tracking and describing how he spends his time, and a system (a spreadsheet tool ) to support it. 

Coming back to the challenge for the NGO sector, let’s frame it up in our context

How do we simplify our priorities? Both as organizations and as a sector, we love complexity. We have spent decades perfecting frameworks, standards, evaluation methods and tools, theories of change and on and on—but how do we simplify that into easy to use set of (a few) priorities aligned to addressing the complex challenges we face today? 

How do we create new habits? For example, can we break down any challenge, such as digital transformation, into smaller bite-sized habits for people. Then, regardless of where in the organization an individual works they can “ digitally transform , as opposed to hoping that one big tech bet will turn an INGO into Apple or Amazon. Our work with NetHope on the Digital Skills Framework is very much a step in this direction by focusing more on comprehensive behaviors and less on tech literacy skills.

How do we change the systems? NLI uses an example in their Guide, about trying to developing healthier eating habits while working in a sweets bakery—obviously very difficult. What is the NGO equivalent? If we are trying to change our funding models, do we need to spend less time talking to “traditional donors” and more time with impact investors, tech entrepreneurs, B-Corp CEOs and others using capital in innovative ways to drive change?

What does this have to do with trust?

Finally, I want to come back to the issue of trust. Both the Interaction survey and the Toffler Associates report emphasized the decreasing trust of most organizations, not just NGOs. Specifically, the Toffler Associates report describes the problem this way: “ Free flow of information (and misinformation) crosses virtually every traditional boundary, leading to lack of trust between organizations, individuals, institutions, and communities.There is confusion on where to put the resources that nurture these crucial bonds of trust, forcing organizations to be more in tune with their customers and stakeholders at local levels.” This could easily describe the trust shocks that have rocked our sector related to: “aid too”, aid diversion and fraud, and community mistrust of NGO intentions and outcomes. This is why Humentum has made trust a core issue of our convening focus this year, especially at our conferences.

By applying the PHS framework, NGOs (and the sector) might be able to rebuild a culture of trust. Fundamentally, trust is about doing what you say you are going to do—consistently—and demonstrating it with transparency. By clarifying what we want to do (priorities), defining how we will do it (habits), and creating the mechanisms to support those priorities (systems)—we are changing a culture, delivering on our promises, and re-building trust.

Originally Published on Linked In on March 25, 2019

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash