Book Notes

Leading Change

Posted on January 8, 2018

Leading Change, by John Kotter, feels very corporate and a little dated. It seems to be aimed at bigger changes than what I’ve had occasion to help steer — big merges or reorganizations, for example. So a lot of it felt like it wasn’t super useful to me all the way through, but there’s plenty to learn from it.

I’ve heard and read a bit lately about the distinction between management and leadership, and this book reinforces that distinction. Management is more tactical and leadership more transformative and strategic. I think this is a useful distinction. A relevant quote:

Management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system of people and technology running smoothly. The most important aspects of management include planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving. Leadership is a set of processes that creates organizations in the first place or adapts them to significantly changing circumstances. Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles

The big errors in change management:

  1. Allowing too much complacency.
  2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition.
  3. Underestimating the power of vision.
  4. Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10 or more.
  5. Permitting obstacles to block the new vision.
  6. Failing to create short-term wins.
  7. Declaring victory too soon.
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture.

And the steps to avoid those errors are:

establishing a sense of urgency, creating the guiding coalition, developing a vision and strategy, communicating the change vision, empowering a broad base of people to take action, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing even more change, and institutionalizing new approaches in the culture.

The single most useful chapter in the book was the one on vision. It’s worth a read on its own even if the whole change process prescribed seems like overkill. High points are that if the vision is super clear and can be articulated simply, then it’s easy for people at all levels in the company to make decisions about what actions they should perform and why it’s important to do so. A vision that is clear about what it offers and what the tradeoffs are for all stakeholders (including employees) is more likely to be successful than one that alienates some of the stakeholders.

Key elements in the effective communication of vision (this is all quoted directly from a table in the book):

  • Simplicity: All jargon and technobabble must be eliminated.
  • Metaphor, analogy, and example: A verbal picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Multiple forums: Big meetings and small, memos and newspapers, formal and informal interaction—all are effective for spreading the word.
  • Repetition: Ideas sink in deeply only after they have been heard many times.
  • Leadership by example: Behavior from important people that is inconsistent with the vision overwhelms other forms of communication.
  • Explanation of seeming inconsistencies: Unaddressed inconsistencies undermine the credibility of all communication.
  • Give-and-take: Two-way communication is always more powerful than one-way communication.

Of vision at a high level, the author says that “whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in five minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.” This rings very true to me. I think that if you haven’t shared a vision that anybody whose work you supervise and who is sufficiently engaged in the work (and who is in the right job) can summarize briefly and feel proud to be working toward, you haven’t communicated it effectively.

Here’s a really great quote about communicating vision effectively:

Contrast these two scenarios: In case A, the new vision is introduced as part of three speeches at the annual management meeting and is the subject of three articles in the company newspaper, for a grand total of six repeats over a six-month period. In case B, each of the firm’s twenty-five executives pledges to find four opportunities per day to tie conversations back to the big picture. So when Hiro is meeting with his top twenty people to review monthly results versus plan, he asks that all decisions be evaluated in light of the new vision, which he repeats. When Gloria does performance evaluations for her employees, she ties her assessments to major change initiatives. When Jan conducts a Q and A at a plant, he answers the first inquiry by saying: “I think yes, but let me explain why. The vision directing our change efforts is . . .” The net result: twenty-five executives, four times a day, over six months equals more than 12,000 repeats. Six versus 12,000.

The book also talks a bit about culture, which is difficult to change and which actually tends to change after actions in support of big changes have been changed. Culture shift comes late in the change management process. (And to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we must decide what nefarious changes we wish to make and then bend the culture to them after we’ve rammed the changes through — the vision that informs the change should consider culture tradeoffs, as employees who participate in the culture are also stakeholders in the vision.)

I’d recommend the book for anybody who is struggling to communicate a clear vision and make progress toward it, especially if that vision requires change that’s likely to be tricky to navigate. The book doesn’t offer much in the way of immediate cure-all solutions, and some of the information it purveys is very high level, but on the whole, it’s a useful read.

The Coaching Habit

Posted on January 5, 2018

Although this book has some useful into in it, I wouldn’t recommend that anybody read it. For one thing, it’s chock full of teasers to go watch videos on the author’s web site; for another, there’s a plea midway through to rate the book on Amazon. So it feels very spammy. It also generally feels like an “I’m a guru” sort of book in which the author synthesizes things that other similar gurus have written about in their own books. I guess this saves me the effort of reading those unappealing books, but it still feels kind of weird. On the whole, I feel like this would have worked pretty well as a short blog post with a list of questions and brief blurbs about the questions but that packaging it up into a book is a stretch.

The notion of building a habit around asking the suggested questions is foregrounded in the title and in the structure of the book (which walks you through the steps to building habits of asking the questions), but it actually feels secondary to just reading the questions. So in a way it feels like maybe the author padded the book by wrapping the questions up into a package promoting the establishment of a habit. But the bits about building a habit at the end of each section pretty much just suggest that you start asking the question the section covers, which is kind of silly.

Now I’ll stop complaining. There are some useful bits in the book. The author emphasizes asking questions over giving advice, and I think this can be useful. If you guide people toward answering some of the suggested questions (or toward thinking them through more intentionally and building the confidence to provide their own answers in the future), you increase the odds that they start to ask the useful questions themselves. You also increase the odds that they solve their own problems and feel equipped to do so, and you help them feel like they got to their own solutions. In other words, you help them feel comfortable in their own skin as a lead, vs. building a codependency with you. This all makes pretty good sense and seems valuable.

In general, he suggests starting from a place less of giving advice and more of leading the person to think through a situation or problem and use their own knowledge and judgment to figure out the best path forward. I think this makes good sense.

Here’s a quote I liked a lot:

Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire or building up the fire or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary. Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.

The suggested questions, more or less in the order in which you should ask them, are:

  1. What’s on your mind?
  2. And what else? (Keep asking until you run out of answers.)
  3. What’s the real challenge here for you? (Zoom in on the specific thing that’s an issue for the person.)
  4. What do you want? (What are they really wanting out of this coaching or this conversation or out of this situation?)
  5. How can I help? (Get clarity on what the person actually needs from you vs. going straight to your own prescriptions.)
  6. If you’re saying “yes” to this, what are you saying “no” to? (Help them figure out tradeoffs.)
  7. What was most useful for you? (Reflection after the fact helps with memory, solidifies any takeaways, and as a bonus helps affirm that there actually was something useful in the conversation.)

Leadership and Self Deception

Posted on January 5, 2018

The idea at the core of this book is insightful and valid, but the book itself is painful to read because it’s written for an audience that lacks self-awareness or nuance. It’s written in the form of a dialogue, as fiction. There’s a fine old tradition of this going at least as far back as Plato, and that tradition tends to include kind of a dumb-ass who has to be led by the nose from his benighted state to enlightenment. This is fine as ancient literature, but in a modern business book, it comes off as patronizing, and, reading this book, I often felt as if I was reading the script for an infomercial, or as if it was some kind of long-form version of the old Goofus and Gallant cartoons. Basically, I think the ideas in the book could very easily have been purveyed effectively in a much shorter and less annoying form.

Now, on to the idea.

Self-deception in this context occurs when you are dishonest with yourself about why you’re engaging with a person in a negative way. The central example in the book is one of a pair of parents and their baby who wakes them up at night crying. Dad lies there thinking that he should go get the baby so that his wife can sleep, since she spends all day with the baby. But he really doesn’t want to. He’s also tired, and he worked all day, and (he begins to tell himself) she probably napped or watched TV for half the day, and she’s got a history of being lazy anyway, and so on. Basically, because he himself doesn’t want to do the thing he feels as if he actually should do, he begins to make a narrative about his wife that may or may not be true. By not doing the thing he knows he should have done, he has performed a sort of self-betrayal that he then is inclined to justify, and he justifies it by creating a narrative that supports the notion that it is his wife and not he who is in the wrong. It then works to his advantage to believe this narrative, as it helps him further justify his behavior, which makes the narrative that much more important, and so on, in a nasty cycle. The narrative makes it easy to forget that you are yourself guilty in your own ways, which further reinforces the narrative. You then resent the person the narrative pertains to and stop treating them as a person, which increases the odds of your creating false narratives in the future. It just gets worse and worse, and because the narratives feed into your sense of your own rightness or justification, you don’t see it as your own problem, but as a problem with the other person.

The fix? Don’t betray yourself, and treat people as people rather than objects about whom you’re inclined to fabricate nasty narratives.

This all rings true to me. I can think of many times that I’ve been annoyed at people for doing or not doing a given thing, and I’ve made big leaps in how I’ve thought about their behavior and what drove it. This built resentment and no doubt fed into how I engaged with them in the future. I can imagine that avoiding this tendency to assume the worst about people, and avoiding creating (often ridiculous) narratives to prop up my frustrations with the people would help me feel less annoyed (a good minimal first step) and help the relationship overall.

This all applies to work in that we work to achieve results for the company. If we are all looking inward and justifying our silly self-perpetuating narratives about how crummy others are, we’re not focusing on the work. If we’re justifying our failures or behaviors by pointing fingers at others rather than just trying to excel at the work, we’re not devoting ourselves to achieving results.

This doesn’t mean that we have to look the other way when people aren’t excelling. That is, acknowledging somebody else’s failure isn’t necessarily creating false narratives and treating the person badly. It’s only bad if you’re doing it to justify your own behavior, if your opinion and expression of it is focused on you rather than on helping the person excel at the work.

The book proposes that if a company can build a culture around being results-oriented and avoiding this cycle of self-betrayal and self-deception, it’s more likely to succeed. The book suggests that this applies outside the workplace too, and I can sure buy it.