Shared Responsibility Starts with Personal Responsibility


Change the Status Quo Flow Chart

Matt faces a dilemma.  His company is performing well, but Matt feels like the time for change is now.   His business unit has been successful over the last thirty years by developing bespoke products, but his peers feel that a drastic change would be too risky. They argue that the most important focus is to deliver their existing commitments to the business.  They think the time to change will arrive at some point in the future. Meanwhile, Matt wants to lower cost and improve control through standardization of their products.   With globally consistent products, the regional teams could translate the global strategy into regional imperatives more quickly and share knowledge faster across the regions. When Matt worked for Amazon in in 2009, it was a turning point in Amazon’s history–Jeff Bezos galvanized employees with the idea that, “the book has had a 500 year run, but it is time to change”.  If Amazon managed to cannibalize itself, destroying its original business as it successfully transformed into a new company, why couldn’t his company? He knew that there would be several tensions at play that would be tough to resolve:  the classic tension between balancing attention to the short-term vs. long-term and the conflict between customization vs. standardization.

Change is not about ideas, it is about actions

He outlined his options: a) escalate his concerns to his boss, b) do nothing, or c) experiment with ways to develop ways to address the future changes today.   Matt wanted his colleagues to develop a shared sense of responsibility for the short term and long-term needs of the business. He knew there were two things that needed to happen in order to develop this shared responsibility: 1) Get support from his manager’s manager and 2) Take personal responsibility.

Build Support with Managers and Encourage Participation from Others

First, Matt wanted the department manager to send a strong message that it is ok to challenge the status quo.  He went to his manager and the manager of the department (his manager’s manager) with a request to sponsor an award for bold thinking. They started with a 90-minute all-hands meeting where participants self-organized into small teams and surfaced the “ugly truths” about what could get in the way of success in the future.  It was designed as a competition to identify the most courageous idea and they used audience voting to decide which team would win. This meeting was an event to promote reality checks and positive attitudes toward change through recognition.  Through the process, the department manager realized that he wasn’t the only one worrying about the future. He agreed to run a meeting like this on a quarterly basis to create a habit of anticipating the challenges the department would face.

Take Personal Responsibility

We then asked Matt to identify the ways in which he contributes to the status quo.  At first, he thought the question was ludicrous. But after some thought, he realized that he was blaming others for a lack of progress, and the same time, he wasn’t providing any new ideas or solutions.  He complained about others rather than challenging them to think about their situations differently. Once he agreed to stop blaming others as a way to make excuses for his inaction, we helped him surface the source of his resistance: he feared being marginalized by the team. He had seen his peers relentlessly make fun of others’ ideas.  If he were to challenge them, his peers might tease him or worse, ignore him, for “rocking the boat”.  Then he would have no leverage for influence. Before the team competition, he met with a few colleagues and shared his concerns about focusing on the near term while neglecting the long term. He described the experience as social aikido, i.e., he neutralized the aggression and defensive reactions of his peers by owning his contribution to the status quo.  This gained him credibility and respect. An unintended benefit of the recognition program came from an “ugly truth” raised by one of the teams – people felt they were currently working on too many changes that were launched from the year prior.  There was a palpable sense of change fatigue in the department. So, instead of launching a new set of action plans to address the ideas surfaced in the team competition, the department manager agreed to review the status of the current initiatives and make decisions about next steps.  He also asked people to remain curious about the challenges raised today, and come with an informed point of view at the next team competition. He agreed that new priorities would not be launched until existing initiatives were completed. It is only by taking responsibility for our actions and decisions that we are able to change and improve.  To create change at the organizational level, find ways for the group to take responsibility for the current situation.  You can do this by increasing the collective awareness about what is happening right now.

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”  – George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Playwright, Nobel Prize Winner


Kristin von Donop,  Principal
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Name the Elephants


Kristin von Donop,  Principal
Follow Kristin on twitter

Recently I attended a holiday party where the only people I knew were the hosts. It wasn’t long before I was engaged in a casual conversation with the woman sitting next to me.  She was 18 years younger than I. After some polite exchanges, the younger woman asked a few of us: “to what extent is the obstructionist political climate in Washington DC due to racism?

I thought, “Now this party is getting interesting!”

Several of us shared our points of view and they were all different. She raised a courageous question, we stated our positions, and then the topic shifted. This scenario happens a lot at work: people share opinions, but nothing changes.  The competency of courageous conversations is important, especially once you’ve established a compelling purpose, which I discussed in my last post.

In this blog, the focus is on those necessary courageous conversations. We can increase velocity, operate differently, and build the capacity to adapt in the future if we address the elephant in the room more effectively.

Name the Elephant PhotoName the Elephant PhotoName the Elephant PhotoName the Elephant PhotoName the Elephant Photo

One of our clients made a bold move to pursue a disruptive strategy and it completely changed their go-to-market approach. The senior management and the board knew people would have to adapt to new ways of working in order to be successful. They got everyone involved over a series of four workshops to address the changes. They addressed all the right levers.

Then six months later, the EVP spoke to me about the lack of progress:

“For half of the organization, it’s as if the clock rolled back a year and nothing changed.  We all agree on the vision but, there are senior managers who aren’t willing to evaluate their work in the context of our strategic outcomes.  How can we get the sacred cows on the table?”

The EVP acknowledged that, as senior managers, they all must do two things at once.  They must manage the current stakeholder demands and at the same time lay the foundation for the future. They must be pragmatic and move toward the new vision.

This awareness is important, but not sufficient for progress. If not addressed, misalignment could strengthen inertia.

Courage is an antidote to inertia. 

It takes courage to focus people’s attention on difficult issues and to maintain the tension long enough to instill new practices. It takes courage because the risks are real. When you challenge the status quo, it increases the likelihood of conflict and stress. Across all cultures, it is difficult to talk about tough issues; but if you don’t tackle the tough issues, people will revert to their habits and that creates inertia. People believe the change is real if the tough issues are out in the open and being addressed.

Courage does not equal bravado. The lone ranger approach increases risk.  If you ride into the meeting on your horse with your flag waving in the wind, and immediately name the elephant in the room, you might feel relief, but it is no guarantee that others in the room will, or that there will be progress.

If you want sustainable results:

a)      Identify the most important issues that you believe need to be addressed

b)     Find out if other people agree and whether they will publicly support your raising the issue

c)      Raise the issue in a way that allows the group to take responsibility.  A guiding principle for this step is to “name, don’t blame”.

I find that the chart below is helpful.  It is the Gradients of Agreement, a tool to identify where people disagree, and focus on what is needed to increase buy-in for a decision.   Use it to surface the level of support that can remain hidden when using majority vote.

Instead of voting yes or no for a decision, people choose a number that reflects their level of support for the idea.








I do not support the proposal

I won’t block it, but I don’t want to be involved in the actions

I want to register a dissenting opinion, but will support it.

I have some reservation but will go along.

I can live with it.

I support it.

I strongly support the proposal.

After everyone has voted, focus on the concerns held by people who voted on the low end of the scale and identify what they need in order to increase their ranking by one.

Adjust the decision and vote again.  Work towards ensuring everyone’s concerns are heard, understood, and the group will commit to standing by the decision once it is made.

What have you experienced that either helped or hindered courageous conversations?

When Leadership Alignment Becomes a Commitment


Kristin von Donop, Associate Principal
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There is a consistent theme in our work with the senior leadership teams from financial services, media, entertainment, philanthropy, and information technology companies: they need stronger alignment between business units.  The reasons vary, either for more speed, more innovation, or to collaborate to create market differentiation.  These leaders ask us:

  • How can we increase velocity in the alignment between divisions, regions, and functions?
  • How can we instill new ways of operating that are scalable?
  • How can we ensure we will adapt in the future?

My next few posts will address four topics that are key to addressing the questions above: focusing on the ideal state, getting the elephants on the table, sharing responsibility, and influencing across the matrix.  This post will focus on the defining the ideal state.

Many of the senior teams we work with want their managers to be nimble, work together, and move resources quickly to capture opportunities.  Unfortunately, many great ideas end up dying because of bottlenecks.  These blockages are prevalent, especially when leaders can’t figure out how to get horizontal and vertical engagement.

Earlier this year, we worked with a technology company that grew from multiple mergers.  I asked several people in this organization, “Whom do you work for?” Out of the x number of people I asked, y responded with the name of their legacy company, not the new combined organization.  These responses gave me a key insight: the company has an overarching strategy, but no real alignment.  There was no shared aspiration.

The senior team knew they needed to revitalize the organization and that people were their main source of competitive advantage, but  they struggled with how to get everyone on the same page and aligned to customer demand.  The path forward was unclear.  The only certainty was that the status quo was insufficient.

Getting it Right

A few years ago, the CEO of a successful global IT company convened the top 100 leaders in Florida for their annual strategic meeting.  This was shortly after our friend Mike was selected to run a segment that had high growth potential.  When it was his time to address the group, he started by sharing that he called his mom as soon after he was appointed to his new job. Her immediate response was “Are you nuts? Nobody in that role has been successful!”

He described telling her it would be different this time around because of the people who will be involved.  Then, turning to the audience, he called out Mark, who was in the audience, and said “with Mark’s commitment, we can win in this space” and then he pointed to Maureen, adding “Maureen has the horsepower in her team to get this right”, and on he went until he named ten different executives in the room.  These were the people whose alignment was essential.  They were the leaders of the key products, the regional leaders, and in corporate functions.

Mike then described the impact they could accomplish if they worked together.  He didn’t talk about the revenue, margin or other key metrics.  Instead he described success from the perspective of the customer’s customer.

First, Focus on “Why?”

Mike’s predecessors had small wins but were not able to instill a new set of repeatable practices.  If the quarterly results for any one unit were not up to par, they’d cut the investments for that segment. They’d debateendlessly..  In some cases, they’d escalateissues to the SVPs.

Mark took a different approach and unleashed the power of the ideal state.  His market segment was different than the company’s traditional customer base.  To capture this market, he needed to instill different approaches: more marketing investment, greater reliance on business partners, aand new product development processes to build a portfolio at a different price point.

That meeting in Florida was just the beginning.  Over the next year, Mike made sure conversations about the possibility were an integral part of the alignment work. He rallied his peers to sustain the investments in spite of their skepticism about achieving success in three or four quarters.

Second, Own the “Why?”

Mike’s next step was to create an extended leadership team that had the skills needed from across the organization.  Some of the people he invited were ones named at the meeting in Florida; others were the technical experts in their business units.

Being on the team didn’t create the alignment.  He led a series of focused conversations that addressed the question:

What is the unique value of this leadership team?

The discussions about this question galvanized these busy executives by focusing specifically on the team’s contribution.  It oriented them to what matters most for the customers and for long-term success. The purpose of this newly– formed senior team was compelling and consequential. They also explored the implications of the ideal state for each individual. 

Real change requires grounding people in a shared aspiration. It provides clarity and activates our achievement drive for success.  Relying on threats or danger when you need to catalyze sustained change across many groups isn’t going to cut it.

Leaders need to focus people’s attention on the most important issues without resorting to fear. Unleash the power of the ideal state to create alignment.  Describe what is important to you.  Then inquire what is important to others.  Find the intersections to develop a shared ideal.

As you activate people to do something differently, keep possibility and optimism in the front of your mind. Address what is important and describe why.  Be curious about why it is important to them. During the hard work of change, keep the aspiration alive by reminding yourself and others about the consequential nature of the work.

In the next blog, we will explore ways to strengthen and sustain alignment with a focus on putting the “elephants on the table” – surfacing the tough issues that get in the way of progress.