This time of year, a lot of people have made their New Year’s resolutions and are beginning to see whether or not they’ll stick. As is always the case, the bigger the change, the more challenging to implement.
I work with a lot of leaders when they’re thinking about, or in the midst of taking on, a big change — whether it’s developing and implementing a new strategy, launching a new product, or embarking on a merger.
When leaders run into roadblocks at the beginning of these efforts, it’s often because they tried to approach it from the same angle they’ve approached everything else, but this time it doesn’t work. It’s easy to say you need to change your thinking or approach, but how do you do it?
1. Detach from the day-to-day fire drills and mental clutter.
When I work with leaders for the first time and I want to learn about what challenge they’re facing, I invite them to come to my company’s office. We sit in a conference room with empty whiteboards, nothing on the tables, and, if they’re up for it, I ask them to turn off their phone. These leaders tend to be in constant motion all day, responding to fire drills and trying to keep the trains at their organizations running. By asking them to step away from their environment and sitting them in a space that isn’t contributing to their mental overstimulation, they have a chance to breathe and think about their situation a bit more clearly.
Find a way to interrupt your daily patterns to tell your mind and body “we’re doing something new now.” Go to a new room. Take a walk or play a different style of music. The bigger the shift you’re trying to make, the bigger the pattern interruption you’ll need to accelerate your shift.
At a minimum, close all the windows on your screen (or better yet, close your laptop), and clear your desk (or go sit or stand at a different desk). You need to block out the noise to be able to find the signal.
2. Expand the perimeter of the “usual” conversation.
When people gather in a group, there are unspoken boundaries about what’s okay to discuss and what’s not, based on previous interactions and social norms. These are the boundaries of the “usual” conversation. The “usual” conversation will get you the same results you’ve been getting.
I was in New York working with a group of CEOs who were looking for insights as they grew their businesses. This group met regularly, so they were familiar with each other and the types of conversations they were used to having. They were looking to shake things up at this meeting. To help them move beyond their “usual” conversation, during the introductions, I asked them, “Tell me something about your business you’ve never told anyone here.” This gave them the permission to share something they knew they wanted to, but had never had the right opportunity to. I had the convener of the group start. After pausing for a moment, she shared that she was considering a major, unexpected leadership shakeup at her company. Her response immediately pushed the group outside of their usual boundaries and set the stage for deeper and more significant conversations.
If you and your team are taking on something new, you need to move them past the usual conversation. That might mean that they need to say something that they haven’t said or heard anyone else say before. You need to give your team the space to expand the conversation, which brings me to:
3. Encourage divergence.
When you ask people to step outside of their normal boundaries, they can feel unsure or even threatened. Too much threat and our amygdalas trigger a “fight or flight” response. This causes our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that governs critical thinking, to shut down. So as a leader, the safer you make your team feel, the more access they’ll have to their powers of critical and divergent thinking.
One way to make it safe for others to go out on a limb is by modeling divergent thinking yourself. Leaders go first. Start the conversation with a wild idea, embarrassing admission (“I missed the boat when I overlooked this opportunity last month”), or unusual praise. Then encourage individual inputs that expand beyond the “usual” topics, and resist the urge to judge, correct, or add your own flavor to someone else’s idea. In that meeting of CEOs in New York, by asking the convener of the group to start the exercise, her response gave the rest of the group permission to be vulnerable.
Leaders who do these three things will lay the groundwork for possibilities to emerge and make that big change they’re looking for.
First published on Inc.com