Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Pilotless Landing in Dark & Stormy Weather

Our airplane was at 10,000 meters altitude, in stormy conditions, about to make an approach for landing at Beijing Capital Airport, and suddenly we realized that the pilot and co-pilot were in the rear of the plane talking with the cabin crew......

Actually, this is not true. We were not in a plane, we were in an executive education classroom at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. We were not 10,000 meters up, in stormy conditions, but we were with three corporate executive teams who were about to present their strategic plans to the four key decision makers on their corporate board the next morning; and these were going to be very difficult presentations! And, there were no pilot and co-pilot standing at the rear of the plane talking with the cabin-crew. However, there was myself as Program Director (& Professor), and there was the Program Manager (a former McKinsey consultant), and we were both locked-out of each of the three team rooms during the penultimate moment of a week-long preparation for board approval. At that moment, when everything was riding on what was going on in those three rooms that we were forbidden to enter, I knew that we were going to have a big success!

Everything that we had hoped for was happening. The teams and their respective coaches no longer needed our insights and advice. After working all week on their strategic choices and how they intended to execute them, they now had sufficient confidence to dispense with us and do it themselves. Could any other outcome have been as satisfying? We had made ourselves unnecessary. At that very moment of rejection, when I knew that being asked to leave the meeting rooms was unusual, I also knew that we had accomplished all of what executive education promises: we had provided bright, experienced, managers with the tools and frameworks that allowed them to leverage their knowledge effectively to solve their problems. Our job was done! So the Program Manager and I enjoyed a coffee.

In fact, on the very next morning, the three teams – one of the largest energy distributors in the world, a major player in global construction and the largest food retailer in a Latin American country, each succeeded in their presentations well-beyond what we, or they, had hoped for. It was a leaderless victory: the best kind!

My friend Bertrand Piccard, who was the leader of the team that was the first to circle the earth in a balloon, speaks about being “much more confidently aware, and more creative, despite being completely lost for five days over the Atlantic.” How is it possible to gain confidence while losing control? How is it possible to beat the likes of Virgin’s Richard Branson, in highly-pitched competition, if you’re not in control?

After all, Jim Collins, author of the iconic management book Good to Great, tells us that it is “disciplined people -> disciplined thought -> disciplined action” that leads to “great” rather than “good” performance, and yet here were our participants throwing off the formal signs of “discipline” and taking control of their own fortunes. Were we truly losing control? I don’t think so, not if you learn how to lose control in an appropriate and effective fashion.

While Collins is right about discipline mattering, the discipline that he speaks of does not have to be oppressive or imposed from above; and losing control does not have to mean “abdication of responsibility.” We had instilled a set of proven frameworks for considering the choices that each team faced, established processes for their making those choices and effectively presenting them; and associated them with coaches who helped facilitate their conversations and support their activities. At that point, the most liberating thing that we could do was to trust the teams to allow the processes to guide them in applying their own insights and experiences. Far from being out of control, this whole situation was very much “under control.”

Great impromptu performance in the face of the unknown will be an increasingly important attribute of successful managerial practice in the 21st century; and increasingly this means that it will be impossible to maintain control throughout, if only because we won’t know what to control in advance. However, it is possible to lose control while still keeping it at the same time – if you define what control you are willing to give up, and what control you cannot relinquish. After all, if I am fortunate enough to be working with great talent, I want to give-up some control so that they can fully exercise their talent. At the same time, I am still responsible for achieving the project’s objectives. Think of this as drawing a box around the project: the boundaries of the box determine who owns what. Inside the box are challenges for my talented team to tackle in any way they want. Outside the box is my realm of responsibility. Inside the box is where I choose to lose control; not outside, resulting in my retaining complete control over the objectives, while ceding absolute freedom to my team in how they achieve these objectives. Contradictory? Not any longer, but not easy either.

Effectively losing control requires two elements:
1. clarity of vision, so that everyone understands, explicitly and completely, what the vision of the project is

2. sufficient self-confidence on the part of the leader to let go of control within the box.

That is exactly what we did with these three teams and in the process they became the stars of the show, not us; which is also how it should turn out. After all, when they leave IMD, it is their show not ours, and it is for real!

So next time you see things getting “out of control” with your teams, think twice about whether it is a positive or negative.

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