No one likes the mundane. How can you invigorate your team? In this edited extract from The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organisations, authors James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner consider the power of making work an adventure, and take the search for opportunity and innovation outside of your organisation’s perimeters
When we asked people to tell us who initiated the projects that they selected in describing their Personal-Best Leadership Experiences, we assumed that the majority would name themselves. That’s not what we found.
Someone other than the leader – usually the person’s immediate manager – initiated more than half the cases.
At first, this caught us by surprise, until we realized that much of the work that people do is assigned to them. That’s just a fact of organisational life; few get to start anything they do from scratch. Consequently, whether the project is self-initiated or assigned is not the important variable.
What makes the difference is how the individuals on the receiving end view the assignment. They could see it as just another job—a task to complete—or they could see it as an adventure—a possibility of making something extraordinary happen. Hands-down, exemplary leaders choose adventure.
They could see it as just another job—a task to complete—or they could see it as an adventure—a possibility of making something extraordinary happen
Stuff happens in organisations and in people’s lives. It’s not critical whether you find the challenges, or they find you. What is important are the choices you make. What’s important is the purpose you find for challenging the way things are.
The question is this: When opportunity knocks, are you prepared? Are you ready to open the door, go outside, and pursue an opportunity?
Even if you’ve been in your job for years, treat today as if it were your first day. Ask yourself, ‘If I were just starting this job, what would I do?’ Begin doing those things now.
Always stay alert to ways to improve your organisation. Identify those projects that you’ve always wanted to undertake but never have. Ask your team members to do the same.
Be an adventurer, an explorer. Where in your organisation have you not been? Where in the communities that you serve have you not been? Make a plan to explore those places. Take a field trip to a factory, a warehouse, a distribution center, or a retail store. Visit with people in a function, department, location, or even client base that intrigues you.
Be on the lookout for new ideas, wherever you are
You don’t have to be at the top of the organisation to learn about what’s going on around you. Be on the lookout for new ideas, wherever you are. If you’re serious about promoting innovation and getting others to listen to people outside the unit, make gathering new ideas a personal priority.
Encourage others to open their eyes and ears to the world outside the boundaries of the organisation. Collect ideas through focus groups, advisory boards, suggestion boxes, breakfast meetings, brainstorming sessions, customer evaluation forms, mystery shoppers, mystery guests, visits to competitors, and the like. Online chat rooms are great venues for swapping ideas with those outside your field.
Make idea-gathering part of your daily, weekly, and monthly schedule
Make idea-gathering part of your daily, weekly, and monthly schedule. Call three customers or clients who haven’t used your services in a while or who have made recent purchases, and ask them why. Sure, there’s email, but the human voice is better for this sort of thing.
Work the counter and ask people what they like and don’t like about your organisation. Shop at a competitor’s store or, better yet, anonymously shop for one of your organization’s products and see what the salespeople in the store say about it.
Dial your workplace and listen to how people answer telephone calls, and handle questions. Make sure that you devote at least 25% of every weekly staff meeting to listening to outside ideas for improving processes and technologies and developing new products and services.
Make sure that you devote at least 25% of every weekly staff meeting to listening to outside ideas for improving processes
Don’t let staff meetings consist merely of status reports on routine, daily, inside stuff. Invite customers, suppliers, folks from other departments, and other outsiders to your meetings to offer their suggestions on how your unit can improve. Keep your antennae up, no matter where you are. You can never tell where or when you might find new ideas.
These methods will keep your eyes and ears open to new ideas. Remain receptive and expose yourself to broader views. Be willing to hear, consider, and accept ideas from sources outside the company. If you never turn your back on what is happening outside the boundaries of your organization, the waves of change that roll in won’t catch you by surprise.
Search for opportunities
Leaders dedicated to making extraordinary things happen are open to receiving ideas from anyone and anywhere. They are adept at using their outsight to survey the landscape of technology, politics, economics, demographics, art, religion, and society in search of new ideas.
Because they are proactive, they don’t just ride the waves of change: they make the waves that others ride
They are prepared to search for opportunities to address the constant shifts in their organisation’s environment.
Moreover, because they are proactive, they don’t just ride the waves of change: they make the waves that others ride. They are prepared to seize the initiative and address the constant shifts in the organization’s environment.
You don’t have to change history, but you do have to change business-as-usual thinking. You have to be proactive, continually inviting and creating new initiatives. Be on the lookout for anything that lulls you or your colleagues into a false sense of security.
Change, innovation, and leadership are nearly synonymous
Change, innovation, and leadership are nearly synonymous. This means that your focus is less on the routine operations and much more on the untested and untried. Keep in mind that the most innovative ideas are often not your own nor from your organisation. They’re elsewhere, and the best leaders look all around them for the places in which breakthrough ideas are hiding. They ask questions and seek advice. Exemplary leadership requires outsight, not just insight.
The quest for change is an adventure. It tests your will and your skill. It’s tough, but it’s also stimulating. Adversity introduces you to yourself. To get the best from yourself and others, you must understand what gives meaning and purpose to your work.
To challenge the process, you must search for opportunities by seizing the initiative and look outward for innovative ways to improve.
This means you must:
- Do something each day so that you are better than you were the day before
- Seek firsthand experiences outside your comfort zone and skill set
- Always be asking, ‘What’s new? What’s next? What’s better?’ and not just for yourself but also for those around you
- Find a significant purpose for addressing your challenging and most difficult assignments
- Ask questions, seek advice, and listen to diverse perspectives
- Be adventurous; don’t let routines become ruts
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This is an edited extract from The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organisations by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (Wiley, 2017).