Posts Tagged ‘choices’

Growing Leaders

November 24, 2013


We live in a world where leadership is essential but in short supply. And, says Gary Hamel, once named the “world’s most influential business thinker” and a professor at the London Business School,  hierarchies get in the way.Regrettably, organizations and communities are not well served by pyramids. It’s because there is a lot of energy and competition spent managing up rather than collaborating.

Stalls & Lags Are Costly

In our complex world, change is constant and competition is ferocious. But, Hamel says, progress is often belated, infrequent, stalled or convulsive. Structures and cultures that rely on just a few individuals in a hierarchy take a long time to recognize both problems and opportunities. The scale of those problems and opportunities has to become huge before they secure any attention. Unfortunately, too late is often the same as failing. Concentrating lots of authority in a top few is problematic.

Structural Constipation

What minimizes the structural constipation? Build a culture that that supports those who add value, not competition for a “top spot.” In other words, create and incent a culture that rewards merit, competence, and accountability. These are fundamental features of a performance system in contrast to a political system. A performance system seeks progress; a political system seeks control.   Intentionally pushing authority and responsibility down can distribute it more broadly.

Hamel counsels:

  • Give people leadership skills that let them get things done – even when they don’t have formal, positional authority.
  • Train people to make the right kind of choices and hold them accountable for their choices.
  • Shorten the feedback cycle between decisions and rewards.
  • Seek peer-based feedback on what people really know and do.

These actions can grow our leadership capital. As challenges grow and persist, our organizations and communities desperately need more, better leaders – fast.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Climb The Ladder

November 11, 2013


Don’t do or say anything that you’re not willing to see on the front page. It’s a dated maxim since few people read newspapers. Mostly, people read screens instead. But the  warning remains a current imperative for performance: accountability.

Years ago, I saw a model that work-culture experts used in their training. My version of it appears here. In your mind, picture personal accountability as a ladder with rungs on it. Those on the upper rungs show accountable behaviors. Those avoiding it are on the bottom rungs.


A few questions can get you and colleagues engaged in important reflection. Which part of the ladder do you spend most of your time? Where do you often see others? Why are there patterns of behavior? What would encourage a higher rung for yourself? For staff, for senior executives and others?

Responsible people make hard choices every day. When faced with a tough one: think about your behavior showing up in high definition on the screen of those who most matter to your work and your life. Professionals embrace accountability. It is a huge factor in any organizations’ success. Step up to the top rungs of the ladder every day!

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Reduce Decision Anxiety

August 26, 2013

coffee  offers more than 25 million book titles. Baskin Robbins used to boast 31 flavors, then they sold 100. Cold Stone Creamery claims 11.5 million ways to have “your” ice cream. Starbucks has identified 87,000 drink combinations.

These appeals to personalization may work well in marketing consumer goods. But, the vast range of variation can also overwhelm. Do you, your colleagues or teams ever feel swamped?

The volume of data and options involved in efforts to create strategies, generate forecasts, prepare communications, support evaluation or other common functions makes getting to decisions tough sledding. Research has shown too many choices generates significant anxiety. In fact, it creates pressure, frustration, and paralysis.

Coping With  Volume

Creating an environment for success means support for decision-making. Coping with information overload is an important responsibility for managing and leading. To start, ask these questions:

  • What are the priorities this decision must satisfy?
  • What can I do to simplify the information I have and need?
  • What are the patterns in data?
  • How might the data be categorized?

When faced with complexity, try these three actions:

  • At the start, reduce the total number of alternatives
  • Identify, understand and explain variation among alternatives
  • Engage expert review and recommendations to offer perspective

These questions and actions help focus the “infolanche” we face in our work.  Help your team  manage frustration and make great choices.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Avoid Strategy Sabotage

October 22, 2012

A primary challenge in strategy development is anticipating the future – correctly. It’s a tall order. Strategy creates public and private value. It’s central to every organization and team.

Determining the actions most likely to secure your intended results employs strategic planning. Creating strategy, for a program or entire organization, generally requires a series of explicit steps. While a routine function, the process of strategy development offers plenty of opportunity for error.

In this list, I’ve noted the most common “sins.” Consider these as you guard against missteps and improve the quality of your strategy development.

1. Failure to know where you are now. Clarity about your current situation is essential if you are pointing towards a new target. Strategy has everything to do with decisions about the optimal route for the outcome you intend. If you don’t know the current situation then you have no good data on how to create forward action. Shaky ground isn’t equal to a solid foundation – so it’s vital to get this part right.

2. Difficulty in detecting patterns. Your “read” of the context and forecast for the future is important to analysis, interpretation and application. Seeing patterns and anticipating new ones are vital to strategy development. Testing whether others “see” things the same or different and knowing why is a good idea.

3. Lack of choice points. A clear specification of issues and their perceived implications are vital in strategy development. Framing both the challenges which impede progress and the context which will catalyze motion are critical to decisions about forward actions.

4. Unwillingness to acknowledge bias. We all have opinions and perspectives based on prior experience and training. How deeply these are held and whether we can accommodate and explore new mental models affects the discussions and review of strategy. Being aware of bias can mitigate it.

5. Absence of actionable measures. A few and the right measures are important as touchstones for determining progress. To inform decisions or actions, measurement must be part of any strategy. It provides feedback data to confirm existing direction and to indicate necessary course corrections. Winston Churchill said it.” However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

6. Reluctance to review capacity. It’s possible to desire a new outcome, but the potential for achieving it relies heavily on what assets your program or organization has in hand for execution. Do you have the skillful talent integral to the work ahead as well along with the financial resources and time to make results a real possibility? An “internal audit” will surface both needs and assumptions about organization/team capacity that are key to strategy success.

7. Inadequate engagement. Who participates in strategy development matters a lot. It’s also vital to the subsequent socialization and implementation of strategy. Be sure dissent and minority opinions are aired to “kick” strategy. Careful consideration should be given to who participates and when in your process.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Break Throughs Take Will and Capacity

June 17, 2012

Yiannis Boutaris, 70, a successful Greek winemaker has been mayor of Thessaloniki for 18 months. Thessaloniki, Greece, is a sprawling city of 800,000 people on the Aegean Sea. It is second in size only to Athens.

Bankrupt & Corrupt

Boutaris inherited a city on the brink of bankruptcy (nearly $130 million in debt), with outdated laws and regulations, corruption, manufacturing decline and few tourists. His predecessor and 17 colleagues have been indicted – accused of stealing about $38 million.

Under these conditions, pundits gave the new mayor little prospect for success. Bloated municipal employment, inadequate basic services, discord with Turkey, and tangled regulations were all accepted as “normal.” However, this wiry septuagenarian who sports a pierced earring and frequently punctuates his point of view with profanity, knows two fundamental factors vital for change: will and capacity.

Will & Capacity

Will is the practical and political determination to persist. Will endures both obstacles and critics. It prevails. Boutaris advises: “When you propose the slightest change, people say no. If you do it all at once, it is a different thing. Something has to break through.” He adds: “You cannot step back, if you step back you lose.”

Capacity is about the strategic management acumen to make smart, hard choices that enable performance. Capacity reflects knowledge, skills, training and experience. Boutaris has made unpopular but effective decisions about budgets, employees, public policy and external relations. He is changing practices with a focus on different and better.

Whether a community, an organization or individual, will and capacity are requisites for change to occur.

Boutaris is undeterred in his reforms. (For more, see NYT Saturday Profile.) To date he has begun recycling programs, resumed relations with Turkey, grown tourism, and instituted unheard of practices at City Hall: job descriptions, goals and evaluations. He has cut city costs by 30%. One man insists on making his hometown a place of progress and growth.

I bet it happens.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Crisis, Allies & Trust

June 20, 2011

Just three  months ago, Japan experienced unprecedented damage from an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. These three catastrophic events created enormous upheaval with many deaths and huge challenges for leaders in all sectors.

 Black Out Conditions

Japanese  Prime Minister  Kan  became wildly popular 20 years ago for  his ethics and mission focus.  As health minister he  exposed his own ministry’s use of HIV  tainted blood which caused illness and death. This corruption was  long known by others but conveniently ignored. A savvy man, for sure, but in the recent crisis, analysts now say  he was “acting in  near black-out conditions.”  Fortunately, Kan’s work history, his instincts and a handful of trusted co-workers  helped him navigate. During the  crisis and long after, the thick politics between primary stakeholders in the drama have been  obstructions.

In hindsight, deep mistrust was a key factor in this situation. It added delay when urgency was vital, and it cost credibility with both citizens and nations alike. Because Kan could not rely on people in key positions the severe implications from multiple disasters was not obvious for many days. In addition, advisers in important roles were unaware of the resources available to them. The right information was not shared quickly.

Find Capable , Ethical Allies

In an important confluence of events, the plant manager at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant bucked the system.  Despite the pressure of crisis, Mr. Yoshida, who had built a reputation for ethical choices and capable behavior, acted  fast. He allowed seawater to cool the nuclear core and defied orders  from his employer. Experts say this decision almost certainly prevented far more damage.  A day after the tsunami, Prime Minister Kan took a trip to the nuclear plant. Kan met Yoshida and was impressed by his candor. The Prime Minister recognized an ally who would “do the right thing” and was highly capable.

The bold moves of a few thoughtful people  in  the  Japanese crisis offer important leadership examples. It reminds us that credibility is tested in small ways  — daily. People are watching. They see patterns of behaviors. Dishonesty, avoidance, denial are errors that could derail your objectives. Display trustworthiness through transparency, facts, and  thoughtful analysis. Acknowledge mistakes. It underscores your credibility and creates essential trust.

Trust & Mission-Focus

Suspicion is not a hospitable environment for high performance. It can (and does) dramatically affect decisions. Quality information and consistent credible actions contribute to trust. Acting consistently on shared values offers encouragement. It shows a commitment to common good, mission, and to ideals that are bigger than self. Do all you can to squash petty politics for efforts on the “right work.” In the midst of the routine or calamity, build trust and keep a mission focus. These are a welcome refuge for your colleagues.

If you’re hoping people will follow you – act in worthy ways.

 –Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author &  W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow.See::

See, Speak, Hear No Evil

April 5, 2011

In frustrated whispers we’ve all heard these truthful asides:

“I work in a goat rodeo.” “He simply cannot do the work.”  “The grantees have so few skills…” “This place is in such disarray.”

The facts are many people navigate multiple, parallel realities at work. It’s the reason Dilbert’s cartoons are so popular. So often, they’re accurate. And too often, the social dynamics of inter-personal relationships limit the potential of both individual satisfaction and organizational performance.

 The foibles and follies of dealing with people and their behavioral inconsistencies make our work lives interesting and difficult. In Robert Kurzban’s  new book, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite, he explains why hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind. As an evolutionary psychologist, he writes that people have “modular minds,” specialized units in the brain have been designed through natural selection. These units are focused on one outcome: survival.

Parallel Realities and Image

Behavior examples of modularity include strategic ignorance, self-deception and hypocrisy. Strategic ignorance, like the other behaviors, can create big problems at work (and in your personal life). At work everyone  faces  many decisions all day long. These are choices that often translate to who will you hurt or help. Too often, people intentionally avoid moral decisions about fairness. The upfront cost of avoidance is less, very often, than the cost of creating opposition. Through  side-stepping, or passive inaction, people  prefer to “act” as though they “hear no evil and see no evil.” 

Despite the moral implications and however irresponsible — these behaviors can be explained as obviously practical options. Unfortunately, these choices model behavior that gets replicated.  It’s how we generate unhealthy culture which enables dysfunction in teams and organizations. Denial of this context just perpetuates it. With tragic consequences, the   “Emperor (who) has no clothes” can live a very long  life.

 Bigger Than Self

Sociality is a vital part of human life. Because of this, competition inside organizations needs discrete attention. It also means reframing the challenges and opportunities for your team and your organization is central to collective impact.  Finding common understandings, assumptions and shared goals are critical. Establishing expectations for values like transparency, candor, authenticity, urgency and distributed knowledge is part of the recipe. In the end, modeling these values matters most. If people and organizations persist simply with the multiple realities provided by our modular minds the inevitable focus is self-survival. However, high performance requires a different, collective intention.

Recognize  and Reconcile

What specific actions can a manager take with this common challenge?

First: Ask many more questions. Set a target for yourself. Make it a goal – every day – to ask   three more questions in each meeting or exchange with staff.  Commit to discovery. This will help you uncover perspectives, see common themes and identify prevailing realities.  Seek counter-points and ask opinions from those who are willing to share more than the proverbial company line. Recognizing how others view their work and the situation is an important step in your reality.

Second: Work toward reconciliation of multiple perspectives. Commit to dialogue that airs a range of opinion. Act as a convener. Aim for the imperative – how it should be. Help others see their assumptions and biases. Actively build bridges and find points of coordination so others see the value of alignment and integration. Make it acceptable and safe to speak truthfully. Demonstrate trust by lauding people who are willing to offer constructive critique.

Renowned organization effectiveness expert and author Jim Collins echoes this perspective: “Level 5 leaders are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the organization, the work – not themselves – and they have a fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition.” It is possible to build a vibrant culture that aggressively serves a mission (or margin).  Eventually the whispers will wane. 

Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Strategy 101: Making Great Choices

December 16, 2010

If Chicago is your destination…what’s the best route to get there?

Part of the answer depends on where you are now and what resources you have. Creating great strategy requires a series of practical and coherent choices.

If you have plenty of time, modest resources and like to travel by train, then Amtrak might be your best option from Battle Creek. If your timeline is tight, you’ve got a reliable car and live in Detroit, then I-94 could be a realistic choice. You could take a train or drive from Los Angeles. But, to attend a meeting in Chicago tomorrow morning from California means   neither of those choices for transport is best. They’re not strategic.

 Where Are We Now?

One of the most important factors in making choices that will get you to Chicago is knowledge about the departure city – or current location. This step can’t be skipped because any assumptions about it introduce significant risks for a poor choice. If you are planning significant education reform in your school district or revising economic development plans, there must be a deep understanding of the current status. It’s highly unlikely you will make optimal choices if you don’t know your starting place. Thorough and unvarnished determinations of here and now are critical inputs to other steps in strategy development. Skillful market analysis, benchmarking and related processes can be critical to informing decisions that affect your strategic plans.

 Recall that while departure cities and resources varied, the desired result (Chicago) didn’t. It was clearly specified.  Very few plausible or even feasible choices can be made if the current status and desired result are indeterminate. Specificity supports success in these matters. While it’s possible (and wise) to test the viability of any given result with different combinations of resources and strategy, it’s essential to be clear about both before any final choices are made. Together, the current status and intended results act as “tent stakes” for your strategies.

 Conditions Count

What works under what conditions is part of what you need to know to make the choices that yield great strategy. Knowledge about your organization’s past performance (via evaluation) can be very helpful at this point. And, information about how others have accomplished similar work can bring value. You also need to know about resources. Your options for getting to Chicago on a $200 travel budget are different from an allocation of $1,400. Choices change again when you have 24 hrs or 5 days.

Strategy is the configuration of factors to create choices which can secure your intended result. Choice selection should rely on evidence and distinctive capabilities. Understanding your implementation strengths and weaknesses should influence your range of options. If you don’t have a driver’s license then car travel isn’t precluded but might be more difficult than Greyhound. A realistic appraisal of capabilities is an important criteria for “grading” and ranking choices. Coherence is also part of the recipe in strategy because the relative alignment among factors affects success.

 Strategy and Consequence

While strategies are essential to effective work in any sector there is far more attention to them in the private sector because without great strategy (and execution), the consequence is a failed enterprise. In the rough and tumble clear-cut review of revenues to expenses, either margin is generated or not.  However, in the nonprofit sector, organizations can be buoyed by enthusiasm for a great purpose. The costs of the enterprise are subsidized and their organization development struggles are sometimes framed as simply a lack of resources when what’s missing is great strategy. People in love with a wonderful mission can overlook strategy because of commitment or affiliation with a cause.

The press of full calendars, lots of meetings and random activities are not synonymous with strategy. Don’t confuse busy with strategic. Organizations paralyzed by indecision or those unwilling to make choices have a tough time with strategy. Those who swim in a highly political or largely unaccountable milieu have no need for them. In these contexts, the measures for progress have much to do with the dynamics of power – not performance.

While not simple to develop, strategies are essential. They reflect thoughtful, careful, tough choices that are directly connected to results.


Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more, see :

Clutch:Clarity in the Storm of Surprise

October 26, 2010

Long gone are the ebb and flow of predictable events. Today’s dynamic context is more like a series of tsunami waves — without an early warning system.

While we’ve all faced hard choices  under a tight deadline,  the pressure soars when an  unanticipated or even unpredictable change occurs. Personally, it’s   the moment you realize the  serious implications of a life-threatening diagnosis. At work, it shows up when an important internal or external factor generates a serious threat. Perhaps a fraud or corruption that could destroy your entire organization. Some people avoid the circumstance, others “crumble.” Some steer well and help their organization respond.

Frame The Current Reality
Recognizing an unexpected current reality and its implications are crucial for managing and leading effectively. Whether you acknowledge the problem, when and how you respond  can determine the success or failure of your enterprise. Paul Sullivan’s new book, “Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t” tackles this topic.

 Sullivan differentiates  the commonly used expression of “clutch” from an exciting moment in sports that wins the game to “a precisely executed series of plays.” He explains it includes a mental component. And, names five common  traits of people who demonstrate clutch: “focus, discipline, adaptability, being present and a mix of entrepreneurial desire and fear.”  According to Sullivan, avoiding the traps of leaders who choke means taking responsibility for action, no overthinking and no overconfidence when stability resumes.

Getting Past Self
When crises present, there’s no expectation any one leader has mystical visions of the right course of action. But, it is possible to carefully execute processes that guide tough decisions. Too frequently the interplay of politics, ego or pride can distract from the optimal choice. Thinking about your thinking (meta-cognition), might be an important step to take right now. 

 Sullivan (and others) suggest a relative accuracy in framing the problem, a response before opportunity cost becomes overwhelming, and a dispassionate approach are all factors in a recipe for great management. We know many, both non- and for-profits, that have navigated tremendous financial woes as markets change dramatically and much of forecasting fails. Agility is one of the new qualifications for survival.

 The litmus for you and me is a calculated and composed response in a dramatically new context. Anticipate the unexpected and be ready to engage your “clutch.”

-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more information, see:

 -The image above is Hiroshige. The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1823-29).

%d bloggers like this: