Posts in December

A more effective way to tackle adaptive challenges and opportunities

December 31st, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

A more effective way to tackle adaptive challenges and opportunities


On this last day of 2016, I am reminded that in the coming year, I shall be celebrating 30 years of working with enterprise transformation. I have served in the role of program leader, consultant, counselor, coach, quality assurance lead and in a number of other roles. From these vantage points I have seen strategic efforts succeed spectacularly, peter out, stagger on like a zombie or go belly up. Being a curious person, I constantly analyze the factors that contribute to success and failure. Is it the strength of the leadership? Is it the quality of the strategic plan? Or is it about execution capability? And what role does sheer luck play?


The more data points I gather, the more deeply I am convinced that a key success factor is leadership’s understanding of the nature of the challenge / opportunity. Using Ronald Heifetz’ terminology, is the challenge being addressed a technical challenge / opportunity or is it an adaptive one?


We face technical challenges all the time. These are challenges where the problem is well-defined and there is a known way to get to an answer. This way may not be easy, and it may not be widely known, but it is known by some people and it can be learned. Linear logic applies, and you can sign up for a course to acquire the tools and the skills, such as root cause analysis, five whys, fish bone diagrams, Monte-Carlo simulation etc. Experts can play a decisive role when addressing such problems and the expert can successfully take a command-and-control approach. The expert typically knows the effective mindsets and behaviors, and these are often captured in simple ways: “blame the process, not the person”, “eliminate waste”, “get the process under control”, “limit variability”. Finally, technical challenges are typically local – they can be solved within a function / a process / an organizational unit. This limits the need for collaboration with others and it greatly simplifies the analysis. Solving these challenges may require hard work and deep thinking … and may yield spectacular results. Having cracked a number of such challenges, we may become enamored of our toolkit and proud of our record of accomplishment. We might come to think that all challenges are amenable to such approaches. But this is dangerous.


As leaders become more senior, they increasingly face more adaptive challenges. Such problems cannot be clearly defined. Any attempt to define them will fail to capture the full complexity of the problem or it will provide a very high-level definition which does not really advance problems solving. As there is no clear problem definition, there cannot be a straight forward way to solve the problem. Linear logic does not apply – there are simply too many variables and too many dependencies; in fact, we don’t even know all the variables and dependencies. Such challenges cannot be solved with a command-and-control approach. While some top-down guidance may be helpful, a bottom- up approach needs to play a greater role. Experimenting, piloting and prototyping typically become more important. Solutions can only be developed in an incremental fashion. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the solution will not consist of simple changes to organizations, processes or technology components – they must involve deep shifts in mindsets, in how we view ourselves and the world around us.


Enormous amounts of human energy and effort are wasted in naive attempts to tackle adaptive challenges using technical approaches. When such efforts fail, the people involved are often blamed: “They are not willing to change”. “The inertia is too high”. “We simply don’t have the right people”. Or external factors are blamed: “Our competitors are not hampered by the ethical concerns that we hold dear”. “Companies in our sector based in other geographies are not constrained by the onerous regulations we are subject to”. “Other players with a protected home market can subsidize their exports”. We have an innate need to find explanations that exculpate us. Such explanations bring comfort and it is easy to enter a collective delusion where the organization concludes that there was really no way to succeed. It takes deep courage to challenge this view and to ask: Did we perhaps apply technical fixes to an adaptive challenge? Might we have succeeded if we had treated this challenge as an adaptive challenge? What can we learn about ourselves from these outcomes?


Several of my current and recent clients are grappling with adaptive change in a particular area. They seek to exploit new opportunities that digital innovation brings while protecting their current markets, products and services from competitors. These competitors sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, they appear to be more agile and they certainly do not respect traditional sector boundaries.


As these client organizations seek to re-position themselves in response to the advent of “Digital”, I observe two distinct categories of responses.


First, the technical response. We send our people to training courses, such as “Digital Marketing” or “Deriving Consumer Insights from Data Analytics” to understand how to exploit new opportunities. We form new organizational entities – perhaps a “Digital Innovation” unit, perhaps a “Digital Architecture” group within the IT organization, perhaps a “Big Data Analytics” team. We hire some people with “Digital” skills. We introduce new tools and make them available to our people. The list is long. There is nothing wrong with any of this – except the fact that these interventions often add cost and it may be unclear exactly how they will bring benefit. Often such interventions smack of copying what seems to have worked for others. It is highly uncertain whether a technical response will bring success.


The adaptive response is more interesting. We start by asking some fundamental questions. What implicit assumptions underpin our business and how can we surface them so that we can challenge them? How might our past success get in the way of future success? What norms and values that served us in the past may no longer be effective in our current and future environment? What fears are currently constraining us? What would it take to let go of these fears? In which areas are we mainly being reactive? When are we at our best, truly driving creativity and innovation? What will it take for us to be at our best more of the time? How can we tap into our values so we muster the courage to break down barriers and chart a new course? How can we encourage more experimentation and controlled risk-taking? How can we foster inclusion, so we take into account a more diverse set of perspectives?


It certainly requires a different skill set to guide an organization through this kind of soul searching. When done well, it lays the foundation for new ways of working that profoundly enhance performance. With a deeper, shared understanding of the opportunities and a shared commitment to a future vision, collaboration can become much more productive and technical solution components can be slotted in where they are needed.


A new year with fresh opportunities lies ahead. I wish my readers a prosperous new year filled with excitement, joy and exciting discoveries. I also wish that you will find the courage to tackle adaptive challenges with adaptive approaches and, through this, deliver deep insight and great success.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Focus on the big “YES” makes it easier to say the little ‘no’

December 23rd, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Focus on the big YES makes it easier to say the little no


In my coaching conversations with leaders around the world, the challenge of staying focused is a recurring theme. Many executives feel fragmented and dissatisfied. They struggle to find time to think strategically. As a result, they are not always at their best. They KNOW that they should be more selective about what they get involved in, but many struggle to say “no”.


I have written about this challenge earlier (see the article Finding the courage to say “no” – gently and respectfully), but the challenge is pervasive, and I choose to touch on it again, and illuminate it from two angles.


Maintaining focus on the big YES

The leaders who successfully filter opportunities and stay focused, typically have great clarity on where they are headed. They have a “big YES” – an idea or a goal that they are fully committed to, and which is connected to their values, to their sense of who they are, to what brings meaning for them. It is not a vague concept; it is a future state that they connect with, viscerally. It is an objective they are prepared to sacrifice for. They are prepared to invest personal effort, time, concentration … and they are prepared for the disappointment that can and will occur when they say ‘no’ to the little requests that do not contribute to their vision.


This does not mean that these leaders are anti-social and egocentric – exclusively focused on their own objective. They may well say yes, selectively, to take on tasks that will further the common good, or that will help someone in need. But, they are not hostages to the requests from others, as they are on a mission, and will not be detracted too far from this mission.


The yes-no-yes response

When the big YES is clear, it makes it easier to say “no” in a way that does not cause offense and does not damage relationships. A helpful response to a request may consist of three parts

i) affirming the legitimacy or the value of the request,

ii) declining the request and sharing which greater goal you are focusing on, that leads you to say no,

iii) proposing a way to be helpful that does not derail you from your primary target.


Two simple examples:


[In response to a request to commit to an impossible deadline]: I understand that this is an important opportunity and that the work is urgent. I can, however, not drop everything else to focuses solely on this deadline, as I am already committed to X. I will, nevertheless, support you, provided we can find someone else who will take the lead and provided we can negotiate some flexibility around the target date.


[In response to giving up one of your staff members to another team]: I am delighted that you are impressed by my staff member and that you would like to have her on your team – she is indeed highly skilled and conscientious. It is, however, not possible for me to free her up at this time, as she is heavily involved in X and it would cause great disruption if I were to free her up on such short notice. I will, nevertheless, discuss with her to see if she can free up a day per week to support you, and ensure skills transfer to your team as soon as possible.


A way to gain greater clarity around your “big YES” is to follow Ben Zander’s idea (articulated in The art of possibility) of ‘giving yourself an A’. The idea is simple: imagine that you are at the end of next year, and you look back. What, during this year, will make you particularly proud? What will have given you a deep sense of accomplishment? What will you have done to receive a top grade? Write your report card – where the overall grade is A, and the report card describes why you deserve this grade. Now live your life, in the coming year, so that you live up to the expectation you have set for yourself. You fill find it easier to say ‘no’ when distractions come your way.


As today’s date is December 23, let me use this opportunity to wish all readers Happy Holidays. May you enjoy a time of peace, warmth and love in the coming week – in a way that brings you great joy and prepares you for the bright opportunities of 2017.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Making values-based leadership real

December 16th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Making values-based leadership real


I read and hear lot of dross about values-based leadership. Is this truly useful as an approach to effective leadership or is it an optional consideration that people with special interests should consider engaging in?


One problem with the dialog about values-based leadership is that people often do not bother to articulate clearly what they mean when they bandy the term around. To some, values-based leadership may mean:

“Leadership that ensures the organization follows all pertinent laws and regulations and does not engage in bribery or other clearly unethical practices”.


To others, values-based leadership is something more akin to this:

“Leadership that springs from a deep, personal awareness of own values – values that have been declared openly and that motivate and guide all decisions and actions.”


The first of these is akin to Google’s “Don’t be evil”. The second focuses on personal awareness and on alignment. The first focuses on “compliance”. The second recognizes that leaders are very different; in similar situations, they may make very different choices. These choices will often be guided – explicitly or implicitly – by deep, personal values that are shaped by our life experience. Being aware of the values that motivate and guide our actions is powerful. For starters, it may support more consistent decision-making, and clearer communication. Over time, this may bring a deeper sense of alignment and, hence, joy. It is also likely to inspire the people you lead. Bill O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance, says something profound: “The success of an intervention depends upon the interior state of the intervener”. There are many layers to this statement, but one important application is this: When we are leading courageously, seeking to bring forth a new order, our impact will depend on how connected with are with our anxieties, our needs, our feelings and our values … and how we choose to take this awareness into account as we speak and act. If our speech and our actions are well aligned with our values, we increase the likelihood of success. For many leaders, this consideration provides sufficient motivation to explore their own values.


When we run a values module in our leadership development programs, senior leaders typically walk away declaring that they have gained much clarity through the exercise. They understand more deeply some of the conflict they have felt within themselves. They understand, better, some of the conflicts among people in the environments they lead. They connect with surprisingly strong feelings they have experienced when someone has violated their values. They often grow their confidence when it comes to speaking up for their stance.


This enhanced clarity is valuable in the professional domain and also in the private domain. My wife and I recently did a values assessment, separately, and then compared the results. Our conversation as we explored the differences gave us deeper insight into one another. One of the productive tensions in our relationship is that we rank “Harmony” and “Integrity” differently. She values integrity, but to her, harmony is more important. I value harmony, but to me integrity is more important. It has sometimes been confusing to us that our spouse could choose a course of action that seemed to violate one of our own values. She would ‘share the truth sparingly’ (as I would put it) – focusing on harmony. I would ‘be borderline rude and simple’ (as she would put it) – focusing on integrity. Understanding that the other was acting in accordance with their hierarchy of values (not our own hierarchy), made it easier to suspend judgment and to conclude: I would certainly have made a different choice, but I understand where my spouse is coming from, and I respect the choice.


Having a structured, open discussion about values can be truly revealing in a team. It encourages self-discovery and the discovery of others. For example, in a recent leadership program I led, one participant highlighted the value of “Vulnerability” as a value. Another participant, who read this simply as “Weakness” questioned how this could possibly be a value at all. The first participant explained that to him, vulnerability was all about dropping the mask, being authentic, daring to engage fully with the people around him, having the courage to acknowledge and confront his own fears. As this participant explained, it dawned on the second one that there was an entirely different perspective that he had never taken, and that this perspective could be exciting and revealing.


In similar ways, I have found it deeply meaningful to catalyze dialogues where colleagues have come to understand that while some may be driven by values linked to the need to feel protected and loved, others may be driven by values linked to the need to strengthen their sense of self-worth. Some may be driven by values linked to a deep sense of meaning in existence; others may be driven by values linked to a burning desire to make a positive difference in the world. When we share such insights openly, we come to see our colleagues in a very different light. We might even feel touched by a greater sense of generosity and grace.


So, here is my encouragement to you: do a values assessment with your partner or your colleagues and share results with one another. Here is a good one … and it’s free:


Explore what the results mean, for you personally, and for your relationship. Whether you have done something similar before or not, I am prepared to guarantee that you will have an eye-opening conversation. Moreover, you will, very likely, deepen your relationship.


I wish you a great weekend filled with discovery and joy.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

The value of letting go of control

December 8th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

The value of letting go of control


Henry Kissinger, still going strong at 93, expressed “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” [Quote from The New York Times, 28 Oct 1973]. Whatever our desired end is, we regularly get enamored with power and control. But, power and control regularly give us a false sense of security and get in the way of our ultimate objectives. This insight should give us pause, so we step back and develop a better perspective on our desire for power and control.


Recently, I ran a leadership development program just outside Copenhagen. With a group of leaders, I explored how to build and strengthen strategic, trust-based relationships. One of the ways we explored was to be genuinely curious, listen deeply and ask open-ended questions, for example:

– What are you aspiring to?

– What (about this) makes you most excited?

– What concerns you most?

– What would the ideal outcome (of this initiative) look like?

– What would happen if you did nothing?


It is of course not about rattling off these questions. It is about being genuinely curious, listening in an appreciative manner and giving the other person space to think and to speak, freely. When we do this well, we open up the space for the other person and we may help them understand more about themselves and about how they relate to the world.


One of the participants in the leadership development program (let us call him Walter) looked at this list of questions and balked: “But if I ask these kinds of questions, the other person may go off on a tangent, and I might lose control of the meeting.”

A poignant moment. After a pregnant pause, the conversation went (roughly) like this:


I: “Walter, when you speak with you wife, do you seek to always be in control?”


Walter: “No, of course not.”


I: “Why?”


Walter: “Well, she would not like that and it would signal a low level of trust.”


I: “Hmm. Yes, I see that… How do you think it works in a professional setting, when you seek to maintain tight control of a dialog?“


Walter saw the connection and gained a new perspective on his desire to “be in control”. In a good dialog, all participants are learning something new, but this requires full presence and it requires listening with an open mind and an open heart.


Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, describes four levels of listening:


Level 1, Downloading: At this level we are mainly attuned to reconfirming our biases. We do not expect to learn anything new. Sometimes we follow social protocol and we refrain from interrupting, but in reality, we are merely waiting to present our rebuttal.


Level 2: Factual listening: At this level, we pay attention to facts and data. We are prepared to learn, but the learning is quite superficial.


Level 3: Emphatic listening: At this deeper level, we engage in real dialog and we pay careful attention to body language, tone of voice, pitch and pace to discern where the other person is coming from. This represents a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. This allows us to see how the world appears through the other person’s eyes.


Level 4: Generative listening: At this most profound level, we slow down and all participants listen to what is said and to what is not said, to the possibilities that might emerge from that which is shared. Scharmer uses the term “grace” to describe the texture of this experience. That might sound esoteric, but we know it when we experience it. And we know that such listening can trigger truly transformative new insights. And we know that such listening is antithetical to “being in control”. No one is “in control” when we listen to one another at this deep level.


Another way to come at this is the following take on three ways to ask questions. Think about the question “Why did you do this?” and imagine someone asking it in the following three ways:

1: We can ask as an investigator, perhaps seeking to apportion blame or responsibility.

2: We can ask as a scientist, dispassionately seeking to uncover the facts, to understand linkages.

3: … or we can ask as a lover, at a romantic dinner, in a quest to connect deeply to the other person, to fully appreciate and savor the value of the other, to understand in order to build unity and a common future.


Asking as an investigator or as a scientist is entirely compatible with “being in control”. Asking as a lover is not. While the metaphor is simple, we – and the people we work with – might benefit from shifting our listening to the deeper level.


The conversation with Walter made me reflect deeply: where can I, personally, let go of control to a greater extent, and explore with an open mind, an open heart and an open will? I sense that there is much more to discover, and I want to practice, systematically.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.

Using technology to improve business results and make change stick

December 5th, 2016   •   Uncategorized   •   no comments   

By Tor Mesoy

Using technology to improve business results and make change stick


I am always curious about how society is changing. I am interested in understanding change from many angles: what enables it, what catalyzes uptake, what are the ramifications and why is it happening now?


I was recently in Nanjing, China, and was thrilled to observe a keen adopter of FinTech. The street food vendor in the photo above was selling steamed yams and corn. The revenue stream was modest and could not fund much infrastructure of any kind. The stall was homemade and dirt cheap – a simple grill strapped to a wheel barrow and insulated with cardboard. The vendor had no fliers or other marketing collateral. But this vendor’s revenue stream was sufficient to pay for a print-out of the QR code that you see on the side of the stall. This allowed passers-by to pay via WeChat on their mobile phones – even visitors like me who had not taken the time to withdraw local currency. A wonderfully effective use of quite advanced information and communications technology. I am certain that the street food vendor would be amazed if I were to convey the technological, organizational and legal complexity of the payment infrastructure she was tapping into. The observation brought to mind the notion that sufficiently advanced technology becomes invisible.


I recently came across another example of smart use of technology – a technology to help us build good habits in order to become more effective. Do I hear you, the reader, scoffing? Understandable. I am also skeptical of any such claim. For every bright idea there are at least 99 examples of marketing hype. Sorting through the dross is not easy. But Nick Chatrath, of Coachify, grabbed my attention with his novel, technology-enabled approach.


A little background is in useful. Most of us see the value of becoming more effective. We may have adopted some practices that have helped us in the past. We may also be aware of other practices that we believe might help us, but we struggle to adopt them. We may have signed up intellectually, but it is not easy to change. Our will power sometimes seems insufficient.


Tal Ben-Shahar, writer and teacher, shares three considerations that are pertinent. He delivers two pieces of bad news and one silver lining:

a) you have very little will power

b) the little willpower you have is all you will ever have – we know of no good technique to increase will power

c) [silver lining] the little will power you have is sufficient to make real change happen – provided you build productive habits.


So – how do we build productive habits? In principle, it is simple:

1. Identify the behavior you wish you change – be suitably ambitious. Large scale change can sometimes be achieved in increments

2. Identify the “trigger” that should initiate the new behavior

3. Articulate a short-term, tangible reward that you will give yourself every time you exhibit the new, desired behavior.


A friend of mine shares a personal example. He had slipped into the habit of having a glass of wine every day when he got home from work. He was aware that this was not a great habit, for many reasons. For one, he suspected that this contributed to his steadily gaining weight. He had told himself to stop. The established behavior was not giving him much pleasure. He was swilling cheap plonk. But, “telling himself to stop” was not sufficient – he struggled to stop. He decided to follow the three-step approach outlined above:

1. Behavior to stop: drinking a glass of wine every afternoon. New behavior: go for a stroll in the neighborhood instead.

2. Trigger: arrive home from work, open front door

3. Reward: On Friday afternoon, enjoy a glass of superior wine, and truly savor it.


To get going, he placed comfortable walking shoes by the door when he left in the morning. This would be a tangible reminder when he came home. He also shared his resolution with his wife, who was happy to join him to savor a superior wine on Friday afternoon.


But even with such clear steps, change is not always successful. Coachify, it seems, can boost the chance of success.


So what is Coachify? It is a thoughtful combination of

· A structured system for articulating organizational and personal goals

· An app that lets the user identify key meetings, log intentions, document state of mind at regular intervals and review progress against goals

· Biometrics that track breathing, heart rate, standing time, sleep quality and more, to assess stress levels

· Coaching support


It is the integration of goals, biometrics and structured reporting that struck me as promising. The thoughtful approach seems to improve productivity and help change stick. This is done by driving individual insights on how to improve. The team behind the concept is also impressive.


If you are curious, check out Coachify’s website:


The vision is inspiring. I wish the team great success. If they achieve a breakthrough, they will truly help improve the way we work.


What approaches have you observed that boost productivity and help make change stick? I am always keen to learn from others.


Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.