John B. McGuire and Vance Tang 02.23.11, 12:21 PM ET
Complexity is in cahoots with speed and uncertainty. When you have little time and even less clarity, complexity steps in to demand even more of you. Put together all three–speed, uncertainly and complexity–and the toughest among us can falter.
Complexity is the No. 1 issue facing chief executives today, according to a 2010 IBM study of 1,500 chief executives. The problem is that we’ve bought into the complexity conspiracy. We try to match complexity with greater complexity and speed with increased speed. Feeling out of control, we seek more control. Instead of the clarity we crave, we get ambiguity and more uncertainty.
There is a way to break the stranglehold of complexity: Slow down to power up.
That’s right. Slow down now and you will move faster, further and with greater purpose later–even when, or especially when, you are staring down the triple threat of complexity, speed and uncertainty. That’s the lesson that began a powerful transformation at KONE Americas.
KONE Americas, a leader in the elevator and escalator industry, seemed comfortable as a market follower just a few years ago. But its highly technical and independent management team had to struggle to sort out competing demands within the organization and among its customers. Five CEOs were appointed in seven years, so company leaders learned to be reactive, solving one problem at a time.
Organizational leadership, it turned out, was what was missing. With the help of a learning partnership with the Center for Creative Leadership, KONE Americas’ executives realized that to deal with the company’s expanding challenges and emerge as an industry leader, they would need to move to an interdependent, collaborative leadership culture.
This is where the phrase Slow down to power up came in. Slowing down at key times to use dialogue for deep diagnosis has allowed the business as a whole to power up. Time lost at the front end has translated into clarity, speed and strength further along in the process. Here’s how slowing down works to foster collaboration and confront complexity:
Complex challenges require 90% inquiry and 10% decision making. To resolve a significant issue, you must first understand whether you are looking at a problem to solve or a dilemma with which to cope. When we don’t slow down, we run the risk of spending time and money reacting to symptoms. When leaders hit the pause button on action and decision making, they can have different and deeper conversations. Instead of focusing on speed, they can focus on learning, exploration and collaboration. Slowing down helps you see information, patterns and issues that were previously overlooked or unclear. You can find multiple right answers and integrate them for better decisions and sustainable solutions. Complexity takes on a new hue.
Beliefs drive decisions; decisions drive behaviors; behaviors become practices. In the executive suite, out in the field or in the trenches of the business, our actions are the result of our beliefs. What beliefs are required to drive your business strategy in the right direction? What beliefs get in the way?
The KONE Americas executive team identified key beliefs that would help them advance a more collaborative, interdependent, customer-driven culture. These were not abstract or soft concepts. The executives are hands-on, engaging all employees in the quest for industry leadership.
At a recent meeting, for example, a regional leader literally repeated the maxim “Beliefs drive decisions, decisions drive behaviors, behaviors become practices.” A group of seasoned elevator mechanics nodded their heads. The leader then asked, “Do you believe that accidents are inevitable, or are you willing to believe in complete safety for everyone all the time?” The mechanics and the front-line team jumped into discussion about the effect the two different attitudes have on real-world decisions and actions, and how a culture of safety for everyone is at the core of customer-centered service.
Change yourself, change the culture. If you don’t change your response to the pressures of complexity, you can’t expect that others will either. Unless you collaborate, have open dialogue and slow down to learn together, complex challenges will continue to be addressed with a strictly technical “fix-it fast” mentality.
At KONE Americas, it took the executive team only a few days to commit to developing a slow-down-to-power-up mindset and a few more days to agree on core beliefs. It took another year to learn, practice and transform into a strategic, collaborative team while engaging the company’s top 100 leaders. But now the transformation at the top is extending deep into the organization. As a result, during one of most challenging economic environments in history, customer satisfaction has more than tripled, employee engagement has increased by more than 30%, and financial results have improved dramatically. Furthermore, employee safety, a top priority, has reached industry leadership levels.
Complexity doesn’t need to equal trouble. When top leaders slow down to power up, they can better overcome the pressures of complexity, speed and uncertainty and meet the challenges of a changing world.
John B. McGuire is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership and co-author of Transforming Your Leadership Culture. Vance Tang is the leader of KONE Americas.