How do I get them to LET GO? Launching organizational change

Here’s a familiar puzzle, but with a surprising answer – an answer that points toward an essential ingredient essential, often overlooked, for launching a change effort.

You probably know the instructions. Not long ago, we flashed them on the screen at a conference of leaders charged with leading a game-changing shift in how their company does business: join the dots in four (or fewer) straight lines, without lifting your pen from the paper or retracing lines.

When we issued the challenge, a ripple ran through the room.

“Oh, yeah – I know this one.”

“Wait a minute, I think I remember…”

I could almost hear some of what they didn’t say out loud:  “Oh, they’re using that puzzle – I was hoping we’d get something new.”

A few minutes later, when we asked for a show of hands from those who’d solved it, about 60% went up. “Those of you who got it,” we continued, showing the classic solution below, “keep your hand up if your solution looked like this.” All of them.

“Great!” We told them. “Now, come up with three more ways to do it.”

People looked at each other, then down at those little pads the hotel provided them with. Not many pens moved.

After a few minutes, we asked, “Who’ll share what they come up with?”

You could have heard a pin drop.

The biggest enemy of new thinking: old thinking

Memory. The past. As humans, our default to memory is less audible than a whisper, more powerful than the ocean, and as apt to win your allegiance as the political party you’re already registered in. Unconsciously getting trapped in past ways of thinking is what Stanford’s brilliant James Adams, author of Conceptual Blockbusting, calls getting stopped by conceptual boundaries. Current brain science tells us that when we face a new problem, our brain automatically applies strategies from past experience. This works well if the new problem is similar to an old problem. When it’s not, the solution from the past literally blocks better ideas from emerging.If you want to be available for new connections, pathways and ideas, you have to consciously interrupt your brain from its familiar path.

Indeed, our audience of leaders was surprised to hear a range of different solutions:

  • If you had a very fat pencil, you can join the dots in just three lines, shaped like a “Z.”
  • With a fatter pencil, you can knock them all out in one super thick swipe.
  • You can fold your paper accordion-style, so all the dots were together, and cover them with one straight, razor’s-edge line.
  • You can lay your paper on the ground, and draw one continuous line that circles the earth three times, catching three dots each time it comes by – or just roll your paper into a cylinder and do the same thing.

The leaders in that big conference room? They’d come up against their own conceptual boundaries. They didn’t realize that when they whispered, “I think I know this one,” what they were really saying was, “I am just not able to think about a solution in any way other than what I’ve already seen.”

Letting go, schmetting go

I have a mentor – generous, smart, effective – who is a big fan of William Bridges’ classic work on change, Transitions.For years, I heard her talking about letting go. I’m embarrassed to admit that I basically tuned it out. I was impatient with folks who seemed to be stuck in the past. Come on, people!

Boy, has my thinking has changed.

Having done quite a bit of letting go myself lately, I suspect there may be at least three flavors leaders may need to facilitate (and potentially do themselves). Letting go of:

  • Preexisting mental models about the solution they’re shooting for ~ like the way to solve the nine dots puzzle.
  • Personal attachment to yesterday ~ the organization they thought they joined, the job they thought they were hired for, or the way they did their job that worked… yesterday.
  • Certainty ~ knowing the answer, being an “expert,” playing it safe, avoiding failure, or the myth that leadership has the answer (and they’re just not giving it to us).

True confession: This post is a down-and-dirty how-to that addresses the easiest of the three, busting out of preexisting mental models. But if you’re interested in a discussion of the others, I can always be bought with dark chocolate.

So how do you bust mental models?

To my mind, the hardest part is to remember to do it in the first place. Here’s a starter list:

  • Outside panel + speeddating.In the leadership conference we’ve been talking about, we brought in a panel of leaders from other industries – animation, footwear, tech – to talk about how they’d approached a similar change challenge at their organizations. The approaches that were so natural to them (from within their mental models) were jaw-dropping to our conference attendees.
    • Next, we had the audience stand up and speed date with different questions, including “One thing you heard that surprised you?”, “One thing you could take and use?”, and “One thing you heard that our company would NEVER do?”
    • For this last question, speed dating pairs had to decide which of their two “we-would-never-do-this” answers was the most true; they combined with another pair, then narrowing down to one that was most true; they combined with a quad and narrowed to one; etc., until among the crowd of 120+ there were only four assumptions about what wouldn’t work that hadn’t been disproved.
  • Fire yourself. This is an oldie but a goodie from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Make a list on the wall of the key assumptions of your product/company/industry (for example, fine dining restaurants seat people). Then, fire yourself and leave the room. Walk back in as the next generation, and for each assumption, identify five ways it’s not true. Try using costumes when you walk back in; what the heck?
  • Outside stimulus missions. Send participants to gather stories and examples of what other companies, industries, species, ages, etc. do when faced with a similar challenge. Have them interview competitors or colleagues; do web searches of other organizations and sectors and do 7-minute presentations to the team with visuals and demonstrations; or take 30 minutes right then and there to use their cell phones and “phone a friend,” or a friend’s friend, and bring back what they learn.

Beyond (or rather, before) brainstorming

The intention is to consciously replace existing paradigms with alternatives, not because the alternatives will solve things, but because they open the brain to the new pathways and ways of thinking that will help you uncover other new solutions. The more sensory (visual, experiential, etc.), the better – this inspires the imagination and communicates more information, more quickly. While good facilitation of non-linear brainstorming tools can certainly take a group outside their current thinking, my experience is that priming with an hour or two of good conceptual busting before brainstorming  helps people get farther into new territory, much faster.

Other concept-busting, letting-go-of-what-you-know approaches you’ve used or heard about?