Gaining Traction

“You are a product of your environment.  So choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective.  Analyze your life in terms of its environment.  Are the things around you helping toward success – or are they holding you back.” –via Clement Stone

Without validating the truth of the statement, several years ago I was told that Rick DuFour made the comment that a majority of those who attend the conferences struggle to successfully implement Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in their organization.

Whether true or not, it remains a valid statement that has taken up residence in my subconscious throughout these years.  A statement that may be well-worth our consideration, or as Simon Sinek might say, “let’s start with the why”.  Which may also shed some light on the ‘why’ behind previously failed change efforts.

Whether we want to admit it or not, our ability to create change in our organization requires influence.  It is hard to lead the charge without it.  If you are unable to influence thinking and actions, then you shouldn’t expect to see many changes in behaviors across the organization.

It is just a leadership reality.

So, without straying too far off topic, let’s get back to the original idea of why is it so difficult to implement our learning to create and support positive change in our organizations?

One way we fail the process is our ability to recognize that the context and way in which we achieved the learning has an impact on us, either negatively or positively.  Those same learnings, whether gleaned from a conference or our own reading or research has an impact on us in the manner and environment in which the learning was acquired.  The learning brings both an emotional and intellectual impact, which is often determined by where we are at in life.  The problem, not everyone else is in same place or hears and feels the information in the same context.

And this is where we often go off the tracks as leaders…

When we attend a conference and return Monday morning fired up and ready to change the world, we have to understand that not everyone else is in the same place (mentally or emotionally).  Not everyone arrived at work Monday morning hoping to turn the world upside-down!  Yet, we are busting at the seams with this new learning that must be shared across the organization.  Bubbling at the brim with excitement to get everyone revved up with the new knowledge we have acquired.  It’s time to make an impact!  So, with our zeal in tow, we pull everyone together, and guess what?  It falls flat.  It tanks like a lead balloon.  Doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, other than the obligatory, “Are we required to do this?”  And our leadership bubble bursts in frustration.  And so we call in our overworked secretary and sing the woes of our failed effort, what is wrong with everyone?  Can’t everyone see what a great idea this is?  Don’t they see the great possibilities?  And our poor secretary, who doesn’t know what to say, just hopes that the tirade doesn’t take long.  She needs to get back to the jobs that must get done for the same person keeping her from that very work.

What is toughest to swallow, is that in all actuality, the frustration is our own doing.  Our zeal to move forward has caused us to overlook and forced a major misstep in the change process: understanding that everyone has a different mental map.  As leaders (and to our own detriment) we have a tendency to envision everyone on the same page, with the same learning, right alongside us.  The reality check is, everyone has their own mental map and some aren’t even in the same book, let alone on the same page.  Which, suffice to say, is a strong proponent for why it is our responsibility as leaders to create a visual of our mental map for those we lead.

That is the power of vision, without the ability to create it for those you lead you will most likely find yourself back in your office singing the woes of your plight to a very unimpressed secretary.  And furthermore, an inability to influence others with a vision that aligns the organization creates dysfunction and frustrates everyone within.  The end result of the interaction, those leading wondering “what’s wrong with everyone” and those following rolling their eyes at another “here we go again!”  An organizational situation that most of us have lived through at one time or another in our professional lives.

And for a myriad of reasons, we must recognize the importance of our mental maps if we hope to exert any type of influence.  It is an incredibly vital aspect of our leadership that can often determine the effective and/or ineffectiveness of our change efforts within our organization.

An additional reason our Monday morning ‘look what I learned’ change effort usually falls flat is that we have not ‘shaped the Path’ which walks hand in hand with creating the mental map.   In their book, “Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard” the Heath Brothers expound on our tendency to take what is really a situational problem and treat it as a people problem.  If we haven’t created the appropriate mental map and environment that allows people to embrace change, how can we expect anything other than resistance?  We have to step back from our new learning and gain some perspective before we can determine how to construct the context for others to embrace that very same learning.  Which requires patience and timing!  The path doesn’t just appear, you have to create it, brick by brick.  Then you have to tether it out to them before you can decide to gently lead them down it.  We must remember that our abrupt attempts at change create resistance and eventually fail in a dismal fashion.  Leading requires doing the groundwork.  It’s what makes the job both difficult and rewarding.

If you truly want to create change and influence those in your learning organization, you have to create the mental maps and shape the Path necessary to evoke the thinking and actions that will lead to long lasting behavioral changes.  It is neither an easy or quick process hence, why change is always a difficult endeavor.

Reflecting on DuFour’s originating statement, the question becomes can we improve our ability to influence those we lead?  Is there a strategy to improve our ability to create mental maps, shape the Path, and influence change?

I believe there is a simple and yet complex leadership strategy that has influenced people throughout the ages.

It is the art of storytelling…

Look at the incredible manner that Rick DuFour took hold and changed the educational landscape through Professional Learning Communities.  It goes beyond just presenting the idea of PLCs, or everyone would be implementing it masterfully in their districts and schools.  He turned PLCs into a worldwide educational movement, while many struggle to gain traction in an individual schoolhouse.  And we wonder, what’s the secret?  The answer: there is no secret rather, a subtle and often overlooked leadership ability to convey the message through stories (along with tireless dedication and hard work).

For those of you who have witnessed him discussing the process, you find yourself instantly drawn in.  Why?  He has the uncanny ability to involve us personally in the process, to create a story that motivates and influences us.  He has the ability and gift to weave the PLC process into a story that we can all relate to and with.  He is a master of the craft.

Patterson’s book, “Influencer: The Power To Change Anything” we are pointed to the power of stories as a tool of influence.  The significance of creating vivid and detailed narratives for those you are trying to influence remains a vital leadership strategy.  Stories, Patterson says, change people’s view of how the world works because it presents a plausible, touching, and memorable flow of cause and effect that can alter people’s view of the consequences of various actions or beliefs.

Why?  Why are stories such a powerful tool for influencing people?  Patterson declares even the most educated of people tend to set aside their well-honed cynicism and critical nature when listening to a story, because stories help individuals transport themselves away from the role of a listener who is rigorously applying the rules of logic, analysis, and criticism and into the story itself.”  He further elaborates, concrete and vivid stories exert extraordinary influence because they transport people out of the role of critic and into the role of a participant.”

And isn’t that what we are after, for those we lead to participate in the process and involve themselves in the change effort.  Patterson reminds us that just understanding and believing a new point of view may not be enough to propel them into action.”  When leaders create stories, they also create the intellectual and emotional Paths for the listener and play a critical role in ‘shaping the Path’ to the change.  In the “Influencer” Patterson writes to the idea that creating the mental maps that change the way people think goes a long way towards changing how they behave.  That alone provides the impetus and ‘why’ we need to hone our leadership capacity towards becoming masterful storytellers.  We should become experts in the use of the most portable and readily available map-changing tool around – the poignant story.

When we pounce on those we lead with new ideas and change efforts that lack the map or Path when we drop change initiatives out of the blue, we fail to create the environment necessary to facilitate change.  It is our duty as leaders to increase our capacity to support and lead the process, and one way to improve our capacity is through the art of storytelling.

So if you go to a new conference this week and/or find yourself energized from new learnings acquired over the weekend remember, if you truly want to invoke change across the organization, exert a little patience and do those things necessary to create the environment that will allow your efforts to flourish.


2 thoughts on “Gaining Traction

  1. Wonderful posts with many challenges. Today I’ll write a story related to change I’d like to see occur in schools–I want to think about this approach. Also, I utilized the concept of “mental maps” with a challenging group of readers this year and it was very effective with regard to engagement, motivation and response. Thank you.

  2. An excellent post David!!! I have had the opportunity to hear Rick in person a couple of times and he is a master at aligning your map with is thru the power of story. I have also read the book Influencer and it was fantastic. You make some excellent points here and I think all leaders should read this post. I have met very experienced leaders that have either forgotten these skills or have been blissfully ignorant of them.

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