I have two daughters, aged 12 and 10, who like to define themselves as pretty much polar opposites of each other (though in truth, they are perhaps more similar than either of them cares to admit.) One of the differences between them is that one loves to bake, and the other loves to cook.
Baking Daughter loves to flick through recipe books on a Saturday morning, to find a glossy picture of something delicious. She’ll note down a list of everything she needs, take money and a shopping bag, walk to the shops, come home and lay out all the ingredients.
She’ll pre-heat the oven, weigh and measure, whisk and fold. If something unexpected happens during this process – the dog wants to play, someone rings the doorbell, a feckless parent needs access to the kettle – this will be met with sighing and bowl-banging. But mostly, this is a happy hour or two in our kitchen, and the result is pretty much always delicious, exactly as the picture promised.
All of this blows Cooking Daughter’s mind. She does not have the patience for a shopping list or a pre-heated oven. She finds the scales are fickle, the recipe ambiguous. She cannot remember the difference between whisking and folding, and doesn’t have space in her brain for such tedious distinctions.
Instead, Cooking Daughter breezes into the kitchen late afternoon and announces she’ll make dinner. “I’m making a Spanish Omelette”, she’ll say. Within seconds, the gas is lit, there’s onion chopped, and she’s standing in front of the open fridge gathering ingredients into her arms.
She’s a whirlwind – chopping and stirring, kicking the dog’s ball to him with her foot as she chops, watching tiktoks on a propped-up phone, singing. Almost always at some point there will be shouting – “OHMIGOSH Muuuuuum, why are there no mushrooms/halloumi/insert random ingredient?!” – but again, mostly, this is a happy hour in our kitchen and the result is pretty much always delicious.
We may, however, end up eating a stirfry rather than an omelette. But no matter: there was never a picture to look at in the first place, and never a recipe to follow.
In the chapter in my book about evolution, I depict old-school strategy setting as being essentially Baking Daughter’s approach. Pre-planned, considered, carefully executed. This approach to business change is dead, I say. We live in VUCA times! Viva la evolution!
The approach to change that I advocate for in the book is more akin to Cooking Daughter’s approach: start with an end in mind – ‘feed the family dinner’ – but then just begin where you are – an open fridge, a lit hob, no mushrooms.
There are many, many advantages to an evolutionary approach to strategy setting during periods of change. For example:
- You can move swiftly, with what I call ‘careful speed’ – seeking input and reflecting, yes, but not allowing a vacuum to develop. At a time of change, when doubt and fear can creep into any gap, swift action brings certainty and confidence.
- You can respond, in the moment, to the detailed nuance of your context, which no plan would have been able to predict, being certain as to your desired outcome but flexible as to your path to get there.
- You can empower and engage everyone in your organisation. If every detail has been worked out in advance, everyone’s role ends up being only about execution, whereas there is much more motivation to be had if people have a say in how things are done, and feel able to make a difference. (There’s a brilliant TED talk by Dan Ariely about a series of experiments with origami birds that demonstrate this point beautifully)
- You can devolve decision making to those on the frontline, on the coalface, who are best equipped to make the best decisions.
Organisations that do well in adopting this evolutionary approach tend to be strikingly focused on outcomes and the big picture. They favour values, deeply rooted and widely lived, over rules and policies. In the book, I identify three principles that underpin these characteristics, namely vulnerability, hope and reflection. Let’s touch on these in a moment.
Reflecting on all I’ve learned and seen over the past year though, I would also add a fourth. Enter Baking Daughter. I would add a focus on clear and robust processes.
In the book I say:
“Process is a false friend in times of uncertainty…”
but I now think I got that wrong. Process is not enough, and there can be a tendency to try to over-rely on process when things are uncertain because of the false comfort it gives. BUT process is nevertheless an important component.
So. Vulnerability, hope, reflection AND process. Let’s look at each in turn.
As recently as 2018, when I wrote the first draft of the book, the v-word was pretty much non-existent in any dialogue on leadership. Now, it’s suddenly everywhere. We are finally coming to understand that the old patriarchal model of the leader as all-knowing and indubitable has no place in today’s world, if only because the past year has made all of us vulnerable in all sorts of ways, many of them uncomfortable.
Vulnerability, though, doesn’t mean weakness or vagueness. In the best leadership, it comes as a pair with the capacity also to make sense of things, and to hold and contain people, circumstances, emotions. Vulnerable leaders can be unwaivering in their clear sense of purpose and destination, and yet create in the precise location of their doubt and openness a beautiful, wide, inclusive and safe space for others to step into – to share their stories, perspectives and expertise, and help to find the path forward.
Hope happens when leaders help people to make sense of where they are and to imagine options for the way forward. It happens when we give people the self-belief, confidence and tools they need to move, amidst all the noise and uncertainty, towards that imagined future.
Reflection is basically the green cross code of leadership: stop when something doesn’t feel right; look and listen at what is going on around you – ask questions, get amongst people, show up; and then think – together– in order to co-create the best way forward. This capacity to learn, individually and corporately, and to use the learnings to inform the path, is a critical component of being evolutionary in navigating change.
Ah, poor old maligned process! I have come to understand process as the cell wall, the membrane, the silk of which the web is woven – allowing organisations to stretch and stretch as they evolve, without breaking. Processes must not become rigid, otherwise they will stifle vulnerability, hope and reflection, and the benefits of an evolutionary approach won’t be realised – but they absolutely must be there. It is processes that enable us to keep our people safe, to communicate with them, to refocus the business, to keep us connected.
Leaders should therefore pay close attention to their processes – designing them intentionally, and then nurturing and developing them to support their purpose and to create space for vulnerability, hope and reflection.
If we can get this balance right, as leaders and as organisations , then we can both have our cake and eat it (and the omelette too!) – having the sense of purpose and confidence to evolve as circumstances change – swiftly, and smartly and with everyone engaged – without descending into chaos, and always with our eye fixed on where we’re going.
You can download some helpful tips for leaders about how to take an evolutionary approach to change here.