Don't Think of a Pink Elephant!

Driver #1: Strategic Direction

By Rebecca Ellis, Managing Director of the Performance Lab

As leaders, we certainly have some good gut reactions on how to talk about the future. Brain science supports many of these gut instincts but also some of our standard practices might be working against us.

For example, we know it’s not helpful to create a lot of uncertainty in change and often hold on telling the masses a change is coming until we can answer the 2-5 most anticipated questions the employees will ask. We also know it’s critical to tell employees why we are changing. Simon Sinek and many others have reminded us it’s important to “start with why” to motivate a different behavior.  

One of our Indy’s most prominent local leaders, Michael Huber, CEO of the Indy Chamber, shares his epiphany on this topic. As he states, you just can’t mention the why enough:

What is maybe less obvious is the what. Not in a tactical, detailed-oriented way, but more from a strategic perspective. Remember the burning platform? Telling people what is bad and what not to do. 
In order to motivate change, we ask why we are going to “burn” or fail? If you’re still working from an assumption that this approach works, let me share a little exercise that might change your mind.

The pink elephant exercise

For the next 15 seconds, think of anything fun. Maybe a favorite movie you recently saw, a favorite holiday meal, a fantastic finish to a sporting event you recently attended Ok, got that down? Now that you have your image, here’s just a small instruction. Don’t think of a pink elephant. 

Shouldn’t be hard, right? I meanwhen’s the last time thoughts of pink elephant hijacked your brain. But, now it has. How bizarre is that? The one, small thing I told you not to think about is exactly what you conjured, and it overtook your fun, happy, exciting memory just like that. 

Yes, this is a silly exercise, but the phenomenon is not as silly. It’s a strong reminder that we cannot just tell people what not to do; we have to tell them what we need. As leaders, it’s our job to verbalize where we want our teams and organizations to go and inspire, influence, and motivate them to do take actions to achieve the goal.

Research by Daniel Wegner, a late professor at Harvard University, uncovered the “ironic process theory.” He found that when we try not to think of a thought, one part of our mind will avoid it, but another part will keep checking to make sure the thought isn’t coming to mind. In essence, the process our minds use not to think about it actually makes us think about it. Yes, I know. Quite ironic.

This is why the burning platform has and should lose prominence as the way we talk about our Strategic Direction. You can’t tell employees to move forward with threats of what not to do; you have to tell them what to do – but at a high level more in line with where the organization is going, so they can help determine the tactics to get there.

Strategic Direction is the name we give this important leadership element. We define it as the plan that guides actions to evolve the organization to its desired future state. See, we’re not just talking about a vague vision statement here. Not that we hate vision statements – they just often don’t provide enough direction, and that’s the key. We’re talking about things like 3-year roadmaps that are clearly communicated, so each employee knows how to line up their activities to achieve the organization’s future goals.

S.O.A.R. – a helpful model

Of course, before we help you clarify your direction, you need to have some form of a strategy. And we have a process thats helped our clients through the toughest of situations. If you want to DIY it, start with our SOAR model for some inspiration on a more positive approach to the traditional SWOT analysis. In a recent video, we talked about how you can use SOAR to your advantage. 

And here’s another peek at the SOAR model with some questions to get you and your peers thinking positively: 

SOAR modelSource

Credit to Dr. Gina Hinrichs, a fellow student in my Ph.D. program, who used this approach often. I find it to be simple; it leverages all the best parts of appreciative inquiry in a way that makes strategic planning more fruitful and invaluable.

The what is one part of this equation with smart processes and tools, but the real secret sauce is the other part – the how. There are three behaviors we believe are key to perfecting Strategic Direction. If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this quick video about the behaviors then read on for some more info:

Think boundaryless

Yes, boundaryless looks like made up business jargon. Honestly, it kinda is, but it’s so necessary to our conversation around Strategic Direction. As we’ve perfected optimization across our departments’ silos, we have noticed we’re still leaving a lot on the table because of the up- and downstream affects of our actions. Linking mechanisms, as an example, have become a mainstay in org design to make connections beyond our traditional boundaries. 

This term also alludes to the importance of thinking about our work, our mission, our purpose from an outside-in perspective. We cannot do the proverbial “navel gazing” and get ahead. We must keep looking beyond our traditional view (e.g. traditional customers, traditional competitors, traditional talent profiles, etc) to truly deliver on the future demands for our organization. 

Create an aspirational, exciting vision

The best Strategic Directions we have seen are aspirational yet obtainable. Exciting yet grounded. Intimidating yet friendly. Uncharted yet calculated. As you can see, there are many paradoxes in play in a true vision.  

John Kotter, a definite authority on change management, has some criteria we like to use to test a change vision (1996). Is it…? 

  1. Imaginable – does it convey what the future looks like?
  2. Desirable – does it appeal to the long-term interests of employees, customers, stockholders, and others who have a stake in the enterprise?
  3. Feasible – does it comprise of realistic, attainable goals? 
  4. Focused – is it clear enough to provide guidance in decision making? 
  5. Flexible – is it general enough to allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions? 
  6. Communicable – is it easy to communicate? Can it be successfully explained within five minutes? 

Influence people to make this change

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin 

We’ve heard this over and over. But it’s as much about knowing the actions you take as it is influencing people to take them. Command and control doesn’t work here; and we have decades of examples to prove it. 

And yet we’ve also known for decades we should take a different approach, yet we’re still in pursuit of perfecting it. Changing human behavior is the hardest task any leader undertakes. This is where influence skills are king. You need to plan this influence strategy just like you would the next steps in your strategy because without adoption of your ideas, the ideas themselves are dismissedThis is why we suggest balancing your day with equal time, energy and resources devoted to developing your solution as getting adoption of it.

Effective Change Equation – Q x A = E

Q = Technical solution
A = Acceptance or engagement
E = Overall effectiveness

As this has surely painted the picture, directing strategy may seem daunting, but it can be broken down to some practical, achievable steps. We’re hopeful you see its potential ROI for your organization’s outcomes. 

Why this is important

Now that you have an idea of how we view high performance and Strategic Direction, you may be wondering the value of chasing it. Yes, its hard work; however, its also rewarding when you achieve it. Here‘s proof (de Waal, 2008) that high performance cultures outshine their peers:  

  • + 23% total shareholder return
  • + 20% return of investment
  • + 17% return on equity
  • + 7% return on assets
  • + 11% return on sales
  • + 10% revenue
  • + 29% profits

Not only is it highly predictable that your business will achieve better financial metrics when youre optimized in each of the ten drivers. But itll also become a more engaging place to show up every day – for you and your employees.

If you want a trusted advisor alongside for this journey, we’d be honored to be considered. We have experience and expertise that can help smooth out some of the typical bumps along the way. 

Drop us a line!