Let’s start where you are.  Your organization is meeting expectations.  Clearly what you do works.  You have a track record of producing reliable results and growing at a rate that is satisfactory.  You know how to do many things that when combined, produce predictable results.  You sell an acceptable amount of product or service, deliver it at an acceptable quality of service and do so at a margin that works.  This demonstrates a sensible approach and solid management.  Without both, this would not be possible.  This represents an excellent foundation for true high performance with two caveats. First, A solid reliable organization cannot make dramatic shifts, what we call breakthroughs, without recognizing that breakthrough performance does not come from what we already know.  Second, leaders must be willing to commit to getting somewhere specific.  Without a known destination it is possible to do lots of great work, but it is not possible to correct our course.  Predictable breakthroughs happen only when we know where we are going and they happen in an environment where we are willing to work with the unknown as well as the known. 



Management enables us to produce everything we know how to produce, including in many environments, predictable steady growth.  Leadership is only necessary when we are looking for performance beyond what we know how to produce. With effective management we can add to the volume of what we do, we can change things a bit, or add to what we do.  Essentially, management allows us to do more, do it better, or do something a bit different.  Leadership however, is the domain of the unpredictable.  We define a leader as an ordinary human being who:  has a commitment to produce a result that would be extraordinary given current perceived circumstances, the integrity to stay committed in the face of the possibility of failure and who enrolls others in participating in producing the intended outcomes as their own commitment.  Leadership begins with a committed intention to produce specific outcomes where the means is not known.


One of the first key factors in causing a shift is to identify and, generally reinvent the background conversation.  Background conversations are the ones that do not need to be spoken; they have become part of the culture of the organization or the team.  Background conversations define the way things are in the organization and thereby can constrain what is possible.  Having worked with numerous organizations over the past 18 years, I have never seen an organization that does not have a dominant background conversation that puts some limits on what is possible.  These conversations need to be replaced by new agreements about what is possible, what is committed and what constitutes a breakthrough a breakdown and integrity.


To produce breakthrough performance the careful identification and expression of intended outcomes is essential. In our experience, such initiatives are most likely to succeed when the commitment is to achieve results far beyond what the organization’s experience demonstrates is possible.  If you know how to produce a 10% growth rate, design a project to cause 30% or 50%.  If you have been producing a product in 6 months and know how to reduce that by a week, commit to producing it in 3 months.  Objectives beyond what one knows how to do are key to bringing about more than that “more, better different” approach.   The project must not be achievable with management alone if the desired outcomes are breakthroughs in performance. 


The instant the objectives are committed, participants will find themselves in a new domain, breakdown.  A breakdown is simply the circumstance that one is in when current trajectory does not point to the achievement of committed outcomes.  For many people this is experienced as a problem, a reason for upset.  And this must be resolved swiftly for an individual or a team to be effective.  Effective leadership requires the ability to deal with breakdown.  Being in breakdown is the natural state of leadership.  I am going to say that again as it is easy to miss:  being in breakdown is the natural state of leadership, as without breakdown there is no breakthrough.  So get ready.  If you want to produce extraordinary results, life will be about resolving breakdowns.  Then again, whose life is not at least in part about dealing with breakdowns?  The difference is that for leadership, this is done intentionally, while for management, all work is designed around making things predictable.  Another way to say this is that, while management is about eliminating breakdown, leadership is about causing and contending with breakdown as access to breakthrough.


So again, let’s start where you are.  Your organization works, you have gone from where you started to where you are now.  The organization can, predictably produce what it is counted on to produce, including (or not) some level of growth and you are facing one of two possible situations.  Either you are confronted by some mandate, some demand that requires something totally new or, you find yourself, like many others before you, looking out over the horizon, wondering what is next, how to take your organization through a dramatic shift, where what is now not possible, becomes your new standard of performance.  This is where breakthrough projects come into play.  This is, for some, where the fun really starts. 


©2014 ALS Consulting

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