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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Leading Out of the Downturn

As a leader your job is to reveal this default future, and put it up on the table with people. So they’re actually communicating about it and seeing in their interactions new opportunities and new possibilities. Once that happens, people start to expand their perspective on what is going on; they start to see new pathways to what they could create. And when they start to create it, we all that rewriting the future.

S+B: Could you give an example of a specific way this works?
In difficult times like the present, you want information to flow in organizations, but, actually, the flow is lessened. People in senior positions aren’t sure what to tell people. Should I tell them what’s really happening, what we’re confronting? If I tell them what’s really happening, might they get even more demoralized? But from our experience, people want to get related to reality and they’re empowered when they do. And particularly when they’re asked to collaborate on and support a creative process of moving the organization to another level, they jump at the opportunity.

Everybody in the organization knows or senses something. They may not know what it is they’re sensing, but people communicate in all sorts of ways. There’s what we say, what we’re not saying, and how we are communicating with our bodies. There’s a lot of communication going on, and sometimes you don’t even know it’s happening. So leaders who open up the channels of communication and feel comfortable — and who take the risk of inviting people to think about the picture they’re looking at — will find that they have partners they never expected.

S+B: Could you give an example of a situation in which this kind of action has worked for a company?
There are many examples in the book of how rewriting the future has led to transformations, and to dramatic elevation in performance. One is about an American copper company that hired my firm to help solve a serious problem at a mine they had purchased in 1994 in Peru, 14,000 feet up in the Andes, that had been owned by the government. It was an important source of employment in that region, but had many difficulties: There were workers with a government mind-set; there is a caste system in Peru, and the workers came from different castes; there were two unions that had been fighting with each other and with management for years. When we arrived, they had had 15 one-year labor agreements, and each took six months to negotiate, so they were in a constant state of conflict and negotiation.

We got representatives from all the relevant stakeholder groups in a room — about 60 people in all — and facilitated management laying out the default future they were all headed toward based on past experience. We asked, Is this really where you want to go? Management then described an alternative future, in which they would commit to creating a high-performance, world-class organization in which there would be benefits for everybody. When we finished there was a long silence, and one of the Peruvian workers jumped up and said, “Long live the future.” That was the start of a monthlong process, based on the three laws, that generated a five-year labor agreement — the first of its kind in Latin America. Other mines used to send people to study the agreement, but it never worked for them — because it wasn’t the words on the paper that made it work, it was the act of writing it together, and the ownership that provided.

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  1. Leander Kahney, Inside Steve’s Brain (Portfolio, 2008): How Steve Jobs pursued his dream of bringing technology to the masses, and rewrote both his own future and that of Apple to make it come true.
  2. Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization (Collins Business, 2008): How “corporate tribes” — groups of 20 to 150 people within a company — come together on their own rather than through management decisions, and how leaders can use them to maximize productivity and profit.
  3. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House, 2007): People place too much weight on the odds that past events will repeat, when, in fact, the really important events are rare and unpredictable.
  4. Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life (Jossey-Bass, 2009): Zaffron and Logan develop their system for rewriting the future and how it operates, in several case studies of multinational corporations.
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