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Making the impossible possible

What undermines agility? Chiefly, it is an environment where workers think that their bosses are bad leaders and that the majority are arrogant, have poor communication skills and are uncaring. If they feel that the bosses care only about the numbers and not them, that is a recipe for great unhappiness. Conversely, when people are happy and feel good about themselves, they deliver. Work is more enjoyable and more productive. I have often observed that it is the happiest people who seek out the most challenging work. They set themselves harder and harder goals. They stretch themselves all the time. If they can be made to care about the outcome, if they feel what they are doing will be making a difference, they’ll make the impossible possible.

It is the job of the leader to set direction. Good leaders will do this after consulting staff, but they’ll be using a lot more information besides the views of staff. They’ll be looking at market conditions, competitor activity, economic trends and customer insights, among many other things, to decide on strategic direction. Staff know this. They do, however, want their views considered and they wanted to feel that those views are respected by their leaders. Once that’s done, the leader must then announce his or her intentions.

It takes a courageous leader to say: ‘This is where we are going, and this is our impossible dream. I know we can get there, and we must, but I don’t know how. Help me.’

Such a goal will imply considerable change. Having change inflicted on you makes you feel like the victim of change. But when you get to offer up ideas for how to achieve goals and you’re involved in making choices that will enable faster change, you feel very much more in control and more committed to the goals. It is why I often advise leaders to stop using the word change and instead be much more focused on using the word choice.

During my research I came across a great example of this in an experiment involving lottery tickets. Researchers gave half of the participants in the experiment a lottery ticket with the numbers already written on it. They gave the others a blank piece of paper and asked them to choose their own numbers. They then offered to draw the winning number, but paused for a moment to offer to buy back the lottery tickets. They wondered if there would be a difference in how much they would have to pay those who were given a number versus those who chose their own number. As a lottery is so random, there ought to have been little variation in price. The answer to this question, in experiment after experiment, in location after different location, was always the same: the researchers had to pay five times more to those who had chosen their own number.

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