There was a CEO of a large corporation—I will call him Dan—who was a brilliant man with a thirst for action and achievement. During his first five years as CEO, he not only globalized the company but also drove it to impressive levels of profit. Wall Street was delighted. As he entered his sixth year, things grew more difficult. He had stretched the system as far as it would go. As he wrestled with his challenges, he began to talk about the need for values and the commitment to values. He wanted to develop a high-performance culture.
“Sooner or later, every leader comes to understand how little power he or she really has. I will take you back to when this was just a North American business. A person could get things done continuously, consistently. As we became more complex and the environment more intense, it became impossible to get things done through the force of leadership. Everything in my mind has always been so clear and logical. I felt, if we just do what we know how to do every day, this thing will work. I had this grand scheme and grand design and grand vision, and I thought I could articulate it and get people lined up. It did not happen. It absolutely did not happen. I think that I had to come to grips with the fact that it is not enough for me to be committed, to have a plan and understand where we are going. I realized I had to get everyone engaged and committed.”
There is an important lesson here. Dan was so brilliant and forceful that, for five years, he was able to “will” his company to success. He then discovered the limitations of power. The conventional mental map suggests that a CEO is a king with unlimited power. Yet Dan discovered that force of leadership and brilliant expertise is not enough. To move to a higher level of corporate performance, Dan had to have a company of “engaged and committed” people. Dan was becoming bilingual. He had just discovered the positive mental map, which added complexity to his current mental map. This meant that he was ready to learn about the emergent process.
Shortly after making that statement, there was a meeting of the company’s top 100 leaders. The objective was to deal with some difficult issues around collaboration and compensation. A gifted HR leader designed the meeting. He recognized the difference between a technical problem that is solved through the application of existing knowledge and an adaptive problem that is solved through collective learning (3). He indicated that the real issues would be put on the table, and an authentic conversation would occur.
Dan was conceptually committed to the process. We all knew, though, that when the inevitable conflict began to surface, he would have a strong temptation to take control. The HR leader explained that Dan needed to stop himself from taking control. Several people would be working as facilitators and would help the participants own their conflict and keep moving. He told Dan to “trust the process.”
The HR leader then went out and had a coin made. The coin said, “Trust the process.” He told Dan he needed to put it in his pocket, and, whenever he wanted to take control, he needed to squeeze the coin and hold back.
The issue of collaboration and compensation was introduced at the meeting of the top 100 leaders. The major issue was that people were compensated according to the continent on which they worked, and it was causing silo behavior. The company was not functioning as a whole. As the issue was addressed, the predicted conflict emerged. During one break, a very concerned participant told me he had never seen the company so divided; he was fearful of what might happen next. Teams continued to meet and discuss the issue. In the afternoon, we assembled as a large group. One team articulated what kind of collaboration was necessary and proposed a radical shift in the compensation system. Another team made a similar proposal. In a short time, there was a consensus. The people had embraced a shift that was far beyond what Dan would have dared to propose.
Later, the HR leader asked Dan what he was feeling when the conflict was high. Dan said, “I was squeezing that coin so hard, I think I bent it.”
At the heart of the conventional mental map is the assumption of knowing. An expert solves a technical problem by applying knowledge. At the heart of the positive mental map is the assumption of collective learning. People pursue a purpose they do not yet know how to accomplish. As they move forward, they learn and adapt, eventually producing a new level of understanding and order. For someone living from the conventional mental map, emergence is difficult to comprehend, and trusting the process is nearly impossible.
What does emergence mean to me?
What does it mean to trust the emergent process?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?