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Your Organisation's Killer-Capability Is Not What You Think It Is

Chris Denison , Advocacy Dynamics
19 Nov, 2019
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First. A Reality Check

It's easy to forget that the innovation, strategy and change programmes we all turn to for helping secure our organisation's future interests, work toward imagined futures, and never real futures.

To achieve the aims and ambitions our organisations carry within these programmes will depend on how our people respond to opportunities and threats they encounter while pursuing these imaginary futures.

The ability of the workforce to dynamically and positively respond to their imaginary futures has plummeted to dangerous levels. This decline continues to have a massive impact on the well-being and welfare of our people and our organisations.

In Search of a Killer-Capability

I've spent quite some time looking for practical solutions for helping transform imagined futures into real ones. In search of a 'killer-capability' if you like. 

My inspiration for a solution came in 2015 during discussions with groups of FTSE 100 & 250 companies. The theme was 'The Power and Range of an Organisation's Vision'. 

When we dug down into the detail, in all groups, most employees struggled to recognise, value or accept the imagined futures their organisation's presented to them through their visions.

Plus, more than half of everyone involved believed the role of helping their organisations secure a bright future wasn’t a priority and something others were more qualified to do.

These discussions evoked memories of years attempting to reverse the belief (and mainstream imagined future) that the health club experience was uncomfortable and unnecessary for most people.

This was back in the '80s when the health club industry was in its infancy. When only real enthusiasts and true believers would consider joining one, for everyone else, the thing to do was to watch a Jane Fonda workout video or squeeze a Bullworker (remember those?).

My American Dream

At the time, I worked in North America and led a small team of experts in exercise physiology. We aimed to develop techniques for helping people recognise and respond to the fantastic benefits of a health and fitness club.

And for quite a time we struggled.

In late 1987, I took a scenic nine-hour drive from Tennessee to North Carolina. In between stops at near-forgotten gas stations, mostly run by old-timers full of southern charm and with a penchant for promoting bags of soft peanuts soaked in barrels of brine, I had time to reflect on the findings from some 2700+ interviews.

As I snaked through the foggy foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a simple truth grabbed hold of me and for a while wouldn't let go.

Before we can face our futures, we are compelled to eliminate fear and anxiety about what we may encounter. We do what we can to fill in gaps in our understanding and where possible, rid ourselves of doubt over what lies ahead. For gaps that remain, we engage our imaginations. 

The imagined futures we create, rarely offer the familiarity, comfort, or appeal of our current realities. Then its no surprise we choose our current realities over the uncertain futures imagined by others.

For my work in the health club industry, this translated into thousands of people rejecting a healthier and happier lifestyle.

A few hours later, I broke through the fog and made a stop beside the awe-inspiring Lake Lure. Lake Lure, I later discovered, was the location for the filming of the Dirty Dancing movie.

I have a vivid memory of sitting beside the calm water, gazing across at the lush mountain tops and perhaps for the first time, appreciating the nature and size of the impact of the imagined futures we all create, and to which we all respond in our own unique ways.

It's a truly exceptional person who can embrace a future they do not or cannot believe in and fully support. For the rest of us, we are governed and instructed by our hearts and minds to stay firmly fixed in our present.

In the weeks that followed, we doubled-down on our efforts to create a solution capable of removing many of the restrictions that kept people away from experiencing healthier futures.

After a few false starts, we succeeded and helped transform the fortunes of the largest health club group in North America.

Back to the Future

Fast-forward to 2015. I was back in the UK. It was a few days after the discussions on the power and range of an organisation's vision. 

Inspired, I began refining and applying the methods born nearly three decades earlier.

By early 2016 I had reached the point where I could link organisation performance with the differences or gaps between an organisation's imagined future (often projected through a vision or strategy document) and the imagined futures created by their employees.

This gap, I named the 'reality gap', represented how far away employees are from understanding, believing in and supporting an imagined future an organisation presented (and promised).

With this minor win under my belt, I turned my attention toward programmes involving innovation, strategy and change. These are activities that live or die on their ability to project compelling and credible futures to people involved.

Over the next two and a half years, I tried and tested over a hundred methods for measuring and reducing the 'reality gap' for programmes of this type. Progress was slow, thanks to the human capacity to conceal or disguise thoughts, feelings and fears about the future.

Earlier this year, I achieved a breakthrough. I was able to measure programme reality-gaps, their impact on programme KPI's and their effect on the quality of the contribution of people involved. 

Alarmingly, the reality-gap within all programmes was quite considerable as was the impact on those involved.

Employees struggled to relate and connect what they knew, what they believed, and what they saw and did, to the futures these programmes proposed. 

As a result, employees became conflicted. In most cases, this conflict was left unresolved. A negative emotional undercurrent formed, affecting employee confidence, productivity and performance, and reducing the quality of their contribution.

There was an upside. When issues causing the reality-gaps were identified and resolved (early), performance increased, almost immediately.

A Promised Land

My career path is a little unusual. With most of my days spent navigating a landscape of uncertainty and ambiguity, where often I feel like I am battling an unseen force at the crossroads of 'probability, possibility and purpose'.

Fortunately, these crossroads are a place where discoveries are made and sometimes a place where progress is achieved.

We all face an uncertain future, and must never underestimate the impact of the reality gaps that emerge and expand as a consequence. If we do, our people will struggle to deliver close to their best response to the opportunities, threats and uncertainties they will encounter.

Think of your role as an architect tasked with building one imagined future from all the material you have around you. The imagined future you and others create from this material will be one everyone believes they can support, and one where everyone feels they can belong.

Closing the reality gaps within your organisation will always be your most potent and killer-capability.

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