If there’s one lesson the past year of change leadership consulting has shouted at me, it’s that we all need to ask more, better questions.
Thomas Friedman, in the most useful book on modern change that I read this past year, asserted that point plainly: “In the 21st century, knowing all the answers won’t distinguish someone’s intelligence. Rather, the ability to ask all the right questions will be the mark of true genius.”
Agility is, itself, a behavior of habitual question-asking:
“Oh, something changed?’ Got it…. Why? What is being asked of me? What’s the opportunity? Who do I need to join me? What will motivate them to do so? Have any of my related assumptions changed as well? What if there were no assumptions, what might we try then?
To encourage myself to ask more questions, I ramped up my reading last year. Eleven of the books I finished in 2019 were directly relevant to communicating and inspiring change, at least from my perspective sitting in Silicon Valley.
Here’s a round-up, with a few notes for fellow leaders on the questions each book answers. Perhaps one will inspire you to ask new questions of your own.
Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by Thomas Friedman
In this book I found a clear explanation for why so many people I encounter are feeling so unsettled by change.
In his signature straightforward story-telling style, Friedman paints a vibrant picture of three unprecedented “hockey sticks” of exponential change all converging at once in our lives today: technological, geopolitical/market, and climate. Execs at the front lines of tech, climate, and finance may find they can scan this section quickly, or listen on 1.75x. But for the rest it’s a comprehensive background that’s easy to grasp.
He then talks about how those three forceful curves interact with and accelerate each other. And he explains why, despite all the doom and gloom, he’s optimistic. The question I believe this book will answer for change leaders is, “what’s the context that surrounds the change I’m trying to influence?” And anyone who’s struggling to remain optimistic may find it a shot in the arm.
Elastic: Unlocking Your Brain’s Ability to Embrace Change by Leonard Mlodinow
By far my most tattered, dog-eared, and margin-scribbled read this year, this book calls for the cultivation of “elastic thinking” to make us all more resilient to change. Distinct from analytical thinking (reason-based, logical, and typically prized in Western business), Mlodinow describes elastic thinking as:
“The capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction; the ability to rise above conventional mind-sets and to reframe the questions we ask; the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms; the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas; and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure.”
He asserts that analytical thinking fails us in adapting to change. He tells enlightening stories about how elastic thinking has worked better in real-world situations: war, medicine, sports, business, etc. And then he offers practical advice for how one can promote elastic thinking in a team or culture.
I loved this quote:
“Sometimes the most powerful revelation one can have is that circumstances have changed. That the rules you are accustomed to no longer apply. That the successful tactics may be tactics that would have been rejected under the old rules. That can be liberating. It can spur you to question your assumptions and help you rise above your fixed paradigms and restructure your thinking.”
Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World by Adam Grant
“Geniuses don’t have better ideas than the rest of us,” says Grant, a psychologist, Wharton professor, and past professional magician. “They just have more of them.”
The message is, every one of us is capable of originality and creativity. We just need a system that nurtures, welcomes, and rewards these things. In this tightly constructed study, Grant reveals the value of novel ideas and encourages leaders to lean in to the risks they involve.
To quote the publisher’s summary: “Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent.” What change leader couldn’t use a little nudge of inspiration in those topics?
Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope by Mark Manson
I brought to this psychologist’s book my questions about how workers are feeling about the unsettling and fast-changing world right now. Our job as change leaders is to inspire and persuade people to think and behave differently – and the more we know about the psyches that make those people tick, the more effective we’ll be.
Look past the gratuitous swearing that Manson spouts to earn public attention; this book contains powerful clues about the emotions of people you’re hoping to influence. The big takeaway for me: Change leaders need to embrace and appeal to the messy emotions of their resistant populations. They need to respect the physicality of fear and anxiety. He writes:
“We are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion….Fear is not this magical thing your brain invents. No, it happens in our bodies. It’s the tightening of your stomach, the tensing of your muscles, the release of adrenaline. … While the thinking brain exists solely within the synaptic arrangements inside your skull, the feeling brain is the wisdom and stupidity of the entire body…. This leads to the simplest and most obvious answer to the timeliness question: why don’t we do things we know we should do? Because we don’t feel like it.”
Later in the chapter, he hits the point home: Empathy “is the only language the feeling brain understands.”
The insights in this brief and controversial manifesto haunted my thinking at work and at home for months, and have never fully left me. I’m a better leader for it.
Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design in San Francisco, is angry about the complacency of product designers, the dangerous downstream harm of bad design, and the system that perpetuates both those things. He’s harsh on the leaders and designers at the most famous of his accused brands – namely Twitter and Facebook – but he fairly diagnoses some of the perils of a fast-moving, capitalist, Silicon-Valley system of innovation.
He calls for product designers and leaders alike to yearn for – demand, no less – ethical and responsible design decisions, and for new leadership behaviors and better designer education. If you think you might disagree with Monteiro, I’d argue it’s all the more important you read this short work.
Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone by Satya Nadella
In this reflection on leadership and the journey of Microsoft’s successful turnaround, the company’s CEO tells stories of the central roles played by empathy, culture, and trust. Any leader embarking on a broad-sweeping culture change would likely gain a few new potent insights from these pages, if they bring to the book questions about how culture and trust are prohibiting or catalyzing their own efforts. A few nuggets I bookmarked were:
The importance of energy, positivity, and communication: “I think that is perhaps the number one thing that leaders have to do: to bolster the confidence of the people you’re leading.”
The importance of aligning the senior leadership team: “We needed a senior leadership team that would lean into each others’ problems, promote dialog and be effective.”
A definition of trust: “Trust is built by being consistent over time…. Trust has many other components as well: respect, listening, transparency, staying focused, and being willing to hit reset…. Of course there is no mathematical equation for such a humanistic outcome. But if there were, it might look something like this: E + SV + SR = T/T. Empathy + shared values + Safety and reliability = trust over time.”
Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
No library or bookstore would shelve this beautiful book in a section called “Change” or “Business.” Yet it would be fiercely relevant there (as it would in sections called “Politics,” “Marriage,” “War,” or just “Life” for that matter.)
An expert in the field of resolving fierce conflicts, the psychologist Rosenberg suggests a battle-tested means of motivating others to change a behavior or belief: one rooted in empathy and understanding of emotions. (Sensing a theme, here?)
“I’m confident we wouldn’t use punishment and reward as means of influencing people if we ask ourselves two questions,” he writes. “Question 1: What would we like the other person to do differently?” and Question 2: “What do we want their reasons to be for doing what we are requesting them they do?” Essentially, he’s advocating for relentless care and respect for the other person’s needs in any equation – for the accurate understanding of others’ real needs, the open acknowledgement of those needs, and a demonstrated desire to support those needs.
In part, that takes a willingness to ask open-ended questions about what your audience needs. To watch, to listen, to care about the answers. He quotes the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, and this one, I taped to my desk where I’ll see it every day:
“Observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence.”
The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles Mann
There are two diametrically opposed schools of thought that shape humanity’s reactions to the challenge of climate change, species extinction, food/water scarcity, and population density, Mann explains: Those who believe we should find a way to live within our means (reduce consumption! Accept the earth’s limitations!); and those who believe we should innovate, using technology and invention to defy earth’s limitations.
He traces these schools back to two mid-20th-century environmental scientists, and traces each man’s story as he unpacks the ideas they embraced. This book is not directly about change or how to influence people. But it is a book with much insight to offer about the definitive role that worldviews play in people’s beliefs and actions.
From this book I gained a new perspective on how to segment change-resistant audiences. Are the people we’re trying to influence coming from a mindset of abundance through invention? Or are they coming from a mindset of abundance through preservation and restraint? This one’s a sleeper hit for the change leaders – wisdom from a portrait of our environmental science history.
DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story by Nancy Duarte
Full disclosure, I work for Nancy at the firm that bears her name, so of course I loved this book and believe everyone should soak up its wisdom. But the enthusiastic reception of it (and the public course Duarte offers of the same name) speaks for itself: the ability to tell a story with data is a crucial skill for our time.
Change is and will increasingly be directed and shaped by data. And everyone will have more than enough data to mine, store, and study, Nancy explains, “yet the bigger challenge is using that data well to drive decisions.” Nancy provides an easy to follow model for communicating data insights in a straightforward and influential way. Do this well and you’ll increase your authority and make more of an impact.
If you want that for yourself or your peers, this book is gold.
Leading Change by John Kotter
If you’re an executive or even a mid-level leader and you have not yet read this classic work, stop everything and go get it done. It’s the Ten Commandments of corporate culture change, the Magna Carta, the 101 syllabus. I re-read it this year to refresh myself on its language, and chomped through it with admiration for its unwavering relevance to the C-suite challenges of every business today.
Of Kotter’s eight-step process of change, pay close attention to the first two and the importance of achieving them in order. 1) Create a shared sense of urgency. And 2) Form a powerful coalition. You’ll create your vision for change and communicate it later, but if you don’t have a shared sense of urgency and a strong enough coalition to act on a new vision, you’re stuck.
Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and Life by Dr. Spencer Johnson
This household-name fable can be read in 30 minutes, and as a change expert I was a little embarrassed I’d never done so. No, it’s not the most complex or cerebral book on change, but its sweet story offers a memorable and relevant lesson about how to be resilient in the face of change.
Two mice (Scurry and Sniff) and two “Littlepeople” (Hem and Haw) react differently when their daily supply of cheese stops showing up in its predicted spot in their maze. Which character represents your own typical responses? What can you learn from the others? It’s 30 minutes, folks. Give it a go.
Illustrated by Fabian Espinoza