The 5 Shifts Leaders Need to Make Now

by Oct 24, 2020

  • Any shift to the right is a good one
  • You need to make the shift now
  • Start with mindul self compassion as these shifts feel deeply uncomfortable

Leaders are looking for direction 


There’s no arguing it now, if as a leader you haven’t already embraced more agile and exploratory styles of leadership, you will be really struggling to emerge from the pandemic in a healthy shape.

The speaking circuit is firing up again, with great interest in agile leadership.  Last week I spoke at Hewlett Packards’ global Brand and Communication conference (hello Silicon Valley) and then this week I spoke at Liga Agil on behalf of the Agile Change Leadership Institute (Ola San Paola). Here’s the gist of what I said.

The pandemic – a disruptor and accelerator 

If we think about the pandemic, if we think about our current context, we need to acknowledge that it is both a disruptor and an accelerant. So we used to talk with leaders in organizations about the concept of a VUCA environment, right? So volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. And we used to think that our world was volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Well, my wordy, haven’t we changed our view on that? If we have not had a masterclass in what volatile really is it’s been the last seven to eight months. So change was relentless in the before times but it became brutally imposed in the during times and it’s not stopping, it continues with greater and extreme uncertainty in the after times as we emerge from crisis.

I think what is really important to recognize though is that a lot of what we are seeing at the moment can be a really positive accelerant for us and particularly when it comes to advancing agility in organizations. Today I was at the Australian-Israeli Innovation Summit, and one of the speakers was the CEO of Optus which is one of our large telecommunications organizations. And she shared the story of how prior to the pandemic hitting they were experimenting with chatbots in their customer service lines, just in a couple of areas. Well, overnight all of their call centers in international regions get shut down, they have no capability to speak with their customers as all of their call center staff have to work or go home where they don’t have the facilities to work from home.

Their solution was, “Release the chat bots. Release these chatbots that we are experimenting in one little area, and we release them across the whole organization and we let machine learning do what it’s meant to do.” They had a fantastic response. They ended up working out that through bringing chatbots throughout the whole organization allowing machine learning to work, they could pretty much effectively respond to one in six customer queries. And so it was a great case study of how something they had been thinking about was really accelerated.

The McKinsey study came out in this week which told us that adoption of working from home remote working flexibility occurred 40 times faster than the time it had taken to adopt remote working prior to COVID, so in nine days the world adopted working from home as opposed to the 11 months it was taking most companies before COVID. We really need to be mindful that there is the potential for this to be an incredible accelerant if we have the right mindset which is what we’re going to speak about.

We need to think differently, work differently, learn differently  

It does mean that we are facing into deeper uncertainty and the intense dynamic of today’s disruptive world means that we need to think differently, so we we’ll talk a little bit about mindset. We need to work differently, we need to adopt new ways of working, be more collaborative, increase diversity in our organizations’ more empowered and autonomous workforces. We have to learn differently so learning agility becomes incredibly important. We’re talking about microlearning, just-in-time learning, how do we do bite-sized pieces that people can self-learn and self-teach with what they’re doing in the workforce?

We deliver change differently, we lead differently

We deliver change differently. We test and learn, we use human-centered design, we roll out small increments of change and we scale them up. Which ultimately means that we have a very different way of leading in the organization today. It means that our superpowers as organizational leaders is this ability to embrace ambiguity and this is part of the keeping calm. There’s a beautiful quote in Nance Guilmartin’s The Power of Pause,

“I’m not here to make you comfortable with change, I’m here to help you be comfortable with discomfort.”

So it’s that ability to calm ourselves and calm our workforce so that we can sit with the discomfort of change that’s coming through that will really create a strategic advantage for us when it comes to agility.

The agile mindset

I spoke there about thinking differently. And at the Agile Change Leadership Institute, we really like to look at an agile mindset, we think that it is really important that these shifts, these five shifts that leaders need to make really start with how we think and our minds. This image here is an illustration from my business partner’s Lena Ross‘s book Hacking for Agile Change, that one there, and I love it. I love it because it explains why we go so wrong with introducing agile in organizations. Much of the training that we do when we’re seeking to create more agile organizations really focuses on the practices and the behaviors.

It focuses on the doing agile, what you do and deliver and how you act. And the reason why we get tripped up on that, why we’re not always so successful is that we actually have to focus on mindset first. We can’t be successful with large scale organizational agility if we are relying on old mindsets so these are the shifts that we need to make to have a really agile organization. Lena defines the agile mindset as a capability, and I tend to see it as a strategic capability.

“It demonstrates the ability to recognize failures and challenges as opportunities for learning and improvement, along with resilience to evolve and adapt to make changing requirements.”

What are these five mindset shifts? Before I get into them if you’ve got a piece of paper handy, could you pull that out and a pen or a pencil because I’m going to get you to do something as we go through this and just test where you think your mindset is. Just start by drawing five horizontal lines on that page. It doesn’t have to be a big page, it can be a post-it note, but just draw five horizontal lines and the numbers one to five.

Shift 1: From expert mindset to beginner’s mindset

The first shift is that of an expert mindset to a beginner’s mindset. Now, all of these mindset changes, shifts that we’re going to talk about can be difficult, really difficult because in the past we have privileged and we have rewarded and we have recruited for the old types of mindsets. And when you were grew up in your family unit, at school, in organizations, you were rewarded for expertise, for being really, really clever at what you do. To be better able to handle the disruptiveness of our environment now we need a beginner’s mindset because your assumptions and your experience are going to get in the way.

If we are truly operating in unprecedented times, how can we hope to have experience and assumptions that will address those unprecedented times? We need to get as many ideas as possible. So we do this by applying a beginner’s mindset to overcome that bias, questioning everything, suspending judgment, listening properly, asking how might we? If you have children in your family unit you will know how well it is that how possible it is to come up with different opportunities. You give a four-year old a fork and you ask them how many ways could they use that for, what would that fork be for? By the time it takes you to think of three ways you would use the fork they have probably rattled off about 20, so that imagination and what’s possible in a beginner’s mindset is so incredible.

In Zen Buddhism we call it Shoshin, the beginner’s mind.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

One of the most easiest ways to move into a beginner’s mindset is to use the work of Carol Dweck on the growth mindset, and this is a little tool that I use every day. It’s the power of, yet, three little letters. When we add the word yet to the end of our sentences, we find that we create opportunities to think about things in a different way. There’s a real permissiveness, we get permission to try. I can’t do this, yet. This doesn’t work, yet. I don’t know, yet. That little word opens up amazing opportunities for us when it comes to thinking differently. And I think it can be a really lovely thing to do around your peers to be able to help them, to coach them, to catch them saying things that shut down opportunities and just add the term yet to that sentence.

The first line on your piece of paper, we have expert at one end, beginner at the other. Where would you put your mindset at the moment? You don’t have to show it to anybody, this is just a little moment of self-reflection to think about the mindset shifts you might want to make.

Shift 2: From perfection to done 


Our second shift is done is better than perfect, so letting go of perfection. One of the challenges with perfection is that it can often create paralysis, we stop what we’re doing because it’s just not good enough, and we know that if we stop what we’re doing we’re not being agile and we’re not responding to relentless change.

The other thing is perfection is always subjective. There is rarely an objective measure of what is perfect because it depends on how you see perfection. When we shift our mindset to really privileging done, what we do is we invite feedback and collaboration from other people. Is this done yet? So again we’re bringing yet back into the conversation. It aligns to the progress principle which rewards small wins. So every time that we make progress because we’ve got another thing done we get lovely brain chemistry, we get dopamine hits coming that actually create more resilience in our persons and in our organizations.

The focus on done also promotes a culture of experimenting which inevitably leads to innovation. So let’s look at our example before from the telecommunications company. Their little experiment with the chatbot became a large scale innovation, and it very much aligns in the world of agile to minimum viable product. And what I like to do with leaders is really encourage them to use that concept beyond products, think about minimum viable policies, minimum viable processes. Can we take that same concept and just make things able to be released and shared and get feedback? And that way we keep moving at speed.

Your second horizontal line on your piece of paper, are you a perfectionist? Are you stopping things being released? I would suggest that the people who attend a conference like this possibly not, but capture where you think you might be in a way to identify how far you’re shifting is that you need to go through.

Shift 3: From Command and control to Trust and Transparency 

Our third shift is the move from command and control to trust and transparency. And again, I often see command and control given a really bad name. We demonize people or leaders who use command and control.

And I think it’s really important to acknowledge that command and control served us well once, it worked best in highly predictable environments. Leaders were rewarded on their ability to command and control. So to get in a position now to say it’s the wrong thing to do might be right but may not be kind and I think we need to think about that as we encourage leaders to make shifts. The interesting thing is when you talk to employees who are operating in a command and control environment, they will tell you that it feels like punishment to them so they feel like they’re always being punished.

And I work a lot with leadership teams, so they are the clients that I work with. And when you get them behind closed doors they tell you that it exhausts them, they do not enjoy being a command and control type of leader. Ultimately it disempowers people and reduces autonomy, and if we want to be effective at moving at speed in this disruptive environment we need autonomy. High trust, clear accountability creates conditions for new ideas and new products and new services.

So a little moment, where are you on the command and control, trust and transparency? And here’s a fun little exercise I get my CEOs to do. I get them to mark where they are on this line in terms of command and control, but then they have to share it with their leadership team and get their direct reports to mark where they think their boss is on command and control. There can often be a gap and it’s really worth exploring why there is a gap and what we can do to get across it.

Shift 4: From failure- aversion to failure-seeking 

Our fourth shift is from failure aversion to failure-seeking. And again at the innovation summit today, the Australian-Israeli Innovation Summit, a question was asked of the vice president, one of the vice presidents of Intel in Israel around what is the secret sauce of Israel’s innovation ecosystem, because they’re amazing, they’re incredible with what they do. And she said quite simply, “We are rewarded to fail. We have a culture of failure-seeking. We fail fast, we learn fast. Failure equals success, it teaches us lessons, it shifts our perspective and it gives us courage to experiment.”

One of the ways that I find that this topic that leaders really struggle with it is that they’ve believe that we’re asking them to fail in front of customers. And they say, “But we can’t fail in front of the customers, we will lose our customer base. We will lose revenue, we will lose confidence of the board.” And that’s not what we’re talking about here. The shift that leaders need to make is to how do I encourage failure-seeking within my teams, within our organization, right? This is not a it’s okay to fail beyond on the outside of the organization, it’s keeping it internal. There you go. To what extent are you currently trying to avoid failure and to what extent are you seeking failure? Where would you put yourself on that continuum?


So far we have gone through four shifts, really critical mindset shifts that we need to enable before we have a hope of having an agile organization.

From expert to beginner, from perfection to done, command and control, trust and transparency, failure version, failure-seeking. And I have to say, and this is from personal experience in running these types of shifts, they are incredibly liberating.

I no longer have to be right,

I no longer have to be perfect.

I don’t have to know all the answers,

I don’t need clarity before I talk with my teams.

I can let go of what no longer serves me, it is incredibly liberating and it is incredibly free.


But I say this after about seven or eight years in working in agile environments, I wouldn’t have said that eight years ago. This is why I used the word shift very deliberately. This is not a massive change for people, any shift to the right is going to leave you in a better position to lead an agile organization, because ultimately it takes courage and vulnerability. It can be really uncomfortable to make these shifts, to not be the expert all the time, to relinquish control, to produce something that’s not quite perfect, to fail and learn and talk about it openly. It’s really tough, this is difficult stuff.

Shift 5: From self-judgment to self-compassion


And this is why I think the fifth mindset shift that leaders need to make is the most important. It’s the shift from self-judgment to self-compassion. For many leaders today they will be doing things for the very first time. It’s the first time I’ve had to run a company from my kitchen desk, it’s the first time I’ve had to deal with family in the background while I’m running a leadership team meeting. It’s the first time that we’ve had to shift our supply chains to a completely different way of working.

And when we do things for the first time we are often very critical of ourselves. We go, “I was not good enough, I should have done that better. What will people think of me? They won’t like me anymore as a leader.” And we often use really, really critical terms to describe ourselves. And when we sit in self-judgment we sit in shame, and shame can be an emotion that really cripples agility in the organizations. Because when we sit in a space of shame, what goes on for us is a flight-fight-freeze reaction in our brain. Shame creates paralysis because we don’t know what we’re going to do, we’re embarrassed around the way we’re doing it, it’s not good enough we won’t do anything, which doesn’t help us with agility.

We can sometimes react in anger and conflict and we lash out at people. And sometimes we avoid issues completely when we sit in shame. And so the antidote to this is self-compassion. Back in the days when we used to jump on planes and we used to fly all over the place, they used to tell us that if the plane got into trouble we were to give oxygen to ourselves before we gave it to the children beside us. It’s the same concept. We have to give compassion to ourselves before we can hope to care for the people in our organizations as we’re going through really disruptive times. And one of the questions I like to ask my leaders when I hear this really disruptive self-talk, would you talk to a friend or a loved one the way you speak to yourself?

So last line for you, self-judgment, self-compassion. I would put money on it that this is the one that most people are furthest to the left towards self judgment. This will be the biggest shift that you have to make. And you’re not alone. Let’s revisit the story I told you at the beginning of this talk. A week ago I’m comparing myself to a troll doll and an aging rocker. I perhaps need to do a little bit of work on self-compassion.

So here are our five shifts, expert to beginner, perfection to done, command and control to trust and transparency, failure aversion to failure-seeking, self-judgment to self-compassion.

The way you lead and engage and support your teams is more important than ever before.

My final words, be kind to yourself. Thank you.





A change management Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder coaching you on the way forward. I know you’re capable of greatness. So drop me a line.


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