Exceptional is not an Extension of Good

“There is a fundamental discontinuity between good and great,” was one of the assertions Ray Ivany, President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia University, made during a talk at a recent Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette event.  He was invited to speak on the topic of being the best and his talk was an insightful blend of the human dynamics and structural components necessary for exceptional performance.

“Exceptional is not an extension of good but it’s in a completely different place,” he said as he shared the following diagram with us.  Imagine that organizational effort is represented by a helium balloon that is attached to a stake in the ground by an elastic tether.  It manages to rise to the expectations of good performance without too much effort.  And, with some effort and exertion, it can stretch into the category of great.  However, it takes sustained effort to keep it there and as soon as the pressure is taken off, the elastic tether immediately yanks that balloon back into the category of good.

Great is not on the same continuum as Good

In order to allow it to stay in the zone of great, you actually need to sever the tether that holds it in place.   If you believe that great is discontinuous from good, the organizational and human strategies needed to move to and stay in great or exceptional performance are fundamentally different.

In looking at this diagram, it occurred to me that not only is good the enemy of great, it is probably the enemy of itself as well.  As soon as we think we are onto something good, we want to institutionalize it by creating standards and policies to maintain it.  This standardization means we often prevent the organization from conceptualizing the strategies that lead to great.  On the other side, the more we insist on standardization without the ability to continually adapt, the greater the likelihood we actually unintentionally shift our organization from good to mediocre by insisting on standards that often lose their meaning and relevance over time.

From this place of mediocrity, leaders still try to aim their people for excellence without any hope of getting there and the people are often frustrated in their efforts to shift organizational thinking and performance and no one really understands why.

We only shift the shape of our organizations from good to great, and stay there, when we build in the systems and the capacity to take different risks – one of those risks being failure.

Looking at this diagram and the capacities necessary to shift into a whole new category of performance reminded me of the Chaordic Path where one of the key questions is: “what is the minimum amount of elegant structure required to enable us to act in purposeful ways that lead to wise action and meaningful results?”  This is also the amount of structure that allows an organization to stay nimble and responsive to its environment, creating the conditions for chaos to emerge into its own sense of order and cultivating the adaptive and collaborative leadership that is also a strategy for exceptional performance.

Ray’s comments were entirely consistent with many of the steams of thought that show up in the Art of Hosting community and body of knowledge, providing a beautiful avenue of reflection for me.  The next entry will focus on some of the human dynamics elements that comprised the other main thread of this thought provoking talk.

Prototyping Collaborative Leadership at Capital Health – Citizen Engagement and Accountability

Citizen Engagement and Accountability Portfolio

In May 2009, the creation of a portfolio within Capital Health with the title of “Citizen Engagement & Accountability” presented a rare opportunity to create something that had no precedent.  The portfolio was launched in response to the strategic stream of Citizen Engagement that came out of the Strategic Quest work in 2007.

Lea Bryden was tasked with bringing together three functional areas under this new portfolio: Marketing and Communications, Community Health Boards and Patient Representatives.  In looking across the country, they found themselves virtually alone as there were no models to inform the portfolio development.

In January 2010, Kathy Jourdain and Tony Case, through Shape Shift Strategies Inc., were contracted to assist in shifting the shape of this portfolio.  The intent was to truly create a new portfolio with collective purpose, principles and streams of work and not just perpetuate the three existing functional areas under a new name.  Some of the functional work would be the same and new work would emerge through the process but all of it would be informed by the collective purpose.

This work was given context and framing by the following pre-existing pieces of work:

  • Our Promise
  • Declaration of Health
  • My Leadership: Being, Caring, Doing
  • Citizen Engagement Strategic Stream
  • 2013 Milestones

In addition to wanting to honour CEO Chris Power’s intention in asking the question: “What kind of future could we create if the vision of Our Promise and belief in our Declaration of Health showed up at each of our touch points in the course of our day?”, Lea also wanted to uncover the unique gifts and contribution of each member of the portfolio and understand how they came together as a collective.  And, it was  very much a mechanism to create a cultural shift to even greater transparency and accountability.

This process invited a design team to co-design the process.  There was initially a very specific invitation to a member of each of the three functional areas. As the process unfolded participation in the design process was completely open and transparent and those with the greatest interest and passion continued to participate in the process.  Some people showed up in the beginning because they thought they should and then kept showing up because they saw how their contribution directly influenced the design of each session.

This work took place over a period of four or five months to establish collective purpose, principles, priorities, and strategies.   It took into account other work that was underway in the organization, incorporating things like the budget planning process or the response to Capital Health’s community engagement recommendations right into the process so the portfolio could learn how and when to respond as a portfolio to other moving parts of the organization.

We knew we were making headway when we hit the groan zone.  The collective purpose and principles were articulated and we began to hear, “Oh good.  We have what we need.  Can we be done?  Can we get back to our regular work now?”  This was a signal to push back.  Lea did this by asking a simple question, “Where are we seeing evidence of our collective intention at work?”  The responses were amazing, informative and represented a turning point.

A philosophy of our work as consultants was to transfer collaborative leadership skills into the portfolio so it could flourish once our involvement came to an end.  The portfolio created a transition team to continue to guide the work and this team is also working collaboratively.

A key contributor to the success of this initiative was Lea’s willingness to foster collaborative leadership and her openness to growing her own awareness and skills in the process.

Like all significant culture shift initiatives, there are certainly bumps along the way.  But there is lasting change in the way this portfolio views itself, understands its work and engages with the public.

Prototyping Collaborative Leadership at Capital Health – Infusion

In March 2007 Capital District Health Authority (CDHA) in Halifax, Nova Scotia took on a planning process called Strategic Quest.  A significant component of Strategic Quest included public participation in an unprecedented way, shifting the shape of awareness and thinking at Capital Health.  The results were revealing and the impact continues to reverberate throughout the organization today, strongly influencing ongoing public participation in a number of areas and inviting collaborative leadership as a strategy to accomplish many of its goals.

One initiative I was involved with where Collaborative Leadership was an essential part of the process was Infusion: a gathering in November 2008 of 70 leaders from across North America, in our local community and within Capital Health, convened to inform what bold and unique leadership development within Capital Health could look like.

The planning process for Infusion, championed by Lea Bryden and led by Shape Shift Strategies, invited and modeled collaboration, shared leadership and shared responsibility.  A diverse group of people from across Capital Health were invited into the planning process.  Many identified the planning process itself as a leadership development opportunity as they experienced collaborative leadership in new ways, stretching beyond their original assumptions about how and what they could each contribute to this unusual event.

Achieving clarity of purpose was the first task.  It required a significant investment of time – several meetings.  It was a difficult task because there were multiple overlapping components all alive and unfolding as we were in this planning process.  We stayed in the conversation until sharp clarity was achieved and then rest of the planning process unfolded rapidly because it was guided by this clarity of purpose.  We also actively worked with Theory U in the planning process and for the event itself.

The planning process always had a forward momentum, even when people missed meetings.  As they came back in, they found their place in the process and continued to contribute constructively.  They could step into and out of the flow of the process without having to back track and rehash decisions made when they were not present.

The two day Infusion event drew on the talents of everyone on the planning team.  Invited guests: leaders from a vast array of backgrounds, many of whom were leadership consultants, were asked to bring their knowledge and expertise in a participatory way.  It was at times a challenging field to hold.  The team was able to hold its ground as we went through the fire of chaos, adjusting design in the moment and holding space for some anger and frustration that unexpectedly arose within the group because of the collaborative leadership we had been growing throughout the planning process.

Infusion did not end in a nice tidy wrapped up bundle and Lea Bryden, myself and the team were good to leave it that way while taking away the gems that guided the development of My Leadership – a truly unique leadership development initiative inside of Capital Health with a bold vision and goals that has since had 500 leaders complete and won a number of regional and national awards.