Working in the growth zone: how leaders can step out of their comfort zone to create positive change

Frazer Bennett

By Frazer Bennett

It can be hard to move away from the status quo. But as the saying goes: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. With every industry facing massive change in the coming decade, it’s clear that leadership must change too for organisations to break away from the status quo and find new opportunities.

Our new research on global leadership trends sets out the choices that leaders must make: how will I choose to show up and lead? Will I look to positively impact society, not just the bottom line; to grow with purpose; inspire diverse groups of people to create ingenuous outcomes; and to lead in ways that leave a positive legacy?

Our cross-sector, cross-geography study unearths some fascinating trends and differences in leadership behaviours. Most starkly, the split between leaders who identify as survivors, happy to simply sustain the pace of change, and those who identify as revivers. It’s the latter who see the present moment – as complex and uncertain as it is – as the time to accelerate innovation, to deliver in new ways, and to open themselves up to new opportunities.

Here’s how leaders can break away from the siren call of the status quo to lead themselves, and others, to work in the growth zone:

Ask the right questions to re-frame possibilities

How many times have you or your teams been held back by the idea that something can’t be done – that “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work”? Although experience is valuable, left unchecked it will lead to cynicism.

You can’t pretend the past hasn’t happened. But you can demonstrate and encourage a mindset that thinks of possibilities, not problems. One way to achieve this is to pivot your starting point from ‘if only’ to ‘what if?’. It’s the switch from: ‘if only we could have solved this problem sooner’ to ‘what would it look like to deliver this project based on what we know now?’ Stay open to new answers, and new information.

One of the best examples of this approach came when we formed part of the team working with the UK Government’s Vaccine Taskforce (VTF) as it sought to develop, manufacture and distribute life-saving vaccines. It typically takes up to ten years to develop new vaccines and bring them to market. But there was no time to waste, nor to dwell unnecessarily on old assumptions, methods and mindsets that had so far failed to deliver. Working with the VTF, we established a new delivery plan and a new programme structure, and set up new, effective, governance for rapid decision-making. Our starting-gun was fired in the late Spring of 2020. By that December, the first vaccine was approved. And in just six months, 80 per cent of all UK adults had received their first dose.

Bring teams together to build something new

Many organisations bemoan the culture of working in silos. It takes dedicated effort to break away from the decades of working as fragmented teams and departments. Bringing people together who wouldn’t usually work in the same teams has lots of benefits – it brings fresh energy and perspectives to solve problems and come up with new ideas.

For this to work well, people need to be embracing big ambitions, not wrestling small problems. The bigger your objective, the more teams are impelled to collaborate. This takes a level of trust and support: allow people to try things and move away from a blame culture if things don’t go to plan first time round. The more comfortable you can be with that as a leader, the easier it will be for your people to work at their best.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we partnered with the Belfast Health & Social Care Trust, and Microsoft's Customer Success Unit, to bring teams together and improve collaboration. With a clear engagement strategy and a focus on practical tools, we almost doubled the number using the Trust’s collaboration platform in less than two months. We saw clear benefits from this approach. In the first six months, some 1,200 patients benefited from online consultations. Staff held more than 15,800 online meetings, freeing up time normally spent travelling for patient-focused activity, and improving efficiency at a time of huge pressure.

Create constraints for innovation

It might sound counter-intuitive, but creating constraints is an effective way to work in the growth zone. It forces people to think differently, so they can’t fall back on what’s been tried in the past. We’ve often observed that one of the most effective way to inspire innovation is not to fund it. Effective constraints create structure, not pressure, and they help to filter out the better ideas at an early stage. So be mindful that this isn’t about imposing an impossible task, but rather freeing up creativity. Work with a spirit of curiosity to get the best from people.

Constraints can come in different forms. For example: what would it look like to complete this project in two months, not two years? What would the six-word version of this 80-page report be? It works well in an innovation phase, but clever constraints can also be used to execute projects too.

Working in the growth zone calls for a switch in thinking – and a willingness to embrace challenges and look long-term. Trying new things might not pay off at once, but the rewards are well worth it in the bigger picture.

About the authors

Frazer Bennett
Frazer Bennett PA Chief Innovation Officer

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