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  • Oliver Nowak

The Jackson Eleven

I’ve been talking a lot about change culture and creating an environment for change but not really addressed the question as to how you achieve this. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this, butI’ve recently been reading the book Eleven Rings which delves into the career of the legendary NBA Basketball coach Phil Jackson.


The key to culture and the environment that you create for your group is effective leadership. Jackson’s thoughts and wisdom got me thinking about how coaching a sports team is almost identical to managing the culture of a business. They are both group dynamics. In the same way that in sport the most lauded coaches have always been known to be the best people managers, so too have the most effective leaders in business.


There are numerous excerpts of the book that I want to look at in more detail over the next few weeks, but I want to start with Jackson’s Eleven points for what he calls ‘mindful leadership’.

1. Lead from the Outside

Many people lead by studying what other people are doing. If company x is doing this digital transformation, surely we should consider doing something similar ourselves?


The problem is that this leads to inconsistency and unpredictability. Your employees aren’t going to listen to you today because they expect you to change your mind tomorrow anyway. The most effective digital transformations strategies have an identity that everyone can get behind, it is the same identity that the business stands for. If you want to discover your identity, you can’t lead from the outside in, you can only discover that by learning what you have on the inside and extract that potential. Company X’s digital transformation strategy should be focussed on their strengths and weaknesses, don’t fall into the trap of following their lead with the mindset of getting a quick win today; it’ll cost you in the long run.


2. ‘Bench’ the Ego

There are two prevailing management styles: the ‘my way or the highway’ type and the suck up. However, ruling with an iron fist or buddying up with the players shouldn’t be the only two options. Instead, Jackson talks about exerting power indirectly, not directly. What I mean by this is, ensure you have the final say but don’t allow your ego to make sure your presence is constantly felt.


The purpose is to free your mind of the many individual burdens, so that you can think more about the collective. Your goal is to create an environment of balance, the calm balance out the anxious, the confident the shy. Balance happens naturally, it can’t be forced and that requires each individual to find their own place, they have to become their own leaders.


This is often reflected in the adoption of technology. You can’t force an individual to adopt something they don’t like or can’t use. But if you have an environment of balance, the technologically adept naturally help those that are struggling.


However, it is still important to lead the collective. You have one collective agenda, not lots of individual agendas. The most effective leaders focus on the collective agenda and set parameters for the group as a whole rather than micro managing each individual. We can’t have every technologically adept leader teach different things, otherwise the original purpose of the technology can easily get lost in the confusion. But, we can definitely benefit massively from a unified message transferred from the adept to the inept.


3. Let each individual discover their own destiny

Effective management doesn’t involve forcing a person to change, it involves inspiring them to change themselves. The trick is making the person believe they’ve done the thinking for themselves, if you spend too much time doing the thinking for them, they’re going to expect that every time.


If you want your employees to adopt technology, create an environment where they think to use it for themselves. Otherwise, when it comes down to it, they won’t use it. They’ll come up with an excuse like “I was too busy”, “I needed it quickly so reverted back to what I know”.


Discover each person individually rather than seeing them as “part of the team”. You want to figure out: what makes them tick, what gets motivates them, what makes them anxious. When it comes to implementing a big project, you won’t have time to get to know everyone individually to understand how impactful it’s going to be. Therefore, effective decision making leans on this knowledge to make timely, well informed moves. It can either become your biggest asset or your biggest stumbling block.


4. The Road to Freedom is a Beautiful System

In a beautiful system everyone has a role, a responsibility. They know their role inside and out, how they contribute, who they rely on to deliver their output, who they feed into so they can contribute their part of the puzzle. They come to work every day and know exactly what they need to do and when. By eliminating that confusion, you're eliminating a big source of anxiety. Your employees each have a purpose, their value is tangible and this massively boosts their feeling of worth within the organisation.


You also get a lot more innovation. Who am I as the CIO to tell my IT Service Manager how to do their job. They’re the experts, in the same way they can’t do my job as well as I can, I can’t do theirs as well as they can, they should be telling me how it’s done. Therefore, within their role, they should have the autonomy to be as creative as they want to be in its delivery. This provides stimulation, satisfaction and accomplishment.

5. Turn the Mundane into the Sacred

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Create something meaningful out of the most mundane activities. Give the wider context to the mundane so that it creates a feeling of purpose and of contribution to the whole.


One of the biggest hindrances to any digital transformation is simply a lack of understanding. Why should I use this new piece of technology if it’s easier to use what I already know? Often, people don’t want to learn something new because it’s a mundane, time consuming exercise. If they don’t know how they’re going to benefit, or more importantly, how the wider organisation is going to benefit from it, what incentive do they have to make this commitment?


Demonstrating the value behind the mundane activity turns something burdensome into something sacred. This might be a bit of an extreme example but it gets the point across: “Just by you all taking an hour to learn this new piece of technology you’re going to save us X amount of money. By saving us X amount of money we can preserve our current employee numbers during this difficult climate. This means Mary in Finance doesn’t have to worry about how she’s going to feed her 2 year old child.”


Suddenly we’ve leapt from ‘I can’t be bothered to learn this new piece of technology’ to ‘If I do this I help save Mary’s job’.


6. One Breath = One Mind

I think this area has huge potential but will take some time to infuse into the way we work. If you look across the sporting world, meditation and mindfulness are becoming increasingly ubiquitous among those who are seeking to gain a competitive advantage. In many ways, as far as I can tell, Phil Jackson was the pioneer of this. In his book, he spoke about creating a bond and a connection between his players on a non-verbal level. It’s all about quieting down a restless mind and focusing attention on the present moment. Now, as far as I can tell, and not to get caught up in any stereotypes, but if Jackson can convince a team full of macho sports stars to adopt this, surely any business can?


I want to focus my attention more closely on this at a later date, so I’ll leave it there for now.


7. The Key to Success is Compassion

When it comes to compassion, the Western world and the Eastern world seem to understand different things. Jackson points out that in the West, we see compassion as being something that is given out, like a form of charity. ‘Today I’m feeling good so I’m going to be extra compassionate.’ ‘Today I’m not feeling great so I’m going to focus on myself and ignore the rest.’


Often Compassion is the key to breaking down barriers between people. Even among the tough guy persona often exhibited in the sporting world, a few kind, thoughtful words go a long way. In the business world I see this as more the exception than the norm.


I think people struggle to see past the professional persona of the individual they are working with. It’s easy to get caught up in a bubble and forget that they might not be performing at their best at the moment because they have a sick child at home that they’re worried about. The way I see it, the biggest problem is that people think that caring about others is a sign of weakness, I think this is true for the world in general, but especially in the business world. I know I used a machine analogy earlier, but the truth is that we aren’t cogs, we are human beings, and a human being is possibly the most complex organism on the planet. The only way we can scratch the surface of understanding is to at least be compassionate.


8. Keep your eye on the spirit, not the scoreboard

Spirit is infectious. Human beings naturally reflect the behaviour of the people around them. I believe spirit alone is responsible for making the whole add up to more than the sum of its parts.


Out of this comes the question: are we digitally transforming because we feel obligated to or are we doing it because we firmly believe that it’s the right thing to do?


If we do it out of obligation it will be spiritless change. Going back to turning something mundane into something sacred, the trick is to create an environment where we have spirited adoption. How do our employees feel about our transformation programme? Are they excited about impending changes? Are they apprehensive? And what are the reasons behind these emotions? This understanding informs us of the source of that spirit.


Identifying the source of that spirit is incredibly important. It is indicative of the longevity of our success. Are our employees excited about this digital transformation because they get a day off work to learn the new technology or are they excited because they appreciate the efficiency and productivity gains it will afford them? In the case of the former, that spirit lasts a day and no more; in the case of the latter, it could last for months.


If we focus on maintaining the right spirit, the results will take care of themselves.


9. Sometimes you have to bring out the stick

Here Jackson refers to the ‘keisaku’ which is often referred to as the “compassionate stick”. It is used during meditation to make the person feel more alive in the moment.


The idea is not that this has to be applied in practice, there are many ways of achieving the same effect. There are stories of the Chicago Bulls practicing in total silence or in total darkness. The simple goal is: prepare them for chaos by forcing them to think outside of the box.


For us, our keisaku has been the Corona Virus pandemic. If you had asked any organisation last year how long would it take you to transfer everyone onto a remote working setup? They would have told you months or years, concerns would have been: the technology isn’t ready, people don’t want to uproot their daily routines etc. However, when the stick was applied, when we didn’t have a choice, we came up with a solution in a matter of weeks.


How can we simulate this sort of reaction artificially? Could we potentially turn email off for the day, now the only form of communication is to have a conversation with someone - how will that impact relationships among employees or relationships with our customers? Will that impact people’s behaviour when email is switched back on?


The stick can be used to generate that understanding of the motivation behind a digital transformation that is so critical to its success or failure.


10. If in doubt, do nothing

When it all comes down to it, often the best thing to do is to do nothing. Say our most recent digital initiative has been a disaster, adoption rates are rock bottom, we’ve not reached the ROI we were expecting and we’re paying out of our ears for licences we’re barely using. What’s the solution?


We often see panic, reactions of fear rather than hope. I think the emphasis shouldn’t be on ‘it hasn’t worked’ but instead ‘it hasn’t worked yet’. In my opinion, the best course of action is to take a pause, let your changes bed in, maybe it’s a simple explanation like the expected results are a little lagged.


The point Jackson makes is: When people relax, inspiration follows. People do their best thinking when they are not concentrating on work at all. When we relax, we let the subconscious mind take over. More often than not, the subconscious mind is a lot wiser than the conscious mind - it’s unbiased. It’s amazing how often we come up with a solution whilst our mind is focussed on something else entirely, I think this approach should be taken with underperforming transformations.


11. Forget the Ring

Take the emphasis off results.


Fixating solely on results becomes a very emotional exercise. When decision making becomes overly emotional, it can become counter productive. The key is to create the best conditions in which to get the result and then let it play out how it plays out. Often the line between winning and losing or success and failure is dictated by luck anyway.


If there’s one thing that most failed digital initiatives have in common, it is that they were all entirely results orientated from conception through to execution. They were designed as quick fix solutions. To create that effective, spirited, long term vision we need to bring together everything we’ve learnt in the previous 10 points:

  • Can we orientate our efforts around our incumbent strengths?

  • Can we free our mind to focus on the collective goal, not the individual?

  • Can we inspire each individual to be their own leader, make their own decisions and commitments?

  • Can we provide total clarity for each individual, showing them exactly how they contribute?

  • Can we provide context to turn the mundane into the sacred?

  • Can we form non-verbal connections as a collective?

  • Can we show compassion?

  • Can we divert our attention to spirit over results?

  • Can we find ways to reorientate our goals and motivation?

  • When is it the right time to simply do nothing?


I strongly believe that in many organisations we’re not far away. The foundations are there but it’s now down to effective leadership to extract that maximum potential. These are our conditions for success, the rest is simply down to luck.


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