Authoritative Leaders Let People Develop Their Own Solutions

Autocrat bullies, conversely, are a menace to your organization…unless they have the genius of Steve Jobs

They stifle the value and diversity of individuals, know all the answers, hoard decisions, play favorites, etc., etc.

What do we want instead?

Authoritative leaders: They’re transparent. They delegate, engage people in planning, devolve decision-making, and make the most of diversity. They develop people by letting them create solutions.

‘Yes, but,’ says the autocrat, ‘they don’t have the experience / knowledge / smarts to make good decisions.’ thereby reinforcing the autocrat’s inability be a good leader.

The solution to building solutions among the team?

Ask better questions.

Here’s a typical set of better questions recently asked of several teams in an organization:

What does this team do well?

What would our clients say works best for them?

What can we do better / different / more of?

Suppose we make progress over the next 3 months on our key issue what will be happening?

What will clients notice?

What will staff notice?

What will the executive team see staff doing?

What will staff notice the leadership team doing to support them?

What 3 small-steps plans will we initiate to make progress in the next week?

This helps the staff notice the resources they have for making progress, what needs to be better, develop a view of where they want to arrive, and start working on the change so that they can see it happening right away.

What better questions would you ask to let people develop their own solutions?


Managers who kiss up, kick down.

The bad news? There’s not much you can do about them.

The good news? You can manage your behaviour by figuring out where you want to go.

Your manager has just has just given a speech saying how wonderful her/his boss is. They also give you a bit of credit too. Yet, an hour later they call you to tell you how badly you did on items X, Y and Z. Very badly!

You know the type:

They crave approval so they praise up the line and prevent transparency about their bad behaviour down the line. They are two steps ahead of you, usually to cement their case that you are out of line with their needs, that your ideas are not acceptable.

They live on despite their weak people leadership capabilities, poor communication skills, inability to adapt to change, self-serving relationship-building skills, scattered task management abilities, and poor people development skills. They are devoid of self-awareness. Nobody challenges them, even the leaders who know about the dysfunction.

Unfortunately, your boss is the exception to the rule Everyone’s trying to collaborate. The best you can do with this boss is remember the line, ‘Never wrestle with a pig – the pig enjoys the wrestling and you get dirty.’

What to do?

Think of this boss as a dysfunctional stakeholder who you can’t please. Take them seriously, not literally! Shake yourself loose of their grip on your mindset. Now start thinking of solutions for yourself and your team.

Begin with the end in mind

Go to the big picture of what outcomes you want. Not in your current role, but for your career.

Questions to regularly ask yourself:

What are you aiming to achieve? One year. Three years. Five years.

How will you know you’ve achieved it?

What was the best you ever did (at this thing)?

What went well on that occasion?

What will be the first signs that you’re getting there?

How will other people notice your progress?

This will give you direction to help move you forward within the current situation. It will aid decision-making, deal with ambiguity, and act as a bridge between the current and future.

Be patient. Be persistent. 

Be the leader your boss can’t be.

Support your staff to manage the complexity in front of them. Develop them by letting them see their ideas count (unlike your boss). Involve them in planning. Divest risk to them to help them build capability and confidence, and teach them decision-making capability. Delegate authority and leverage diversity, and set the tone – dissuade complaining.

Questions to regularly ask your team:

What are you aiming to achieve?

How will you know you’ve achieved it?

What was the best you ever did (at this thing)?

What went well on that occasion?

What will be the first signs that you’re getting better?

Will this change the behaviour of your boss?

No. It will help you think of solutions for yourself and manage through this complex part of your life while you wait for the boss to go away, or for you to decide to be successful in another organization.


First discover where your client is self-reliant

Are we asking the right questions when we want to know what our customers really want?

Today, there’s so many ways to find out – and to get it wrong.

Our questions need to start from the self-reliance of the customer. Consider this…

A strategically driven not-for-profit recently had me facilitate a session on a new programme offering on, ‘how to manage money’. We invited in a group of self-declared math-deficient learners to a roundtable discussion. We were joined by folks from the literacy field and the major sponsor, a bank.

Most of the observers expected the learners to be somewhat helpless in their math deficiency.

Instead, the questions we asked the learners were about their math expertise, albeit modest. These better questions sought to know what they knew, not what was wrong.

What are you most pleased about in your math skills?

On a scale of 1-10 where would you place yourself?

Suppose that number was to go up a little, what would you have learned?

How would that be useful to you and your employers, family, etc.?

When you received good training in the past, what did that look like?

Suppose you were getting tutoring on math skills, what would that look like?

What made these questions useful to the learners and the observers?

Notice, the lack of discussion about the problems they faced. Instead we explored the platform of what already worked and built the ideas for improving their skills from there. This enabled the learners to identify what they wanted. It helped the observers see the gaps that needed to be filled.

With rich and helpful answers based on their existing self-reliance we then invited the learners to talk with the literacy experts to further discuss their needs.  The professionals were able to immediately engage in asking questions about developing solutions for the learner ‘customers’. They knew where help was not needed and where it was required.

Does this apply to the world of business and consumers? Absolutely.

Interestingly, as the math learners were about to leave, one of the group asked if they could stay and contribute to the planning session. They did. It turned into a fine co-creation session.

More about asking solution focused questions.

Note: a) this is an update of a 2011 post, b) picture credit: Blair Kay

How to Let Small Changes Infect Big Organizational Change

Planned or not, change happens all the time. Have you considered that it’s the humans that have to change, not just the system that needs to change?

Organizational change is difficult and there’s been lots written on how it often fails. I’m not sure about ‘failure,’ but let’s save that for another time…

The systemic change plan:

Yes, a change plan, (or direction) is important. The organization needs clarity on how the goals, strategies, and broad actions necessary for change will actually happen. And a great communication plan helps. So, descending from the mountain with a change process helps support systemic change. Better still; engage your stakeholders in developing the change plan.

That said…

The small changes people plan (vs the planners). Things to consider:

A rigorous change plan can be an abstract and intimidating concept to most people. Perhaps they see what’s wanted, but can they see how to achieve the change? An old rule is that people have to see what’s in it for them (WIFM) – including the fear that they may not be with the organization for long. It’s helpful if they know their role in the process. And because change relies on new levels of collaboration, remember that everyone is trying to collaborate – just not each other’s way.

With lots of hard work the people in the organization may buy into the change, but at what level of consciousness?

All organizational change happens at the personal level. How do we get people to personally embrace and act on change?

In order to consciously adapt to new behaviours, people have to experience change in ways that resonate for them. So, training is useful, but it’s not the only answer to human change.

Organizational culture is often a fuzzy or abstract concept, or a statement of values that’s taken lightly. Can your organizational culture be more consciously understood and its role expressed in the plan?

Many new decisions – thousands of them – will have to take place. Will people see those decisions as a risk to themselves personally? Can we help them see that all decisions will be supported? And that some decisions will not ‘work,’ but are instead critical parts of the learning process?

Finally, when people worry about big changes they are often also concerned about small changes. Yet it’s the small changes that lead to the big shift. Help people make many small decisions to move forward.

Some Solution Focused questions to ask about that change plan you are working on:

# 1. What do we want to keep? What works (that we don’t want to disrupt by mistake)?   Do not skip lightly through this section. Break it down to the individual level.

# 2. Suppose the change happens, what will we be doing?   Illustrate the desired outcomes in terms of what people and relevant stakeholders will actually be doing. Sell them on that future, not the  goals. See it happening in stages.

Download file
Download file

# 3. How will we enable people to make small changes leading to the big changes?   Take the pressure of having to make it happen all at once. Start someplace small where everyone can both participate and witness the change

What have I missed?


Customer dialogue is your change management strategy

Bring customer dialogue out of the shadows of the marketing research silo.

A while ago I wrote a piece, Why Bring Customers to the Table to Co-create Strategy. After using approach in some recent client work it’s all the clearer that it’s a powerful change management strategy. Customer co-creation is not new.

When the organization engages with the client change starts to happen. As Rick Wolfe of PostStone puts it: Co-creation is a particular kind of collaboration. The one and only way to get good at collaboration is to practice collaborating. You get to be good at collaborating in business, the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice.

Why is this so important?

  • Because customers are getting savvy about your business.
  • They interact via social media with your organization
  • They watch business-oriented reality shows
  • They really like to be asked for their opinion
  • Their demands are always reasonable (when you ask the right way)

But, there are some simple organizational practices that have to change:

  • Eliminate focus group questions driven by marketing research goals
  • Don’t obsess about the questions you will ask the customers. You can never know the perfect questions. Instead use questions to provoke the customers into having a dialogue among themselves
  • Ask questions that assume they know more than they know. They always do!
  • Engage as many cross-functional people and stakeholders as you can in the customer dialogue
  • Have the observers sit in the room with customers, not behind the glass
  • Make sure the observers get a chance to interact with the customers. Send the customers to the observer tables. The interaction will drive up learning among the observers
  • When the customers leave the room, have the observers decide on the key insights and, importantly discuss some small and visible changes that can happen right away (i.e., in the next few days), so that the customers can see the change in progress

For another perspective on the customer and change give yourself a few minutes to view these videos which show how Coca Cola views the customer as a co-creationist, that the work leads to dynamic storytelling which then works for the business plan…

Again, make customer dialogue part of your ongoing change management strategy. Build it into the change processes.

Design your customer questions around these principles and practices:
The Solution Focus approach to change &  21 Solution Focused questions

Forget the decision making. Think solution outcomes.

I know an organization that consciously avoids decision making. It’s their default position and it seems as though they’re always losing ground. Compare that to Apple’s Steve Jobs legacy of arrogant decisiveness!

Organizations make a vast aray of individual and collective decisions. Yet, save for a few like Richard Branson many give little thought to the issue!

Authors Gary Williams and Robert Miller note that executives have a default style of decision making developed early in their careers and fall into one of five categories of decision making styles:

  • Charismatics are easily intrigued and enthralled by new ideas, but make decisions based on balanced information
  • Thinkers are risk-averse and need as much data as possible before coming to decisions
  • Skeptics are suspicious of data that don’t fit their worldview and, thus, make decisions based on their gut feelings
  • Followers make decisions based on how other trusted executives, or they themselves, have made similar decisions in the past
  • Controllers focus on the facts and analytics of decisions because of their own fears and uncertainties

Jeff Goins gives us some insights from the writer’s perspective: When You Don’t Know What to Do

  • Just pick something. Be honest. Very few choices in life are make-or-break decisions. Hard to believe, but sometimes there is no wrong choice. You just need to do something.
  • Move forward. Don’t get stuck in self-doubt or feeling sorry for yourself. The best way to beat indecision is to build momentum. No hesitation, just motion. Move.
  • Accept the consequences. If you fail, own it and move on. There’s nothing productive about wallowing in self-pity. Don’t be burdened by regret. Fail forward. Learn from your mistakes. And move on to the next choice.

What’s your decision making approach?

Here is a simple solution focused approach to help with outcomes-based decision making:

Ask youself (and your colleagues) the following questions:

  • Suppose a year from now (or your time frame) this decision was a good one, what would be happening? How would it be helping me? How would it help others? What would be my first steps towards implementing the decision?
  • Suppose I chose not to make this decision what would be happening (time frame) from now? How would that choice be helping me and others?
  • Thinking of the two answers rank each on a scale of 1-10, 1 being least appealing and 10 being ideal. Compare and decide.

In other words…

think first about solution outcomes…

not just the decision!