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How to Lead More and Control Less

Sandra_MarvinI’m really happy to be talking to Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, the founders of Future Search. They have a terrific new book out called Lead More, Control Less: 8 Advanced Leadership Skills That Overturn Convention. In this conversation the three of us discuss:

  • Why leaders need to give up control
  • The importance of controlling “structure” rather than people
  • How to view anxiety as blocked excitement
  • What leaders can do to tap into the collective wisdom

And much, much more! So, click that play button below and listen in. Don’t forget to rate this podcast on iTunes.

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Full Transcript

Michael: So way back in the late ‘90s, I was working in Boston at the time.  I was working for a change management consultancy and I had this inclination that facilitation was important. I knew that I was quite good at it and I liked it.  I also had an inkling that I didn’t know everything there was to know about facilitation, and gosh, how true that was.  And I bumped into somebody.  I had a coffee because when you arrive in a new city, that’s what you do: you go out and meet people and have coffees.

And he thrust a book into my hands.  It was a book called Future Search.  And I was, like, “Oh, this look interesting,” and when I started to read it, pow!  The top of my head basically came off because this, for the first time, was a systemic, generous approach to facilitation that just turned up and defied convention in terms of a lot of the norms about what you do as a teacher and a facilitator, which is often controlling the people, controlling the process, controlling the outcome, because it makes you feel safer and it makes you feel better.

And actually, Future Search turned out to be one of a number of approaches to this style of thinking.  I’ve actually got a book, one of the few books that’s lasted more than two decades on my bookshelf, called The Change Handbook, which is a collection of group methods for shaping the future.

But all of this is to say I’m really happy to be talking to two of the founders of Future Search.  In fact, the two founders of Future Search, Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff today.  Now, they have a new book out, which I’ve read and I really enjoyed.  It’s called Lead More, Control Less: 8 Advanced Leadership Skills that Overturn Convention.  And what we’re going to do is we’re going to jump into this conversation with Marv and with Sandra to really talk about how they founded the international, non-profit Future Search Network, but also how this starting point around facilitating large-scale, large group meetings has led them to this path around new insights and new approaches and new ways of thinking about leadership.

So, Marvin and Sandra, welcome to the call.  I’m really excited to have you on the line with us today.

Marvin: Thanks, Michael.

Sandra: Thanks.  Same here.

Marvin: We’re happy to be with you.

Michael: Ah, fantastic.

Marvin: Appreciate that enthusiastic testimonial as well.  It’s very validating to us to hear experienced people resonate to our work.

Michael: So, Marvin, let me start with you and then I’ll ask Sandra the same question.  Is there anything else that I could have covered in that introduction or anything else you’d like people to know about who you are and how you got here so they have a sense of who you are?

Marvin: No, I think we’re off to a good start, Michael.

Michael: Okay, that’s perfect.

Marvin: Let’s see what you’d like to talk about.  We can go in a great many directions.

Michael: We sure can.  And you know, one of the things that we do at Box of Crayons, in fact, the thing we do, is we teach busy managers practical coaching skills.  And that sounds easy in theory because it’s, like, you know, in theory, you know, be a little bit more curious and give a little less advice.  But to actually make that behaviour change is quite tricky because at its heart it is about giving up some power, giving up some sense of control.  And in the introduction to your book, you talk about self-control is the best control.  And Sandra, let me ask you this question: why have you started this conversation in this book by focusing on the importance of control?

Sandra:I want to respond to what you were saying about how difficult it is for busy managers.  It takes a lot of self-awareness and just connecting to who you are and what you’re doing, of course, as a human being, but as a leader, and it’s when things get very busy and stressful that you really call on that and to act in a way that’s counter to what an impulse may be.  So that’s what we’re asking of leaders because we’ve asked it of ourselves through the years.

When Marv and I started working together in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and were facilitating side by side, there was something that we were both thinking and doing that we hadn’t articulated, but it was very much congruent.  And we really were, I guess you could call it, on the same wavelength, but working from the same set of principles, which is that people really have capacity and they’re smart, and if we can create structures that enable them to do what they came to do, maybe really good things will happen, and it did.  And that’s reinforcing, when you have that experience.  And I’ll just add, one of our early Future Searches, we were thanked for getting out of the way.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: Right!

Michael: Well, maybe to give people that context, and I realize I could have done this earlier, but can you describe just what the whole sense of Future Search is?  When you’re running an experience, a Future Search experience, give people a kind of summary of what’s involved and how that might be different from a typical meeting.

Marvin: Well, Future Search, from our point of view, at its simplest it’s a two and a half or a three day strategic planning meeting.  And what makes it, well, somewhat unusual is having what we call the whole system in the room.  And by that, we mean people who collectively have among them formal authority to act, necessary expertise, the resources that might be required to do anything new, and the people who have—who will be affected by whatever decisions are made or whatever problems are solved.  And if you can get any group of people together who collectively have that range of experience and authority over any given issue, you can in a very short time move that activity or that issue or that problem much further than anyone’s been able to move it before.  And I think that’s the simple—where it’s a three day planning meeting.

Michael: Yeah.

Marvin: But it’s also—we see it also as a theory and philosophy of facilitating, which you’ve touched on.

Michael: For sure.

Marvin: That includes helping people to discover what it is they’re capable of already that they didn’t know they could do, and then creating structures that enable them to actually do it.  And then at the third level, and this gets at the network, why we have this international network of practitioners, is that any one of us—you, me, Sandra, or anybody—who does this work has a very limited capability to change the world.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: We can only do what we do one meeting at a time and one meeting is a drop in the bucket.  But collectively, to the extent that we share our knowledge and we compare notes and we enhance each other’s work, collectively we can make a pretty big ripple in society.  And that’s what we’ve been shooting for the last 20 years, and so have a lot of our colleagues, and we couldn’t do anything by ourselves.  You know, working alone your practice is very, very limited.  It’s like playing basketball in the backyard without a team.  Yeah.

Michael:  I had this imagination that when you come to talk to people in different organizations, and you’ve worked for anybody from Ikea through UNICEF, and you start talking about getting the whole system in the room and people go, “Well, okay, that makes sense to me and I can understand why that might be the case.”  But also, you then would suggest to the leader or the sponsor of this that, you know, you have to give up a degree of control around the process, a degree of control around the outcome.  And I can imagine the leader on the other side of the desk suddenly looking a whole lot less comfortable about this process.  So how do you coach or convince or influence managers to give up the sense of control and power and status that they might have to allow an experience like this to take place?

Sandra: I think what we’re doing, especially with Lead More, Control Less, our new book whose publication date was yesterday, so …

Michael: Hurray!

Sandra: Hurray!  I think what we’re doing is a one step at a time process or maybe expanding our horizon because we know for sure that there is a small, I say cohort, I don’t know who they are, but of leaders with the courage to change their system by bringing their representatives, bringing their stakeholders together for this kind of dialogue and discovery.  But in the work that we’ve been doing for 25 years, we know that the message is for leaders who come in in the morning, leave at night, and have any number of meetings, different times, different shapes, different formats, to do the work they have to do because the work of the world gets done in meetings.  And our message to them is no matter what you’re doing, who you’re doing it with, these skills that we present really can overturn conventional practice and support you in both liberating yourself and getting the work done.

Michael: Nice.

Sandra: So, and a Future Search is one opportunity for them, and so maybe when they’re ready, when leaders are ready, they see the benefit of Future Search.  Maybe we’re getting them at the front end.

Marvin: Yeah, but we’re not asking people to become Future Searchers or even to implement that particular model.  That’s been a kind of learning laboratory for us.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: Which really highlights in a short time the efficacy of these skills in groups of people who may never have met together, who may be very diverse in terms of their educational background, their ages, their ethnicity, even languages; we had five or six different languages in the room frequently.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Marvin: We found that by helping people to access their own experience instead of needing to master our theories about what that experience should be, we’ve been able to really open doors that we didn’t know were openable until we’d done this over a period of years and began to realize that we had a potential way of working in unfamiliar cultures and with just about anybody, anywhere in the world without having to enter into their culture, which we will never do.  I mean, that’s a—we know we can’t do that, but we do know how to help people anywhere in the world to do what they’re trying to do if they’re really committed to wanting to do that.

But to get back to your earlier question about convincing or influencing, one of the messages that we deliver to—but everybody worries about losing control.  We worry about it and everybody we work with worries about it.  And the more responsibility an executive person has, the more they worry about it because they’re afraid, especially in very large room meetings, that if they open up the meeting it will become a lightning rod for every issue that anybody ever had.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: And they’re right, it can be.  However, if they really want change, and that’s the big question.  It’s the big if: how committed are you to change?  If that’s true, innovation, change then you have to do something you never did before.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: That’s the definition of change.

Michael: Right.  It’s a—take …

Marvin: So, Michael, are you up for it in this particular situation?

Michael: Yeah.

Marvin: Could you do something you never did before?  It doesn’t have to be highly risky, but getting everybody there is one of those things, because if you’re just going to bring in the same old crowd, I don’t care what content you introduce or how many theories or how many steps or how many methods or how many worksheets, they’re going to end up replicating the same dynamics that this group always replicates, you know?

Michael: And a good deal of what I thought came out through the book is this focus on structure as a deeper driving force for leadership and change than content, because if the structure’s not right, it’s the Canadian—you know, the medium is the message.  You have to make sure the medium reflects the experience that you’re trying to create.

Marvin: Yeah.

Michael: And you know, one of the eight principles that you laid out, and they’re all intriguing, but one of them caught my eye in part because Peter Block’s an influence and a hero of mine, and I remember Peter once saying he saw his role, his work, as giving people responsibility for their own freedom.  I thought that was a powerful phrase.

Marvin: Yeah.

Michael: And you know, your second principle is “Let everyone be responsible.”  So tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that.  I mean, surely people are showing up and they’re fairly responsible anyway in their working day.

Sandra: And how often are they given the opportunity to really extend the reach of responsibility that they have?

Marvin: Yeah.

Sandra: And I think it’s part of our message, which is what are the different mechanisms that are not even complicated, are relatively simple, that share the work, share the responsibility, share the ownership, and enable the leader to do less so that others can do more?  And it’s a belief.  It’s a philosophy.  If you really do believe deep in your heart that people are doing the best they can with what they have, as opposed to trying to make them be different human beings, then you’ve taken a step.  And we know that it takes great courage to do that.  It takes great self-awareness and maybe it takes biting your tongue, and those are the leadership skills.  But the more a leader is able to take a step in that direction, the more they discover the freedom.

Marvin: And you know, leadership is an interesting game.  The people who succeed as leaders tend to be highly conscientious and highly driven and often meticulous people.

Sandra: Mm-hm.

Marvin: Who tend to details, who are on top of things, and who put really high expectations on themselves.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Marvin: And therefore, they also expect a lot from other people.  And one of the dynamics that we became aware of early in the game when we started working together in large groups, with large groups, is the more we do for people, the less they’re willing to do for themselves.  The more responsibility we take for moving flip charts around on the wall or writing them up or telling people how to do whatever it is they do, the more dependent they become and the more they de-skill themselves.  And I think that, you know, Peter Block was onto that a long time ago.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Marvin: Peter and I worked together for 20 years, as you may know.

Michael: That’s right, yes.

Marvin: And I learned a great deal working with him about these issues early in my career, for which I’ll be forever grateful.

But so, one of the pitfalls of leadership is creating the kind of dependency that you oppose, because the people that you lead end up saying, “Well, gee whiz, he treats us like children.”

And when you talk to the leader privately, the leader says, “Well you know, I have to do that because they act like children.”

Michael: Right, we’re all part of the same game.  But here’s the challenge, of course. When you say to the leader, you go, “Okay, so perhaps you need to invite them to step forward, stop treating them like children to break this cycle.”

Marvin: Yeah.

Michael: They’re, like, “Well you know, that’s good in theory, Marv, but the thought of that make me feel quite anxious.”

Sandra: Yeah.

Michael: “Because who knows if that’s going to happen.  They’re probably going to let me down.  The ship will sink.  Everybody will drown.  It will be a disaster.”

Marvin: “And it will be my fault.”

Michael: “And it will be my fault,” exactly.

Marvin: “And I cannot afford to allow that to happen because it’s my responsibility to keep this ship floating.”

Sandra: There’s …

Michael: Now, your third principle is actually “Consider anxiety to be blocked excitement.”

Sandra: Yeah.

Michael: So what’s the connection between the anxiety I’m feeling now and blocked excitement?

Sandra: Well, there’s a direct connection because, again, I think I’ve been saying this a couple times, it really is the leader’s job.  It is what the leader is paid for, to contain that anxiety, because everyone is anxious.  Everyone is in the same unknown and there has to be at least one person who has the faith that something will happen here.  And it really is about faith.  It’s, like, bottom line, because all of the words that you were using, “They’ll let me down, it will fall apart, I’m going to be blamed,” etc., they’re all what we call negative predictions.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Sandra: They aren’t—they’re not happening now.  There’s this jump into the future.  A negative scenario.  You end up feeling as bad as if it really happened and it shifts your whole frame.  So these skills, these learnings, the waiting, the not jumping in with a smart thing that a leader has to say because it’s always smart, but the holding back, the waiting, the containing, to enable others to have that space to jump in, they’re very big interventions.  They’re counterintuitive and they’re important.  So nobody says that this is easy work, but it calls on us to live in that unknown.  There is nothing that’s predictable.  Let’s get used to that.

Marvin: And there are some very proactive ways that we’ve learned to manage our anxiety.  I’ll sketch out a scenario that we’ve played out many times, and I’m sure you’re familiar with it, Michael.  We’ve done a lot of consultant training over the years, and not just in Future Search but more generally consulting skills the way Peter Block talks about them in his books.  And if you have a room full of 50 consultants and you’re trying to help them become better at what they do, any exercise or activity you propose is going to elicit at least 40 or 50 better ways to do it.

Sandra: That’s true.

Marvin: And so, if you get into that game and say, “Okay, let’s try this,” people say, “Yeah, I wanted different but that’s not what I had in mind.”

“Well, how about trying that?”

And someone else says, “No, I tried that and I don’t like that.”

“Well, how about this?”

“No, that won’t work, either.”

You know, then you feel helpless, frustrated, defeated, and you say, “Gee, I’m really lousy at this.”

What we’ve learned to do is to say, “Okay, everybody.  That was a proposal.  Let’s stop.  You’re all experienced consultants sitting here.  You’ve been there a million times.  Right now, put yourself in the situation right now that we’re in.  What would you do?  Let’s hear it.  I want to go around the room and hear from each one of you what you would do now.”

Michael: Right.

Marvin: And then people begin to get the idea, that this is not our responsibility to make this happen, that there are a lot of possibilities.  And the question remains even—usually you go around the room and people now have a pretty good idea of what they’re ready, willing, and able to do.  But if they don’t and if there are still 20 ideas on the table, you say, “Okay, how shall we make this decision?  Is it a vote?  Do we put them in a hat and pull them out of a hat?  Or do we form 20 groups and let each of you do whatever it is you want to do?  What would you like to do?”

Michael:  I mean, it’s interesting that a lot of what you’re proposing …

Marvin: Pardon me?

Michael: It’s interesting that a lot of what you’re proposing and the way you’re framing leadership, and of course through the facilitation skills as well, it kind of connects interestingly with kind of what neuroscience tells us about what keeps people engaged or disengaged.

Marvin: Oh, that’s true.

Michael: On the one hand, autonomy is a great driver of engagement, and one of the things that you role model in the book and in the work that you do is constantly giving people choices that allow them—and respect the autonomy that they have.  Fantastic.

Marvin: Yeah.

Michael: But here’s what’s interesting for me.  One of the other drivers for engagement at a neurological level is certainty.  You know, do I have clear expectations about what’s about to happen.

Marvin: Yes.

Michael: And one of the things you’re inviting people to do is actually stay in a place of ambiguity for longer, a lack of certainty, with the kind of insight that if you can just stay in that place of ambiguity longer, where you end up popping out might be a more interesting place.

Marvin: More dependable place, yeah.

Sandra: I mean, think—yeah, think about it.  Think about it.  What does certainty really mean?  I mean, what we’ve always wanted to deal with is reality and to data check, “What do we know?  What information do we have?  What does it mean to us?”  But when we deal with that, then we can struggle together, and when people struggle together, this kind of confusion place, that’s when you come up.  The potential is really high there to come up with something that is innovative and creative.  And if you think about creativity, it doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye.  It really takes time and it takes permission from those, whoever is in charge, or whatever leadership says to say, “We have the time, we have the space, and we have the permission to not rush to a solution, but to think about it, to creatively kind of explore.”  And that’s the kind of authority, the authority that holds the structure, creates structure that’s meaningful, does not kind of get hooked by …

Marvin: Doesn’t panic.  Don’t panic and …

Sandra: Yeah, doesn’t panic or…

Michael: Right.

Sandra: … another word we use, and we didn’t put it in the book, who doesn’t “splat.”

Michael: Right.  I love that.

Sandra: By splat.  Yeah, by splat, is there is no question that everyone in a leadership position has their own anxiety to deal with, but don’t …

Marvin: Don’t put it …

Sandra: Don’t dump it on the group.

Michael: Right.

Sandra: They need you.  And that’s being a dependable authority because, in truth, we live in uncertainty.  Let’s learn to deal with it, and to deal with it is to manage the turbulence of the unknown.

Marvin: Yeah.  And I wanted to add something.  I want to pose an alternative to that earlier scenario that I sketched out about what happens in a room full of consultants.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Marvin: Consultants are, by definition, autonomous individual performers.  They’re a lot like medical doctors.  They’re a lot like many lawyers, engineers, architects, and other professionals whose work is largely individual.  When there’s relatively low interdependence, you’re much less likely to get people converging with solutions that suit them all.  But the opposite scenario is one that’s experienced by a lot of leaders in the business world, in the education world, the non-profit world, where they’re leading groups of people who are interdependent in the sense that none of them can accomplish their best work without cooperating, cooperation from the others in the room.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: Now in that situation, and you’re the authority figure, the projections that you draw, the authority projections you draw may lead people to paralyze themselves, not to have 50 ideas but to sit on the ideas that they have, and you get a couple different kinds of reactions.  You may get total passivity.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: Which is very common, especially in new situations where people don’t know who you are.  Or you might get counter-dependence from people who are highly anti-authoritarian who really will take you on to see how tough you are.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: And in the middle, you get people who are relatively indifferent.

Michael: Mm-hm.

Marvin: They’re sitting there waiting to see which way this is going to go and how you’re going to handle it.

Michael: Right.

Sandra: And our message, and we have a chapter that discusses this, is don’t take it personally.

Marvin: Yeah.

Michael: Right.

Sandra: It’s the role.  It’s not you.  And when you don’t take it personally as a leader, then you’re not hooked by it, then you’re not off-task and into this relationship that really has nothing to do—or has much to do with authority issues that are not yours.

Marvin: Yeah.

Michael: Well, I think there’s a nice connection there.  I mean, your first principle is “Control structure, not people,” so you got that structural insight.  Then you understand that any anxiety you might be feeling is more about your role within that structure rather than you personally.  So you don’t need to take it personally because it’s just because you’re in that space at that time playing that role that that’s how the system is going to react to you.  So, of course that’s going to happen, but it’s not about you: it’s just about the hat you happen to be wearing.

Sandra: Right.

Marvin:  Yes, and I think it’s important to note what it is we mean by structure, because instead of trying to control people, we want to control the heck out of the conditions under which people interact with each other.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: Because that’s the key to whether they’re going to make—whether they’re going to get into a fight mode or a dependency mode or a creative, problem-solving mode.  And what are the conditions we can control?  We can control the time, we can control the focus on the goal, and we can control the space where we have our encounter, whether it’s meeting with one person or five or 150.  We have some influence over those factors and we should pay attention to them because they all make a difference in the way people interact.  And once they’re in the room together, we have a lot of control over who gets to speak and when they speak.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: And even whether they speak.  And unless we are ready to shut up and endure some silence and let people think …

Sandra: Mm-hm.

Marvin: … we’re never likely to experience the capability that people really have, and so we’re unlikely to develop the faith that we need that others can do it in order to be good leaders.

Sandra: Yeah.

Marvin: The only way to develop that faith is to let people do things you may have thought they couldn’t do and see what happens.

Sandra: And to be quiet for ten seconds longer than you can bear.

Michael: Right.

Marvin: Yeah.  Or, you know, things we’ve learned to do is say, “Okay, everybody’s pretty quiet now.  Why don’t you talk to your neighbour for a minute or two?”

Sandra: Right.  Right.

Michael: Yeah.

Marvin: “See what’s going on here.”  You know, and then say, “Okay, what have you been talking about?”  And sometimes it’s amazing what happens.

Michael: It is.

Sandra:  And it’s funny.  It even comes—it includes these big psychological, self-awareness issues, and the small ones—which, by the way, or on that point, is we’re just starting a meeting on time and ending a meeting on time.

Marvin: Yeah.

Michael: Right.

Sandra: All of those things make a difference when—and to be conscious about that is a good thing.

Marvin: If I were leading a business again and I had a team of ten people, I don’t think I would ever, ever do anything of consequence, no matter what timeframe I had available, whether it was an hour or a day or a week, without hearing from everybody in the room.  I just would never do it.

Michael: Yeah.

Marvin: And we would discover in hearing from everybody in the room, that collectively we all know a great deal more than any one of us knew when this meeting started.  That’s a hell of an insight.

Michael: And it’s probably the perfect insight to finish this conversation because it kind of ends us on exactly how everybody who’s been listening is feeling, which is, “I now know more having heard the collective wisdom of the two of you sharing that.”  So thank you.

Sandra: Thank you.

Marvin: Thank you, Michael.  And Michael, also, thank you for that new take on Marshall McLuhan.

Michael: Oh, right.

Marvin: Never occurred to me in a million years, but I like it very much.

Michael: Well, Marvin and Sandra, for people who want to find out more about the book and also more about the Future Search Network and the work you do, where would you direct them on the Web?  How can they find out more about who you are and what you do?

Sandra: Futuresearch.net is our website.  Sjanoff@nullfuturesearch.net is my email.

Michael: Brilliant.

Sandra: And we’re very happy to talk to anyone that is interested.

Marvin: Yes, and I’m mweisbord@futuresearch,net, and you can also put in the name of the book, Lead More, Control Less, and you’ll find already that there are a number of really good reviews on Amazon.

Michael: Yes, fantastic.  Well, congratulations on getting the book out because, you know, having written a few books of my own, I know what a challenge it is to get anything across the finishing line, and then even more to get it out there, people read it.  And so, I think it’s a wonderful book.  I really enjoyed it.  You were preaching to the converted here.

Sandra: Thank you, and good luck with yours as well.

Michael: Thank you.

Marvin: Yeah, thanks for the invite, Michael.

Sandra: This has been a pleasure.

Marvin: It’s nice to know you, yeah.

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