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To Lead Change, Focus on What You Can’t Control

Dec 1, 2018

We’ve all heard the advice so many times: focus on what you can control.  Right now, you can go on the internet and find any number of “inspirational memes” reinforcing that message.  You’ve probably also seen a Venn diagram that looks something like this:

The great thing about Venn diagrams is that they always make the overlap area seem like the right choice.  There’s even a strong case to be made for focusing on what you can control, if the only alternative is to bang your head against a brick wall in futility.

But this advice will bite you in the ass if you want to drive innovation or organizational change.

The truth is that we’re all naturally driven to control.  In our personal fantasy worlds, each of us would get what we want, everything would be done our way, and everybody would see things the way we do.  (Especially the part about how smart and competent we are.) Control is our comfort zone and we gravitate to the things we think we can control.

In the process, we also do our best to avoid risk, conflict, and uncertainty.  Those things threaten our sense of control. And there’s a logic to avoidance too.  After all, taking dumb risks isn’t very productive and creating unnecessary conflict can get you voted off the island.

However, the big rewards never come without risk, as any investment broker will tell you.  Doing new things always involves uncertainty and solving the big problems means sorting through competing ideas and perspectives (otherwise known as conflict).  

Think about it: if something were already under control, then it wouldn’t be a big deal. If something matters and you really can control it to positive effect, of course you should.  But if that’s the case, you’re probably already doing it.  Most of our management routines are all about controlling the controllable.  The best you’ll do by “focusing on what you can control”, is maintain the status quo.

If you want to innovate, you have to push outside the comfort of the controllable. If you really want to drive change, you’ve got to engage the stuff that matters, even where there’s risk and uncertainty.  In fact, you’ve got to do it especially where there is risk and uncertainty, because that’s where the big opportunities live.  

Even the popular Venn diagram contains its own counterargument.  That’s shaded area is so tiny. We can easily trick ourselves into thinking we’re working on stuff that matters, but it’s really just stuff we can control.  Most of the stuff that matters, actually lies outside our control.  Do you really want leaders in your organization to just throw their hands up and say “que sera sera” when it comes to 80% of what really matters?  In today’s competitive business environment, can your organization afford to leave that much potential value on the table?

My team frequently works with groups of senior leaders charged with driving major initiatives in their organizations.   There’s usually a point where these executives start listing all the things that aren’t under their control: the org structure, the incentive system, the behavior of the top team… They aren’t satisfied with the way things are, but they feel trapped by forces outside their control.  They believe these things are preventing them from taking on the real issues and from leading change.

We challenge these folks with a simple choice:

  1. They can wait forever for the perfect org structure, incentive system, or top team, that will never come. They can keep avoiding the real issues and focus on what they can control.  They can just go on living with the status quo that they find so deeply unsatisfactory.
  2. Or, they can engage the real issues that matter, even though conditions aren’t perfect.  They can engage people from across the organization to work on the big problems and opportunities, even though it’s messy and there’s conflict.  They can expand their sphere of influence, even though it’s uncomfortable and a lot of work.

When these leaders shift their focus beyond what they can control, they realize that their sphere of influence is much larger than they were giving themselves credit for.

When they start to map out their opportunities to engage people and the real issues, they begin to recognize that their opportunity to impact the business is much larger than they were allowing themselves to see.  They walk away from the experience with concrete plans to tackle the real issues in their businesses. They tell us that they feel re-energized about the impact they can create as a leader in the organization.

At the end of the day, anybody can sit at a desk, passing reports up the chain and directives down. That’s just being a placeholder.  Pretty soon, a robot will be able to do that instead of you.  What businesses need from their talented people is much more than that: They need them to make sense of the uncertainty that comes with innovation.  They need them to manage the conflict and discomfort of change. They need them to chart a course through risk to seize opportunities and realize growth.  It’s hard work, and it isn’t always pretty, but that’s the challenge of real leadership.