In a previous blog I started to explore McKinsey’s Visionary, Architect, Coach and Catalyst model of modern leadership by looking at how a leader can become visionary. But a vision declared is still only a vision; leaders must adopt the other aspects of McKinsey’s VACC model in order to translate it into reality.
The conventional route is to develop a plan to execute on the new vision. This sounds sensible, and certainly planning is important, but jumping immediately to create a plan can limit possibility. Quickly the plan becomes the thing – meeting targets, deadlines and allocations becomes more important than the overall goal and teams lose sight of the vision. It’s easy to become a slave to a plan and get bogged-down in the detail.
This is where the leader must adopt the role of architect. Being an effective architect means making a vision concrete by creating an environment in which it can become real. In the world of construction, architects define the aspects of a physical environment; the shape of the building itself but also the space, the materials, the function and people that it is designed for. They also practice ‘creative destruction’, clearing away old buildings and landscapes in order to create space for fresh ideas.
In the business context leaders must adopt the same approach – consciously setting the context in which team members know how to contribute to the overall vision and the context in which they operate to make it real. It requires conscious examination of existing structures to identify those that are holding the organisation back. ‘Traditional’ command and control approaches; rigid siloed hierarchies of responsibility; detailed linear planning and focus solely on shareholder returns may need to be cleared out to deliver the new vision.
Breakthrough organisations manifest a shift in mindset. They live in the result – and act from a position of embracing the vision as a potential future to which they are completely committed. From this perspective they look back at the steps taken to construct this new reality. Leaders playing the role of architect are critical to this shift; they reinforce the image of the finished project and create the environment that empowers each individual to contribute to its successful delivery. By creating an expectation of shared responsibility, collaboration, rapid learning and agile development the leader-architect creates a new model for co-creation of value for all stakeholders.
On a building site architects do not focus on pouring foundations, building walls or installing pipework. They maintain a clear view of the end-goal and the organisation needed to achieve it. In an organisation, leaders playing the architect role must also avoid micro-managing every step of the way.
This means ceding decision-making rights to people on the ground. Good architects may have come up though one of the ‘trades,’ and have some experience of the skills needed on site, but they recognise they are not the experts. Leaders architecting a new organisations need to take the same metaphorical ‘step back.’ They need to put down their winning moves to empower team members to utilise their own skills and experience to deliver the constituent elements.
But successful leader/architects also recognise that transformation continues through their ongoing involvement. The vision will evolve as situations changes – the architect is the bridge between the potential of the vision and the reality of bringing it to life. This requires proactive application of creative design powers, constantly looking at resources, challenges and opportunities to build the organisation necessary to delivering the vision. As with any ‘real-world’ construction project, things on the ground will differ, and listening closely to the entire team is essential to constantly adjust so that the vision remains current and true.
As with any successful architect-builder relationship, there should be creative tension between roles. Builders know how to get things done safely and efficiently but tend to err towards repeatability. Architects reiterate the vision and push builders to achieve the impossible and create innovative and beautiful results whilst still delivering sound structures. Business leaders need to demonstrate confidence in their teams’ capabilities but also encourage them to go beyond the tried and tested and share risk on innovations that can deliver standout results.
A practical step that leaders can take to check that they are playing the architect role is to ask, ‘what am I looking at?’ If you are focused in on a specific aspect you are probably not playing the architect role. Pull back and look at the whole picture. Architects look at the whole design to make sure things stay in synch. They are concerned about how the different elements work together rather than getting involved in solving every challenge. This ‘systems-thinking’ view is all about orchestration and maintaining focus on the vision for the project and how things can be improved.
Organisations that go straight to planning will deliver business as usual results – the equivalent of identikit housing estates where the only way to increase returns is to build more of the same. Injecting the critical architect role will lead to a reimagination of the space and the opportunity – perhaps building entirely different types of dwelling – or even using the land in an entirely new way.
As a visionary, the leader perceives, articulates and commits to an entirely new way of being for the organisation. As the architect they must create the environment in which that new way of being can exist. They should explore and, if necessary, reconfigure the interplay between the different elements of the organisation to deliver the right context for their vision to become reality. Living the role of architect will help leaders achieve a clear, big picture, view of projects and make the right interventions to enable team members to rise to the challenge of committing to the bold future they’ve declared.
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