Making a Difference in a World that Seems Different


“The world is completely different. Things will never be the same.” 

Taken at face value, you may have found yourself agreeing with this oft-made observation. But upon closer examination, it is a statement that really does not hold up to closer scrutiny. In fact, it simply is not true.

Consider your daily routine. How many elements of it truly are different than they were 6-12 months ago? If you are like most individuals, I would guess that more than 90% of the world as you knew it is exactly as it was before. Things are the same. What has changed is how make sense of the things we encounter and the value we attach to them.

When we speak of individual values and belief systems, we simply cannot make sweeping generalizations like the world will never be the same. “The world” as an individual mindset simply does not exist. 

What does exists in the world is a fascinating collection of individuals, all of whom see and create their own reality, make meaning from what they see and experience, and then choose how to act on this meaning. The process of making meaning may indeed have changed as individuals approach decision-making opportunities resembling those from the past, but now with a slightly (or significantly) altered framework of what matters most. Making a difference in a world that is different requires understanding and embracing this fact.

So, what’s a leader to do in a world in which individual meaning making may be different than it once was? Focusing on the fundamentals is one approach to consider. Just as we emphasize the 3Rs in our educational system, so might we want to emphasize 3Rs in our leadership efforts: relationships, relevancy, and reflection.  

Relationships

When times are challenging we often “circle the wagons,” regaining intimacy with the friends, family, and colleagues who are a part of our personal support network. Embracing community more than individualism becomes more evident in our neighborhoods and organizations, and we seek more opportunities to connect with others.

Effective leadership would suggest further enhancing your existing commitment to the power of relationships and networks. More time should be spent on connecting with individuals and creating opportunities for individuals to connect with others in your workplace and in the programs you offer for members. Offering individuals the ability to be a part of a web of rich and meaningful relationships and creating opportunities for individuals and the networks they have cultivated to come together and create for the good of the community is an increasingly attractive value proposition.

Relevancy

Events like the challenging economic climate in which we've lived the past few years cause individuals to examine if how they live their life reflects what they define to be truly relevant. As a result, decisions once made without much thought now often invite significant deliberation, periodically yielding a difference choice being made. While individuals normally adjust their priorities on a fairly regular basis, it is not unusual during more challenging times for the adjustments to be both more pronounced and more frequent.

Leaders perform an important role by acknowledging this shifting landscape and allowing reasonable space for employees, members, and colleagues to reassess what truly matters to them. The answers may call for significant shifts in the work environment provided for staff, as well as member programs and services.

Organizations should use this time to reflect on how they allocate resources, attention, and energy to determine if any readjustments are needed for greater relevancy in the current environment. This evaluation should be conducted not only at the individual program or service level, but also at the component level of any individual offering. Don’t just examine a conference to determine if it has overall relevance; also examine each aspect of how the conference is conducted to determine the relevance of that individual segment.

“Activity creep,” the tendency to take on more and more activity over time without in-depth assessment of the value/relevancy of the activity, can only be curtailed by such periodic reflection. Rather than rely on environmental conditions to call for such reassessment, savvy leaders will help create manageable processes to measure relevancy on a more intentional and frequent basis. 

Reflection 

Perhaps one of the most positive outgrowths of difficult times is the tendency for individuals to take more time to engage in personal reflection. Organizations would be wise to copy this strategy, building in a commitment to more thoughtful reflection on an ongoing basis.

Why is reflection so important? Fundamentally it is one of the key components to our ability to learn.
 If you examine the work of David Kolb, one of the most widely acknowledged scholars on learning, you see a four-part cycle that must be completed in order for learning to occur: (1) we have an experience, (2) we reflect on that experience, (3) we form assumptions and generalizations based on the experience, and (4) we test the generalizations in a new experience. And so the cycle begins again. 

The trouble is that so many individuals and organizations never do anything but have experiences. Without reflecting on what is occurring in our lives and making some meaning of our experiences, we are destined to repeat the same experiences—and the same mistakes.

Leaders must model and champion the value of reflection in organizational life. For many individuals this is difficult because they see reflection as an activity that lacks obvious value. Regardless of resistance from some, a commitment to reflection must be made. If nothing else is attempted, simply answering two questions daily are likely to increase our effectiveness: (1) What have I learned about myself today that I would be wise to carry forward? (2) What have we learned about our work together today that we would be wise to carry forward?  

Just the beginning

The 3Rs offered are really just the beginning alternative commitments we might want to contemplate making. As you contemplate how you might make more of a difference, you might consider adopting a truism acknowledged too infrequently: the world as we know it is actually different every single day. 

Though the changes may seem small and insignificant at times, nothing ever stays exactly the same. Effective leaders help inspire and instill resiliency in the organizations they steward. They regularly triage their response to the following question: given what seems different in our world, what is the difference we most need or want to make?
Resilient organizations and individuals have an increased capacity to adapt to and manage the different world they encounter each day. Building that type of a community is truly a difference worth making. 
I'm excited to addressing this topic as the opening keynote speaker for this year's National Association of Home Builders Association Leadership Institute.