A Selection from the Introduction to Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change (Post Hill Press,2018).
In the mid-1990s, I started my consulting practice with the aim of helping leaders strengthen their organizations, with the larger goal of strengthening their local communities. As one project after another came, a pattern began to emerge. Problems presented to me often turned out to be symptoms of more complex problems. These were not isolated incidents. The situations and the kinds of organizations were not similar. Their problems were similar. But more importantly, they were not getting resolved by the way we have all learned to solve problems. For as long as I’ve been working in organizations, the belief has been that the solution is in the problem itself. This approach failed to understand that there is always more going on than the problem itself.
The more significant pattern that I saw was that leaders’ perspectives were fragmented. They were not able to see their organizations as a whole. To put it differently, they were not able to see how the parts of their organizations fit together as an integrated whole. It wasn’t that they couldn’t see how one part influenced another. The problem was that there wasn’t a simple perspective that could be practiced by everyone in the organization. Fragmented thinking produces more of the same. Here is an example of what I mean.
Communication is always an easily identified problem. It is often used as the reason why a client or a team member did not respond the way we expected them to respond. Too often it is how we understand the delivery of information to the public or what we mean when we send a survey to a group seeking their input. As one who has used surveys to gather perspective for clients, I always produced a report that could be distributed to the responders. It is an issue of respect and trust for me. It was a rare occasion when I’d receive one from a survey I’d completed. There is good reason why communication is the organizational problem at the top of my list.
If communication is a problem in your organization, what kind of problem is it? Is it poorly articulated information lacking a clear call to action? Is it a badly designed approach for getting information into the right hands so that they will pay attention to it? Is it a lack of understanding about the kind of information the recipient wants from you? Is it that the information sounds too generic, as if the leadership team is not in touch from the realities of the client? Or is the basic problem in our thinking that communication is simply the delivery of information to the marketplace?
While addressing this recurring problem with clients, the Circle of Impact developed. The issue of communication is a multidimensional one. The Circle of Impact came into existence to help people, like you and me, find a simple, practical way to address the complex situations of human communication that we daily encounter in our personal and professional lives.
The Circle of Impact is a dynamic picture of the interaction among three aspects of an organization—ideas, relationships, and structure—called the three dimensions of leadership. Typically, these three areas are treated separately. We don’t even see how they interact and influence one another. At best, we see how they get in the way of the real business of the organization.
In particular, this is true regarding how the operation of the organizational structure tends to diminish the importance of people in relationship with one another. In addition, ideas, like values, get marginalized as marketing words—“Your trusted provider of…”—instead of as strategic insights for developing the long-range strength and sustainability of the company. In a structure-centric environment, rather than a Circle-of-Impact-aligned one, this fragmented way of looking at an organization results in the idea that it’s just easier to treat everything, and everyone, as a functional part of the mechanism of the organization.
Let’s return to our communication problem example. We know that customers are not responding to our communication. We send out informational brochures and emails, and post information on social media sites, trying to reach them with our message. What we don’t see is that communication is a product of these three dimensions. Instead, we see ourselves locked away in our office, with the shades drawn, doors closed, yelling our message, hoping someone will hear. When they don’t, we blame the client for not listening. To fix this problem, we need three qualities to surface into the life of the organization.
First, we need a clear reason why our communication with our customers is important. We need to be able to say what we expect the impact of our communication to be. What is it that we want them to do because of our communication with them? In this sense, the impact of communication is a change that takes place that is beneficial to both parties.
Second, we need to develop a relationship with our entire constituency—customers, employees, vendors, neighbors, and industry—so that they trust us. They need to believe that whatever we have to say is reflective of who we are as a company and is in their best interest as a member of our constituent community. Having developed a trusting relationship with them, we then know what their expectations are for our communication with them. We’ll be communicating the kind of information they want, rather than just the information we have to distribute.
Third, we need to know the best method for communicating with them that accomplishes two goals. First, it strengthens their trust in us. Second, it lets them clearly know what kind of response that we would like them to make.
In the alignment that the Circle of Impact fosters, none of the three dimensions is more important than the other two. The three dimensions create a simple, practical way for us to work through the challenges that face us personally and in our businesses. In most situations, one of the dimensions appears to have the more critical need for change. While we begin with one of the dimensions, we bring the other two dimensions into to the process to discover the solution that is always found in the alignment of the three dimensions.
Now in our communication situation, let’s identify the problem area as a customer relationship that does not produce trust. The least-effective approach to resolving this problem is to go directly to the customer and tell them that we want to increase trust between us. Instead, we go directly to our customers asking them two simple questions: What kind of information do you need from us? And how would you like us to provide it to you? The solution that builds a trusting relationship is one where we listen and respond to them, rather than expecting them to respond to us.