On developing confidence

Over the last month or two, I have been reflecting on the value of the work I have been doing since striking out as an independent consultant. In pursuit of this reflection, a number of very helpful conversations have steered my thinking and planning. I have some ideas around developing my service and business and have been testing them, in theory at least, through those conversations. (More on that soon). In the meantime, a more personal thought.

Broadly, there are two constant themes through my efforts of the last four years and beyond. One is developing confidence; the other is ensuring relevance (a theme to which I will return in more depth, because it is fundamental). Essentially, I have been helping people figure out what to do when confronted with new and changing circumstances. A reality for us all at the time of typing this.

By way of further context, a fair slice of the work I am engaged on is advisory. It tends to centre around developing fresh strategies and plans and helping leaders and teams organise to realise those ambitions. Much of this change has a digital flavour: a need to embrace digital tools and methods and a need to create, organise and manage teams to realise that digital potential. Increasingly, people are on a quest for a more progressive approach to learning in the workplace, however defined, and digital is central to that search.

I have found that developing confidence to strike out in these new directions is one of the core benefits of this work. Or, it might be described as confidence to dispense with the traditional and familiar in favour of the new and different, whether by choice or circumstance.

These are some of the activities, processes and outcomes that I have seen contribute to developing that assuredness:

  • Setting a good direction: working on a clear (and ambitious, if possible) vision or mission (or whatever you prefer to call it). Something that is clear and makes sense to those who hear it.
  • Working collaboratively and broadly to explore, discover and test that direction. In changing times, a vision travels further where people know where it has come from and why.
  • Involving end users/audiences/workers/learners in that collaboration as well as the team that will actually make it happen
  • Finding a strong, simple and clear articulation of your new direction (a good short story):
    • For business partners or stakeholders
    • For audiences, users or learners
    • For you and your teams
  • Agreeing guiding principles to steer plans and activities and to gather teams around: Answering the “what do we want to stand for?” question.
    • Principles for products, services and technology
    • Principles for audiences and users
    • And principles for the team: how we will go about our business
  • Informal conversation with individual clients – chewing the fat, comparing notes and low pressure pondering (this might sound lightweight but is a powerful practice)
  • More formal mentoring and challenging conversations with individual clients – exploring assumptions, understanding relationships (and sometimes politics), investigating evidence and signals of value from a personal perspective
  • Looking for similarities in situations, plans and products – from near and far. (There seems to be an adjacent if not a substitute for pretty much everything these days).
  • Finding evidence and signals of value (and lack of value) for projects, products and services – but not seeking proof
  • Creating evidence from smaller tests for a new proposition (where something is completely new, trying it out is the only way to look at evidence) 
  • Describing what the desired results of activity will look like: how will we know it is working? What will we see? What will the organisation notice and value? 
    • And, yes, what are the sources of evidence for these behaviours and outcomes?

And yet, false confidence is as much of a risk as a lack of true confidence. Here are some steps and activities which I have found can help avoid that trap (along with those above):

  • Be as clear as possible about the evidence you will use to monitor your progress – data, feedback, research, anecdotal evidence, team mood/sentiment are good contenders for the mix
  • (Surround yourself with) find different views and expertise – voices from beyond the familiar conversations will help to identify and burst bubbles of false confidence
  • And spend time outside of your immediate work
    • From other teams in your organisation
    • From other organisations (this is, I think, LinkedIn’s greatest benefit and the L&D industry is very good at sharing)
  • Look beyond the data you ‘own’ to test your assumptions (from the teams and contacts mentioned above). How would others check on your progress? What evidence would they expect and understand?
  • Thought experiments to actively explore why we might be wrong are a useful exercise – what would the world look like if we are wrong – Margaret Heffernan is very good on this theme.

Whilst confidence might seem a somewhat opaque and subjective goal, I do see some clear signals of it emerging in teams and leaders as we work together. Amongst the most important are: a clear or emerging sense of purpose, the desire to find and create evidence through testing; the demand for evidence in starting a project from beyond your own team (not just swallowing the requirement); the comfort with taking smaller early steps and experimenting; comfort with not promising the answer; equal comfort with seeking the right question. Those formal and informal conversations are the source of these signals and cannot be recommended enough.

Curiosity tends to foster confidence. An impulse to “check and see” is where it is put to best effect. These actions may seem to be enemies of efficiency and predictability (they may actually be) but they are strong resistors to false confidence and the problems that entails. Efficient, predictable and wrong is no help at all.

I am really interested to hear views about this and to connect with anyone who would like to share experiences, compare notes or disscuss specific situations.

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