Implementation Leadership Requires Intentionally Infinite Thinking
October 30, 2023 – This article is one in a series of articles about ACJI’s 10 Essential Principles of Implementation Leadership. If you’re new here, take a look at our first article in the series on principle 1 to start.
Implementation Leadership Principle 8: Infinite Thinking
The saying, “It is a marathon and not a sprint” comes up in change leadership circles a lot, and that’s a problem. The analogy is fixed, finite, and ends with clear victors and losers.
Anytime in a change initiative that you adhere to concrete plans with arbitrary deadlines you end up with rigid and fragile results. Whereas, a continuous and curious approach that has no ultimate end and no defined winner or loser can lead to stronger and more reliable outcomes.
Perhaps a better analogy to use in change leadership is to say, “It’s neither a marathon nor a sprint, because it’s a mindset to perpetuate rather than to terminate change.” Whereas a marathon ends with one victor and many losers, infinite implementation is a life cycle of perpetual growth, change, and innovation where there is no clear beginning or end.
Implementation Is A Commitment To Ongoing Flexibility
To believe that an implementation effort ends is evidence of a fixed leadership mindset. This thinking is likely responsible for the large-scale change failure in the justice system.
If change must occur following fixed rules and methods and with people in fixed roles, you will end up with fixed implementation planning. Sadly, we see this happen in the criminal legal system often. When fixed efforts become finalized, most positive results simply do not last long.
Consider the quintessential solution to big, persistent, wicked problems that are most often adaptive (mindset) problems: the organizational restructure. For decades, leaders have tried to fix the organizational chart to fix the problem.
This is a structural solution to what is often an underlying cultural or mindset problem. (Most problems are cultural and mindset related.) The hope is that by placing a department or organization in a different space the challenges it faced before will dissipate and fade into the distance.
Here’s what is more likely to happen: The underlying adaptive challenges simply get transferred to their new location, often with new and different complexities to work out. When we think infinitely about change, we shy away from one-and-done solutions that get us to a defined end and move us into the more challenging, but lasting, mindset of experimenting with solutions that will address the underlying issues.
So, let’s flip this fixed approach around. The opposite word is “flexible” and is defined as: capable of bending easily without breaking; able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions.
A flexible change leader will see an implementation effort as
- Ongoing and opposed to final deadlines
- An opportunity to push on the boundaries of existing policies and procedures
- Many chances to fail and try again
- Following a curved road (not point A to point B) that doesn’t end (infinite) with permission to change course (agile)
An effective change leader knows that it’s their role to influence the mindset of their team. The first step at becoming more influential is to wear your new infinite mindset like a badge. This will work as a contagion to others.
What Does An Infinite Leadership Mindset Look Like?
Whereas the finite leadership mindset is a form of technical leadership with a “fix it and move to the next problem” approach, the infinite mindset is adaptive. It’s a a pivot to “address the issue over the long term” or maybe “grow the healthy mindset that competes with the problem.”
The infinite mindset is a commitment to the discomfort of an abstract means to an abstract problem and playing the long game. It is perpetuating growth and discovery with others, not terminating it for oneself.
To Sum Up
Organizationally intelligent change leaders are intentionally infinite in their thinking and they influence others to be the same. An infinite leadership mindset sees organizational change as infinite. It means you lead in a constant state of agile experimentation. It’s also a form of adaptive leadership that is far better matched to the real-world trials of implementation of evidence-based innovations.
If you are in a leadership position with the criminal legal system, learn more about the 10 Essential Principles of Implementation Leadership in ACJI’s upcoming Academy where we talk about all 10 of the principles in much more depth.