Discover the statue: The Michelangelo approach to leading change

Make it easy for employees to serve the enterprise purpose and vision by getting rid of the programs, steps and obstacles in the way of doing so. Less is more, quite literally.

Imagine: a talent / culture / change problem emerges requiring behavior changes. Leadership wants to “solve it.”“What can we do to come up with and implement some solutions?” a leader thinks. And thus an entire set of activities is set into motion, following the same general pattern:

  1. Set up listening / learning session(s) (we don’t want to create solutions in a silo, after all)
  2. Articulate and align the take-aways (alignment and transparency are critical, as everyone knows)
  3. Set up the requisite workstreams and their owners, with clear RACIs (clarity of roles and responsibility is paramount)
  4. Empower workstream leaders to identify initiatives and develop implementation project plans (co-creation and agency are key to sustainability)
  5. Ensure a nice Steerco is established to vet, approve and enable these ideas (‘gotta have that sponsorship and support)

The additive mindset – the space of “AND”

This is the typical blueprint undertaken when solving for many enterprise-wide gaps. While not wrong or ill-intentioned, the underlying paradigm is to DO – to ACT. If only that set of solutions would emerge and get implemented, the thinking goes, then the talent /culture / change problem would be resolved. 

The mindset represented in the above is one of “more is more:” The more we do, the more we will solve and fix. We can do this thing AND that thing AND a little bit more: an “additive mindset.”

After all, it’s “sexy” to come up with shiny new initiatives. It’s powerful to have the certainty of a roadmap and its time-bound milestones. It feels good to be able to DO something and plant a seed to watch grow. Leaders lead, right?

And in that process of “more,” things get added:

  • To people’s plates and responsibilities
  • To the roster of enterprise-wide initiatives
  • To the things that compete for our attention and time

… ultimately to the noise of the enterprise that is muddling the signal and is increasingly tuned out by so many employees. (#burnout #cynicism #disengagement)

While some noise can’t be avoided, looking to the negative space could be especially “additive” to the leadership toolkit. This article seeks to introduce “subtractive mindset” as a term. Pass it on, let’s see how much traction it gets! 

The subtractive mindset – a paradigm shift 

First, we need to understand this subtractive mindset is based on an altogether different paradigm, one that looks to take away before adding.  Two examples of this mindset quickly come to mind:

  • The “do no harm” principle, embraced by the medical profession, intended “to avoid exposing people to additional risks through our action; it means taking a step back from an intervention to look at the broader context and mitigate potential negative effects.” – ALNAP.
  • The “sculptor” identity, as defined by Michelangelo: “every block of stone has a statue inside it; it’s the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Parenting, T-groups and many other examples also surface. What these two specific examples have in common is the notion that getting out of the way and chipping away at the excess often yields better results than jumping into action.  When applied to organizations, this means first trusting that:

  • Organizations have within them most capabilities needed to evolve and improve.
  • Employees already have the internal motivations, passions and wherewithal to make meaningful contributions to the organization’s goals.
  • People want to do the right thing, and we’re wired to learn, grow and collaborate. 

Tremendous impact can be gained by eliminating obstacles versus adding more incentives and “solutions.” The neuroscience of habit formation backs this up and encourages us to make it as easy as possible to take the first baby steps that snowball into new behaviors. It’s about getting rid of the temptations, enablers and reinforcing mechanisms of our bad habits to help us form new ones. Like Michelangelo, we need to get rid of the stone that obfuscates our view of the statue.  

Similarly, in organizations, make it easy for employees to behave in ways that serve the enterprise purpose and vision by getting rid of the programs, steps and obstacles in the way of doing so.  Less is more, quite literally.

From this standpoint, embracing a subtractive mindset requires a different way of being, that, for most leaders, itself involves giving things up:

  • Status – that comes from being a hero and saving the day with a clever new “and” solution
  • Recognition – gained more for “visible” initiatives than the relative invisibility of eliminating others and letting them die
  • Control – that comes from managing to some plan and measuring the metrics of its impact
  • Power – derived from orchestrating numerous teams, workstreams and deliverables
  • Relatedness – gained from agreeing with our hive-minded leadership mindsets and action biases; doing less is rarely the most popular thing to do, especially when it means someone else’s initiative needs to be stopped

Leaders need to get out of their own way first to enable eliminating the obstacles getting in the way of change. As always, real leadership starts with the leader – change leadership is no different. Knowing what to stop doing is just as important, if not more so, than knowing what we should start doing or do differently. (Note: Some people call this strategy)

So before embarking on yet another initiative, yet another “AND” with another new campaign… step away from the project plan and ask yourself “where can I chip away at the stone to reveal more of the statue?”