Change Leaders Create the Right Containers

Am I the only one who finds it satisfying to find just the right-sized container for after-dinner leftovers? When I’m cleaning up the kitchen, I like to size up the food and try to find the container that will be just big enough for the what remains, but not so big that it takes up precious fridge space.

Lately I’ve been thinking about leaders as playing a similar role: creating the right containers that enable their teams to focus on the right work at the right time.

Great leaders create the right containers

Change comes with a lot of questions. Leaders who think it’s their job to have all the answers either get the answer wrong and have to clean up their mistakes—or they get to ONE correct answer (usually out of several) but then have to convince everyone that they’ve managed to find the best one. The truth is, most situations have no single “right answer” and many potentially right answers that are only right if OTHER PEOPLE change some aspect of their behavior.

The leaders who are successful in these situations are those who are able to detach themselves from a particular answer, and focus on creating the right containers—containers that enable others to do the right work at the right time.

So what is a container in this context? It could be a process, it could be a meeting cycle, it could even be a single template that shows people what content they need to fill in so they can make progress together. In some cases, the container can simply be the right question posed at the right time.

Container as a process

Sometimes the container is a process: a cycle of activities, reviews, and conversations designed to move a group from one place to another over time. For example, the team alignment and performance cycle we’ve built with our client Zoobean creates the container for the team to align and realign as they learn together through change in an ongoing and productive way. Everyone on the team knows what to expect and when, as part of a consistent process that involves semi-annual retreats, performance reviews, and data collection. This is an example of a repeating process container.

Even in a one-time process, designed to take a team from point A to point B, one of the first steps should be to identify and create the right containers in which the work can be done. This kind of process container, or roadmap, might outline the steps for collaboratively developing a new company strategy or for reaching a big and difficult decision, as examples.

Container as a meeting cycle

Designing an effective meeting cycle is all about creating the right containers so that as things come up, you have a place to put them. There should be a container for information sharing, problem solving, task and project management, culture and relationship building, and strategic planning and decision making. Each of these containers should be right-sized to the task at hand. For example, information sharing benefits from lots of small containers (e.g., a daily 15 minute standup), while strategic decision making and planning requires fewer, larger ones (e.g., a monthly deep dive day) with opportunity to make progress in between. When a meeting cycle is feeling broken, it’s likely because either a key container is missing, or because the team is trying to stuff things into the wrong places.

Container as a template

Sometimes a container can be the right roadmap or template. If teams take the time at the beginning of a project to lay out a thoughtful template (outline) for organizing all of the content they want to be able to present at the end, it can have a powerful focusing effect and significantly increase efficiency. Rather than first doing a bunch of work together and then deciding at the end how to pull it all together and organize it, teams maximize productivity by building the shared template (or container) for a presentation or deliverable on the front end. This container saves the team from discovering later that pieces are missing or that the content they were creating was off track.

Container as a question or hypothesis

Finally, sometimes the container can just be the right question at the right time. Questions are containers when they help clarify what is and what is not the most important thing to think about first. They have a particular structure and size that determines what people can or can’t put inside. It’s like setting out a bin for kids who are averse to clean-up time and saying “Here, let’s try to see if this mess will fit.” Team leaders might pose a question like, “if we have one week to make the user experience better, what can we do in that time?” Suddenly there is direction and focus that allows forward progress, while leaving lots of space for different answers to be tried and learning to emerge. It’s also motivating. Let’s see if we can actually figure that out!

How great leaders use containers to accelerate progress

Regardless of which kind of container you’re creating, the effect is powerful.

When things are messy, which they are and always will be, having the right containers matters. It doesn’t eliminate the mess forever, but it makes cleaning it up so much faster and easier. It eliminates half of the cognitive load that is normally dedicated to “how do I go about cleaning up this mess?” and allows the team to focus on the other half that is about actually cleaning it up.

It also creates consistency and order amidst chaos and uncertainty. Often people want an answer, or think they want an answer. If we can’t give them an answer, the next best thing we can do is create a consistent process that gives them something to anchor on when everything else feels up on the air.

If you are a change leader, it might be helpful to think about your work in a similar way. Are you creating the right containers to help your key stakeholders navigate change together in the most effective way?

To go back to the “putting away the leftovers” analogy, it’s awesome when I guess right and fill just the right size container with the right scoop of potatoes. But it’s a bummer to guess wrong, and have to switch. It’s even more of a bummer to open up the cabinet and not see a container at all, at least nothing close to the size I’m looking for.

That’s how a lot of employees feel when change is underway. They may feel like, “not only do I not know the answer, but I’m not even sure where to begin trying to answer it.” They’ve opened up the cabinet and found that the there is no container, and now they don’t have anywhere to put their mess. Your job as a leader is to make sure those containers are there, and that they’re rightly sized for all of the various messes that need to be put away.