The “Obliteration Room” is a living art exhibit in the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art. The exhibit, created by Yayoi Kusama, started out as a purely white room. White walls, ceiling, and floor. White piano, chair, couch, cabinets, television. Absolutely everything … white. Then, he allowed children and adults to pass through the room … after giving them colored dots to place anywhere they chose. Before and after pictures reveal oddly fascinating (and colorful!) results.
This a helpful word picture for someone who is a new leader in an organization. The white room is like the organization before the new leader arrives. In actuality no organization is featureless and “all white,” without variation or style. However, to the people who have worked there for years, it IS all white. The variations and style of the organization have become normal, the status quo, and it is difficult to see any color. White represents the status quo.
Enter the new leader … with colored dots. Everywhere the leader goes, he leaves marks of his presence through his actions, ideas, words, and attitudes. Where he parks, what kind of car he drives, how he greets the office staff, coffee or no coffee, open or closed door … each of the inconsequential elements of his presence and being is a colored dot. Strategic decisions, conflicts, private and public communication, promotions and firings … each significant event in the new leader’s day is also a colored dot.
Every colored dot is a change in the white of the status quo. Each dot placed by the leader, each action or statement, is a disruption in what the followers came to believe was normal and expected in their daily routine. To the followers, these new dots are highly visible against the white of the status quo. For the new leader, this color can be harder to see because he is placing color in an already colored room.
The question this new leader must answer is what do his colored dots create? What is the effect of the colored dots he leaves behind?
Do they create chaos, like the Obliteration Room? Not long ago, I observed a new president in a mid-sized company. At first, he was conscious about trying to place as few dots as possible while he learned the culture and got to know the people. Eventually, he began placing more and more colored dots. As the followers waited for a pattern to emerge, it was soon evident that there was no pattern, just chaos. This leader didn’t last long.
Other times, “colored-dot chaos” results when a new leader makes changes that don’t respect the history and values of the organization. Or, he makes “strategic decisions” without respect for the strengths and capabilities of the organization. His dots are placed randomly, without pattern or purpose.
The new leader’s colored dots should create a pattern. They should have purpose. Patterns and purpose create a message. Leaders are messengers; they are communicators. The pattern of the new leader’s colored dots tells the organization who he is, who he thinks the followers are, and what they can accomplish together.
One of the greatest challenges for a leader entering a new organization is to quickly learn what the followers perceive their “white” to be. He needs to find out the perceived status quo. The difficulty here is that what appears as white to the followers, the leader sees as color! The organization and all of its circumstances are new and vibrant to the new leader. This is good because the followers no longer see these nuances. But does the leader see chaos or patterns in that color?
Here is the challenge: The new leader must consciously and carefully place his own colored dots to either transform organizational chaos into patterns, or to strategically enhance and strengthen existing patterns.