Leaders often suffer from “power poisoning” and fixate on their own needs and ambitions. A perspective swap — where, for example, a CEO works as a customer service representative for a day, or an HR representative works in sales for a week — can help detox leaders from blind spots and distorted views of what’s actually happening on their teams. Perspective swaps can also be effective when applied laterally across different teams, such as sales, and marketing, helping cross-functional teams gain a deeper understanding of the challenges that other departments face. At the heart of perspective swaps is the idea that there is always more than one way to view a situation. They help build “cognitive flexibility” — the ability to think creatively and adaptively in response to new situations and change efforts. Ultimately, perspective swaps can foster a culture of innovation and empowerment that leads to better outcomes for everyone involved.
To remain competitive, businesses must continually challenge the status quo and find ways to reinvent themselves. In a world where complacency can be comfortable, one unconventional approach can jolt organizations out of their traditional ways: It’s called the perspective swap. For example, a CEO might spend a day working as a customer service representative. Or, an HR representative might spend a week working in sales.
Perspective swaps involve intentionally shifting your point of view to gain a new understanding of a situation. Although these switcheroos can be valuable for all businesses, midsize companies are especially poised to benefit from them because they’re up against less bureaucracy and red tape than their larger counterparts, but are still infused with enough complexity to profit from a change in mindset.
“Vertical” Perspective Swaps
Perspective swaps can be applied vertically — up and down your organizational chart — or laterally across different functional groups. Vertical perspective swaps happen between leaders and their employees. Leaders often suffer from “power poisoning” and fixate on their own needs and ambitions. Perspective swaps can help detox leaders from blind spots and distorted views of what’s actually happening on their teams.
At Vincit, a mid-sized IT services company based in Finland, one employee is selected per month to be CEO for a day. They’re given an unlimited budget to make one decision that will improve the workplace. From instituting new coworker lunches aimed at building connections among employees to implementing new employee mental health resources during the pandemic, the program has led to swift and meaningful changes. For CEO Ville Houttu, the program has helped surface his own blind spots and gain a clearer picture of how to best serve his employees.
When perspective swaps happen at the highest echelons of a company, the stakes can be high (an unlimited budget in the wrong hands could be catastrophic). Fortunately, there are ways to lower the stakes. One option is to use simulations. At its annual planning summit, San Francisco-based cloud infrastructure company HashiCorp runs a virtual simulation that shakes up the traditional power structure. Leaders are divided into teams and given the opportunity to act as “CEO” for two days. Unexpected events, or “wobblers,” are thrown into the mix to test the team’s ability to respond to change with agility.
“Lateral” Perspective Swaps
Perspective swaps can also be effective when applied laterally across different teams, such as sales, marketing, and HR.
Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz applied a perspective swap at one of his portfolio companies after he noticed that two teams — customer support and sales engineering — were spewing “blistering complaints” at one another and struggling to collaborate. Fresh from watching the film “Freaky Friday,” Horowitz instructed the heads of the two teams to swap places.
It worked. After just one week, the leaders were able to gain a deeper understanding of each other’s challenges and resolve the issues that had caused the spats.
In our latest research at The Work Innovation Lab, we’ve been studying the evolving role of IT professionals, particularly CIOs and CTOs. We’ve found that there are three groups whose business priorities IT professionals are struggling to understand most right now: legal, finance, and HR. Yet cross-functional collaboration with these teams is critical: IT team members need to collaborate with legal team members to respond to cybersecurity threats, with finance team members to chop budgets and double down on profitability, and with HR team members to enhance the digital employee experience.
Think about which of your teams stand to gain the most from perspective swaps. Instructing members of different teams to temporarily swap places can fuel a new level of empathy and understanding — and, if all goes well, productive organizational change.
Perspective Swaps at the Project or Initiative Level
Perspective swaps can also be valuable when applied to specific projects, initiatives, or change efforts, such as AI-related initiatives.
One key reason that AI initiatives fail to live up to their promise is that AI developers are often siloed from the end-users of the technology. By flipping the script and bringing end-users into the development process, you can increase the likelihood that AI implementations will meet the needs of your people and deliver tangible value.
At The Work Innovation Lab, we recently designed an experiment where members of Asana’s marketing team proposed ways to use generative AI as part of their day-to-day roles. Rather than having the technology imposed on them by developers, they were put in the driver’s seat to brainstorm ways they could incorporate the technology into their own work.
Ultimately, perspective swaps can foster a culture of innovation and empowerment that leads to better outcomes for everyone involved.
Why Do Perspective Swaps Work?
At the heart of perspective swaps is the idea that there is always more than one way to view a situation. But perspective swaps aren’t just about finding new inspiration. They help build “cognitive flexibility” — the ability to think creatively and adaptively in response to new situations and change efforts.
Swaps can also fuel what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “System 2” thinking. Unlike the fast and intuitive System 1 thinking that dominates our thought processes, System 2 thinking is slower and more deliberate. For leaders, this can be especially valuable, as they’re often plagued by blind spots and confirmation bias — seeking out information that confirms their existing beliefs.
Perspective swaps can unlock the mental flexibility that you, your employees, and your organization need to embrace and adapt to change. In the words of the esteemed author Dan Brown, “Sometimes a change of perspective is all it takes to see the light.”
Leave a Reply