Recalculating: When is responding to change better than following a plan?

At some level I understand that the artificial intelligence behind the voice of my navigation app is not judging me when I make a wrong turn. Still, I can’t help sensing a tinge of disappointment behind the announcement that my route is being “recalculated.” Why not just provide the re-routed directions? Better yet, let’s program the navigation system to compliment me for making a bold move: “Interesting choice. Now, continue straight for 1000 feet and make a U-turn.”

Speaking of programming, some of you may recognize the reference in the subtitle of this blog to the Agile Software Development Manifesto. The manifesto was written and signed in 2001 when a group of software developers met in Snowbird, Utah. The document codified values and principles representing a methodological shift in how software developers meet client requirements. Caroline Mimbs Nyce provides an engaging history of the agile software development movement in her 2017 article for The Atlantic, “The Winter Getaway that Turned the Software World Upside Down.”

The manifesto includes four value preferences. The fourth value preference reads, “…We have come to value responding to change over following a plan.” The manifesto does not oppose “following a plan.” The idea is that adopting a preference for “responding to change” will provide a more efficient, more targeted solution to the customer or end-user.

Recently, organizational leaders have taken note of the “Agile” philosophy. The idea of self-managed teams working cross-functionally and collaborating with customers seems like an approach the entire organization should embrace. Agile software development emerged as a response to “Waterfall” software development. The waterfall model is linear and sequential. The waterfall model favors analysis, documentation and design over end-user testing and iterating. The organizational equivalent of waterfall software development is “command and control” management.

Given the current volatility and uncertainty of our business environment, should organizations transition away from a “waterfall” leadership style to an “agile” leadership style?

I recently had the pleasure of partnering on a leadership development program with Bjorn Bihhardt, Owner and CEO of Abilitie. Bjorn introduced me to the Cynefin framework* for making sense of the contexts within which leaders solve problems and make decisions. David J. Snowden, the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge developed the framework with input from a number of his colleagues. In November of 2007, Snowden and Mary E. Boone, President of Boone Associates co-wrote a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article about the framework.

The Cynefin Framework

CynefinThe right-hand side of the framework describes contexts that are either “simple” or “complicated.” In both cases, cause-and-effect relationships exist. In simple contexts, cause and effect are apparent to everyone. In complicated contexts, there may be more than one right answer and it requires expertise to analyze the situation and determine an appropriate response. A simple business problem is collecting a late payment from a customer. A complicated business problem is improving the company’s cash flow.

The left-hand side of the framework describes contexts that are either “complex” or “chaotic.” In a complex context, no amount of expert analysis will result in a single solution or right answer. In their HBR article, Snowden and Boone write that a complicated context differs from a complex context in the same way a Ferrari differs from the Brazilian rainforest. The car is complicated, but static. An expert can take it apart and put it back together. The rainforest, on the other hand is in a constant state of unpredictable flux. Instead of conducting expert analysis, decision makers in a complex context must investigate, sense and then respond.

In a chaotic context, there is only turbulence and ambiguity (e.g. conditions in the midst of the events of September 11, 2001). Attempting to make sense of conditions before responding does not help. In a chaotic context, one must simply act and learn from how the environment reacts to what you do. The fifth element of the framework is represented by the open space at the intersection of the other four contexts. Snowden calls the fifth context, “disorder.” Disorder applies when one cannot discern which of the other four contexts pertain.

I mention the Cynefin framework because it seems to me that following a plan works when contexts are either simple or complicated. In both cases, expertise can determine a workable solution, routines and authority can ensure people implement the solution. When things become complex, responding to change with agility will be more useful. When things become chaotic, just do something.

The question then is not whether today’s leaders should adopt a waterfall style or an agile style. The question becomes, how do we know which context we should apply when framing our situation? In other words, when should we follow the plan our navigation software put us on and when should we turn off the app and respond to the changes we are sensing?

* Cynefin (ku-nev-in) is Welsh for habitat. It carries the connotation of factors that influence us in ways we can’t understand.

 

 

Consultants on Balconies Getting Comfy

Netflix recently released Season 10 of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. If you haven’t seen the show, its title is its premise. The episodes run for about 15 minutes. At the beginning of each episode, Jerry picks up his guest in an exotic car meant to capture the spirit of the featured comedian. Jerry and his guest drive around, grab a cup of coffee, sometimes eat a meal, sometimes run an errand all the while chatting about whatever interests Jerry. Often, what interests Jerry most is philosophizing about stand-up comedy.

In the first episode of the current season, Jerry’s guest is Zach Galifianakis. After picking up Zach in a Volkswagen Thing (fun, inventive, unique, irreverent… like Galifianakis, get the idea?), the comedians end up getting their requisite coffee in a donut shop. Zach becomes nostalgic about his pre-fame days when he could spend uninterrupted time observing people in nondescript places. He explains that after the success of the Hangover movies, he feels that he lost the ability to simply hangout in ordinary places and observe. He recalls wistfully, “I got to sit and watch people… and that’s where I got everything.”

After watching Jerry and his guests discuss how comics get inspired, one gets the impression that stand-up comics split their attention as they go about their lives. The comic blends in with the rest of us Earthlings attending to the activities of daily living while simultaneously watching life from some detached, alien perspective.

For example, as Jerry and Zach are driving past a couple of elderly gentlemen greeting each other on the street, Jerry observes, “There’s two old friends. See that hug? Those guys have known each other a long time. They’ve eaten the exact same food. That’s why they’re the exact same weight.”

Facilitators and organizational development consultants also exploit the power of the detached perspective. For leaders, a detached perspective is more difficult, but no less important. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their 2002 book, Leadership on the Line compare leading to dancing, ask leaders to imagine the difference between the experience of being on a dance floor and being on a balcony overlooking the dance floor:

Achieving a balcony perspective means taking yourself out of the dance, in your mind, even if only for a moment. The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. (p. 53)

Consultants often provide leaders with a balcony perspective because the consultant is less attached to the specific ideas and opinions surrounding a challenging organizational situation. A consultant acting as a meeting facilitator on behalf of a leader can focus on the process of the meeting and the way participants interact to ensure the meeting leader gets full advantage of convening stakeholders with diverse points-of-view.

Of course, just as leaders can get stuck on the dance floor and miss the big picture, consultants can get stuck on the balcony. Too much time on the balcony and helpful insights can become unproductive criticisms. Consultants who get comfortable on the balcony risk becoming like the “cold and timid souls” in Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech who, “…know neither victory nor defeat.”

When Dennis Rebelo and I were students at Saybrook University working on our doctorates we developed a reputation as captious bystanders during our program’s residential conferences. At some point we started referring to ourselves as Statler and Waldorf, the cranky, wisecracking hecklers that would sit in the balcony during The Muppet Show and amuse themselves with insulting comments about whatever was happening on stage. We were never sure which of us was Statler and which was Waldorf, but we embraced the nicknames and the personas.

To be fair, Dennis gets antsy if he spends too much time on the balcony. He is a busy guy with a string of accomplishments. Check out his latest project called StoryPathing™ designed in part, to help people during transitions develop their identity through the power of narrative. I, on the other hand, get very comfortable on the balcony. Sometimes, when I facilitate meetings, the dynamics playing out in front of me can distract me from intervening and redirecting the discussion.

The view from the balcony can help a team get unstuck.

If you don’t have access to a consultant or facilitator… or a stand-up comic, you can still benefit from a detached perspective. In every group and during every meeting someone at some point in a process or discussion is paying more attention to how things are going (balcony) than to the work at hand (dance floor). Moreover, the person most likely to have a useful opinion about how things are going may be the one who seems disengaged or even anxious about participating.

If you have created an environment in which people feel safe expressing their thoughts and feelings, you can simply pause the meeting or process and ask people for feedback. If not, follow the example of Jerry Seinfeld and take a coffee break. Simply stop the action for five or ten minutes and talk to someone whose opinion you respect and who has not had much to say. When attempting to learn from someone who has been on the balcony, don’t ask, “What should we do?” Instead, ask, “What are you seeing?”

The Most Useful Question to Ask if You Expect People to Take Action on a Meeting Agreement, Hint: It’s not, “So… are we agreed?”

Organizations fall into meeting patterns. Leaders often set up and conduct meetings the same way irrespective of the meeting purpose. Getting ready for a status update meeting may not require a lot of forethought. Getting ready for an alignment building meeting on the other hand, requires careful consideration of process, stakeholders and decision-making roles. If you want an agreement, you’ll need to think through how to conclude the meeting in a way that increases the chances people will turn meeting agreements into action.

There are actually two challenges related to a group reaching agreement during a meeting. The first and most obvious challenge has to do with building consensus when people have different perspectives and needs. The second and subtler challenge has to do with interpreting what people mean when they indicate agreement by verbalizing, nodding or not raising an objection. The question referenced in the title of this blog post helps with the second challenge.

Imagine that you have reached the end of a meeting you are leading. You’ve managed to facilitate a productive discussion that has led to alignment on a solution to a problem. You want to confirm that the group has reached an agreement that will result in concerted action. What will you say or ask?

You might be tempted to ask, “Are we agreed?” It seems like a simple way to confirm the group’s conclusion. The most common answer to a meeting leader who asks a group, “Are we agreed?” is silence. Extroverted members of the group may nod or say, “yes,” but you are very unlikely to hear from everyone. For starters, unless the answer is, “no,” no individual can actually answer the question, “Are we agreed?” No individual knows whether or not “we” are in agreement.

Because silence typically greets the question, “Are we agreed?” many teams and organizations have adopted the informal practice of equating silence with agreement; if no one raises an objection, we must be in agreement. Interpreting silence as agreement has always been risky. It can work for some teams and in some cultures. It’s a particularly risky strategy in a virtual meeting setting.

It turns out that the “silence procedure” or “tacit acceptance” procedure has a long history and plays an accepted role in matters of international diplomacy. There is even a Latin phrase for the formal practice of equating silence with agreement: Qui tacet consentire videtur, he who is silent is taken to agree. Both NATO and the European Union use Qui tacet consentire videtur for gaining member acceptance of joint statements and procedural documents.

Asking the group, “Does anyone disagree?” represents an improvement over “Are we agreed?” At least, individual meeting participants can answer the question, “Does anyone disagree?” Interaction Associates uses the term, “Negative Poll” to describe a question framed as an invitation to speak up if you don’t yet agree. Whether or not an individual who disagrees will accept the invitation of a negative poll has a lot to do with the trust and rapport the leader has created.

Whether you use the positive or negative framing of the question, you still have a problem. Let’s say you manage to hear from every person in the meeting. Furthermore you now know that everyone agrees with the proposal or plan under consideration. Here’s what you still don’t know: What does each meeting participant mean when they say, “I agree?”

“Yes, I agree” versus “No, I don’t agree” seems like an unambiguous, black-and-white distinction. When everyone is in the “Yes” column, we should be able to declare victory on the meeting. Consider however, the shades-of-grey intentions that may accompany someone’s assent. A person could indicate that he or she “agrees” and be entertaining any one of the following thoughts:

  • I’ll go along with the majority. I think we are making a mistake, but it’s not that important to me. I hope they’ll remember my warnings when we start running into obstacles and resistance.
  • I think there are better approaches, but this seems workable. I’ll cooperate when we start acting on this agreement, but I won’t volunteer to lead anything.
  • We reached the right conclusion and I’m eager to begin lining up resources and getting people excited. Let’s start assigning next steps.

When you think about it, leaders don’t really need to know whether people are in agreement with a proposal or a plan of action. Leaders need to know whether or not they can count on people taking action or changing behaviors consistent with the conclusion the group reached in the meeting. It’s nice to know you agree, it’s essential to know what action I can count on that will turn the agreement into progress.

Stop asking groups of people whether or not they agree. Start asking each member of the group: “Given the conclusion we’ve reached today, what do you plan to do?” 

 

For a more comprehensive treatment of how to discern what people mean when indicating agreement, have a look at the Interaction Associate’s article, “How Much Yes Do You Need?”

Organizational Quicksand, Part 2: Getting Unstuck

Last week’s blog post introduced differences in the way organizations turn thinking into action. I organized the distinctions by contrasting two attributes of an organization’s culture: The organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and the organization’s preferred influence style. In this post, I want to flesh out the distinctions a bit more and then consider how becoming attentive to your preferred mode of turning thinking into action can help you get unstuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “operate” mode. Operate mode moves to action quickly and discussions often feel like competitive sales pitches. Operate mode eschews process and structure. Rule following is seen as time consuming. Operate mode has a bias for trusting the judgment of a passionate, forceful leader who will bend the future to his or her will. Operate mode sees little value in taking the time to build consensus through processes that tap into the organization’s collective wisdom. When in operate mode, introducing nuanced distinctions among options will be judged as unproductive “navel gazing.”

Operate mode serves an organization well when it produces something customer’s value. As long as there is a market for an operate mode organization’s products and services, moving fast and selling hard works. When the value proposition changes because customers’ needs have evolved, operate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “regulate” mode. Regulate mode is methodical and consistent. Discussions in regulate mode feel formal and predictable. Regulate mode places a high premium on years of experience in the company. If a process or methodology doesn’t dictate how best to handle a situation, the organization will follow a leader who has dealt with the situation in the past. In regulate mode, people want information before they act. In regulate mode, influence takes the form of presentations with a lot of detail about what is happening and how it will happen. New ideas don’t get surfaced casually when in regulate mode. One needs to prepare carefully before suggesting something new, provide evidence that the idea is workable and a business case that demonstrates the idea is worthwhile.

Regulate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition includes risk mitigation. As long as a regulate mode business is seen as a trustworthy option, customers will pay a premium for its products and services. When innovations provide customers with faster or cheaper yet equally good alternatives, regulate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “debate” mode. In debate mode, skill, expertise and intellect are highly valued. Discussions in debate mode feel stimulating to those who want a rigorous exploration of a topic. Taking action in debate mode feels less important than considering every angle. Authority in debate mode is correlated with expertise. Debate mode embraces ambiguity because it allows every situation to be analyzed and litigated anew.

Debate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition is based on superior product quality or service excellence. As long as minor adjustments or extensions to existing products and services continue to be seen as valuable, there will be customers for debate mode businesses. When new market needs require agile responses, debate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “relate” mode. In relate mode, collaboration is highly valued. Discussions are characterized by a desire for shared understanding; leaders seek alternative points of view and include people with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Opportunities to act emerge when something looks interesting. In relate mode, people put their trust in their colleagues’ ability to marshal resources to get the job done. Because relate mode requires empathy and curiosity, relate mode organizations have long standing affiliations with customers, clients and other strategic partners along their supply chain.

Relate mode serves an organization well when customer loyalty is paramount. As long as customers and business partners value their relationship with the organization, the relate mode business will be presented with new opportunities. When customers and business partners retire, change jobs or otherwise reorient their priorities, relate mode can get an organization stuck.

When your thinking to action mode becomes a trap

Like many overused skills, your organization’s default thinking to action mode can turn counterproductive when you fail to notice that the usual response to challenging situations fails to make things better. For example, if you prefer to work in operate mode and your customers have become disenchanted with your offer, thinking up new ways to persuade your customer to make a purchase signifies being caught in a thinking to action trap.

The Unstuck Minds Compass™ is comprised of four strategies for changing the way you think with others about persistent problem or daunting opportunities. The strategies introduce questions about your situation that you may neglect to ask if you have been trapped by your preferred mode.

  1. Contextual inquiry helps a stuck team zoom out by introducing questions about what is changing in the environment.
  2. Critical inquiry helps a stuck team zoom in by introducing questions about interrelationships within an organizational system.
  3. Collaborative inquiry helps a stuck team by directing their attention to informal social networks and the thoughts and feelings of diverse stakeholders.
  4. Creative inquiry helps a stuck team by questioning assumptions and focusing attention on insights about unmet needs.

Each strategy provides a helping hand when you notice that the usual mode of turning thinking into action has started to feel like being mired in quicksand.

For organizations stuck in operate mode, collaborative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing missing perspectives. To get unstuck, operate mode leaders will have to learn how to be influenced by what they hear when talking with stakeholders and they will need to develop the capacity to remain open to additional input even if it means postponing action.

For organizations stuck in regulate mode, creative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing novel options. To get unstuck, regulate mode leaders will have to get comfortable letting go of the need to see a business case for every idea someone wants to raise. Regulate mode teams will need to spend time openly questioning the assumptions behind existing routines and methods.

For organizations stuck in debate mode, contextual inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to prioritize the big picture over getting all the details right. To get unstuck, debate mode stakeholders will have to learn how to question whether settling a point of contention or getting additional input will make a meaningful difference in terms of choosing a course of action.

For organizations stuck in relate mode, critical inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to set standards for objectively evaluating opportunities. To get unstuck, relate mode teams will have to learn how to say, “no” even when something looks interesting. To get unstuck, relate mode leaders need to analyze options to determine what makes the most sense for the future and then invest in executing on the strategy better than anyone else.

Organizational Quicksand: Four modes of thinking together they may be holding you back

Getting stuck in the way we are thinking is like finding ourselves in quicksand; applying our habits and routines just makes things worse.

I want to describe four categories of organizational quicksand. Each category represents a routine mode of translating thinking into action. The four modes emerge from comparing and contrasting two dimensions of an organization’s decision-making culture: An organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and an organization’s influence style.

The first dimension describes the organization’s tolerance for ambiguity. An organization has a low tolerance for ambiguity when it sees ambiguous situations as threatening or stressful. An organization with high tolerance for ambiguity prefers situations with multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretations. A low tolerance for ambiguity culture seeks a concrete answer and sticks to it. In a high tolerance for ambiguity culture one often hears people say, “it depends.”

The second dimension describes the organization’s preferred influence style. The influence style dimensions represent a continuum of receptivity to the opinions of others. I refer to low receptivity to the opinions of others as a “persuasive” style. I refer to high receptivity to the opinion of others as an “alignment” style. Exchanges of strongly held viewpoints characterize persuasive cultures. Listening, questions and high involvement characterize alignment cultures.

For the last several years, I have been paying attention to how ambiguity tolerance and influence style characterize the way people in organizations think together. I want to describe four of my client organizations, each one emblematic of one of the four categories. Like many habits that have become traps in times of change, it’s easy to see how the modes of translating thinking into action served each organization well. Now, the modes of thinking have become a type of quicksand making it hard for each organization to adapt.

Org Quicksand Traps

Operate Mode

The “Operate” mode influences by persuasion and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The operate style describes well a global technology company that I have been working with for over ten years. The company prides itself on having an entrepreneurial culture despite its size and scope. Leaders in the company think fast and act fast; weighing alternatives just slows things down. Leaders in this company don’t engage in dialogue about ideas, they “pitch” ideas to each other and make deals in order to move things forward. The operate mode turns to quicksand when leaders need to question their assumptions and collaborate in new ways with their employees and customers.

Regulate Mode

The “Regulate” mode influences by alignment and has a low tolerance for ambiguity. The regulate style aligns through systems, rules, regulations and procedures. I have a long-standing relationship with a multi-national engineering and construction company. Leaders in this company tend to have backgrounds in civil, mechanical and chemical engineering. There are clearly delineated ways of doing things, which has made the company reliable and a safe bet for customers who are making big investments in complicated projects. The regulate mode turns to quicksand when leaders resist experimenting with innovative ideas.

Relate Mode

The “Relate” mode influences by alignment and has a high tolerance for ambiguity. The relate style values inclusion and involvement, diversity is seen as strength and success often emerges organically by leveraging opportunities. I work with a global retailer that has a distinctive buying model, which mirrors its distinctive culture. Leaders in this company listen to each other and to their customers and suppliers. They avoid codifying procedures preferring to stay attentive to opportunity. The lack of routine makes it hard for relate-mode organizations to develop key talent. The relate mode turns to quicksand when becoming distracted by new possibilities competes with a need for strategic focus.

Debate Mode

The “Debate” mode influences by persuasion and has a high tolerance for ambiguity. Spending time in a debate mode culture often feels like being at an academic conference. I work with a materials science company that manufactures a variety of products, which feature various applications of their proprietary materials. The organization values expertise while rejecting authority as a basis for decision making. The most compelling point-of-view supported by the best logic and data wins the day. The debate mode turns to quicksand when circumstances require a rapid response without making time to consider everyone’s opinion.

Each of these organizations has been successful because of their respective cultures. Today, each of these organizations senses the need to adapt to changing market conditions and an unfamiliar competitive landscape. Applying comfortable modes of translating thinking to action can be counterproductive when the ground that once provided a firm foundation for decision making starts to shift under our feet.

Leadership versus Heroism

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

Driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.1

 

The Trump presidency has raised some difficult questions for some of us who study and teach leadership. Most of my colleagues share values and beliefs that derive from a tradition of humanism, a belief that people have inherent value, goodness and dignity. For the humanist, people have needs and potential, therefore the job of leadership is to uncover needs and help people reach their potential. Consultants and organizational development professionals who operate in the humanist tradition conduct research on collaboration and transformative learning. We write books and teach workshops with names like, Servant Leadership and Facilitative Leadership. We keep encouraging leaders to listen, to learn and to model humility.

There are other schools of thought about leadership. You can find plenty of material on how to be a charismatic leader or an authoritarian leader. I suppose the lowest common denominator of leadership philosophies is that leaders have followers. Trump has followers, and not just on Twitter.

Speaking of twitter, I woke up recently with a nagging fear that my clients would start asking me to lead brainstorming sessions to come up with insulting epithets for competitors in 140 characters or less.

I’ve gotten so confused about what it means to be a leader I decide that I needed to follow my own advice and keep an open mind. I even purchased a copy of Trump’s The Art of the Deal. I should say I downloaded the book to my Kindle. I don’t want to be on the receiving end of side-eyes from my seat-mates on airplanes. By the way, in the section of the book about the importance of gaining leverage during a negotiation, Trump wrote, “My leverage came from confirming an impression they were already predisposed to believe.” Maybe the new workshop should be called, “Leadership as Theater.”

I admit that I’m allowing myself to take elitist potshots at Trump. Perhaps it’s a reaction to having my leadership convictions unmoored by what I’m witnessing. Just because Trump is not my kind of leader, does that mean he’s not an effective leader?

Was Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore an act of leadership?

After watching the Hollywood style movie trailer produced by the White House a distinction popped into my head that helped me square my beliefs about leadership with what I witnessed last week. I’m of the opinion that Trump doesn’t want to be a leader; Trump wants to be a hero.

I think it is a particularly American notion to mix up heroism and leadership. In some cases the attributes coexist, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela come to mind. Heroes are defined by their struggles and achievements. Leaders are defined by their ability to ennoble and inspire others to reach their potential. Heroes have adoring fans. Leaders produce a new generation of leaders.

Contrasting leadership and heroism brought Odysseus to mind. Homer’s epic poem is the story of Odysseus’ kleos. Kleos is a Greek term for “glory” or “renown.” Since it is related to the word “to hear,” kleos translates as, “the great deeds others hear about you.” We don’t yet know whether we should compare Trump’s presidency to the voyage of Odysseus or the voyage of the S.S. Minnow, but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if you’ll excuse the expression, kleos trumps leadership for our president.

Homer makes Odysseus out to be a hero, but even the Muse could not embellish his questionable leadership capabilities. Recall that Odysseus led a disobedient crew of questionable intelligence who were all eaten, turned into swine and/or (spoiler alert) drowned by an angry Zeus at the end of the journey.

Slide1

And then there’s the bit about Odysseus wanting to hear the song of the Sirens. The Sirens’ song was reputed to be so enchanting that sailors passing close enough to hear the song would be drawn to the Sirens and end up shipwrecked on the coast of their island. Odysseus had his crew lash him to the mast of his ship and then ordered the crew to put beeswax in their ears so they would not hear the singing.

There is one thing Trump has in common with leaders I admire. He forces me to recognize and question my assumptions.

 

 

¹Opening lines of Homer’s The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles (1996)

The Most Important Skill for Leaders Heading into an Uncertain Future

I’ve just returned from a week in Frankfurt Germany. While there, I co-facilitated a strategic leadership workshop for a group of executives at a global technology company with my friend and colleague Nick Noyes. Nick is a partner and co-founder of Insight Experience, the company that designed the business simulation we use in the program.

Nick and I work together a few times a year and I can always count on learning something new when he’s leading the participants through a debrief of the simulation results. In recent years, Nick has been passing along a concept he learned from the business school professor and consultant, Roch Parayre called, “robust capabilities.” For Parayre, a robust capability describes an organizational capability that can be used in a variety of situations. Irrespective of how things change, a robust capability will be useful.

You could argue that learning to play the piano and read music is a robust capability that prepares you for a variety of musical pursuits. Learning to play the banjo limits your options (Is it just me or does anyone else hear their mother saying, “I told you so!”)

Parayre has devoted much of his scholarship and practice to the art and science of strategic decision-making. He is particularly interested in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Parayre argues that many of the decision-making tools used by today’s business leaders work best when conditions outside of an organization’s control remain relatively stable. For example, using net present value calculations to help make capital investment decisions assumes that the values we assign to alternatives won’t be affected by disruptive technologies, government regulations or unexpected competition.

In a world characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and rapid change we should be suspicious of what we accept as immutable knowledge and expertise. Eric Hoffer once said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” To be a learner is to be skilled at asking questions.

I would argue that the skill of asking better questions is the most robust capability to be developed for leaders hoping to navigate the complexities of an uncertain future.

Let’s say an organization’s leaders are faced with a decision about which human resource information system to purchase. Consider the difference between the questions we have been trained to ask and questions that might help us reduce the risk of missing something important:

Questions from leaders who assume the future will resemble the present

·    What will be the impacts of each system on productivity?

·    Which system includes better implementation support and more responsive service when things go wrong?

·    What are the costs and timelines associated with the change management required to implement the system?

What leaders trained to ask better questions also want to know

·    Which processes should we stop doing before automation makes them harder to discontinue?

·    How will automating our HR systems impact existing social networks? In other words, what benefits of inefficiency will we be losing?

·    How might we design a low-risk experiment to help us better anticipate the impacts of committing to a full systems implementation?

The saying goes at Interaction Associates that when feeling trapped by the uncertainty of a strategic moment, “It’s not knowing what to do that counts. It’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” When feeling stuck for an answer because things have changed, the ability to formulate a better question will serve you better than revising the way you answer the wrong question.