This is a guest post by Karen Martin, president of the global consulting firm TKMG, Inc. Her latest book, Clarity First, outlines specific actions to dramatically improve organizational and individual performance.
Most leaders agree, it’s important to have clear ideas about the issues that matter to them and their organizations. Yet, leaders are praised far more often for making quick decisions than for thinking clearly.
In such a fast-paced, noisy world, leaders understandably feel the pressure to think and act fast—but this can be to their detriment. Today, more so than ever, it’s critical to give oneself the time needed to assess a situation fully, gather on-point information, and develop a thoughtful position.
Not convinced? Think of it this way: clear thought is a precursor to making good decisions, acting decisively, solving problems, and seizing opportunities in a way that consistently fulfills the organization’s goals.
But, as most leaders will attest, this is much easier said than done. You have to be patient and possess disciplined thinking habits.
Here are three ways to start:
Mindfulness means paying attention purposefully, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. It’s a state of being that allows its practitioners to lead with greater clarity by developing a calmer and more focused mind. It introduces a pause between receipt of information and your reaction to it, and it slows thinking processes enough that they become observable.
Mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness meditation is a trending topic in leadership and management literature for good reason: there’s a growing body of scientific evidence showing that mindfulness meditation changes the brain in a powerful, performance-enhancing way. It develops areas of your brain responsible for self-regulation, allowing you to more effectively place your attention where you want it, regulate your mood, and manage your response to information.
Here’s another bonus of mindfulness: it helps create more healthful stress responses and more effective ways for the brain to process large volumes of inputs.
“Mindfulness helps create more healthful stress responses and more effective ways for the brain to process large volumes of inputs.” -Karen Martin
Many people are only now beginning to see AI in the form of Alexa or Google Home. What do you expect over the next few years in terms of growth and how it will be prevalent in our lives?
While it is hard to forecast these things, I suspect AI will be largely invisible to most consumers. Businesses will use it to plan inventory and make logistics more efficient. That may show up in high quality products for a lower price, but it is unlikely anyone will say ‘ah ha! AI.’ In other words, I don’t expect to see Jetsons-like robots walking around any time soon.
Misconceptions about AI
What are some of the most common misconceptions about the technology?
The big misconception is that technologists are often too optimistic about progress in the near term and too blinded by the speed of progress later on. We are still in the near term on AI, so there is lots of optimism. But there is much to be worked out in terms of how to make the technology work for us. Once we do that, the optimism will be justified. It is just likely to be a few years later than people expect.
What is prediction? And, as its cost drops, what should we expect?
Put simply, prediction is when you take the data you have to generate information you do not have — e.g., past weather observations tell you about the weather tomorrow. When the cost of prediction drops, that means (a) our data is more valuable as it can create more useful information and (b) that we have more useful information and so can make better decisions.
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” -Stephen Hawking
All leaders must make courageous decisions. It goes with the job. You understand that in certain situations, some difficult and timely decisions must be made in the best interests of the entire organization. Such decisions require a firmness, authority, and finality that will not please everyone.
ADVICE: HOW TO BE DECISIVE
“I think everybody who creates something is doing something audacious. Because the most difficult time is when you are starting from scratch with no financial backing—just an idea. So true audaciousness comes about with just those people who have the pluck and the courage to say, ‘Screw it; let’s do it.’” -Richard Branson, Virgin Group chairman
There are a few truths when it comes to decision making, according to Anna Johansson, a business consultant:
Logical decisions tend to trump emotional ones. Since emotions can sometimes make us biased or see things in an inaccurate light, basing a decision on logic, rather than on a current emotional state, usually gives you more objective information to make the final call.
Thought-out decisions tend to trump impulsive ones. Because you’ve spent more time on the problem, you’ll understand it more thoroughly and be better versed in the variables that might arise from any possible route.
Flexible decisions tend to trump concrete ones. Things change frequently, so making a decision that allows for some eventual degree of flexibility usually offers more adaptable options than a decision that’s absolute or concrete.
These aren’t absolute rules, however. For example, many entrepreneurs trust their gut when making decisions—and indeed, instinct can sometimes beat over-analytical thinking.
“Fortune does favor the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.” -Sheryl Sandberg
Here are some strategies you can use in almost any decision making process to ensure that you make the best choice, according to Johansson:
Step Away From the Problem
Scientific research suggests that distancing yourself from a problem can help you face it in a more objective way. For example, let’s say you’re trying to choose between two different opportunities, and you can’t tell which one is better for you. Instead of remaining in your own frame of mind, consider yourself as an outside observer, such as a mentor giving advice or a fly on the wall. Removing yourself in this way helps you filter out some of your cognitive biases and lean you toward a more rational decision.
Research: distancing yourself from a problem allows you to face it objectively.
Most of us end up being lousy decision makers when we try to force a decision in a moment, or push through to a final choice after first learning about a situation. In some high-pressure environments, this is a must, but it isn’t the most effective or rewarding way to do things. Instead, accuracy and reliability in decision making tends to increase if you first give yourself some time to decompress and collect yourself—even if it’s just a few minutes. This may also help you remove yourself from the problem, knocking out two of these strategies in one fell swoop.
Know That There Is No Right Answer
You can stress yourself out trying to pin down the answer that’s objectively correct, if you believe one such answer exists. Instead, remind yourself that there’s almost never an objectively correct answer. “All you can do is make the decision that’s the best for you at the time, and it’s probably going to work out okay either way,” Johansson says.
Remember the lessons you’ve learned from the past, but don’t let your past experiences affect what you choose in the present. For example, if you’ve paid a hundred dollars a month for a service that isn’t getting you anywhere, you may be tempted to continue simply for the reason that you’ve already spent thousands of dollars. This skewed line of reasoning is an example of an escalation bias, in which you’re hesitant to cut your losses. You can’t change the past, so instead, look to the present and future.
Leadership Tip: don’t let your past experiences affect what you choose in the present.
You can overanalyze a problem as much as you like, but it probably isn’t going to help anything. It’s just going to bring up new complications, force you to second-guess yourself, and possibly double back on a decision you’ve already made. All of these will make the process more excruciating and will make you unsatisfied with whatever decision you land on. Instead, pick an option early and fully commit to it.
There’s no perfect way to make a decision, and there are very few situations in which a decision is ever “right.” However, with these strategies in tow, you’ll be well-equipped to make more rational, complete, and best of all, satisfying decisions in your life.
You say that there is a revolution happening right now and ignoring it will send your company to irrelevance. What is it and what forces are driving it?
The revolution is a desire among employees, customers and investors to leverage social good with their choices. This is a revolution of AND not OR. Employees want everything they have always wanted, but they also want a job that gives them a sense of purpose in a company they feel is doing good in the world. Customers want products that excite them at a good price, but they also want to leverage good with those choices—and certainly buy things that cause no harm. Investors was a return on money, but the fastest growing funds are those that also promise social impact.
In an age of commoditization, the marketplace is filled with many similar products, and purpose is a way for companies to create brand differentiation based on values, not just product.
What’s driving the revolution are four primary trends. The Millennials are now a global force with a strong set of values around creating social good and having meaning in their work. The boomers are moving into the “legacy” stage of life where the impact they leave starts to compete with ego. The rising middle class in the developing world is another major driver, as people rise out of poverty, they are able to think about the social good in their choices. Finally, business is both blamed for some of the world’s biggest challenges but also increasingly seen as the key to addressing those same issues through corporate social responsibility.
“Purpose is a way for companies to create brand differentiation based on values, not just product.” -John Izzo
How do leaders help employees connect purpose to work contribution?
The first step is to have a clearly articulated compelling purpose that is authentic. Starbucks’ purpose is to “inspire the human spirit one cup of coffee at a time” while 3M’s is to “advance every life and improve every business while using science to solve the world’s greatest challenges” (like sustainability).
The second step is to drive job purpose more than job function. Focus on the real impact jobs and teams make. Have every person identify the purpose of their job and the same for every team. Consistently tell stories of how your company makes a real difference. Bring in customers to tell their stories, and create space for employees to do the same. One large bank we worked with started having a standing agenda item in every branch: “How did we make a difference for a client since last time we met?” In the branches that did it, engagement went up 23% and sales went up 18%!
All organizations are faced with decisions. What to focus on, what to invest in, how to get to there from here are all common questions when approaching strategy.
I’ve read many books on strategy. There are many that are theoretical. I enjoy them and think about the implications. But there are a few that are actionable. As a CEO, I can use aspects of them immediately. That’s what I found when I read Tim Lewko’s new book, Making Big Decisions Better: How to Set and Simplify Business Strategy. Tim Lewko is the CEO of Thinking Dimensions Group, and his book goes right to the core of setting strategy that you can implement immediately.
I followed up with him to discuss his new book and his strategic work.
Why is it often problematic to “outsource strategy” work?
There are many large successful firms that come and provide the “answer” that shows up as a long set of PowerPoint slides – and this prescriptive approach is the choice for many CEOs. However, the approach which I practice is process based – where we bring a proven strategy system that “forces tough tradeoffs” and leaves them in a better place because they created the strategy and understand how to modify the choices as events fold. This process approach helps to avoid the problems associated with outsourcing strategy including:
DEFAULT on sweat equity – missing out on working through, understanding and deciding the key things that matter from EXTERNAL and INTERNAL standpoints
TOLD WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW – in my experience, clients already know 85% of what’s holding the business back (outsiders may give you 60%) so why pay for what is already known?
DELAY or DESTROY BUY-IN – if you outsource strategy, you have already short-changed your ability to implement the strategy – because you have side-stepped the most important people – your executive team and workforce who need to intimately understand the why behind the PRODUCT, MARKET and CAPABILITY choices that are being made. Sure, a great CEO communication or town hall helps to sell the outsourced strategy, but deep down those closest to the issues feel side-stepped – and it takes an awful lot of time to get them to buy in to something that is not theirs.
“Unwarranted complications are killing strategy in organizations.” –Tim Lewko