Challenge lazy thinking

The leader whose thinking is constrained within well-worn ruts, who is completely governed by his established passions and prejudices, who is incapable of thinking either gray or free, and who can’t even appropriate the creative imagination and fresh ideas of those around him, is as anachronistic and ineffective as the dinosaur. He may by dint of circumstances remain in power, but his followers would almost certainly be better off without him. (Dr. Stephen Sample, Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership)

In my last blog post that spelled out what I call leading as an art director, I promoted the idea of gaining buy-in and then letting an idea go. Letting go doesn’t mean the leader can’t continue to feed the idea. He or she needs to do this by challenging lazy thinking and by destroying natural constraints to thinking. Here are four ways to do that:

1. The threshing floor. I love the concept of the threshing floor, where ideas can be tossed in the air to see what solid nuggets of wheat fall to the ground while the chaff blows away. I am a proponent of “thinking out loud.” Until an idea is stated and turned over a few times, you don’t know its value. I believe everyone has something to contribute, so when a meeting ends and someone never spoke up, I wonder what held back. I’m convinced introverts could solve most of the world’s problems, but they’re happy to take their solutions to the grave!

2. Design thinking. I can’t articulate the concept of design thinking as taught at Stanford’s d.school, but I learned the concepts the hard way, through five years of undergrad training and nine years of practice. One basic tenet is that the ideal is not ready-aim-fire as much as ready-fire-aim-fire again. In other words, don’t analyze something to death before you ever move. Trial and error is the best way to develop an idea.

Another tenet drummed into me at Georgia State is that your first ideas are likely worthless. However, if you don’t get them out on paper and then intentionally throw them away, they will limit your thinking. Push yourself to come up with at least one more viable idea. Many leaders talk about the trap that results when everyone in a meeting is in agreement, and they intentionally push someone to argue the other side or challenge group think.

3. Thinking free. Former USC Chancellor Stephen Sample articulates this practice in a fabulous leadership book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. It’s a process where a group of people intentionally remove all constraints to their thinking for a period of time so they can break out of their ruts. It goes way beyond brainstorming, allowing anything to be considered and sometimes exposing a simple, obvious solution no one has ever seen before. Sample explains the idea in the second half of this essay:
Thinking Gray & Free: A Contrarian’s View of Leadership

4. Fresh eyes. When someone is new to a team, a company or initiative, their most important asset for the first three months is their ability to see with fresh eyes. I try to meet with them in the first week to empower them, encouraging them to ask silly questions, challenge our thinking and point out anything that doesn’t make sense. Without encouragement, they will keep these observations to themselves because of natural desires to assimilate.

Dr. Sample offers an excellent rationale:

It’s well known among engineers that the most important inventions in a particular field are often made by people who are new to that field – people who are too naïve and ignorant to know all the reasons why something can’t be done, and who are therefore able to think more freely about seemingly intractable problems. The same is true of the leadership of institutions: It’s often fresh blood and a fresh perspective from the outside that can turn an ailing organization around.

5. Courageous questions. It takes a secure leader to encourage radical thinking and invite questions. We must always have the courage to ask the right questions, even if we don’t want to go where the questions might lead us. If the questions lead us back to where we are, then we have greater confidence in the direction we’re already moving. Or they might expose the absurdity of our current path and open the door to new possibilities.

The point of these exercises is that inertia creates laziness, and leadership is never about going along with momentum. If, as Gary Hamel put it at Global Leadership Summit 2009, “It’s so easy to mistake the edge of your rut for the horizon. We have to learn to be contrarians.” There are some proven exercises that can help you forcibly break out of your own thinking or lead a team to release the constraints that bind their imaginations for what could be.

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Are you excited?

[re-posted from my ministry blog, teameyre.wordpress.com]

“Are you excited?” and “Do you want the job?” are among the most common questions we’ve received. While Becky and I didn’t pursue this position with Wycliffe Canada, we made a series of prayerful decisions to go the next step in the process. And then the next. So, when the Board selected me unanimously, we saw the hand of God in that decision. This is simply our next step of obedience to God. It’s a role that will stretch us, challenge us and cause us to depend on God in new ways.

I think many look at the position of president in terms of the honor that it is. Certainly, it is an honor to be chosen. It comes with a platform, a high profile and authority. But when I look at the position, I see responsibility. There are significant challenges that need to be tackled. I feel a burden to support the 400 members plus volunteers and paid staff working throughout the world. And I feel the urgency to draw out the vast resources Canadians can contribute to making the Word of God accessible in every language in this generation.

I’ve quoted it several times before here, but I’ll say it again. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Dr. Steven Sample quotes the advice of one of his colleagues:

Many men want to be president, but very few want to do president.

So, Yes! I am excited. And, Yes! I am terrified!

“How much time do I have?”

Sample’s second rule for decision-making:

2. Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.

But isn’t that procrastination? First, let me say that our western, negative view of that word is not necessarily universal. Procrastination is negative when it stems from a lack of courage. Instead, Sample espouses conscious and even courageous “artful procrastination.” Certainly, postponing a decision has its consequences: in our busy workplaces, with full inboxes, a strategy to leave more on your plate for tomorrow is contrarian.

I borrowed the question above from president Harry Truman, who always sought clarity on the timing for a decision as his first response. To misunderstand the timing required for a decision is to choose the wrong method of decision-making. For instance, a snap decision in a case that should have involved consultation with experts could be disastrous. A collaborative process in a fight or flight scenario could be deadly. It might be worthwhile researching how Truman applied this methodology to as grave a decision as dropping atomic bombs on another sovereign nation, but that’s another topic for another day. Sample’s point is that “the timing of a decision could be just as important as the decision itself.”

Now, Sample isn’t talking about simply putting things off or failing to make a decision. A non-decision is a decision (and leaders have consciously used that method to great success in a variety of arenas). Knowing the timing allows a leader to wait strategically. It can often open up more options for a leader, providing a beautiful solution that wasn’t available at the time the question was posed. However, it comes with a risk: it can slam the door on decent solutions. Simply put, circumstances will often make a decision for you, and there’s a fine line between a wise leader who reads the timing well and a foolish one who misses an opportunity. The point is to make a decision “and get on with it” when the time is appropriate to choose, whether the conditions improved or not.

I’ve heard CEOs say before that they pretty much expect to be 50% right on their decisions. That’s not comforting! But leadership and decision-making are arts, not sciences. Experience teaches when to listen and when to make a judgment, when to wait and when to conclude a matter. This question is a great place to start, because it puts a leader in position to follow the best road to a decision. Whether she’s right or wrong, perhaps the real question is what she does next, after the decision is made.

Sample’s final thought on the matter:

It is one thing for a leader to delegate a decision to a lieutenant, but an entirely different (and unacceptable) thing for him to surrender a decision to fate or to his adversaries. Therein lies the difference between artful and cowardly procrastination.

Agree? Disagree? Does this spur a question or reaction? Give me your thoughts!