Take the right strategic steps to confront mistakes at minimal cost

Facing our managerial miscues is painful. Properly rectifying missteps is paramount.

Geoff Wilson

“That’s too much savings!” The manager looked at the spreadsheet that showed he had been overspending by more than 50 percent on a particular service under a sweetheart deal he thought he had. He was clearly mortified by what the math displayed. “Too much savings” meant a long history of too much spending, and he was the one responsible.

The phrase resonates to this day. A team member of mine who was on the aforementioned project alongside me still occasionally drops me the question via text or email: “Are you still getting too much savings these days?” It’s a delightful “How ya doin’?” But that episode, while humorous to consider in isolation, actually illustrates a good lesson about confronting reality as business leaders.

At some point, we all must face the unpleasant fact that we’ve made mistakes. We’ve hired the wrong people, bought and sold at ill-timed prices, or invested in the wrong markets. It happens to every one of us who actually make decisions. We try to be perfect, but we’re simply not.

My overspending manager, however, compounded his imperfection by trying to sidestep the inevitable pain of confronting a mistake. He popped the infamous “too much savings” comment not to state that we were going to cut costs too far, but rather to convey “I can’t give this to my boss because it will show I’ve made a big mistake.”

And that’s the problem. Analyzing our decisions sometimes reveals that we’ve made bad ones. And correcting poor decisions often means facing the proverbial music—the dirge of our defeat. We must admit it and move forward. And that’s hard.

If we examine a bad investment we’ve made and choose not to write it off but to instead double down on it because, well, doing the right thing would be too painful, we’ve ultimately determined that doing the right thing is wrong because of the optics or our insecure need to save face. Such decisions may be human nature, but they’re also cowardly, selfish, and detrimental to personal and organizational growth.

If you find yourself in a situation where the answer is so right that it’s wrong, ask yourself why. The correct strategic shift often comes with a cost, but the price of inaction is typically not less than your own job.

After all, if you won’t make the right decision, the person who replaces you probably will. And he or she will look like a hero doing it.

What do you think?

Avoid the fifth stage of organizational (in)competence

Arrogant incompetence is a barrier to learning and strategic execution.

Geoff Wilson

On some level, every strategic leader must have a healthy appreciation for social science and psychology. Success is elusive without it. But what happens when the best that psychology has to offer actually fails?

Picture it: You’re working to ensure that a key manager in your organization executes on a project that will deliver the five key customers you absolutely must have to make plan this year. You provide all the tools, resources, and feedback that a person in the role needs, but they just don’t get through. The manager, convinced of her correctness, takes the project off the deep end. It fails, and so does your plan.

Sound familiar? I’ll bet it does. But what happened? I’ll put it mildly: You probably never learned that there’s a fifth stage of competence. And it’s the most insidious one.

I’m a huge fan of the four stages of competence learning model. The gist of it is that we progress through four phases of capability with any skill. The stages are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: We don’t know what we are bad at, or even why it’s important. We must recognize that we might have a gap.
  2. Conscious incompetence: We realize we are bad at a skill, and why it’s valuable to improve at it.
  3. Conscious competence: We learn a skill “with reps,” as it were. We concentrate on being good at the skill.
  4. Unconscious competence: The skill is second nature and embedded. We are free to learn other things.

Those stages are outstanding, but there’s another one. Let’s call it Stage Zero: Arrogant incompetence. This is the stage where the manager’s ego lets her think she has it together, without even needing to consider that she might be wrong.

Arrogant incompetence is the realm of people who can’t stand to be critiqued or judged. It afflicts entry-level hires and CEOs alike. You see it when the entry-level hire bristles at feedback—and when the CEO ignores sound advice. It festers in organizations that close ranks to outsiders when their performance is poor.

Arrogant incompetence destroys trust. It is the opposite of truth-seeking.

Why is this important to know? Well, you’re likely reading this because you have an interest in strategy, and strategy means putting people in position to affect change. If you place your bets on people who choose arrogance over inquiry, you’re taking chances on those least likely to accept feedback, seek progress, and positively impact your organization.

The fifth stage of incompetence is a barrier to the flexibility required in today’s strategic organization. Avoid it at all costs.

What do you think?  

The Most Important (and Annoying) Business Skill

You have to know the numbers. 


It’s always the people who say “now, wait just a minute.”

You probably know them… they are the numbers people.  They take the arm waving, visionary ideas…hit the pause button…and ask the quantitative question.

It might be financial:  How can we justify those kinds of margins?

It might be operational:  How can you assume we can produce that many widgets with only our bare hands?

It might be organizational:  What number of sales people are required to meet those projections?

But the question is placed.  And, if it’s not, you want it to be.  The numbers are important for a reason…they form the most testable type of hypothesis.

A season of advice…

This is the time of year where I inevitably get the chance to talk to younger people starting out their careers.  They might be finishing up college and looking for a job, or just referred my way for ideas and guidance.  If that gives you a shiver, then let me put you at ease:  My advice is simple.

It’s this:

Use your early career to learn the numbers.  Learn how the basic financial statements work, and how things like margins and asset turns determine the performance of a firm.  Learn to model them.  Get smart on the quantitative drivers of markets. Understand how to represent a product’s quality and positioning in terms of market share and margin.  Know the numbers.

I give this advice for one reason:  The strongest executives I know, whether they are sales oriented, ops oriented, or otherwise, understand finance and quantitative drivers of business.  They understand that the numbers show progress.  And, unfortunately, it can be tough to get training on the numbers later in one’s career.  A lot of executive fake it, of course, but people who know can see it.

Learn the numbers early so that you can go through the rest of your career without the fear of being found out.

But, if you take my advice…

Knowing the numbers will saddle you with one annoying habit.  It’s the “wait just a minute” habit that I started this post with.

You will, in some circumstances, become the “annoying” presence who always attempts to ground the conversation in quantitative reasoning.

The New York Times recently published an article about how much more creative the accounting in public companies has become.  As companies insist on more and more non-GAAP representations of their operations, the need for people to know the difference heightens.

But, when you know the difference, it can make for some uncomfortable discussions with your less quantitatively grounded brethren.  One of my favorite examples, albeit a sad one in historical context, is when Enron CEO Jeff Skilling famously called an analyst an “asshole” for questioning accounting standards.  The annoying “asshole” was, in retrospect, exactly right.

More than sales, more than marketing, more than anything else, know the numbers.

Okay, then know sales. Sales is important next.

As always, I’d love your thoughts on this one.


Perspective Is The Spice of Strategy

Quick: How many phone calls or conversations did you have last week that dealt purely with understanding how to think about your job, company, or market? I’m betting not many. We get into the drudgery of actually doing work, and that prevents us from considering whether we are doing the right work.

This is visible in sales organizations of all kinds when customer service (fighting fires for existing customers) crowds out new account sales activities. A certain kind of salesperson actually likes that arrangement, but that type should be in customer service, not sales.

The question is, who is thinking about it?

In 15 years of working with companies big and small, I’ve yet to meet a professional–from the shop floor to the boardroom–who goes to work thinking, “I’m going to spend my time on the wrong things today.”

It just doesn’t happen.

Misallocation of resources happens, as the economists say, at the margin. You walk in the office focused on selling that big account today, and you walk out at the end of the day wondering why you never got to it. Your day was filled with urgent distractions that removed your focus from important activities.

Maybe it was more important answer that call from that customer at that time. Maybe it was more important to talk at that time with that particular employee about that pending vacation. Maybe it was more important to answer those emails, make that pot of coffee, catch up with your old college friend, read that newspaper, etc., etc., etc.

Sound familiar yet? That’s why this article is about perspective.

If you find that you’re not focusing on what is strategic, you must bring in other perspectives. You will rarely find the solution by “trying harder” to focus. You know why? Your values are already reflected in where you spend your time. Trust me.

So what do you do?

Well, the solution too many managers come up with is to seek advice from someone who really knows their role well; they seek an expert opinion on how to focus on more strategic things. And this can be good, but it can also fall short. So I’m going to suggest a different approach: Find someone with a wildly different background from yours, and open your books to them.

If you’re a chemist, find a poet. If you’re a senior manager in a public company, find an entrepreneur. If you’re a poet, find a potter. And here’s a good one: If you’re a guy, find a woman’s perspective. You catch my drift?

Why? Well, because hard problems call for varied perspectives. When a team of organic chemists searching for a better way to synthesize a compound reaches a problem-solving roadblock, the answer is rarely to add another organic chemist: It’s to add an engineer of a different type, or even a layperson. That’s how hard problems are solved…through adding orthogonal perspectives.

These perspectives are the spice of life for hard problems, and strategic focus is a hard problem.

So, think about the problem you or your organization face and consider whether it makes sense to bring in a poet or two to help you think different.

What do you think?

Shark Tank And Manufactured Choices

Always, always, always ensure you understand your real set of choices. 

I will humblebrag this:  I don’t watch much TV. On one level, it’s embarrassing to be so out of the loop on TV entertainment, but on another level, meh.  Even when I do watch, it’s usually in snippets, which is where this post comes from.

A week or so ago, I caught the last few minutes of an episode of “Shark Tank.” The pitch was by a woman named Lindsey Laurain–leader of a company called EZPZ.  That’s “easy peasy” for those of us who are phonetically inclined.  Laurain’s company makes a line of all-in-one plate-placemats for the toddler dining scene.

All of that is well and good, and as a father of four, I can appreciate the invention, too.

But what was interesting was this:  Laurain asked for $1 million in exchange for 5% of her company, and she received two offers.  The offers were not without “hair” as we call it, but they put the value of her company at $20 million.  Not a bad indication.

And you know what?  She walked away.

The “sharks” were perturbed.  Why would she do such a thing?

Why? Because it was a bad fit, she had a good product, and there are other options for her to capitalize her company.

Which brings me to the point:  We all get into manufactured situations where others offer us options, sometimes even good ones, which you might even call opportunities.  Ms. Laurain certainly had an “opportunity” to tie into the sharks and gain the potentially increased promotional benefits that can come from their support.

But such situations are often manufactured in such a way that we are led to believe they are our only options. You see this everywhere from real estate (agents constantly extol how “hot” the market is when trying to get you to make an offer on a house) to elite investment banks (bankers will pull out all stops to ensure that the buy side ponies up and the sell side keeps their feet warm).

I’ve got news for you:  You will be a better decision maker if you learn how to take a breath–take time to think and then make a decision that avoids the manufactured circumstances entirely, a decision that evaluates all the outs, not just the cards on the table.

For instance, suppose HR says you need to accept the job before next Tuesday or else, and they question your loyalty because you decide to look their gift horse in the mouth. What kind of company looks to coerce people into roles they aren’t sure about? In a healthy company, career choices are made by the individual, without ultimatums or undue pressure, so take a breath.

Or suppose that the guy making the offer on your business thinks you’re an idiot for rejecting it. Of course he does…that’s his position in the negotiation.  But take a breath and realize your options.  You may still be an idiot, but at least you’ll know where you stand.

The “Shark Tank” anecdote was a great example of an entrepreneur who knew what was right for her team, and we should all learn from her example.

Take a breath, think it over, and always, always, always ensure that you understand your real set of choices.


One Habit to Create Action From Every Meeting

By focusing on three simple post-meeting reflections, anyone in a professional environment can drive for better action orientation…

I wish this post was based on a blindingly original insight about how to be action-oriented.

It isn’t.

Instead, it’s based on a blindingly effective one.

The situation

I have walked the halls at dozens of companies over the years.  I’ve observed that one of the most pernicious yet obvious problems of strategic management at organizations large and small is the inability to drive action from meetings.

Some organizations I have been around have highly structured, up front requirements for meetings…They include things like lists of “desired outcomes” or “purpose and process” or “meeting objectives” written into the meeting agenda.

Those things can help.

Still, even those companies with strong meeting discipline struggle to avoid the “meeting to meet” habit that can come up.

Over the years of working on relatively ambiguous strategy and operational issues, I’ve found one leadership habit that has allowed me and a lot of my teams to go beyond objectives and process and toward a more action oriented approach to work.

It works in concert with good meeting planning; and leads to even better meeting planning for the next day, week, and beyond.

The habit

The habit I’m talking about is a 5 minute post-meeting reflection on most every professional interaction.  It focuses on three elements of action.  They are:

1. The insights gained in the interaction.  You just met for an hour.  What did you learn?  Those insights may be about facts presented and discussed, motivations of different parties in the interaction, or interpersonal dynamic in the room (or, sometimes, not in the room when unhealthy things like backbiting come into focus).  The focus on insights is a focus on what I learned.

2.  The implications of the insights and of the meeting overall.  It’s not enough to know what you learned.  You have to know what it means in the context of your organization’s or team’s macro-level agenda, the path of work that you may be following, and the objectives of the given meetings.  Often, studying the implications of a meeting brings you to drastically alter course on objectives, agenda, and problem-solving approach.  The focus on implications is a focus on meaning.

3.  The next steps implied by the insights and next steps. What actions will we take based on the things we learned and the meaning that they bring to the problem solving approach? The brief reflection on next steps in light of the insights and implications drives action orientation. It drives it–more importantly–based on the facts on the ground.  Many professionals are great at putting the next steps they think are going to come out of a meeting into the meeting agenda.  I’m saying that the next steps should be written on reflection, not strictly based on the agenda.

That’s it:  Insights…Implications…Next Steps.

Those three reflections, done personally or in team format for maximum of 5 minutes after a meeting, can drive toward more effective action in most any environment.

The more ambiguous the environment (factual, interpersonal, strategic, etc.), the more useful these reflections.

Parting thought

I received a part of this habit many years ago through good coaching from a manager early in my career.

I don’t see it as some groundbreaking insight.

I do see it as a way to increase speed and effectiveness in most any professional environment.

It is fundamentally action oriented…


It requires a leadership approach that is grounded in vision and a hypothesis about direction and context.

If you have that, then Insights, Implications, and Next Steps will allow you to gain more from every interaction you have.

Try it out.

Belling the Cat Part 1: ISIS Root Causes

If you follow anything around U.S. foreign policy, you have probably seen the highly publicized comments from Marie Harf on how the root causes of the U.S. State Department cannot “kill our way” to victory over proponents of an Islamic state.

Here’s the video:


Steering clear of the politics that tend to bloom around comments of this type, Harf’s talking points are a striking instance of strategic leapfrogging.

First off, Ms. Harf is in all likelihood “right” about needing to address the root causes of ISIS’ ease of recruiting.

Second off, Ms. Harf is probably right about what the root causes may be.

However, her talking points ignore the reality of today, where ISIS is already marauding.  She leapfrogs to high concept and ignores low reality.

This happens often when unsavory or necessary tactics get in the way of high minded strategic nirvana.

Don’t want to talk about the ugly business of killing people who are, themselves, killing at will?

Start talking about how the root causes of the killing are in the socioeconomic dynamics in the free world and in the communities the killers reside within; and how it’s important to solve those…

This is a classic example of a speaker spouting high minded (and probably “right”) strategic principles to skirt the need for low-minded (and probably “necessary”) tactics.

Ms. Harf has been beaten up in the media plenty for her talking points, and in my opinion rightly so…  She is propagating a narrative that is essentially a redux of the old “belling the cat” fable.

To wit, from Wikipedia:

“The fable concerns a group of mice who debate plans to nullify the threat of a marauding cat. One of them proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are warned of its approach. The plan is applauded by the others, until one mouse asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat. All of them make excuses. The story is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed. It provides a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility, and how this affects the value of a given plan.”

Strategists have to keep practicality in mind

Or else, even when they are right, they can be wrong.




WaPo: For Innovative Talent, It’s Both Art and Science

This from yesterday’s Washington Post:

We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.

The debate about art vs. science in hiring is an interesting one.   This is one person’s take on why the artificial boundary between the two may hold us back when it comes to innovation.

Citing some of the world’s renown innovators as interdisciplinarians, the author takes on a real issue.

Namely, we lament the number of liberal arts degrees vs. the STEM degrees, but miss the point that for STEM trained leaders to be effective, they have to be liberal arts thinkers.

An operative passage:

Many in government and business publicly question the value of such an education [liberal arts]. Yet employers in every sector continue to scoop up my students because of their ability to apply cross-disciplinary thinking to an incredibly complex world. They like my chemistry grads because not only can they find their way around a laboratory, but they’re also nimble thinkers who know to consider chemistry’s impact on society and the environment.


Click Here if You Know How to Read

If you enjoy connecting the dots and thinking critically about the world around you, read on.

Below is a list and some discussion on ten books every executive should know.

Some of the books I’ve listed are all about how to “play offense” (that is, to build and execute on a philosophy of leadership effectiveness). Some, however, are very much about how to play defense (that is, to understand some disordered twists on philosophies and personalities that you might want to avoid).

Two things before the list:

First, I use the term “know” as opposed to “read,” since simply reading a book is not sufficient. Lots of people “read” (past tense) Animal Farm back in junior high or high school. Few can really internalize the implications at that age.

I’d argue it’s important to know these books’ content at a practical level. Many people will tell you they’ve read one of these books, and then go on to bastardize the philosophy. In fact, several items below are in the list because they are popularly twisted (hello, Hayek!).

I may even do the same thing in my notes below.

You’ll never know unless you know the books. I encourage you to know what you believe.

Second, this is a list of books that take on politics, philosophy, economics, change leadership, and human nature.

What you don’t see in the list is a set of business books.

I’d much rather encourage the world to think critically about their situation than to look at books that encourage them to emulate others’ situations. True, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but it’s good to know whether a wheel is what you really need.

That’s where critical thinking comes in.

But, I digress…Onward.

Ten Books Every Executive Should Know

1. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

What it is: A rambling screed of a novel written against statism, cronyism, and bureaucracy everywhere. Atlas Shrugged has stood the test of time. Sadly, it is, in the end, a caricature of philosophy and good writing all at the same time. Still, after reading Rand, the next time you are in a meeting with a bureaucratic leader who dissembles with vision-less imprecision, you’ll ask yourself “Who is John Galt?” with warm self confidence.

Why read it: Because Rand is every 25-year-old budding executive’s favorite author; and unfortunately between the ages of 25 and 45, few budding executives read very much.

Know this: Befriend anyone who embraces Rand’s fundamental premise (essentially, you can’t conjure individual well being out of thin air or by force and theft / can’t have your cake and eat it too). Beware anyone who thinks “Shrugged” is great literature or airtight philosophy (they are more likely to be one of Rand’s “moochers” or “mystics” than they will ever realize).

Extra Credit: Read Rand’s The Fountainhead for a better read and a more concise understanding of Rand’s super-individualist point of view.

2. Animal Farm, by George Orwell

What it is: An anti-communist allegory. It has great messages for leaders everywhere, particularly in organizations undergoing transformational change (watch out for those animals who grab power for themselves and deceive others). Ultimately, it’s a dark story, but it’s also a warning relevant to many leaders and groups.

Why read it: Because too often Orwell’s little book is ascribed solely to political systems when it really can be applied to organizational systems as well. As a leader, you should know your constituencies well. Pigs who espouse equality, transparency, and performance but who are just ever-so-slightly more equal than others exist in every organization.

Know this: Too often, it’s the “Boxers” (the hardworking, loyal draft horse in Animal Farm) in your organization that make it go. Get to know your Boxers. Keep in mind the anecdote of the cat “re-educating” the sparrows to perch on the cat’s paw next time you think you can fool people into changing their behavior when your own behavior doesn’t engender the trust necessary for them to change.

3. The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek

What it is: Hayek’s classic warning of the perils of central planning and actions that obscure price.

Why read it: Because you probably have read some Smith, Keynes, and Friedman, but you’ve probably only heard second hand regurgitations of Hayek. Go to the source. It’s applicable to you as a leader in an organization. The more you confuse your people as to who has what incentives and as to what actions have what costs, the more you push your organization down the road to serfdom…

Know this: The favorite poster child of Libertarians everywhere was a proponent of social services and safety nets in wealthy societies.

4. Better, by Atul Gawande

What it is: A collection of essays on improvement in surgery and medicine, written with a heartfelt focus on both incremental and tansformational improvement. As a book, it’s as close to a safe haven of reflection for change leaders that I have found.

Why read it: Gawande’s essays, centered on three virtues of diligence, doing right, and ingenuity, are useful to any leader who really wants his organization to do…better.

Know this: Getting better in any pursuit does require diligence, values, and ingenuity. Gawande’s book is a good set of examples.

5. Capital in the 21st Century, by Thomas Piketty

What it is: If you don’t know at least the caricature of the book, you must not read the news much. Depending on your point of view, The book is either about how Piketty wants world governments to confiscate and redistribute all wealth OR how he wants to save capitalism from its own structural instability. My read is that Piketty has posed an intellectually honest and largely fact-based outline of real structural deficiences of “run rate” capitalism (read that: Capitalism without world wars or other significant dislocations of capital holdings), with a probably-right-but-probably-impractical taxation scheme as the cure.

Why read it: Because so few people with opinions on Piketty’s writing have actually read Piketty’s writing; and Piketty’s writings are relevant to global economics and politics.

Know this: As popular as an economist can get, Piketty has pricked the finger of capitalism in ways that few writers have since early in the 20th century. You’d best know what his premise is (Fundamentally: That economic growth cannot over the long run outrun return on capital, leading to capital structurally accumulating in fewer and fewer hands without intervention) so you don’t get misled by people who think they know what it is (“he’s a raging socialist” is my favorite ad hominem).

6. The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver

What it is: A engrossing but dense read on managing through the noise and moving forward in the face of ambiguity. Silver’s experience predicting elections is extrapolated to many different arenas (including poker).

Why read it: Applying Silver’s (essentially Bayesian) approaches to management takes “decision making” from a once a year budgeting process to a constantly updated, probabilistic approach to “leadership.”

Know this: Even if you are right, you might be wrong (and vice versa). Randomness can still beat you. But, there are methods that can help minimize the risk. Silver’s book outlines how.

7. The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout

What it is: Stout’s treatise on the prevalence and malevolence of disordered personalities in your community and the workplace.

Why read it: While Stout’s estimates of the population prevalence of sociopaths (~4%) are higher than other experts’, the fact that these personalities self select into and thrive within corporate environments means her estimates are probably conservative when applied to your office. The next time someone stabs you in the back and then takes you out to lunch and asks you to pity them for the situation that made them stab you, this book will ring a bell.

Know this: People who lack conscience are out there. They are dangerous to you if you espouse a values set of any sort. And, they thrive in political organizations. Know, especially, how to spot them over time (Silver’s Bayesian approaches are helpful). Try to inoculate yourself as a leader from the charms and methods of these particular animals above and below you in the organization. If you don’t know they are there, others around you do and are feeling the pain of their machinations.

8. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer

What it is: A story of the May 1996 disaster on Everest. It’s also a gripping read with lots of action.

Why read it: Under the surface of this popular nonfiction narrative is an amazing web of case studies and lessons on decision making. The pressure to succeed, whether it comes from within an individuals (“my life goal is to summit Everest”) or from commercial interests (the guides made a lot of bad decisions with a lot of money on the line), has to be managed.

Know this: In rare environments, it takes rare skill to evaluate one’s circumstances effectively and make the right decisions. Executives who are confronted with deal fever (“let’s just get this thing closed”) should go back and re-read this book. Sometimes, when you are 100 feet from the summit, it’s the right answer to turn around and go home.

9. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

What it is: A deep, logical dive into the notion that we are all just carriers for our genes.

Why read it: Because ideas travel like genes, and Dawkins was one of the first to realize and discuss it. He invented the notion of the Meme. As leaders, you and I trade in ideas.

Know this: Dawkins’ summaries of population genetics, memetics, and game theory (his “Evolutionarily Stable Strategy” concept still fascinates) have amazing applicability to change leaders everywhere. Unless you understand why people behave in an organization they way they do and what it takes to change, you can never really effect change as a leader.

10. Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales

What it is: A scorching examination of why and how people survive in many different life threatening circumstances.

Why read it: As with so many things in life, the art of survival is sometimes counter intuitive. Gonzales provides a view of extremely valuable traits that you might otherwise overlook. He boils down survival to a set of guidelines that are directly applicable to the life of any reader: Stay calm, be humble, don’t rush, have a plan but don’t fall in love with the plan, enjoy nature, do it for others. If you and I did these things every day, we would be much more effective than we are.

Know this: Gonzales’ examination brings into question what traits we really need in people who are leading themselves and others through harrowing circumstances. The next time you are looking for a prototypical talent, think about the survivors in Gonzales’ book and look again. Sometimes the best survivor isn’t the endurance athlete, it’s the pudgy guy who moves slow and continually examines the world around him.

There you have it.

This is just a list of ten books. I could make a list of 5 or 20 and it would be equally incomplete. There are insights everywhere. Go find them.

I’d love for you to add your “must know” books to the comments section. I (and other readers) might learn something.


Potholes of the Mindset

As you flex your problem solving style, watch out for a few potholes.

This is the third of three posts I pulled together on the topic of effectiveness in problem solving. In the first post, I outlined some thoughts from my experience on common behaviors and mindsets that masquerade as problem solving. In the second, I offered a simple framework for thinking about how to flex one’s problem solving mindset.

In this one, I’m going to offer three problem solving pitfalls that come to mind. These can kill your effectiveness as a problem solver. I’ll refer back to the grid from my second post a few times, so it may be useful to click on that link and familiarize yourself with the grid if you haven’t already. While the grid is not Earth shattering, it is my own; and so it is somewhat unique.

Here we go.

Pitfall 1: Getting Stuck in the Mindset “Corners”

Being too much of anything in problem solving is a bad thing, except in extreme circumstances (which, let’s be clear, are truly rare). Referring back to the Drive/Collaboration grid I outlined in my post “Find Your Problem Solving Mindset,” you and I need to be sure to avoid the corners of the grid. Getting stuck in the corners can lead to bad things for you and your teams.

On the grid, I’ve labeled a few “bad” problem solving mindsets that can kill effectiveness. They are Wonk, Friend, Hero, and Consensus Builder.

  • The Wonk is likely to get caught up in analysis paralysis; he’s a navel gazing superstar.
  • The Friend struggles to enable decision and action; he wants to please everyone and actually pleases no one.
  • The Hero suffers from smartest guy in the room syndrome; he won’t listen to others.
  • The Consensus Builder spends too much time trying to tradeoff decisiveness with inclusiveness; he exhausts his team with endless, driven iteration.

Be careful of the corners. I’d also say be careful of piddling around in the center of the grid as well, but I’ve covered that with the admonition (in my previous post) that we must spend enough time in quadrant 1 (“Thinker”) to place ourselves in one of the other quadrants.

One thought here: My observation has been that too many leaders end up in the corners after getting specific (and likely painful) feedback on their particular problem solving behaviors (“build more consensus” is a common one). They overcorrect and end up diving into a corner.

This is especially true of the “Friend” and “Consensus Builder” pockets–execs who are told to collaborate more but don’t understand the subtleties of doing so end up in these corners. They overcorrect from being in a constant warrior mindset (“I’ll solve it myself”) after receiving feedback that they need to be more inclusive. Don’t overcorrect.

Pitfall 2: Hiding Behind a Phony Mindset

Here’s a real sapper of executive effectiveness among under-apprenticed leaders. You shouldn’t pretend that you are an upper right quadrant leader working to build the best answer by leveraging all people’s strengths when you actually just want your answer to be the one chosen (meaning you were in the upper left “Warrior” quadrant all along).

You also shouldn’t pretend that you are going to solve a problem all by your lonesome (upper left quadrant) and then rely on others to get things done because you never had the skills or credibility in the first place. “I’ll figure it out” or the more pithy “fake it ‘til you make it” head-fake is a dangerous and arrogant approach to problem solving. Be open about your intentions and your limitations.

Being phony may work in a one-shot game, but life is not a one shot game.

Pitfall 3: Tangling With People Who Don’t get the Concept of Dynamic Mindsets

I’m not going to sugar coat this one, but the reality is that many, many people out there have a dark view of problem solving that amounts to “be decisive and tell people what to do” or “just tear every problem apart and solve it yourself.” They never move out of the Warrior mindset.

If you are a dynamic problem solver who knows when to alter your style, you will confuse and possibly bother these kind of people, whether they are subordinate to you or superior to you in the organization. They will look for specific behaviors (like giving orders) that simply won’t be there.

For example, if you are the executive enabler playing a background role to make a broader team more effective, and you are on a team or in an organization that highly values and respects brute force (“hand out orders and hold their feet to the fire”); watch out.

Be explicit about your role. That may not fix the problem for the long term, but you will at least state your aims and be clear that you are playing outside the organization’s leadership comfort zone.

Good problem solvers can improve the behavior of bad problem solvers, exceptwhen the bad problem solvers set the culture and have no learning mindset. Think about it.

Parting Thought on Problem Solving

Solving the problem is about applying the right minds, skills and tools to the problem. It is, in short, about being effective. Being effective starts with an understanding of what problem solving is NOT, continues with adopting the right mindset, and ends with a clear knowledge of what can get you into trouble as you proceed.

To borrow from Elwood P. Dowd: In this world you must be oh so smart or oh so effective. For years I thought the answer was smart, I now recommend effective.

You may quote me on that.

I encourage the reader to share experiences, debate these points, or simply to correct my assertions through the comments below.