Six Situational Mindsets To Putting First Things First

No one would argue that as leaders, we want to immediately tackle the most important issue or opportunity. As Stephen Covey advises, “put first things first.”  However, deciding what is most important, and that awareness, cannot be made based on past practice, outdated assumptions, or preconceived options.  Circumstances change too quickly to rely on what was valid.  We must continually reassess our situation and alternatives. Interestingly, a study of leaders found that 80% of them never consider alternatives or situational mindsets before making a decision, despite changing conditions.

When we drive our cars, we cannot rely exclusively on what we see through our windshield.  We also check the side and rear view mirrors.  But we also have to check our dashboard for speed and any warning lights.  This expanded context ensures our safety.  Likewise, leaders banking on a single viewpoint miss opportunities and invite risk.  Utilizing multiple sources of current information delivers optimal choices.

Leaders inherently know this, however, many leaders will utilize default decision-making, blindly sticking to tradition; skim over or ignore data that contradicts beliefs; or readily jump on any goal bandwagon, and implement current fads. In a dynamic environment, adopting a “ready, fire” approach is dangerous.  “Aiming” or situational awareness must precede the decision to launch as it is the only way to discover the best path forward. Instead of believing we have all the answers, we must commit to asking all the right questions to analyze our circumstances.

So, what is the alternative when deciding what goal to pursue? Leaders must become situationally aware by studying six situational realities.

To collect the information for aiming, questions addressing six situational factors must be investigated.  These mindsets depict what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to happen.  The situational mindsets are:

  • Inventing or measuring how innovative your products, designs, and services compared with what is possible.
  • Catalyzing or assessing the level of your customer service, market position, and sales effectiveness compared to the competition.
  • Developing or evaluating system effectiveness, information flow, unit alignment, goal and policy alignment, decision making and autonomy
  • Performing or studying the quality of deliverables, cycle time, productivity, workflow, safety, and ROI
  • Protecting or questioning staffing levels, retention of key talent, succession planning, engagement, and cultural agility
  • Challenging or examining trends, business plan options, validating assumptions, identifying niches and searching for alliances

Inquiring about these situational mindsets provide leaders with the ability to see what is on the wall, around the corner, and within reach.  And it is an easy practice to implement.  The six mindsets become a checklist to ascertain complex, challenging, ambiguous, or precedent setting circumstances.

In addition to developing a mindset question checklist, we should also:

  1. Allocate time for reflection, analysis, and imagination. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) only works when things are stable. Dynamic factors and new realities are rarely simple. H. L. Mencken captured this truth by saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem” neat, plausible and wrong.” We must stretch our thinking to secure our future.
  2. Identify our biases and rationalizations. Smart choices mean we must generate new ideas to address the waves of change. As Einstein stated, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking we used when we created them.”
  3. Recognize the power of asking open-ended questions. As Dr. E. Edwards Deming remarked, “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” Expand the scope of your questions to detect trends, examine implications, and craft new opportunities.
  4. Accept the fact that the greatest obstacle to our future is not ignorance, but the illusion that we already know all that we need to know. We must dig deeper and wider in a search for new knowledge and insights.  It is important to ask: what have we learned what should we start doing, and what should we stop doing. Mark Twain observed, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It is what we know for sure that just ain’t so.
  5. Resist peer pressure and the temptation to follow the crowd. Enthusiasm for a new initiative regularly conceals flaws and squashes critical thinking.  Ask for what could go wrong, what other options are there, and what potential issues might surface. As journalist Walter Lippman observed, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”  We need people to think and speak up.

Take the time to ask the mindset questions to discover what to put first.  Let’s make our future truly promising.

Published first at Value Walk: https://www.valuewalk.com/2019/08/six-situational-mindsets-first-things-first/

Breaking the Vacuum Around Leadership

When something is missing, it is a vacuum or space creating a void. I believe we have a missing element in our understanding of leadership. We all recognize that leaders face challenges that were unfathomable twenty years ago. However, leadership remains consumed with the relatively stable aspects of personal style and skill sets.

Given our dynamic environment, situational awareness becomes an essential component for leadership success. Leaders must recognize how the competitive landscape, regulatory forces, workforce demographics, and system ramifications impact the organization. No one should ignore their present realities.

While I would temper Peter Drucker’s statement that leadership “has little to do with “leadership quality” and even less to do with “charisma.” Its essence is performance,” I agree with his focus on results. But to date, it undervalues results in favor of steadiness, predictability, and persistence, all of which certainly play a key role. However, so does flexibility, agility, timing, and current conditions. Ignoring these increases our blind spots and risk.

Getting the leadership “formula” right reminds me of searching for the sorcerer’s stone. A magical solution, to be sure, but we must remember it is also fictitious. Search for any universal formula will not work. Precisely following in the footsteps of Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos will not guarantee success. Certainly, those leaders deserve their acclaim but that does not mean their formula will work in every organization.

Few leaders run an organization that is the equivalent of an Apple or Amazon. I have met many business leaders who assume that what worked in one environment will work in every environment or that what worked in the past will work in the present.

Leadership has changed in scope and expectations. Organizations are more integrated, customer requirements shift more rapidly, and resources have become more constrained. And to make it even more challenging, our greater complexity means that no one person can have all the answers. So instead of becoming the solution provider, leaders need to develop their ability to question and evaluate alternatives. Luckily, this is not rocket science or a matter of IQ. It requires committing to a practice of employing six situational mindsets to uncover information before jumping to a decision.

Situational awareness Consider what a leader could learn by asking questions in six different areas including:

      • What new approaches or creative options can we investigate?
      • How can we improve customer service and retention?
      • How can we become a truly seamless effective organization?
      • What can improve our quality and efficiency?
      • How can we foster collaboration, engagement, and learning?
      • What can we do now to ensure a prosperous future?

Vacuums are broken using heat to expand the container. We should use the heat created by change to expand our view of leadership. Yes, listening, planning, team building, and engagement are critical but so is collecting information on our current realities and leveraging them to achieve results.


Dr. Mary Lippitt is the author of  Brilliant or Blunder: Six Ways Leaders Navigate Uncertainty, Opportunity and Complexity

“Breaking the Vacuum Around Leadership” was originally published on 10 July 2019 at BizCatalyst360.

Using Checklists and Statistics to Get in Sync With Reality

I was recently struck by my seeming lack of perspective on global developments while reading  Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. My only consolation was that I was not alone;  95 percent of the people held the same views, according to the author, statistician Hans Rosling.

One of the questions I missed was according to Rosling was:  In the last 20 years has the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty:

  1. Almost doubled
  2. Stayed approximately the same
  3. Almost halved

Would you be surprised to learn of Rosling’s claim that extreme poverty has been cut by almost 50 percent?  I was.  In fact, I barely considered option three.  My preconceived ideas, my repeated exposure to tragic news stories and, to be honest, my reliance on outdated facts led me to conclude that poverty had almost doubled.

While I am in good company since almost everyone was mistaken, the fact is both comforting and disturbing.  It means most of us are out of sync with our current reality.   Why is this?  The causes include:  (1) our assumption that we already know everything we need to know, (2) a tendency to expect the worst case is the most likely outcome, (3) a proclivity to reduce issues to two simple options and (4) time pressures.

If you are not convinced of the extent of this problem, consider another question:  Which statement do you agree with the most?

  1. the world is getting better
  2. the world is getting worse
  3. the world is getting neither better nor worse

The correct answer is A, according to Rosling, and the data that he uses to support this contention  includes: significant increase in literacy, agricultural yields have increased, more people have electricity, more groups are allowed to vote, child cancer rates have improved, access to potable water has grown, more girls are in school,  and technology has spread widely to less developed nations.   Many of us failed to see this program.  We seem to see the world as a glass half empty, rather than half full.  Moreover,  this notion creates fear derailing critical thinking and analysis.

What we know “for sure” is rarely entirely accurate.    Sometimes our knowledge is obsolete,  and at other times it is incomplete.  To understand our current circumstance, we must stop thinking we know more than we do and start asking questions to fully understand all the issues enabling us to examine the facts critically.   Critical thinking is vital as we confront rapid change and complexity.  It exposes misconceptions, while also producing wiser more rewarding decisions.

Knowing that we infrequently update our knowledge and overlook information that does not conform to our pre-existing assumptions , we need new tools. Deploying a checklist has proven successful in medicine, aviation, litigation, and construction not because of ineptitude or ignorance but due to inherent cognitive flaws.   Instead of being a constraint, checklists free our minds to concentrate on critical aspects, prevent small mistakes and save time.  Now it is time for leaders at all levels to develop, share and use checklists to stay in sync with their current reality.

The book cited here is: Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Roennlund, (2019) FACTFULNESS: ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. [London: Sceptre Publishing]

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