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 However, deciding what is most important, and that awareness, cannot be made based on past practice, outdated assumptions, or preconceived options.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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.