Are You Steeped in Obsolete Thinking Skills?

Blogger’s note: This piece is abstracted and reblogged from the Cutter Consortium. I originally wrote it for their Business Technology Strategies Email Advisor, August 2012.

You may not like what you are about to read.

Most senior executives are steeped in a way of thinking that was already obsolete when you learned it. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

More on how it happened below, but first….

What Does It Mean to be Using Obsolete Thinking Skills?

It means you are likely unconsciously applying your intelligence, experience, authority, and leadership influence in a way that is making you and your organization less rather than more strategic, effective, and successful.

So what is that obsolete way of thinking?

It is “linear reasoning.” Linear reasoning — or linear thinking — means to reason things through in phase-by-phase order to confidently figure out the right answer. Such phases include:

  1. Noticing a problem
  2. Posing the question
  3. Gathering data
  4. Conducting extensive analysis, then, when we have enough data and analysis
  5. Taking a decision

If this linear thinking style is obsolete, then what has replaced it and why? The answer is iterative discovery, learning, or adaptive thinking, among other names.

What’s Wrong with Linear Thinking?

Linear thinking is great in stable environments where change, complexity, and uncertainty are low. If you operate in such stable environments then linear thinking is still valid. But if you operate in environments of change, complexity, and uncertainty, then the acts of data collection and analysis are often fruitless wastes of investment in time and resources in pursuit of sense-making.

Iterative thinking is particularly well-suited for environments of change, complexity, and uncertainty. Why? Because no operating environment holds still long enough for complete data collection and analysis. So “figuring out the right answer” does not apply. Instead, to be effective in such environments you operate in cadences of nested feedback loops. Each feedback loop is designed to fuel real-time learning.

The Only Effective Response to Uncertainty

Think about it: complexity science tells us that the only effective response to uncertainty is iteration. To iterate means to rhythmically reflect on feedback from your probes into the environment in order to discover what works.

A famous example includes the Shewhart Cycle — Plan, Do, Check, and Act — popularized by Edwards Deming (see Figure 1). It was developed in the 1940s to drive continuous improvement for manufacturing quality.

Figure 1 — The Shewhart Cycle.

Other examples include agile product development processes, the Rhythm Execution Program and other management frameworks from Verne Harnish for strategic growth, and the Rapid Results method from Robert Schafer for effectively managing large-scale organization change.

At the most fundamental level, my own work on The Responsibility Process™ shows that we each have an onboard empirical engine for sense-making that we can ignore — by coping, resisting, and defending when things don’t go our way — or that we can embrace to rapidly grow, change, and learn.

Why Weren’t You Taught All of This in School?

The linear decision, planning, management, and problem-solving frameworks taught in business schools and corporate executive development are a product of the relatively stable market environments of the last century in which those frameworks were developed. There is a 50+-year lag for proven ideas working their way into education. That means these ideas might just now be working their way into some of the more avant garde institutions.

As I consult with executive leaders I continue to see linear thinking as the prevailing — though obsolete — thinking mode for reasoning and sense-making. And I see it as a leading cause of ineffectiveness, frustration, and failure.

What to Do Now?

The good news is that you can re-skill. There are many entry points for you to start the re-skilling process — I’ve referenced three above. The best news is that it is a learn-by-doing process that will produce more effective results for you immediately.

Here are some thoughts about how to get started.

Most important is to let go of right and wrong thinking. Replace it with learning — i.e., empirical thinking. So instead of asking how you can gather and analyze enough information to make the “right” call, ask how you can take some action that will provide feedback from which you can learn and then take another action in the direction you value. Don’t underestimate this principle. If you think it through you will see that it is critical.

Then ask yourself what value you are actually adding to the overall value stream. And, ask yourself how you know, i.e., what’s the feedback loop that verifies the value of your actions? Frontline developers are challenged to ask themselves this every day. Why shouldn’t you? It keeps you focused on making noticeable progress against the highest priorities.

Put effectiveness ahead of efficiency. Focus first on doing what creates value. Then focus on doing it well. Remember that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.

And if you really want to re-skill fast, find an agile or lean expert in software development and offer a reciprocal mentoring relationship with them. They can teach you the disciplines for managing under conditions of change, complexity, and uncertainty. You can show them what it takes to be an executive. Then they can advance and help you and your organization succeed even more rapidly.

Posted in Change Management, Leadership on 02/28/2014 07:53 am
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