Monday, January 18, 2010

Leader Business Question #2

Q. How do you respond when someone poses a solution to a problem that is too easy or simply too good to be true?

A. Ask..."And then what?"

A key skill of a leader is to be able to consider 2nd and 3rd order effects. Good leaders are rarely surprised by what happens and, in the very rare case that they are, they have a response ready to go. This is not a superpower -- although it's sometimes okay if our teammates think it is! This capability comes from the constant thinking about what happens next. It goes like this:

-- Okay, if this plan is executed, what will happen next?
-- What will happen if it does not succeed?
--What do we need to do to sustain the momentum if it does work and how do we mitigate against the possibility of failure?
-- What if we do fail? How do we recover?
-- What happens next? What happens after that?

Leadership so often comes down to the consideration of moves. It is like a chess match. What will you do next? What will your competitors do? How will this play in the media? What will we do then? It is this series of questions that differentiates the professional warrior from the amateur one. It is this level of preparedness that makes good leaders ready for anything that happens, while the bad ones act surprised at every twist.

You've heard it said: There are three kinds of leaders in the world -- those who make things happen, those who let things happen, and those who wonder what just happened! Making things happen, setting your team up to be able to exploit every opportunity, comes from asking these questions and thinking through moves well before they play out.

In the military, we often think in terms of: ACTION -- REACTION -- COUNTERACTION. Commanders constantly are wargaming different scenarios so that they are prepared if their plans don't work...and if they do. They are thinking about the enemy, what their intentions might be, and how they might respond to anything they might do. These wargames occur formally (as part of the development of plans and strategies) and informally (in their minds or over a cup of coffee with a teammate).

Too often we accept easy solutions to problems because we get lazy and that is what we want to hear. We want our solutions to be as simple as:

-- We'll just close a number of stores and cut our expenses? OK, what will this do to customer service?
-- We'll just charge for checking luggage. OK, won't people take more luggage as carry-ons (and what problems does this pose when boarding?) and won't our competitors take advantage of this?
-- We'll make housing affordable by making loans that defer payments until down the road? OK, what happens when those payments come due?
-- We'll make (insert campaign promise) free for (insert constituency). Really? And how will we pay for that?
-- We'll send a combat unit to (insert HOT SPOT) and they will be welcomed with open arms. OK, how does it end? What are our success criteria?

Credible, capable leaders have to think about implications of their actions. They do this by asking these kinds of questions. What if? And then what? What if it succeeds? What if it fails?

You see, it is not a superhuman power to see 2nd and 3rd order effects. It is a learned skill. Good leaders don't take the easy answer. They push back, lift up the hood, and ask hard questions. Think about that the next time someone sells you that get-rich, get-lean, get-organized scheme. I tell them...GET LOST. Or I ask them..."And then what?" That's usually enough for them to back away. That's Leader Business!


Sean Chapple said...

The challenge as a leader is also to allow your team the freedom and space to discuss solutions to setbacks. However unworkable you may think it is, the important thing is that you create an environment where opions and suggestions are permitted. Most people do not generally come into work to do a bad job!

Tan said...

You tell them that it sounds wonderful and ask them to provide a SWOT Analysis. It helps them think things through and they will come up with their own solutions as they work out the kinks.