The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Your Search for insightful leadership

It was dark and I was in unfamiliar territory. I was aboard a friend’s boat on the Chesapeake Bay, at night, headed home, when he said, “You should drive. It will be good practice.”

“Good practice?” I thought. “Is he crazy? There are lights everywhere.” As I looked across the horizon and saw white lights, yellow lights, red lights, green lights, blinking lights, bright lights and faint lights.  “Which do I follow?” I asked him.

He said, “You’ll learn to sort out the important lights, that help you navigate to the dock, from the irrelevant ones that are a distraction.”  Wise words that also apply to you as an insightful leader.

You navigate your organization towards the future and along the way there are countless pieces of information and distractions that can take you off course – if you let them. How do you sort out the relevant from the irrelevant? Here are three tips I learned from executives I interviewed.

  • Have a clear objective. You can only navigate to your goal if you are clear on your goal. Yeah, I know…that seems obvious. And, I’m continually amazed at how often managers lack clarity on the goal. We breeze past the difficulty of finding clarity in the rush to act. Clarity immediately reduces distractions. Clarity allows you to ignore all inputs that don’t align. Without clarity, it would be like me aiming for any creek when I wanted Aberdeen Creek.To get clarity, ask yourself,
    • “What is the desired outcome?”
    • “What specifically needs to be accomplished?”
    • “What specific action do I want to occur?” Don’t settle for generalizations. Be specific

From a place of clarity, identify the key next steps. These steps help to retain clarity and focus along the way. Activities that aren’t in alignment with the steps to the objective, can be dealt with later.

  • Control the tangents. Be brutal about this. Everyone you talk to will try (maybe unintentionally and maybe intentionally) to take you off on a tangent. If you stay laser focused on the objective, you can tactfully redirect the conversation while staying aware that other issues will be dealt with later. When someone tries to divert your attention, say,
    • “That’s a good point, and we need to stay focused on the goal. We can come back to that point once we deal with this.”
    • “I appreciate you bringing this up. Let’s put this in the parking lot to address next.”
    • “I realize this is a concern of yours and we will address it, but for now, we need to stay focused on the goal for today.”

As I scanned the darkness, the horizon filled with lights. But I didn’t need the circling light of Thomas Point Lighthouse or the red and green lights of other boats. I began to train my eyes to discern the lights on the markers that indicated the way back. It went like this: Marker light…got it in my sights. Lighthouse light: it’s out of the way; I won’t run aground; no need to consider it further. Other boats: They are not in the way and not coming my way; no need to consider them further. They remain in my periphery but didn’t distract from the goal. How do you sift out the tangents, set them aside, and stay focused on the objective?

  • Check in along the way. As we motored back toward the dock, the navigational chart told me which marker should be in view next. Did it appear when and where it was supposed to? Check. We were still on course. As an insightful leader, it is wise to check your course along the way. Are you still focused on the objective? Are you still taking the steps you identified or have you succumbed to a tangent? Check in along the way and make course corrections as needed.

You, as an insightful leader, are the keeper of focus. In addition to reaching your goal efficiently, your staff will feel more secure and calm because of your clear-headed focus.

Photo Copyright : James Kirkikis

The night was warm as we stood looking over the Annapolis harbor at the gathered crowd. It was a perfect evening for (are you ready?) tango. Yes, tango. Argentine tango, to be specific. The bricks of the Annapolis City Dock were covered by a smooth dance floor and a small band played tango music. If you are not a dancer, Argentine tango is not like a typical ballroom tango. Ballroom-style tango has specific steps. Argentine tango does not. It is all improvisational. The men learn to lead by shifting their bodies. Women learn to sense and follow their lead.  As we watched, the men were steady and (relatively) straightforward with their steps while the women twisted, turned, and flicked their feet with grace and style. They represented a subtle communication between leader and follower that resulted in beauty and art.

When I think about being an insightful leader, there are three lessons from tango.  The tango leads provided:

  1. Direction. The leader provides the forward direction. Will he steer his partner slightly right, slightly left or straight ahead? He watches other couples and navigate between and around them. He adjusts their rate of progress to account for others. It’s the same for leaders in an organization. You, too, provide direction and navigate employees, staff and projects around obstacles. In your case, obstacles may be political, technical, financial or personnel. It’s your job to watch the surroundings, notice openings and deftly steer the organization forward as though you are dancing together.
  2. Framework. The tango lead held his frame. He provided a firm, physical frame that gave his partner the boundaries for her dance. Within his arms and the space around his steps, he contained the space of the dance. A leader does the same. You provide the organizational framework within which staff perform and work happens. In this case, your frame work may be the organizational culture, a way of doing business, the boundaries of acceptable business practices or acceptable behaviors at work.
  3. Flexibility. Perhaps the most striking part of the tango was the flexibility afforded to the woman dancer. Our tango lead provided direction and a framework that allowed her to improvise. Steps, kicks, flourishes, twists and turns. She was the show. He gave her the space to explore her creativity and develop beauty. Too often, this element of leadership is missing. Sometimes, we as leaders create a framework that’s too tight. It confines creativity in the workplace. Instead, insightful leaders create space like the tango. There’s an openness to new ideas, new processes and procedures. Staff are encouraged to develop their creativity and show off their highest skills. The creativity of the staff can be the showpiece under a wise leader.

Because of the skill of the tango leader, the woman improvised, added her unique style and created a work of art while moving forward within the framework. How well is your organization dancing under your leadership? Maybe it’s time for a tango lesson!

Copyright: timurpix / 123RF Stock Photo

It was a beautiful fall day in Keystone, Colorado. The aspen were gold and the sun highlighted the crevasses in the mountains that guarded the lake. It was a perfect time to rent a kayak and paddle around under the blue sky. My friend is an experienced kayaker. I am not.  But…how hard can it be? It’s a kayak.

Truthfully, it wasn’t hard to paddle around. It was just difficult to get to a specific point on the lake – just as it can be difficult to reach the goal that you set in your organization. Here are three points gleaned from paddling on a Colorado lake that can help you reach your organizational goals.

  1. Set a clear goal. “Let’s paddle to that grove of trees on the point,” my friend said. I replied, “Which grove of trees on which point?” It took discussion and lots of pointing to clarify which grove of trees on which point of land.  It’s the same in your organization.  The goal may seem crystal clear to you. It’s unlikely to be that clear to others. Talk about the goal with your staff and team. Engage them in discussion. What behavior will you all see when the goal is achieved? What specific outcome will be realized and how will you know?  This is the only way to ensure that everyone is working toward the same end.
  2. Adjust constantly. Off we went toward our grove of trees. But it wasn’t that easy. We negotiated how we would paddle together without knocking each other’s paddle. Plus, the light breeze blew the kayak away from the point of land.  We were constantly compensating for the breeze and an occasional boat wake. Similarly, how will your team work together and not get in each other’s way? It’s not that easy. Personality conflicts, incomplete communication and busy schedules get in the way of coordinated work. I’ve seen it first hand in my organization and in those organizations with whom I work. Busy staff don’t talk to co-workers – even briefly – to discover that they are doing the same work or that they are working at cross-purposes. It takes constant communication to make course corrections. In my office, each project had a detailed road map to guide the work. Even with the road map, it was essential that we read the “breeze” in the organization and adjust. As your work progresses, what do you know today that you didn’t know when you started? What course corrections are called for? Become an observer of the staff and their communication styles.  Who is working well together and who continues to paddle at cross-purposes? An adjustment in staff roles can better align natural communication styles for more productive work.
  3. Anticipate. As we paddled, it looked like we were on track – heading straight for the point – but with one extra paddle stroke, we’d gone too far. I didn’t anticipate the momentum of the kayak and adjust my paddling in time. It took more time and effort to reach the point. Are you reading the situation and anticipating the next steps? Every office has momentum – work flows that are set in motion, processes that are half completed. You must anticipate where the momentum takes you and adjust in advance before the need is obvious. This is the work of the insightful leader. Are you a keen observer of the work flow, the patterns in the office and the external influences? It’s only then that you can anticipate the trajectory and course correct before others realize it’s needed.

We made it to the point – eventually. I learned that I have a lot to learn about kayaking. On the surface, it looks easy, but the art of kayaking takes skill and intentional thought. Providing wise leadership is the same. Data isn’t enough. You must be an astute observer of the people and work to stay on course.

 

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo

brain and heartHoliday shopping. Holiday cooking. Holiday travel plans. Holiday decorating. Holiday visitors. Holiday hubbub. It’s easy to get lost in the holiday this-and-that. In the midst of the holiday bustle, I challenge you to also reflect and plan but in a different way. Instead of cataloging accomplishments, reflect first on what you accomplished, then on how it felt as you worked toward those accomplishments. You might discover insights that impact your 2019 goals and how you work toward them.

For example, as I reviewed my 2018 accomplishments and considered my 2019 goals, I mused at how (or if) infotuition applies here. You’re thinking, “Infotuition?” Infotuition is the integration of thinking and feeling in leadership and life. Infotuition leads me to realize that it matters both what you do and how you feel as you do it.

Try this. Identify the goals you accomplished in 2018 of which you are most proud. You may want to separate them into work, personal, community and your spiritual life. Now, consider how you felt as you worked toward these goals. Be honest. Notice what the answers tell you. Here’s what I discovered.

Shelley’s 2018 work accomplishments: earned my Certified Speaking Professional™ designation, was named an Inc. magazine as a top 100 leadership speaker, created the Insightful Leadership brand, produced a new demo video, and engaged new clients.

As I worked toward these goals I felt: Proud and pleased with the growth of the work but busy. Really, really busy. Stressed and frazzled on some days. Barely enough time to serve clients and contribute to my community service goals.

My take-away? While I’m proud of my accomplishments and want to accomplish more in 2019, I intend to approach it differently so that I create more space in the day to be creative and to devote some time to other interests, too.

Now it’s your turn. Go ahead….list your accomplishments. There’s a space here.

My accomplishments at work are:

How did I feel as I worked toward these goals? (Relaxed, exhilarated, inspired, peaceful, realistic, frantic, proud)

My accomplishments in my personal life are:

How did I feel as I worked toward these goals?

My accomplishments for my community are:

How did I feel as I worked toward these goals?

My accomplishments in my spiritual life are:

How did I feel as I worked toward these goals?

What did you discover? Are you over-extending in some areas at the expense of others? Is the price you pay for accomplishment too high? Infotuition teaches that it’s just as important to consider how you achieve your goals as what you achieve.

With this in mind, write your 2019 goals together with how you’d like to feel along the way (relaxed, exhilarated, inspired, peaceful, realistic, proud or rested). Let that clarity color the approach you take to your goals and guide the atmosphere with which you surround yourself. Now that’s infotuition!

Photo Copyright : Jan Hruby

Have you ever found something that you like and just stick with it? Maybe it’s your favorite restaurant, favorite running shoe, favorite hand lotion or…in this case, your favorite clam chowder. Recently, we visited friends in Florida and a discussion ensued about the best clam chowder. The next day, we had a side-by-side taste test with two clam chowders. There was the old favorite and a new un-tried contender. I’ll leave you in suspense about the winner as we ponder the relevance to insightful leadership.

At work, we also have our favorites– a favorite process, a favorite go-to staff person who always gets the job done, a favorite approach to problem solving. They are our favorites for a reason – they worked well in the past, we are familiar with them, they don’t require excessive thought, or they are reliable. Like the favorite clam chowder – we know what we’re getting. We get what we’ve always gotten, and the brain likes it that way. It takes less energy for the brain to do what it’s always done.

But, you lead in a fast-moving environment where little is stable. Can you afford to settle for the standby, comfortable solutions? What if there’s a new way and you didn’t discover it? How do you entice people to look beyond their favorites and uncover the creative approach? Here are two simple questions that help push you and others to look beyond the obvious.

Ask, “What if we can’t do it this way – what’s another way?” Let’s say you’re working on a sensitive project and all recommendations take the tried-and-true approach. Push yourself and your team out of the comfort zone by posing this question. “Let’s pretend that our regular approach isn’t available to us. What else can we do?” With that question, you force the discussion to become more creative immediately. When you take the favored approach out of contention and require consideration of other options, you force the brain to dig in and do the hard work of real thinking. Expect to meet resistance. Don’t settle for the default option. Continue to take options off the table to force thinking at a deeper level.

Ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” Listen carefully to the responses. Perhaps you hear, “That’s what we did the last time,” or “It worked for us before,” or “It’s the standard approach.” All responses are of the same ilk…they are reliant on the default behavior. Don’t stop probing until you get to the bottom line goal.  Take the clam chowder example. Why do we always choose this particular clam chowder? The answers could be: It’s at the restaurant on the way home from work; it has a top reputation; we’ve been eating it for years. Good to know but the objective was not to find the most convenient clam chowder with the best reputation. When you uncover the reason for selecting the tried and true, it can open the door to other choices and reveal options to explore.

As for our clam chowder taste test…the old standby won in a landslide. That could happen to you, too. If it does, don’t be lulled into thinking there’s no reason to probe in the future. Change is constant and those who keep up the questions and see beyond the obvious will be the first to find the next favorite thing.

Copyright: cokemomo / 123RF Stock Photo

The party is over. The confetti clings to the floor, reluctant to be swept away. The hats and horns are conspicuous with glittered hot pinks, blues and golds. And so the new year begins.

Maybe you had a New Year’s Eve like this or maybe you sat quietly at home in front of a fireplace. Maybe you kissed at midnight or maybe you slept through it.  Either way, the new year is a natural time for reflection and goal setting.

As a leader, one of the most effective activities you can do is to set a goal for the new year– not ten goals–one goal. The value of setting a clear goal is that it keeps you focused amid the bombardment of distractions. Your challenge is to set the goal that will make the most difference and then focus on it relentlessly.

That sounds good, doesn’t it? And, frankly, it’s excellent advice. It’s just that, honestly, I’m terrible that this.  I have many goals, not one goal. Maybe you’re in the same boat. Really…what is that one big goal? It’s not constructive for me or for you to fragment our focus.  In this article, I’ll examine my own struggles and see if we can come up with a workable approach together. Okay? Here we go.

Step 1. Make a list of the goals you’d like to accomplish this year. Go ahead….make the list. What do you want to have completed this time next year? Now, step back and see what you have. My list has seven main goals, each with bullets.

Step 2. Triage. Identify the goals that have the biggest impact. What does it mean to have impact? Is it an activity that makes money, grows visibility, advances a cause, positions the organization for future growth? Those are high priority.  Now, which goals can only be executed when others are finished? Those are medium priority.

Even after triage, there may be too many high priority goals. There are for me. But, here’s the problem. You can’t effectively execute them all with high quality. Or can you?

Step 3. Gather more resources. Which goals can be tackled by others? Can you hire or delegate one or more goals?  In my case, the answer is – probably.  Identify the goals that can be associated with someone else. Note the person and the role they will play. Set a time to talk with them about the new assignment.

Step 4. Brutal prioritization. It’s time to be brutal with yourself. First, find any goals that are easy and quick. Next, think long and hard about which goal REALLY matters. Which goal, when accomplished will make a tangible difference now or for the future?  Which goal, if not accomplished, would make you feel like you missed an opportunity?

Hopefully, you whittled the list to one or two. In my case, there are two.  One is an action and the other an attitude while taking the action.  I have my focus. Have you identified that one goal that really matters?

Step 5. Be accountable. You’re not finished yet and neither am I. Set up an accountability method that maintains your focus. Tell a mentor or trusted colleague about your goal and ask that they check in monthly.  The point is to stay focused on your priority.  You’ll be lucky to make it through January without some distraction derailing your priorities. You need an accountability system to keep your eye on the goal.

Here’s my accountability system.  You.

You see, my top priority goal is to refocus my business on Insightful Leadership. I’m redoing the website and aligning all products and services to support the development and growth of insightful leaders like you.  The newsletter articles, programs, webinar series (to be launched this year –  a secondary goal) and future books will center on development of insightful leaders.  Hold me to it!

Photo Credit: Scott Betts

We were having dinner at a friend’s house and admiring his family memorabilia neatly arrayed in the bookshelves. There were the kid’s sailing trophies, family photos, delicate antique demitasse cups and a bright blue tube. A bright blue tube? “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh….it’s a kaleidoscope,” my friend replied. “Here, try it.” As I turned the tube, colors swirled and twirled. Each small movement altered the view and each view was as lovely as the other.

Why can’t we bring a kaleidoscopic view of the world into our workplace and into our leadership? When it comes to new perspectives, your brain works against you. It’s easier on the brain to see the world, to see a person or to see a decision as you’ve always seen it. But, with a little effort, other views – just as relevant – become visible. It’s as though you slightly turn the kaleidoscope.

Here are three areas where a kaleidoscopic world view is particularly valuable to your leadership and life.

See personnel situations from several perspectives – A disgruntled employee complains to you about his co-worker who they “just can’t work with,” and the list of grievances starts. In that moment, their argument sounds reasonable and valid. But, when you ‘turn the kaleidoscope’, you can likely see opportunities for misunderstanding, miscommunication and differing opinions. There are at least two sides to every story. It’s best to, first, seek out other perspectives; second, help the employee see beyond their singular view, and perhaps facilitate a conversation that highlights varied views of the situation.

See options for big decisions –When faced with a big decision, the brain prefers familiar solutions because, for the brain, the familiar is a short cut that feels effortless. However, big decisions benefit from a kaleidoscopic view. Here’s a technique that I discovered in a Harvard Business Review. As you debate a big decision and your team comes up with the expected approach, ask, “Let’s pretend that this option is not available to us. If not this approach, then what could we do?” This is a simple and effective way to force a shifted perspective. It’s as though you turn the kaleidoscope. Plus, you can use the same question repeatedly until you have a range of options upon which to base the decision.

See that it’s not always personal – Whether it’s with family, friends or co-workers, situations inevitably arise where feelings get hurt or questions arise in your mind. An offhand comment makes you feel peeved and you think, “That was an insensitive remark.” Or, maybe you’re left out of a meeting and you wonder, “Did they leave me out on purpose? Is the boss trying to tell me something?” In those moments, turn the kaleidoscope to see another perspective. In my experience, these situations are almost always explained away when viewed from a different viewpoint. Before letting your mind run away with your first interpretation, shift your outlook to find a different interpretation – one that doesn’t have you at the center.

Kaleidoscopes remind us that there’s always another way to see the world. Even a small rotation shifts the image, shifts the interpretation, and shifts the options. As an insightful leader, you must see a variety of views. And maybe you’ll discover that, like the kaleidoscope, each view is beautiful in its own way.

There were thirteen of us and an unknown number of them. We, leaders of a technology company, were standing in a dark field surrounded by the rugged mountains of Sedona. We held night vision goggles and laser pointers that reached ten miles. They were the inhabitants of the UFOs for which we were searching. Yes, we were on a UFO-watching tour. Never did I or any of us expect to be searching for UFOs. It definitely challenged our assumptions.

You may not have UFOs in your office, but insightful leaders know the importance of challenging assumptions. First, let’s do a reality check.  You must make assumptions. Assumptions are your brain’s shortcuts that help it manage the number of decisions you make in a day. However, you must also recognize when assumptions constrict your choices and constrain innovation.

In my experience, most people are unaware of their assumptions and the limitations assumptions create. Foster awareness by shining a light on assumptions. When people realize they made an assumption it either 1) opens their eyes to new opportunities or 2) allows the assumption to be revisited and updated. Either way, innovation is facilitated.

As an insightful leader train yourself to listen for assumptions. They may be the culprit during an impasse or a roadblock. Here are a few assumptions that get in the way of progress.

Assume the future is like the past. In rapidly changing environments, assumptions about markets, people, customers, and partners may no longer be valid. For example, in my field of transportation, we often assume that everyone wants to drive their personal car, but trends show fewer driver’s licenses and more use of other transportation options. What is changing in your industry that requires you to challenge long-held assumptions?

Assume that resources are finite. In my early days as a manager at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we executed work with only our staff.  The staff asserted that the update to a key manual would take years. “What assumptions go into that estimate?” we asked. They assumed that the work was done only with the current staff.  Once we surfaced the assumption we opened new avenues for execution (and hired consultant support).  What assumptions are your staff making that limit their options for execution?

Assume that past decisions are still relevant. We cling to old decisions sometimes to our detriment. I work with a leader who is reluctant to share information with staff. When a new leader took over, that reluctance continued until the assumption was challenged. With new leadership, say, “It sounds like that previous decision is limiting our options and we assume that it can’t be changed. What would it take to reevaluate the original decision?”

Assume that it can’t be done or it’s too hard. As a leader in government, I was often told that it was too hard to fire underperforming staff. But when we examined that assumption we learned that, while not easy, it was certainly doable. What does your staff believe is too hard and what assumptions are in play?

Assume that past impressions are relevant today. “We know what our client wants.” Are you sure? Clients, bosses, and boards change and with that change comes new attitudes.  Ask, “Let’s examine the assumptions. When was the last time we studied client preferences?” Or, “We have a new board now, let’s not assume that they have the same goals as the previous board.”

None of us expected to be searching for UFOs but there we stood, scanning the night sky looking for something none of us believed in. We were forced to confront our assumptions particularly when we saw UFOs! We traced the UFOs with our lasers as they zig-zagged across the night sky. We pointed excitedly at bright white lights on inaccessible mountain tops that appeared, brightened and dimmed, disappeared and reappeared.  We have no explanation, nor do we have our previous assumptions.

What assumptions hold you back?

Copyright: realillusion / 123RF Stock Photo
 

It was supposed to be an easy cruise. That’s what they told me.  The  47’ Morris sailboat, sailed the Newport to Bermuda race and finished second in her class. We were part of the crew sailing her back to Newport.  And, it was my first sailing trip. To say that the trip didn’t go as planned is an understatement if there ever was one. We made it back safe and sound because of the quality of the boat and the experience of the crew – except for me. When we left I still didn’t know a jib from a halyard or port from starboard.

The trip, expected to be a little more than three days, took five due to adverse weather. The only thing calm was the crew. The seas were rough almost from the start and became even rougher when we crossed the Gulf Stream. The evening we hit the Gulf Stream, we encountered three 50-knot squalls in quick succession with 10’ to 12’ seas. Due to the rough weather, the boat had a series of issues. The auto pilot stopped working on day one, the engine stopped on day two, during the storm the reef line on the mainsail broke, the halyard on the jib broke, the furler jammed, the tack of the spinnaker let go and, later, the spinnaker artfully wrapped itself around the forestay. During the worst of the storm, lines fell into the water and promptly wound themselves around the propeller shaft. I’m told that none of this is unusual but to have them all happen on one voyage was remarkable. By the time we arrived in Newport, everything I brought to wear was wet. The quick-dry fabric never dried.  Collectively, we smelled like a 50’ wet tennis shoe. Are we having fun yet?

As I lay in the narrow bunk, heeled 30 degrees, I listening to the storm tear at the boat and sails. And, I listened to the crew tackle each adversity calmly, collaboratively, decisively and transparently. Do you do the same when adversity hits your organization?

Calm. It was one problem after another in quick succession in rough weather. It would have been unnerving except for the calm of the captain. With each calamity, he talked to the crew – no raised voice, panic, of exasperation. The intensity of the situation stood in clear contrast to his calm demeanor.  As an insightful leader, how do you manage stress and outwardly demonstrate calm?

Collaborate. When a problem was solved, something else broke. Each time, the captain collaborated with the crew. What happened? What are the pros/cons of each option? This was no dictatorship. Neither was it a democracy. It was informed leadership. How do you collaborate under stress to capture and objectively weigh all options? Our captain based his decisions on crew input. Do you truly listen to others?

Decisive. The conversations between the captain and crew were quick, succinct and decisive. The captain listened, made a decision, and that was that. Other ideas were dropped, and action was taken. Are your decisions crisp, clear and strong? Once you decide, don’t waiver. There’s time later to evaluate and adjust. For now, give staff clear directions to follow.

Transparent. We were in a tough spot. Some of us were not experienced sailors and the situation was a wee bit unnerving (to say the least). It would have been easy for the captain to sugar-coat our predicament under the pretense of not alarming us.  Instead, he was honest and transparent. In a matter-of-fact manner, he shared the realities of each situation and decision. The transparency was reassuring and created trust. Are you being transparent with your staff about difficult situations? Yes, some topics can’t be discussed openly, and it is not constructive to publicly debate every option.  However, once a decision is made, it is helpful to share the decision, the rationale behind the decision and the implications. People understand that not everything goes as expected, but people don’t like to be in the dark. That creates suspicion and erodes trust. Transparency does the opposite.

I confess that I’m not ready for another cruise like this one, but I’m grateful for the crew and for the lessons: be calm, collaborate, be decisive and transparent.

Share an experience that you’ve had that taught you a lesson.

over thinkingI was intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.