Thursday, May 28, 2015

Four Behaviors That Stifle Strategic Thinking

One thing I don’t miss from my former life is being invited several times a year by other organizations to participate in so-called “strategic planning” sessions.

Never mind that regardless of intent, nearly all of them ended up having nothing to do with strategic thinking, dumbed down instead to developing a tactical to-do list.

Real strategy-making deals with uncertainty and ambiguity and very few people are comfortable with that.  More on that later in this essay but there is another reason these sessions usually end up being a waste of time.

It is because they nearly always employ the outdated 1950s notion of brainstorming, which until discredited in the 1960s was promoted as a means to increase creativity by 50%.

So run as fast as possible from any group today still using this practice.  It has long been shown to suck the life out of creativity instead.

I’m not talking about soliciting ideas, observations and input in group settings which can later be analyzed and filtered for patterns and connections that could be useful strategically.

I’m talking about sessions where groups are asked to distill or narrow down the input as a group.

Whether it be participants, governing boards, teams, executives or even some consultants, there are four types of behaviors that undermine this endeavor according to experts such as Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

“Social loafing” is one which is the predisposition of many people to become bystanders when in a group setting, looking much as if they are watching a tennis match.

Then there is “social anxiety” which refers to those poor souls who, rather than engage in critical thinking, soon begin to defend other people’s ideas from serious scrutiny and evaluation.
They are usually also the folks who cut off debate, “bless their hearts.”

Even if a few people in the group are given to discussion, evaluation and strategic thinking, others engage in what is called “regression to the mean,” meaning they dumb down the results of the meeting to the level of those who don’t or won’t or can’t think critically.

Some of this is due to what is called “production blocking,” terminology researchers use to describe a phenomena related to the size of the group.

It refers to the fact that the number of good ideas generated by a group plateaus when there are more than six or seven participants and plummets as the size of the group increases.

And this is even before what I call the “good ole boy” effect occurs, which is when two or three participants align on an agenda in advance of the brainstorming and spend the session trying to persuade or more often bully the group into getting their way.

I can’t tell you how many times I was invited to these sessions because of my expertise in strategic visitor-centric economic and cultural development only to be forced to listen to someone without a clue pontificate on how something would be great for tourism.

Now the new CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, Chamorro-Premuzic explains the behavior of those who were so eager to lecture me on what was good for tourism in his recent book entitled, Confidence: How Much You Really Need and How to Get It.

My problem was never confidence.  But shaping community consensus taught me how often it is that far too many otherwise reasonable people get hoodwinked, as noted in the book, when lobbied by those high on the narcissism scale, into mistaking confidence for competence.

Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic has also found that virtual or online collaboration is far more productive than in-person group think not only because it tempers these behaviors but because participants become more thoughtful overall.

Most so-called strategic efforts, however, actually digress into tactical plans.  The late Stephen G. Haines, an expert in strategy-making distinguished strategic as the “what” versus the tactical of “how.”

Think “roadmap” versus the “vehicles for the trip.”

To paraphrase Gallup experts in the psychology of workplace strengths, being strategic comes from being able to see patterns in data and events “where others simply see complexity.”

Okay, “piece a cake,” right?

The key word is “patterns.”  People who can quickly see patterns and make connections strategically use that ability to sort through various scenarios and see alternatives which allows them to be more creative and innovative.

The reason so few people are strategically inclined is that it requires being comfortable with uncertainty.  Fear of impatience with uncertainty can make us disregard important cues.
In her classic book Beyond Fear, Dr. Dorothy Rowe, a clinical psychologist, argues that more than death itself, we fear uncertainty.

But the comfort with uncertainty that comes with being strategic is much more than falling back on intuition, at least the kinds that are merely gut instincts or snap judgments, which also give profiling a bad name.

It comes down to what Dr. William Duggan at Columbia describes as Strategic Intuition in his book by that title, “a clear thought,” but “not fast” and even somewhat “slow.”

Think “percolate” when you think of strategic intuition or what Steven Johnson calls a “slow hunch” in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, which by contrast is another reason brainstorming sessions end up being so superficial.

In a now classic white paper for McKinsey & Company, Dr. Hugh Courtney who is now the Dean of International Business and Strategy at Northeastern, broke “uncertainty” down into four levels.

Level 1 is “A clear enough future” based on market research and near term capacity, which in my experience is where most organizations stop when attempting to think strategically, if at all.

Level 2 deals with “alternative futures” often in my experience related to trying to keep up with, emulate or “fast follow” competitors, again pretty straight forward but near term in nature.

Level 3 is when a push is made to deal on a spectrum with “a range of futures” but still pretty predictable.

Level 4 is looking out into “true ambiguity,” still data-derivative but more qualitative and speculative in nature.

Plans should strive to deal with all four levels but most clearly stop at the first.  Insights into level 4 often comes from looking back at history for clues to patterns that will influence the future.

Truly strategic organizations employ all four levels but organically evolve strategies by immediately informing them as new information become available.

It is amazing how rapid, in a relative sense, that even the most long term uncertainties are able to be dialed into focus, only to be replaced by more longer term uncertainties.

Why bother then?  Because research confirms that more strategic organizations are not only more nimble and innovative but they perform at higher levels.

But strategy-making is hard work, even for people who are naturally inclined.

1 comment: said...

On your comment about seeing and being able to act on patterns found within the mountains of data being generated. Just looking through historic data isn't enough to formulate a strategic advantage. Seeing the patterns is basically seeing and understanding what matters; timing is all important. “If you have just a little bit of the right information a couple of seconds or minutes in advance, it’s more valuable than all of the information in the world six months after the fact” (Vivek Ranadive). To maintain the competitive strategic advantage, the tactic must be to keep looking for the nuggets.