The producer of a thought leadership event for senior executives called me recently. She shared with a rueful chuckle that the theme for this year’s meeting was uncertainty: in economic policy, trade, healthcare, international relations…the list went on. I replied that the event would certainly tap into a larger zeitgeist — everyone is wrestling with uncertainty.
Although some argue that there have been more turbulent periods in history, I would respond that these comparisons don’t matter. Perceived turbulence and uncertainty is higher than it has been in several generations. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, trust in our stabilizing institutions is in decline. A recent article in the Journal of Emergency Managementdocuments the turmoil: The frequency and magnitude of natural disasters is increasing. Although overall violent crime is down in the U.S., complex, coordinated attacks and terrorism are up. Cybersecurity incidents rose eightfold between 2006 and 2012 — and continue to increase. Look outside and street protests, sometimes violent, seem to occur weekly on issues including immigration, healthcare access, and First Amendment rights.
There is no magic formula to quiet the forces of disequilibrium that swirl around us. Leaders, however, can help their followers cope with tempestuous situations by creating pillars of certainty in those areas where they can exert control. In particular, an organization and its leaders can stand for rock-solid principles that consistently guide their thinking and actions over time.
Photograph by Cultura Creative
Principles, unlike rules, give people something unshakable to hold onto yet also the freedom to take independent decisions and actions to move toward a shared objective. Principles are directional, whereas rules are directive. A simple example of a rule: “All merchandise returns must be made within 30 days.” Contrast this with Nordstrom’s principle-based approach: “Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” The former shows no trust in either the sales associate or the customer. The latter is exactly the opposite and encourages the frontline worker to build a relationship with the customer.
It has been more than three decades since Lou Gerstner turned IBM around using what was then a groundbreaking idea: managing by principles rather than procedures. Yet many organizations have been slow to move beyond rule-based approaches.
In some rule-based enterprises, it is the enduring, mythical power of a four-inch-thick procedure manual that lays out exactly what workers can and cannot do. In others, it is accumulated organizational ossification. Of course, there are regulations, union rules, and other legitimate constraints. Too often, however, rules were designed to fix the problems of yesterday and remain in place long after the problem itself has changed.
The result is a disconnect between a need and the ability to fulfill it: “That’s not in my job description.” “I’m not authorized to make that decision.” “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I’m just doing what they told me.” Customers are frustrated — and so are employees. Efficiency and engagement both suffer. Revenue and profit are sure to follow.
Some companies, however, driven by the increasing evidence of the links among purpose, profit, and employee engagement along with the increased need for organizational agility are taking the principle route.
Consider, for example, U.K. upstart Metro Bank and their “One to say yes; two to say no” principle. That is, any frontline employee can decide to say yes to a customer request, but if they think the request should be denied, they must get permission from a colleague or supervisor. That’s a welcome, empowering inversion of the typical approach.
Although such approaches may seem most natural in a B2C setting, B2B companies can benefit as well. When Laura Baldwin took the reins of O’Reilly Media from founder Tim O’Reilly in 2011, the company was shifting its organizational orientation from product lines to audience segments and, perhaps more daunting, building the company up beyond its charismatic founder to thrive.
Baldwin told me that the key was not to try to be the next Tim but rather to involve everyone in aligning actions with aspirations. From this, O’Reilly’s operating principles were born. Some (“Is it best for the customer?”) are lofty and conceptual. Others (“Know your numbers” and “Measure what matters”) are hard-nosed. One of the more intriguing principles: “Embrace, adapt to, and drive change.”
Baldwin said that one of her goals was to provide people with the same set of standards for working together. “Principles give everyone a voice — even outside of their formal roles,” she said. As a universal norm, they level-set between veterans and new recruits. They can even prompt fresh thinking: “If one of our principles is to ‘Look from the outside in,’ then why shouldn’t we try…?”
Principles are not a panacea. Amazon had a public head-butt with its leadership principles after a New York Times exposé portrayed a brutal work environment. CEO Jeff Bezos’s response was that he “didn’t recognize” the company in the article. To Bezos’s credit, he took immediate action to try to better align aspirations with reality, starting with a letter to employees that encouraged them to escalate “callous management practices” to HR or to email Bezos directly. The company has also taken steps to change how it evaluates employee performance.
If you want to help your organization design its own principles, here’s how to get started:
Think about your organization at its best. Dig into the root behaviors, conditions, and other factors that make things work well, and craft principles to reflect and stimulate more of this positive energy. Ask yourself: What happens when my people are at their peak? Do they demonstrate initiative? Do they feel free to exercise their best judgment? Do you feel a jovial collegiality even when things are tense?
Be ready to live your principles, even when it gets tough. Actions will always speak louder than words. As a leader, realize that the drumbeat for revenue and profit is constant. You have to ensure that the other principles get as much attention as those bedrock goals, and that in practice they fulfill their intention.
Be ready to live your principles, even when it gets tough.
At O’Reilly, part of Baldwin’s job is to balance the needs of the customers, the shareholders, and the employees. “If it’s great for the customer but hurts employees, that’s not good,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons we have a principle about generosity and reciprocity.”
Make the principles public. Baldwin noted that O’Reilly’s operating principles are posted in every conference room. “Visitors always stop to read them,” she said. “And the reaction is overwhelmingly good.” Encourage employees to refer to the principles to explain why they made certain decisions. The more they are part of daily life, the greater impact they’ll have.
Baldwin offered some final advice: Don’t expect to be perfect. O’Reilly’s principles have evolved over time. “We don’t always get it right, and that’s OK,” she said. “We can always do better next time.” That sounds like a great starting principle for any organization.
Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma(Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.
Leaders operate with near-constant deficits of time, energy, resources, and focus, which keeps them locked in a perpetual state of catch-up. This reality erodes quality contemplation. Although there are strategies to help you react to the urgencies of the day without sacrificing time to reflect, the value and impact of your thoughts are not simply a measure of minutes. Rather, they can be measured by the thinking agility you apply to changing priorities and circumstances.
More specifically, your capacity to reflect dynamically amid the constantly shifting work landscape is what counts most. The strongest lever you, as a leader, have over how you manage your people, projects, and priorities is your own thinking. Yet worry about being able to equip a new generation of leaders with this ability is keeping a majority of the world’s CEOs up at night.
In PwC’s most recent CEO survey, more than three-quarters (77 percent) said that they were either somewhat concerned or extremely concerned about a lack of key skills. When asked to assess the most elusive talents, CEOs identified a raft of thinking skills: adaptability, problem-solving, creativity, and innovation.
Photograph by Darko Manasic / Alamy
Leaders, you can increase your thinking agility — and develop these related competencies — by leveraging the following three strategies.
Know your thinking sweet spot. The first step is to develop greater awareness of your thinking tendencies. The reference point I use is Herrmann International’s Whole Brain model. The framework includes four distinct thinking domains: analytical, practical, relational, and experimental.
Analytical thinkers are logical, realistic, and numbers-driven. Practical thinkers are organized, task-driven, and focused on operational plans. Relational thinkers are expressive, engaging, and sensitive to others. And experimental thinkers imagine what’s possible, challenge the status quo, and leverage their curiosity to spur original, divergent ideas.
Your capacity to reflect dynamically amid the shifting landscape is what counts most.
Every individual displays a unique mix of these, expressing some more dominantly than others. And the way an individual navigates his or her daily work — communicating, building relationships, solving problems, and making decisions — reflects the strengths or limitations of his or her thinking in the four dimensions.
So, which of these four dimensions dominates your mind-set? When you’re faced with a difficult problem or decision, which domain(s) do you rely on most to resolve it?
If you instinctively dive into the numbers, scrutinize the details, and let logical facts influence your decisions, you’re strong in analytical thinking. If you default to your project plan and focus on getting the job done, your sweet spot lies in practical thinking. If you naturally engage in conversation to explore others’ thoughts and ideas and pursue trusted, personal connections to get great work done, you’re relational. Or, if you ask why not, intentionally step back to look at a bigger picture, and seek flexible possibilities, experimental thinking is your strength.
Uncover your thinking gaps. Knowing your thinking sweet spot is crucial because we instinctively develop habits and patterns of behavior around them. These well-worn patterns may be the cause of our success, but as our roles evolve and the challenges we face shift, leaders need to branch out beyond the sweet spot and develop broader thinking skills. Filling in these thinking gaps by exploring the domains you tend to avoid will allow you to more easily collaborate with and influence people.
According to Herrmann’s research, only 2 percent of people express thinking habits evenly in all four dimensions. The vast majority have limited range. Competitive businesses that rely on their employees having a healthy mix of these diverse thinking styles require their leaders to guard against the gaps.
Consider your last slip-up at work. Did your strong attachment to sticking with the plan (or practical thinking) preclude big-picture thinking that could have led to more team input and a better outcome? Or perhaps because of your tendency to favor relational thinking, you got so caught up in collecting others’ valued opinions that you failed to realize the day-to-day operations were being neglected? Knowing your gaps can help you broaden into those spaces.
As situations change, let your thinking change too. Not all thinking is created equal, which is good because not every task requires the same response. Once you know your thinking sweet spot, and your gaps, you can begin to cultivate thinking diversity by considering the ideal response in a variety of situations.
If success in one area depends on your ability to relate to others, such as building trust with a new client or colleague, take the time to do that. Don’t rush like it’s a task to complete as quickly as possible; instead, make time to engage. If another assignment requires a technical perspective, immerse yourself in the analysis. Focus on the research and expert opinions of others. Sweat the small stuff, and be willing to map out all the pitfalls.
Regardless of the situation, it’s the pivot toward an alternative thinking style (or blend of styles) that can make the difference between frustration and positive results. If you’ve ever wanted to just get “down to business” while your colleague wanted to envision all possible scenarios, you know how irritating the mismatch between thinking approaches can be.
To avoid this type of conflict, talk about your thinking preferences with others. For example: “Hey, I appreciate the importance of having a vision. For me, I feel like we’ve already done that work and the best use of our time is to focus on the tactical plan moving forward. Is it OK if we shift gears, or is there still something for you regarding the ‘big picture’ that we need to explore?”
As you work to stretch your own thinking agility, remember that the least likely time to change is when you’re facing high pressure to perform. In those critical moments, people usually behave in the way they know best. This means that efforts to stretch your thinking agility are best undertaken when pressure is low. Agility moves aren’t about right or wrong ways to think. They’re about the situational awareness and intentional effort to adjust your thinking to the circumstance.
Finally, as you take steps to implement these strategies, consider your team and organization as a culture of thinkers. They reflect clusters of thinking sweet spots and thinking gaps — all amplified by the thinking agility, or thinking immobility, they possess. To leverage this awareness for your broader enterprise, link it with the CEO’s agenda and get to specifics.
Assessments such as the Whole Brain model can be socialized on a large scale to establish a baseline of awareness of current thinking patterns. As you staff teams and develop people, include thinking elements in every decision. From small moves, such as designing your weekly team meetings to be more inclusive of diverse thinking styles, to big moves, such as aligning your business’s strategy to the thinking capabilities needed to execute it, consider your firm’s thinking as an integral part of your overall talent strategy.