When I got my pilot’s license it took about 60 hours of training flight time before I was ready for my written test and check ride. However it took only about 10 hours of flight time to become familiar with the basic skills necessary for takeoff and landing, the two most critical aspects of flying. So what were the remaining 50 hours for? In addition to honing basic flight skills, much of the time was spent practicing for endless “what if” scenarios: loss of power; navigation challenges; bad weather; etc. At the core of this training was a focus on quickly and properly diagnosing challenging situations.
As I discussed in my last post, there is an archetypal style of leadership where the impulse reaction when things don’t go quite as planned is table pounding, which typically generates unproductive kinetic energy. The Table Pounder almost always skips the most important first step of resolving a problem, diagnosis. Some may believe that in a critical situation, the luxury of diagnosis is unaffordable. I would argue that diagnosis 1) can be quick; and 2) is most valuable in critical situations, where the cost of a second misstep could be catastrophic.
Under performance is always caused by some combination of 3 factors: strategic error; flawed execution; or unfavorable external events. Perhaps we overestimated how many customers would want our product bundled with third-party services (strategy). Or perhaps our implementation of the product-service bundle delayed deliveries (execution). Or perhaps the government unexpectedly regulated our product (external). Any or all of these could have contributed to our under performance. Figuring out which played what role is critical before taking action.
A productive approach to diagnosis is a conversation with the relevant organizational leaders as a group. Any individual leader is likely to have biases that will impede proper analysis. The head of strategy will defend her approach; the COO will defend his operations; and a third party service provider will deny any shortcomings. With the proper facts on the table being openly discussed, a diagnosis can often be achieved in a relatively short meeting. (There are exceptions, of course. The US auto industry spent decades blaming everybody—the Japanese, labor unions, the government—but themselves for their shrinking market share before finally tackling their incomprehensibly complex, costly, and slow business systems.)
Furthermore, the process of diagnosis, of having proper fact-based dialog and decision making, improves the problem solving skills of the organization and makes it more resilient to future performance misses. Of course, the real value comes not from simply apportioning weight between the three factors, but from “double clicking” on each, or, borrowing from Lean discipline, asking “Why?” five times.
I have seen this dialog conclude quickly with a rapid diagnosis and clear counter measures. And I’ve seen it end with a mandate to fundamentally rethink the mission of the firm. In all cases, with a shared and compelling understanding of what went wrong, the organization can mount a coordinated effort focused on resolving the underlying issues.
As complex as flying an aircraft may be, piloting an organization is far more complex. Thinking through—in advance—how to lead when things inevitably go awry is vital for sustainable success. Diagnosis should always be the first step. That approach will beat Table Pounding every time.
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Photo: Boston Customs House - November 28, 2009
For over 20 years, I've worked with CEOs and senior leaders both as a consultant and c-suite executive. These articles are culled from some of those experiences.