Thursday, August 21, 2008

How Leaders Choose - Part I

Monica stared at the wide selection of frozen foods, searching for the new, low-carbohydrate waffles she had just heard about. She had no idea there were 16 flavors of Eggos or that 31,000 new food products were introduced in the U.S. last year. Nor was she aware that too many choices could be a source of pain, regret, and low productivity (1). How to choose? Or more importantly, what criteria should we use to choose?

As she drove home, Monica started to see the connection between the overwhelming number of consumer choices and the avalanche of well-intentioned initiatives that crush her managers. She told me that she now understood why I encouraged her to focus on the criteria her team was going to use to decide what to teach at her offsite leadership meeting.

The Conversation

Let’s back up for a minute. Monica had just asked me to help her improve leadership skills by speaking at her meeting. She also told me of her plan to ask her managers to teach each other their favorite leadership skills during breakout sessions. Our conversation went like this...

Me, "What specific strategies will your leaders teach each other?"

Monica, "I'm not sure yet. But I think there are many different approaches to improve leadership. I want them to share their techniques."

Me, "Will your leaders have time to try many different approaches when they get back to work?"

Monica, "Probably not − everybody is complaining about having too much to do."

Me, "Well, instead of their sharing lots of different approaches, why don't we help them learn the few techniques that actually have a good chance of working?"

Monica, "What does that mean?"

Me, "It means if your people don't have time to test several techniques when they get back to work, I suggest that we focus on the ones that best predict leadership success."

Monica, "And you know these?"

Me, "Not just me! Anyone who does his or her research can discover what predicts success. Think of it this way. If you walk into a bookstore and zip over to the leadership section, you will see dozens of books. The fundamental question is, "how should you decide which book to buy?"

Monica, "I give up Dave, help me out."

Me, "The same way a doctor chooses which treatment to give patients."

Monica, "You mean research?"

Me, "That's right! I'm saying that we should employ the same evidence-based approach to improving your leaders’ skills as doctors use to improve their patients’ health. Let's combine my analysis of the leadership success with the insights from your best leaders."

Monica, "Sold!"

Hippocrates once said, “There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.” The conversation is really about how leaders should use science to help choose which initiative to roll out, change to implement, training to conduct... If you don't have time to waste trying all the different ways of reaching a goal, let research conduct those costly experiments. The essence of science is prediction. Science has the tools and rules to say, "There's data to predict (not guarantee) that if you try this approach, you’ll achieve this result."

The Two Fundamental Questions eXtraordinary Leaders Ask

Next time you embark on a journey to improve leadership skills, productivity, sales or select any book, I urge you to think about the criteria beneath your choice by answering two fundamental questions:

1. Where is the evidence that predicts your approach will produce the desired result?

2. How can you adapt the approach to fit your culture?

See you on the mountain,


PS. Harvard Professor P. Ghemawat also made the case for using the tools of science to predict business success when he analyzed four popular books on business growth. He concluded, "Given the dearth of their own data, these books might have paid more attention to academic research..." (2) (might? Try SHOULD!)

1. ‘American Psychological Association Online,’ 35, No. 6, June 2004

2. ‘Harvard Business Review,’ July-August, 2004

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