Three Tools to Help You Think Better

As someone who travels the world consulting with and training corporations in strategic, organizational, and innovation problem-solving, I’m often asked, “What are most common problems you see in the companies you work with?” It only takes a moment to answer. There are three:

One. Solving wrong problems. Almost everywhere I go, I see rooms full of smart, dedicated people, working their tails off – on the wrong stuff. Companies spend gobs of time, energy, and money trying to solve the wrong problems. Often their solutions are well-designed, clever, even brilliant. But if you’re asking the wrong question, it really doesn’t matter how good your answer is. It’s not going to address the real problem.

Two. Heading towards nowhere. Time and time again, I see companies implementing new programs without a clear idea of where they want to go. Sometimes they know what they’re trying to change from, but rarely do they have a clear view of the future they want to reach. It’s like trying to find Waldo without knowing what he looks like. You can’t. Yet many companies spend huge amounts of time and energy aiming their phasers somewhere into the future, hoping they’ll hit a target.

Three. Filling the same hole over and over. Despite what we hear about companies becoming learning organizations, very few of them actually know how to learn from their successes and failures. They institute programs, marketing campaigns, strategies, and then when they’re finished, they don’t really learn from them. No wonder one of the most often heard complaints in organizations is the cynical comment about the latest flavor-of-the-month initiative.

Sound familiar? If you work in an organization of any size, anywhere, I’ll bet you’ve encountered each of these syndromes more than once in your career.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could learn simple thinking tools to avoid these three common mistakes?

  • If you could easily identify the right problems to solve?
  • If you could rapidly define a future worth aiming for?
  • If, like the US Army, you could use After Action Reviews to truly understand what works and what doesn’t?

If your answers are yes, I invite you to join me for a free 60-minute webinar, sponsored by the Global Institute for Leadership Development, in which I’ll teach you three of the most powerful tools in the Productive Thinking arsenal. Please join me August 30 at 1PM Eastern time for 60 minutes that I know will change your life.

“Ideas that we do not know we have, have us.” – WILLIAM APPLEMAN WILLIAMS, US historian (1921-1990)

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Why and How

I often help clients with strategic planning, and I’m consistently amazed at how complicated people make it. They debate about visions and missions and strategic priorities and goals and objectives, usually without defining what these terms mean. Then it starts getting really weird, with terms like strategic intent, integrative dynamics, KPAs, KRAs, KRIs, and strato-tactical objectives flying around the boardroom table like hockey pucks at a pre-game warmup.

Is it any wonder that so many people sit around so many strategy sessions so confused? Sometimes I think we gravitate towards complexity because the more complex we view something, the more heroic we imagine ourselves to be for tackling it.

Here’s the elephant in the room about strategic planning: the secret that big box consulting companies don’t want you to know. Planning doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’s really pretty simple. It may be time consuming, and there may be a lot to cover, but don’t let your local snake oil salesman fool you: useful planning is actually pretty basic.

Start your strategic plan with a set of simple statements that describe what you think you want to accomplish. Here are four that probably apply to a wide range of businesses:
We want people to see us as providing high value at a fair price.
We want to be able to attract investment capital to grow our business.
We want our employees to feel good about working here.
We want to make a genuine contribution to the communities we work in.

Is doesn’t matter if you call these goals or objectives or visions or missions or BHAGS or flapdoodles. They’re simply descriptions of things you think you want (you may change your mind of course, but at this point what you think is what you think, so start there).

Then, for each statement, ask Why? and How?
Why? questions make things more abstract: they take you into strategies and purposes.
questions make things more concrete: they take you into tactics and action steps.

For example, asking Why do we want people to see us as providing high value at a fair price? might get you to: because we want them to buy our products. Keep asking Why? and you’ll quickly come to your core reason for being in business — your purpose. If you’re happy with that purpose, great. If not, now is the time to rethink what you’re in business for.

Next, start at any point on your ladder and ask How? That gets you into more and more tactical levels. Perhaps one answer to How are we going to get people to see us as providing high value at a fair price? is: by understanding their needs. And one answer to how to do that might be: by building the best R&D capability we can, and so on. How? tells you what you have to do to get where you want to go.

Try the Why?/How? approach. You’ll find it much more straightforward and useful than throwing around a bunch of MBA terms whose meanings no one really agrees on anyway. But fair warning: you may have a tough time convincing some of your colleagues to give up complexity for simplicity. After all, being a hero has its rewards.

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Sudoku Strategies

I’ve noticed a tendency for C-Suite executives to emerge from planning retreats with what I call Sudoku Strategies — plans predicated on the comforting assumption that the future is just waiting out there, and if we can only describe it clearly enough, we can project ourselves into the neat picture we’ve painted.

Of course, unlike in Sudoku, there’s no guarantee that the future will consist of neat rows of the numbers 1 through 9. In real life, there are often numbers missing (where did that 7 go anyway?) or repeating numbers (I thought that 3 was supposed to last only one quarter!), or negative numbers (minus 6! where did that come from?). Often a row may not contain numbers at all — but rather blanks, or letters, or characters as yet entirely unknown to us.

If we could predict the future, there wouldn’t have been a dot-com bust, a mortgage meltdown, or airlines in a tailspin because of oil at $130 a barrel.

Sudoku Strategies look great on paper, but often do more to mask the truth than to reveal it. Even the most carefully constructed strategy will lead to failure if it prevents us from seeing beyond its neat nine-by-nine box. As the legendary Prussian General, Helmuth von Motke, said, No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

But wait a minute — what about that old chestnut, He who fails to plan, plans to fail? Surely we need to plan.

Yes, we do. The answer to the apparent contradiction lies in the wisdom of Dwight Eisenhower, who said, In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. It’s not the plan that’s important, but the process of planning. By planning — and then being ready to abandon the plan if necessary — we learn about our own capabilities, our shortcomings, and our assumptions. We begin to understand ourselves and the conditions that prevail now. We understand that our greatest strength is the ability to adapt. Without this, we cannot respond effectively to the unpredictable and inevitable changes ahead.

I prefer Scrabble Strategies. In a Scrabble game, you have a limited number of variables to work with, and an infinite, but uncertain future. You have a good chance of winning if you continually assess current conditions and imagine future possibilities. But if you’re not willing to abandon your ideas when they become unworkable, you will lose.

“I don’t know what it is yet. And that’s good. I like not to know for as long as possible, because then it tells me the truth instead of me imposing the truth.” Michael Moschen, American juggler, on the process of developing of a new routine

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