“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
Last week I looked at some of the common reasons that leaders in the health and human service field fail to act (see Is ‘Fear Of Failure’ Your CEO’s Leadership Challenge?). From the article, I had lots of commentary from readers and colleagues – many of them referring to the current state of political uncertainties that could affect the field and the challenges these uncertainties present to decisionmaking.
One response that got me thinking was from my colleague and OPEN MINDS Senior Associate George Braunstein, who pointed out that a setback for many leaders is succumbing to “catastrophic thinking.” This was not a term I was familiar with, but I soon learned about the clinical definition: irrationally obsessing over irrational worst-case outcomes (see Catastrophic Thinking). But the concept has a business application. In a 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review, Martin Seligman wrote from a business and professional perspective about the cycle of catastrophic thinking – fear of the future, learned helplessness, and resiliency (see Building Resilience). He wrote “Enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths, and fostering strong relationships are core competencies for any successful manager.” I would add leadership development programs to the mix.
George spoke about the effect of “catastrophic thinking” in a business context on executive teams, noting that it can prevent teams from making the necessary decisions and taking necessary action when it is required. He added four keys to building strategic resilience into your management teams:
- Have a clearly articulated vision for the future and strategic direction. Make sure it is part of the context for all decisionmaking.
- Use strategic vision and strategic direction to fully articulate your “high ground.” In a mission-driven organization, even risk-adverse leaders need to act to support the organization’s strongest position.
- If your organization does not have all the skills needed to be successful with a necessary initiative, then use whatever mechanism is available to get that expertise. Consultants or a partnership with another agency where each has a different skill is a strong approach.
- Accept that making mistakes is always part of any initiative. What separates successful organizations is that they use the data from their mistakes to improve their initiative and overall performance in the future
I think this is a great guide for executives of provider organizations who are trying to make decisions in a time of uncertainty. The tendency to “wait for the best strategy” itself can make your team susceptible to the very fear of new initiatives that you are trying to overcome.
My colleague, OPEN MINDS Senior Associate Ken Carr made a couple of related and important points. First, an imperfect solution is better than no solution – sometimes we continue to wait until we’ve developed the perfect plan and that is a mistake. What you need is the ability to take that first step and begin the initiative. He also added that it is critical for executive teams to learn to “fail fast.” You can’t wait indefinitely. After necessary research and planning, executive teams need to step out and take the risk. Just make sure you know the criteria for when you need to change direction because the new initiative isn’t working.
Success with any plan – and successful every day decisionmaking – requires more than creativity, intelligence, and skill. It demands both a process for addressing challenges from a market perspective, a fluid environment, and a developed strategy. Then it takes the courage to put your decisions into action and make new decisions on the fly. The top leadership and the middle management alike need the willingness to fail and try again in the face of that failure.
For more, check out these resources from the OPEN MINDS Industry Library:
- Leadership – The Leader, The Relationship, The System
- The ‘Magnificent Seven’
- Courage As The Leadership Differentiator
- Courage Is A Must For Leaders In Times Of Change
- Great Leadership Is A Habit
- Considering Future Scenarios: TheOPEN MINDS Guide To Scenario-Based Planning
- Strategic Planning Process Or How To Make Sense Of Possible Chaos
- In Planning, ‘Keep Your Powder Dry’
- Role Playing For Success
- Strategic Planning – Just As Critical As Ever
According to General John Buford (the legendary Civil War leader who “held the high ground” for the Union troops at the Battle of Gettysburg), leadership is all about position and preparedness. For more on preparing your leadership team to make the tough decisions, join us in September in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for The 2017 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat and the session, “Positioning For Success – General John Buford & The High Ground: The Beginning Of The Battle Of Gettysburg.”