2017: The Art of Reflection Bears Fruit

The art of reflection does not come naturally when you are “wired” with a bias toward action and execution. It was not until a mentor challenged me to create space for reflection that I realized its power. Building this skill took considerable effort and I initially fell short quite often (in fact, its still hard), but the effort has transformed my relationships, work approach, and ability to get results more consistently.

Learning to be reflective involved a series of exercises. One simple practice that’s had quite an impact is to keep running lists of the insights gleaned from client engagements, leadership roles, reading books, doing research, and life in general. At the end of the year I review the lists and identify patterns or themes from the year. Check out this year’s top 3 and see how many resonate with your own experience:

Responsibility ≠ Leadership

Activity ≠ Productivity

Decisiveness ≠ Effectiveness

#1 Responsibility ≠ Leadership: Society generally applauds a leader when she says, “… as the leader, I am responsible no matter what happens, the buck stops with me.” Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to applaud because while true, this statement is also incomplete. It is true in the sense that the leader is responsible for casting vision and ensuring everybody understands their role, why it is important, and how their work contributes to the results.

But, when the leader uses this notion of ultimate responsibility to over-manage or overcompensate for subordinates they neglect their true responsibility. If a leader is in the weeds and being the “doer extraordinaire” she feels more secure because she can control the results, but she is not leading and the company is almost surely falling short of its potential. Bottom line: a leader is primarily responsible to equip their people to make the maximum contribution.

For more insights on this issue read:Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win” (Willinik & Babin, 2015).

#2 Activity ≠ Productivity: a consistent theme that came up this year as I reflected on client engagements, PhD candidate colleagues dissertation research progress, kids doing chores, and friends working toward goals is the notion that a lack of task clarity stems from a failure to connect the task at hand to the bigger goal in a manner that is cognizant of time and resource. Our brains are designed for efficiency and conservation of resource – hence why breaking out of routines and habits is so darn difficult. We are also hard wired with a need to feel competent and successful. Productivity often requires us to stretch in ways that are not comfortable in order to achieve significant goals and milestones. Activity can deceive our brains into believing we are making progress so we do more activity (work harder) instead of looking at the value (ratio of impact/effort) each activity has in relation to achieving ultimate outcomes.

For more check out David Allen’s website: “Getting Things Done (GTD): The Art of Stress Free Productivity.”

#3 Decisiveness ≠ Effectiveness: It is  not uncommon to find that owners and management teams must relearn how to make decisions before they can become more effective.  Most do not believe this is a need at the outset and every once in a while we run into a client that forces us to get really creative to overcome the obstacle. “Eric” was one of those owners.

He was prone to making decisions based on a faulty mental model that excellent leaders must be decisive leaders. True, in some cases speed is important, but not so important that quality of the decision can be ignored. A great leader values both speed and quality in decision-making, but Eric strongly disagreed.

In order to work with his resistance we took an oblique approach and (to his credit) he agreed to an experiment. We created a game that helped the management team recognize common decision-making taboos (thinking errors, decision-making biases, and faulty mental models). At the conclusion of the exercise  the team was able to create a grid of their most common decision-making taboos. Each management team meeting a different person was assigned to track the errors the team engaged in and record the totals on the grid. At the end of the month they were shocked at how many times these errors crept into their efforts.

We met 30-days later to set goals and strategies for improving decision-making performance. We also tracked changes to certain value drivers that served as reinforcements in the feedback loop. At the end of the first quarter the CEO was able to connect the dots and became more open to transforming his thinking.

Responding to false urgency, engaging in decision-bias, and other hazards erode the ability to see all options clearly. Increasing opinion diversity, engaging a devil’s advocate, and expanding the lens requires moving from reactive (Kahneman’s System 1) to reflective (Kahneman’s System 2) decision-making.

An additional sub-lesson is that overcoming resistance is often better handled through an oblique approach rather than a head to head approach (Kay, 2010). Invariably when we take an oblique approach and get to the other side our clients say, “why didn’t you just tell us that to begin with?”  That question always makes me smile.

For more help on these issues:

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work” (Heath & Heath, 2013)

“Thinking Fast and Slow” (Kahneman, 2011)

“Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly” (Kay, 2010)