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Tag Archives: strategic thinking

Boiling the ocean will not result in good decisions

good decisionsAs a leader, it is your responsibility to make good decisions.  In your department or organization, you are likely called on repeatedly to evaluate and implement a variety of projects.  And many of these initiatives will probably require investigation and research in order to determine alternatives and make recommendations.  But exactly how much research should one do to be able to make good decisions?  That is a conundrum that many leaders face.

There are certainly situations where leaders have been known to make decisions too quickly, without considering all available information.  But in my experience, it is the opposite that is much more likely; in their quest for more data or analysis, the job or project is made unnecessarily difficult, and decision-making is delayed.

Don’t try to boil the ocean!

The apt metaphor in this situation is that of boiling a pot of water versus boiling the ocean.  Continue reading

A leadership lesson from monarch butterflies

monarch butterfliesEvery fall, millions of monarch butterflies leave their summer homes in Canada and the northern United States and travel over 3,000 miles south to their winter home in the mountains of central Mexico.

Even though the journey is long and arduous, instinctively, the butterflies know that they need to find a safe place to spend the winter.  This makes sense.  But what is very unusual is how the butterflies make their spring return trip to their breeding and feeding territories in Canada.

You see, the individual butterflies that leave the north are not the ones that will return.  While favourable air currents permit the monarchs to make their way south to Mexico relatively quickly, the return trip to northern climes takes much longer.  In fact, because the life cycle of a butterfly is just 5-7 weeks, individual monarchs stop for breeding and feeding cycles, and eventually they die before completing the journey.

However, their offspring continue the journey. Eventually, it takes the monarchs four to five generations to actually make the entire trip back up to Canada.

We still don’t know why …

Science is still deciphering how an individual monarch knows to return to the summer breeding and feeding grounds from several generations ago.  Is it Continue reading

A decision-making insight from eating peanuts!

peanutsIf you’re a leader, then you’re responsible for decision-making.  Which is why it we have a whole section on Problem Solving tools on the blog.  Today’s insight comes from peanuts in the shell – a concession staple at just about any baseball game!

So think about the last time you purchased a bag of these tasty treats.  As you shelled the peanuts, did you put the empty shells back in the same bag?  Chances are you didn’t, likely for a couple of reasons.  One, because it instinctively doesn’t make sense to put the waste in with the good peanuts, and two (and perhaps more importantly), every time you put the unwanted shells back in the bag, you reduce your chances of getting a good peanut the next time you reach in.

How does this apply to decision-making in the workplace?

There is a workplace equivalent to this scenario, having to do with decision-making.  As a leader, you are charged with making a variety of decisions, often requiring you to select the best choice from a number of possible options.  Using this metaphor, it makes sense to discard choices as you evaluate them as unsuitable.  Why put them back in the bag where they’ll just continue to muddle and reduce the efficacy of your decision-making?  But that’s exactly what we often do.  Continue reading

The sorites paradox – a leadership dilemma

The sorites paradox: if individual grains of sand are removed one at a time from a hypothetical heap of sand, what is the point at which the heap can no longer be considered a heap?  At first glance, you may think that this is merely a philosophical question, but the metaphor has great applicability if you carry it into the workplace.  Consider this: if minor seemingly harmless problems or changes go unnoticed and do not individually attract attention, is there a possibility that eventually the sum total of these issues over time will result in a major setback?  And what if the significant outcome is one that, if it would have happened all at once, would have been regarded as negative, undesirable or objectionable?

In the workplace, the sorites paradox is often referred to by a variety of synonyms – creeping normality, the broken window theory, the boiling frog syndrome, and even death by a thousand cuts.  But no matter what you call the phenomenon, all versions lead to a Continue reading

Periods of vulnerability can present both threats and opportunities

vulnerabilityRecently I had a conversation with a scientist friend who told me how biologists use information about animal life cycles to accomplish diametrically opposite objectives – in some cases to purge populations, and in others to conserve them.  The secret: determining in which stage of its life cycle is the animal most vulnerable.  And it’s at these points of vulnerability that either the worst or the best is the easiest to accomplish.  It is when the animals are at greatest risk that it takes the least effort to destroy them, or conversely, to protect them.  He gave me two examples to illustrate his point.

The Bertha armyworm

The Bertha armyworm is a significant insect pest of canola in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the interior of British Columbia.  Like many insects, it goes through a four stage life cycle – egg, larva, pupa and finally, the adult moth stage.  However, their vulnerability is greatest at the larval stage.  As eggs, they are not susceptible to pesticides; as pupae, they are buried in the ground and therefore well protected; as adults, they are widely dispersed and therefore difficult to control.  Because scientists know that the insect’s defences are the weakest when at the larval stage, substantial and successful control efforts are targeted at this point in the life cycle.  Continue reading

Worrying won’t help you solve problems or make decisions

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short series on decision-making here on the blog, and I was reminded of that recently when I read the following quote about worrying:

rockingchair“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere”

― Erma Bombeck

These words were penned by Erma Bombeck, an American humorist, whose syndicated columns were read twice-weekly in the 1970s by 30 million readers of 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.  Even though Erma’s columns were written primarily from the perspective of a midwestern suburban housewife, this particular adage carries sage advice for leaders.

Leadership is a non-stop journey of dealing with issues, some everyday problems, others full-blown crises. This constant barrage of concerns, complications and quarrels can leave many a leader anxious, uneasy and constantly worried … about what went wrong, what is wrong, and what could go wrong.  And even worse is when these very same leaders fool themselves into thinking that worrying is actually doing “something” about the issues at hand.  It isn’t.

Stop worrying, do this instead

So instead of worrying, consider this two alternative (and more constructive) strategies. Continue reading

Waiting for all the facts … and making decisions

making decisions“We need to wait until we have all the facts …” is something I hear many managers and supervisors say.  It’s often in response to an issue that needs to be dealt with or an unexpected problem that has occurred.  Usually the situation is a difficult one and because the manager has no prior experience with making decisions in an identical or similar scenario, s/he is stalling for time.  The unfortunate reality of course is that if you wait for all the facts, you might be waiting for a really (really) long time; perhaps even an eternity.

When it comes to making decisions, you will never have all the facts

Leadership is about making decisions – it’s inherent in the role of a leader.  The reality is that there are very few instances in which leaders will have complete information … ever.  Whether it is predicting customer behaviour, forecasting sales volumes, expecting employees to act in certain ways, or anticipating your competitors’ activities, you will simply never have all the facts.  Which means that the real question is Continue reading

Don’t just seek advice, pay attention to what you hear

Last year, I wrote a short series of posts on specific techniques you can use as a leader to improve the quality of your decision-making.  This story about a Swedish warship from the early 1600’s emphasizes not only the importance of approaching your team and experts to seek advice, but to also pay heed to the advice once you’ve heard it.

The tale of the Vasa: one king’s folly

seek adviceIn 1626, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden ordered the building of the Vasa, a new warship that was intended to become, for that era, the most powerful marine vessel in the Baltic Sea.  As was common in warships then, the Vasa was to have a rank of cannons on each side of the boat so that soldiers could easily fire at their attackers, no matter what direction the assault came from.

King Adolphus considered himself something of an expert boat designer so he took an immense interest in the actual design of the ship.  About mid-way during the ship’s two year construction, he learned that Poland, his greatest archenemy (and rival to take control of the Baltic Sea), had stepped up their naval firepower by building warships with ranks of cannons on two levels.  Well, Adolphus wasn’t going to be outdone!  Continue reading

When it comes to successfully solving problems in the workplace, molten rock might offer a clue!

As leaders, our days are often about solving problems, usually one after the other.  For that reason, this topic of solving problems comes up often on the blog.  In fact, my last post on this subject was exactly month ago (Making risky decisions: a simplified approach).  Today’s post is on this very subject, but my insight on an approach to solving problems came from an unexpected source.

What an adventure!

Last month I had the opportunity to do something very few people are fortunate enough to do – I was able to hike out (six miles over some of our planet’s most punishing terrain, but that’s not the fortunate part!) to the edge of an active lava flow on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and stand less than 20 feet away watching the molten rock slink and slither its way across the blistering earth.  Eventually this hot rock makes its way to the ocean, creating new shoreline hour by hour, day by day.   I filmed about 45 seconds of this experience on my iPhone, and you can see the video with my brief audio commentary below:

It was exhilarating to watch the raw power of the earth, up close and personal, and I found that 90 fascinating minutes fled by in what seemed like seconds.  Once I got over the initial elation of the experience though, I noticed that the flow was continuously changing course.  Continue reading

Making risky decisions: a simplified approach

Making risky decisionsBy definition, there is always uncertainty in making risky decisions; after all, the old adage “no risk, no reward” holds true.  No doubt, leadership instinct and past experience play an important role in determining whether the possible reward is worth the perceived risk, but I am nevertheless often asked by leaders whether there is a more systematic approach to making risky decisions.  Decision-making theory abounds with a plethora of techniques and methods, but there is one relatively simple approach that I have found to repeatedly give positive results.  Ask yourself: does making the decision result in more options or fewer?  If the answer is more choices, then move forward.  If the answer is fewer options, then don’t take that action.

Here is one example

Let’s consider an example to illustrate this approach.  You are trying to decide whether to invest in a new piece of equipment for your manufacturing operation.  There are several risks involved with this purchase including Continue reading