Friday, November 2, 2012

Leadership and *thinking*

WyckaneerMy Cambridge thesis explored how companies could profit from failed R&D: what was the optimal timing and structure for creating corporate spinouts.  My academic advisor, Peter Hiscocks, told me that to solve the problem, I needed to spend at least half my time *thinking* (drawn out and emphasized, as Cambridge does).   Go down to the river, sit on the banks, shut the computer and books, and just breath the problem.

Most leaders spend far too little time deeply contemplating their business vision and purpose, but when they do, they are doing the very creative work that makes their companies form, grow, innovate, and transform.  -- Chilcote 2002

My startup is deep into the hard phase of commercializing it’s first product.  We have our challenges: we’ll get through them.  But the process requires *thinking*, which paradoxically raises organizational doubts along with operational insights.  Is *thinking* incompatible with leadership?

An example:  We will create a coating that reduces the rate of hospital acquired infections. In execution, we make left-right choices constantly and every decision has long-term consequences.  Is colonization or infection, by e.Coli or p.Mirabilis, more important?  Alternatives are backed by data, 90% decrement in the number of live bacterial on the surface after 3 days, but every element of data is open to interpretation.  Are the experimental conditions controlled, measurement technique relevant, investigator reliable?

And, all too quickly, decisions that need to be made crisply, cleanly, correctly, seem mired in uncertainty.

Leadership is about choosing, organizing, and executing.   But deciding is about *thinking*.  This week, solving this problem, the two feel incompatible.

Thinking takes time.  If there’s an issue on the table, I’d like an hour or two to focus on understanding it, enumerating alternatives, weighing evidence, and getting comfortable with the choice.

Thinking  involves discussion.  I want to closet with people who know a lot about the subject and swat interpretation and hypotheses back and forth.  Inductive solutions come from open debate, having ideas enter from different viewpoint and experiences.

Thinking is critical.  I want to challenge the data and idea so that the outcomes are robust.  Constructive skepticism and alternative hypotheses pick out the unknowns and weaknesses that need to be resolved.

But leading by these principles leads to delays and confusion.  The next step is on hold while we collect data.  Experiments, especially in medicine and biology, carry risks.  How will we react if the difference is less than expected?  Criticism spawns fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  What do we know if we don’t even know that?

All businesses have to live with uncertainty; successful ones  translate myriad options to specific actions without becoming doubtful and lost.  The best leaders achieve this by building confident and effective organizations that can coolly execute through stress and ambiguity. 

Leaders and their organizations have to be able to think critically about their choices and strategies.  But how to transition successfully out of the process?

By establishing balance: divergent discussion and fact-finding followed by consolidation and consensus.  It’s the poldermodel once again: not ending meetings with closure,  but closing the process with agreement and engagement.

There are two elements to this consolidation:

Leaders have to renew their understanding of the purpose and integrity of the project in the face of new information or changed circumstances.  How do the issues resolve personally in a way that is real and honest, consistent and compelling?

Leaders transfer engagement, ownership and accountability across the team.  They communicate purpose and confidence, clear in both direction and attitude.

In our case, two weeks work have cleared some uncertainty.  We understand the problem, the gaps, what we do and don’t know.  The experiments are clear: follow-on scenarios in the event of success or failure seem straightforward.   The open discussion and delay has sapped confidence, but I think that has to be accepted as side-effect of honest *thinking*.   But it can’t linger: as with finally leaving the river to write the thesis, it’s time to bring everyone together around a course of action, understanding of risks, and delegation of roles.

The future will belong to companies whose senior leaders remain calm, carefully assess their options, and nurture the flexibility, awareness, and resiliency needed to deal with whatever the world throws at them.  -- Bryan 2008

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