In an unpredictable world, executives should stretch beyond managing the probable.
March 2015 | byZafer Achi and Jennifer Garvey Berger
An incredibly powerful article rich with examples:
It’s only natural to seek certainty, especially in the face of the unknown….
…Perhaps that’s because our approach to the hardest problems—and the anxiety those problems create—is fundamentally misdirected. When most of us face a challenge, we typically fall back on our standard operating procedures. Call this “managing the probable.” In much of our education, and in many of our formative experiences, we’ve learned that some simple problems have one right answer. For more complicated problems, accepted algorithms can help us work out the best answer from among available options. We respond to uncertainty with analysis or leave that analysis to the experienced hands of others. We look for leaders who know the way forward and offer some assurance of predictability.
This way of approaching situations involves a whole suite of routines grounded in a mind-set of clarity if not outright certainty. To that end, they are characterized by sharp-edged questions intended to narrow our focus: What is the expected return on this investment? What is the three-year plan for this venture? At what cost are they willing to settle? But asking these kinds of questions, very often legitimate in business-as-usual settings, may constrain management teams in atypical, complex situations, such as responding to a quickly changing market or revitalizing a privatized utility’s culture. Our tendency to place one perspective above all others—the proverbial “fact-based view” or “maximizing key stakeholders’ alignment”—can be dangerous. All too often, we operate with an excessively simple model in enormously messy circumstances. We fail to perceive how different pieces of reality interact and how to foster better outcomes.
Moving from “managing the probable” to “leading the possible” requires us to address challenges in a fundamentally different way. Rather than simply dis-aggregating complexities into pieces we find more tractable, we should also broaden our range of interventions by breaking out of familiar patterns and using a whole new approach that allows us to expand our options, experiment in low-risk ways, and realize potentially out sized payoffs.....
.....Ask different questionsThe questions we ask emerge from our typical patterns of thought. We focus on narrowing down a problem so that we can find a solution. But we often fail to notice that in doing so we constrain the solution and make it ordinary. Asking different questions helps slow down the process. We begin to take in the full range of data available to us and in consequence have a significantly wider set of possible options. Examples of such questions include the following:• What do I expect not to find? How could I attune to the unexpected?• What might I be discounting or explaining away a little too quickly?• What would happen if I shifted one of my core assumptions on an issue, just as an experiment?