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Lead the Possible, Not the Probable


Today’s uncertain and volatile business landscape calls for new ways of thinking and working. So why do most companies attempt to solve problems and manage massive change in the wrong manner?

A lot of it has to do with the way the human brain works.

Our brains love certainty and predictability. So when faced with difficult business challenges, we tend to fall back on standard ways of thinking. We look at what has made us successful so far, and attempt to make a few tweaks by asking business-as-usual questions that don’t address changing market realities. According to a “must read” article from the McKinsey Quarterly, this approach is entirely misdirected.*

The authors call this approach “managing the probable.” It results in simplistic thinking and simplistic models based on what we think we know about our customers, our business, and our industry. But simplistic models can’t solve the problems roiling the current landscape because they don’t match the complexity of today’s world. And yet, we choose them anyway because our brains feel comfortable with what we think we know – even when faced with hard data that contradicts our thinking.

The answer, suggest the authors, lies in leading the possible rather than managing the probable. This is no easy task because it requires tackling problems in a fundamentally different way. Instead of focusing on familiar patterns and models, we need to expand our thinking and consider many options rather than looking for “the” right answer.

*Trust me, this is one article you really ought to read!

 Ask Different Questions

When faced with new challenges, we typically ask questions designed to solve old ones. For example, suppose an outsider disrupts your industry by introducing a totally new solution that offers more value for significantly less cost. Old questions run along the lines of “Where can we cut corners to reduce costs? How many people can we lay off and still get the work done? What services can we reduce or eliminate and still meet customer demands?”

These questions may seem practical for the short term, but they limit possibilities rather than expanding them. When a competitor turns your business model upside down, the last thing you want is to limit possibilities! Instead, ask questions that open up your thinking:

  • How can we meet this challenge in ways our customers and competitors will not expect?
  • Given our new market realities, what would we do differently if we started the business over from scratch?
  • What if we let go of our most basic assumptions about how to add value to our customers? Now, what is possible?
  • What if we change the rules rather than stick to them?

Engaging in the same old thinking constrains solutions and makes them ordinary. “What if” thinking allows for the exploration of possibilities previously not considered and leads to extraordinary solutions.

Consider Multiple Perspectives

It’s hard to ask possibility questions when we continue to see the world the same way. It gets easier when we expand our horizons by diversifying our data sources. Start by broadening the scope of where you look for ideas, information, and opportunities. In particular, look for perspectives that don’t agree with your cherished beliefs about how your business and industry should operate.

Study products, companies, industries, demographics, and trends not directly related to your business. Look for ways to adapt what others are already doing to your way of doing business. Innovation doesn’t always require coming up with ideas no one has thought of before. Combining new technologies and trends in a unique way accounts for much of today’s innovation successes.

Actively seek out ideas that contradict your current view of the world. Subscribe to ezines and visit websites that track global trends. Ask frontline employees where they see customer needs changing.  At least once a month, get out of your office, go for a walk, and let your mind wander. When you stop thinking about your business, ideas and solutions will appear.

Practice Systems Thinking

Traditional problem-solving approaches break down the big picture into discrete components in order to identify root causes. In doing so, say the authors, we often overlook the broader forces at work. Understanding the system as a whole leads to more holistic and far-reaching solutions.

Again, this requires a manner of thinking our brains don’t naturally embrace.  The human brain likes closure – solve the problem in front of us and move on to the next one. Systems thinking allows for considering opposing ideas without reconciling them. It looks beyond either/or solutions to see what we might be missing.

One of the most valuable systems to evaluate is the way your organization processes information. Ask questions like:

  • What processes do we have for understanding our customers’ needs and how they are changing?
  • Do we know how to suspend our assumptions and explore new ways of looking at the same things?
  • How do we determine the value of new ideas? Is our process effective?
  • Have we provided the tools and training for employees to think differently?
  • Do we punish or reward experimentation and risk-taking in our company?
  • Do we have a process for identifying patterns and incorporating external ideas into our business?

Despite all the change going on, today’s world remains patterned. But it is not predictable. Instead of letting our brains default to what has worked in the past, we need to consciously interrupt old thought patterns and focus on what is possible rather than what used to be.

Managing the probable may feel good, but it leaves the door wide open for competitors that prefer to lead the possible. And once they take the lead, all anyone else can do is play catchup.

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