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Fast Company

Stop lying to yourself. Use this road map to focus and meet goals.

Alex Zekoff

Rapid market changes and evolving employee expectations now make organizational awareness crucial for business leaders. But leaders must strike the right balance between addressing employee demands and desires, and steering the ship to meet its intended goals. 

That’s easier said than done. So, it’s understandable that many leaders have lost their way in the storms brought on by the pandemic and, more recently, the economic downturn.

To avoid a sinking ship, leaders need to approach management by cutting through the noise and focusing on “first principles” which are defined as “a basic proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption.”

Here’s a guide to navigating today’s tumultuous environment, righting your ship, and realizing your intended business outcomes.

Identify The Right Problems to Focus on

Good leaders are taught to listen to their teams. And listening is an important practice. 

Take in what employees have to say. Consider their views on working from home, returning to the office or existing in a hybrid environment. But don’t lose your direction in the sea of voices.

As a leader, the question isn’t: What model will most please my team? Instead, you need to ask yourself: In which environment or scenario are we —or could we be—most productive? Then you should explore: What team, technology, and support do I need to make that happen? 

Once you’ve made a decision—whether it relates to personnel, a customer, or another matter—don’t waiver or put it on the back burner. Embrace the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop approach developed by military strategist and U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd: observe, orient, decide and act.

Be Honest About Where Your Company Stands

People have a funny way of rationalizing situations. In business, that can be a dangerous game. After all, you can always find data and other reasons to sell yourself on the goal narrative. But such thinking can lead to disastrous results or enable problematic practices to continue for far too long. Just consider the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal or the recent FTX debacle

Plenty of successful people thought FTX founder Sam Bankman-Friend was smart. But research indicates that people often make foolish decisions due to mental shortcuts and that smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. Being smart can make it easy to sell yourself on something, especially in an environment in which venture capitalists encourage business leaders to move fast and break things to win the market.

I’m not suggesting that anyone reading this will face FTX-level problems. But I am advising you to consider if you are lying to yourself about where your company is really at in this moment in time. To lead your company effectively, you need to have an accurate account of where you are and what you can feasibly accomplish. To do that, you must operate with intellectual honesty. 

To make sure you’re being honest about where you are and seeing the full picture, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I clinging to my preconceived notions?
  • Am I imagining a reality that doesn’t exist in an effort to justify a flawed or in-need-of-improvement strategy?
  • Am I working to challenge my assumptions?
  • Am I encouraging other people at my company to do the same? 

Once you detach from your ideas, challenge your assumptions and get others at your company to do the same, you will arrive at a more honest picture of what’s working, what isn’t, what needs to go, and what else you should be doing to drive the results that you seek.

Put Your New Truth-Seeking Strategy Into Practice

Decisions are often made in a vacuum. But you need to get things out in the open. In seeking the truth about an approach, product, or solution, view it like an outsider.

Imagine you are your competitor. What would that competitor say about what you’re doing? But don’t just think about how your competitor would react. Try playing it out in real time.

Set up meetings at which you divide your people into blue and red teams. Have the red team take the position of the opposition. Encourage them to challenge the blue team’s approach.

Encourage the red team to ask questions like:

  • Why did you choose this approach?
  • What does the data show?
  • What biases might you have brought into the decision-making process? 

The red-team, blue-team methodology introduces different points of view. Once different points of view are exposed, it is crucial to steelman (not strawman) each point of view to debate the merits of each.

This will give you greater confidence in your decisions. It will also help you to identify holes in your strategy. If you can’t defend what you’re doing, you should consider a different approach.

Be sure to incentivize learning and the truth. For example, make it easy for employees to alert leadership that a customer is about to churn by providing a dashboard where they can report that. Create an environment in which your team feels comfortable, rather than fearful, about sharing such news. Tie performance bonuses to learning rather than metrics. Provide those bonuses annually rather than quarterly to encourage more long-term thinking. But, at the same time, adopt a faster failure loop culture by setting a timer on high-fidelity learning experiments.

Find a Trusted Partner to Navigate Next Steps

When things get choppy, some leaders just try to hold on and wait for the storm to subside. That’s not the best way forward. In this environment, inaction is the risky approach. It’s time to get intellectually honest about how much cost-cutting you must do. Start by making a plan for how you can ensure business continuity, even if you land with a smaller team.

Consider automation to make that happen. Find an automation partner that will help you identify opportunities and implement solutions to lower your costs, keep your business running and make your organization more efficient and effective during hard times and all of the time. 

Here are a few questions you will want to ask a potential automation partner:

  • How quickly can you get a first use case with us into production?
  • What will the lift involve on our end?
  • How much time, people, documentation and other resources will be required from us to make an automation program successful?
  • Is your pricing model aligned with the value that you’re creating?
  • Can you clearly show where value is created and how it’s recognized? 

Getting to the truth isn’t always easy. But honesty is the best policy. And using first principles can help you get to your intended destination.

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