(Self) Awareness and Choice – the unlock to innovation and growth

How much certainty do you need before you can make a decision at work?

There are so many business methods and tips out there. There are many companies promising riches. I’ve been to several exhibitions with people saying things like ‘write a book in 40 hours’, or how to make a success with social media. How do you make sense of all these options, ideas and tools. It’s easy to push back at each one, trying to find the ‘right sales methodology’, or the ‘perfect system’, or the only ‘leadership approach’. In an uncertain world, perhaps the courage is to choose one way, draw the essence of others, and accept that you might need to experiment one the way, which means making dead end choices too.

So how might you make head or tail of competing methods, processes, and tools as you scale a business

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.”

Emile Chartier

I remember when I was a junior manager attending a project management training course. I had been part of a team shaping out the global methodology for the firm, and we had all the steps for doing project management. Then this trainer started telling me about a different approach. “Where was the proof? How many companies had done it before? But I KNOW the RIGHT way to do this. Why should I do learn this – if it’s different, it can’t be right? Right!”. The trainers were struggling against the resistance of the delegates, because we knew how to do this because we had been trained in it. If we needed to learn something different, then did that mean our existing knowledge was faulty. The instructors then uttered the magical words:

Awareness and Choice.

Building Awareness in an Uncertain world

The danger of believing in certainty is that we eliminate all other options. We suffer from ‘confirmation bias‘, looking for proof that we are right, and demanding proof and evidence from alternatives far more stringent that our own beliefs. Being open to new ideas, methods, tools and technologies can give us more awareness of alternative and what good looks like.

3 ways a business leader can increase their awareness are:

  • Knowing what good looks like. Time and time again, I hear people say that their industry is unique and special, and things won’t work here – just until a disruptive business doesn’t believe that and changes the process, business model, revenue approach etc. So look at other businesses, see what they do, and wonder what essence could you use in yours.
  • Investing in experiments. Scanning for new technology, products or processes, and trying them out, without the expectation of certain success. At one client, they were trying to be innovative, but they would only invest in projects with certain ROI. The problem was that there were not funds to test and build the business case – so how could you find out?
  • A ‘how interesting’ mindset. The problem with new ideas, is that they don’t have a long history of examples, and this is particularly the case with psychology and innovation. So this is where having the diversity of awareness works – you can test one idea from drawing from others. For example, one of my ex-colleagues was doing an MBA with an essay on Customer Relationship Management solutions. He wrote about the $40m global business in this area that his consulting firm delivered. He failed the essay because the didn’t include enough peer-reviewed academic research. A real world business was not evidence. So when given different ideas, or the need to self-reflect, the first question is what can I learn about myself and by business before trying to see all the proof points.

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

John Kenneth Galbraith

The Choice to keep your options open

The second danger of certainty is the ‘false dichotomy’, that there are only two choices; our one OR the other one. We might hold a view that there must be a right way and a wrong way. When I work with businesses around their technology choices, my first action is to work out the cost of doing nothing, and the cost for the time to make a decision. This prevents a long argument about the ROI of a solution, when the time to take the decision cost as much as any benefit they were quibbling about.

3 ways a business leader can increase their choices:

  1. A Both/And mindset – not a ‘yes/but’ one. Have you noticed that western business is almost build from a yes/but mindset. Meetings are set up to share an idea, and the role of everyone else is to cross their arms and find all the ways this will fail. After a time – why bother trying to be innovative? This is the DNA of an ossifying business – holding onto past innovations, and shooting down anything new. So before ruling out any choices by creating a false dichotomy – check if there is something in the other choices that you can bring into the one you decide one.
  2. The Oak and the Acorn – We can make big bets but it is also useful to reserve some funding to keep an eye for the future. This is similar in investing in experiments. The small acorn investment in new functionality, product type etc may become the core product for the future or help you reshape your dominant products. It helps mitigate risk – and foster innovation. What are the acorn projects you are running?
  3. Rolling Wave Planning – Can we really have a 5 or 10 year plan in this day and age. Japanese businesses like Hitachi, do have long term plans. For example in 2006 Hitachi decided to become a dominant player in the rail manufacturing industry in the UK, and knew it would take a decade or more. So when it comes to planning for a scale up – it is worth having long term vision, clear building blocks, and then a plan that crystalises and flexes as the vision comes in to play. THis is not building a detailed plan for 3-5 years, but detail for the quarter, clarity for the year, and direction for the subsequent year, filling this out as you go. It’s almost like watching an icicle grow.

Embedding the awareness and choice mindset

It is easy for a team who has built success so far, to feel they have the answers and winning formula. In the book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There“, Mashall Goldsmith, emphises the need to unlearn to relearn for the next stage of personal and professional growth. The key is to start developing a growth mindset in the team, and I have found four techniques that can help achieve this:

  1. Getting out of the box – In the book Leadership and Self-Deception, the Arbinger Institute, shows that we often get ‘in the box’ to protect ourselves, judge others, and become ineffective – but getting out of the box can help drive better awareness and choice
  2. Life is Improv – however much we prepare, every meeting and interaction with other people is ‘improv’. Success comes from building from each others ideas to give more. Using improv workshops in a business context can feel uncomfortable (because it’s NOT business) and yet bring insight on how to work better together, listen more, and build on each other’s ideas.
  3. Kubler Ross Change Curve – Every choice is an exclusion of other choices, and that can be tough. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard calls this the anxiety or tyranny of choice. Thus when we make decisions in business, staff will go through a grief or change curve, in their world of accepting the change. When presenting major decisions in a business, it is worth knowing that other members of the team will be going through this change curve at different speeds, and their resistance to the idea is the resistance to the pain of change
  4. Be prepared to respond to resistive questions – John Kotter’s book ‘Buy-in: Saving your Good Idea from Getting Shot down’ lists 24 attacks and responses that you typically get for a new idea. It is worth taking those attacks and response and shaping your answers to your specific initiative. This then helps shape messages in presentations, and answers to give when asked.

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”


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