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As a parent, I sometimes return home to find the house in disarray. Things are out of place, some rooms are a mess and the guilty parties are missing. Clearly, something has been happening. Eventually, I round up the two young suspects and ask them the key question.
“How did things get the way they are?”
Usually, they exchange glances that contain a wealth of information about possible answers to that question. They seem to calculate the pluses and minuses of each possible answer. Denial (a favorite response) ignores the apparent evidence and lack of alternative causes. Blame means admitting involvement though, of course, the intent is to deflect responsibility to the other party. Excuses attempt to substitute an inferior explanation for the correct one. Silence is stonewalling and an implicit appeal to mercy. Occasionally (just enough to restore my faith and hope), there is an admission of responsibility. Why is that so hard, I wonder?
It is not so different in business.
We enjoy results that might be good (but not good enough) or we suffer through obviously unacceptable outcomes. Then the same question comes to us – “How did things get the way they are?” Confronting that question correctly often determines what happens next. If, on the one hand, we attempt all the responsibility evasions mastered by children in homes around the world, we risk worsening results. On the other hand, when we responsibly answer the question, we lay the foundation for a second important question.
Before I get to the second question, it is useful to remember three fundamental abilities required for leaders described by Jerry Weinberg in his Quality Software Management, Volume 1. These abilities allow a leader to meaningfully decipher and respond to challenging situations, including “messes” encountered at work.
The three fundamental abilities for quality management include:
1. The ability to understand complex situations (thus allowing you to plan a project and then observe to keep the project going according to plan – or adapt the plan).
2. The ability to observe what is happening and to understand the significance of your observations.
3. The ability to act congruently in difficult interpersonal situations, even though you may be confused, or angry, or so afraid you want to run away and hide.
Much of the work of business leaders deal with the first question. They help pose questions, create models, collect and interpret information, and then propose options and recommendations for their organization. Then, management must decide what to do. That leads to the second question.
“How can we make things better?”
Few in business would admit to wanting anything other than a better future. A better future might mean more sales, higher market share, more successful products, or greater personal rewards. Or it might refer to an organization that is aligned, harmonious, and productive. Everyone I know aspires to some version of this better future. What makes answering this question so challenging for many people?
Interestingly (to me), it often is impossible to answer the second question well without a superior answer to the first question. That is, without a firm understanding of the current environment, the impact of past strategies and actions, and an explicit acceptance of responsibility, how can leaders move confidently forward? They cannot. Instead, the temptation is to repeat past approaches (imagining that they will somehow get better results), avoid acting altogether, or silently hope for others to change to make life easier. These things rarely happen and are the refuge of the confused.
A better recipe might be the following.
* Answer the first question well.
* Decide (or clarify) your business vision.
* Create a strategy rooted in reality and mindful of the competitive environment.
* Practice measuring strategy and making midcourse adjustments.
* Always assume responsibility.
Over time, things happen. No one has uninterrupted success in life or business. What matters are our responses to difficulties. Those responses show our character, resilience, and problem-solving abilities. Before we can make things better, we must directly face the factors, circumstances, and actions that got us to where we are.
Answer the first question well to unlock your potential and to enable actions to change your future results.
Tom Hawes is the Principal Chair for C12 North Texas. Since 2011, Tom has had the pleasure of facilitating forums in North Texas. Contact him at [email protected] or 214-620-9366.