Simple Understanding

bigstock--focus lens.jpg“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” ― Malcolm GladwellBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

As we begin a new year, it can feel like our lives are spinning ever faster. With seemingly unending information outlets — 24-hour news cycles, social media, abundant prognosticators, never mind the numerous print outlets whose reported demise seems premature — it is easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of what we think we need to stay abreast of. And yet, as we begin a new year, we as leaders need to ask ourselves . . . are we doing a better job of accomplishing our missions as a result of acquiring more knowledge?

In far too many cases, I fear the answer is no. Why? I think Malcolm Gladwell nailed it on this one. Abundant knowledge simply makes us talking heads. It is understanding — knowing what is important, which details to focus on and which are simply noise — that allows us to advance our missions. I love Oliver Wendell Holmes’ concept of the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That’s the sweet spot. That’s where understanding happens.

So how do you get to that kind of simple understanding? Focused flexibility. Let me explain. The focus part is pretty simple. Who are you (mission, vision, values) and where are you going (strategic goals)? That’s it. If you read the last few sentences and thought, “sure, that sounds nice, but she just doesn’t understand . . .” there’s a pretty good chance you are stuck on the hamster wheel of information/complexity. Trust me on this one. Step off the wheel and focus.

Once you are clear on your focus, flexibility comes into play. You see, you have to walk through the complexity on a daily basis, and some of the knowledge floating out there might provide a faster or easier path to the other side. Your focus is about the destination, the flexibility comes in the route. So be flexible enough to act on new information that directly impacts your ability to reach your destination, while also being focused enough to let the rest of it roll off your back — regardless of what “expert” says you are crazy to ignore the tidbit of information that he or she is peddling.

Still don’t believe me? Think about the most successful leaders you know. Are they bouncing around, reacting to every headline or do they have a calm focused presence — dare I even say a simple understanding of where it is their organization is headed?

That is my hope for you as a leader, and your organization, in the coming year. Simple understanding. See you on the other side!

Squawk Your Way to Success

Red-haired Preschooler Boy With Violin, Music Concept

Think back to when you (or a child, or a sibling) were learning a new skill — say playing a musical instrument. While there are a few child prodigies out there, most of us had to squeak and squawk our way to something that sounded remotely like the tune we had in mind. Whether or not you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to become world class” rule, the fact remains that most of us aren’t proficient at a new skill the first time we try it.

We intuitively grasp that concept with kids, and encourage them through the skill development process. But somehow with adults, we have much less tolerance. You’ve been promoted to a new role . . . Great! . . . Now here are the 47 things we are backed up on so go out there and do amazing things . . . Really? And then we wonder why 1) people fall short of our expectations, and 2) staff, who are trying hard to succeed with the task at had, are hesitant to speak up to remind us they are still squeaking and squawking in their new role.

Or what about the innovation/transformation/new program development process? We can spend all the time we want perfecting the plan on paper, but rest assured there will be some “missed notes” along the way. Sure, we’ve all heard the “fail early/fail fast/fail forward” philosophies, but do we actually apply them to our endeavors or do we expect that we (and our people) will be the exception to the rule and get it right the first time? And what is our response when that doesn’t happen?

Any time we are learning a new skill, squawking is part of the process. The difference between those who succeed and those who fall short of the goal is that the first group wades through the discomfort of the learning process to the proficiency on the other side. Unfortunately in many cases the second group decides it’s too hard/they don’t have the time or patience/there is no tolerance for the errors that are bound to happen when learning something new and thus choose not to move forward. They may not squawk, but they don’t get to learn any new songs either.

Going through the squawking stage is usually not very fun. It can feel like things will never get better, like you’re never going to get it right. And then you do. All of a sudden things start to click, the path forward clears and the goal is within reach. Only then do you realize that the stumbling along the way is part of the process. So plan for it, expect it, then take a deep breath and squawk your way to success.