Saturday, January 23, 2010

What Prevents Leaders from “Connecting the Dots”?

It seems like as a result of the failed bombing attempt on the Northwest Airlines flight, “connecting the dots” is the new “thinking outside the box”.

The phrase may need to be added to your latest version of corporate bull%$#* bingo.

SmartBrief on Leadership did a poll last week and asked the following question:

“In your organization, what prevents people from "connecting the dots" with important information?

Here are the results and commentary from a research consultant:

- Corporate silos blocking information flow 33.46%
- Unwillingness to speak truth to power 25.24%
- No direct responsibility/"not my problem" attitude 19.94%
- Poor listening/unwillingness to hear bad news 11.28%
- Political correctness 6.12%
- Paucity of information 3.96% 

Where the trouble comes from: It's clear that that connecting the information dots in organizations is no simple matter. Responses are diverse and suggest failure to connect information is mostly due to a slew of organizational behaviors, not a paucity of information (only 3.9%). Besides the architecture of organizational silos blocking the flow of information, a combination of negative behaviors aggregate to make the problem more complex and, hence, more difficult to solve. Unwillingness to speak truth to power, a "not my problem" attitude, poor listening, unwillingness to hear bad news and "political correctness" represent 62.6% of the reasons voted. "Hard" organizational policy will not effectively counter these "soft" behaviors. Enlightened team building, good culture, supportive architecture and informed leadership will. --Eva Schmatz, president, Summus Limited

It’s a good poll and analysis, but the one potential cause that is missing and that may be the biggest reason why we can’t seem to see what’s right in front of us is that our own “worldviews”, or “paradigms” obstruct our vision.

Wikipedia defines worldview as “a comprehensive world view (or worldview) is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing natural philosophy, fundamental existential and normative postulates or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.

Translation: it’s how we see the world. We all have a lifetime’s worth of experiences that shape our beliefs, attitudes, and values, and ultimately, our behaviors. When confronted with new information, we try to make sense of it – we unconsciously filter the new information through our worldviews and but it in the proper box. We decide what is “true” and what is “right”.

But what happens when we’re exposed to new information that doesn’t fit into any of these boxes? We often reject it, or in many cases, don’t even see it. It’s a survival mechanism – without it, we couldn’t cross the road without getting run over.

There are countless examples of businesses that failed as a result of being stuck in their own worldviews and not able to see a competitive risk or opportunity. The Swiss Watch industry failed to patent or market the quartz watch, even though they invented it, because they couldn't shift paradigms. Their own success got in their way.

So what’s a leader to do? How can we not allow our worldviews to block our ability to “connect the dots”?

Here are five ways:

1. Listen for possibilities.
Most of us tend to evaluate too quickly when we’re listening. Practice listening to learn, not to confirm what you already believe. Listen for what’s new, not what you already know. It requires a willingness to suspend judgment, a willingness to tolerate paradox, patience, curiosity, and respect for how others might see things.

2. Spend time with outliers.
While it’s good to have experienced and trusted “experts” in your inner circle, you also need to spend a little time with outliers, those unconventional mavericks that exist in any organization.

3. Be a lifelong learner.
The phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” just makes me cringe. Education shouldn’t stop when we’re out of college. And don’t just focus on practical functional knowledge pertaining to your own field. It’s those unrelated “liberal arts” that can often broaden your worldview and enable you to make connections.

4. Don’t let yourself get isolated from reality.
I just wrote a post on this topic: here are 10 ways to prevent this from happening as a leader.

5. Manage your career for diverse experiences.
I’ve seen too many leaders that have only worked for one company, one location, and/or one function. The more diverse your experiences, the more likely it is you’ll develop a more diverse and broader worldview. If for some reason you don’t feel you can get this variety of experiences on the job, then seek them out off the job. Travel, join things, get involved, and break out of your rut.

As leaders, we need to be able and willing to change our worldviews. Just as importantly, we need to help others change their worldviews. That’s the essence of leadership, isn’t it? It’s about getting people to change. Management is about changing behavior – leadership is the ability to change worldviews.


Bruce Lewin said...

Hi Dan, I think this is a great piece and I for one have a feeling that changing the worldview of leadership and people management will be highly valued by practicioners and those with P&L responsibility going forward!

I'm in the middle of writing a piece touching on this at the moment and recently touched on this in this post...

Anonymous said...

Great post. Please that current employment situation is allowing some leveling of the silo, at least to enhance communication.

Dan McCarthy said...

Bruce -
Thanks, looking forward to seeing that.

Anon -
Hmm.., not quite sure what you mean by that.

Bruce Lewin said...

Hi Dan,

The piece is up at

Let me know if you've any thoughts or feedback!

btw, do you have an rss for comments at all?

Best wishes,


Dan McCarthy said...

Bruce -
I read your post - well done!
With Blogger, you need to click on the post title - then, at the bottom of all the comments, you'll see a subscribe to comments link.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Thanks! I'm glad you picked it.

Transformfromtheinsideout said...


Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I would like to add that leadership is also the ability to change "self" views to enable people to reach their fullest potential and by doing so, their world view then enlarges - resulting also in the ability to see the views of others. Please view my article titled, "The Heart of Leadership" for more thoughts on leadership at:

Pete Jameson said...

Great blog & interesting post. Those struggling with similar issues might like to look at Mission Command as a way of empowering staff and unlocking silos.

Try or wikiepedia or knol.

Keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

Well written. From my seat on the bus, whether you call it "connecting the dots", or "thinking outside the box", I've learned that only out of the box people can think out of the box. That somehow, a physiological phenomena can be trained - not likely.

Now is it worthwhile to train the skill of divergent training? - Yes. Better yet, create an organizational culture where divergent thinking is allowed, developed, encouraged and rewarded.

Then and only then will companies have people connecting dots and thinking out of the box.

Json Wilton said...

Interestingly, 0% took personal responsibility or recognized a lack of ability to connect the dots amongst their co-workers or personally.