Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Lion on the Desk

Guest post by David Komlos and David Benjamin:

You arrive at work one morning, take the elevator up to your appointed floor, amble down the carpeted hallway staring at your shoes and wondering what the day has in store for you, open your door…and there sits a ferocious lion. As startled as you are, the lion roars a mighty roar.

If you are like most people, in the blink of an eye you slam the door, turn tail and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

In the blink of an eye: You saw a lion where a lion shouldn’t be; You absorbed the implications of there being a lion, untethered, mere feet from you; You thought about what to do about that; You decided on a course of action; and you implemented that course of action with haste. In the blink of an eye.

The sensing, absorbing, thinking, and deciding functions that you just processed were extremely efficient, and so you were able to get to action right away. No confusion, no mixed messages, no need for consensus-building or alignment, no persuasion necessary – just a very, very smooth path from sensing to fleeing.

The Actual Lion

Now, rather than the lion, substitute a defining business challenge licking its chops on your desk. Ask yourself which people, from in and around your organization:
·         Play a sensing role with respect to this lion;
·         Act as absorbers, picking up stimulus from those sensors and translating them into implications;
·         Gather and think about implications and translate them into options;
·         Consider the options, weigh them, and produce decisions; and
·         Ultimately, implement or drive the actions that will enact those decisions.

In most corporate settings, the answer is probably a large group of people.
The response to your metaphorical lion doesn’t happen – can’t happen – in the blink of an eye because those functions are played by a lot of people, distributed across and, sometimes, outside the organization.

Sometimes, the response won’t get triggered at all (or gets triggered far too late) because business challenges don’t usually present themselves so plainly as our lion.

Take a new competitive threat for example…

(SENSE) Sales people might hear and observe their customers’ reactions to that threat – as might your market researchers, call center folks, external market experts, and even your finance team as they watch the erosion of market share and revenue.

(ABSORB) Some of those people may also absorb the implications of what they’re seeing, and there are also likely others whose job it is to explicitly look for trends like this and consider what they might mean.

(THINK) When fed an alarming trend, management will think about what to do about it (ideally, informed by the sensors and absorbers), and/or may outsource the thinking to experts and/or consultants.

(DECIDE) Those same managers may also decide on a course of action or bump it up the ranks to decide.

(ACT) And a team may ultimately be launched to implement the resulting action plan, together with a steering committee and supported by project managers, communications people, and so on.
… and months pass…

Meanwhile, the lion has eaten your lunch.

Taming the Lion

Organizational SATDA – sensing, absorbing, thinking, deciding, and acting – is slow and unwieldy because so many people are involved and they’re all over the place, physically distant, and too often siloed. This is a first principal, universal truth. And this is why it’s so hard to keep up with the pace and scope of the metaphorical lions which, contrary to the popular song, don’t sleep at night (they’re too busy keeping you up.)

Recognizing this, what’s a great leader to do?

First off, accept the basic truth that this is just the way things are. No amount of reorg-ing, incentivizing, agiling, design thinking, change management, or outsourcing is going to undo this truth. At some point, to act quickly, the sensors, absorbers, thinkers, deciders and actors need to be brought together.

Next, convene that group and equip them to join forces in executing all of the SATDA functions as part of a focused, non-linear effort, all at once: Get them in the same place; Orchestrate their interactions so that every individual bumps into every other individual meaningfully and repeatedly; Impose rules and roles at those collision points to diffuse hierarchy, self-interest, and polite conflict-avoidance; and weave those interactions together within a closed network. Just like neurons in a single brain; like your brain, when you saw the lion and ran.

When you’ve done this right, the result is very efficient, human parallel processing:
·         Sensors (and everyone else) talking about what they sense, while
·         Absorbers (and everyone else) are exploring both good and bad implications, while
·         Thinkers (and everyone else) are developing ideas and weighing options, while
·         Deciders (and everyone else) are choosing and developing the best options, while
·         Actors (and everyone else) are building the right plan of action.

Finally, you need to trust in and commit to the results of their effort. If you’ve done a strong job of getting the right cross-section of people together, and if you’ve equipped them well, they will get to a shared understanding of the lion, clarity on what has to happen, and alignment on the importance of making it happen. You need to share in their shared understanding and their clarity, and you need to make the resulting action plan top priority. 

For this reason, to truly believe they’re right, you need to go back a step and add yourself to the group while they’re figuring things out, not after.
When there is strong alignment and mobilization amongst the Sensors, Absorbers, Thinkers, Deciders and Actors (and you!), the lion won’t stand a chance.

CAVEAT: This approach won’t literally get you to action in the ‘blink of an eye’; you’ll need a few days of shared effort and a few weeks to get going on implementation. Which, on second thought, really is the organizational equivalent of the ‘blink of an eye’.

David Komlos and David Benjamin are co-authors of CRACKING COMPLEXITY: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast (Nicholas Brealey; May 7, 2019). They are CEO and Chief Architect of Syntegrity, where they apply the formula to help leaders rapidly solve complex challenges, generate strong buy-in, and mobilize people for action.

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