Why There Are No Silver Bullets

My CBS Money Watch blog this week focused on fixing your company. I mentioned in that piece that many people will object to my language, saying: “isn’t it better to instead focus on “what is working” or “let’s stay positive and appreciate what is right with our company.”

This objection has been gaining ground in the last few years, and it’s time it stopped.

The biggest weight that holds down business success is not seeing what’s really going on. With every approach, toolkit, or solution, there’s a corresponding “blindness” that prevents people from seeing factors at work. My mentor and colleague Warren Bennis wrote an outstanding blog post about this subject last week.

With each way of seeing your problem, there’s a corresponding blindness. People who focus on systems and processes often don’t see cultural issues. Cultural experts often don’t see that the company is offering services no one wants. People focusing on organizational strategy may not see a problem with finance.

The only way out of this blindness is to have many ways of looking at your business, and to be able to use each one—think of them as “contact lenses.”  Use each set, then remove them, and try on the next pair. I wore contacts for about half my adult life. They were miraculous. Except that they made it difficult to see something very close. They gave me sight of distant objects but limited my ability to read. With sight comes not seeing—always.

We’ll address three “leadership blindnesses” in this blog post. Each of these can be lethal to your business.

The first leadership blindness is brought about by believing that you have “the best” methodology available. Daryl Conner wrote an excellent blog in 2010 about what he called “methodological bigots”: people who have one approach that they “know” is superior. The problem here is that anything that your unique process doesn’t uncover goes unseen.

I’ve seen this problem arise with people who are ardent followers of any methodology, including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. With Tribal, often people say: “now I see the problem: our culture is at ‘my life sucks.’” That’s a great observation, but taken alone, it’s probably insufficient. What about the strategy of the company? Do people want what you’re selling? Are your systems capable of producing it? Kodak had a lousy culture before their bankruptcy, but a cultural intervention, if implemented by itself, would not have made them vital. They also needed to focus on their strategic problem—people weren’t buying old technology.

Often, readers of The Three Laws of Performance like the language of “what’s working,” and “new futures” and “possibility.” Like any system, this one comes with enormous insights. People are able to see beyond superficial problems to underlying factors. And it, too, is blinding to other approaches. One of the factors that the “what’s working” and “what’s not working” don’t allow people to see is their anger, or outrage about a problem in the world. Imagine how successful Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been if he had not drawn on the power of outrage, and users of the “what’s working” language set often don’t see the dark side.

The second leadership blindness comes with people becoming highly specialized. I work a lot with physicians and engineers. Both groups are remarkable, in their education and diligence. And often, they have a hard time in leadership because they can only see the world in terms of systems, protocols, procedures, processes, and steps. Leadership, by definition, has no steps. There’s a moment when technically sophisticated people step away from their expertise and feel naked. That’s the most important moment of their development as leaders, because for the first time, they’re seeing a business problem without the blindness that comes along with their technical expertise. They have to take out the contact lenses of specialization to see things that they can’t see otherwise.

The third leadership blindness comes from people who are die-hard generalists. This blindness is the opposite of the second one, and comes from people who are either self-educated, or liberal arts majors who never mastered a specific field like engineering or technology. The problem here is that they haven’t developed the rigor of learning a field’s discipline. The corresponding blindness is following the rigors of a field. I often dishearten such individuals when I say, “pick a specific field, and spend a year learning it, without improvising or explaining it in terms of what you already know.” The better advice is “become great at something.” Steve Sample, the President Emeritus of USC, is an extreme example of this approach. As an engineer, and then as an engineering professor, he secured patents on digital appliance controls that have been built into 300 million units. Later, he assumed leadership in higher education and wrote a great book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.

As good as it gets is multiple pairs of contact lenses, and a regular habit of putting each in, noting what you can see with them, and then taking them out. So if readers love my “How to Fix Your Company” blog post, you may not like the follow-up advice: as you work on fixing your company, find a completely different way of viewing the situation, and follow up on the insights you derive from this different perspective. And to those readers who hated it, it’s probably exactly what you need.

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