It’s said that a problem well stated is a problem half solved. When we objectively grasp the obstacle on our path, we can knock it down in half the time.
So, what ought we be doing to solve the other half? Focus on what matters.
Leaders often get stuck in the first half, fixating on “what’s wrong.” It’s hardwired into us—our primal instincts make us pay more attention to problems because, historically, losses have meant more than gains.
When I worked in advertising, we used loss aversion as a strategy for driving ideal consumer behavior change. Want shoppers to tote their own reusable grocery bags, for example? Control groups who were motivated (that is: offered a gain) by saving 25 cents per reusable bag on their grocery bill showed about 10% adoption. Not bad. But when we gave experimental groups a loss to contend with—warning that they’ll now be charged 25 cents per disposable bag required at checkout—reusable adoption increased 400%-plus. The psychic difference is evident: We will work much harder to avoid a loss.
So predictably, when strategic planning season arrives (and it’s here), I often observe leadership that’s focused too narrowly on “what’s wrong.”
In professional sports, there’s plenty of debate around whether elite athletes ought to spend more time honing their strengths or fixing their weaknesses.
At work, good, strategic people-planning begins with a diagnosis of the organization’s current state. If you’re inside the jar, you can’t read the label. We deploy a tool called the Leadership and Culture Assessment to unveil the landscape of leadership behaviors within a culture. And the data always points to areas of both strength and weakness. But here’s the tricky part: In the debriefing, the pull to focus on the weaknesses is magnetic. It’s human nature; we zero in on those weaknesses to avoid potential losses in profit, perception and people.
But what if “what’s wrong” is NOT “what matters” most?
Effective leaders know that a good diagnosis is balanced out by a well-defined aspirational state. After the diagnosis, leaders need two critical things: alignment around the desired culture that will enable a company’s goals, and clarity around what effective leaders need to be able to say and do to create it.
Imagine a company that has just conducted an engagement survey with 35 engagement drivers. Each one focuses on an important aspect of engagement, but no leadership team can focus on 35 things effectively. Aiming at everything is like aiming at nothing.
So, the critical (but often skipped) next step is defining your top drivers—which aspects of engagement will have the greatest positive impact on your team, culture and goals? Narrowing the focus to “what matters” modifies the lens through which you see “what’s wrong.”
The low drivers are not unimportant in a vacuum. They’re simply not most important right now to reach the goal. Left to diagnostic data alone, we’re swept away by the temptation to fix what we perceive as wrong, even when it might not be of significant consequence.
As we navigate this planning season, remember a few things:
1. Don’t waste your precious time trying to polish yesterday when you could be inventing tomorrow. Your process should embrace both the diagnosis of the current state (warts and all) and the clear definition of your ideal state. It’s like PGA Tour golfers’ approach—sandwich training. They sandwich conditioning that targets their weak putting skills between training that hones their unique long-drive superpower.
2. Take it to the limit—if everything’s important, nothing is. There are about 67 research-backed leadership capabilities, but let’s be real—none of us can excel at all 67. Pick three to five key capabilities that you want most of your leaders to master most of the time to get where you want to go. That’s what truly matters.
3. If you’re looking for a fresh perspective, change your lens. Instead of getting bogged down by every problem, seek out the high-impact drivers that’ll give your metaphorical car the gas it needs to accelerate toward your goals. Those are the drivers that will supercharge your momentum.
Peter Drucker said invest in your opportunities, not your problems. But as problems tug at your attention, ensure that you have a sturdy system for tackling the right ones.•
Haskett is a leadership consultant at Advisa, a Carmel-based leadership consultancy.