Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Searching for Familiarity

In listening to the post-debate coverage, opinion writer David Brooks uttered a phrase that captures the ethos of the age as well as the current crisis: we are all searching for familiarity. In dealing with this financial crisis, everyone is searching for a model, an analogy, something familiar to help us understand the details of the unraveling of our economy. But, there is nothing familiar because we are dealing with interconnected, highly leveraged complexity that is completely new, global, dynamic, technically very sophisticated.

Beyond the financial markets, we are all searching for familiarity. And, it eludes us in more things everyday. The rate of technological innovation renders even those of us who are trying to stay relevant out of sync at times. Managing the speed of change, the volume of new information, and the complex interrelated nature of everything is unfamiliar. It used to be if you just didn't make a mistake, if you just didn't offend anyone, life was good, manageable. If you just managed your life and your business in the comfortable, familiar way, you were fine. No more. The current dynamic environment is dynamic and unfamiliar. Competition in all industries, from healthcare to consumer goods to education is fierce. The consumer is more educated and discerning than ever before, armed with scads of information and comparison data one click away. Inaction is a decision that widens the gap between your organization and contenders in the marketplace.

Where can we find the comfort of familiarity when we are chronically surrounded by the demands of this dynamic environment? I think the answer is in focusing on the process we use to manage complexity and to make decisions. We have to rely on our values and a strong sense of our strengths to lead us to find a path through information and considerations to clarity. The leader needs to understand that he or she is leading into unchartered territory and become comfortable with the discernment and decision-making process of his or her team. Here are a few critical tips;

1) surround yourself with smart, industrious people;
2) surround yourself with people who think differently than you, who will bring out often unconsidered perspectives and challenge assumptions; learn to highly value differences for the stretch they inspire;
3) clearly define and express your values. Use them as lens in making decisions;
3) take in information from sources you trust. Ask your team to actively engage in broad learning as well; share and transfer knowledge among your organization;
4) engage in invigorating pre-decision debate and analysis. Encourage deep thinking and deep discussion in order to fully consider all perspective and concerns; Be concerned if this is not happening;
5) start at the end: what do we want to accomplish? what values do we want our decision to reflect? how does this decision meet the needs of our customers and distinguish us from our competitors?

While we may all be dealing with issues that are unfamiliar and situations that are completely new and unanticipated, a robust process of critical thinking, strategic alignment, and creative problem solving that holds our performance outcomes as the top value should be something we can hold dear as completely familiar.

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