Friday, May 28, 2010

On the Leadership Style


If you are lucky enough to have responsibility for the totality or even a large portion of a transformation project, you will be called upon to make a number of decisions on an as-you-go basis. Mike Shanahan, former coach of the Denver Broncos, is reputed to have arrived at each game armed with a pre-scripted number of plays. But even he needed to adjust to the demands of the game when unforeseen circumstances, such as interceptions, fumbles or holding penalties, altered his original plan. Likewise, a strong planning stage and clear definition of the architecture, tenets and standards can facilitate the decision-making for a transformation project. oweh However, in the end you are bound to encounter situations that demand impromptu judgment calls.
Being a good leader is often about making the correct decisions (emphasis on “correct”). On the other hand, due to the complexities involved, it is not reasonable to expect a one hundred percent success ratio in all transformation involved decisions. What are the performance expectations? Unlike in baseball, for example, where a 40% batting success ratio would ensure you riches and your name in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in the business world a success ratio of 40% would get you only in the Hall of Shame. If you achieve a Pareto-like 80% success ratio in any of the myriad of low to middle impact decisions you may make, you’ll be doing fine.  But when it comes to major decisions, you’ll have to consider yourself lucky if you’re able to survive one major blunder, let alone two. 
Admittedly, this analysis may be slightly facetious since the truth of the matter is that often the criteria for success is not a binary right/wrong and tends to come with a high degree of fuzziness (that’s why the art of “spin” has evolved to the point where it is now).  The point remains: a necessary (but not sufficient) attribute of good leadership is the making of correct decisions. Many projects get derailed because those in leadership made decisions that were either too conservative or too aggressive (depending upon the circumstances) or too political or too vague or plainly just wrong.  
Don’t believe those who say that leaders need not be knowledgeable on the problem domain (“as long as they surround themselves with knowledgeable people, they’ll be fine,” the saying goes. That might be true for managers; not for leaders.). Fact is that making the correct decision is not possible if you lack the knowledge to at least determine what is right from what is wrong. It helps if, as a leader, you have experienced a transformation project while working as a foot-soldier as you will have gained a broader perspective that gives you a better frame of reference to help you make the right calls. Moreover, it also helps to be humble in accepting the fact that, no matter how knowledgeable or experienced you may be, it is impossible to know everything. The best kind of knowledge is the one that gives you a clear view of your limitations. You should be sure to surround yourself with a trusted team of collaborators who can expand upon the knowledge you have. A second key attribute of leadership is to know how to listen to your team and others.
In his book “Infotopia” author, Cass R. Sunstein, writes about the Jury Theorem.  This theorem states that the probability of a receiving a correct answer, when applying the rule of majority opinion, increases towards one hundred percent as the voting group increases. The one caveat is that for this to work, each member of the voting group should more likely be right than wrong. A group of experts voting on an answer will tend to be more correct than a single expert making the decision, for example.
The theorem also shows the opposite:  if the individual members of the group are more likely to be wrong than right, the resulting probability outcome for correct decisions will trend towards zero. In other words, you should seek answers from your team, provided your team’s experience makes them more likely to be right than wrong.  The opposite is also true; don’t ask people to give you advice about things they don’t know enough about.
I once attended a “decision-making” meeting where the boss at that time, trying to appear inclusive, invited opinions and votes on whether to follow a particular technical approach. This was a subtle and complex technical question, mind you. Problem was that in the room they were only two actual technology people; the rest were non-technical: the HR guy, an accountant, the boss’ assistant, and a couple of administrators! Only one of the non-technical individuals had the courage to answer “I don’t know. That’s not, my thing.” The decision was based on straight up and down vote regardless and, needless to say, the decision adopted that day was a wrong one.
Now, I am not saying that decisions cannot be taken by multi-disciplinary teams; just that the team you gather to make the decision should have the appropriate relevant domain-level expertise.  Provided you do this, it’s best to approach the art of decision making with the objective to reach consensus based decisions (but consensus does not imply unanimity!). When facing a problem it makes sense to gather your trusted advisors and proceed to methodically evaluate each approach; keeping an open mind when considering any solution proposed as part of the brainstorming exercise. Basic pruning principles are the Occam Razor principle (also known as the KISS principle for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”), indicating that given two alternative choices, you should always lean toward the simpler one as common sense solutions are to be preferred. In the end, leaders should not assume that this process of consensus making is the basis for abdicating responsibility for taking a decision. At times project leaders mistakenly hold back on a decision far longer than advisable because they seek consensus at all costs. Ultimately, there should be the realization that not making a decision is no different than making a decision to do nothing. If you are comfortable with the impact of doing nothing, then fine, but you should realize that, on occasion, consensus will not be possible and you will need to make a call based on your gut feeling[1].  You might even sometimes cash in on your prerogative as “the decider” to overrule a recommended decision from your staff.  Beware of exercising this right too often, however, as this position should only occur when you really feel strongly about your decision and have objective elements (i.e. “knowledge”) to defend it.  Either way, you should always allocate the needed time and effort to ensure the decision, and the reason behind the decision are timely communicated to the staff and all appropriate stakeholders.
Finally, leadership is not about managing. Managing is not difficult if you follow the method laid down through the generations.  Good management is a science, but leadership is an art. The third attribute of good leadership is in treating your team with respect, motivation and inspiration. Management is something you can draw on an organization chart, but leadership is something that gets engraved in the trust of your collaborators. Leadership is about making certain your team knows they are building the proverbial cathedral as opposed to a church wall, and that they are encouraged to take ownership for the success of the project. Leadership helps ensure everyone on the team feels comfortable about the viability of the objectives, and that appropriate recognition will be shared with everyone upon the project’s success.
Because leadership is all about success, it is only natural that while people have to follow managers, but people will want to follow leaders.


[1] Making decisions based on “gut feelings” is not necessary that bad IF and only IF you have experience on the field related to the decision, and not on blind faith. In fact, author Malcolm Gladwell shows in his best-seller book “Blink” that experts develop this ability to make appropriate decisions in their field of expertise almost sub-consciously.