“Intelligence is something we are born with,” said Edward de Bono, adding, “Thinking is a skill that must be learned.” That thought is a good place to start to tell you about the approach Jeffrey Phillips uses when helping others to innovate. Phillips’ ideas are profiled on a recent Fast Company post by Drake Baer, who opens with a story Phillips tells about Albert Einstein:
When asked how he would spend his time if he was given an hour to solve a thorny problem, (Einstein) said he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives and 5 minutes solving it. Which is exactly opposite of what the vast majority of executives today would do.
Phillips’ thesis is that many leaders would be better served if they changed the ratio of how much time they spend on thinking versus acting. It’s the same spirit behind the clichè that it’s far better to “ready, aim, fire” than to “ready, fire, aim.”
Yet, my experience has been that this is a concept that seems simple and easy to understand; but hard for most leaders to practice. The pace of life seems more rushed than ever. And, indeed, Einstein had bigger problems to dwell on and the luxury of time to dwell on them. Yet, a packed to-do list is no excuse for leaders failing to think about what their firms are doing. I often get executives to stop glancing at the clock on the wall when I convince them that the nature of organisational and marketplace challenges today is different than in the past. Many problems facing leaders in 2013 are indeed much, much more thinking-intensive in nature. Since the problems are new, their past experience is insufficient to allow leaders to make snap judgements and then move quickly onto the next problem.
This is why so many firms seem dysfunctional today. Nonetheless, executives often tell me that the tenets of management and the expectations of leaders demand immediate action (speed) and unequivocal clarity (certainty). They often just stare when I advise them that neither is realistic. Complex organisational problems demand more thought. To act prematurely is to assure speedy failure and certain chaos.
Phillips believes that executives need to respect a “deliberate process”, and I commend his ideas. For my part, I would ask you to do everything in your power to resist the impulse to move instictively and immediately into advocacy mode (this is what we need to do and how we should do it) for every problem. Sure, some problems may be addressable with such low-level thinking, but the vast majority of problems that demand the attention of senior managers are not.
My ideal would be for the organisational world to accept the new reality that leaders should most often be in inquiry mode (let´s consider what is really going on as our first order of action) and thus grant leaders the time for a deeper understanding of the problem itself before any other action is taken. I’m not saying Einstein’s 55 minutes thinking/5 minutes solving ratio will ever be possible, but any move in that direction would improve the impact leaders have on the shape and direction of the firms they lead.