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.”

brainYet, 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.

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