Monday, August 20, 2007

Good to Great Decision Making

I just ran across a great article from a June 2005 Fortune magazine interview with Good to Great and Built to Last author Jim Collins. Collins went back through his research to see what it says about decision making and leadership. Here are the key points from the interview:
  • What isn't very important -- who is. Over and over Collins makes the point that it isn't terribly important what a leader (or project manager) does while it is terribly important how that leader works with people and who s/he works with. Welcome to community -- real community -- relationships, humans, and their aspirations.
  • Being clear about who one is. He talks about how this applies to companies -- know what your real mission is, and what you are uniquely positioned to do, and then do it regardless of what anyone else says. It also applies to humans and to projects. "Who are you and what do you burn for?" is the key question. Some who read The Blind Men and the Elephant were taken aback by this notion -- as if it isn't very important instead of absolutely essential.
  • Saying "I don't know". Asking questions is more important than appearing to know all of the answers. You couldn't possibly know. Tied to this is asking first, not posing your opinion and then asking for reactions.
  • Gather all points of view and then make the decision. It isn't about consensus (at least not most of the time). It is about opening up the conversation to gain the wisdom of those around you to inform the decision and nurturing constructive conflict.
  • There are so many decisions to be made that it doesn't matter if you get many of them wrong. How you adapt to how it is different than you expected is what matters more than getting it right the first time.
I was reminded of this article when encountering yet another group of project managers in an organization seeking salvation in their methodologies and applying them as if they were prescriptive magic pills that would make everything okay. Here's why that doesn't work.
  • They tend to focus on what -- what to do, how much it will cost, what workers, and treating those workers like objects rather than real people. Even the so-called 'human-centered' methods often relate to humans as 'whats' not 'whos'.
  • They don't ask "What are we best at?" "What are we really up to?" and "What do we want?" They silently assume that this either is really clear and everyone sees the same thing or that this doesn't really matter (after all, we're only dealing with objective, verifiable whats). This misses or down-plays the important influence of context and intention.
  • They try to answer all the questions at the beginning (as if this were possible) and focus on reducing things into a totally known set of whats. This obscures the fact -- the feature of creating new things -- that much depends upon much and, when doing something really novel, thinking that we have the answers blinds us to the real unknowns.
  • They pose a recipe, instead of seeking a heading. They promise certainty instead of exercising resilience. They focus on authority instead of relationships and influence. They wind up delivering a fragile sort of certainty that blinds them to reality and leaves them over-responsible for reconstruction when the collision shatters their brittle certainty.
Thanks Jim Collins for the great reminder!