Selective focus photography of Edison bulb

A Tale of Two Mindsets: Six Leadership Skills for the unforeseeable future

Peter Mulford
July, 2019

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. He was writing about the French Revolution of 1789, but he could have been writing about the business world of today. Why? For leaders who are agile, curious, and open to experimentation, this is arguably the Best of Times to be in business. For those who prefer to cling to old ideas, this is arguably the Worst (and it looks like things won’t get better for them any time soon). Either way, today can the best of times or the worst of times for you depending on…you.

What’s afoot?

Here’s what we know: The business world continues to dish up threats and opportunities to virtually everyone, everywhere, every day. And smart people often miss both the threats and the opportunities because they don’t look outside their current frame of reference, because of present-day biases, or simply because they discount anything that looks too disquieting to warrant serious consideration—often with disastrous consequences.

Man walking through pathway

Stuck in the past

Paradoxically, our education is part of the problem. Most leaders in business today learned techniques and skills for scaling existing business ideas, not discovering or responding to new ones. So what’s needed is a new set of business skills that can help leaders spot, explore, and address emergent opportunities and threats at speed. Skills that are defined clearly, free of buzzwords, and that can be learned, practiced, and—with effort—mastered.

Five D’s and an F

So here are six leadership skills that fit those criteria. Not because we say so, but because we’ve seen them actually work with our clients around the world. To keep them memorable, think of them as five D’s and an F (which, we hope, doesn’t remind anyone of their high school report cards), as follows:

  1. Divergent Thinking
  2. Design Thinking
  3. Disciplined Experimentation
  4. Diversity
  5. Digital literacy
  6. Future Back Thinking

Here’s what they are, and--importantly--what they look like on the job.

1) Divergent Thinking (aka “Applied Creativity”)

What’s this? Divergent Thinking is a set principles, procedures, and tools leaders can use to frame and re-frame questions, to develop multiple possible answers to those questions, and to suspend judgement long enough to challenge existing beliefs and explore fresh ideas. It works best when leaders are confronted with challenges for which no answer is readily available, or when teams are unable to see beyond the current solution set or frame of reference.

What does it look like? Divergent thinking in the workplace requires two things: Provocation Techniques to break people free of their current thinking, and Ideation Behaviors to hold them free just long enough to explore new ideas. Examples of provocation techniques include SCAMPER, Six Thinking Caps, and Customer Immersion Visits. Examples of ideation behaviors include Suspending Judgement, asking “What if?” and Creating a Zone of Psychological Safety.

Of note: any consultant who is intellectually honest will tell you that the provocation techniques used in Divergent Thinking (and its close relative, “Lateral Thinking”) have been in circulation for a long time (and therefore they won't charge you licensing fees for their use). But while these provocation techniques have been around, they are difficult to use because of the uncomfortable behaviors one must master to use the techniques effectively, so practice and patience is required to master them for use on the job.

2) Design Thinking (aka "Customer Obsession")

What’s this? Design Thinking broadly describes a set of principles, procedures, and tools for uncovering insights about human emotional and functional necessities, and then using those insights as the basis for innovation. Why is this so special? Because in turns out that human beings frequently have limited insights into their own preferences(1), which means you can’t simply ask them what they want. From here, Design Thinking encourages ideating, prototyping, and testing ideas.

What does it look like? Design Thinking requires teams to push beyond focus groups, interviews, and customer surveys to go deep into the thoughts and feelings customers have and the compromises that they make as they go about their day. Examples of tools used to gain these insights include Empathy Maps, Customer Journey Maps, and How/Why Laddering.

3) Leveraging Diversity and “Distance from Field”

What’s this? A growing body of research has shown that diverse groups are more productive than homogenous “expert” groups at a number of tasks. (2,3) This is because of the cognitive diversity that naturally occurs in diverse groups of people, and because the knowledge required to solve complex problems often exists in disciplines that are a “distance” removed from that of the problem itself. (4)

What does it look like? Getting the benefits from diversity requires more than just a diverse group of people. For diverse groups to work well, the people in the groups must work together well. This means that teams must create a zone of safety in which people feel free to speak freely. It also means that during the group meeting the patterns of interaction must be noticed and adjusted in real time to ensure that everyone within the group is contributing ideas and reactions, with similar levels of contributions among all the participants, not just the dominant ones. Of Note: teams with poor patterns of exploration often find themselves stuck in old patterns of behavior, so diversity is an powerful stimulant for divergent thinking and creativity, too. (5)

4) Disciplined Experimentation

What’s this? When faced with conditions of high uncertainty, traditional business thinking counsels leaders to plan and wait before committing resources. What’s changed is that today there is often a higher cost to planning and waiting then there is to experimenting and learning. Disciplined Experimentation—sometimes referred to as “Agile” experimentation--is a set of principles, processes and tools that leaders can use to test ideas “fast and cheap” while simultaneously limiting their downside.

What does it look like? Disciplined Experimentation (DE) allows leaders and their teams to say, “I don’t know”, and then to move forward. A team using DE will identify what would have to be true for an idea to work, convert that knowledge into an list of things they either do know or don’t know (which produces a “knowledge/assumption ratio” for the effort) and then run experiments to reduce the unknowns as quickly and cheaply as possible. Of note: As with Divergent Thinking, the tools and techniques for Disciplined Experimentation have been around for a long time (It's how NASA put men on the moon, for example). And, as before, the process isn't the challenge--the leadership and mindset required to use it, is. Specifically, as teams experiment, leaders must learn to notice and address the biases and emotional blind-spots that can cause a team to either stick with a project for too long, or to kill it too quickly.

5) Digital Literacy

What’s this? Because digital technology is intertwined in everything we do and will continue to become more intertwined in the future, digital literacy has become the new lingua franca that all business-people must understand. To be a digitally literate leader doesn’t mean you need to write code in Python.*To be a digitally literate executive means that you understand the implications of digital technologies for your current and future business at any moment in time. (*If you have the time, learning Machine Learning is a kick. No Kidding).

What does this look like? Digitally literate leaders are able to ask and answer, “How might technology disrupt our competitive position?” and equally, “How might technology improve our performance and delight our users?” They are able to understand how data is turned into insights and how those insights are converted into action; they able to think and, importantly, communicate strategically about how to use technology to create value for the business.

6) Future Back Thinking

What’s this? Most leaders have been trained to plan for the future by starting with the present and then forecasting gradually out into the unknown. The trouble is that today there is often so much noise in the present—conflicting data, unexpected events, “trendy” ideas that don’t become trends, etc.—that it is difficult to gain enough certainty about where things are actually going to reliability forecast this way. Future Back Thinking refers to a set of processes and thought exercises to help teams imagine possible states in the future in a manner that helps them to make better decisions, today.

What does this look like? Teams that embrace Future Back Thinking will hold a variety of “future storming sessions” with a regular and predictable cadence. Also, individual strategies or projects with a high degree of uncertainty will be regularly stress tested using future back techniques such as “Pre-Mortem” “Risk Storming” or “Back Casting.” Leaders who sponsor or lead this efforts will recognize that their hindsight can bind them to old ideas and prevent them from seeing new ones.

Get in the Game

Now what? With these five behaviors in hand, you are now just three-steps away from preparing your team to dealing with future opportunities and threats. First, assess, How good are we on each of the five behaviors? Second, determine a pathway to improve the behaviors that need the most help. Ensure that your pathway includes ample time to practice and internalize the shifts required. Third—prepare the team to try, stumble, fail, and learn forward. It’s important at the onset to normalize the discomfort and failures that your people will experience as they try these new techniques.

A Tale of Two Mindsets

Aristotle noted that “We are what we repeatedly do.” As with anything else, getting good at these new skills will require effort. Those who practice will improve, and those who don’t, won’t. And it won’t be easy. But for those willing to make the effort, we’ve found these behaviors super-charge one’s odds of success, making the days ahead The Best of Times.

Footnotes.

My friend Matt McCloskey at Twitch taught me to love Footnotes. It's a great way to sneak extra thoughts into the conversation without derailing the conversation. Perfect for people (like me and...you?) who have a difficult time staying on point. Here are a five:

(1) For more, read Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information. Simonson, Itamar, Emanuel Rose. This book is good fun. And research based, which I appreciate. In it, Itamar provides a new framework, "The Influence Mix," for thinking about consumer decision making and marketing. You may not agree with him (I can think of at least two Ad executives who took issue with his conclusions), but he will make you think.

(2) For more, read Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Solvers, Lu Hong and Scott Page. (PNAS, November 16, 2004). A scientific study, so it won't make the NY Times Best Seller list. But all of the authors who publish books ultimately rely on people like Lu and Scott, so you can, too.

(3) For more, read Page, Scott. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Princeton University Press, 2007. A zinger on D&I. Scott opens by talking about the difference between Cognitive Diversity and Identity Diversity, and, then, how they relate to each other. The prose is easy on the brain.

(4) For more, read The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving, Karim R. Lakhani, Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter A. Lohse, Jill A. Panetta. (Harvard Business School, October 2006). Another scientific piece. Dry, accurate, poetic.

(5) For more, read Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science, by Alex Pentland. To use the parlance of our generation, Alex is "da Man." I took one of his courses at MIT, and it was like a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose, in summer, for the brain. He and his team study the new science of idea flow, and offer insights into the mysteries of collective intelligence and social influence.

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