Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 11, 2016
Are we there yet?
I serve on a few boards of directors, and my role is often to coach the leaders of those companies. A place where I am sometimes in conflict with my geniuses is instilling in them a sense of urgency. I am interested in the science of productivity and how to improve it, so I have turned to a new book by Charles Duhigg, “Smarter Faster Better.”
Duhigg says, “enhanced productivity flows from making certain choices in certain ways.” And the baseline necessity for productivity is motivation – or more precisely one’s perception of the “locus of control” – i.e. do you react to things that happen to you or do you feel in charge of your own destiny?
The good news is that how you think about control is not innate; it can be a “learned skill.” Duhigg talks about the new Marine Corps, which has revamped basic training – moving from the “taking orders” model to creating a “vocabulary for ambition – a bias toward action – a will to act.” In other words, do something – even if it is later proven to be wrong. (This can be a very nuanced discussion when moved from basic training to the fog of war – when a split decision involves life and death.)
In the entrepreneurial startup world, when faced with 150 emails, just pick one and start answering it – find any choice that lets you exert control. It’s the same with tasks. Grab one and don’t just lean in – dive in. But connect that action with an affirmation of yours and the company’s values. In other words, pick the hardest email that matters the most in the immediate time frame. Actions need to be linked to decisions that have meaning.
In meetings, I am intolerant when the elephant in the room is ignored and left to eat the peanuts. Part of the locus of control discussion means picking the right thing to “locus on” – the monthly financials versus the company picnic. Green beans before mac and cheese. Duhigg says it’s important to start with the larger issues.
Duhigg also studies order and chaos, certainty and ambiguity – in airplanes. He recounts the crash of Air France flight 447, where the pilot fell prey to a mental glitch called “cognitive tunneling” – focusing intently on the first thing that gets your attention. In this case, the pilot seized on whether the plane was “level” and ignored the stall horn. He could only see what he first focused on – which in fact was relatively meaningless. Level was not his problem – it was lift.
I see this in companies frequently. The way I combat it is to take a line from my favorite television character – Ray Donovan. Donovan is a fixer and when asked by a prospective client what he does to deserve such a large fee, he says, “I change the story.” So when I think the CEO is tunneling in on something irrelevant, rather than argue, I say to him – OK, I concede, let’s assume everything you have just said is true, then, what’s the next step? I don’t want to win the small argument. I want to call attention to the fact that your plane is about to crash into a mountain unless you do something.
This leads to forcing the CEO to “envision multiple futures.” Can he or she hold “multiple conflicting outcomes” without becoming unsettled? It is the ability to not just tolerate ambiguity, but rather to embrace it. Try to create a narrative of a likely outcome. Since decision-making requires anticipating future possibilities or probabilities, one of the best ways to make them real is to try to tell a full story. And now here is the kicker. Duhigg says not just the CEO, but make everyone on the team tell a story. The meeting shouldn’t end until everyone has spoken. The goal is productivity.
I race sailboats and there is a concept called VMG – velocity made good. It is a measure not just of your boat speed, but how it is related to the direction to the mark. In other words, it doesn’t matter how fast you are going if you are going in the wrong direction.
Rule No. 472
Hard choices – make them.