Simple Solutions within the Complex

Last year I posted several Leadership Minutes about Proficiency and Competence in which I spoke of a leader’s need to work to the point where one knows their craft so well that their proficiency is based in the subconscious, that is, that they are unconsciously competent (a UC). You can review those videos online or at [ Video 1 ] [ Video 2 ]

That being said, I recently heard a story that ties into this same idea of so deeply knowing what you do that the answers come quickly and easily, at time bewildering your direct reports. Simple answers come to the proficient leader that is always practicing, studying, and thinking about her craft.

The story was widely circulated in the early 2000s. It appeared online and in emails in many different versions. It goes something like this.

A philosophy professor gave an unusual test to his class. As they watched him, he lifted his chair onto his desk and wrote on the board: “Prove to me that this chair does not exist.” The class went to work, composing long complex explanations related to perception, existentialism, epistemology and the like. However, there was one student who took less than thirty seconds to answer and handed in his paper before many of the students even began to write. This obviously attracting surprised glances from his classmates as well as his professor. The following week the class received their grades for the test. The student who took less than thirty seconds to answer the test received the only “A” grade in the class. His answer was simply, “What chair?”

The story is one of a multitude of similar urban myths which poke fun of high-minded academia, in which an apparently very difficult or impossible question is destroyed by a terse comprehensive answer.

As a leader, proficiency in your craft comes only with long term, repeated exposure to the decisions, the systems and the circumstances with which you deal. The highly proficient leader can see the simple, encompassing answer within the complex. For the committed leader, proficiency — that is being an unconscious competent — is attainable if he or she is willing to put in the time.

I made a quick video related to this post. You can view it HERE. If you like it, please share it.

Dumbest Guy in the Room

As an organizational leader, it is really easy to create an environment in which you are always the smartest person in the room. The person “in the know.” Your direct reports look to you for vision and direction and they faithfully carry out the plan. In moments of uncertainty, they look to you and you render your decision. If not kept in check, this environment can unknowingly poison both your perspective of self and your future growth as a leader.

The strategic leader intentionally, and frequently surrounds self with people who are smarter than they are. They relish being “The Dumbest Person in the Room.” They understand that this is where growth happens, where new ideas are generated, and tolerances are stretched into new avenues of creative expression. These new insights tend to be elusive without this intentional process.

Don’t wait until the next time you need insight to find a mentor or coach. Furthermore, don’t find a mentor or coach that is specific to your field. They think like you do. Find someone different, an artist, a theologian, a thespian, an architect or doctor and meet with them regularly. The more unrelated to your life experience the further they will draw you from your box. Besides, it is a pleasant respite to not have all the answers.

And most importantly, remember, ignorance in this case truly can be bliss!

Here is a short video to make the point.

Where Are You?

Being the extraordinary leader that you are, your mind is probably—at this very moment—buzzing with new plans, fresh direction and a clearer vision for the days ahead. However, there’s one key point that will determine how successful you will be, it is the understanding of your Current Reality.

When was the last time you thought about your current reality?

Remember the last time you went to the mall. If you are like me, the game plan—like most men—was “in the door, find the item, make the purchase, out the door.” If you are unfamiliar with the particular mall, this most likely required a brief stop at the “Directory” sign somewhere near the entrance.

So here you are at the mall, ready for action.

You quickly scan the list to find the store that is most likely to have your item and you note its location. It is 39A. Now there is one more important piece of information that you need. You know that your store is at 39A, but where are you? Fortunately, the Mall has come to your aid and a placed big red arrow that says “You are here.”

You now formulate a simple navigation strategy, You are here… 39A is there… and you are on your way.

As you are planning the future of your organization and plotting the navigational points along the way, someone needs to call attention to your big red arrow.

Many organizational leaders fail in the moving forward because they started from an unrealized starting point. They thought they were on firmer ground than they were, or in a different place. Painting the picture of your current reality is the vital first step to a changed future. Many organizations need to stay where they are—for a season—and build the systems to propel them forward before simply launching out and hoping that everything will fall into place. Launching without knowledge of the supporting infrastructure rarely ever works.

Remember, moving forward without realistic foundational knowledge adds to the frustration of declining, struggling organizations. In many cases, it is precisely that which brought them there. The resistance will be great, the people unsure, trust levels will be low and buy-in will be absent. Before you start: Review the data, get the numbers, ask the questions, look deep and then look deeper still. Once you have discovered your true current reality, and deal with any deficiencies you uncover, you can bring your organization forward with confidence.

Being Great

There are those times in life when you encounter greatness. It takes your breath away. It’s one of those things when everything comes together in perfect harmony and you find yourself in the midst of something that just feels right… and you are inspired.

I had such an experience when I was called to do a business seminar for the leaders in an organization that hires me from time to time. I had worked as a freelance marketing adviser for this company in the late ’80’s but it had been years since I had been there to consult. I remember telling the then-owner (after our first meeting) that I would not advise on their ad campaign. He was shocked, and then I clarified.

It was early in my career and I had left an art director position for a company in Los Angeles to strike out on my own. I knew what it meant to represent the company which I had worked for and was greatly successful in driving campaigns to increase market share and product awareness, however, I knew little of this new company.

Back to the story. He was shocked. This “Ad Guy” whom he had paid travel expenses to come and advise him said that he would not. I could see his discomfort. Then I clarified. I would not advise because I knew little about their product. So he suggested that I spend the afternoon in the conference room with his in-house marketing staff and they could show me their product, advise me on how it worked, and show me the previous ad campaigns they had run.

I shocked them again. During that meeting, I refused to see any earlier campaigns (standard practice for me) because I did not want to be influenced by their previous attempts. Nor did I want to see the trade magazines they placed before me because the reason they were hiring me is that they wanted an outside evaluation of their product. Frustrated, the marketing team asked me; “So, what do you want?” My reply was simple.

I want to build it!
I scheduled an appointment (the next Monday morning) to work on the factory floor and actually build the product on the assembly line. I needed to know the nuts and bolts. Shock again!

Hear me on this. While I worked on that line, I understood the product deeper than most of the executives in that conference room. In fact, when it came time to advise on the ad campaign, I also advised on several product enhancements and a very small but beneficial change to the assembly line workflow that would save a small, but not insignificant amount of money every year. But I had to get under the hood to see those potential improvements. Their shock gave way to excitement.

Now I started this piece talking about greatness. I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about that company.

Returning years later to hold a seminar for their leaders, I walked into a completely different environment. The greasy carpet in the lobby, the smell of a factory, the noise and the unprofessional receptionist had all been replaced. Instead, I encountered what amounted to a professionally decorated sanctuary of a waiting room and an attentive and extremely professional host. Furthermore, the noise and smell of the factory had given way to a gentle classical masterpiece playing during my very short wait. In fact, as I walked in I was surprised to see an LCD screen that welcomed me (and a short list of other scheduled appointments) by name. Something had changed. Someone had gone under the hood. Someone had entered the business with the eyes of a first-timer, and it was the new owner.

Before any employee knew who he was, he scheduled an appointment to meet with the staff, posing as a prospective new client. What he saw and experienced shook the company to its foundation, but also to greatness. He trained, fired and hired employees to mold the organization to his vision of excellence. He modeled it from the top and it showed. From the office of the CEO to the receptionist who offered me a bottle of water during my short wait, everything was harmonious. Their corporate culture had changed. It had been defined. Now, they had asked me to come back to train his lead staff. He had heard of my day “on the line” and years later told his key people to get me back.

Today, he leads a company of excellence… And yes, he still calls me to advise from time to time. He did for the company what I had done for the product so many years before.