When Trial and Error Is Foolish

by Jan 23, 2020Business Growth, Leadership

If you watch people put together a new object like an IKEA bookcase or a Lego® set, you notice how and when people use the instructions, if at all. I really dislike instructions and manuals, taking pride (too much, I admit) in the trial and error approach. Sometimes that works out and though I hate to admit it, I may even feel smug when it does work well.

When we are working on a concrete object, it’s fairly easy to notice when things aren’t right, and we can see it in real time and make changes, immediately. It can be a lot of fun to fly by the seat of our pants. It also reinforces the idea that we can figure things out, which, being human means we often over-generalize. If the risk is low, assembling a toy for example, forge ahead! However, most of us apply a learn-as-we-go approach when the cost of doing so is high. People don’t do this because they are foolish, but because they are human and fall into decision traps that are invisible.

Leaders Don’t Get An Instruction Book  

Just within the past week, I have heard executives assert that the “we will figure it out” approach is fine in the following circumstances:

  • A board faced with very negative feedback about a CEO
  • A leadership team facing disruption due to team members leaving
  • A leadership team with new members
  • A board attempting to steer itself away from tactics
  • A leadership team planning for a divestiture

All of these situations can lull people into thinking that they will find their way, figure it out, and further, that asking for help is a sign of weakness. These situations also have in common that the leaders are working at close range on matters that are often ambiguous and invite us to draw conclusions that may or may not be accurate.

Leaders need to rely upon their judgement. They also benefit greatly from independent advice but many ask for it only when their train looks like it’s headed off the tracks, or worse is already in the ditch on fire. Why? Because, unconsciously many of us do not value advice that prevents a problem or speeds up progress. We cheer for the fire-fighter and ignore the Fire Marshall but both save lives.

While there isn’t an instruction manual for leaders, it is very possible to improve thinking and decision-making. Share on X

In fairness, another reason a leader might not reach out for help is they don’t know who to call when they know they need something but can’t define what it is. This is exactly the time to talk to someone who isn’t selling products. Too often a person with the word “consultant” on their business card is really selling billable hours, methodology, or the latest trick. No wonder leaders are hesitant to reach out.

How To Decide

When risk is high and visibility low, the stakes are high and it’s worth getting help. The other scenarios are more straightforward. Even when stakes are high, if visibility is also, the decisions are more obvious.

I wrote a lot about this in High-Stakes Leadership and my clients have found it helpful to simply think categorically on two dimensions – Risk and Visibility. Risk/Reward matrices and analysis are also useful but when leaders are candid about what they know, don’t know, and how they know what they believe is true, it yields an entirely different level of conversation.

While there isn’t an instruction manual for leaders, it is very possible to improve thinking and decision-making. It is far more likely when learning is on the leader’s agenda. Is it on yours? 

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