In this over-information age, an alarming number of business plans fail because leaders ignore the facts needed to make sound decisions. Misguided perspectives can be blamed on a lack of data, wrong data or the inability to understand relevance. Even in hindsight, some leaders fail to see what went wrong.
A fast-paced culture requires precise planning, effective decisions and timely actions, all relying on dependable information. Leaders who want to move their organizations forward must gather evidence, ask the right questions, verify presumed facts and decipher vast amounts of data.
Business plans suffer when:
Two Types of Thinking
Of all the skills leaders require today, perhaps none is as challenging as adequately processing information. The ability to spot holes in data, conceive solutions and analyze results calls for sharp thinking.
Thinking can be broken down into two primary categories, suggests Harvard Business School Professor Max H. Bazerman, PhD, in The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See (Simon & Schuster, 2015): intuitive and deliberative.
We employ intuitive thinking during crises, when immediacy is required. Our thinking is instantaneous, with emotion as a factor, and it produces reactionary responses. Sudden information is generally incomplete, incorporating whatever is available at the moment.
By contrast, leaders sift through information, take time to gather data and draw conclusions when employing deliberative thinking. Such thinking is reasoned and structured, diving deep into the issues at hand. We gather data from non-immediate sources, compiling and assessing it to make a more systematic evaluation.
Leaders frequently—and unnecessarily—put themselves in the intuitive-thinking mode, Dr. Bazerman asserts. They over-rely on speed, neglecting to step back and analyze data. Consequently, they avoid doing sufficient research and make ill-informed decisions and plans.
Leaders fail to use information efficiently in three distinct ways, each with a specific cause and solution.
1. Missing What’s in Front of You
Bombarded with more information than they can effectively process, leaders can miss things that are “hidden in plain sight.” Information overload causes important facts to be overlooked. In the fallout, outsiders critique these oversights and question leaders’ abilities.
When we consistently miss readily available stimuli we have “bounded awareness.” Our desired goal becomes our overwhelming mission, despite realities that can upend the best-laid plans. When leaders are so caught up in one situational aspect, they fail to observe another, leading to dire problems.
Leaders can overcome bounded awareness by broadening their perspectives and thinking beyond their typical frame of reference. Careful consideration of issues and a more diverse, cross-functional team is paramount. Leaders make better decisions when their teams answer critical questions:
Motivated blindness alters reality to make us see what we want to see (and miss the details we’d rather ignore). To preserve self-esteem, a leader may have a self-serving bias, which causes a false sense of reality. The status quo seems rosy, and problems go unnoticed.
Leaders can counteract a self-serving bias by seeking guidance from a trusted colleague, mentor or professional coach. Work on seeing things from others’ perspectives to broaden your views and ensure decisions benefit others first (i.e., how can I best help my people?).
With too narrow a focus, leaders limit their observations to major issues and ignore the minor, yet nonetheless important, ones. Equally problematic is a preoccupation with one specific matter that pulls focus from the big picture.
Leaders can defeat this inattentional blindness by stepping back from a situation and deliberately examining secondary and tertiary issues. The most effective solutions are achievable only when problems are attacked holistically, not as a series of disconnected parts.
2. Ignoring What’s Hidden from View
Understandably, information outside the forefront is harder to observe, but it may be the most critical to obtain. Immediate thinking, where intuition and emotion dominate, often prevents leaders from considering hidden information. Some leaders believe that if they cover the obvious items, most issues will be under control. This dangerous mindset regards small details as non-critical and not worthy of inspection.
Gradual-change blindness also causes leaders to miss information. When a series of small changes occur, they may be subtle and, on their own, go unrecognized. But their collective effect is dramatic, and leaders may be lulled into thinking that nothing is really happening as gradual shifts play out. Leaders realize something’s wrong only when it’s too late.
Leaders can prevent gradual-change blindness with a timeline view of recent progress. Seek help from those with personal knowledge who can clearly and objectively present the facts. Take regular snapshots of how a situation develops to avoid surprises and reduce risks.
3. Not Wanting to See the Truth
Pride impacts perception and taken to an extreme, a prideful bias becomes a conflict of interest. Leaders make decisions to benefit themselves, either directly or indirectly, at the expense of colleagues or the organization itself. This behavior is typically rooted in fear of failure.
Leaders who request assistance from a reliable colleague, mentor or executive coach will minimize prideful bias, Dr. Bazerman suggests. Feedback from someone who monitors your style and behaviors allows you to recognize prideful tendencies and minimize the roadblocks they cause in your decision-making.
Better observation skills lead to improved insights, decisions and results. You have only one opportunity to get something right the first time. Make it happen by seeing as much as you can.
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