Wednesday, August 16, 2020

Seeing in Black and White

Speed and pressure aren’t the only reasons why leaders are tempted to simplify their view on the world to black or white images, but they undoubtedly have the most impact. When people feel stressed or harassed, especially if they feel they have no time beyond the minimum, something has to go. That something is usually complexity or subtlety. Faced with making decisions quickly, no matter how uncertain or complicated, people fall back on black-or-white thinking.

It’s human nature to seek security when you’re feeling anxious or afraid: to look for some simple, comforting place to stand. If that means reducing your view of the world to simplistic certainties and rules of thumb, this seems a small price to pay for a sense of stability. It’s the mental equivalent of Charlie Brown's comfort blanket or sucking your thumb—and many leaders today are addicted to it.

You can see this addiction in the constant demands to have explanations and arguments fit onto one side of a sheet of paper. The ostensible reason is saving time: The senior executive doesn’t have the space in his or her schedule to read lengthy reports. Another is the popular belief that if you can’t say what you need to say in less than 300 words, you haven’t thought it through clearly enough.

It’s easy to have sympathy with managers who want to avoid endless sets of meaningless PowerPoint slides (ugh!) and the usual morass of business-speak and jargon-filled BS that masquerade as reports or briefing papers. But clarity is not the same as brevity. Because something is expressed in a series of sound bites, it doesn’t mean it will be more understandable, and certainly not more sensible. Often, the price of reducing the explanation of a complex issue to a few hundred words is enough over-simplification to make it meaningless. This constant demand for brevity and simplicity does not help senior people make better decisions. It forces them into the business equivalent of getting their information about the world from the tabloids: simple, highly-colored, sensationalized, and 95% fiction.

True brevity and clarity in our complex, highly-colored world takes time—and lots of it. Expressing the essence of a difficult business problem in a very few words would challenge a professional writer with days to spend preparing, editing, and revising. In most businesses, reports or presentations are put together by relatively junior managers with no training in writing skills and perhaps few hours at most to complete the task. As a result, senior managers make critical decisions on the basis of information so reduced in content that it offers no more than a vague, confused, and partial image of reality. It is like asking for advice on whom to marry, and receiving a pile of blurred photographs and two-sentence descriptions. . . all except for the single candidate favored by the person providing the advice.That candidate gets a large, clear photograph and two paragraphs of enthusiastic support. Basing business decisions on such simple, “one-side-of-a-piece-of-paper” information reduces executives to virtual idiots, whatever their personal expertise and track-record.

Many years ago, I worked in an organization where one particular director was the terror of every person who ever had to submit a report or make a presentation to the Board. All the other Board members arrived weighed down with briefing papers from their subordinates; he never had anything save the agenda. They relied on subordinates to reduce the complexity of the choices facing the Board to simple, one page statements of how they should proceed. He used his brain, his own ability to think through the issues, and his time to fasten on the weak points of a presentation, or the places where issues had been skated over to produce a simpler picture. Anyone who tried to miss out important points found themselves pinned down with sharp, incisive questions and a demand to go away and think about it some more. Was he clever than his colleagues? No. Did he have more time available? No. Did he do something they failed to do? Yes, he did. He never allowed his subordinates to confuse him by over-simplifying an issue or omitting key areas of concern for the sake of brevity.

A leader’s role is simple in concept, though far harder in practice. It is to get the best available people into key roles, then help them produce the best results they are capable of producing. Good leaders serve those they lead. Mediocre leaders expect to be served with whatever they mistakenly believe will make their lives easier. The very worst leaders demand to be fed a diet of simplified information that will never, ever, question their biases and preconceptions, or force them to think beyond their immediate levels of prejudice.

Simplistic, black-and-white thinking produces poor leadership. It is becoming more common, not because leaders are generally declining in quality, but because more are being denied the time to do their jobs properly. Slowing down, sorting out proper work priorities, and delegating correctly usually provide a complete cure. If that still doesn’t work, you have the wrong person in a leadership role.

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Matt Wilson said...

Been reading this blog for a few months now, and have been consistently impressed. You articulate many thoughts that I've been unable to clearly express.

5:30 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Matt.

It's regular readers like you who make all the work worthwhile.

5:50 PM  
Dean said...

I think the "need for speed" is also made more severe when you are constantly taking more onto your plate than you can reasonably handle. And by within reason, I mean still including near herculean efforts. As a result there is no chance for thinking. This, I think, manifests itself in various ways best captured by the general work mode known as "keep your head down and pencil wagging." It also manifests itself by constantly avoiding the key questions, chief of which is why should I be doing whatever it is that is on one's task list.

When you have too much to do, either because you have let too much on to your 40 acres or because of externally imposed events, paradoxically you never think you have time to think when that is exactly the thing you need to do before you engage. There just never is the time.

5:54 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

You are so right, Dean.

The time you most need to stop and think is exactly the time when you have just convinced yourself that you have no time to do either.

Great comment!

6:00 PM  

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