The Strategic Leader’s Work (Experiments)

Part 7 of 7 in a series on Strategic Leadership

In this post, we conclude our examination of strategic leadership by focusing on, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood and sometimes avoided dimensions of the strategic leader’s responsibilities.

  1. Manage and lead yourself
  2. Create the team, generate their commitment, and get clear on who’s responsible for what.
  3. Set the vision
  4. Intentionally set time aside for thinking
  5. Establish the organizational framework and continuously connect the dots to fulfill the vision
  6. Identify what matters most
  7. Commission teams to run experiments to begin to answer the question to fulfill the vision


A Story of Frustration and Self-Inflicted Wounds

Several years ago, I was working with a team of leaders in a large organization and the topic was “strategic leadership.”  I shared many of the points listed above, and then got to the last part – that strategic leaders run experiments; they can’t get “the right” answer.  By definition, if strategic questions are those questions that have no “textbook” answer, how could you possibly get “the right” answer to those question?

There was a collective sigh that went up from the room.  When they realized the pressure and unrealistic expectations under which they were operating, it was like the sun came out after days of clouds and rain.  It didn’t make the issue any less VUCA-filled; it simply shifted their “Way of Being” and opened up new possibilities that their anxiety-filled former selves couldn’t see.  They had been setting unreasonable expectations (that no one had implicitly set) that led to frustration, guilt, shame, and anxiety.

Getting the “Right Answer”

Getting the “right answer” is partially a product of our educational system.  Making sure you filled in the right bubble on the answer sheet determines whether or not you’re successful – and this starts at a very young age.  We’re rewarded by our parents for being “good” and punished for being “bad.”  This reward and punishment continues throughout our elementary, secondary, college, and post-graduate pursuits.  Getting the “right” answer is a badge of honor.  I remember my dad putting my report card on the bulletin board at his work when I made the honor roll (something that happened rarely).   But getting “the right answer” is impossible in strategic leadership.  It becomes “playing not to lose” instead of “playing to win.”

How many of us put this pressure on ourselves and others through having the unrealistic expectation that, for every strategic question, there has to be a “right” answer – that we can’t fail or miss the mark?  What emotions do these expectations produce and how do those emotions shape what’s possible and keep us from possibilities that might be a better path?  I’m not talking about catastrophic failures, but taking a deliberate approach to explore the theories we operate from (but more about that later).

I love one of my client’s stated cultural values – imperfection.  They actually are setting a valuable behavioral expectation that enables innovation and answers to emerge from the VUCA mess that organizations live in and for which the senior leaders are responsible for navigating.  This can’t happen if the expectation is that every answer has to be “perfect.”

I recently worked with, perhaps, the best team of leaders I’ve ever seen.  They are a cohesive team of committed enterprise leaders, attempting to navigate the increasingly commoditized market space in which they’ve successfully competed for decades.  As they engaged in strategic conversation about the future of their business, they unconsciously slipped into this “right answer” mentality.  This mindset, combined with the accompanying emotions that typically present, closes down possibilities and limits creative thinking.  You can’t do your best work when you’re experiencing anxiety (“I need to know what’s going to happen in the future.”), resentment (“I can’t accept that what used to work for us no longer does.”), or resignation (“There are no possibilities for us from where we are.  We may as well close the doors.”).

You Can’t Do It Yourself

Another trap that senior leaders fall into is believing that they, individually, have to come up with “the right answer” to every strategic issue the organization faces.  After all, many of them were hired because of their technical expertise and track record of producing results.

When combined with Anderson and Adams’ theories of the levels of development (see my earlier post, “Where are You and Did You Know You Were There?”) and their research that reveals that 70% of all leaders are operating at the “Reactive” (or, as Robert Kegan’s theory calls it, “Socialized Mind”) stage of development, we can see how many leaders are caught in a trap.  At this stage, we define ourselves based on what we think other people think we should be and do and believe that part of that is our ability to get things done.  Our ability to get things done; not through or with others, but the hero badge we get for “saving the day.”  Our primary behaviors at this level revolve around protecting, complying, or controlling.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to navigate VUCA from this stage of development.

When dealing with strategic issues and working to come up with a way forward in response to the priority of a strategic question, leaders have to realize that they can’t do it themselves.  That’s why they’ve assembled the team of talented, committed, highly competent people.

Are You Using the Team You’ve Assembled?

In several of my jobs, I’ve always felt like a reference book in a library or, even worse, lived behind that little glass box that says, “In case of emergency, break glass.”  I felt isolated and not part of the team or able to use what I knew and contribute to the organization until an “emergency” broke out, then I’d be summoned to share and returned to my box until the next emergency.

There’s a certain degree of hubris present when leaders believe they have all the answers.  But my philosophy always was to try and hire people who knew more than me.  After all, I couldn’t know everything about everything and I could only see things from my perspective, often missing a view that was informative and strategy-changing, opening up new possibilities and channels of thought.

By using the team you’ve assembled to answer the questions, you’re tapping into an invaluable resource that can create innovative paths forward – as long as your team isn’t a bunch of “Reactive” or “Socialized Mind” leaders.  Then you’ll have competition to show who’s smartest and who can get things done.  You’ll end up with individuals competing against each other to showcase their abilities while getting no closer to the solutions you need.

In their latest book, “Scaling Leadership,” Anderson and Adams write about the process:

“A critical prerequisite to effective organizational leadership is leadership of self.  We define self-leadership as creating outcomes that matter most.  Optimal self-leadership is the wherewithal to show up in our lives in ways that best serve our desired outcomes… Organizational leadership is scaling the capacity and capability in the organization to create outcomes that mater most… We need leadership at all levels that is effective enough, mature enough, wise enough, and collectively intelligent enough to see us through…”

One way they suggest creating this kind of leadership is to begin by the senior leader working on himself or herself to move to the “Creative” or “Self-Authoring” stage, and then begin working with his or her direct reports to help them do the same.  The best way, they believe, to make this move is with the help of a talented coach.

Margaret Mead wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of talented committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Having a small group of talented, committed, creative-level leaders is a key to long-term organizational viability and inventing answers to the strategic questions that help achieve the compelling vision you’ve established.

There is No “Right” Answer! 

When faced with a strategic question, there is no, single, “right” answer.  There are only hypotheses and experiments to run that prove your hypothesis right or wrong. Edmondson and Verdin (“Your Strategy Should be a Hypothesis You Constantly Adjust, HBR, November, 2011) write, “An alternative perspective on strategy and execution – one that we argue is more in tune with the nature of value creation in a world marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) – conceive of strategy as a hypothesis rather than a plan.  Like all hypotheses, it starts with situation assessment and analysis…  also like all hypotheses, it must be tested through action…” But what would it look like to conduct an organizational experiment?

In his book, “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins shows one way to engage in the experiments that allow us to prove or disprove our hypotheses.  In his follow-up to “Good to Great,” Jim Collins poses the question, “Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?”  His answer: “Greatness is first and foremost a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”  Those companies that create, prevail, and thrive, even in chaos, beat their industry index by at least ten times – what he calls, “10X companies.”  One of the practices he observed in these companies, was what he called, Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs. 

A bullet is “an empirical test aimed at learning what works and that meets three criteria:

  • Low cost
  • Low risk (Low risk doesn’t mean high probability of success; low risk means that there are minimal consequences if the bullet goes awry or hits nothing
  • Low distraction for the overall enterprise; it might be very high distraction for one or a few individuals”

The model:

  • Fire bullets
  • Assess: Did you hit anything?
  • Consider: Do any of your successful bullets merit conversion to a big cannonball?
  • Convert: Concentrate resources and fire a cannonball, once calibrated
  • Don’t fire uncalibrated cannonballs
  • Terminate bullets that show no evidence of eventual success

Collins writes:“In the face of instability, uncertainty, and rapid change, relying upon pure analysis will likely not work, and just might get you killed.  Analytic skills still matter, but empirical validation matters much more.

You don’t need any special predictive ability to thrive in uncertainty.  You need to marry relentless discipline with creativity, neither letting discipline inhibit creativity nor letting creativity erode discipline.”

Another resource suggests “8 Things to Do Before You Run a Business Experiment” (HBR, February 8, 2019)

  1. Make sure you can measure
  2. Make sure you have someone who has the statistical fluency to properly design, implement, and analyze experiments
  3. Try designing and running a simple A/B test from scratch in and environment you entirely control
  4. Run several experiments at once; don’t look for the “big win”
  5. Create partnerships within the organization
  6. Post detailed designs and planned analyses publicly in advance of launch
  7. Remember that experiments take time and scale
  8. Overhaul your incentive programs. They require taking short-term risks and often failing

Is This Work Moving Us Towards Our Vision?

“There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” – W. Edwards Deming

Dr. Deming’s observation captures the vital importance of the strategic leader’s work.  Organizations become irrelevant and ineffective when they pursue work that produces little-to-no results.  What’s the senior leader’s job?  If he or she has framed the questions and assembled the team to conduct the experiments to find a way forward, is it time for him or her to prop your feet up on the desk or take a vacation?

I’d like to suggest four important ways that senior strategic leaders can help their talented teams face the VUCA-filled issues:

  • Provide them with the parameters within which they can operate (commission the team)
    • Create a purpose statement that defines why the team exists and what they’re to address
    • Clarify team roles –
      • Team sponsor (has the authority to implement changes recommended by the team; helps identify the issue and provides evaluation criteria; provides guidelines; defines constraints and available resources; communicates with and provides support to the team)
      • Team leader (knows the most about the issues being addressed, provides leadership, handles team logistics, and keeps the team on task)
      • Team facilitator (a process and interpersonal relations expert who can guide the team throughout the process; plans activities with the team leader)
      • Team members (familiar with the work being done, willing to invest time and energy to create a solution, patient, and committed)
    • Develop a Team Charter
      • The issue/purpose
      • Expected outcomes
      • Any constraints (budget, time, processes, etc.)
      • Resources available to the team
      • Methods of communication
      • The expected duration of the team’s existence
      • The team leader
      • The team facilitator
  • Participate with the teams, but don’t be the sole source of the answer
  • Make sure they’re on track by providing periodic check-ins where the team can share its results, identify its problems, and work through their failed experiments.
  • Celebrate success – and even the failures.  As Thomas Edison famously said in an interview after being asked how it felt to have failed 2,000 times in his attempt to invent the light bulb, “I didn’t fail.  I know 2,000 ways that don’t work!”

Strategic leadership is a little-understood, seldom-practiced, essential role in any organization.  I hope this series has introduced you to one way to begin to consider why it’s important, what it consists of, and how you might become a beginner and learn some of the key skills required.  Don’t go it alone.  Get some help from those who know and are experienced in strategic leadership practices.  And don’t get fixated on the “right answer.”

© Geoff Davis, 6/14/19

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