Everyday leadership: Don’t underestimate value of ‘what if’ questions

I recently read a book by Collins and Hansen titled, “Great by Choice” (2011). Collins is also the author of “Built to Last” and “Good to Great.” In the most recent book, Collins and Hansen focus on performance in a time of uncertainty, chaos, and luck. We all know from experience that these variables are increasing dramatically in the lives of our organizations.

They studied companies in pairs with common beginnings and contrasted by long-term success. Successful companies were found to have empirical creativity, fanatic discipline, and productive paranoia.

Empirical creativity was demonstrated by what Collins called firing bullets then cannons. The successful companies were not more creative than their less successful competitors. They just used their creativity in different ways. In the study, companies with the most success employed a number of small tests (the bullets) and then took the big risk (the cannon). Exhausting preparation, practice and analysis were performed and then action was taken. Less successful companies more frequently bet the company on large, risky endeavors with little empirical data to support their actions.

Often the successful companies copied best practices from previously successful companies, not inventing them from whole cloth. They succeeded because of their fanatic discipline. When a course of action was chosen, they were consistent over time with their values, long-term goals, performance standards, and methods. Big shifts in strategy were less common with successful companies. They stayed the course through good times and bad. Another characteristic of fanatic discipline was the commitment to a conservative, consistent growth. They set a pace and were able to maintain an acceptable growth level over a long period of time. Even today we often hear about companies that grew so fast they put themselves out of business.

Collins also described the successful companies as consumed with productive paranoia. What if questions were constantly being asked. Potential scenarios were brainstormed and actions implemented to hedge against dangerous possibilities. Leaders of these companies considered failure on a regular basis. Many of these threatening situations never arose, but when they did, the best companies were ready and timely with their responses.

The research behind the book, “Great by Choice,” took nine years of examining historical data and involved seven pairs of comparable companies. The authors found that although all the companies had unforeseen circumstances that impacted their companies, success resulted from conscious choice and discipline.

Over the years I have practiced as a leadership consultant, I have facilitated numerous sessions on strategic planning. A part of each of these sessions was dedicated to identify and prioritizing potential threats to the organization. Then actions were created and implemented. This book suggests the need to hold these types of sessions on a regular basis. Preparation not luck is the key to long-term success. Even in days of constant uncertainty, the leaders who involve their employees, worry about the future, and put defensive actions in place are best able to survive. Success occurs because of the actions of leaders and followers who are future-oriented.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised third printing of “The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success,” visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday.