Since the advent of nuclear weapons, there have been several incidents where false alarms might have caused a cascade to global thermonuclear annihilation. One such episode was triggered by a flock of Canada geese, one by meteor showers, one by a malfunctioning chip, and one by a rocket researching the aurora borealis. Thankfully, in each case, the folks with their fingers on the button decided to see if there was something worth ending the world over. Keeping your powder dry (or your atoms separate) until you can confirm the nature of the issue is rather important.
So why are leadership teams so prone to launching all-out attacks based on one data point?
Imagine you’re sitting in a leadership team meeting. At some point, someone raises an issue that popped up in their department this morning. Maybe the servers were down for two hours or 40% of the staff in one warehouse called in sick, or you lost a competitive bid on a contract.
What happens when someone shares a data point that suggests you have a problem?
Often, I see teams go straight to the launch codes without double-checking that there’s an actual threat.
Why You Pull the Alarm
There are many reasons why your team might want to chase after a single data point:
- It sounds alarming and the instinct to protect the organization kicks in
- The problem is more concrete and tangible than the long-range issue you were supposed to be talking about
- It’s satisfying to grab something in the moment and make it better
- No one trusts the person in charge to solve the problem on their own
What’s Wrong with Getting a Jump on the Issues?
As with the other suboptimal ways leadership teams use their meeting time (see my recent posts on using meetings to make decisions or design processes), chasing after problems based on a single data point is both inefficient and ineffective. Here are a few of my concerns:
- What you think is a nuclear attack might just be a flock of geese. Overreacting can be costly
- Jumping on a problem means disempowering the person who is in charge of monitoring and course-correcting
- Zeroing in on a single issue during scarce leadership team time means detracting from the time you could be spending on issues that are more appropriate for your level
Stick to Patterns, not Points
If you’re not supposed to chase after discrete problems, what are you supposed to do? I encourage leadership teams to focus on patterns, not points. Here’s what I mean:
Ensure there’s a plan to address the issue:
- Briefly discuss the nature of the problem, then identify who is responsible for investigating it further
- Call out any inter-dependencies or stakeholders who should be consulted to fully understand or remedy the problem
- Ask the responsible person to research the relevant data and come back to the leadership team with any concerning trends
Then get back to adding your unique value by:
- Revisiting your risk protocols, leading indicators, and scenario plans to ensure the current problem has been accounted for
- Scheduling time to have a fulsome conversation about a broader issue that encapsulates the problem
- Engaging an external party to educate you about external market trends or leading practices that relate to the problem you had
There are several benefits of keeping your leadership team focused on patterns rather than points.
- Better prioritization of the team’s time on the most important issues, which means you don’t miss something important while dealing with something urgent
- More systemic views of issues, which means the solutions are more likely to work and endure
- Transparency of your risk tolerance and thresholds for escalation, which means your team feels more empowered to address issues autonomously
- Clusters of issues are considered together rather than piecemeal, which leads to more holistic approaches that are better coordinated across different functions
It is such a colossal waste of time to send your leadership team spinning over one possibly erroneous, errant, or ephemeral data point. Before you invest time in an issue, make sure there’s a there there.
How can you help your team pause the action and focus on patterns rather than points?