The following is an excerpt from my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (you can get your copy here). This post will help you be more visionary and force yourself to look into the future.
Your team looks to you for new ideas, inspiration, and indicators of how you want to approach change. If you personally never challenge the status quo, you cannot expect them to bring you a bevy of new ideas to help you achieve your vision.
You must first force yourself to regularly question the way things are, so you can break through the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” barrier to create something new. This kind of questioning will help you identify new opportunities or threats before it is too late to do something about them. Vision is great, but action is what gets you there, and for action to occur, you must first identify the opportunities and ideas on which to act.
Many leaders become complacent about looking into the future. They believe they know what lies ahead for their organization. They stop focusing on the future because it seems clear what is in store for them, and they believe that the best use of their energy is to drive current operations. These leaders would do well to heed the sage words of Paul Saffo: “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”
Great leaders consistently look beyond clarity into the uncomfortable ambiguity ahead. They embrace their responsibility to find new ideas that prepare their organization to win in uncertain future environments. Failure to look beyond those short distances will lead you to miss the opportunities and crises that inevitably await.
Do not expect to have all the answers. You will not create all the ideas by yourself. Your team, peers, customers, boss, and other affected stakeholders in your organization will help you identify new opportunities and generate new ideas. Your role in leading the thinking is leading the team to have the right conversation in the first place.
Remember, asking the right questions about the future is more powerful than having the right answers about the past. To lead the thinking, you must see beyond current probabilities to create future possibilities. A maxim designed to remind you to reconsider the world around you is a fantastic jumping-off point for this kind of thinking.
It is easy to be overcome by daily events, and it can be difficult to carve out the mental space required to reflect on your business amid all the meetings, reports, projects, presentations, emails, and dozens of other tasks that consume our time and energy. Your maxim will serve as a regular reminder to call time-out and ask the important questions everyone else is ignoring. Such dedicated “think time” temporarily erases your mental whiteboard and gives you the room you need to draw up new plans and ideas.
One of the biggest barriers to creating new ideas is the raw inertia of organizations. Personally, I am not satisfied with “the way we’ve always done it.” Whenever I am given an explanation of how the organization does something, I ask “Why?” five times. That’s my maxim:
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
By the time I get to the fifth why, I have usually found an insight or an opportunity to improve something.
Because my maxim is simply five whys, it serves as a regular reminder for me to challenge the status quo, continue to learn, and seek new opportunities to do things differently. It also helps me ferret out risks to the business if those five whys reveal outdated assumptions about the world. If we are doing something based on old assumptions and the new reality is different, the actions we are taking are potentially wrong, and we could be unwittingly damaging our business. I see it as my responsibility to find and defuse those time bombs before they blow up in our faces.
I am not the creator of the five whys, but I loved it so much the first time I heard it that I adopted it as my maxim. It is more than a concept to me, though. There is a personal and emotional story behind it. I stole the five whys from one of my first consulting engagement managers. He stole it from the leaders who had taught him and so on. I invite you to steal it from me if you like.
Here’s what happened. My manager and I were standing in line, grabbing lunch at the client site. I explained some complex data and trends I had analyzed earlier in the day. He asked “Why?” In response, I offered a thought on why those trends were occurring. He asked “Why?” again. I stopped and thought about my explanation of the trends. Again I offered my thoughts on the implications of my prior conclusion. He asked “Why?” a third time.
I snapped. “What the hell, dude?”
He then explained how asking “Why?” enough times can lead you to truly understand an issue and generate meaningful insights. He taught me how one simple question, asked repeatedly, could push me to think beyond where we had already thought. I fell in love with the concept. I learned a lot working with that engagement manager and enjoyed my time with him. For me, it is appropriate to have a maxim based on things he taught me. It has been a maxim of mine ever since. Remember, maxims should have personal meaning for you.
– If you’re serious about improving your ability to see the future, grab yourself a copy of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership. There are plenty of suggestions in there for how you can be a more visionary leader. CLICK HERE to get your copy.