group awareness

Beating complexity with a disciplined, collaborative process of a diverse, aware group

Whatever business we’re in, we face more disruptive technologies, more regulations, and more competition. No one person can keep on top of all that. People are anxious, curious, distracted, overconfident. Given the speed of change and the complexity of our environment, there are more ideas, possibilities, initiatives, and challenges coming at us all the time. Some people are better than others at keeping focus. We need to open up our thinking to a broader awareness. But we need to do so in a simple, disciplined way, so that the focus is on the substance and not the process.

Change isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s always been with us. The telling points now are the speed and novelty of the changes, and the uncertainty of whether and how they will happen: we just don’t know what will happen because we’ve never had these technologies before.

To perform well in a complex environment—that is, to solve problems, make decisions, plan, execute, and learn—you need the disciplined, collaborative process of a diverse, aware group.

Let’s take a look at those elements.

A diverse, aware group

To take on complexity, one person is rarely enough. Edgar Schein, the father of organizational culture from MIT, states: in a complex environment ‘managers as individuals no longer know enough to make decisions and get things done.’ They need a team, and for the team to do their job well.

There are too many traps for an individual to fall into, in both planning and performing. These are the cognitive errors that we mere mortals keep making day after day. We are optimistic by nature and, research suggests, systematically overconfident. Can we build it? Yes we can, no matter what the facts say. If we’ve already invested time and effort, then we’ll spend even more to get our job done, ignoring advice to cut our losses.

What evidence do we hold onto to support these decisions? That’s when we toss objectivity aside. We reach for data that supports our hunches, and downplay the rest. We hold up our personal experience as indubitable proof, far more powerful than what thousands of others may have seen or done. And data from yesterday has to be more relevant than data from last year, right?

The fact is we regularly rely on a number of biases to make poor decisions in the face of contrary evidence. So it makes sense for a team to get together to work out how best to pull off an important mission. What then if everyone in the team had the same background and skills, and thought the same? We’re a bit nervous when it comes to talking about diversity. There is no doubting that fighter pilots are not the most diverse group of people on earth, and equally that our training draws our thinking and actions even more tightly together. Within the bounds of our fighter pilot circles, we do push to call on as diverse a group as possible for our ground and air missions, and include people who are ‘outlier’ personalities within the force.

Diversity can offer any number of perspectives, across gender, age, technical expertise, education, personality type, ethnicity, social interests—anything that can offer your team an alternative view of similar facts. If you want to perform well through complexity, you want diversity on your team.

Creativity through a disciplined process

With all that diversity, you can expect differing opinions on how to act, and how to begin that action. That’s where a disciplined process comes in. A disciplined process (like Flawless Execution or “Flex” for example) brings diverse ideas to a common objective focus. At each stage of the process, there are clear questions being asked, and clear answers being sought. The source of those answers doesn’t matter, objectivity does. It’s like making a strong cable out of thin wires. The process laces the diverse strands of facts and opinion together into one strong plan of action.

It’s hard to overstate the power of a disciplined process. Studies have shown that the process used to make decisions (and empower decision making) can have over six times the impact than the analysis it’s based on. This really rams home the point that teams and companies often overplay data analysis. It explains why we often suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’, spending more time than we should on analysis, and delaying the decisions we need to make. Perhaps it’s because analysis is the easiest thing to do, and the one thing that business analysts are trained to do well. Getting accurate data is hard. Making good decisions is harder.

Making good decisions consistently is harder still. We’re as much of a fan of Jim Collins as anyone. In Great by Choice, Collins writes that ‘the signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change: the signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency’. That’s again where a reliable process comes in—to drive consistent quality in your decisions and actions.

People sometimes misunderstand processes, and give them a bad rap. The objections are that they’re a straitjacket, that they stifle creativity, that they take the fun out of work. Bad processes can do that. Good processes don’t. As Jim Collins calls it: ‘The great task, rarely achieved, is to blend creative intensity with relentless discipline so as to amplify the creativity rather than destroy it.’

Are pilots concerned about creativity? Not so much. Are we concerned about the creativity of our clients? Very much so. We know creativity is a necessary ingredient of their success.

But we are more concerned about our clients’ productivity and working culture. A good process (such as Flex) does one big thing to help enormously: it reduces friction. In every meeting, people know what they’re aiming to do, and how they will do it. It saves a heck of a lot of time, a heck of a lot of argument, and a great many working relationships.

Untimely, people may have different personalities and different world views. They may not even like each other. But give them a clear, disciplined, collaborative process to be guided by, and they will beat complexity each and every time.

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