Strategy folks are often stereotyped for being overly optimistic and downright Pollyannaish about how wonderful and profitable opportunities could be, whereas, risk management folks are typecasts for being too skeptical and Chicken Littles about all of the different things that can go wrong. Is there any merit to these criticisms? What, if anything, can one do about it?
Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Alywin Lewis speak about his comeback from a sudden and public departure from his role as CEO and president of Sears Holdings in 2008. Lewis's incredibly positive attitude and outlook on life, and most especially his mantra for "no grump bunnies" was striking and inspirational. In his eyes, "grump bunnies", or people who do not share his positive attitude and perspective brought him down and decreased his business's ability to succeed.
Lewis is now the CEO of Potbelly Sandwich Shop where he has gone as far as exiting any grump bunnies from the executive ranks and embedding "positive energy" into the stated company values. Listening to Lewis, I admired his perseverance, self-awareness, and ever-green positive perspective -- and I took away a number of other positive nuggets of his mantra, including:
* Start with 'how' instead of 'why not'
* If you act like a victim, life will make you a victim
* Give me the knowledge to know what to do, and the courage to do it
In addition to these nuggets, I also found myself thinking about how to reconcile this positive-perspective with the other half of the story.
We have all met unwaveringly positive individuals like Lewis. However, there is a fine line between being optimistic and blindly counting on positive outcomes. Wearing rose-colored glasses will not make everything turn out rosy.
There is also a place and value for contra-perspectives and professional skepticism in organizations. For example, introducing a contra-perspective into major decisions adds an additional level of rigor, through introducing possibilities and options that may not have been considered otherwise.
However, this perspective can come in both constructive and destructive forms. A simple differentiator between these two forms is whether or not the contra-perspective is official and transparent (i.e. designating someone a devil's advocate for a discussion) verses if it is unofficial and opaque (i.e. someone being passive aggressive). I imagine that when Lewis referred to "grump bunnies," he was referencing people who have a reputation for cynicism, skepticism and passive aggressively communicating those perspectives.
In the end, I do not see the choice between positive and negative perspectives as "one or the other." There are clearly benefits for both. The positive achieve-anything perspective leads us to strive further and stretch for objectives that others see as unattainable. Whereas, the negative grounding leads us to think harder and consider additional possibilities and options that we may not have.
One way to achieve balance is to strive to frame decisions and information using facts and objective statements, and clearly calling out any open hypotheses and variables that are uncertain. Although ideal, as long as real people are involved (as opposed to robots or computers) I find that it is extremely difficult to actually remove overly-positive and/or passive-aggressive negative behaviors from the decision frame.
For illustration, imagine how difficult it would be to convince someone to change from referring to their glass as "half full" or "half empty" to more objectively just saying "my 16 ounce glass has 8 ounces in it."
Instead, balance can be attained by simply recognizing that positive and negative perspectives exist, determining if one perspective is dominating, and introducing a contra-perspective to bring the decision frame closer to equilibrium. Techniques for achieving this type of balance range from simple to more complex, including:
* Simply asking someone to be a devil's advocate?preferably someone who is well respected and trusted by the others in the discussion.
* Doing a pre-mortem before finalizing major decisions by asking the team, "Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take a few minutes to write a brief history of the disaster."
* Conducting a mini (or full blown) war game or simulation. For example, splitting the team into a blue team (primary-perspective) and red team (contra-perspective), then asking them to play out different scenarios.
The key is being self-aware of the prevailing perspective and, if warranted, balancing it out in a clear and transparent way. Like many things, quality analysis and decisions benefit from having a balanced perspective.
May 21, 2012
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