Posts Tagged ‘thinking’

Who’s In Your Way?

February 9, 2014


Leading and managing others is a social process. Anyone “out front” faces common obstacles in creating change. To be effective with others, it’s helpful to consider what might be disabling you.

These six questions can identify potential pitfalls. Each requires conscious navigation.

1. What’s that smell?

Understanding the air you and others breathe is essential. You must be able to identify the quality of the “oxygen” around you to influence it. Establishing great culture happens by getting the right folks on board with healthy, functional norms. Root out toxic behavior. When necessary, quickly change out people. Humans have an enormous capacity for delusion, avoidance and denial – especially if self-interest is threatened. Discerning and driving air quality is foundational.

2. Are you a learner?

How you see the world and what informs it is crucial to framing problems as well as their resolution. To ensure perspective, it’s important to actively seeking new knowledge and opinions. A small circle of external advisors can offer extraordinary insights. Being blind to your blind spots is a costly limitation.  Think about your thinking. What could you be missing? Do you know what you don’t know?

3. Are you uncomfortable?

People want familiar and safe. More accurately, we seek what we perceive as comfortable. Regrettably, thinking and behaving in new ways is uncomfortable. To generate forward action, it’s essential to risk and live outside your comfort zone. This pitfall is deep and one of the most common reasons communities and organizations don’t move. Progress requires risk. It must matter more than control. And, that’s not comfortable.

4. Do you have broad shoulders?

Very little important work happens alone.  We need rivals, allies and others involved to secure the best and most progress. How much do you value diverse skills and experiences? Do you invite and engage others in important work? Involve people who think deeply – they are different than those with flip opinions. Be intentional about discovering ways to connect resources and talent that contributes.

5. Is your motive “good”?

Clarifying the underlying motivation for the process and results you seek is important. Because others are quick to judge, knowing your own intention matters a lot. Be sure your ego or “me-victory” isn’t primary. Populist rhetoric won’t sustain important efforts but authentic commitment will.

6. Are you measuring?

Collect data routinely. Simple questions can guide assessment: What’s working? What isn’t? Why? Focus on the right indicators at the right time. Recognize development occurs in stages that may not be linear. Consider the pace, progress, and implications. Then, adapt actions.

Great culture, learning, discomfort, terrific teams, authenticity and active monitoring are big factors in generating change. Take your own inventory today.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See:

Quality Cognition: Fast and Slow

March 5, 2012

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $1.7 billion in the creation of small schools in recent years. Intuitively, it’s easy to make the case why a small school can provide superior education. You could conclude lower staff-to-student ratios with personal attention and encouragement are a better alternative to the context of a large school.

The foregoing might describe a logical relationship but it’s not accurate.

In fact, according to studies, large schools tend to produce better results. When a variety of curriculum options are available, especially in higher grades, large schools yield greater student success. Some important details were overlooked in the initial conclusion of “small is better.” In planning work, a survey of more than 1600 schools was used. The survey sample had an over representation of small schools. Both a pattern and logic contributed to a preliminary error.

Pursue Good Questions

Had questions been asked about the characteristics of the worst schools – it may have been discovered that those, too, were small. Ultimately statisticians demonstrated that small schools are more variable in student success. In effect, student achievement in small schools can be both very good and very bad. Regardless, the variability and scale in small schools may be a far better context for improvement. (We’ve had the privilege of experience with the Gates Foundation. No doubt: their small school funding has had substantial social benefit.)

 Fast and Slow

Humans think in both fast and slow modes. Daniel Kahneman refers to these modes as System 1 and 2. The thoughtful, careful analysis you used to review the Gates story, cited in  Kahneman’s book, uses System  2. Through precise and deliberate effort you considered the descriptive narrative.

In contrast, System 1 is nearly instant. For example, it helps you quickly respond to a loud noise or simple, verbal sentence. It is most simply understood as a reaction. Often, this is based on impulse. We all need to make quality decisions and plans – whether instantly or over time.

Patterns, Chance and Humility

Because humans are predisposed to causal thinking, we look for patterns and associated explanations first. We can easily make mistakes. Our mind prefers perceptions of an ordered, coherent world. But, these can be cognitive illusions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman urges us to recognize “many facts are due to chance.” The definition of chance is humbling because it means random events cannot be explained. It’s important to look for patterns and cause while we also acknowledge chance.

Deliberate Quality

The implications of this reality has influence on the potential for our effectiveness. It may be important to: listen better, do enough diligent discovery, understand key factors, and explore alternative hypotheses. It is essential that we review data more carefully for validity and reliability.

Fast and slow thinking are both important to our complex work environments. Consider meta-cognition a quality check. Think about your own thinking and that of others. Be careful enough you sidestep either a foregone or logical conclusion which may be wrong.

 –Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See :

Great Questions – Better Strategy

September 18, 2011

Asking great questions is a powerful technique for many reasons.

Because strategy is a fundamental issue in any organization’s performance – asking the right questions can be critical in assessing strengths, confusion and inefficiencies.

Seven Strategy Questions

Harvard professor Charles Williams wrote Seven Strategy Questions: A Simple Approach for Better Execution. Here, I’ve adapted his questions to address multiple sectors.

 1. Who is your organization’s target audience – the primary beneficiary of the value you seek to create?

2. How do organization values influence prioritization of stakeholders?

3. Which performance variables are most influential and are they carefully monitored?

4. What do you signal is in or out with the choices you make?

5. How are you ensuring connections inside your organization with external realities?

6. Is employee commitment to help each other robust?

7. What difficult uncertainties cause persistent, sleepless anxiety for leadership?


If you and others answer these questions – the same – your strategy will be better and shared. Ask them often, as needed, change the answers. Williams has advice about how to ask questions. He suggests questions are:

Posed face-to-face to encourage authentic engagement.

Asked throughout the organization, not just at the top.

Essential tools for functional leaders since they are central to performance.

A vital way to debate what is right, not who is right.

A prompt for new actions.

Question  Avoidance

When it’s not safe or appropriate to ask questions openly, performance suffers. Symptoms can include poor coordination, confusion, redundancy, and low achievement. Communities, organizations and people unwilling or unable to ask questions pose special challenges. This often indicates a lack of accountability. Performance doesn’t matter enough.

We spend lots of time generating questions, thinking about them, seeking answers to them with and for others. They’re central to our enterprise. Questions about strategy are an important feature of a high-performance culture. They can provoke thinking, decisions and action. Welcome them. Learn from them.

Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and  W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more, see :

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