BOOK REVIEW: How to sidestep leadership traps

Unquestioned Brilliance: Navigating a Fundamental Leadership Trap, by John Austin

AUTHOR Dr John Austin is an occasional teacher at some of the finest business schools in the US, and consults to Fortune 500 companies. In this book he shares techniques he uses with leaders, all of which are based on solid research on cognition, decision-making, strategic thinking, and organisational change.  

Unquestioned brilliance, the title of this book, is the consequence of having been successful in the past, leading to confidence in one’s intelligence and viewpoints. However, the downside is the real possibility of not even considering other, better points of view or solutions. This is not an indication that leaders are egotistical megalomaniacs, Austin explains, but rather that they are human, as all of us struggle with balancing ignorance of what we don’t know, with the overconfidence in what we want to believe we do know.

Exhaustive research proves that we actively search for information that matches our expectations, and discount disconfirming evidence – especially when we have made our thoughts public. I will introduce just two of Austin’s many techniques that I feel sure will assist leaders at all levels, in organisations of all sizes, to deal with the leadership problem of “unquestioned brilliance”.

The first technique is “Uncertainty Vectoring”.

We are all very poor at predicting what the future might hold for ourselves, our families and our businesses. However, our lives require that we plan for the future. The solution, Austin believes, is “to stop trying to predict and start trying to anticipate possibilities”. To do this, a useful technique is the development of multiple scenarios, mainly because this method overrides our overconfidence in a “most likely future”.

“Uncertainty vectoring” takes scenario planning further, by mapping high-impact uncertainties. From such a map, the impact of the combination of various uncertainties can be seen. Now, many more “what-if” questions about the future reveal themselves. Of course, to identify these uncertainties you must have the correct people active in the process - people with enough knowledge about the environment, to ensure the process is grounded in reality.

The starting point of uncertainty mapping is to first clarify the areas of focus and time-horizon you are examining. Then you can identify key uncertainties that flow from politics, economics, sociology, technology, environment, legal, global and other relevant issues. It is from such a list that the group can identify the ten highest-impact uncertainties on the end point, on the path to it, and on the timeframe.

From this list of uncertainties it is now possible to identify your current situation on the uncertainty continuum, as well as the blind spots in your thinking. This mapping of uncertainties enables monitoring.

Don't neglect high-impact uncertainties

Many organisations dedicate much of their planning time to tracking trends, but not to tracking high-impact uncertainties. The display of uncertainties as a collection of vectors is a helpful and practical way to monitor their shifts over time. Identifying the uncertainties reduces the risk of either/or thinking which only exacerbates the “unquestioned brilliance” problem.  

Another of Austin’s techniques for this purpose is the “backward-forward flip”. Its value lies in the appreciation of how a problem’s definition influences the options we generate to solve it. Austin explains that peoples’ bias is to look for evidence that confirms we are correct. “The backward-forward flip is a simple exercise designed to get a group to simultaneously consider being wrong and right.”

To illustrate this technique, consider the surprisingly rapid rise of online book purchases in the US.  

While the rise of internet book-buying appears to have been the result of the rise of Amazon, it began with the amazing success of large, destination, social experience bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books. These super-bookstores raised the expectation that any book you wish to buy should be available. This expectation led to the rapid success of Amazon, and caught the other booksellers off-guard.

The second step in ‘backward/forward flip’ is to find justifications for the conventional wisdom that explains why online shopping should not have eroded bookshops’ position. These justifications could include that people want to touch books before buying them, and they enjoy browsing and discovering new books in the store. Industry consolidation made discounts from scale possible, and this ability should have kept out new entrants. And if companies should venture online, it should be the incumbents, not the new entrant.

The third step is to identify why industry experts were so wrong. Among these mistakes was to conflate book-buying and browsing, when they are two different things. Add to that the ISBN number book system that made finding books easier.

Step four is the consideration of the high-impact shift in the industry as a result of these changes. These could include that people are now used to reading text digitally, screen quality is good, tablets are ubiquitous, and e-books are cheaper than paper. This would lead to the conclusion that the digital retailing of books is a permanent fixture.

The last step is to identify why a shift from e-books may occur. Possible answers to this could include that there is a trend towards authentic consumerism, according to which paper books are becoming desirable again. Tablets are increasingly viewed as a distraction, rather than a feature for readers. 

The last step in the forward/backward flip method is to consider the probability that the factors identified in the previous step could occur. Additionally, what would be indicators of that change? Who stands to benefit from such a change, and what are they doing to move matters in their direction?

“The techniques described in this book will not automatically make you a great leader, but they will potentially help you navigate your team on a path that avoids this dysfunctional cycle (of unquestionable brilliance and its traps),” Austin asserts. The techniques do reveal the unquestioned assumptions and blind spots that can occur in current initiatives, preferably before they lead to unquestionable failure.  

This is a well written and well-researched, practical guide for leaders and trainers of leaders, complete with a dozen or more techniques and even tips for facilitators.

Readability:      Light ----+ Serious

Insights:          High +---- Low

Practical:          High +---- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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