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Embrace Unpredictability
 

By Gary Klein  1/3/2014
 
Your organization may want to promote insights from its workers, but that might not be what happens in reality. Insights threaten organizational culture. Managers get caught up in the priority of reducing errors and uncertainty, even if it gets in the way of insights.

Organizations cherish predictability; things run so smoothly when you can avoid perturbations and reduce uncertainty. But insights are unpredictable. They are disruptive. They upset program and project plans by suggesting new goals and new strategies. Research has shown that most people assume that novel ideas aren’t practical or reliable; we expect these ideas to fail. Once a project is up and running, organizations don’t want to listen to insights about better goals and tactics.

Organizations also dislike mistakes and errors, and for good reason. Errors can reduce the chance of success, slow down production, lead to safety hazards, create waste and generate bad publicity. No argument there. But in their zeal to eliminate errors—think of the Six Sigma movement—organizations often go too far, imposing tighter standards, increasing controls, increasing the number of reviews for new projects, demanding more evidence for unorthodox suggestions, and proliferating checklists and procedures to be followed faithfully.

All of these actions to cut down on errors also cut down on insights. They send the message that the job of the workers, and the mission of the organization, is to avoid errors. And that’s wrong. The job of the workers is to be productive. The mission of the organization is to provide outstanding products and services.

To improve performance, you need to reduce errors and uncertainty, and you also need to boost insights. You need to do both.

Right now, most organizations are out of balance. They emphasize reducing errors and uncertainty because the consequences of falling behind in the schedule and of making mistakes are so big and public. Managers have lots of tools for tracking schedules and for catching errors. There aren’t many tools for boosting insights, other than hanging inspirational posters on the wall.

Your challenge, if you want to promote insights, is to keep things in balance. You need to stay on schedule and reduce errors, but you can’t become so fanatical that you let it crowd out insights. There’s a reason why the Six Sigma movement foundered. The leading corporations that started the Six Sigma bandwagon jumped off when they saw the toll it was taking on their bottom line—and on their innovation.

As a manager who wants to promote insights in your team, you will have to resist organizational pressures to overemphasize reducing errors. Instead of just reviewing projects that went poorly, you should review the successes and try to learn where the insights came from. You can capture the insight stories and create a culture that celebrates the insights.

Smarter Coaching

Your second challenge is to help your employees gain more insights. This is different from imposing your insights on employees. If you can coach employees on how to develop their own insights, you will benefit from their discoveries.

Stimulate employees’ thinking by creating an environment that notices and appreciates the discovery of insights. For instance, what happens when you hear someone express a misguided opinion or make an assumption that you know is wrong? A common mistake is to correct the person because you want to cut down on sloppy thinking.

However, if you listen to the employee instead of immediately correcting him, you can promote insightfulness. As a manager, you need to shift from a schoolmaster mentality to a detective mentality and try to diagnose what flawed belief the employee is holding. And then, instead of trying to convince him to correct that belief, ask him to challenge his assumptions. Or, provide some type of experience to expose the problem. Instead of you telling the employee the right answer, he will discover it for himself and gain the insight.

Employees don’t like to have insights foisted on them. They do much better when they sort it out for themselves. Your challenge as a manager is to help them get smarter, to become more sophisticated in their thinking and to put them on track to formulate their own insights.

It’s About Them

As a manager who seeks to promote insights in your team members, it’s about what they think, not what you think. Inadequate managers dampen insights. They concentrate on others’ mistakes, and they may even feel threatened by the creative thinking of their subordinates.

In contrast, insight-inducing managers can promote valuable discoveries by handling both challenges—the organizational challenge and the coaching challenge—and expect their employees to make useful findings.

Gary Klein, Ph.D., is the author of Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (PublicAffairs Books, 2013).

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