As we approach the end of the year, some of the leaders I work with on a regular basis are happy to report they will meet their annual goals, while others will have missed a few. Before you read on, this is not a post about effective goal setting.

An article in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review prompted me to share some insight with you. The essence of the article identified the reasons we tend to stick with “proven” strategies even though they are not producing the results we are seeking.

Whether you have achieved your annual goals or not, there will be times when the strategies you are utilizing are not leading to desired outcomes, despite your best intentions and efforts. My intent is to help you be prepared at that point, and to do something about it.

Most goal setting or annual business planning exercises define the desired outcome along with metrics to measure each outcome. Once these are identified, next steps include the identification of several strategies and action steps to implement. The clock begins to tick and the strategies are put to action. Check points happen and we take some measurements. When we discover we are behind, we attempt to identify the reasons. Yet how often to do question the validity of the strategy?

There are a few reasons we may not question the strategy:

  1. Sunk Cost Fallacy– There are times we have invested significant resources to implement a given strategy yet the returns are not where we would like them to be. The invested resources can be both financial and time oriented. Sometimes, we come to the conclusion we need to work harder at it.​​​​​​​
  2. Original Assumptions Are Not Validated– Goals are established based on results we would like to achieve in a given area. While the results are desirable, the information we have available to us often has several assumptions built in. As time progresses and the brilliant strategies are being executed flawlessly, we notice the results aren’t tracking as originally planned. The assumptions we relied on may not be valid. Sometimes, we don’t think to check these as new, factual information becomes available to us. If we did seek to validate some of our assumptions, we might learn the assumption was false.
  3. Implementing “Best Practices” From Other Organizations– Earlier in my career, I fully bought into the concept of adopting best practices. It was probably about 15 years ago when I discovered the flaw in this belief. Best practices of other organizations assumes the conditions and environment are the same across all organizations. In reality, this is not true – conditions and environment differ quite a bit in every organization. Consider organizational culture, competency of the leadership team (assuming it is even a “team”), competing interests and priorities, and many other factors.
  4. Silence On The Team Doesn’t Mean Agreement– We have all had experiences in strategic meetings of seeing all agree on an approach because we sense this is what the CEO wants. After the meeting, the talk around the coffee pot or water cooler begins to question the thinking of the “group” decision to proceed. In a short amount of time, alignment and commitment fade and not much has changed. Silence doesn’t mean agreement. Silence is sometimes due to low levels of trust on the “team”.

Certainly, there are other reasons we may not question a given strategy; hopefully these will stimulate some thinking into your own situation.

When this happens to you, what can you do? The most effective response is to ask yourself or your team a number of questions to invite new insights. Some of those questions could include:

  • If a new leader came in over you and saw the progress to date, what might they change in the strategy?
  • What insights would a group of employees 3-4 levels below you have which you have not considered?
  • Which aspects of the progress to date came as a surprise to you? 
  • If you were asked to guide a team from another company exploring a similar strategy, what would you tell them to watch out for?

The practice of asking curious and unbiased questions is a valuable technique to stimulate thinking into your current situations and results. The curiosity truly allows for revelation of possible insights not previously considered, which can lead to revised approaches.

This is one of the reasons the most successful leaders willingly invite others to ask them questions in an effort to see what they have been unable to see. Many successful leaders have a coach who can ask curious and unbiased questions.

The average leader is too susceptible to surrounding themselves with people who will agree with them. If they encourage questions at all, the questions will typically be the softballs which provide the answers the leader wants to hear, but not necessarily the reality of the current circumstances.

Success in your goals requires the willingness to regularly ask the questions which will increase your awareness and lead to insights you haven’t considered.

Who do you have on your team who will ask you the questions you need asked?

Best regards,