What is the Question?

This post introduces a recent essay on mobilizing teams and making decisions during difficult times.

When faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, we seek solid ground for making decisions. For novel and contentious issues, following our “gut” or simple frameworks may prove insufficient. What can we do to filter distraction and organize thinking in ways that move us forward? 

When uncertain, define an answerable question. Then answer it and take action.

In difficult situations, I often start by clearly defining the question. Good questions clarify our context, risks and options. Through shaping “positive” questions we build a process for developing new information and next steps. These questions help us distinguish the important, relevant and actionable from the unsubstantiated and uncontrollable, while balancing the desire for insight with the need for action.

Click here to read the essay.

Managers Manage Well, Even During Pandemics

In my roles as a business advisor and as a team leader, I have the opportunity to continually discuss and test ideas on managing and making decisions, especially in turbulent times. The intensity and urgency of these conversations increased with the arrival in 2020 of COVID-19 and another economic recession. Here I summarize observations shared more fully in a recent Forisk blog post.

Good managers manage well, even during a pandemic

A few times over the past several months I’ve gotten up in the morning, looked in the mirror and thought, “how do I help today (given that I don’t know what’s going to happen)?” I hear the same from clients. At the end of the day, good managers and colleagues do what they say they’re going to do and communicate in advance if complications arise. Just as they would during normal times. Along the way, they share information and updates which helps others support the problem solving and decision making. 

Leaders have more freedom to decide up front when less information exists

While counterintuitive, less information offers more flexibility. The onset of the COVID pandemic and the responses by corporate executives highlighted where decisions made in the “fog of war” actually helped or hurt. We have known from the first weeks what data we needed. Regardless the success or failure of getting this data, the forest industry, for example, demonstrated discipline. Conversations with managers and executives centered on (1) supporting employees and reinforcing safety; (2) “right-sizing” production to support and keep clients and customers; and (3) managing cash. The thinking was clear and focused on dealing with the current situation given limited information. 

Effective teams share common values

Leaders require a core set of beliefs and values against which to test ideas and make decisions, especially during uncertain times. Consider the context. With no data and little clarity about the future, how does one choose a course of action? With common values, clearly communicated over time with a team, decisions have, at a minimum, a source of validity and rigor.  

Leaders Plan and Communicate Expectations

In college at MIT, I played baseball for Coach Fran O’Brien. MIT hired Coach O’Brien in 1969. In the twenty seasons prior to Coach O’Brien’s arrival, MIT Baseball had one winning season. He inherited a Division-III, no scholarship, no recruiting team that expected to lose.

During my senior year in 1993, Coach led us to a record-setting, championship season that inspired many stories and my book Beaverball.

So how did Coach O’Brien prepare us to compete?  One lesson that we learned as baseball players that applies to all of us as leaders and managers is the need to plan and communicate. We can put the team – our organizations – in better situations to win, to succeed, every day.

Leaders plan for and expect success.

The greatest menace to success and leadership may be the willingness to make excuses or may be the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions or even a tendency to feel victimized.  Look, you’re going to get bad calls, bad bounces, bad weather.  But we can plan for and expect success by focusing on and planning for what we can control, communicating that plan, and moving forward.  

Think about it this way.  Can you plan for failure? Yes, absolutely.  Here’s a plan for failure:

  1. Stop returning your phone calls;
  2. Stop paying your bills;
  3. Smoke 12 packs of cigarettes per day; and 
  4. Drive with your eyes closed.

Here’s another plan for failure:  don’t have a plan.

So, if we can choose to fail, can we choose to succeed? Absolutely.  Therefore, success should not surprise us.

Coach O’Brien always had a plan, and that rubbed off on the team.  Before the season started, he scheduled every practice and every practice had a schedule of drills and every drill had small group assignments. Guys on the team did their own planning, too. House, our catcher, smoothed the dirt in front of and around home plate to reduce bad hops. Gass, our right fielder, preserved the shape of his glove by wrapping it in a towel between games.  

And consider what we observe from other great leaders out in the world and close to home. Three time Super Bowl Champion and former Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh, was well known for his meticulous planning to build championship teams. Bill Belichick now as Head Coach of the New England Patriots, and from his early days as a Coordinator, shares this trait. My best teachers and coaches had lesson plans, game plans and practice plans, and they adjusted these plans as we struggled or improved, or as the situations changed.

Coach O’Brien expected to win. And he expected us to expect to win.  Success should not surprise you.  If it does, you may attribute it to luck or to mistakes made by your competitors.  Winning consistently is a byproduct of building teams focused on achieving goals, working the plan, communicating and reinforcing expectations, and getting after it. 

Mystery Tribune Publishes “Tour De Forest”

Mystery Tribune, a magazine of fiction, non-fiction, art and photography that celebrates mystery and suspense, just published my story “Tour De Forest” (910 words; 4 minute read).

In this story, Philippe, a rising competitive cyclist who just won a stage on the Tour for the first time, wakes to find his bike stolen. In a mountainous and agrarian region of France, Inspector Coudert helps Philippe shed his naivety while working the case.

This story went through several versions prior to finding a home. One outlet wanted a stronger “sense of place” and which led me to conduct research. Limousin is (was) an actual agrarian region/province in France (now called Nouvelle-Aquitaine). The region, with fewer people and less development, has a strong tradition of local music that includes playing old style instruments (like bagpipes). 

Several readers suggested I write other stories with characters from this one. What do you think? I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Thinking Through Risk and Uncertainty: Contemplating the Coronavirus

“Without a structured approach to ordering the world, the world will impose its views on us. The fact is some things are more important than others, some things are easily verifiable…Simple processes help us sort the mess and prioritize.”

from “Managing Risk by Screening Out Trouble”

The coronavirus presents two specific risks to most of us. One, we transmit the virus to someone vulnerable (older, ill, or immunocompromised). Two, we or someone we love gets sick or injured in some other way and can’t access the health care system because it’s overwhelmed. These risks highlight the interconnected nature of the situation. Our individual choices affect others.

Given the risks, how do we contemplate a path forward?

We know what we don’t know.

This is a numbers game. And the numbers will get worse before they get better. In forestry, for example, trees planted years ago give us the forests we have today. Waves of trees can grow in massive booms. Foresters call this “a wall of wood” or “the pig in the python”.

With the coronavirus, the spreading that occurred silently weeks ago gives us the infections we have today. We don’t know the infection rate, which makes it difficult to know the pervasiveness, speed and, ultimately, decline of the coronavirus. What tells us we can return to normal? When we have smog alerts or forest fires or car crashes or hurricanes or food poisoning, we have metrics and indicators that signal “all clear!” Why? Because we have data.

We don’t know what’s knowable.

It does not matter if this situation is better or worse than people think, thought or said; it just is. And currently, we don’t know what “is” is. We can’t yet touch the bottom of the pool because we don’t know how deep the water is. We need data, and data requires testing. Each and every failure to deliver, offer, conduct, collect and communicate the results of a test reflects a small crime and failing in this battle.

Anything short of complete, ruthless transparency obscures our ability to know what is knowable, develop plans and support each other. From here, we can chart a path for our teams and help people make decisions for their local situations.

We know what to do.

In forestry, we have systematic approaches that apply generally to situations requiring clarity for making decisions. First, work to understand the local situation, as it varies by region and market. Second, question the data to understand its quality (e.g. seek trustworthy sources such as Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). And third, make (phone) calls to know what’s knowable and confirm that people have what they need to follow the simple practices we know work well.

With a clear sense of where we are and how things work, it’s easier to organize our teams and get moving. This gives purpose to our work and confidence in the process with an eye towards the future.

For those interested in a further discussion of strategic thinking (and how the coronavirus affects the forest industry), click here to read a five-page white paper.