Over a beer recently, a friend recounted putting together a new grill that he described as large enough to have a sleeping cabin. He said he had his head down focusing on the details only to realize when he stood back that he’d put the shelves on backward.
I appreciate his experience because numerous times I’ve found my head in the weeds only to step back and realize I was in the wrong forest. This condition (I like to call it “extreme zoom”) isn’t so damaging when you’re trimming a hedge (though my wife would disagree) or putting together a grill. But when it occurs in your company, you can find that your diligent, hard, focused work is not only in vain but also potentially deadly.
Although zooming in on the details is important and necessary, without occasionally using your wide-angle lens, you’ll get a distorted picture. Behavioral scientists have lots of cool sounding names for these errors of omission or in thinking, but let’s look at four of them in real speak.
“Hook, line and sinker.” You’ve put so much time, energy and investment into a product or business strategy that you’re unwilling to see that the market changed. As you’ve probably observed, we often talk about the benefits of focus, but only to a point! Sunk costs are a poor way to look at future benefits. Passion is great, but if it masks prudence, it’s damaging. If you’re in an organization that punishes mistakes, this is one that’s likely to bite you because no one dares admit to making an error.
“It worked (or didn’t work) last time.” Our past experience is most often a good thing but sometimes a very dangerous thing. Minor examples of this that we experience frequently are updates to operating systems for our computers or mobile devices. Software as a service is a wonderful thing because it allows providers to make changes on the fly, but what worked last time may not work next time when you log on to your favorite website or app! With no changes to the external environment, “dancing with the one who brung you” is a good thing.
But as we all know, our external environment changes frequently! On a recent trip to the backcountry, I fished the same lake twice in one day with the same fly. The first experience landed numerous rainbow trout. I could hardly get the fly onto the water before a fish would grab it. Later that day, the same fly produced nothing while the guy down the beach was pulling them in like crazy because his knowledge of entomology and fish behavior exceeded mine.
“The one-tool toolbox.” I recently met with a prospective client and his team about their organizational challenges. One team member repeatedly talked about a “solution set” he used in a different company. It was a miracle cure, and he was sure his new organization should employ it—before they codified the problem or clearly identified the objectives (I pointed this out to him and didn’t get the assignment). When you become enamored with your technology or process at the expense of clearly identifying your objectives and solving the problem with the best solution, you get messed up. Beware the consultant who has the perfect solution to your problem—the same perfect solution he used with the past 50 clients!
“No trees, just forest.” This is the opposite of our first example and just as dysfunctional. If you stand at the far side of your patio staring at your grill, it won’t get put together. I’ve worked with executives who have passion and enthusiasm but only a wide-angle lens. Platitudes and concepts won’t attract and retain customers. You have to get your hands on the screwdrivers to get things to work.
There’s no one perfect focal length for a camera lens, nor is there only one way to look at your business.
Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info, 303-527-0417 or firstname.lastname@example.org