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Barking up the wrong tree

Sunday, 16 August 2009

One of the common themes on the management training course we run is the challenge of moving to action. Particularly in the largest organisations, it can often happen that there is a certain inertia in the behaviour of individuals and teams, and, to overcome this, there is a need to re-install some aspects of true, entrepreneurial spirit. People acting as if they are the real owners of the business, taking the lead and pushing things forwards.

I’m certain the above will be the subject of a future blog posting, but, for now, it’s actually the flip-side of that that I want to write about - the potential lacks of checks and balances in companies and organisations that, for whatever reason, do have people with a real sense of ownership, drive, and passion for what they do. The question is, in those circumstances, how do you know you’re doing the right thing?

An easy example to start with. Those immediate actions that create instant (or almost instant) feedback are quite straightforward - you do something, see a result, and know pretty quickly whether it’s been successful or not. No problem.

However, for life, and business, to be that easy, three criteria need to be met:

1) The decision on the action you take has to be a simple one, with either few similar options, or one clear choice.

2) The result also has to be clear, directly related to the action you’ve taken, and arrive pretty quickly.

3) The consequences of your action need to be relatively insignificant.

If any of these three criteria are not met, the decision making process is much, much more complex, and it’s where the “acting as a business owner” philosophy can fall down if not applied with care.

One of the great things about running a business (something I’ve been doing for 4 years or so now, having spent the first 13+ years of my career working in very large companies) is the ability to have an idea, and simply run with it. No one to check with, no one to consult, no one to get permission from - it’s hugely liberating...but...

And it’s a big but. How do you know you’re doing the right thing? Are you being too timid and cautious, or too enthusiastic and gung-ho? Have you really taken all factors into account, or are you (quite naturally) looking at things through your own filters and blinkers? In all honesty, I’ve certainly been guilty of all of the above (and more!), and I think most business owners, in their hearts, know that they have too.

So, how do you check that you’re not simply barking up the wrong tree when you’re making a major decision? It sounds simple, but putting it into practice takes practice, and nerve.

1) Challenge yourself. Are there other ways of looking at the situation? Are there any perspectives you’ve missed? Is this an extension of your normal routine, or somethings genuinely new and different? Do you have the skills to execute the decision? Are there any conflicts with previous decisions?

...but remember, there was a good idea there in the first place - challenge it, refine it, but don’t destroy it.

2) Get others to challenge you. Find trustworthy experts to talk to and bounce ideas off. Find people with wildly different experiences and get them to give you their unique perspectives. Be open-minded to peoples’ questioning of your decisions and decision-making process, even if you don’t agree with them.

...but remember, your view is still valid - it is your decision. And don’t take it personally!

3) Look at what others do. You can’t always talk to everyone you want to to get every valid viewpoint you’d value. But someone else will have been there, at a different time, and perhaps in different circumstances, but look at their decision, and see how it compares with the one you are planning to make.

...but remember, there is rarely a single route to success, and sometimes you will be braving completely new territory.


I recently had a brief insight, about the development of the trainingreality business, from a conversation where I was playing the “trustworthy expert” role. A contact was asking me for my opinion on a certain decision he was making, and, on discussing it with him, realised that, not only did I think he’d got a good idea that just needed refining, but that I could apply something very similar to my own business. A very valuable experience that helped both parties, and an exercise we’ll repeat again in the future, to both our benefits.

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