Decision-making: why joining the dots should be easier than it is

Many of us can remember ‘joining the dots’ as a child.  A maze of simple dots each numbered but seemingly placed randomly on a page waiting for someone to join them together so that a picture could come to life!

Somehow, as adults the ‘game’ took on new complexities as we tried to make sense of all the seemingly indiscriminate parts of our lives with the goal of determining the path we want to follow.  Even as leaders we sometimes find ourselves confused with all of the options and different scenarios we have before us, that sometimes it can be challenging to know which one to choose or how to prioritize.  Of course, the season we are in can complicate this even further.

Returning from a global leadership intensive I conducted with participants from Africa, Asia and the U.S, I couldn’t help but be intrigued with how challenging it is for those of us in the West to find time to reflect on life’s connections; to evaluate the potential significance of those connections, whether they are opportunities, problems, projects, and networks, and their relationship to where we are now and how it might be instrumental in shaping our leadership trajectory.

As these leaders reflected on their respective leadership journeys, here’s how some of them described their experience:

“It’s nice to look back at my journey and identify people and incidents that helped me into who I am now.”

“I saw how the same skills and strengths, I have, were used and developed in three very different positions.”

“I managed to clarify my passion and motivations and so have a renewed sense of energy to do what I must. I have refocused myself.”

“The process has been very helpful and caused me to think about parts of my professional journey that I have not before.”

“I saw the connection between the personal and the professional.”

‘Reflection’ as a core leadership practice

For most of us, our default position once we have finished a meeting or a project is to move straight to the next thing on our calendar.  It’s not natural for us to prioritize the time to reflect on what has just happened or how certain things may be connected.  This can get us into some trouble.  Daniel Forrester addresses the pitfalls of this in his excellent book, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization.[i]  He believes that when organizations fail to incentivize reflection, they are setting themselves up to achieve the same result they didn’t want in the first instance.

It’s why Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, encourages leaders to adopt a simple framework that will help them accelerate their learning and match their strategy to their situation so that they can adapt to the changes they are likely to confront in their current position as well as their next position.[ii]  Watkins sees wisdom in providing leaders with a matrix to guide their thinking.

This challenge is just as relevant for the organizations and teams we lead, as much as it is for our personal leadership journey—we need to discover reflection as a core practice of leadership that will help provide greater context for the decisions we make.

 What’s the bottom-line?

 Central to good decision-making is being purposeful in exploring how things might be connected, why they are connected, and their relevance to your leadership context.  Below are some questions you can begin to reflect on:

  • How have my life experiences positively impacted the way I lead others?  What have I learned from negative experiences?
  • What underlying beliefs and assumptions do I hold that influences the way I sum up situations and treat people?
  • What could I have done differently that would have obtained the result I was after?

[i] Daniel Patrick Forrester, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).

[ii] Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

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