Every day of the week, you can attend a conference, workshop, seminar, webinar, peer coaching group, or read business books, -journals, -articles, and LinkedIn posts. What they all have in common is the offering of solutions that promise to make you a more successful leader.
Apart from sharing non-tangible best practices, these meetings and reading materials are intended to promote the sale of more tools, technology, (mobile) apps, (audio) books and advanced training. What I mean to say is that there is no shortage of solutions; there are no secrets that anyone is trying to withhold from you. The real secret―an unknown and illusive factor―is the root cause of whatever is preventing you from becoming a more successful leader!
Therefore, the first challenge to the successful implementation of any solution or best practice is to identify the problem and to diagnose its root cause(s). After all―borrowing an expression from the medical world―“Prescription without diagnosis is malpractice”. This is a real challenge because hardly anyone teaches how to conduct a root cause analysis, and practically no management consultancy offers this skillset as a service.
The second challenge is translating a chosen solution into its practical application. This too is a real challenge, because it is at this critical phase of problem solving that you are typically left to your own devices; you’ll have to figure out the translation all by your lonesome!
Zen in the Art of Problem Solving
Best practices and tools have in common that they pre-scribe how work should be done step-by-step. As such, they require strict adherence to specific techniques, methods, rules, dictates, and imperatives. These prescriptions for “WHAT” to do and “HOW” to do lack the provision of any motivation as to “WHY”―a simple explanation of a principle that predicts a desired outcome based on the choice of a certain action and the nature of its performance.
Absent a sufficient explanation for the What and How of a course of action, many of its prescribed techniques, methods, rules, dictates, and imperatives make no sense, which is a cause for resistance and non-compliance.
Robert Pirsig shows―in his famous book Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance―that “Quality” is the key to translating an idea or theory into its practical application. This raises the questions, what IS quality, and how to create quality?
Pirsig recounts his experience of teaching a class on rhetoric, where he says the following with regard to quality:
“I think there is such a thing as quality, but as soon as you try to define it, something goes haywire.” And …
“Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a non- thinking process.”
Students become really puzzled when Pirsig clarifies: “But even though quality cannot be defined, you know what quality is!” We recognize quality through our experience―we all can distinguish between high- and low quality. Now that we know―recognize―what quality is, the next question becomes, how do we achieve quality?
Instead of defining “quality”, we can identify aspects of quality. Here are some aspects of quality identified by Dr. W. Edwards Deming:
Constancy of purpose for improving products and services.
□ Elimination of slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce.
□ Vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
□ Reduction/elimination of special-cause variation (6% of ALL results).
□ Reduction of common-cause variation (94% of ALL results).
□ Increased uniformity of output (products and services).
□ Pride of workmanship.
These aspects of quality provide a purpose for the techniques, devices, and gimmicks promoted by the aforementioned prescribed solutions. In other words, for every aspect of quality, there is a wealth of alternative techniques, devices, and gimmicks available. Hence, implementation of these practices is no longer an imperative but a choice; a decision that must be weighed against the specific aspect of quality you aim to achieve.
Pirsig’s answer to the eternal student question, How do I improve quality? was, “It doesn’t really make a bit of difference how you do it! Just so it’s good.” Therein lies the source of creativity; knowing why it’s good. Curiosity for discovering what is good, and determination for doing what is good, breeds insight and understanding for any endeavor. There is real value in struggling with a problem and tinkering with solutions as opposed to obtaining formal education on the topic.
How do you think the Wright brothers built the first-ever real flying machine? They identified three main aspects of quality: lift, control, and propulsion. Then―with creative use of their knowledge of physics, mathematics, and the tools at their disposal―they found a way to achieve every aspect of quality one-by-one. Please note that they didn’t have anything that was not available to their contemporaries as well. What set them apart and made them successful in their quest for sustained, controlled, human flight was their firm belief that man is capable of flight, combined with their creativity, ingenuity and determination.
Pirsig de-scribes quality as “The continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live”. People differ about their idea about quality not because quality is different, but because people differ in terms of their experience of quality―that what is good in all aspects of life.
Creativity is thus a function of the extent to which an individual is free to pursue their sense of quality, as opposed to just doing their job, leaving thinking to someone else, following best-practices, sticking with what you know, fear of making mistakes due to zero-tolerance policies, making decisions solely based on financial calculations, etc. Moreover, many moral aspects make for great quality aspects, despite the fact that prescribed practices such as those for shareholder value, and operational efficiency dictate differently.
Does this surprise anyone? Who doesn’t know what is good and what is bad for business? Then, why do leaders sanction low-quality rules, techniques, and other prescribed solutions that are not good for business?