Be Careful What You (Don’t) Ask For…

Be Careful What You Don't Ask For

One of my regular exercise spots in Brisbane is high on a hill, overlooking the city, and features an enormous water reservoir.  One lap around is 800 metres, and many families walk there with their children on bikes, and their dogs happily exploring. I love going there.

On a recent walk there, I heard a child ask his mother if people were ‘allowed’ to take the bikes down an off road attached to the main road surrounding the reservoir.  The mother hesitated and then replied, in a supportive and apologetic tone… ‘I don’t think so, mate!’  The disappointed child turned around and continued to cycle on the main road.

My first thought was ‘what road?’ In all the years I’ve been running there, I hadn’t really noticed it – I had stayed focused on my task at hand and not considered any alternative routes.  it took the fresh eyes of a child to bring an unfiltered perspective.

My second thought was… wow, that was an unintentional curbing of that child’s curiosity… along with the assumptions that the parent made allowing for the maintenance of her comfort zone. I’m sure I’ve done this with my kids too.

PERHAPS THE MOTHER COULD HAVE ASKED A COUPLE OF QUESTIONS LIKE…

  • ‘Is there a sign that says you can or can’t?’

  • ‘Do you think it looks safe to go down there?’

  • ‘How steep is the road, and do you think you could handle that slope?’

  • Or she could have acknowledged the value of the child’s observation.  Something like… ‘Oh, I’ve never noticed that road before!  Good on you for seeing it.  Let’s walk down there together to check it out and then we can decide if it’s safe.’

Leaders can fall into a similar trap.  They have been doing things one way for so long, (and it’s worked for them so why change) that they can fail to notice and appreciate alternative points of view or ways of achieving a specific outcome. This is normal, protective, human behaviour.  The human brain likes to conserve energy and will resist changing an activity or thinking pattern that has been ‘hardwired’ through repetition and past reward.

So, when others get curious and ask for ‘permission’ to explore or experiment, it can be too easy for the leader to simply redirect back to what the leader knows will be safe.

Is your organisation filled with assumed rules and boundaries that perhaps curb curiosity and creativity.  Do your leaders play it safe, and in the process fuel mediocrity and inhibit innovation? Beside depriving the child of the excitement of exploring the unknown, who knows what he might have discovered – perhaps a whole new bike-riding area?  It’s the same for leaders who are pressed to deliver and therefore choose to play it safe.

To shift this, leaders must develop a different mindset, a new set of conversational habits, and a level of self-leadership that embraces natural curiosity, humility and vulnerability, and create an environment where people have open permission to think, to be curious, to challenge the status quo and to bring new perspectives to old challenges.

Three of the most powerful words in any leader’s vocabulary should be – ’what if we…’ and all people in the organisation should be encouraged to use them.  An experimental mindset is critical if organisations are to thrive in this VUCA* world.  Imagine if scientists only ran experiments where the outcome was guaranteed? Discovery, innovation and learning would be sadly missing.

Here are three simple things you can do that will make a big difference…

  1. Any time someone asks you ‘Can I … ‘ or ‘Should I …’ you should respond with ‘what do you think?’

  2. Notice when the answers are coming too quickly from you. That could mean that others are relying on your expertise to much to solve their problems. Even as a leader you don’t need to be doing everybody’s thinking for them. Encourage others to think for themselves a bit more and build their own expertise.

  3. Ask more questions, and then shut up and let people think. The average elapsed time between when we ask a question, then answer it is 7 seconds.

These small changes will help you to get some of the monkeys off your back, encourage a higher quality of thinking, and shift accountability… leaving more time and brain space for you.

*VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous

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