Leaders cannot afford to stop having ideas

Written by
Professor Martin Binks

05 Oct 2016

05 Oct 2016 • by Professor Martin Binks

Just as raising ourselves off the settee to make a cup of tea might sometimes seem too much like hard work, so using our minds can frequently strike us as an unduly onerous chore.

Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the problem in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he posits that the brain has two systems. The first operates automatically, with no great sense of endeavour, but is error-prone. The second is more deliberate but is much more taxing to employ.

“A general ‘law of least effort’ applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion,” writes Kahneman. “The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

Kahneman’s thoughts on this subject are of no mean relevance to discussions about the nature of leadership. The research for which he was awarded his Nobel Prize investigated the processes of decision-making under uncertainty; and decision-making under uncertainty is increasingly what modern-day leadership is all about.


The perils of shortcuts

In previous posts I have remarked on the need for leaders to move away from long-established, conventional means of making decisions. Such methods might have been effective in the past, when the business environment was less unpredictable, but are nowadays ill suited to the incessant churn of trading and organisational conditions, the gradual nudging of responsibility towards the “front line” and even the incredible rate of technological evolution.

I have argued that leaders must think more systematically, basing their responses on contemplation of all the available options rather than on knee-jerk responses that experience indicates have worked well enough previously. In short, leaders must be ingenious. So why do we see such scant evidence of this approach?

Kahneman’s theories offer an answer. We like to believe we favour the second of the brain’s systems when we make decisions, but the truth, he suggests, is that we usually favour the first. The more diligent part of our brain is customarily required to do little more than rubber-stamp the quick-fix answers trotted out by its less industrious counterpart.

These heuristics – to use the term Kahneman helped popularise – might prove adequate in some situations, but such mental shortcuts are likely to be less than ideal in the majority of leadership settings. What is required instead is openness, imagination and lots and lots of ideas.

All we need to do is think

Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes, the first for his pioneering studies in the field of chemistry and the second for his peace activism. Restlessly inventive, in later life he advocated the cause and value of ideas, explaining: “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.”

Pauling’s axiom encapsulates how to solve problems creatively. It is not necessary to be a “visionary” or a “genius”: it is necessary only to think – to challenge orthodoxy, to transcend traditional responses, to make connections, to move from the specific to the general and back again, to reach beyond the one-dimensional, the tired and the supposedly tried and tested.

In too many organisations the standard response to problems is hopelessly blinkered. The reaction might be “Don’t bring us problems – bring us answers!” or, worse still, “Don’t think – we don’t pay you to think!”. Such an attitude can be spectacularly wasteful, and it all too often comes straight from the top. The result of rushing to judgment and relying on the close-at-hand and cosily familiar is almost inevitably sub-optimal. Such a philosophy is simply no longer fit for purpose.

The dwindling significance of inflexibility, limited horizons and creaking models of supreme wisdom is now painfully obvious throughout the sphere of leadership. These once-steadfast precepts are all but redundant, and in their stead stand powerful intellectual tools such as ingenuity and creativity. In my final post of this series I will offer some thoughts on how the leaders of today and tomorrow might learn to exploit the benefits that a more innovative and open-minded approach to decision-making and problem-solving affords.