The 5 Pernicious Patterns Most Leaders Cannot See
The hidden forces that sap our ability to innovate & change
The other day the dangerlam noticed a pure white hair in my beard. A symbol of wisdom, surely. This, combined with the fact that I’ve now worked with quite a few senior leadership teams (in different countries and contexts), has led me to perhaps naïvely believe I am now able to offer some commentary or observation on the patterns I’m seeing.
At the surface layer, there are the normal patterns: most leaders are drowning in emails and meetings, the software that enterprises use to collaborate is so clunky and junked up as to be laughable, the layers of consulting and approval needed for most decisions is lamentable, the demands on leaders time is near crippling for bandwidth, and of course: margins are most always getting tighter.* The competition is fierce—it’s hard enough to keep the lights on, let alone contemplate more strategic innovation. And so on, etcetera. It’s all rather trite, yes?
* And even if they aren’t getting tighter, improved profits can sometimes serve to fuel the apathy toward proactively addressing any of the issues. I mean, why would you want to change things—it’s working isn’t it?
If it weren’t for the many leadership offsites I’ve facilitated, and if it weren’t for my relatively esoteric taste in thought domains beyond the conventional—I’d probably be peddling novel ‘fixes’ to the above. But there’s a special quality that manifests from a deep and immersive leadership offsite. When the guards are lowered and when the façades are lifted, the surface layer symptoms peel away and the root causes become ever clearer.
Here’s what I’ve noticed...
The following is an article (of sorts) that I have lifted from my 17/18 Services Guidebook, for I feared that many might not actually find this writing there. It has received a bit of a feather dusting in some areas, and some hot breath (‘hah’) buffing with the cuff of my sleeve in others. Enjoy.
Modern leaders are trapped
Mired amidst a state of unrelenting urgency. Everyone is busy—but leaders particularly. Time and talent sacrificed upon the altar of work, in near-blind servitude to The Cult of Productivity. It’s perpetual, squandering, wasteful.
But of course—this does not necessarily apply to you. You see what’s happening. You’ve already slipped the bounds, and picked the lock to your own cognitive cage. You have perspective. But what of the rest of your colleagues, your organisation, or your industry? I daresay many are still enslaved to the grandest intersubjective meme—the overlord zeitgeist of our times—that is: Busyness.
This presents us with a challenge…
Yes, yes. I’m being a tad exaggerated here. Such theatrics are deployed simply to arrest your attention thus. For this Busyness is otherwise an insidious force. It’s self-justifying, is bolstered by prevailing work culture and social norms, and oft-runs beneath our collective awareness. And what does it lead to?
Given that the pandemic of Busyness afflicts all but the savviest leaders,* we’re left with quite a natural phenomenon: the tendency to seek out shortcuts, quick fixes, familiar solutions and faster ways of generating results. We leverage our defaults, formed by past experience, patterns, preferences and precedents. These ‘defaults’ are the options we chose automatically, in the absence of viable alternatives.°
* I ought point out: Busyness seeks me out just the same too. And it sometimes catches me too. Thus: one learns to keep their wards up.
° Daniel Kahneman—Nobel prize laureate and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow—might describe default thinking as ‘System 1 thinking’. It’s fast, instinctual, inherently flawed and subject to cognitive bias. We can contrast this to ‘System 2 thinking’, which is much more deliberate. It’s this more thorough, quality and pioneering approach that has us challenge our own assumptions, drawing upon diverse perspectives.
This default thinking naturally saves us a heap of time and cognitive angst. It’s so much quicker, so much easier, and allows us to meet the demands of work. An enterprise needs defaults for the vast majority of the time. They are at the core of our business models—the modus operandi, the well-oiled cogs of the machine, and the heart of our ‘business as usual’. It makes absolute sense to leverage past experience. These defaults grant us scale and reach, and are the lifeblood of operational excellence.
And so—just to be clear, I shall underscore:
We need to be operating from our defaults about 80% of the time.
This then allows us ~20% of our time for more thorough, quality thinking, richer conversations and better questions. It’s this 20% time that allows us to ponder, to muse, to do deep work. To quest beyond convention. To venture beyond the default. To pioneer.
…for most organisations, this looks much more like 98% of the time.
‘Default thinking’ pervades and prevails in most everything we do. It’s insidious, and an entirely natural response to our prevailing ‘busy’ context. But—as we’ll soon review—this is a insidious underlying issue for leadership, and for anyone serious about the mid-to-long term viability and relevance of their efforts.
There are a few factors we have to thank for this.
1. Jevons Paradox
The Jevons Paradox* refers to the phenomenon whereby the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource). Back in 1865, economist William Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal-use resulted the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries.
* See The Myth of Resource Efficiency: The Jevons Paradox (2009).
Email can be thought of in much the same way.* This technological innovation has dramatically increased the efficiency of communication (it doesn’t take much time to send an email)—but the result is: we now spend more time doing email.
* It’s easy to pick on email—few love it—but this paradox also applies to more modern forms of online communication.
In fact, email has become ‘a tragedy of the commons’. The average time taken to respond to an email is greater, in aggregate, than the time it took to create.* Also, as the efficiency of email and online communication increases—and as we build more devices (portable » mobile » wearable » embedded tech, and so on) that enable us to create and respond to such communication anytime and anywhere—society’s expectations on responsiveness likewise increases.
And so, say a new app comes out that lets you and your team process email faster. With the time you save, will people dedicate it to quality thinking and deeper, pioneering work? We’d both hope so—but chances are, they’ll just do more email.
The same could be said of any new innovation or time-saving efficiency. There’s always a risk that—beyond a certain point—such ‘improvements’ may well perpetuate the very thing we are looking to avoid.
This is not helped by the following phenomenon.
2. The Progress Principle
Our motivation, attention and behaviour will naturally gravitate to the things that provide the richest sense of progress. This is The Progress Principle—research pioneered by wizard Professors Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer.* An analysis of over 12,000 journal entries—from folks working in a range of organisations and industries—found that ‘a clear sense of progress’ is more influential on work motivation than goals/targets, incentives/rewards, interpersonal support or recognition of good work.
* It was The #1 Breakthrough Idea from the Harvard Business Review in 2010—though it’s still not yet widely understood nor appreciated.
Of course, we must always take such findings with a pinch of salt—but the underlying reasoning makes sense. Motivation is much less influenced by fixating upon distant goals and targets, and much more influenced by celebrating small wins along the way. We have a finite amount of time, energy and attention available to us each day. It makes sense that we invest it in the things that provide a clear sense of progress. The more we reduce the latency between effort and useful feedback—the more we short-circuit feedback loops—the more likely we are to have people invest effort into things. Hence: the progress principle.
And what activities provide the richest, clearest, and most immediate sense of progress at work? Why—the well-established default activities that perpetuate the status quo. The quick fixes and familiar solutions that favour the perpetual and non-taxing ‘same-same’ shallow thinking. We are naturally motivated to be busy—and to stay busy. Which might be fine, if it were a useful type of busy. Alas...
3. An Industrial Hangover
We may be on the cusp of The Conceptual Age,* though many are still only waking to The Information Age. Worse: prevailing leadership philosophy is still heavily influenced by The Industrial Age. The result: 19th century factory thinking applied to 20th century knowledge work (near blind to what’s on the horizon).° You know what this looks like: a bias toward certainty, and things that are easily quantified. “What gets measured gets done” and “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” are the tattered poster-child aphorisms of The Industrial Age, still touted today.
* As automation and artificial intelligence increasingly replace algorithmic and analytical tasks, the economy of The Conceptual Age will favour workers adept in areas that favour creativity, empathy and meaning (concepts that are otherwise difficult to replicate by machine).
° It doesn’t help that many of those who are currently in positions of authority and influence are there because they have mastered the old game. It’s a very rare and special leader that is willing and able to consider dismantling the very structures that brought them into power, in order to keep an organisation relevant and effective into the future.
And what does this lead to? Why: people using their time ‘productively’. Doing things that are easily measured, and that demonstrate a clearly visible sense of progress. Is this meaningful progress? Well now, there’s the question—we’ll get to this in a moment.
In any event—it’s difficult to be caught thinking in such a regime. Curiosity, imagination, questioning, exploring, wondering, considering—these are all intangible, immeasurable, and do not produce immediate results. These activities appear akin to loafing. Especially when everyone is so busy.
And so we resort to ticking boxes and pursuing incrementalism (piecemeal improvements to the status-quo), whilst eschewing the much more complex and ambiguous challenges of enterprise design, strategic innovation, business model design and meaningful differentiation. In other words: the very things we need quality thinking and pioneering strategy for. Alas…
4. The Dumbing Down
The future is infinitely complex and ambiguous. Staying abreast of technological/network opportunities while contrasting your current business model against the intersection of emerging trends—across multiple future contexts—to ‘sense-make’ where potential incoherencies lie is… no easy feat. But who has time for this? And so—instead of leaning into this challenge—unrelenting busyness drives many leaders to seek easier answers. And so they plan for known threats and opportunities—essentially using the exact same data set as their competitors.* Amidst this, more complex and nuanced threats and opportunities become ‘dumbed-down’ into concepts more readily understood. This then establishes a Reductionist Loop.°
* Which is not a recipe for differentiation or strategic advantage.
° As from ‘Why we Dumb Things Down’ by Aaron Dignan (this man is a wizard—follow his work).
Again—it’s entirely reasonable, which is why it’s so hard to tackle. Leaders are busy. In order to fit more into the day—to be more ‘productive’—meeting durations are trimmed down (so as to be more ’efficient’). Within these condensed meetings, there isn’t time for complexity or nuance, and so leaders require information to be presented in the most basic terms. And so their world becomes condensed into bullet points.* Complex strategic opportunities and threats become condensed into pithy statements. Concepts like ‘networked organisations’, ‘asynchronous communication’, ‘distributed authority’ remain mere buzzwords. Or worse, are translated simply to ‘we need to collaborate more’.° This is further amplified by the following effect.
* Scan the bookshelves in the business, leadership and management section and you’ll see a menagerie of products promising various simplistic ‘hacks’ to achieve results faster.
° Or worse: proclamations that ‘we need to innovate’.
5. The Bandwagon Effect
The bandwagon effect is a psychological phenomenon in which people do something primarily because other people are doing it. Transformation. Agile. Disruption. Transformation (again). Design Thinking. Customer-led Design. Human-Centred Design. Service-Oriented Design. Something-Something Design.* And so on. All the variations of whatever’s hot in the zeitgeist right now.° Everyone’s talking about it—though not everyone quite knows why, or what they mean. But it seems like the right thing to say.
* Motivation Design?
° And, I ought hazard, each of these are mostly valid and legitimate.
Because of the lack of comprehension or appreciation for complexity and nuance (the dumbing down), we are left with people fumbling with concepts to which everyone agrees—but no one understands. It’s one thing to say ‘we need to be more agile’*—it’s quite another to translate that intent into the actual systems, structures, rhythms and behaviours that are most useful, coherent and congruent to your specific context.° What worked for Google may not work for you.◊
* Who would disagree? Everyone else is doing it. Same with transformation—so hot right now.◊
° Also, I ought add: the actions required needn’t be complicated. If you accept some stumbling, a relatively simple sequence of simple steps can get you toward much greater agility. I recommend reading The Age of Agile: how smart companies are transforming the way work gets done.
◊ And yet still, popcorn ‘Silicon Valley tours’ will continue to be a thing. ‘Oh look, Facebook have beanbags—let’s do that.’
Alas—there’s just no time: we’re all so busy
Can’t be caught lagging now, can we?
Of course, there are plenty more patterns and factors at play.
And not all are nefarious.
What happens—to the leaders within enterprises—when we combine: default thinking and the curse of efficiency, with the insidiously warped consequences of Jevon’s Paradox, with our drive to do the things that provide the richest sense of progress, with our bias toward activities that produce easily quantifiable results,
amidst a context where complexity or nuance are frequently dumbed down, with a natural tendency to do things primarily because others are…?
...A Rich Delusion of Progress
A pantomime of same-same default thinking, wherein everyone is overtly busy being efficient and productive—but not effective nor progressive.
Our efforts may gravitate to the things that provide the richest sense of progress, yes—but is this meaningful progress? Or, are we simply perpetuating a rich delusion of progress?
The wizard Dan Ariely—a Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University—once recounted a conversation with a locksmith. The locksmith was reflecting on the fact that when he was an apprentice he’d take much longer to pick a lock, and would often end up breaking it (meaning he’d need to charge the client for a replacement lock). People wouldn’t complain, and in many cases they’d even give him a tip (bonus payment).
But now that the locksmith is experienced, he can do the job in significantly less time (and without breaking the lock). You’d think his clients would be happy—but no: now they complain about his fees, and never give him a tip. The issue isn’t that he was charging more (he wasn’t)—it’s perception of value. When the locksmith was an apprentice, he was being rewarded for his relative incompetence. Why? Because the client could see the effort.
“We often value effort more than we value value.”
I’m sure you can see the analogy for enterprise work. This bias toward valuing effort more than value leads us to further invest our time into the things that demonstrate deliberate and observable effort. In many organisations, it’s much more of a career advancement strategy to broadcast that you’re doing the work, then it is to actually do the work. Hence the proliferation of unnecessary meetings, the bloating of project scope and timelines, and the abundance of folk cc’d into every email.*
Left unchecked, and this rampant busyness—and the default thinking it drives us to…
The Default Arc of Enterprise Growth
I find it quite useful to occasionally step back and consider things from the perspective of the meta. If we were to look at the life and death of most enterprises, we could aggregate them into a default enterprise arc. A rainbow of growth and despair.* It looks something like this (fig 01):
* Which I unpack in much greater depth and detail in How to Lead a Quest.
It all begins at the startup phase, where new thinking is the most valuable commodity.* Now, often this new thinking fails to meet a market need, and so therefore nothing happens (or the startup dies). But sometimes this new thinking does meet a market need. In this instance, one can expect an enterprise to grow.°
* Hence why most banks and many large organisations have some form of embedded startup, incubator, lab, or intrapreneurial hub.
° This then presents a new challenge—how to scale something that worked with a small, passionate team. Most cultures either don’t survive this phase, or stabilise as a smaller team.
The Death of Curiosity
Growth is hard. Scaling what works from a small startup into a larger enterprise is fraught with misery, pain and peril. But let’s say we manage to do this. As growth continues, an interesting yet unfortunate thing happens: curiosity begins to die. Why? Because at this point in time you have a raft of evidence that suggests what you’re currently doing is working—so why would you do anything differently? It is now ’inefficient’ for you to do anything but leverage the established default.
And so the enterprise continues to grow. Over time, as revenues plateau, systems are further refined to enhance efficiency. Policies, rules, templates, guidelines and defaults are established to best leverage time and effort (hence generating many of the phenomena we’ve just discussed). As we approach maturity, we begin to see another interesting yet unfortunate phenomena…
The Atrophy of Empathy
Empathy—like curiosity—requires attention. Attention requires time. When time is perceived to be scarce, empathy is diminished. This, in turn, diminishes the more human elements of business. Over time, an enterprise becomes a one big machine, largely running on autopilot, like a soulless automaton. Good people leave bad managers, and talent flocks to more purpose-driven enterprises that are yet to succumb to the necromancy. Eventually we’re left with a lifeless husk, coasting toward oblivion. No—I jest. The more serious threat is the atrophy of empathy for the current and emerging needs of the market.*
* Pfft, ‘market’. What I ought say is: the current and emerging needs of our biosphere & noösphere.
What does all of this lead to?
A Decline into Irrelevance
Or rather: a decline into the clammy embrace of The Inevitable Kraken of Doom (my metaphor for disruption) which feeds upon the sweet nectar of your impending irrelevance.
No one sets out to become irrelevant—yet many organisations, leaders and teams find themselves there when they become ‘too busy’ for meaningful progress.
And it’s insidious—the path to irrelevance is littered with safe, prudent, reasonable decisions. And this ought be the chief concern that savvy leaders keep in mind: the notion that, one day—after a long period of wins and stable successes—you may wake up to discover that (you, your team or) your organisation is no longer relevant.
Hence: Why You and I are Here
As you can see—the challenge is a tricky. Wickedly so. We’re up against an insidious and pernicious self-justifying force, bolstered by perplexing paradoxes and prevailing norms. We’re outnumbered and outgunned.
To liberate others (and ourselves) from Unrelenting Busyness, The Curse of Efficiency and The Delusion of Progress—so that we may cast our gaze to the horizon beyond the immediate (and beyond the default)—we need to restore the balance.
This is not a revolution per se*—we’re not seeking to needlessly disrupt things or destroy the status quo. Rather, we seek to make more space for curiosity and empathy. To champion quality thinking, richer conversations and better questions—in the quest for enduring relevance.
* Or if it is, it needs to be a subtle one.
Here’s the secret
There is no secret. Nor are there any singular complete answers to this—no Truths, Hidden Laws, Scientific Formulae, quick hacks or dirty magicks to call upon.*
* But sure: someone might have successfully done this themselves as a leader—and they may be able to speak from years of personal experience. But that experience, while insightful, will still be an incomplete rendition, bound to their own unique (past) context and subjective experience. Not to be dismissed—but not to be solely relied on either.
But you know this.
It takes courage, wit, savvy, willingness and time.
Leading through this tangle of paradox, against the grain of busyness requires us to question the defaults that otherwise blind us amidst the busyness we have become habituated to. It means confronting the irrationality of ourselves and those around us. It means introducing new (quality) thinking into the mix—no matter where we are in the default enterprise growth arc (fig 02).*
* But how? We’re all so busy. Hint: start by systematically dismantling all activities that could be considered a delusion of progress.
If our defaults are ‘the options we choose automatically in the absence of viable alternatives’—then the only way we can venture beyond the default is by exploring alternative options. It means keeping your finger on the pulse, keeping your eyes open, and following the inklings and hunches that serve as the precursor to future relevance. Then, when you intuit a readiness to test these options, you can then conduct experiments to see if these options are viable alternatives to the default. Thus, this insight can be used to enrich and inform strategic decision making.
A Quest Beckons...
I wrote a book on this. It’s called How to Lead a Quest—a guidebook for pioneering leaders. While it does not map the uncharted territory of an uncertain future (nothing can)—it does provide you with the lenses, frameworks and approaches to navigate this territory.
Figure 03 depicts the main model that serves as a framework for much of the book.
Without quests, most strategy seems to be formed either by a combination of ‘what we did last year’ + ‘incrementalism’ + ‘bandwagonism’ or by paying a large consulting firm a lot of money to be told a similar thing, but maybe with more spreadsheets.*
* It’s always a ‘safe’ bet to use a large consulting firm. And hey look we are doing something, right? And if it doesn’t work we can just blame them anyway. Either way, we win.°
° This, in turn, speaks to what Nassim Taleb writes about in his new book Skin In The Game. ‘Bureaucracy’, Taleb writes, ‘is a construction by which a person is conveniently separated from the consequences of his or her actions.’
Hence why leaders need to lead quests. To survive in a changing world, we need to adapt, yes. But to thrive, we need to pioneer.
But do note: this approach does not supplant, replace or disrupt existing operational leadership and the stewardship required to maintain business as usual. This is not some hip startup stance, half-baked by some 20-something hooded hacker. It isn’t Massive Disruption either—most organisations are designed to resist such. Rather, it’s an augmentation to existing efforts. Our quests for alternative options, and our experiments to asses the viability of such, only serve to enrich strategic decision making.
Hence why this approach is so subtly cunning. It’s not an overt threat. No one need be threatened or defensive here. No hackles need be raised, nor any feathers dramatically ruffled.
It’s rare for me to like my past work, but the thesis I present in How to Lead a Quest remains valid and viable. It’s a (really) good (bestselling) book—getAbstract gave it a rare 9/10, and the leaders I work with love it.
While some embark upon quests with courage, wit and savvy—I worry that, for a few (many, even) it may be akin to having a wondrously practical cookbook on their shelf. So many delicious recipes—why, this could revolutionise how we live and eat. So healthy too! Healthy and tasty, wow. We could really do this. But oh we just don’t have the time to get the ingredients and assemble them together. It seems like a little bit of work. Still, it’d be nice. Imagine that? Ha. But yeah: can’t right now. Too busy.
We are back up against the same daemon that plagues all of best intentions—the antithesis of curiosity, empathy and enduring relevance—the overlord zeitgeist of our times, the grand intersubjective meme: Busyness.
As I say: modern leaders are trapped. And oh—that bit I mumbled earlier? About you having already picked the lock to your own cognitive cage?—I was fibbing, simply to make us both feel better. We may have escaped one cage yes—but this only reveals a more expansive cage. Prettier, yes. But: we’re still trapped.
I can make peace with this, somewhat, if need be. But the restless part of you and I both know—there’s always a way out. And while How to Lead a Quest offers such—a way to pioneer new and meaningful progress into uncharted territory—I’ve come to learn that there’s more at play here.
Outdated/incomplete philosophies (principles and stances) persist in our zeitgeist today that aren’t quite compatible with the world of work we live in today, and that are significantly stunting our ability to grow and progress in meaningful ways. Viral memes (in the memetic sense) that persistently cloud and distort our perspective of things—memes that have grown to become intersubjective entities like Busyness.
It's high time we had a new meme enter the zeitgeist
A trickster demigod challenger to take on the goliath that is Busyness—to ruffle its feathers and distract it enough that a few more of us find our way.
Because, somehow, I think I can indeed see a way through this fog. A way that doesn’t dampen commercial efficacy nor demand us to eschew the material world in the pursuit of a monastic life. A way that also doesn’t require us to relinquish cognitive sensibilities, nor subscribe to any naïve eternalistic beliefs. A way that will keep us on the quest to enduring relevance, meaning and fulfilment. Or at least: a better semblance of such.
I intend to write this entity into existence...
...so as to manifest an alternative way to live and lead, beyond the default.