Business Book Review

Monday, October 30, 2006

Book Review: The Third Opinion - by Saj-Nicole A. Joni, Ph.D. - HABIT OF MIND

Reading Suggestions & CONTENTS
About the Author


Today’s leaders must master, and then incorporate, a new level of thinking: exponential thinking. Exponential thinking allows a leader to see all sides of a complex issue. It is a way of thinking that looks for interrelationships, that explores assumptions, and asks questions that will, ultimately, reveal the full and true potential of a situation. Today’s leaders must not only think exponentially themselves, they must also develop, and lead, teams of people that think exponentially as well. Habit of Mind has three facets: 1) mastery of three levels of thinking (application, expert, and exponential thinking); 2) curiosity and self-knowledge; and 3) the ability to spot great talent for a leader’s inquiry team.

In application thinking, leaders use familiar, well-understood methods to generate results, a process with which virtually all managers are familiar. Along with application thinking, leaders also make use of expert thinking—understanding and expertise in specific fields of knowledge—when they are faced with issues, or challenges, that are new, or unique, and that do not appear to be easily solved by more familiar methods or processes. To round out their thinking, leaders will also need to think exponentially, to see all sides of complex issues. Inherent in the concept of exponential thinking is the need to engage with others who will bring different perspectives, and who can help leaders explore issues that may be presently outside of their awareness and understanding. In exponential thinking, leaders and their thinking partners are exploring interdependencies, understanding multiple perspectives, and validating assumptions. What occurs as a result of exponential thinking, according to Joni, is that “problems are reframed and then explored at a higher level of complexity.”

What does it take for leaders to think exponentially? It requires, first, an understanding of their “mental models.” These mental models include assumptions about how their business works, and beyond that, their more fundamental assumptions about the world, and their place in it. Karen Otazo, in Executive Coaching, points out that “we unconsciously filter the world through our own paradigms or worldviews and believe that what we see is the only reality.” A key part, then, of exponential thinking is uncovering and examining assumptions and how they affect thinking. A number of tools, or strategies, exist today to help uncover assumptions about business: a structured approach like Six Sigma, or on a broader scale, the Ladder of Inference developed by Chris Argyris, or the recent work of Charles Hampden-Turner designed to help leaders understand cross-cultural assumptions. Additionally, exponential thinking requires developing an ability to discern patterns, particularly the ability to recognize when a new element does not fit into existing patterns, but is significant enough to form the beginning of a new pattern.

Leaders who are exponential thinkers consider their mental models, patterns, and assumptions, and use them to develop a portfolio of scenarios for the future. As they are developing these capabilities to think exponentially, leaders should also consider how they obtain their information, who their sources are, and who their sources’ sources are. Particularly in large companies, as leaders become more senior, they often become more isolated. The information that comes to them is increasingly filtered, so that it is easy to lose sight of any perspective except that of their own team. Leaders need to, therefore, understand the limits of their lines of sight, and to develop relationships with others that will give them a portfolio of lines of sight. Likewise, the higher leaders progress through the ranks, the more it is their role to take that organization where it has not gone before. In doing that, leaders must be able to think in what Joni calls “the gray space, in that land where things are not clear and delineated, but rather, fuzzy and unpredictable.” In those “gray zones,” leaders are charged with discovering new realities, and making decisions that require using judgment in the face of many unknowns. Thinking partners can help leaders explore the “gray space” and help them build a portfolio of options for the future.

To lead in today’s business world, leaders need curiosity and self-knowledge. They must be open and inquisitive, aware of context, and of the convergence of circumstances that create opportunities, as well as challenges for their businesses. They understand underlying principles, and understand when these principles apply—or don’t apply. “While able to acknowledge success, they are as deeply interested in what didn’t work as they are in what did. They regularly inquire into their own ignorance, looking for their blind spots, and always work to push the boundaries of their knowledge.”

To develop Habit of Mind, it is also important for leaders to understand their managerial style. Understanding managerial style allows leaders to complement their own style with others in their inner circle to achieve the best possible results. It will also help leaders understand when they need to ask for a third opinion. Although it is important for leaders to be aware of their styles, strengths, and capabilities, it is just as important for them to develop the ability to evaluate others’ strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and biases. “Much has been written about the need for this skill when building great action teams. But it is just as important in building a leadership circle,” says Joni. Finally, to develop your own Habit of Mind, it is important to understand how other leaders, especially great leaders, develop themselves and their thinking.


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