Know What You Don’t Know | Michael A. Roberto

Summary of: Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen
By: Michael A. Roberto


Dive into ‘Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen’ by Michael A. Roberto and learn the importance of becoming a ‘problem-finder’ instead of a ‘problem-solver.’ Understand why detecting minor issues before they escalate is crucial for every organization’s leadership, and unearth the barriers that keep company executives isolated and uninformed about brewing problems. Discover techniques such as fostering open communication, using ethnography, drawing accurate analogies, and embracing constructive paranoia to help you anticipate and mitigate disasters with simple, wearable practices.

Becoming a Problem-Finder

Many executives consider themselves as problem-solvers, but in reality, they should be problem-finders. Detecting crises early on is crucial before they become too significant to manage. Most companies lack the knowledge or awareness to identify issues before they turn into disasters, which could result in negative consequences for the organization. Some businesses disregard minor problems, fearing that it will reflect poorly on them. However, it’s essential to be proactive in locating issues, leading to improvements in the business and preventing significant disasters. Numerous hospitals have implemented Rapid Response Teams, handling seemingly trivial symptoms that could signal early warning signs of potential risks. Companies need to encourage a culture where employees are not afraid to voice their concerns without worrying about retaliation. Senior executives should avoid the isolation trap by staying informed and aware of any underlying organizational problems. Follow these seven steps to become a brilliant problem-finder: educate staff on how to spot issues, encourage experimentation and learning, cultivate a culture that values mistakes, implement a rapid response team, remove gatekeepers, emphasize intuition and hunches, and leverage data to inform decision-making. Being a good problem-finder is critical to the success of any organization.

Open-minded Decision Making

Leaders often make decisions based on filtered information, which can be misleading. To avoid this, executives should seek out all relevant data, even information that contradicts their biases. The author suggests five ways to gather comprehensive information: 1) Listen directly to customers, 2) Seek out different perspectives, 3) Connect with young people, 4) Communicate outside of regular routines, and 5) Talk to individuals not directly involved with your company.

The filtering of information by subordinates or gatekeepers can occur both intentionally and unintentionally. Leaders who become too disconnected from their core constituents and the realities of their company can lose vital information. By purposefully seeking out diverse perspectives, executives can gain comprehensive and unbiased decision-making information. This allows leaders to make informed choices that consider all relevant factors, giving them a competitive edge in the industry. The author emphasizes the importance of remaining open to hearing all pertinent data, including information that may not conform to the prevailing corporate mindset. By doing so, executives can make sound decisions that better serve their company.

Leveraging Ethnography for Business Success

Ethnography is a powerful tool for understanding customers, subordinates, and employees in their natural settings. By directly observing behavior, businesses can identify areas for improvement and opportunities for innovation. Ethnographic research provides more accurate insights than focus groups or surveys, as people’s actions often speak louder than their words. Leaders hoping to prevent failures should remain open-minded, view situations from different angles, avoid leading questions, and stay attuned to their biases. Businesses such as Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark have successfully utilized ethnography to improve their products and enhance customer experiences.

Deciphering Patterns

The human mind has an innate talent of searching for patterns to derive meaning from different events. However, the ability to deduce logical analogies from them is essential for an accurate understanding. Erroneous conclusions can lead to adverse outcomes, as happened during the 1976 Swine Flu outbreak. To sharpen inferences, one must ask critical questions and test hypotheses regularly. Seven basic questions to consider are: the known facts, ambiguity, stated and implied assumptions, personal conjectures, impartial bystander’s observation, consequences of incorrect suppositions, and testing to verify hypotheses. This approach trains the mind to decipher patterns and assess situations more accurately.

Improving Intelligence Sharing

The September 11 attacks were partly due to intelligence failures in the US government. Various agencies received information on possible hijackings but failed to share it, similar to small work groups that withhold data for social status reasons. The author suggests that larger organizations should encourage social networks that allow workers to share notes, hold job rotation programs, and create informal meeting spaces. By understanding group dynamics and promoting group collaboration, large bureaucracies can improve information flow and prevent intelligence failures. Executives should also differentiate between failures and learning opportunities.

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