Practice Makes … Progress: Leading through Uncertainty with Scientific Thinking

Last month, Fathom Consulting had the pleasure of hosting members of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence for a day-long gathering focused on scientific thinking in organizations. Among the speakers were a cardiologist, two nurses, lean manufacturing managers, and a welding supervisor—all united by a shared conviction that many complex business problems require a different approach, perhaps best described in two pictures.

Since this is often true …

… then this pattern of thinking can be an effective way to reach challenging goals in a complex environment.

 

While this specific process—known as Toyota Kata—comes from the world of lean management (and Mike Rother’s 2009 book of the same name), it is useful for navigating any kind of complex change in organizations and communities. Quite simply, kata means “form” or “routine” in Japanese. In this case, that routine is scientific thinking.

Kata practitioners (who prefer the term “Kata Geeks,” thank you very much) embrace the idea that today’s solutions probably won’t fit tomorrow’s problems, and the path to a challenging goal can’t be determined in advance. Instead, they practice a universal means of developing their own solutions through scientific thinking, which focuses on a pattern of “test, learn, adapt, repeat.”

Throughout the day, Kata Geeks shared professional and personal examples where following this deliberate pattern of thinking allowed them to improve organizational performance and develop thriving teams, even when the challenge was daunting and the path forward uncertain.

Our keynote speaker, Dr. Val Ulstad, helped us reflect on how people react to change, both individually and in groups. Using the principles of “adaptive leadership,” Dr. Ulstad described how leaders can better understand and influence patterns of human behavior in uncertain situations. One highlight: when leading change, she encouraged the audience to aim for a “productive range of tension,” in which people are challenged enough to remain engaged, but not so much that fear leads to resistance.

We even had a chance to try out the Improvement Kata through a pretty fierce puzzle-building competition.

Now that a few weeks have passed since our (first annual) Kata Practitioner Day, I’ve had some time to reflect on what I learned. If you are leading your team through uncertainty, change, and complexity, these are three ideas to consider.

1. Accurately diagnose your challenge. What is the most pressing problem facing your organization today? Do you have it mind? Good.

Now consider two images: 1) a pendulum clock, ticking with order and precision; and 2) a cloud, its individual molecules morphing and dissipating over time. Thinking about the issues and environment around your big organizational challenge, are they steady, stable, and unchanging, like the clock, or unstable, interdependent, and constantly moving, like the molecules of the cloud?

What philosopher Karl Popper described as “cloud problems” have also been called systemic, adaptive, or—my favorite—wickedproblems, as our keynote speaker Dr. Ulstad described. She observes, “The most common cause of leadership failure is treating an adaptive challenge with a technical fix.”

When you begin a change initiative, your chances of success are greater if you accurately diagnose the problem as technical (like the clock) or adaptive (like the cloud). Ask yourself: Can we solve this problem with capabilities that already exist in our organization? Or will people throughout our organization need to learn new capabilities?

If it’s the latter, you may need to shift your leadership approach and mindset.

2. Navigate with a compass, not a map. When working on an adaptive problem in a complex environment, one of the leader’s most important roles is to set clear direction and paint a compelling picture of the gap you are working to close. In other words, what’s happening today? And what should we see happening in the future? Kata Geeks refer to that gap as your challenge—you might call it a long-term objective, a guiding star, or a strategic goal.

The implication? Your leadership role is to articulate that direction clearly, but not necessarily to know how you’ll reach the destination. That’s easier said than done—we typically perceive that leaders need to have the answers—so it might be helpful to focus your attention on a few key questions: 1) How does our current work align with our goals? 2) Are we approaching that work with a deliberate pattern of scientific thinking?  3) How is my leadership encouraging (or inhibiting) that pattern of thinking?

Gradually, your confidence will rely less on clear solutions, and more on your team’s ability to experiment quickly in the direction of your shared goals.

3. Go first and model the way. One participant asked a simple question at the end of the day: “This is great, but where do I start?” Our advice: Start with yourself. Leaders who practice scientific thinking tend to adopt a coaching model of leadership rather than a command and control style. But it’s hard to coach others when you’ve not yet practiced yourself.

If you want to encourage scientific thinking—or any other pattern of thinking, acting, or interacting—in your organization, you’ll have to go first. This is the deceptively simple secret to changing culture. Start with changing your own visible leadership behaviors, and you’ll begin to reset the accepted norms. If it’s a learning organization you’re after, you might begin with small shifts in your reactions to uncertainty:

“I don’t know. How can we learn more?”

“Let’s go see together.”

“Let’s try it and see what we learn.”

“Our hypothesis is …”

As they say, the only constant is change. The practice of adaptive leadership, coupled with a scientific thinking mindset, is a powerful approach to leading through the exhilarating uncertainty of the future.