Master Class: Productively Provocative

Steve Jobs
One of the privileges of working with dozens of enterprises on their business growth around the world is seeing the intrinsic skills of what I have come to call their key “Growth Leaders.”  By Growth Leader, I mean someone who regardless of the external factors of the business, is fantastic at finding the underlying emergent business model and moving the team toward it.

One of the most important and least understood attributes of these leaders is something I have come to call Productively Provocative.  This attribute describes the person who has built great relationships with the group, and uses that relationship capital to challenge them with provocative viewpoints that really cause them to rethink their base assumptions.

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The reason these leaders are so important,  is that in the later stages of the business cycle, it’s very easy for the leadership team to start “mailing it in,” that is to set aside the critical thinking function of the firm and rely on established process to provide the decisions and actions.  This is very subtle at its outset, and almost imperceptibly, you find yourself shaping your opinions on whether it fits the process rather than the business mission.

This has an insidious multiplying effect that usually leads the firm into a stall, where the more capital and manpower that is applied, the more mediocre the results become.  Some warning signs here:

  • New product releases are not meeting their forecasted expectations
  • A lack of “minority” viewpoints are expressed during decision discussions  
  • The “show” is more important than the content (such as when you start to have “practice” meetings for upcoming reports to management)
  • No one is taking advantage of your “open door policy” and “skip level” informal discussions are discouraged.

The only way to reverse this, is to provide for an environment where assumptions and results can be openly (and positively) challenged –  and this calls for someone to play the role of provocateur.

Some examples:

  • The SVP of a manufacturing firm takes a look at the capital plan for a new plant and says “no” after months of work.  (and it’s the best thing for the firm ever!)
  • A young Andy Grove pushes Intel out of the memory business and into the microprocessor business.
  • Scott Cook moves Intuit from boxed software for balancing your checkbook into the go-to tax and accounting software for small business.
  • Steve Jobs matched his leadership style to the business cycle need.  He was a turnaround guy when needed, a growth guy and a constantly provocative presence.

So how can an individual strengthen this critical capability?

  1. Unpack differences in viewpoint right away. Develop, encourage and practice how to step into the heat of the issues rather than allow it to be smoothed over as a polite gesture to be worked out later.  It turns out that great growth leaders find richness and opportunity in the diversity of opinion, and by hearing both sides out, and reminding people you are all on the same side, real progress emerges.
  2. Elevate the discussion.  An effective growth leader keeps the focus of any discussion on the appropriate viewpoint.  This means taking the best interests of the ultimate customers to the forefront of the discussion.  Making sure discussions are built around the value to the appropriate stakeholder guarantees a higher value experience.
  3. Drill down on opinions.  The skillful growth leader sets an example of decomposing opinions into their underlying assumptions.  When you move the group off of “power battles” over opinions by asking “why is that?” repeatedly, you will find that in the roots of the opinion are where the breakthroughs occur.  
  4. Have their own internal view.  They are skillful in developing and testing their hypothesis, and are constantly either testing the ones they have or searching for new ones.  By doing this highly intuitive work, they are keeping the firm coherent and fresh.  Coherent because the internal viewpoint is only shifted when there is evidence for that shift, and fresh because every hypothesis is held loosely and is only in place until it is successfully disproved.  
  5. Have a broad view.  They keep a diverse meritocracy of ideas and viewpoints around them.  When presented with something new, they are inquisitive and skeptical in equal parts. They are widely read, spend time with other sharp minds from outside their fields, and are considered when someone needs a “fresh” view.

Great leaders have long known that a high-performing leadership team needs healthy doses of high respect and constructive challenge.  By putting the above in place, you’ll be well on your way to laying a foundation of vibrancy for your firm.

If this discussion has struck a chord, and you’d like to talk about how to activate this in your firm, give me a call at 847-651-1014 or drop me an email to have a 20-minute talk about your specific applications and challenges.

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