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A Little Birdie Told Me!

birdieReflection serves several functions. It can be used on action, in action, and for action. This post examines reflection in action or thinking on our feet in the heat of the battle. Schön’s (1983) ideas on reflecting in action, Simon’s (1987) intuition, Meyers’ (2002) and Gladwell’s (2005)  thin slicing, Klein’s (1998) recognition primed decision-making, Chase & Simon’s (1973) chunking, and Pisapia’s (2010) contrast of blinking and thinking are examples of scholarly and popular work in the area.

Basically, reflecting in action is about seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar situation. Then applying previously learned theories in use – e.g. rules of thumb – heuristics – analogies – tacit knowledge – gleaned from reflecting on earlier experiences and feelings to understand and make sense of them, and then acting or modifying actions as situation unfolds.  Here is a story to illustrate the concepts followed by the leadership lessons.

When traveling, I normally reserve the last day of the trip for unstructured time in case I want to follow up something that I experienced.  On a recent trip through Ireland I took my last day to drive toward Galway and see what happens?  Well something happened.

Galway is  University town – the National University of Ireland is there -  what you see on the street is more diversity than any other city even Dublin and young college students walking around --  seemed like a good place to be but not for me on that day  --  so I started back to Shannon or so I thought.

After about an hour out of town, I was getting a little worried that I had not seen any signs to Shannon --- then I noticed that the sun was on my left shoulder meaning I was going North rather than south --  so I stopped in a gas station,  I saw a guy who looked like my cousin Dave  and took my map (yes you can get lost with a map)  and walked over to him as he pumped gas and engaged him – he was a friendly sort, a little older than me, and had a rich Irish brogue. 

I said “I am lost.”  I think that caught him off guard -- he said “where are you going” -- I said “Shannon” – he said “where have you come from” – I said “Galway”.  He smiled and shook his head. Grinning, I said “I guess that means I need to turn around and go back to Galway!”  Then I showed him the map and asked “where am I”?  He raised his eyebrow, leaned back, and with a prideful smile and said, “Why you are in Connemara!“   Like you dumb bunny – “you are in God’s country, and don’t know it.” (You know it’s an amazing feeling – when you get lost and someone tells you where you are – you feel comfortable again – just because you have a name --- you are not lost anymore).

Then I said, “Look it’s a way back to Galway and what is this green shading on the map mean? “ He said, do you have to be anywhere soon? I said “I need to be in Shannon by nighttime tomorrow.”  He said “do you like seafood”?  I said “sure.”  He said, “Well why don’t you just keep driving straight. There is a great seafood place out there and also a hotel that is pretty nice since you don’t have to be anywhere until tomorrow night you can stay out there and take the coast road back to Galway in the morning and if you watch the signs better be in Shannon by night fall.” 

Now consider this! You are the only American within 50 miles – everyone is speaking with Irish accents and this guy says go out there have dinner; stay awhile, and then come back.  I didn’t even know what out there meant!  But, I said with a smile “why not – it sounds like serendipity.”  Besides, I had notice a lot of stallions in the fields and Mercedes and BMWs going by and a town full of bustling people.  As I turned to leave he said “stay straight, go to the end; go through Clifden, great seafood.”

Well I went!  What I saw was a topography that I had not seen in Ireland – it was the American west -- around Jackson Hole – Colorado – and Alberta Canada --  the sheep were not behind fences --  the mountains ran right down to the sea --  the roads were narrow – as Oscar Wilde said,  “Connemara is a savage beauty."

I was on an adventure and when I went through Clifden, I saw a store and the name of it was of all things serendipity. Yes I was in god’s country and he was looking out for me – at least that is what I wanted to believe.  And in the next hour I needed him.

Of course I was not satisfied to take the perfectly good road with lines and got off on a factional road -- so called because they are a fraction of the size of the normal road -- and it led me around to the sea and a wonderful inlet to the Atlantic Ocean – right in front of my eyes --- could never have seen this from the real road.  Funny thing there were other idiots (as well as hikers) on that road also -- not many but enough to keep me company in the turns.

When I got back on the real road and turned north the country just spread out in front of me and -- but I really didn’t know where I was going -  forgot the name of the restaurant and hotel he told me about so I stopped for gas  and asked the girl behind the counter “where am I?”  The girl behind the counter said “where do you want to go” – to myself I said, here we go again!

I said “that is how I got here – a guy a ways back said there is a great seafood restaurant out here somewhere and I am trying to find it.” Well eventually she said the best restaurant up here was at Leenane it had a great view of the sea and a wonderful hotel.   Inside my head I was thinking well you did it again – this is going to turn out right --- and it did!

The restaurant served only local seafood and lamb – I guess some of those sheep didn’t make it --  I had a Guinness and mussels for starters --  caught that morning salmon cooked on some kind of vegetable and asparagus in a cream sauce - and to top it off I asked do you have any sorbet --- When the waitress said they were sorry but the only kind they had was lemon --  I knew then that I had made it; it’s my favorite --  the whole thing was delicious just as Cousin Dave and the girl at the gas stations said. The perfect ending to my Irish adventure.

The Leadership Lessons

I extracted five leadership lessons from this story; there may be more. 

  • Theories in use stem from our accumulated reflection on our experience.  When the pattern of cues lined up with my previous good results I made the decision to go for it. The Cues? When I saw the guy who looked like Cousin Dave I subconsciously recorded a person whose opinion I could trust.  When I recalled the stallions, Mercedes and Beemers, I subconsciously recognized a familiar context that had positive memories. Because I had previously successfully dealt with in this type of situation (lost, alone, and ambiguous) I was willing to trust my instinct that it would be an adventure worth taking. 

When I passed the store called serendipity in Clifden I confirmed in my head that I was in the right direction. (In my internal conversation, I told myself be careful you are only seeing what you want to see – confirmation bias (Pfeiffer & Sutton, 2006; Bonbeau, 2003), and the initial cues could be wrong - anchoring bias (Kahneman, 2002).  So I looked for other signs).  When the inlet on the ocean opened up I knew that I was on the right track because I had experienced these types of spectacular finds on previous lost occasions.  These context cues triggered my memory and added up to the decision to go -- and continue to go every time I wanted to turn back.

  • When Cousin Dave said go straight to the end – go through Clifden he was giving me minimum specifications to guide me (like commander’s intent in the military) -- every time I felt lost again – I said to myself go straight to the end.  I adjusted based on feedback – I got back on the real road – I got new confirmation from the girl at the second gas station. To think on your feet you constantly update your observations – notice connections, fill in the blanks with explicit and implicit knowledge.  We learn even when we don’t mean to learn.
  • Working in ambiguity with incomplete data requires the ability to work outside your comfort zone and strategic thinking skills. Graetz (2002) associates strategic thinking skill more commonly with people who are creative. When data available is not complete or is insufficient to make decisions leaders depend on their intuition. As Kahneman (1986), Levin et al. (1998) say seeing the glass half full elicits different responses than seeing it half empty. Successful leaders cope with the available information by staying positive. Furthermore, Mintzberg (1994) emphasizes synthesis, using intuition and creativity in producing an integrative perspective. I was able to go with my instinct because the patterns I was extracting were similar to other situations that I found myself.
  • Experience and analysis are the key factors in making good intuitive decisions. Simon (1987, p. 63) says it’s a “fallacy to contrast ‘analytical’ and ‘intuitive’ styles of management.”  He infers that intuition is simply analysis of experience frozen into habit which develops a capacity for rapid response based on recognition of cues. This freezing of habit enables novices to see, as Meyers (2002, p.56) says, “. . . see information in isolated pieces, experts see large meaningful patterns.” Because I am an expert at getting lost and then finding my way, usually with new knowledge, I was confident the outcome would be good if I remained patient and stayed true to the course.
  • I learned that if you have a passionate curiosity, and previous experience that guides your actions such as setting direction with minimum specifications that good things can happen if you gain feedback to immediately correct course.  Sounds like what I teach to strategic leaders.  Yes it does help to love fresh seafood.

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John Pisapia 2010
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