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Blinking and Thinking

22A clear majority of us live in a quicksilver world – a world of fluidity – sometimes fickleness - where sudden and unpredictable change can and does occur. In a quicksilver world, things are uncertain. This uncertainty creates a web of tensions that challenge us to meet new demands in the face of local constraints.  It’s a world where there is no clear path toward success.What is known is that a quicksilver world rewards leaders who are creative rather than compliant, practice from analytic and integrative mindsets, use a multi-dimensional set of leader actions, connect their organizations to major environmental themes, and connect with the minds and spirit of followers. 

The future is apparent to some but undetected by most.  Yet, anticipating the future remains as the most important job of the leader. During a speaking engagement in Asuncion, Paraguay a few years ago, my hosts took me to see the majestic Iguaçu Falls located on the borders of Brazil and Argentina. Although the Falls were magnificent they were not my key learning on this trip.

Traveling from Paraguay to see the Falls means one has to cross the Parana River at Ciudad del Este (a multinational city of 300,000 inhabitants, 55 foreign exchange shops, dominated by smuggling contraband, pirating music and software, and laundering cocaine revenue) via the “Friendship Bridge” to Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazil side.  Some 30,000 people cross the bridge each day from Brazil to the free market City either to buy tax free and sell for profit at home, or to work and then return home. 

My key learning came from hearing the story about an enterprising Brazilian merchant who crossed the border everyday for 20 years. Each morning he crossed the border into Paraguay and returned later in the day with a wheel barrow full of straw. He was unnoticed for a number of years until one customs officer couldn’t resist thinking that the merchant was smuggling something across the border. But as many times as he searched through the straw, he found nothing. Years later, when the merchant and the different customs agents he interacted with each day were retired, one of the retired customs officers went to the old man's hut and said "We are old men now, before one of us dies do tell me what it was you were smuggling all those years." After a long pause, the merchant said, "Wheelbarrows."

There, right under his nose, were wheelbarrows of all colors, materials, and shapes but the customs agents never paused to notice them as the critical feature. They focused on the wrong indicator. The takeaway for me was that when leaders fail to notice changing conditions and remain alert to genuine variations in their environment they don’t make the adjustments necessary to be successful in the future.

The main tools to find the future are right above our noses and between our ears!  There are several interpretations of brain development stages. Howard Gardner the Harvard psychologist (1995) says development progresses from an unschooled mind which sees things in black and white to the schooled mind which is able to synthesize two apparently opposing sentiments, and come down on one side of the argument.  He suggests that a majority of people are stuck in unschooled minds.  Dweck, (20006) and Kegan (2009) come to similar conclusions using slightly different frameworks. The more sophisticated mind can synthesize rather than just react. It can Blink [use mental pattern matching processes that work automatically with little information], and Think [use conscious rational thought processes].

In a quicksilver world we need brains that use a combination of Blink and Think strategies to develop more sophisticated mental routines that allow us to blend suppositions, logic, creativity and reflection in a way that enables us to understand the current situation, create something new, and adapt to conditions. In the Brazilian example, the customs agent failed to detect what was being smuggled because they blinked when they should have thought. A quicksilver world requires a mind with more sophisticated mental skills. It requires leaders who can think strategically by incorporating the two major skill areas necessary: situational awareness and foresight. Strategic thinking enables leaders to blink and think as appropriate to the situation.  

Sometimes, a quicksilver world requires quick thinking, quick reads, quick decisions, and quick actions. Consider an example from a Fire Department near miss report. “We arrived to find a two story wood frame multi-use structure with moderate smoke. After forcing entry, The Engine captain reported high heat conditions and indicated that the TIC screen was red. Seconds later, he reported heavy black smoke but no visible fire and proceeded to the right and pushed to rear of the structure. Outside the Ladder crew saw the smoke conditions changing rapidly from laminar light brown smoke to turbulent black smoke from the doorway. They tried to contact the Engine Company inside but failed. The IC ordered the ladder company to vent a large window on the A side of the structure, which exposed fire at the floor level rolling across the room to the rear of the structure. “I [the Engine captain] saw the fire roll over head and ordered my crew to evacuate, reported extreme heat and called a MAYDAY.” The takeaway, when the firefighters failed to recognize the conditions they were entering they lacked situational awareness.   

Yet, there are times that quicksilver worlds require slower reads, slower decisions, and slower actions. From the New York Times, the three month policy review of the Afghanistan was a case study in decision making . . . intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest, and at times frustrating.  Obama is described as peppering advisors with questions and showing an insatiable demand for information. Analysts prepared 3 dozen intelligence reports for him.  He invited competing voices to debate in front of him, while guarding his own thoughts. It was reported that from the very beginning, everyone started with a set of opinions. At the end, no beginning opinions were the same. As for the President, he said “You’ve got to make decisions based on information and not emotion.”  He saw his job as making the best possible decision that fit the situation and coming out of the process with everybody on the same page. The takeaway is that even with situational awareness leaders must use foresight skills to move forward together.

What we see in the two examples are leaders who Blink and Think depending on the situation they find themselves in. The reality though is there are few jobs that require only Blinking or Thinking. In a quicksilver world you must be able to do both.

In the book, The Strategic Leader I describe three mental skills - systems thinking, reframing, and reflecting - which enable you to develop a strategic mindset that enables you to Blink and Think as appropriate to the situation. I also include the Strategic Thinking Questionnaire (STQ) to assess your ability to Blink and Think as a gift to those that have purchased the book, The Strategic Leader: New tactics for a globalizing world. For the rest of you, we make the assessment available through our workshops on strategic thinking. Come join us if you want to improve your ability to Blink and Think!

What do you think? Do you have a story to share?

  “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do."  - Leonardo da Vinci

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The story of the wheelbarrow will definitely stick with me. So often we miss the forest while looking at trees. A Think/Blink example that comes to my mind is the crash landing in the Hudson River when Capt Scully acted so quickly and decisively. He, along with the crew, took control of a disaster and brought everyone to safety. The calm and resolve of the crew was also evident in the passengers. No panic, just decisive action that brought everyone home safely.  If you want to try a perception test, check out this advertisement for bicycle awareness:   Thanks for the thought provoking article, John. Keep them coming.
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