“I never learn anything while talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” Lou Holtz

With today’s complexity and conflicting realities, some leaders wish for a crystal ball, seek out futurists, or even read the French prophet Nostradamus’ predictions. Whether terrifying or optimistic, predictions are often stated with great confidence and authority. Amy Webb, in her book, The Signals are Talking, claims that the moment we start to figure something out or try to predict the future, our brains work to simplify our thinking. Instead of looking at the big picture, gathering more data or listening to others’ perspectives, we end up looking at the world through a pinhole and often miss key aspects of the complete picture.

While looking into the future is difficult, leaders do have the power to influence, anticipate and manage future changes more effectively within their own organizations and teams. To be most effective, leaders need to avoid a pinhole perspective and expand their view of reality. It takes leaders who stay observant and look for signals from employees to get it right. Mary Cartwright, a British mathematician, and Edward Lorenz, an American mathematician, were both pioneers of chaos theory. They found that predictability is inherently limited. Their “Butterfly Effect” explains how even tiny actions or changes can have enormous consequences. Similarly, a leader’s actions, choices and behaviors, even small ones, without considering the impact on employees, may cause an unintended ripple effect that leads to greater complexity, ambiguity and frustration.

Consider one leader who recently heard that employees wanted more feedback. While greater access to feedback was his goal, his decision to adopt a new computerized performance system had the opposite result. Rather than one-to-one feedback, his managers spent significantly more time entering data that left both managers and employees dissatisfied. What employees really wanted was more “high touch” feedback and acknowledgement, such as praise for team success, written notes of encouragement, being the subject of success stories or even simple head nods of approval. This leader got it wrong. As leaders we need to expand our thinking to examine how even the smallest changes may impact employees and whether or not the end result leads to more healthy and positive work environments.

Consider for a moment whether or not any of your “small changes” or actions have led to unintended consequences in the last year? If so, work to get it right in 2018 and ask yourself the following five questions.

1. What is it that you ultimately want to accomplish?
2. Who will be most impacted by the change you plan to make?
3. How can you invite key stakeholders to candidly express what they think about your idea?
4. How will you actually “listen” to their responses and integrate what you heard in your final design or change?
5. When and how will you circle back to your stakeholders to let them know how you applied their input?

While it is difficult for leaders to predict the future and see the end result of their decisions with total accuracy, they can work to reduce ambiguity and unintended consequences. Leaders need to remind themselves that the best and often least expensive way to introduce and navigate change is to gain buy-in and engage others early in the change process.

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