context proximity

The most egregious error I see leaders frequently commit is to assume they have more context than the folks doing the work. If the situation is complex and the leader’s first instinct is to prescribe a solution rather than to ask a lot of questions and provide open-ended guidelines, they are invariably making an egregious error on several levels. Not only are they likely-as-not making a technical mistake on the immediate issue, but they’re decimating their team’s autonomy and desire to innovate, as well as side-stepping an opportunity for growth on both sides.

When I was young, I read the book series Encyclopedia Brown about a child Sherlock. Each book was a new mystery and how it got solved with his Watson-like assistant narrating. In one particular mystery, the timing of a sequence of events was particularly crucial. The only witness said that in the sequence, he’d stopped to take a leak. “A long one or a short one?” asks Brown. And that’s how his assistant found himself on the way to the family bathroom with a stopwatch to time a “short one”, terrified an adult would see him.

This little vignette seared itself in my mind. Why was he terrified? He was doing a deeply rational, benign thing in the service of helping people in an important way. But without a ton of context (not only the entire plot up to that point, but the immediate setup I just recounted) an adult would only see a kid going to the bathroom with a stopwatch. They’d assume the kid was either extremely weird or up to no good. Even as a kid, that frustrated the hell out of me. Why wouldn’t they just ask and start with the assumption the kid was intelligent and rational? Wasn’t it obvious how destructive it was to do otherwise?

Having lived a few years now in the world of adults, I can assure you it isn’t to most people. And those people are very good at ending up in positions of power.

Good leaders spend their energy aligning narratives — explaining high-level goals, giving as much context as possible, and helping to resolve the counter-narratives that bubble up to them. Then they can assume the folks under them will make good decisions and choose appropriate strategies based on that alignment. Bad ones assume that’s all a waste of time because their position has proven they are the best at making decisions.

It’s hard to understand any complex problem. If you have a lot of them, you’d do well to let Encyclopedia Brown focus on one of them and then listen.