Even the most creative leaders appreciate it when others present them with options for handling situations. The options followers generate often circumscribe the range of actions a leader contemplates. The quality of those options makes a huge difference to the success of an organization. Neither we nor our leaders should settle for good ideas on important issues until we have energetically searched for great ideas.
Before we can present options we need to be sure we are solving the right problem. What seems like an isolated problem is often one manifestation of a complex set of interactions within a system. We need to search for the questions that will unearth the fundamental problem instead of searching for solutions to the apparent problem. We can learn different systems for doing this, such as the Ishikawa cause-and-effect “fishbone diagram,” or Kepner/Tregoe’s situation-and-problem-analysis processes, or Stephen Brookfield’s critical-thinking approach.
The courageous follower at times sounds like a philosopher:
What do we think we know?
Why do we think we know this?
What assumptions underlie our belief?
Under what circumstances are these assumptions valid?
Do the current circumstances approximate these?
How are they different?
What successful examples are there of operating on those assumptions?
What unsuccessful examples are there?
What can we learn from these examples?
Is there an entirely different way to think about this?
Is there something we can learn from thinking in a new way?
Can we draw analogies from unrelated fields that will further unlock our thinking?
In the best of worlds the leader and group are open to this type of process. If they are not, we can ask these questions of ourselves and inject our answers into whatever dialogue exists.
What seems like the cause of a problem is often just the effect of a deeper problem. We can use the “rule of three whys” to get at the root of a problem, successively asking why something is so until a fundamental reason is uncovered:
Why is this so? Answer.
Why would that be so? Answer.
Why would that be the case? Answer.
The need to identify the right problem must be balanced by the need to avoid “analysis paralysis.” Leadership requires making difficult decisions with incomplete data. The time comes for the follower to cease asking questions and to present concrete options. Depending on the urgency of the situation this may occur in minutes or in months. Integrity is then served by following the “rule of three options.”
Develop at least three good options for any situation.
By presenting several workable options, we give leaders genuine choices, not just the choices we want them to make.
If one choice presents ethical problems, we are less tempted to ignore the problems if we have other options.
The pros and cons of each option can be weighed, the benefits and dangers evaluated, and the best option or synthesis of options selected. Courageous followers help their leaders go beyond popular wisdom and search for fundamental understanding of issues, from which visionary leadership can develop.