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Sometimes, You Just Have To React

Apr 30, 2021

A reader recently pushed back on my personal mantra: bad leaders react, good leaders plan, and great leaders think. He pointed out that there are times when every leader needs to react. He also pointed out that planning is essential.

I couldn’t agree more.

When I speak of reacting vs. planning vs. thinking, I am speaking in terms of default leadership style.

To put a finer point on it, bad leaders are constantly reacting to events, good leaders think their work is done when they’ve come up with a plan they’re satisfied with, but great leaders know that their work is never finished – that they must continue to challenge that plan and modify it as conditions change. Moreover, they know that they must continue to challenge themselves and their teams to improve on that plan.

Every leader needs to be able to react quickly and decisively to immediate threats and fleeting opportunities – and that is particularly true in today’s complex and rapidly changing operating environment.

Those who follow my work know it is based on the decision-support red teaming methodology developed by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies in the wake of 9/11. One of the first lessons I learned in the Army’s Red Team Leader course was: Don’t red team when the enemy is in the wire. In other words, don’t stop and think too deeply about the challenge you are facing when doing so would put your team or your organization at risk.

Red teaming, or any other form of applied critical thinking, should never become an excuse for inaction, nor delay a decision when a decision is required. Red teaming is designed to force your mind into what many cognitive psychologists call System 2 Thinking, which is deliberate, analytical, and intentional. But that doesn’t mean System 1 Thinking, which is instinctive and automatic, doesn’t have its time and place.

This view is endorsed by one of my favorite decision-making experts, Dave Snowden. His Cynefin Framework is a valuable tool for understanding the nature of a given problem and the appropriate response to it.

Snowden divides the universe of problems into two domains, Unordered and Ordered, and into four quadrants – Complex, Complicated, Chaotic, and Simple* – with an amorphous area of Disordered ambiguity in the middle:

The Cynefin framework*  DAVE SNOWDEN (2011)

In the Chaotic domain, the appropriate response is simply to act with the intention of moving the problem into one of the other domains and finding the breathing space necessary to think more deeply about the problem.

A house fire is a great example of a Chaotic problem. If your house is on fire, you need to take your family and flee as quickly possible, then call 911 when you are safely outside. You don’t need to figure out what caused the fire, nor how to address that underlying issue. Pausing to do so would do nothing to put out the blaze and could have fatal consequences. However, once the fire department has doused the flames, you probably do want to spend some time figuring out what went wrong and how to avoid it going wrong in the future.


Planning is everything

At the same time, every leader needs to plan. However, every leader also needs to remain mindful of Eisenhower’s famous admonition: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Like every great strategic thinker, Eisenhower appreciated the value of planning as means of uncovering the threats and opportunities presented by a given scenario and developing options for mitigating the former while exploiting the latter. But he also understood that, to paraphrase another great general, Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Whether you are leading a business or leading an army, you need to understand that, too. You need to make the investment in time necessary to understand your situation and develop an array of options for responding to the challenges and opportunities that it presents. But you also need to recognize that the environment you are operating in is in flux, and what seemed like the best option yesterday may no longer be the best option today.

Today, many of the problems we face as leaders fall squarely into Snowden’s Complex quadrant. His advice for dealing with those sorts of problems is to probe, sense, and respond. In other words, pick your best option, test it, and recalibrate as necessary – and be prepared to keep doing that until the way forward is clear.

But don’t stop there, because the world certainly won’t. The moment you and your team think you’ve cracked the code is the moment you begin to fail.

As my mentor, Alan Mulally, says: “You’ve always got to be working on the better plan.”


* Snowden later renamed “Simple,” “Obvious” and, most recently, “Clear.”


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Originally published on Forbes.


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