The title of this article is meant to leverage the myth of ostriches burying their heads in the sand to avoid danger. The implication is that if they cannot see danger, then the danger cannot see them. Other titles of this article could have been “Avoiding Tell-Tale Signs,” “Wearing Blinders,” “Ignoring Trends,” or even “Uncomfortable Truths.” All of these titles have a common theme of knowingly ignoring potential bad news. Putting a positive twist on the subject, but with the same result, the title could also be “Hoping for a Better Outcome.” More often than not, the situations listed above are not overt or consciously made. Perhaps it is part of human nature for most of us to try to ignore future negative outcomes. There are, of course, individuals at the other end of the spectrum that seem to live for and thrive on bad news. If the news isn’t actually bad, they often find ways of twisting news to meet their negative outlook. We all know some of them. For example, a person who wins the lottery then complains about the denomination of the currency they receive!
The corporate mindset inadvertently supports the above position of ignoring potentially negative situations when discussing the likelihood or forecast of meeting future goals. The individual that suggests negative outcomes or failure to meet goals that might occur is often viewed as not being a team player or as being part of the problem and not part of the solution. Many other similar said and unsaid labels are used as well. Just as depicted with the ostrich, ignoring the potential issues that may hinder goal performance does not make them go away. We see the results of this mindset every year during the earning season when pubic companies announce their results. The announcement of a missed forecast is often accompanied by the gnashing of teeth and the announcement of immediate layoffs or other cutbacks as if they must be done now because of the just-announced surprise. Poor performance does not happen instantaneously.
Two simple techniques can be used to encourage thoughtful dialogue about what could go wrong that could derail reaching goals while avoiding the stigma of pessimism that is normally associated with these discussions. The first is remarkably simple. It involves asking the question, “What can we do differently to get us back on track?” Instead of focusing on what went wrong in the past, which is probably obvious to everyone involved, turn the discussion to what can now be done. It is subtle, but the emphasis is on the future solution and not the past problem. For example, instead of addressing the root cause of a revenue shortfall as a failure to generate enough proposals, the emphasis should be on how to generate more proposals.
The second method is intended to head off potential problems before they occur by tapping into the known but unsaid knowledge of others. Here is an example that has proven to be quite effective in the past.
Assume that it is the second week of January. The year-end closing has just occurred, and last year’s results met expectations. Revenue and budget goals for the new year are in place and everyone is optimistic. The CEO has brought the senior staff together, and the small talk about the holidays is over. The CEO turns to the group and says, “Next year is only 50 weeks away!” Followed by, “We have made many assumptions about the business and what we have to do. If we do not make our forecasted revenue or expense goals, what do we think could have occurred that we have not considered?” Finally, “Let’s go around the room and capture the items that could happen. Let’s not worry about why they might happen or the likelihood of their occurrence; let’s just create a hypothetical list.”
Once the shock wears off and the CEO encourages one person to identify one item, others are likely to follow suit, and a list begins to be developed. The CEO has set the stage and outwardly given approval for everyone to take their head out of the sand and identify potential danger. After the listing exercise is complete, the group’s focus should be on what steps can be taken before the events occur to help ensure that they do not occur. Next, the group should identify what early warning signs could be used to indicate that the negative events are likely to occur. Finally, the business risk and likelihood for each occurrence should be discussed. This last step is often used by mistake as the first step in this process. If prioritized, only a few obvious, major items are considered. Those items are always on people’s minds, and contingency plans are already underway.
Thinking a little harder about the ostrich’s plan to bury its head in the sand, what happens if it doesn’t work and danger does appear? It would be hard for it to pull its head out of the sand, regain composure, and react. The head-in-the-sand tactic becomes an all or nothing approach. On the other hand, how long should the ostrich remain in that position? When should it begin to look around? Will it be too soon or too late? Perhaps a far better strategy for the ostrich to follow is to use its height to its fullest advantage and constantly scan the horizon for potential danger while it moves forward toward its goal. Isn’t that heads-up approach appropriate for your organization as well?