In crisis, spot your default future and tweak it

Steve Zaffron, CEO of the Vanto Group, a global consulting firm and Dave Logan, who teaches at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, offer a set of simple rules to show how leaders and their companies can prosper, even when the odds are stacked against them in their best selling book The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life.

Recognize that people normally have an unconscious, gut-level idea of where they — and their company — are at, and where they’re likely to go. Zaffron and Logan call this “the default future” and show how it is deeply rooted in people’s assumptions, hopes, fears, and past experiences. The first task of leadership, they argue, is to identify the default future, discuss it, and analyze it, and then go about reimagining — and, in effect, rewriting — the future. The book examines a series of management cases at companies around the world where rewriting the future has led to real business transformation. And the lessons are just as applicable to individuals. it’s extra-critical for the CEO who has to steer the ship, to get people in communication about the future that they see coming at them. This is what they call the “default future,” and it’s constituted by a lot of complexity that all comes together in a certain way. This default future consists of our expectations, our fears, our hopes, and our predictions, all of which are ultimately based on our prior experience.

But most CEOs worry about telling the people about the firm’s default future as they see it. They try to paint a happy picture in a relative sense pointing to the competition that had gone belly up. They try to benchmark their performance against a broader industry index and say, “hey, we’re better off.” But the people know the level of emptiness behind those statements and don’t buy a word of it. So why not say it as it looks?

That calls for intuitive grit. The CEO will have to begin by believing in his ability to face up to the responsibility and keep the ship afloat. He should be quick to capture what others see and then gauge the standard deviation from what he thinks about it. He has to communicate the long term goals he has outlined for the company. Say every morning that our business is fragile, and that it can break very easily. So you’d better look at all the risks and make sure that they’re mitigated as much as possible. You see something you don’t like, tell that to the people and ask them do something else. Dare to be naïve.

Believe in getting into hot water. It keeps you clean.


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