Five tips for speaking truth to power

speak the truthLeadership involves exposing people to new facets of reality and sometimes the facts are presented bluntly. Unsurprisingly, hearing the words “you’re wrong” provokes a defensive reaction.

Speaking truth to power can be dangerous, and many people have experienced the truth of the cliché shooting the messenger. Those in power can and do retaliate with anger when they’re surprised or embarrassed or contradicted.

  • Tip #1 – Express your respect. The obvious advice for presenting inconvenient truths is to express your respect for the person, their perspective, and their accomplishments. A leader respects civility and reveres candor. Be courteous and cordial. And tell the truth.

A leader need not set aside civility, courtesy, or politeness when discussing strategy. Most people (at least when rested and calm) want to know the facts of the situation. They want communications that are candid, clear, and plain.

  • Tip #2 – Ask permission to share. Because people like to feel in control, ask permission to share your perspective. “I’ve formed an opinion. Would you be interested in hearing it?”
  • Tip #3 – Unpack adjectives. Recall from Chapter 2, I suggested that adjectives can help you uncover useful nuance. Rather than saying, “You are stating goals and not strategy,” ask, “Do you think your strategy is good? (or effective, powerful, clever, nuanced).” Approach the answer with curiosity, intending to learn more rather than score points by declaring the other person’s weakness.
  • Tip #4 – Ask about assumptions. People’s plans and mental models are based upon assumptions. Those assumptions are frequently biased observations and speculations. When it is your turn to talk, you may be able to advocate for better assumptions.
  • Tip #5 – Being kind is essential, being nice is optional. This last tip is probably more of an insight and principle than a tip, yet it may help you approach powerful people more effectively. The insight is this:

Leadership is a practice of kindness, but it’s not always a practice of niceness.

Kindness is helping others by showing that you care about their well-being. Niceness is the practice of courtesy and politeness. A nice person tells others what the others want to hear. A person can be nice, but simultaneously unkind when she withholds uncomfortable truths or fails to share critical information.


.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.

I especially enjoyed his chapter on Being an Extra-ordinary Leader. In this chapter, he espouses the same advice I recently heard from a very successful industry leader, “You must be comfortable with ambiguity to lead at a high level.” According to Githens, extra-ordinary leadership is “imperfectly seizing the unknown.” I recommend this text to anyone pursuing leadership excellence through strategy.”
― Keith Henson – customer review on Amazon

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Better Conversations Generate Better Strategy

Conversations and strategyThere is strong evidence that conversation is ofttimes a turning point for strategy. Billy Beane’s conversation with Sandy Alderman pointed towards an unorthodox logic that evolved into the underpinnings of the Moneyball strategy. Lou Gerstner’s meeting with Dennie Welsh led to a “mind afire” realization that IBM’s future was a service-centric business model. It’s possible that a conversation between Christopher Columbus and his brother sparked the insight that a voyager could exploit the prevailing winds to sail west and the westerly winds to return.

The big idea of this chapter is that better-quality discourse can lead to better strategy. These three brief definitions provide an essential grounding:

  • Dialogue – The word dialogue (dia-logos: through the word) describes a high-quality conversation that provides a deeper understanding of mutual interests and specific issues that are important to the organization and its many stakeholders. Dialogue, in its purest form, is an open, ongoing, and ever-expanding exchange of ideas. This generates deep learning than can be valuable for mastering complex, emergent environments.
  • Deliberation – Deliberation builds upon dialogue with an emphasis on reaching a decision, such as when a jury deliberates to decide on guilt or innocence. Deliberation is the careful, unrushed consideration of the evidence, arguments, conclusions, and solutions being offered.
  • Dyad – A dyad is a two-person group. The examples in this chapter focus on temporary dyads, meeting for approximately 15-minutes duration. Each person comes to the conversation with her own perspective, which encompasses her assumptions, beliefs, and choices. Each has the opportunity to share her ideas with someone who is solely focused on listening.

The goal of dialogue and deliberation is to deepen and enrich the sharing of knowledge. They are tools that enables strategists to detect and resolve ambiguity, enhance people’s understanding of strategic issues, advocate for unorthodox ideas, test the validity of unconventional approaches, and gain agreement for tough decisions.

The benefits of dyads are they promote the sharing of first-person perspective about the strategic situation. Introverts often have high-quality ideas but are reluctant to share them with a larger group. A one-to-one discussion is easier. Too, complicated and nuanced ideas are difficult to articulate, and a good listener can help the speaker clarify her ideas. Dyads also avoid some of the social biases like group think and sunflower management.

.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.

My only regret is that I didn’t have this book available for me as I was moving up the corporate ladder. It is insightful, thought-provoking and filled with actionable items to help customize your personal success.”
― Professor – customer review on Amazon

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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Insights Are the Secret Sauce of Strategy

Update to ST map graphicThe future is an essential navigational beacon of strategic thinking. The navigational beacon of insights is just as important.

The IBM turnaround is an excellent example of what one insight can do. Gerstner [IBM’s CEO] declared that the services strategy was a “powerful logic” that would undergird “IBM’s unique competitive advantage.”[i] From that quote you can extract this compelling question: Does your organization’s strategy have a logic that is unique and provides an advantage?

Insights, more specifically cues and anchors, are critical navigational beacons on the strategic thinking map. A strategic thinker is continually searching for cues in the data and paying attention to each cue. She applies sensemaking to that cue to test for the spark of an emotional response. It might be as simple as, “This request for X from a stakeholder is new, and it’s interesting. I wonder if there’s any further significance to it?”

When presented with a strategy, a good question is: What’s the insight behind this strategy?


.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.

This book unpacks strategy in an understandable way and clarifies the common misunderstandings of what it is, and what it is not. ‘Strategic thinking’ is a domain that can be accessed, learned and practiced by anyone. It makes strategy practical by providing relevant models, examples, and tools. I particularly liked the four X-factors of strategic thinking – drive, insight, chance, and emergence. The best part is the decomposition of micro-skills necessary to practice strategic thinking.
― JSD – customer review on Amazon

[i] “IBM’s unique:” Gerstner, 130.

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How a Strategic Decision Differs From a Tactical Decision

As I mentioned in the first chapter, people often use the adjective strategic rhetorically to signify importance. An example is that many people use the adjective strategic to contrast with tactical. The Parthenonbest explanation is that the strategic level is analogous to the brain and the tactical level is analogous to the hands. This results in a meaningless distinction between “choosers” and “doers,” because people in low levels of an organization’s hierarchy can and do make decisions.[i]

Sometimes those lower-level decisions are catastrophic, as in the case of James Liang, a Volkswagen engineer who found a way to fake reports on vehicle emissions testing – Volkswagen paid over $20 billion in fines.[ii] Clearly, it’s not only the CEO of an organization who makes consequential decisions.

I generally advise avoiding the use of the word strategic as a substitute for the word important. However, I make an exception for the phrase strategic decision if it’s used deliberately and coupled with the distinct phrase tactical decisions.

The application is in this rule: a strategic decision constrains a tactical decision.

An example of a strategic decision was Gerstner’s decision to keep IBM together. He revealed it to be “the most important decision I ever made – not just at IBM, but in my entire business career.”[iii]

The first essential characteristic of a strategic decision is stand-aloneness, which means that the decision is independent of other decisions. [iv] Gerstner’s decision to keep IBM together was stand-alone because Gerstner decided it on its own merits.

Gerstner’s decision arose out of his specific nuanced understanding of the situation and was influenced by his unique perspective. A standalone decision could also be called a subjective decision, in that is guided by a person’s perspective, personal values, and experiences. Throughout his book, Gerstner recollected his first-hand frustrations as an IBM customer.

The decision to reduce the price of mainframe computing systems was a tactical decision. It was not a standalone decision, because the pricing decision involved a considerable sacrifice of profits at a time when IBM was under extreme financial pressures. The pricing decision’s logic depended IBM’s commitment to large, global customers. IBM had no good reason to reduced prices if it was going to abandon those customers.

.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.

“Githens’ methodology is refreshingly effective in building a coherent path to learn and enhance specific capabilities to become an effective and influential strategic thinker. A must read for any leader wanting to enhance their strategic thinking skills.
 Bill Blackmore

Gregs new book available now~ ~ ~

[i] This is a meaningless distinction: See Roger L Martin, “The Execution Trap,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010.

[ii] Volkswagen engineer: See Bill Vlasic, “Volkswagen Engineer Gets Prison in Diesel Cheating Case,” New York Times, August 25, 2017.

[iii] “the most important decision:” Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Yes, Elephants Can Learn to Dance. page 61.

[iv] The first essential characteristic of a strategic decision: This section draws from the reasoning by Eric Van den Steen of Harvard. He defines strategy as the smallest set of choices sufficient to guide all other choices. Van den Steen says: “A strategy is not (1) a detailed plan of action or (2) a comprehensive set of choices and decisions; it is a plan of action boiled down to its most essential choices and decisions.” See Eric Van den Steen, A Theory of Explicitly Formulated Strategy, Harvard Business School Strategy Unit Working Paper No. 12-102 (May 3, 2012).

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Unlearning, learning, and a culture of strategic thinking

Organizational culture is relevant to both strategy and operations. Most agree that culture includes a set of shared values (about what is good and bad), beliefs (about the relationships of cause and effect), and assumptions (about the things that can be taken for granted).

As a simple working definition, culture means the shared learning of a group of people. Their shared learnings are about their originations, their strengths, and their future. Indeed, our families, churches, schools, and organizations go to great lengths to imbue members with shared values and beliefs.

Organizational culture imprints on new entrants and influences their behavior. Anyone who has spent time in a large organization has interacted with new hires and their enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Unfortunately, the drive and fresh ideas diminish over time as they become immersed in operational specializations, bureaucratic rules, and processes. Not to be overlooked are the erosive pressures of day-to-day problem solving and the energy-suck of political infighting. Jerry Weinberg explains that the individual is more likely to sop up the values and quirks of culture than a culture is to be changed by the actions of an individual: “The cucumber gets pickled more than the brine gets cucumbered.”

Organizations hold deeply embedded values for productivity, prediction, and perfection. The organization’s culture of operations is the brine that pickles a person’s inclination to think strategically.

Short stack of book
.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of 
How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.

“The entire book is outstanding for both newly-interested and accomplished strategists. The author recommends self-development to the reader through a routine practice of selecting one of the twenty microskills, such as “personal resilience” or “devalorization” for focus each week. Valuable insight is presented on culture with respect to strategic fit, transition and transformation. I found the easy flow of the book’s concepts and the weekly practice to be just that; a great fit boosting my skill as a competent strategic thinker at work and beyond.”
Mel – Amazon Verified Purchaser Customer Review
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How Mapping Can Improve Your Strategic Thinking

It’s an inconvenient truth that many executives are lost, unable to grasp the essential concepts of strategy, crafting it, or conveying it to others.[i] In addition to orientation, maps help you frame and answer questions like these:

·       Where could I go?

·       Where should I go?

I like to use the analogy of comparing conceptual maps with conventional (spatially organized) maps. Both can be used for orientation (knowing where you are) and navigation (knowing where you could go or where you should go). Any mental map can be normative (describing what should be) or descriptive (representing what is).

Landmarks are salient features, and the concept of landmarks-as-navigational-beacons is a fundamental message of this book. A landmark that gives you a broader reference, such as a lighthouse marking the entrance to a harbor, is a navigational beacon in the physical world. As I discuss in the next chapter, an operational thinking map has a set of landmarks (that is, navigational beacons) that are distinct from the landmarks of strategic thinking.

Besides navigational beacons, three other mapping concepts enhance the analogy of a physical map and conceptual map. They are the presence of orientation cues (helping you know where you are), associative cues (helping you know if there are other nearby points of interest), and boundaries (helping you recognize your frame of reference).[ii]

Individuals have multiple maps, and they organize their maps differently. Since organizations are collections of individuals, they likely have numerous individual mental maps. Organizational culture will encourage consistency in an individual’s mental map. However, the organization’s culture is also a force of conformity that suppresses weak signals of discontinuities.

With the idea of multiple maps, you can pose questions that inform your strategic thinking:

·       What are the boundaries of the map?

·       What are the salient features on the map?

·       What maps are others using?

·       How do I know when to change maps?

Strategic thinking benefits from collaboration. The practice of conceptual mapmaking can help generate better understandings of the situation and the logic for improving the organization.

.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.

“Greg Githens’ approach to strategic thinking offers a wealth of practical advice for the most season strategy about how to reason more clearly and with greater self-awareness about the often murky and discontinuous world in which we live.” Amy Zalman

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn with the title, How Map Making and Map Reading Can Improve Your Strategic Thinking.

Gregs new book available now

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How to Measure Business Acumen

close up of white syringe

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The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) finds that business acumen trails only leadership and ethics as an essential executive quality. Unfortunately, it is a gauzy and subjective buzzword.

I propose a simple evaluation for business acumen. Imagine that an interview is taking place for an executive-level or Board of Directors position and that that of business acumen is an important criterion. Here are three revealing questions:

Your organization has just granted you a significant amount of money. How (and why) would you invest that money to best benefit your organization?

Name a thought leader in your industry or in your discipline. How has that person’s ideas shaped your perspective as a manager and a leader?

The theme of organizational agility is a hot topic in management magazines. What does that phrase mean to you and what are the tradeoffs involved in fostering organizational agility?

A person who has adequate business acumen could provide cogent answers.

A person with acumen is sharp minded.

A brief side trip into semantics is necessary to identify the gist of acumen. The word’s direct Latin ancestor is the verb acuere, which means “to sharpen,” and a related Latin noun is acus for “needle.” Sharp needles are very useful tools for tailors and physicians, and the analogy extends to strategic thinking. A person with acumen is sharp and able to penetrate a complicated system. Associate the word acumen with the word acupuncture and you’ll have a helpful analogy.

Acumen is a blending of fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to work with novel information in real time whereas crystallized intelligence reflects the ability to retrieve and use information acquired through a lifetime. If you have lots of experience with many different business models, then you have crystallized intelligence about them, and you would find it easier to demonstrate acumen. However, if like many successful entrepreneurs, you can identify and exploit an emerging trend, you are also demonstrating business acumen.

The LAID framework for evaluating acumen

The LAID framework unpacks business acumen into four elements.

Literacy – Just as a literate person can distinguish fiction from non-fiction, a business-literate person knows the principles of accounting, finance, operations, human resources, and the like. Business literacy resembles book-learned knowledge. Business literacy is a baseline of understanding and it is not the same thing as acumen.

Analysis – A necessary step in showing acumen is to probe the situation. (The “acu-“ part of the word acumen relates to penetrating.) A skilled analyst can probe quickly and intuitively. A less-skilled person may require more time to identify the crux of the business issue. Regardless, the concept of acumen is basically one of achieving a better understanding of the situation and not accepting mediocre and conventional explanations.

Insight – Everyone has had an insight: a sudden realization of a better explanation of a situation or a resolution to a challenging issue. The activities of analysis and reframing naturally tend to generate insights.

Design – Design thinking is a practice of understanding the context and the needs of stakeholders. The insight sparks some initial design ideas. Those ideas are further refined into an improved solution to the identified business problem.

As you listen to answers, unpack each of the four LAID elements and score separately. If the answer shows little understanding of the situation, assign a 0 or 1 for literacy and analysis. If the understanding appears to be good, give a higher score say a 3 or 4.

As you listen to the answers, be on guard for a string of buzzwords: strategic, digital, disruption, execution, and the like. I’ve met many executives who are good at constructing elaborate riffs that really say very little. You must apply acumen to discover acumen. Some good follow-up questions are, “Why did you select this answer?” “What else is useful for me to understand about your answer?”

Example answers that show business acumen

Here is one way to answer the first question. As an icebreaker exercise in strategic thinking, I once tasked the Board of Directors of a Not-for-Profit association with this question:

An anonymous donor has provided a grant to the organization. What is the dollar size of the grant and what would you use it for?

An important element of this example is that this organization was floundering. If the Board couldn’t provide leadership, the organization would cease operations. Except for one person, the answers were narrow-framed, and uninspired. Their ideas would only result in incremental improvement of the status quo. The scoring was 0 or 1 for each of the LAID elements. The one good answer was this: ask for a grant of $100,000 and use it to hire a full-time President for the organization. It was a good answer because it addressed a large specific challenge for the organization: it was floundering under part-time, volunteer help. It was based on a good insight, and all the other LAID elements were strong.

Here is my answer to the second question, pointing to Jerry Harvey as an influencer. Harvey is author of the book, The Abilene Paradox, which provides the insight is that a fundamental challenge in organizations is managing agreement, rather than disagreement. Here are some common real-life situation where the paradox is in play. Managers agree that they should plan for the long term, but they don’t. They agree that they should avoid over-committing their organizations with projects, but they continue to say “yes” to every opportunity. They agree that they should be more creative and curious about their customers, but they instead rely on their own assumptions.

When organizations blunder into the Abilene paradox, they take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve. Harvey’s insights have helped me develop some essential ideas: individuals are often out of touch with their situation, individuals often do not make rational decisions in their own best interests, and group social dynamics often lead to mediocrity. My business acumen improves because I use empathy: and I ask more direct and meaningful questions to individuals. The importance of speaking truth to power is enhanced.

For the third question about organizational agility, I would expect the answer to understand that agility is not a methodology. Agility is a cluster of values about speed, flexibility, and attention to delivering value to the customer. Those values are long-standing qualities of excellent organizations. Anti-agility is often built up in a culture that emphasizes process and perfection. The tradeoffs of increasing organizational agility mean that strategic thinking needs to coexist with the more-comfortable and common practice of operational thinking.

A person with business acumen understands that each situation has relevant nuance. Regardless, they attempt to penetrate to gain deeper understanding and craft responses that are appropriate to the situation.

Has this article enhanced your understanding of business acumen?

Note: I originally published this article on LinkedIn.

Gregs new book available now

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