Want to be a better manager?

William Barnett
William Barnett

Do good managers look for consensus and strive to predict the future? Not according to WILLIAM BARNETT, professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business.

“Humans fear being a fool much more than they hope to be a genius,” he says. Rather than risk looking foolish, employees may opt to support a consensus view or fear to voice controversial ideas. That can lead to poor strategic choices.

Barnett says that if people are afraid that breaking from the consensus is bad for their careers, it’s a sign that a new approach is needed.

His advice?

Search for the foolish

Geniuses make mistakes. Einstein’s work, for example, contained arithmetic errors. It’s easy to overlook genius when an idea seems outside the norm. “In the search for genius, if you want genius, look for systems that create foolishness,” he says, meaning ideas that fall out of the consensus view.

Look for arguments, not consensus

Likewise, when it comes to a competition between business plans, avoid the consensus pick, Barnett says. “What I want to see in a business plan competition is the plan that generates the biggest argument.”

Connect the dots looking backward

Apple’s Steve Jobs presented this now famous injunction to Stanford students when he spoke at the university’s graduation ceremony in 2005. Barnett echoes this message: “Great leaders are people who understand that it is not their job to know the future. It is their job to create a system that discovers that future.”

Manage for variance — sometimes

Managing for variance means allowing change and acting unpredictably. Singapore, for instance, encouraged street musicians to generate a Greenwich Village-like atmosphere in the 1990s, but insisted they dress neatly and sing government-approved songs. “You see what happens when we try to control the innovation process,” Barnett says. But managing for variance isn’t always appropriate. Barnett says he hopes the pilot flying his airplane takes off and lands the exact same way every time.

Think before you pivot

Pivoting, or moving in a sharply different direction from an early strategy, is all the rage, says Barnett. “[Young people] all say the word ‘pivot’ all the time. So the recipe is that you try something, it doesn’t work, you pivot, and you’re rich,” he jokes. “You do want to pivot if the very logic that you think is true here is failing its test. But if all you’re doing is just looking at a result without thinking through the logic of the business, you want to think again before you pivot.”

Beware the false negative

Testing a strategy with data can result in actionable information. But it also could lead to a false positive or a false negative. “False positives are self-correcting. False negatives are not. If I get a false negative, I’ll pivot. And I won’t realize I was right. A false positive, I’m going to do it again,” Barnett says.

Read the entire article on the Graduate School of Business website.