“Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.”
History is replete with big thinkers. John F. Kennedy thought bigger when he announced that by the end of the decade the United States would put a man on the moon and then return him home safely. Jeff Bezos thought bigger when he envisioned selling books over the internet. Oprah Winfrey thought bigger when she launched her own television network after twenty-five years hosting her successful television show. And Muhammed Yunus thought bigger about ending poverty and enhancing personal dignity when he launched the Grammen Bank in Bangladesh. Each person was firmly rooted on the “whether you think you can” side of Henry Ford’s quote.
Why is it then that so many leaders, teams and organizations are thinking smaller today? There are two reasons:
1. The first reason is that over time leaders and teams have taken risks and been unsuccessful. In turn, they’ve become conditioned to think success is elusive and have ratcheted down their hopes and aspirations – in essence they’ve given up. This eliminates all creativity and risk taking and leads to what Martin Seligman calls learned helplessness. In the world of work this leads to an overly zealous focus on cutting costs and managing expenses.
Are there times when retrenching, focusing on cutting costs and expense management is appropriate? Absolutely. But, when the management of expenses becomes the only strategy deployed to achieve extraordinary performance leaders have gotten off track.
2. The second reason is the hard to recognize yet easy to describe comfort zone. There is a part of all humans that strives to maintain the current state of affairs no matter the outcome. When we are in our comfort zones the known and predictable are preferred and we act like Goldilocks. We don’t want our porridge to be too hot or too cold – we want it right in the middle.
I have three suggestions for how you can empower yourself and your team while also breaking free of the comfort zone.
1. Change Your Mindset: Ordinary leaders rely on hope as a core strategy while extraordinary leaders rely on a compelling vision as a core strategy. Teams and leaders whose primary focus is on the present state of affairs view poor performance as something to be blamed on someone or something other than themselves. In these teams you find lower levels of accountability and higher levels of feeling victimized.
To reverse this focus shift your attention away from the present and focus on the future. Focusing your attention on a future state that is inspiring and uplifting shifts your focus away from a fixing blame mindset to a fixing problems mindset.
2. Use Parallel Thinking: This step requires that leaders recognize that extraordinary business results always come from thinking bigger and not smaller. For example: if you brainstorm a list of companies that are thriving today based solely on cost cutting you have a very short list – actually its zero.
Companies who have gone through massive cost cutting and have thrived shortly thereafter did so by cutting expenses while also investing in new technologies, new designs, and new ways of thinking bigger about providing exceptional value to their customers. For example: In 2006 Ford cut it’s workforce by 40% and did so without using bankruptcy protection. Envisioning a bigger and brighter future with more economical cars AND by cutting costs, they were able to jump from losing $12.6 billion dollars in 2006 to a profit of $2.7 billion five years later.
3. Isolate The Fear: There are a lot of different fears in the workplace. The fear of failure, the fear of looking foolish, even the fear of losing a job. All of these fears, whether real or not, determine how leaders and teams perform. Left unspoken they permeate the thinking of teams and degrade performance. Isolating and naming specific fears can be transformative and liberating. Here are four questions that can change a persons thinking:
1. What specifically am I afraid of? What fear keeps me from experimenting and taking risks?
2. How does this fear hold me back both at work or at home? Make this as behaviorally specific as possible.
3. How does this fear serve me? Be as detailed as possible and create as long a list as possible.
4. What would be my pay-off for eliminating this fear?
Are you thinking bigger about your personal and professional life? Have you found a way to think smaller and be okay with doing so? I’m not suggesting that you have ideas as audacious as JFK, Oprah, or Jeff Bezos, but I am suggesting that each of us has the capacity to live our lives in bigger ways, ways that are far more rewarding and enriching than what we are experiencing today.
Thinking bigger about our lives both personally and professionally is a skill and habit that needs cultivating on a daily basis. Have you thought bigger today about some aspect of your life? If by chance you’re thinking that you don’t have the time, energy, inclination or need to think bigger, Henry Ford was right when he said…”you are usually right.”