HomeTalentLeadership DevelopmentDave Ulrich’s four principles for progress (without being perfect)

Dave Ulrich's four principles for progress (without being perfect)

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HR thought leader Dave Ulrich outlines key steps for leaders to make professional and organisational progress in a sustainable and effective fashion

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When I ask groups in presentations or friends in person, “Who has experienced emotional challenges in the last 20 months?” nearly everyone raises their hand (for me, both hands!). The unprecedented physical, social, and professional crises everyone has faced recently have required us all to reflect on, and often redefine, how we make progress.

As business and HR leaders labour to reimagine and reinvent work for individuals and organisations in response to these conditions, they need to recognise that progress does not require perfection. The drawbacks of inactivity are worse than those of moving forward without a perfect solution.

Let me suggest four principles for taking action and progressing that do not require perfection. These principles apply to strategy (we don’t have to have the perfect product or service to go to market), operations (we don’t have to have flawless execution to get started), technology (we don’t have to have the perfect technology solution to go digital), and human capability (we don’t have to have perfect people or organisations to get things done).

Satisfice, don’t optimise

Herbert Simon was a Nobel Prize winner in economics for his theory of “bounded rationality” or “satisficing.” In simple terms, he suggested that not everything worth doing is worth doing well. In fact, people make many decisions or choices that “satisfice”: they are not optimal but are good enough.

In a world characterised by uncertainty (see related terms in figure one), leaders need to act quickly with agility more than perfect processes, take risks that diverge more than converge, and reimagine what can be more than reengineer what is or has been.

Agility, risk taking, and reimagination occur in strategic, operational, information, and human capability choices. Satisficing, or making good enough choices, requires doing, learning, failing forward, and adapting quickly. Business and HR leaders who move quickly, even without perfect answers, can adjust and adapt to unknown and changing market conditions.

Leadership questions include: What can we do now? Where do we start? How do we quickly learn from what works and what does not work?

Figure one: Concepts related to uncertainty

dave ulrich

Envision a direction, not a destination

When pioneers or pilgrims faced daunting challenges, they moved to new settings where they could discover personal opportunities. Pioneers generally acted without a specific destination where they were headed, but they migrated towards a general direction based on their values and aspirations.

Legacy pioneers established countries; today’s pioneers often work in organisations where they have a sense of direction about what the future can be more than a specific destination. These pioneers might attend to product or service, operational, digital, or human capability innovations.

As the CEOs from the Business Roundtable propose, business pioneers also focus on purpose more than profit. They envision a direction they are headed more than a final destination. For example, many leaders today focus on where (home versus office) and how (in-person versus virtually) employees will work; leaders as pioneers are more focused on why and what people work on. The boundary of work is less about a place or tool and more about enacting values (why) that create value for others (what).

To envision a direction, leaders establish a compelling purpose (called vision, mission, or aspiration) that creates meaning and an emotional bond for all people affiliated with the organisation (employees, customers, investors, and communities). The progress towards a direction or purpose need not be perfectly prescribed in a step-by-step process but is accomplished by moving towards a desired direction and then adapting and adjusting.

Leadership questions include: How will our work help others find meaning and purpose? How will our personal values be reflected in the organisation’s purpose?

Start small and adapt quickly

Another economics Nobel prize winner, Richard Thaler, introduced nudge theory, which essentially says that individuals make choices in predictable and small ways in response to the environment. A classic (although perhaps crude) example is putting an image of a fly in a men’s urinal to “improve the aim,” or managing colours and music as background in a retail store.

Nudge theory leads to progression by setting environmental triggers that start with small changes that cumulate to more substantive change. One firm implemented the mantra: think big, test small, fail fast, learn always.

They worked to respond to uncertainty by thinking “big” about future opportunities about products or services the marketplace might accept. They tested small, doing many quick iterations to discover what would and would not likely work.

The defined failure as an opportunity to learn and continuously improve. Starting small, even without perfection, ensures movement. Someone said, “you cannot steer a parked car.” Movement begets movement and allows adjustments and improvement to be made.

Leadership questions include: What are some first steps we can take to get started? Who can be an early adopter for this idea?

Taking care of ourselves

Gandhi said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. . . . We need not wait to see what others do.”

Unless and until leaders take care of themselves, they have a hard time caring for others. Self-care includes recognising one’s strengths and weaknesses, being transparent and vulnerable, modelling learning and growth, and making progress without being perfect.

Leaders take care of themselves: physically with exercise, nutrition, sleep, and personal space; emotionally by taming apprehensions and anxieties; socially by being connected to colleagues and friends; professionally by learning and growing; and spiritually by discovering meaning. When leaders self-care, they can then provide other-service. Leaders don’t have to be perfect to care for themselves; but they can be a work in progress.

Leadership questions include: What do I want as a leader? Am I taking care of myself? How can I care for others?

My message is that in today’s uncertain (pick your term from figure one) world, progress does not require perfection. By satisficing, envisioning a direction, starting small, and caring for oneself (please add to this list), business and HR leaders can make progress without being perfect. Thank goodness that my imperfections won’t limit my progress.

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