Ben Nesvig

How Leaders Can Gain More Insights at Meetings

In this article, I explore how to gain insights, what blocks insights and the importance of change. Understanding these concepts will make it easier to lead better meetings while avoiding many of the pitfalls that produce bad decisions.

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”
– Jonathan Swift

It’s election season in America. As politicians compete for approval, one of the things they are often criticized for is if they have ever changed their mind. Changing one’s mind is largely seen as a negative thing. You are considered a waffler or someone who is indecisive. In reality, I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t change their mind. As Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. Someone who doesn’t change their mind is someone who isn’t learning.

change is not death

gapingvoid.com

To understand why it’s important to change your mind, it helps to understand how people gain insights. For this, we can learn from Wagner Dodge.

wagner dodge

Wagner Dodge was 30 seconds away from being consumed by a fireball the size of a tidal wave. The year was 1949, and his team of 15 smoke jumpers were battling fires in the mountains of Montana. As they fought the fire, the winds shifted. Suddenly, they were uphill from the raging inferno.

Dodge and his crew sprinted up the hill as the fire closed the gap. As the fire neared, the men continued to trudge up the hill—except for Wagner Dodge. He was standing still with an insight. Dodge yelled to his men to join him. The fire was less than 30 seconds from engulfing them. The men looked at Dodge like he’d lost his mind; they continued to run, leaving Dodge by himself. Dodge lit a fire in front of him, knowing it would race uphill. In the ashes of the fire, Dodge covered his mouth with a handkerchief and laid down.

In a moment of desperation, Dodge had an insight that saved his life. By lighting the fire, Dodge removed the “fuel” from the fire. By doing so, he created a technique called an escape fire, which is now common practice. To have this insight, Dodge had to shift his perspective. He abandoned his belief that fire is the enemy which enabled him to see a way to use fire to save his life.

If leaders want to get more insights, they have to be willing to seek out and explore other perspectives. But it’s not enough to just have an insight; you have to do something with it, and that requires change.

WHY DO LEADERS STRUGGLE TO CHANGE THEIR MIND?

CONSISTENCY TENDENCY

We tend to value people who act consistently with our expectations. It makes life more predictable and easier to manage. But is consistency a positive trait? To some degree, but not always. Consistently being wrong isn’t a virtue. As Jeff Bezos shares in the advice belowbeing willing to change your mind is more important than being consistent.

He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

ASSOCIATION (OR KILLING THE MESSENGER)

The phrase “kill the messenger” exists for a reason. It’s a natural reaction to associate bad news with the person who delivered it (though one that should be corrected). Although we don’t “kill” messengers today, thankfully, it’s still difficult to tell people news they don’t want to hear. As Pavlov’s dogs showed us, we are quick to build associations. If someone delivers us bad news, it’s possible we’ll associate them with the bad news.

This happens in business all the time. People suppress negative information out of fear.Charlie Munger explains how this lead to the demise of CBS as the one dominant TV network:

CBS provides an interesting example of another rule of psychology—namely, Pavlovian association. If people tell you what you really don’t want to hear what’s unpleasant—there’s an almost automatic reaction of antipathy. You have to train yourself out of it. It isn’t foredestined that you have to be this way. But you will tend to be this way if you don’t think about it.

Television was dominated by one network—CBS in its early days. And Paley was a god. But he didn’t like to hear what he didn’t like to hear. And people soon learned that. So they told Paley only what he liked to hear. Therefore, he was soon living in a little cocoon of unreality and everything else was corrupt—although it was a great business.

So the idiocy that crept into the system was carried along by this huge tide.

HOW TO GAIN MORE INSIGHTS AT MEETINGS

If one wants to improve their business or department, they shouldn’t fear change. In fact,they should welcome contrarian opinions.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
– Aldous Huxley

It’s not easy to get people to open up and share opinions and viewpoints that counter others, though technology does make it easier. As I’ve explored before, anonymity is one way to remove the social pressure to conform. But to get to the root of the issue, if you want to get new insights, you have to be willing to consider different perspectives.Leaders who learn to seek out the diverse viewpoints held by attendees at meetings—and act on them—are the ones who capture the most insight.

“There is nothing wrong with changing a plan when the situation has changed.”
– Seneca