• Christine Lithgow Smith

What my 7-year old can teach business leaders about navigating through change

I was driving my daughter home from ballet yesterday. We had used the Sat Nav on the way there. For some reason, my Sat Nav tells you the time now, and the time of arrival, but not how long it will take to get there. I’d never thought about this before. Surely most of us want to know how long the journey will take, and not just the time we will get there? To plan breaks, what podcast to listen to or how many snacks to take. Anyway, my attention was drawn to this interesting fact when the inevitable happened. My 7-year old asked “How long until we get there?” Since most of us learn best through using what we’re taught and thinking for ourselves, I took the opportunity to help her practise her maths. I pointed out where the actual time was, showed her when we’d arrive and asked “So, how long until we get there?” Lily’s bright and talks, A LOT. She worked it out, telling me each step out loud as she did it giving me the chance to tell her she was right and appreciate how she had applied her learning. I saw her little face light up with excitement as she felt the pride of her achievement. Wonderful. I cherish these moments in life.

We didn’t have the Sat Nav on for the return. About five miles from home this became relevant. I saw Lily looking confused as she asked: “How long until we get home?”. I responded honestly, “I don’t know.” Then my sense of mischief sneaked in as I realised she hadn’t thought about it herself. I said: “Why don’t you look out the window and tell me?”.

“I can’t do that!”

“Yes, you can. There’s the window. Look outside and see where we are.”

“But I don’t know how long it will take”

“Neither do I. You do know where we are though. You can guess.”

Her concern at having to work something out and being worried about getting it wrong were not helpful to her. She was stuck. I decided to help. “Look. You know so much already you can estimate. Do you know what an estimate is?” She shook her head. “You can use what you already know to work out what time we’re likely to get back. It’s an informed guess, which means it will be more accurate. That’s an estimate.”

I am not sure that’s the best definition, but I could see her relaxing and the cogs in her head start to work so I continued. “This is how I do it. It’s 11:46 now. I can see the church over there and I’ve driven this way home lots of times. So have you. I think it will take about 6 minutes from here, so I’d guess we’ll be home at 11:52.”

“No. I don’t think so. It will take 8 minutes. We’ll be home at 11:54.” She said confidently. The competition was set.

It was 11:49 as we approached the roundabout close to home and traffic started to build. Lily looked around and said “Actually, we’ll be home at 11:52. It takes 2 minutes from here.” I looked at the traffic, pointed it out and questioned her decision to change her mind. I highlighted the risk that more traffic would make the journey longer. “No. I’ve been this way lots of times. It will be 2 minutes.” As we got closer the heat was on, I realised we hadn’t been specific about where we had to be at the end time. Outside the house or reversed onto the driveway? We made a snap decision for outside the house and had fun with the countdown. I pulled up. 11:52. I praised Lily. Not for being right but for trying something new, taking a chance and being brave enough to change her mind.

How many times do you see leaders staying resolute when it’s clear a transformation or change programme isn’t working?

It’s hard to admit or even see we are wrong. As human beings, we’re programmed to taint our decisions based on emotional investments we’ve already made. It’s called the sunk cost fallacy. This means that often, when we think we’re making logical business decisions, we’re not. We measure success based on following the process, hitting milestones or achieving goals we created ages ago. What if the process isn’t working or the goal is no longer relevant? Be honest: how many times have you seen senior managers or leaders celebrating something that isn’t making a positive difference? It’s one of the reasons Executive Coaching is so effective. It helps people see things differently.

Just stopping to take a breath, relax, and taking time to really think can make a world of difference. Now, I know whether we got home at 11:52 or not didn’t really matter, but how many real-world projects or even businesses fail because people can’t see the wood for the trees? They are too proud of what they are doing; the success they believe they have. Or too excited about getting to the finishing line?

Think about it.

Food for thought.

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