Early in his career, psychologist and researcher Philip Tetlock gained notoriety for his work exploring how well people predict the future - something we'd all like to do right now. Spoiler alert: Tetlock was quick to make clear that none of us has a crystal ball. Yet some, he found, are in fact consistently better than others at peering ahead. To most, Tetlock's work is best known by the analogous names he gave to good predictors and not-so-good ones: he called them foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes, Tetlock said, lean towards curiosity. They are open, inventive, bold, and tenacious. Quite the opposite, hedgehogs are deeply focused, often rule-bound, and can be narrow in their ways. The reality is that ultimately, we need both skill sets. And the good news is that all of us possess the ability to think both ways. Yet, in the most challenging and changing times, it's our fox mindset that proves most pivotal. But Tetlock was trying to tell us something more.
Buried beneath the surface headlines of his work is a critical observation for any leader that hopes to thrive in these currently, and not soon to change, volatile times we all find ourselves right now. More than simply individually employing our fox brains, Tetlock wrote, collectively we need to be more like "foxes with dragonfly eyes." It's a dreamlike image. Dragonflies have two compound eyes, which means each eye is made up of thousands of lenses. Imagine the span of possibilities you could discover for how to innovate or adapt if you could see the world as a curious open fox, times a thousand. It turns out that ability is in fact within the reach of every single senior leader.
Some wise leaders know this powerful secret and put it to use regularly and to effect. JoAnn Garbin, a Director of Innovation at Microsoft, is one. "Every single time I've built a multi-disciplinary team," Garbin says, and allowed everyone on it to be fully a part of the "process of discovery-design-develop, we have identified a flag beyond any one of our individual views, leapfrogging at least five or seven years ahead of where we would have been otherwise." Garbin confides it's not really a secret, and indeed is quite simple. Still, it seems to elude many leaders. The first key to unlocking this secret weapon, is the realization by the senior leader that seeing with dragonfly eyes is not within the ability of any one leader. That's, to put a finer point on it, impossible no matter what our mythology around leaders tries to convince us. In uncertain times, this fundamental truth becomes truer still.
From this hubris-freed first step, a leader can begin to create that dragonfly eye perspective. It begins, as Garbin notes, by building a multi-disciplinary, diverse team right from the start. Just as key is then empowering them to lead together - to question together, to shape purpose together, and to innovate and adapt together. When that's the foundation of the culture, guess what follows? Teams adapt faster. They don't just innovate more and more consistently, but do so in, as Garbin calls it, leapfrog ways. Of equal importance, they are more likely to interpret the future, threat or opportunity, with clear eyes and greater accuracy. It's the dynamic every leader hopes for, even as the idea of sharing the lead is something they secretly fear. Turns out those fears are largely unwarranted, and the cliff they worry about stepping off of feels more like a curb when the act becomes a habit.
To thrive in uncertain times, leaders must give up two false notions. The first, is that they can do all the big or bold thinking needed to thrive in uncertain times all by themselves. They can't. In truth, no leader ever has. The second, is to let go of the idea that the most important goal is the end output - the solution, the new innovation, the thing. Outputs matter, but not anywhere near as much as the environment in which they are produced. In a world where adaptation is no longer periodic or episodic, but the most critical strategic skill on a near daily basis, leaders must prioritize building and attending to teams and cultures that think forward, think flexibly, think together, and see success for its true source. As Tetlock himself says, "How you think matters more than what you think."