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The Secret Source of Right Answers

Six out of ten executives believe, according to the Harvard Business Review, that their enterprises make good decisions as often as they make bad ones.

That’s horrible. Can you imagine trying to get a degree with a record like that? What if every time you got an “A,” you got an “F” as well? You’d go insane. What about raising children? What if every time you managed to do something wise, you knew that your stupidity was about to land a punch as well? You’d go insane – and you’d be depressed.

I think most executives reading this do better than the ones HBR surveyed, but I think all of us can acknowledge it’s a lot harder to make good decisions these days. Information overload makes it extremely difficult to know the “right” answer. Massive shifts in the workplace have made being “wise” nearly impossible.

Fortunately, it’s not all about you. If you’re willing to use it, there is a proven method that can make sure your good decisions outnumber your bad ones.

Understand?

We’re collectively much smarter than we were just twenty years ago. The dark colors on this map show how many years of secondary education people have worldwide. Nearly 7% of all humans have a college degree. And now that anyone can access basically all knowledge on their smartphone, it’s pretty clear the trend will gather force.

This has changed your business because it changed the meaning of the word “understand.”

When I got started, the word “understand” had a simpler meaning. I had a business that replaced and repaired window and door screens. It was a good gig because people are willing to pay for proper screens and getting them right takes skill. I started out with a couple employees, and then I grew it into a franchise. Back then, I was pleased when an employee “understood” how to use the tools. If he also “understood” how to arrive at a correct estimate, I had a manager on my hands – or someone who’d become a franchisee.

“Understanding” meant mastering the trade. “Advanced understanding” meant having some business acumen as well.

These days, that’s not nearly enough. It’s not enough to satisfy the employee, that’s for sure. But it’s also not enough for the employee to do his job properly. McKinsey did a study on job growth and they found that “production” jobs and “transactional” jobs – ones where the employee follows an existing process – have declined.

The growth has been in “high-skill” and “low-skill” interaction jobs, which “involve customer engagement, team discussions, and creative thinking.” The “high” end of the scale includes doctors and engineers.

The Right Big Picture

But the real money is on the “low-skill” end of the spectrum. “Low-skill interactions” cover everyone who works on a team. I don’t know why McKinsey chose the term “low-skill,” because anyone who’s ever led one knows how much skill it takes.

Here's the skill that leads to right answers. Say you run a building supply company and you want to be the provider of choice to the construction industry in your area. Great idea. But how? These days, if you try to answer that question on your own, you’re doomed to being one of those companies that gets a wrong answer for every right one.

“You will not get your company to the next level,” Gino Wickman writes in Traction, “by keeping your processes in your head and winging it as you go.” Much better to have a “team discussion” about “customer engagement” and to ask for “creative thinking” from those around you. Your salespeople know the estimators. Your back office knows the customer’s cash flow. Your drivers know the contractors and craftsmen. Each of them can provide a piece of the puzzle.

Your job is to make sure they understand the big picture, because if they do, then those pieces will fit together. Your salespeople will know what your customer wants but can’t quite afford. Your back office will know what terms your customer needs to close that sale. Your drivers will know how the upgrade helps your contractor get referrals. Put it all together, and you’re on your way to becoming the supplier of choice.

You’re also on your way to becoming your employee’s favorite CEO, because now your management style is perfectly in line with what today’s hyper-smart employees want. They have to understand the big picture. You can’t reveal everything – as you know, if they find out about even slight differences in compensation or benefits, it can negatively distract them.

But they must understand exactly how the sales floor, back office, and delivery fit together before they can make a meaningful contribution. In their famous study on employee engagement, Gallup concluded that “To win customers — and a bigger share of the marketplace — companies must first win the hearts and minds of their employees. You win their hearts and minds with the right version of the big picture and with questions they can legitimately help answer.

It feels good to understand and to contribute and to see your ideas generate results. Employees crave it, and managers who provide it harness the best their people have to offer. You'll find that when your team comes up with a solution together, they want to make it work as much as you do. And that’s how you get the right answers in today’s workplace.