Three Habits of Mind for Leading Change

Challenge your assumptions, question your orthodox beliefs and reframe the problem are three critical thinking processes to break free of the habits and patterns that limit our ability to see new strategic opportunities.

Challenge your assumptions is a basic tenet of foresight. The future is not a straight-line projection of today. Conditions change and alternative futures are always possible. Exploring what those changes might be through environmental scanning and scenario thinking can help association leaders appreciate how very different the future could be. And by anticipating these changes, they can feel more confident taking bolder steps today to seize emerging opportunities.

Questioning your orthodox beliefs is another powerful methodology for shedding old habits of mind. Invited to participate with the board of the Association for Professional Futurists in a strategy session this week, I witnessed my fellow association consultant Jeff de Cagna use this technique to get the right questions on the table. He defines orthodox beliefs as the accepted wisdom about how we do things around here. Not all beliefs are bad or self-limiting but they do tend to blind us to other possibilities.

In de Cagna’s methodology, we had to categorize these beliefs in a matrix according to how much interest or influence these beliefs held. In our group’s experience, the real power comes from naming and discussing these beliefs more so than agreeing on how widely held they were or how much they influence our association's operations. You can’t begin to analyze what you have not yet acknowledged as a belief. But de Cagna is correct in urging associations to focus first on beliefs that have both high interest and influence.

Reframing the problem is surprisingly simple as Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg explains in “Are You Solving the Right Problems" in the January-February 2017 Harvard Business Review. After sharing good examples of how a deeper understanding of a problem yields better solutions, he outlines seven techniques.

My favorites were “bring outsiders into the discussion”, “get people’s definitions in writing”, and “question the objective”.  I learn a lot about an association's opportunities interviewing thought leaders inside and outside associations who are not serving on the board. In my Forward Design approach to strategy development, I get boards to draw or diagram what they believe the strategic opportunity is. This practice seems to help people clarify what they mean and often expose more about their beliefs than their usual habits of strategic conversation permit. Getting agreement on the strategic opportunity also helps leaders clarify the outcome they are seeking.

It’s easy to fall into lazy habits of thinking but leaders who are willing to challenge the assumptions, question their orthodox beliefs and reframe the problem are far more likely to be effective in leading change. These are three habits of mind that can bring greater clarity into even the most confusing and discouraging challenges.