June 2, 2011
Try It On For Size
I’ve always been a big fan of taking a decision or a change in direction I’m contemplating and trying it on for size. Just as you never know how a pair of pants is really going to fit until you slip them on in a dressing room, I think you need to see how decisions feel once you’re closing in on them.
Here’s why: decisions have consequences. No matter how prescient leaders are, no matter if they’ve been trained in chess-like (three-moves-ahead) thinking, they can almost never perfectly foresee all the downstream reactions and effects of decisions. Figuring out how to create “mental fittings” is a skill that I think is critical for CEOs and other leaders.
When I try something on for size, I’m usually trying to accomplish one of a few things. Sometimes, I’m simply trying to see how words sound when they come out of my mouth. As Homer Simpson periodically muses, “did I think that, or did I say that out loud?” There’s no substitute for articulating a new phrase, or theory, out in the open and seeing if it sounds the way YOU expect it to. Other times, I’m trying to see how different messages or stories play with different audiences. Will employees think it’s exciting when we announce X, or scary, or confusing? Will a customer understand the new positioning of our company when you include the new product? Will investors understand the story in 9 words or less? Finally, there are times when my objective in trying something on for size is to understand specific downstream effects of a decision. Throwing something out into the open and taking copious notes as people give you their “blink” concerns and reactions are invaluable.
Of course, the main thing to avoid when trying decisions or changes in direction on for size is creating chaos! There are a few ways to create chaos. One is by having your “try it on for size” conversation with an employee turn into a de facto decision because the employee takes your words and then deliberately acts on them.
Alternatively, the same thing could happen inadvertently because even though the employee knows intellectually not to act on your comments, he or she starts to incorporate them subconsciously, thinking they are likely to become the law of the land.
Another is by creating false expectations and disappointment if you decide an idea doesn’t fit when you try it on, and then you scrap it, leaving behind a trail of the idea for others to see and discuss. All the same can be said with customers or investors or any other stakeholder. Your words as CEO or any kind of a leader can be quite powerful, and trying something on for size can have real unintended consequences if not done carefully.
In all cases, the best antidotes are communication and judgment. Make sure if you are trying something on for size internally that you communicate early and often to your audience that all you are doing is just that – trying something on, and follow up with people afterwards to make sure your intent really sunk in. But judgment is also critical. Pick your target audience for a fitting on carefully, make sure to blend trusted internal AND external associates, and make sure to rotate who you talk to about new things so you don’t develop a consistent bias in your idea generation.