Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Three Cheers for the Gut

So, I've written about how great leaders should be disciplined to core purpose, and how they should control impulsiveness by slowing down.  It's only fair that I give credit to the other side of that coin: the gut.

No - not the gut that comes from excessive late night runs to Taco Bell or a daily DQ Blizzard.  Rather, the gut inside that gut - the one that comes with feelings, instinct, passion.  The one that told you she was the one you should walk over and talk to.  The one that told you that you should help that person pick up their scattered newspaper on that windy day in the park.  The one that told you NOT to go in there, or NOT to go that way.  The one that told you to go ahead and make that phone call - and then stayed with you as you heard those tense rings right before the person on the other end picked up.

The gut that tells you that you ought to just go for it.  Dammit.

In many sectors of our society today - including higher education - we have been actively downplaying the gut.  The trendy terms are “intended outcomes” and “R.O.I.”  We are being asked to measure everything...twice...BEFORE we even take the first step.  What do you intend?  How will you measure success?  What do you expect will happen?

What if you have no freaking clue, but it just feels like the right thing to do?

The intended outcomes movement is definitely not a bad thing.  I like how it helps us focus.  Most organizations have limited resources, and so they need to be appropriately discerning when it comes to how that money is being spent.

We’ve also lost trust in the gut.  Many years ago, it was easier to trust your instincts because you didn’t have much else to rely on.  Nowadays, we have countless stories of ideas that failed because they weren’t very well thought out.  We’ve seen big events crash and burn because critical details were missing.  We’ve seen organizations flame out because they didn’t take the time to figure out their true reason for being.

It’s been a rough few decades for the gut.

I actually really like the idea of intended outcomes.  It makes sense to “begin with the end in mind” as Stephen Covey taught us.  However, I have to admit something.  I think unintended outcomes are a whole lot more fun.  And frankly, more human.

I just think we should be careful not to take it too far.  We have a tendency to run quickly past the middle of the spectrum on our way to get to the very opposite end.  The gut hasn’t gone anywhere, and it can still be very wise.

By the way, research has shown that the best decisions are more often made with gut instincts versus conscious deliberation.  In addition, our motivation to pursue ideas is stronger when they come from the gut.

Maybe the gut - more than anything else - explains our founding and growth as fraternal organizations.  I don’t think our founders sat in a room and wrote out a list of intended outcomes, desired objectives, success measures, etc.   If they had to, they might have just said, “ah screw it, let’s just go read Latin, or something.”  I was reminded by a reader who wisely pointed out that for most organizations, the Ritual, creeds, constitutions, etc., came after they were already off and running.  They went with their gut.  They felt it was right to start an organization that brought men or women together.  Why?  We’ll never know their mindset, or should I say gut-set, at the time.  They took a step forward and expected good things would happen.

Sometime action begets clarity, and not the other way around.  While we should strive to “think first, act second”, the organizations we love so much may not be here today if that advice was followed.

It’s not to say they wasn’t some intellectual energy at play.  Early fraternities had other organizational models to borrow from.  There was a mix of mind and gut in the formula.

How do we resolve the humanness of gut instinct with the practicality of thoughtful planning?  A couple thoughts:
  • Results create more clarity than planning.  Go with your gut and then spend a lot of time evaluating what happened.
  • When your gut tells you to do something, test the idea with trusted peers.  Most likely this will tell you as much about the feasibility of the idea as a chalkboard full of outcomes and objectives.
So, let’s celebrate our evolution to more thoughtful planning.  It has definitely helped us.  However, let’s not sell ourselves out to that.  There is a time for planning, and a time to go with your gut.

So now what?  You have a fraternity to lead.  Or a campus.  Or a headquarters.  Or even a family.  It’s time to take that organization to a higher level.  What should you do?

Put away the pen and paper.  What does your gut say?


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