Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The waffle paradox

The waffle paradox:

WaffleOne way for a candidate to change the conversation around her candidacy: have her followers pelt the opposition with waffles at every public appearance. Eggos in particular are lightweight and their shape makes them easy to toss.


Particularly in primaries, simplicity and certainty are rewarded. The waffling candidate, the one who hesitates to give a clear yes or no answer to every question is seen as weak.


(Worth noting that the word "waffling" didn't start appearing in books much until after the 1960 elections).


Of course, this post isn't about politics at all. Customers and employees and vendors and regulators almost always prefer simplicity and certainty.


There are two ways to begin an answer to most questions we face in organizations:


"It's simple" and


"It's complicated."


Both are usually true. At 10,000 feet, most challenges are simple. But actually making something work is quite complicated.


Nuance is the sign of an intelligent observer. Nuance shows restaint and maturity and an understanding of the underlying mechanics of whatever problem we're wrestling with. After all, if the solution was simple, we would have solved it already.


On the other hand, resorting to nuance early and often can also be a sign of fear, of an unwillingness to go out on a limb and make a difference. Hence the reactions of boards hiring consultants and CEOs, or of passionate primary voters. "Don't tell me it's complicated. Just show me the guts to make something happen."


My vote: your goals and your strategy must be simple. You must have passion and certainty in order to make a difference as a leader. Your tactics, on the other hand, should be layered, multi-dimensional and reflect the patience of someone who cares about reaching a goal.


When Howard Schultz talks about coffee or Jill Greenberg talks about lighting or Cory Booker talks about education, they can impatiently demand clear and simple results. At the same time, successful leaders see the nuance they'll need in executing to get there.


The paradox is that the simplicity we often seek in search of solutions rarely leads to the patient leadership we need to get them.


The irony is not lost on me... the decision on when to be bold is a nuanced one.