What Really Matters: A Conversation With Patrick Lencioni

We live in an age of quantification, big data, machine learning. What are some of the downsides to applying all that inside of organizations?

What’s meant to be measured, measure it and measure it well, and quantify whatever is truly accurate to quantify. But you can quantify the wrong things, and the human element will always be there.

I don’t care how smart a system you have, intuition and judgment will always be critical. The problem is we have a lot of bad forensic analysis that goes into companies, like why did that company succeed? What they’re doing is looking at it and going: “Find something I can quantify and I’ll it attribute to that.”

I worked with a big technology company once that almost went out of business, it got sold off for a fraction of its worth. And the truth is the CEO had no trust with his team because he would never admit he was wrong, ever. He was famous and brilliant so nobody ever challenged him. They were scared of him.

Well, eventually, they failed, and what did all the business magazines or newspapers write? “They made some strategic errors,” and “They had some product issues, some bugs in their product, that’s why they failed.” No, no, no, no, no. Those are downstream symptoms. Those were inevitable symptoms of a team that could not process a decision honestly. The human element is always what’s underlying, and yet we are so enamored with, “Give me something I can measure.” That’s just not how things work.

The other thing that’s happened in the last 10 years is the rise of always-on personal technology. What is that doing to teams and to culture?

It’s not allowing us to make the best decisions because we’re not really tapping into our best thinking. I don’t have to be a PhD in brain chemistry to understand this.

People want to think that Alan Mulally turned Ford around because he looked at the carburetors and made a better decision, or sold off this brand. But what he did is he went in there and changed the behavior of people. During meetings, people would look at their phones. He would just stop the meeting and look at them and say, “What are you doing? We’re making decisions here.”

Nobody wants to believe that Alan Mulally turned Ford around by doing what a fifth grade teacher does at my son’s school. But the fact of the matter is adults are just older kids, and it’s like you better listen and be fully engaged here because if you don’t want to be, there’s other things you can do.

What’s your best piece of advice for a leader today?

I don’t mean to be sounding one note, but make your organization as healthy as it can be and you will become resilient.

We had a company in the travel-related business. It was high-end travel. By their own admission, they were really dysfunctional and it was getting painful. The CEO brought us in. They were in silos, nobody was cooperative. They didn’t like each other, they didn’t want be together, they didn’t have a clear strategy. All this stuff.

They started to work on it and make progress. The industry turned down because there was all this disintermediation. They almost went out of business, and they said, “Let’s just focus on this, on being who we are, on sticking to our values, keeping the people who fit our values and acting on those.” Other people went out of business, but their customers came and said, “We can’t do this without you, you guys are so functional.” And now they’re doing better.

So it’s kind of like if my wife and I are doing well in our marriage, we have four boys, and things are going really well, that’s when we should say, “Hey, let’s go away and really understand why we’re doing well and recommit to that,” because when the inevitable crisis occurs, we’re going to weather that storm. If you wait for the storm to hit, sometimes you just don’t have the same perspective.

So I think that the best advice I can give to people is: Just focus on making your organization great.

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Dan Bigman is Editor and Chief Content Officer of Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive, Corporate Board Member, ChiefExecutive.net, Boardmember.com and StrategicCFO360. Previously he was Managing Editor at Forbes and the founding business editor of NYTimes.com.