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Q&A with Jason Fox on How to Lead a Quest

| Posted by Ben Linders Follow 20 Followers on Jul 29, 2016. Estimated reading time: 8 minutes |

Key takeaways

  • Why a frustration with ‘easy answers and quick fixes’ led Dr Jason Fox to write a new book.
  • What it means to be ‘cursed with efficiency’—and how it can get in the way of meaningful progress.
  • Why organisations ought to augment their existing strategy with quests.
  • Why designing strategy for ‘probable’ futures robs you of any strategic advantage.
  • How a paradoxical book (that promises no simple solutions) can be described as both ‘insightful’ and ‘funny’.

In the book How to Lead a Quest Jason Fox explores what can be done to develop insights for strategic decisions and innovation, and for driving progress and delivering value. The book provides approaches and rituals for asking deeper, bigger questions and slow, thorough thinking, creating options and designing experiments for dealing with complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

InfoQ interviewed Fox about the curse of efficiency and meaningful progress, using a Quest-Augmented Strategy in enterprises and coming up with options to enrich a strategy, alternatives for reducing uncertainty, different degrees of failure and how to deal with them, and how to ritualize gratitude.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Fox: It was a combination of curiosity and frustration. 

When my first book—The Game Changer—was released, I was surprised about how eager executives were for quick fixes. I wrote the book in the hopes that it would provide people with a new perspective to motivation at work—it shared science and design principles to influence individual and collective behaviours. I had hoped that, after reading the book, executives would be able to ask better questions. But at the same time as this book was released, the ‘gamification’ buzzword concept had reached the peak of inflated expectations. People wanted easy answers and quick fixes—and at the time, much of the gamification movement was focussed on superficial tweaks to existing paradigms. It wasn’t what organisations need for the future of work, and it wasn’t the effect I’d hoped by book would create.

And so I got curious. Why is it that we tend to perpetuate shallow default thinking? Why are many leaders biased toward quick, familiar solutions and easy answers, rather than asking the better questions that might lead to a breakthrough in new value? And how is it that some enterprise leaders are able to pioneer through uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, whereas others dutifully pursue efficiency in a race toward irrelevance?

How to Lead a Quest was born out of this. It’s a handbook for pioneering executives who want to drive meaningful progress (even if they don’t know what the destination looks like).

InfoQ: How does this book differ from other books on enterprise leadership and strategy?

Fox: Well I’m told it’s quite different. Philip Goldie, a director at Microsoft, says “Insightful, funny and entertaining aren’t words you’d often use to describe a business book … and that’s because it’s not your normal business book. Jason brings a different perspective to what it really means to be a leader in today’s world.”

But if you’re looking for a bunch of quick tips and familiar advice—this certainly isn’t the book for you. The territory we cover in How to Lead a Quest is paradoxical. There are no simple solutions—but within the book, I share a philosophy and some practical ideas that may bring you closer to enduring relevance.

InfoQ: In the book you talk about the curse of efficiency and meaningful progress. What are these, and why do they matter?

Fox: Ah yes. I believe most organisations have become cursed with efficiency. We’re so good at ticking boxes and getting things done, that productivity is actually getting in the way of progress. Or rather: we make great progress—but this is simply the unthinking perpetuation of default activities. We may be hitting targets, but the question is: are these the right targets? Or are we suffering from a rich delusion of progress? The only way to know is to ask the bigger questions, and make time for slow, thorough thinking (which is difficult when we’re so used to being fast and efficient).

InfoQ: Can you briefly describe the Quest-Augmented Strategy?

Fox: Sure. Most organisations have some sort of strategy happening, but this is usually limited to operational matters (and within the realms of certainty). Without intervention, we get incremental improvements. More of the default—but slightly better.

Quest-augmented strategy bolsters this, and saves us from the perils of unquestioned default thinking. You see, a default is an option that is chosen automatically, in the absence of viable alternatives. Quests are the search for alternatives that meet cognitive criteria. As a result of quests, we generate options—potential strategic decisions we may wish to make if an opportune context emerges in the future. These options are validated via experimentation, which means that operational strategy is no longer limited to default thinking—we now have viable alternative options.

InfoQ: Do you have examples of how the Quest-Augmented Strategy can be used in enterprises?

Fox: Not easily, and the trouble with examples is that they are so contextually dependent (and often wrapped up in non-disclosure agreements). But generally speaking, Jeff Bezos is a prime example of a pioneering leader. He cultivates an ‘explorer mentality’ amongst his leaders—rather than the 'conqueror mentality’ many executives use when they are simply ‘playing to win’.

InfoQ: Can you explain how options can be used to enrich a strategy?

Fox: Well, often strategy meetings are so poorly facilitated (with such limited time) that people are happy to make quick decisions so that they can stay on track with the agenda. This usually results in a set of goals that look eerily similar to previous goals from previous strategy meetings. But—with Quest-Augmented Strategy—there are other options on the table. We cannot simply default to the quick and the familiar—we must consider the viable alternative options. Having these at hand makes our strategy much more enriched.

InfoQ: Often organizations look for ways to reduce uncertainty when they want to innovate. Can you elaborate how that can backfire? What's the alternative?

Fox: Yeah, the typical approach is to monitor trends and look toward probable futures—which means you are working from the exact same dataset as your competitors. This is not a recipe for strategic advantage—and it’s only compounded when leaders seek to take an ‘evidence-based approach’ (which relies on other pioneers to lead the way first).

The alternative is to venture into uncertainty, contrasting your business model against multiple possible future contexts, to see where common opportunities (and threats) lie. Then, by taking a science-based approach, you can conduct the experiments to generate the insight needed to make better strategic decisions—the decisions that lead you closer to new value and enduring relevance.

InfoQ: There are various degrees of failure as you explained in the book. Can you briefly describe some of them?

Fox: Sure thing. I like to think of it as a spectrum that ranges from corruption, apathy and wilful ignorance all the way to failed experiments and minor imperfection. A popular message of our times is that we ought to ‘celebrate failure’—but I found that many executives couldn’t make that message work. There are some things you definitely do not want to celebrate. But in other cases, the learning generated from failed experiments is useful. It may not be that we ‘celebrate’ failure—but in all but the worst cases, it is essential that we de-stigmatise it.

InfoQ: How can you ritualize gratitude?

Fox: Oh, quite easily—keep a gratitude journal, and make it a part of your morning and evening routine. For me, I use a journaling app on my laptop—it is the first things I do when I go to start work* (which changes the trajectory of my day). 

* But I’m not good at doing this every day—sometimes I find myself ‘too busy’. But the benefit of having this as a ritual is that you can catch an unhelpful pattern of behaviour early (which allows you to easily get back on track).

InfoQ: Do you have suggestions for how to catalyse and promote new ways of working inside enterprises?  

Fox: I do! Many of my suggestions are contained within this rather nifty book called How to Lead a Quest—the core of which are rituals. We can get deliberate about the routines we hold sacred, and use them to disrupt the perpetual state of busyness—so that we can ask the bigger questions, and progress the things that matter. 

If you’d like to learn more, I have a museletter in which I share the latest thinking in motivation design and the future of work—join freely at drjasonfox.com/ahoy

About the Book Author

Dr Jason Fox is a globally recognised leader in motivation strategy and design. He works with forward thinking leaders, helping them unlock new value and pioneer new ways of working within enterprise strategy and workplace culture. His clients include the senior executives of Fortune 500 and ASX 200 companies such as Toyota, Microsoft, Gartner and Sony, through to bold startups in rapid growth. He is the bestselling author of The Game Changer, and How to Lead a Quest. Jason’s research has been featured in the likes of Smart Company, BRW and The Australian Financial Review. In between writing and advising, Jason also shares his knowledge through speaking, and was awarded Australian Keynote Speaker of the Year 2016 by National Speakers Association. 

 

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