Is your company on autopilot?

Posted by Q McCallum on 2023-02-17

Do you have a minute? Look around your company and ask yourself: “Why are we doing this?”

I mean, yes, there’s the obvious answer of: “we’re working so we can earn money and pay our bills.” I get that. But I’m asking something else.

I’m asking whether you’re on autopilot.

Hear me out:

Yesterday’s post on metrics got me thinking about other simplifications and shortcuts we take in the professional space. Shortcuts are usually good – they save us time and reduce decision fatigue – but if they go unchecked they can lead to long chains of action-without-thought. You know, autopilot.

We can explore this using three examples from my consulting work:

  • One prospective client wanted to hire a chief data officer (CDO) and build out an ML/AI team.
  • Another company was in a near-panic about being able to find a large number of contract software developers for an upcoming project.
  • A third insisted on using neural networks for their ML project. (This would have been their first ML project, and at a time when neural nets were more expensive than they are today).

Fair enough. I listened to what they had to say, then followed up with my usual line of clarifying questions. One of which was some variant on: “why would you want to do this?”

I got blank stares in return.

To be clear, I didn’t ask the question to be snarky. If I was to help them succeed (that’s the whole reason you call a consultant, really) I needed to understand where they were, where they wanted to be, and how they’d come to that conclusion. I needed to figure out what I could do to move them forward. And, frankly, whether I could move them forward.

This question of “why?”, it jarred these people. It led them to pause, to switch off their autopilot, and to reflect. They took a moment to ask themselves how they had come to that particular course of action.

And that’s when the real conversation started.

The great thing about asking “why?” is that it leads people to share more of the backstory with me. Sometimes, in light of this new information, I agree that we should continue down the original path. In other cases, we realize that plan would not have worked out so well. That’s when we carve out a new approach.

(Since you asked: the three cases mentioned above all fell into the “new approach” category.)

The take-away: How often do you ask “why are we doing this?” at work? How do you review and document the answers with relevant team members? And how often does this review lead you to change course?

(People who’ve worked with me know that I ask a lot of questions, especially early on. This helps to disengage a company’s autopilot. For more insight into this approach, check out this O’Reilly Radar piece I wrote with Chris Butler and Shane Glynn called “Our Favorite Questions.”)