Avoiding complacency in your business and career: Which shoulder angel is whispering in your ear?

The shoulder angle of dullness and sharpness. Illustration by Doan Trang.

Smart and talented executives can fail at the common-sense tasks of looking at the long term, considering the big picture, and embracing multiple points of view. Degrees from prestigious universities are not a vaccination. Knowledge of benefit-to-cost calculations is not a vaccination.

If smart executives are vulnerable to mistakes of impulsiveness, in-deliberation, and narrow framing, might they also be susceptible to taking mental shortcuts when they craft strategy?

The answer to the question must be yes, a sobering thought for any organizational stakeholder. It’s easy to become dulled, and this is an obstacle for competency in strategic thinking. Any organization is subject to the potentially disastrous consequences of a decision.

What might be the solution to dullness?

Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel Corporation, provides one answer. In his book Only the Paranoid Survive, he comments on why incumbent organizations become undermined by disruptive organizations. He explains, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”[i] Grove used the word paranoid rhetorically, intending to remind people to pay attention to the presence of external discontinuities and avoid attitudes of entitlement and laxity.

Shoulder angels

A shoulder angel is a familiar literary trope, a bad angel and a good angel each sitting on a shoulder. For this analogy, the angels are named dullness and sharpness, respectively.

The good angel is the person’s conscience encouraging her to take a moral path. This contrasts with the malevolent figure on the other shoulder, which encourages her to indulge her selfish desires or reminds her that she’s tired, busy, and can take satisfaction in her achievements.

The good angel is encouraging you to be more attentive to weak signals. The dull angel retorts, “Those good and noble intentions are hard, take time, are impractical, and may be irrelevant.” Further, the dull angel will sneak in some distracting illusions: “Everything is fine” and “You’re successful and should follow your intuition.”

A competent person is a reasonable person. A useful question for metacognition is to imagine yourself as an observer of the situation and ask, “How would a reasonable person act?”

.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.

Greg provides a wonderful resource. I recommend it as a primer or a refresher as it covers the entire gamut of strategic thinking and practical application. I really enjoyed the chapter on the shoulder angels and the practical tips it has on achieving success as a strategic thinker. Good mix of text and graphics that complement each other and reinforces the concepts. Greg really helps you understand the difference between goals and strategy and how to make it work.”
― D Davis – customer review on Amazon

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.