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Leadership Bento Box: Don’t forget to forecast

Introduction
Welcome to the first installment of the Leadership Bento Box. In each installment I will share important findings from scientific studies of leadership. I suspect many of you don’t have subscriptions to leadership journals, or don’t have much time to read them. As such, my goal in the Bento Box is to summarize key points from an article which I find compelling and share with you tangible takeaways. I intend to give readers digestible nuggets to consider as they seek to develop themselves or others as leaders.

In every Bento Box I’ll answer the following questions:
Why is this study important?
What kind of study was it?
What are the key take-aways?
What are the study’s limitations?
What’s my quick take on the article?

This first Box reviews an article from the latest volume of the Leadership Quarterly (volume 21, issue 3). The June issue has about a dozen articles, but an article titled, “Leader Vision Formation and Forecasting,” by researchers from the University of Oklahoma, caught my attention, given the important role vision statements have in effective leadership.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Leadership Quarterly, it is a top-tier journal affiliated with the International Leadership Association. Side note: Although I have my favorite academic journals, I couldn’t find an up-to-date list of those that address leadership/management and their impact (e.g., number of readers, how often it gets cited). If you know of one, please let me know. I’m also open to requests of journals or articles you’d like to see in the next Bento Box.

Why is this topic important?
It is well established that leaders who articulate a vision—a viable idealized image of the organization’s future – may experience a wide-range of benefits. Studies have found that effective vision articulation relates to (1) organizational performance, (2) follower motivation, (3) more effective group interaction, and (4) satisfaction with both the group and leader. So how do people go about constructing and articulating viable vision statements?

The process is complex. I personally rely on two classic articles to guide me: Collins and Porras’s “Building Your Company’s Vision,” (HBR, 1996) and Pearce and David’s “Corporate Mission Statements: The Bottom Line,” (Academy of Management Executive, 1987). LeaderNation’s whitepaper (available for free here) draws heavily on those two articles when discussing the connection between leadership competencies and vision/mission/strategy. For an article addressing forecasting, check out Shipman, Bryne, and Mumford – the authors of today’s Bento Box article.

Leadership Forecasting
Often leaders construct a vision in response to a crisis or change in the organization. They reflect on critical causes and relevant goals, in order to formulate a “change vision.” Forecasting is when leaders predict outcomes arising from various actions. The consequences of a range of possible actions are predicted, considered and contextualized. This elaboration and refinement provides the basis for a stronger vision statement.

Not a lot of scientific literature addresses leadership forecasting. This is partly because people are typically bad at forecasting (unless they have relevant expertise and/or invest significant time and energy into exploring a range of possibilities). For this reason alone, this study by Shipman and her colleagues is an important contribution.

What kind of study was it?
Researchers from the University of Oklahoma recruited approximately 250 students from undergraduate psychology courses to participate in their study for extra credit. Participants read a workbook containing various mental-simulation exercises, asking them to assume the role of principal of a fictional secondary school. After reading a blurb describing the school and its challenges, participants were asked to (1) prepare a plan for running the school, (2) predict the outcomes of implementing their plan in one year, and (3) write a speech to be given to students, parents and teachers that described their vision of the school. Predetermined criteria were used to evaluate participants’ forecasting and vision statements.

Written forecasts were evaluated for 21 attributes, including long-term timeframe consideration, anticipation of positive and negative outcomes, anticipation of problems, errors and obstacles, anticipation of political support and opposition, and the development of backup plans or contingencies. Evaluators also looked for forecasting of outcomes that affected resources, teacher instruction, and academic standards. Finally forecasts were also evaluated in terms of their specificity, appropriateness, completeness, uniqueness, and interdependence of factors.

A panel of judges used 5-point benchmarks to evaluate vision statements for their perceived utility, affective reaction (attractiveness, excitement), quality, originality, and elegance. These criteria allowed for an overall appraisal of the vision statements.
Finally, a multivariate analysis of covariance was employed to determine the potential relationship between the various forecasting factors and strong vision statements.

What are the key take-aways?

Better forecasting results in stronger vision statements. Leaders should not forget to devote time to forecasting activities during the vision creation process. Out of all the forecasting variables examined in this study, extensiveness had the biggest impact on the production of strong vision statements. In other words, leaders who anticipated a breadth of potential issues, and explored a number of potential issues in depth, were better at producing stronger vision statements. Considering a range of situations, considering potential losses as well as gains, and thinking about contingencies, are all likely worthwhile activities for leaders as they formulate their vision. Employing these tactics will likely lead to vision statements that score higher in terms of quality, originality, elegance, affective reactions and perceived utility.

Other important take-aways:

  • Effective forecasting involves anticipating numerous scenarios and examining the potential implications of various actions. These mental simulation exercises allow people to explore and refine possibilities, and ultimately formulate stronger vision statements.
  • More extensive forecasting allows leaders to take into account exceptional situations and the unique concerns of different constituencies. In other words, the more time and energy you invest in forecasting, the stronger and more complete your vision statement will be.
  • Self-reflection is important early on in the process of vision formation. Vision formation has 4 steps that may be cyclical: (1) an initial plan and vision are formulated, (2) forecasting occurs, (3) revisions are made to the vision, and (4) the vision is implemented. Overall, the vision formation process goes from less to more specific.
  • When considering the implications of your vision, it is useful to focus on the reasons the change is needed. When considering the goals tied to your vision, it is useful to consider the context of the situation.

What are the study’s limitations?
Like every scientific investigation, this study has limitations. The authors acknowledged that the results are difficult to generalize to contexts such as corporate or business arenas. Like the majority of psychological research conducted in the United States, this study utilized a population of undergraduate students whose average age was 19. Lastly, this study had no control group, which would have allowed a comparison of vision statements that were created with and without forecasting.
On the positive, the study did control for a number of individual differences among participants, including gender, intelligence, divergent thinking, and leadership style.

My take:
Despite its limitations, this article makes an important contribution to the vision statement formation process by calling our attention to forecasting. Mental simulations appear to be a relatively easy and effective way for leaders to think through the implications of their plan, and formulate a more comprehensive vision statement.

It’s also important to note that although this article was professionally written and comprehensive, it was a difficult and complex read. It took me a number of hours to summarize the 17 page document, and I did not address the study’s four main hypotheses. I would only recommend seeking out the original text if you have experience/training in reading research articles. As noted in the article, you can direct questions to one of the study’s authors via email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). I am also happy to address any questions you may have.

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