Silver Bullet Thinking

In the Western literary tradition, the silver bullet was the only weapon that could destroy certain types of monsters. As a result, it became a metaphor for a singular solution that solves a giant problem.

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Many touted the Financial Stability Bill (a.k.a. the $700 billion bailout package) as a silver bullet for the economy. “If Congress will just pass this legislation,” the argument went, “everything will return to normal.” Not so much.

Unfortunately, in times of crisis, it’s not just the government that resorts to the thinking represented by this metaphor. Leaders in business and elsewhere are also guilty. Whenever we embark on a quest for a singular solution to our current woes, we are guilty of “silver bullet thinking.”

Examples might include:

  • Trying to develop a killer product that will crush the competition;
  • Employing a new technology that will provide a strategic advantage;
  • Buying or merging with a competitor, supplier, or even a customer;
  • Slashing expenses to the bone; or—the usual favorite—
  • Reorganizing the company.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against creating great products, employing new technologies, acquiring companies, and all the rest. What I am opposed to is the simplistic notion that one of these items can be the “silver bullet” that fixes all your problems.

In my experience, success is rarely the result of one singular action or break-through. Instead, it is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of incremental improvements over time. There’s no quick fix.

To succeed in the current environment, I think four things are required.

  1. Be clear about your vision. We can’t drag the past into the present. What has happened has happened. It’s over. We can learn from our mistakes, but we have to get crystal clear on the future we want to create and let that inform the present. This is what separates the real leaders from the pretenders in times of crisis. We need to be moving toward something that is compelling, not away from something that is frightening.
  2. Reaffirm your strategy. In Jim Collins book, Good to Great, he compares the hedgehog to the fox (pp. 90f). The hedgehog does one thing well. The fox, on the other hand, jumps from strategy to strategy. In the end, the hedgehog wins. This is the time for each of us as leaders to focus on our core strategy—or to use Collin’s term, “Our Hedgehog Concept.” What is the one thing that we can be the best in the world at? What will drive our business forward and get us from here to where we want to be?
  3. Stay relentlessly focused on your core strategy and competencies. This takes courage and discipline. When things are tough, the temptation is to try too many new things in an effort to find the silver bullet. But usually these are a waste of time and resources. They all have a learning curve. There are no easy solutions. It is best to stay focused and do the hard work of executing your core strategy. You should say “no” to everything else.
  4. Keep believing in the future. This is a mark of great leaders. It is what Collins calls “The Stockdale Paradox” (pp. 65f). Great leaders acknowledge the current realities and don’t pull any punches. But at the same time, they have an unwavering belief that they will ultimately prevail.

As tempting as it may be to think something or someone will be the answer to all your problems, I think it is more prudent to work diligently on the fundamentals. Keep focusing on execution. One decision—one action—at a time. In the end, this will get us through—and enable us to succeed.

Question: Have you been guilty of “silver bullet thinking”? What needs to change?
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  • http://levittmike.wordpress.com levittmike

    This ties in well with the need for a mentor, and open dialog with all of your co-workers and management.  Focus on the what, and be flexible with the how

  • Liane Davey

    Great article about a pervasive problem. I work as a coach to executive teams and silver bullet thinking is a big problem here too. Mistrust and ineffectiveness take a long time to develop but people think one day offsite in a beautiful location will fix everything. Unfortunately, I’m usually the one who has to come in and fix things after that session. By that point, everyone is so cynical that the real issues take much longer to fix. Cynicism is another big risk of silver bullet thinking. Thanks again. Liane

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  • http://twitter.com/DJWdavidj David J Winter

    Great perspective.  I think inexperience leads to silver bullet thinking whereas decades of experience can lead to a fear of taking on the long term problems.  I’ve been guilty of too much organizational change in the past.  Thanks for this post and your great example, Michael.

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