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.

silver-bullet-thinking.png

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://human3rror.com/ John

    This is great. I would also add “seek advice and counsel” to the list. community is a great thing.

  • http://human3rror.com John

    This is great. I would also add “seek advice and counsel” to the list. community is a great thing.

  • Alan

    Great comments. I've seen too many organizations flopping around trying this and that without really going anywhere. Sometimes change is necessary but it needs to planned.

  • Alan

    Great comments. I’ve seen too many organizations flopping around trying this and that without really going anywhere. Sometimes change is necessary but it needs to planned.

  • http://waym.wayfm.com/ Jeff Brown

    As I read your post, I found myself thinking of how, in many ways, John McCain is employing your "success" points.

    Conversely, I see Obama doing exactly what you suggest NOT to do in point one. Every economic argument he makes against McCain is predicated on the last eight years.

    Unfortunately, I think few will apply this kind of thinking to the presidential race. And, strangely, while I find it rock solid, I'm not convinced it's working for McCain.

    • http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org Jeff Goins

      Wow. This is funny to read two years later. Prophetic, Jeff.

  • http://waym.wayfm.com Jeff Brown

    As I read your post, I found myself thinking of how, in many ways, John McCain is employing your “success” points.

    Conversely, I see Obama doing exactly what you suggest NOT to do in point one. Every economic argument he makes against McCain is predicated on the last eight years.

    Unfortunately, I think few will apply this kind of thinking to the presidential race. And, strangely, while I find it rock solid, I’m not convinced it’s working for McCain.

  • http://www.greggfraley.com/ Gregg Fraley

    Quite right Mr. Hyatt, one cannot prosper in the long run without staying the course on a long term strategy. On the other hand, growth and survival also depend on disruptive innovation. Those who stick to only a long standing core competence are in danger of being undermined by competition who can do things very differently. They are unencumbered, and that's why most disruptive innovation comes from new companies. But to reaffirm your point, you can't do disruptive until you "buy" that right by being excellent and stable at what you do best right now. That's when you can take a deep breath, look around, and see a new "home run" business opportunity.

  • http://www.greggfraley.com Gregg Fraley

    Quite right Mr. Hyatt, one cannot prosper in the long run without staying the course on a long term strategy. On the other hand, growth and survival also depend on disruptive innovation. Those who stick to only a long standing core competence are in danger of being undermined by competition who can do things very differently. They are unencumbered, and that’s why most disruptive innovation comes from new companies. But to reaffirm your point, you can’t do disruptive until you “buy” that right by being excellent and stable at what you do best right now. That’s when you can take a deep breath, look around, and see a new “home run” business opportunity.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com/ Colleen Coble

    A great call to clarity in our purpose, Mike, especially with the muddy waters that seem to lie ahead. Giving into panic, which seems to be the order of the day, is a sure way NOT to think.

  • http://www.colleencoble.com Colleen Coble

    A great call to clarity in our purpose, Mike, especially with the muddy waters that seem to lie ahead. Giving into panic, which seems to be the order of the day, is a sure way NOT to think.

  • Jason Grubbs

    Michael, a wonderful reminder of how important it is to focus on your vision (WHERE you want to go), and your strategy (HOW you plan to get there) during times when it's easy to get distracted. You "get" this point as well as anyone I know, and I enjoy your insights into how best to do it!

  • Jason Grubbs

    Michael, a wonderful reminder of how important it is to focus on your vision (WHERE you want to go), and your strategy (HOW you plan to get there) during times when it’s easy to get distracted. You “get” this point as well as anyone I know, and I enjoy your insights into how best to do it!

  • http://www.thetuskarcave.blogspot.com/ Greg

    I really connected with the hedgehog concept. I work in an office with a bunch of foxes, so this really hit home with me. Constantly switching strategies and chasing whatever new carrot is dangled in front of them. Being at the bottom of the totem pole however, I don't feel there is much I can do to change the Fox attitude, to a Hedgehog attitude. Great post!

  • http://www.thetuskarcave.blogspot.com Greg

    I really connected with the hedgehog concept. I work in an office with a bunch of foxes, so this really hit home with me. Constantly switching strategies and chasing whatever new carrot is dangled in front of them. Being at the bottom of the totem pole however, I don’t feel there is much I can do to change the Fox attitude, to a Hedgehog attitude. Great post!

  • Luci Swindoll

    Years ago, when I was an executive with Mobil Oil Corporation (long before it became ExxonMobil), my immediate supervisor told me one morning that the name of Mobil was being changed. As Manager of the Rights of Ways and Claims Department it was my duty to see that the new name was recorded on every working file we had in the building. There were thousands! It also meant seeking the counsel of our legal department to be sure our work was accurate and timely, as well as contacting leaders in various organizations with whom we did business, to advise them personally of this change. (And all of this had to be done in addition to our daily, "normal" work in the Rights of Way Department).

    During that time I remember well my team and I worked our heads off for months. We came in early and stayed late almost everyday of the week in order to get the job done. And to tell you the truth, we had one fabulous time! There was unity, harmony, fun, kindness and allegience to each other and to the task until it was finished.

    I learned way back then the value of teamwork that lifted our spirits and kept us going on those very long days. In fact… when it was over, we all got a raise and had a party!

    In my view, the most important thing in a time of testing for a business is teamwork in pursuit of a cause. In your third point of this blog, Mike…that is your message and I SO agree — "…stay relentlessly focused on the core strategy…and do the hard work". I can tell you from experience, it makes ALL the difference. And, it's my favorite thing about being a part of Thomas Nelson Publishing.

  • Luci Swindoll

    Years ago, when I was an executive with Mobil Oil Corporation (long before it became ExxonMobil), my immediate supervisor told me one morning that the name of Mobil was being changed. As Manager of the Rights of Ways and Claims Department it was my duty to see that the new name was recorded on every working file we had in the building. There were thousands! It also meant seeking the counsel of our legal department to be sure our work was accurate and timely, as well as contacting leaders in various organizations with whom we did business, to advise them personally of this change. (And all of this had to be done in addition to our daily, “normal” work in the Rights of Way Department).

    During that time I remember well my team and I worked our heads off for months. We came in early and stayed late almost everyday of the week in order to get the job done. And to tell you the truth, we had one fabulous time! There was unity, harmony, fun, kindness and allegience to each other and to the task until it was finished.

    I learned way back then the value of teamwork that lifted our spirits and kept us going on those very long days. In fact… when it was over, we all got a raise and had a party!

    In my view, the most important thing in a time of testing for a business is teamwork in pursuit of a cause. In your third point of this blog, Mike…that is your message and I SO agree — “…stay relentlessly focused on the core strategy…and do the hard work”. I can tell you from experience, it makes ALL the difference. And, it’s my favorite thing about being a part of Thomas Nelson Publishing.

  • http://www.karenrabbitt.typepad.com/ Karen Rabbitt

    "get crystal clear on the future we want to create and let that inform the present." Isn't that what God, the ultimate leader, is doing? He has a clear vision of the coming kingdom that informs every detail of his activities.

    Your comments demonstrate your discipleship.

  • http://www.karenrabbitt.typepad.com Karen Rabbitt

    “get crystal clear on the future we want to create and let that inform the present.” Isn’t that what God, the ultimate leader, is doing? He has a clear vision of the coming kingdom that informs every detail of his activities.

    Your comments demonstrate your discipleship.

  • http://building-his-body.blogspot.com/ Anne Lang Bundy

    You've defined well what sets apart action from reaction, courageous leadership from crisis deflection. Battle cannot always be avoided, and requires the former to prevail.

  • http://building-his-body.blogspot.com/ Anne Lang Bundy

    You’ve defined well what sets apart action from reaction, courageous leadership from crisis deflection. Battle cannot always be avoided, and requires the former to prevail.

  • Prakash

    Great advice! Simply great ! Every time I read you, I get valuable insights about life. Thanks a lot.

  • Prakash

    Great advice! Simply great ! Every time I read you, I get valuable insights about life. Thanks a lot.

  • http://mypartofcolorado.blogspot.com/ paul merrill

    Great advice.

    I was sadly part of a Christian org that violated many of these principles – and died.

  • http://mypartofcolorado.blogspot.com/ paul merrill

    Great advice.

    I was sadly part of a Christian org that violated many of these principles – and died.

  • http://www.kristinepratt.com/ Kristine Pratt

    Thank you for this post today. You gave me exactly what I needed to think about as I enter into this next stage of my life.

    Anne – your comment is well spoken and worth remembering as I go into battle. Thank you.

  • http://www.kristinepratt.com Kristine Pratt

    Thank you for this post today. You gave me exactly what I needed to think about as I enter into this next stage of my life.

    Anne – your comment is well spoken and worth remembering as I go into battle. Thank you.

  • Jennifer Barthe

    A great article, just what I needed. I'm listening to the "Good To Great" audio book and reading "Winning" by Jack Welch. This article goes hand-in-hand with what I'm learning right now.

  • Jennifer Barthe

    A great article, just what I needed. I’m listening to the “Good To Great” audio book and reading “Winning” by Jack Welch. This article goes hand-in-hand with what I’m learning right now.

  • RAMIR B. MENDOZA

    am blest by this article . . .

  • RAMIR B. MENDOZA

    am blest by this article . . .

  • http://www.paulwallis.net/ Paul Wallis

    Michael you are so right about people's appetite for single-layer solutions to multi-layered problems. I have seen plenty of silver-bullet thinking in the Church over the years. I have been enormously enriched by what church growth, the cell movement, charismatic renewal, DAWN, Alpha and other sources have contributed to the life of the Church, but one by one I have seen them often presented in some circles as the "great white hope" or as you put it; the "silver bullet". Needless to say, people eventually get burned-out by this cataclysmic approach to the Church's journey of faith.

    Case in point: I was at a meeting of senior pastors in our city a couple of years back. The pastors shared a very layered, detailed and nuanced understanding of the challenges facing the churches. The disconnect between our church-world and our wider community was, we agreed, a complex and multi-layered problem. The group's understanding of the issues at hand was impressive, honest, wide-ranging and thorough.

    Yet the response for which this same meeting voted; to bring Evangelist N to town to hold a crusade to convert the unchurched and pep up the pastors! The complete disconnect between the analysis and the response was astounding. Evidently that silver-bullet mind-set takes a lot more than understanding to shake-off. To bring a multi-layered response to a multi-layered problem actually requires an emotional ability to act and react through long periods of uncertainty and irresolution. Any long-term strategy requires that psychological skill.

    Without that skill any lasting endeavour – be that the nurturing of a business, the shepherding of a church, or ones own walk with God – will find itself prematurely burned out.

    Thanks for this great post, Michael. Just like the phrase "the emperor's new clothes" did, with "silver-bullet thinking" you have given a name to a common and complex psychology – and made it easy to get a handle on.

  • http://www.paulwallis.net Paul Wallis

    Michael you are so right about people’s appetite for single-layer solutions to multi-layered problems. I have seen plenty of silver-bullet thinking in the Church over the years. I have been enormously enriched by what church growth, the cell movement, charismatic renewal, DAWN, Alpha and other sources have contributed to the life of the Church, but one by one I have seen them often presented in some circles as the “great white hope” or as you put it; the “silver bullet”. Needless to say, people eventually get burned-out by this cataclysmic approach to the Church’s journey of faith.

    Case in point: I was at a meeting of senior pastors in our city a couple of years back. The pastors shared a very layered, detailed and nuanced understanding of the challenges facing the churches. The disconnect between our church-world and our wider community was, we agreed, a complex and multi-layered problem. The group’s understanding of the issues at hand was impressive, honest, wide-ranging and thorough.

    Yet the response for which this same meeting voted; to bring Evangelist N to town to hold a crusade to convert the unchurched and pep up the pastors! The complete disconnect between the analysis and the response was astounding. Evidently that silver-bullet mind-set takes a lot more than understanding to shake-off. To bring a multi-layered response to a multi-layered problem actually requires an emotional ability to act and react through long periods of uncertainty and irresolution. Any long-term strategy requires that psychological skill.

    Without that skill any lasting endeavour – be that the nurturing of a business, the shepherding of a church, or ones own walk with God – will find itself prematurely burned out.

    Thanks for this great post, Michael. Just like the phrase “the emperor’s new clothes” did, with “silver-bullet thinking” you have given a name to a common and complex psychology – and made it easy to get a handle on.

  • http://www.thewritingspa.com/ Mary DeMuth

    What a perfect post for me at this time. Interesting that I started a new business right when the financial world crumbled. But your four points have blessed me and affirmed what I've been pursuing. Thanks!

  • http://www.thewritingspa.com Mary DeMuth

    What a perfect post for me at this time. Interesting that I started a new business right when the financial world crumbled. But your four points have blessed me and affirmed what I’ve been pursuing. Thanks!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/kevincooper kevincooper

    Great post Michael. I've experience this in my own company. Very true. Applies to businesses and churches. Ultimately to correct for the "silver bullet" thinking, you have to go back to exactly what you laid out in your four points.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/kevincooper kevincooper

    Great post Michael. I've experience this in my own company. Very true. Applies to businesses and churches. Ultimately to correct for the "silver bullet" thinking, you have to go back to exactly what you laid out in your four points.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Shirley_Bovshow Shirley_Bovshow

    Hello Michael, this is my first comment on your blog.

    Unfortunately, the "Silver Bullet" mentality permeates more than just business, it transfers over to relationships, self improvement quests and more.

    A lot of energy and passion usually is invested in securing that the Silver Bullet is in place and then inactivity replaces it as people wait for the "magic pill" to fix things.

    Think, "when I get married our relationship will be stronger," or, "when I lose 20lbs I will feel better about myself." We believe in the transformative power of new situations and new leaders but the reality is that change is a proactive and cumulative activity.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.
    Shirley Bovshow

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Shirley_Bovshow Shirley_Bovshow

    Hello Michael, this is my first comment on your blog.

    Unfortunately, the "Silver Bullet" mentality permeates more than just business, it transfers over to relationships, self improvement quests and more.

    A lot of energy and passion usually is invested in securing that the Silver Bullet is in place and then inactivity replaces it as people wait for the "magic pill" to fix things.

    Think, "when I get married our relationship will be stronger," or, "when I lose 20lbs I will feel better about myself." We believe in the transformative power of new situations and new leaders but the reality is that change is a proactive and cumulative activity.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.
    Shirley Bovshow

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/AngelaSchaefers AngelaSchaefers

    Keeping your focus on the outcome you are attempting to achieve, whether personally or professionally is essential for success. It also helps when you feel overwhelmed or that things just aren't working as you had planned or hoped for. Our current economic situation is one example of that! I find keeping my focus and living life intentionally, in the moment, works best for me. I don't miss opportunities to be in relationship with others, network or the chance to create business opportunities. It's quite powerful, and leads to a life where you truly feel if this is all there is, it's enough. Because of course life is unpredictable, so why not live your best life today?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/AngelaSchaefers AngelaSchaefers

    Keeping your focus on the outcome you are attempting to achieve, whether personally or professionally is essential for success. It also helps when you feel overwhelmed or that things just aren't working as you had planned or hoped for. Our current economic situation is one example of that! I find keeping my focus and living life intentionally, in the moment, works best for me. I don't miss opportunities to be in relationship with others, network or the chance to create business opportunities. It's quite powerful, and leads to a life where you truly feel if this is all there is, it's enough. Because of course life is unpredictable, so why not live your best life today?

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  • http://www.d2entertainment.com Dennis Disney

    Impeccable timing on this post for me, Michael. I just met with my new financial planning coach on Friday (actually, I've not signed with him yet, but I know I will). As I was summarizing the status of my business and personal life, he immediately recognized that I've been too focused on finding a singular silver bullet to redeem my "sins" of the past, financially speaking. He stated, as you have, that I have to "get crystal clear on the future we want to create and let that inform the present." Instead, for months now I've only been able to recite chapter and verse about past successes, failures and vision; but, I not articulate a clear vision for my future.

    Thanks for a great post. It affirms what I've been meditating on for the past three days.

  • http://www.d2entertainment.com/ Dennis Disney

    Impeccable timing on this post for me, Michael. I just met with my new financial planning coach on Friday (actually, I've not signed with him yet, but I know I will). As I was summarizing the status of my business and personal life, he immediately recognized that I've been too focused on finding a singular silver bullet to redeem my "sins" of the past, financially speaking. He stated, as you have, that I have to "get crystal clear on the future we want to create and let that inform the present." Instead, for months now I've only been able to recite chapter and verse about past successes, failures and vision; but, I not articulate a clear vision for my future.

    Thanks for a great post. It affirms what I've been meditating on for the past three days.

  • Chase Sanders

    Great insight. Might even make a great book. just saying. As always, thanks for the wisdom.

  • Chase Sanders

    Great insight. Might even make a great book. just saying. As always, thanks for the wisdom.

  • http://www.vaughnstreet.com/blog/streetstories.php/bloggers/mike/ Mike Loomis

    GREAT post – reminded me of one of my fave quotes that I use often: “For every complex question, there is a simple answer—and it is wrong.” Michael Kami

  • http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org Jeff Goins

    Guilty! I often draw parallels between my personal life and professional life (because you tend to see the same trends in both). Problem: my house is messy. I look around at everything and just want a solution to fix it all at once (i.e. silver bullet). Reality: I need to start with one area and clean that. Then, move on to another, and another, and so on. I need to do the same thing at work: divide and conquer one thing at a time.

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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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