Why do some leaders and teams achieve great success in complex, uncertain, and fast-changing environments, while others who are equally capable struggle?

Earlier this year, I found myself in a room with the heads of various competing departments of a large, bureaucratic organization. They had been tasked with the development of a new product. They were all smart, experienced, and good at what they do. But as a group, they had been stuck for almost two years with no rollout in sight.

The energy in the room was tense, the frustration and weariness palpable. Fortunately, following deep debates over two coaching sessions, we reached a breakthrough. And after stalling for too long, within two months, they had a scaled back version of the product live and were starting to get feedback for ways to improve it.

How did this happen so quickly after such a long period of struggle?

It came down to fixing one common mistake: the focus on practices over principles, or putting the “what to do” before the “why to do it.”

Why Principles Should Trump Practices

Effective leaders know why they do what they do matters far more than the action they take. Yet most people waste time arguing over what practices they do without ever considering why they do them in the first instance. I see three big reasons for this:

  1. People look at what highly successful leaders are doing and copy their practices, expecting similar results. But they often miss the principles informing those actions, so they misapply them.
  2. We are human, and we like to feel important and right. So we latch onto our preferred practices—especially those that have made us successful in the past—as evidence of our rightness.
  3. When faced with uncertainty, we favor sticking with what we “know” over trying new practices to search for the breakthrough we actually need.

When people over-optimize on the practices rather than letting the best principles guide their thought process, they limit their options for achieving success. People end up asking the wrong questions, so even if they have a good answer, it doesn’t help them in the long run.

For example, dogmatically following practices can put the focus on, “Are we doing the methodology correctly?” rather than “Are we actually solving any customer problems, and what methods may help us be successful?”

It also erodes cooperation. I’ve often seen team members take the stance of “My way or the highway”, “That’s not what the book says”, or “Steve Jobs <insert your argument here>” which cuts off innovation and creates resentment.

How a Single Principle Can Yield Effective Practices For Any Situation

New practices emerge from common principles all the time, especially given the pace of change in today’s world. For example, many successful CEOs believe in the principle that having fast feedback loops means they make better decisions about how to improve their product or operation.

Years ago, a common practice based on this principle might have been to visit your customer each year. You’d learn about their experiences using your product, talk about your plans for the year ahead, and describe how the next versions of your product would be better—insuring their ongoing use, purchase, or retention via subscription.

These days there are other practices that can proactively support the principle of fast feedback cycles. Here are just a few great examples.

Elon Musk has made himself available on Twitter. One day, someone tweeted him about people staying in electric vehicle charging spots all day. Mr. Musk replied within minutes: “You’re right, this is becoming an issue. Supercharger spots are meant for charging, not parking. Will take action.”

Within a week, Tesla updated their policies to impose a fee for every minute cars were left at the chargers after they were fully charged.

Another great example is John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile. When he came on board, he didn’t go the typical route of relying on team presentations about customer pain points. Instead, he installed a special phone line so he could listen in on customer complaints any time he wanted.

He soon realized that people didn’t understand their bills, and they hated long contracts and surprise fees. So he created the Un-Carrier concept, an innovative bundling of services that removed customer headaches and revolutionized the wireless industry.

Ray Dalio has also applied this same principle of fast feedback and turned it into a system for real-time peer review within his organization.

The system gives everyone on the team a “Believability” rating for various qualities. They use software and algorithmic processing to track everyone’s ratings and allow them to vote on important decisions, weighting the value of each response according to the person’s ratings.

Each of these practices fits the needs, circumstances, and culture of these leaders and their organizations. And although on the surface they look very different, they all flow from the principle of fast feedback for innovation and improvement.

Team Application

When teams try to solve challenges without thinking about their principles, they often fall over because they don’t have a shared understanding—elevating principles helps people agree on what really matters.

The team I mentioned at the beginning was completely stuck on practices. They would spend hours arguing, for instance, about how to run a customer test. When I asked what principles mattered to them, they couldn’t communicate them. They had never discussed them. So we had them individually write down their ideas on essential principles. Then everyone shared, and we worked together to get down to a collective set of five that everyone believed in.

Through this process, they found they had far more in common than they had realized. Suddenly they had a shared understanding, language, and context for evaluating ideas. One principle they all valued was making decisions based on real customer feedback.

But it had been nearly impossible to see this commonality when marketing was insisting they needed to run a survey, engineering was focused on looking at customer behavior data, and finance was saying customer experience had nothing to do with them.

Another shared principle, creating fast feedback cycles, helped them get in alignment to start working in smaller increments. This enabled them to quickly build and deliver shippable product features, and start getting feedback for making improvements with each iteration.

It no longer mattered so much what department they were in. They could show how practices they were using mapped to the principles they all valued. As a result, they experienced a huge increase in practice innovation.

People saw how their colleagues in other departments solved similar problems based on shared principles, and they started to think, ‘What would that look like in my context?’

For example, HR started to apply the fast feedback principle to create practices for engaging new employees, viewing them as “customers” of their hiring processes. They engaged new talent with fast feedback cycles on how their application was progressing through the hiring process, increasing acceptance rates by 34 percent.

How to Apply Principles to Boost Success

Most teams have a small set of practices to be successful in any situation—a limited set of options to solve problems. Teams who focus on principles pull in whatever practices are best for the problem they’re solving and the circumstances they’re in, and end up being much more innovative as a result.

Use the action steps below to reflect on how well you’re focusing on principles in your team and develop your own short list of top principles to guide your practices.

To help you along, here are some examples of principles I’ve found lead to high levels of success in top companies. Feel free to adopt some of these if they resonate, or develop your own:

Small Steps for Defining Principles

  1. Do you have a set of leadership principles? Can you clearly describe them? If not, write down any that come to mind, then try to get them down to a set of four to five.
  2. Reflect on whether your principles have changed over time. And if so, why?
  3. Share your top five principles with people on your team. Ask people how they see you living them, put them to work or don’t.
  4. Brainstorm practices you could implement in your team based on these principles.

Image Credit: gerasimov_foto_174/Shutterstock.com

Barry O’Reilly is a business advisor, entrepreneur, and author who has pioneered the intersection of business model innovation, product development, organizational design, and culture transformation.

Barry works with business leaders and teams from global organizations that seek to invent the future, not fear it. Every day, Barry works with many of the world’s leading companies to brea...

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