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The art of thinking like a CEO

May 21, 2020 By: Amanda Hall

This post is also available in: Français (French)

One thing I’ve been thinking about these last few months is, in fact, how I think. Have you ever wondered about your own programming? How can I be sure that my thought processes, and ultimately my decisions, are unbiased and adaptable?

Physicist Richard Feynman talked about how cognitive dissonance can foil wise decision-making. He said: “You must bend over backwards and make every effort not to fool yourself, because you are the easiest person to fool.” And as a CEO, I have a lot riding on my decisions. One small mistake in judgment can lead to larger problems, which could, in turn, result in giant issues that might bring down my company.

Looking through the lens of cognitive dissonance, I studied the stages of investor readiness which are published in the Village Capital Viral Pathway. I wanted to make myself aware of areas where I could be fooling myself. The stages are plotted along a chart in relation to team, problem and vision, value proposition, product, market, business model, scale and exit. Cognitive dissonance can hide in many of these stages.

Team, is without a doubt, the most important component of building a startup. CEOs (that don’t fool themselves) quickly realize that they can’t do it alone, no matter how much energy they think they have, or what self-justification they make. They must take the fire out of their own belly and share it with their team. Getting the right people in the right seats and ensuring they have the capacity to do the job required is incredibly important. With this, CEOs have the ability to turn a 100-horsepower engine into a 1000-horsepower engine, or much more. Unstoppable? Maybe, but only if you are going in the right direction.

Last quarter, the advisors at MaRS pushed the Women in Cleantech finalists to pause and assess our product-market fit. This was not an easy thing to do after a year and a half of technology development. I had to pull my team out of the lab and make them stop working on the prototype. We sat down and asked hard questions about what we definitely knew, and what we only thought we knew. I had to be sure that we weren’t operating based on path dependency. We turned to customers for another round of interviews and asked them for criticism. In the end, leaving a comfortable path to admit what we didn’t know allowed us to ensure that our product would perform in alignment with customers’ needs.

When imagining your company’s future, willful blindness can occur because optimistic CEOs can only see a pathway to success. It’s really hard to imagine the downfall of your company when you’ve only just begun. Harvard Business School teaches that, “those who can identify and respond to threats in the future (not today) are the most successful companies.” Predicting threats or missed opportunities that lie ahead requires you to take the blinders off. You must be brutally honest about the risks you need to overcome, and the critical path necessary to navigate these risks.

The exercise of thinking about your thinking is one of great importance. Knowing how you are programmed allows you to identify areas of cognitive dissonance and shine a bright light on the reality of situations, so that you are in the best position possible to make decisions for success.

Amanda Hall