Why CEOs should think more like scientists
A scientific mindset can be extremely beneficial for anyone wishing to get ahead in business. In many ways, business is a science, and approaching the field as such is the best way to reap optimum results. Not only does a scientific approach lessen the risk of confusion and misjudgment that can arise when emotions are allowed to affect decision making, but rigorous logic and testing, applied research, and an openness to new ideas are all sound scientific principles that can help a business to survive and prosper in the modern world.
Instinct and experience
Business leaders often take pride in following their ‘gut instincts.’ But these instincts, when effective, are based on years of hard-won business experience. In other words, they are underpinned by solid, first-hand research. If a CEO conducts their own research, they can justifiably make business decisions without blindly following the recommendations of outside advisors. However, the most successful leaders are those who do their own research while also considering the views of others, even when they personally disagree with those views.
Furthermore, if leaders rely on their own experience, or personal research, then it makes sense to have professional research skills to get the most from it. Digging around haphazardly and leaping to the wrong conclusions can be worse than doing no research at all. But good research skills and a scientific mindset help CEOs make use of all available information sources and confidently come to their own conclusions.
The best way to become an effective researcher as a business leader is to attain an executive Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). CEOs and other senior management can complete a DBA course in London in four to six years, via a part-time distance learning programme at Aston University Online. This is the perfect solution for busy business leaders who want to think more like scientists to engage in practical research, solve complex business problems, and perform in-depth analysis of the data available to them.
Engaging with information
In a rapidly changing world, information is more ubiquitous and, paradoxically, more valuable than ever. Thanks largely to the internet, we have more facts at our fingertips than we know what to do with. Thinking like a scientist and a researcher enables us to parse, analyse, and make practical use of this sea of data. In an information-rich society, first-class research skills are vital to obtain and keep the competitive edge that, in the business world, differentiates winners from losers.
Curiosity and innovation
A business leader should think like a scientist by combining sceptical curiosity with the desire to innovate. Curiosity drives entrepreneurship forward, but this drive should be tempered by rational caution and guided by logical thinking. Ideas should be rigorously tested and peer-reviewed before being executed.
Randomized control trials are a scientific mainstay that can be successfully imported into business practice, helping directors and executives to overcome bias and the risks of blind optimism. Having ideas and prospective ventures reviewed by impartial outsiders is a good way to gauge strengths and weaknesses.
Another useful scientific principle that can be readily applied to business is collaboration. This does not mean sacrificing healthy competition. Work with the best people, including those from outside your particular field. Seek out diverse perspectives. Only working with individuals from similar backgrounds in terms of race, gender, class, beliefs, and any other factor, can easily yield skewed, limited, or blinkered results.
Today’s managers and business leaders must take a modern approach to innovation to stay ahead of the game. Embracing diversity and unique world views is one way to make sure that you don’t fall behind the times.
Forward into the unknown
CEOs should be prepared to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and the unknown. They should see them as opportunities to be explored, approach them in a systematic way, test out hypotheses and discard them, if necessary, but gradually move forward, nonetheless.
Confidence based on incomplete knowledge is not arrogance if that confidence is based on the soundness of an approach, rather than a blind belief. If CEOs proceed with purpose while accepting that new information can and probably will change the circumstances at any point, then they will inspire others to move forward alongside them with an open-minded, can-do attitude.
The importance of asking questions
Business leaders can sometimes see curiosity, or asking questions, as a potential sign of weakness. The head of a company is often expected to provide answers. By asking questions, they are admitting that there are things they don’t know. But curiosity shouldn’t be mistaken for indecisiveness. Avoiding curiosity, questioning, and inquiry for these reasons can be a big mistake.
For a business leader, information is fuel. Asking questions is how they can acquire the fresh information they need to drive the engine of innovation, change, and progress. A CEO that doesn’t ask questions is stagnant. They are suggesting that they already have all the answers. This is effectively an attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ A curious, dynamic business leader should instead be saying, ‘this is good, but how can we make it better?’
Setting an example
A spirit of questioning and curiosity at the top also encourages this attitude at all levels of the company. Again, some business leaders don’t like their employees to ask too many questions as they feel that this undermines their authority. But an insecure approach to leadership has no place in the modern world.
Instead, CEOs should set an example and encourage their employees to ask the right kinds of questions. By coming up with fresh ideas on how the company’s current business model can be improved, or how new products or services could benefit the brand, questioning, curious employees can become the strongest assets.
Curiosity is a trait that drives transformation and change. It is what leads to new discoveries and inventions, or different ways of doing things. By learning to use natural curiosity in a strategic, targeted fashion, CEOs are more likely to hit upon approaches and innovations that their competitors have missed.
Curiosity means being open to learning. The phrase ‘every day is a school day’ is one that no business leader can afford to ignore. Welcoming feedback, being prepared to learn from mistakes, and being open to being taught new skills and life lessons are all essential leadership characteristics.
Curiosity and research, in the form of intelligent, directed questions, are what lead to creative solutions. By demonstrating curiosity and creativity, CEOs can foster a culture of risk-taking, continuous learning, and inquisitiveness that can only benefit the company as a whole.
Curiosity for all
When we are curious, we are less likely to fall back on preconceived stereotypes or fall victim to confirmation bias. This is because we are genuinely interested in understanding something new, rather than being interested in trying to place it in a box we have prepared earlier. This means that the answers we come up with will be more nuanced, more accurate, and ultimately more useful.
Curiosity means seeking out information and widening our perspective rather than narrowing it. This means that, at all levels, being curious will make us better at our jobs. Employees who ask questions of their co-workers and supervisors, who want to know how things work rather than blindly following instructions, are more likely to use their initiative and go the extra mile to be helpful.
Curiosity also encourages teamwork and reduces friction. If a CEO wants to know what makes another person tick, then they are more likely to be able to see things from their perspective and respect their different opinions. Curious people look for solutions rather than conflict, building on common ground to synthesise viewpoints, instead of insisting on an ‘either/or’ outlook.
Finally, if employees are curious about their jobs, that means that they are interested. If they are interested, that means that they are enthusiastic, work harder, and attain better results. Encouraging curiosity at all levels is therefore beneficial for all companies.
The fact that technology plays an increasingly important role in all forms of business is one strong reason why business leaders need to think more like scientists. From artificial intelligence to cloud-based computing, high-tech solutions are becoming more commonplace in business with every passing day. Management must understand how to use these tools to their best advantage.
One way that these tools have already transformed the business world is through allowing a greater understanding of customer behaviour. Whether it is through monitoring e-commerce use, or the adoption of loyalty cards and digital shopping devices in high street retail, companies can now gather more data about their customers’ buying journeys, what they want and how they want it, than ever before.
Making sense of this raw data requires complex skills. Market research is no longer an area that can be left entirely to the experts. CEOs need to understand the reports passed on to them and be able to directly research rather than just passively accepting results. This enables evidence-based decisions that lead to positive outcomes.
Thinking outside of the box
Good research skills are not just a matter of uncovering facts and collating figures. A key factor in any effective research approach is imagination. In business terms, this is often described as ‘blue sky thinking’ or ‘thinking outside of the box’. Such creative approaches and left-field solutions are highly valued, but to be effective they must be grounded in hard facts and solid reasoning.
Imagination and creativity are important qualities for any researcher and also for any business leader. Harnessing them to proven rigorous research methodology makes for more than just flights of fancy. Using scientific research skills, imagination can generate coherent, plausible solutions and hypotheses for a complex, ever-changing world.
Exploration can sometimes be seen as the enemy of efficiency. After all, if ideas and experimentation don’t pan out, they can be costly and wasteful. But a company that does not constantly explore new options and avenues will soon find itself outpaced and obsolete.
One unavoidable consequence of working in a fast-moving, ever-changing world is dealing with unforeseen circumstances. Business leaders tend to respond negatively when unexpected events occur. Business success requires careful planning, but when the situation completely disrupts the plan, and there is no road map or prior model for direction, then panic can easily set in.
This is in complete contrast to how scientists view unforeseen and unexpected consequences. In science, the unexpected result is an exciting new challenge. The basic engine of scientific understanding is experimentation: testing hypotheses and analysing the results, then tweaking the parameters accordingly and repeating the process.
In science, failure is good because it provides a new set of facts, fresh data on which to base the next round of experimentation. In business, we need to learn to ‘fail fast’ in order to come up with new approaches that will mitigate past mistakes and misunderstandings.
In unprecedented times, there is often no existing relevant model of best practice to draw on. Innovative leaders are creating the best practice models of tomorrow through trial and error. By having the courage to explore new avenues and to risk failure in doing so, these leaders are outpacing their more hidebound competition.
In today’s world, business leaders need to be scientists who conduct research and lead experiments. Curiosity, creativity, and a commitment to change are all essential qualities for a modern CEO. Hypothesise, experiment, learn and refine. A business should not be a fixed entity but one capable of reinventing itself to meet new challenges: one that thrives on change and never stands still.