Driving Growth with Second Order Thinking

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April 14, 2023

At Integris, driving growth with second order thinking is an obsession.

Lorin Fisher, Technical Operations Manager with Integris – Cranbury, New Jersey, is a devotee of this approach and recently spoke to our team about second order thinking. His insights and inspirational source material from Tech Tello are cited amply in this blog.

As Lorin explains, “Second order thinking is critical for making effective policy, business, and personal decisions. Many of our self-created problems as a society are due to people’s lack of second order thinking. Second order thinking is the process of tracing down and unraveling the implications of those first order impacts.”

He has mastered this approach with clients, especially in times of crisis. His military background definitely helps. We’ve learned a lot from him and use the following model to inform intentional communications:

  • We take time to think through what we say.
  • We are mindful of our audience and when to speak.
  • We express the point in a manner designed to achieve goals.

Since Integris is essentially a giant IT Team serving other IT teams (and technology is always changing), second order thinking isn’t an option; it’s a necessity.

We hope you can apply the following real-life second order thinking examples to your business.

 

How to Implement Second Order Thinking

Second order thinking as a mental model requires going out of our comfort zone to think outside the box. It requires analyzing the potential impact of our decision in the future. It requires asking these questions: 

  • How can I make decisions with positive outcomes compounded in the future?
  • Is this decision attractive only because it has an immediate effect (first order consequence) positive?
  • What can be the potential downside of this decision and its effect later?
  • How far can I look to determine how every subsequent decision creates a world of possibilities or limits the outcomes I can achieve?

We’ll compare first order thinking with second order thinking in the following hiring and crisis management scenarios.

 

First Order Thinking for Managing or Avoiding a Crisis at Work

When dealing with a crisis at work, a manager can adopt first or second order thinking.

First order thinking: I have done it in the past. I know how to do it better than anyone else on the team. Let me take over and resolve it for now. My team can learn later.

First order thinking consequence: The manager needs to intervene every time there’s an issue since the team can’t solve problems independently. The manager is constantly busy dealing with crises and never finds time for team development. The team does not feel empowered, and people do not grow, resulting in low morale.

 

Second Order Thinking for Managing or Avoiding a Crisis at Work

When dealing with a crisis at work, a manager can adopt either first or second order thinking.

Second order thinking: I have done this in the past. I know how to do it better than anyone else on the team. But, if I continue solving it, I will never allow my team to step up and resolve issues independently. This moment is an excellent opportunity for my team to learn how to manage and deal with crises. I will be available to guide them through the process.

Second order thinking consequence: In the first few instances, the team may struggle and take slightly longer to resolve. However, they will be better equipped to handle such issues on their own in the future. It will free up the manager’s time to plan effectively, reducing the number of crises. The team also feels motivated and empowered to do more with better results.

 

First Order Thinking for Hiring Now versus the Future

While making a hiring decision for a position that’s open for a long time, a hiring manager can either apply first order or second order thinking.

First order thinking: I really need to fill this role. Many projects will be delayed if I do not get someone to start immediately. This person seems like the best fit for the current position. She has specific gaps that may be challenging for my future needs. But we can attend to them when the time comes. Let’s hire her. 

First order consequence: The new hire can get the projects started. As these projects increase in complexity, she starts facing challenges in providing direction and guidance to her people. This impasse leads to communication gaps, lack of clarity, and poor collaboration causing multiple project delays.

The organization’s culture also takes a hit as constructive arguments become destructive, and employees start blaming other teams and functional areas for missing their deadlines and not achieving results.

 

Second Order Thinking for Hiring Now versus the Future

While making a hiring decision for a position that’s open for a long time, a hiring manager can either apply first order or second order thinking.

Second order thinking: I really need to fill this role. Many projects will be delayed if I do not get someone to start immediately. This person seems like the best fit for the current role. But, she has gaps that will be challenging for the future demands of this position. I need to hire someone who can meet my requirements for the future and not just my current needs. While the next few months will be challenging, the right thing to do will be to keep looking till we find someone suitable. 

Second order consequence: Projects get to a slow start. However, team members step up within the next few weeks to take on additional responsibilities. Meanwhile, the hiring manager can also bring a strong leader with great potential and required qualities in line with future demands. The new leader rallies the team through strong clarity, a sense of purpose, and direction that motivates employees to put their best effort forward. The team can make significant progress under her leadership and achieve substantial results.

 

Growing with Second Order Thinking

Second order thinking applies to much more than crisis management and staffing difficulties.

Future-focused, outside-of-the-box thinking applies to every endeavor in business and life and separates great performers from ordinary ones.

Can you think of any concerns or projects that need a new approach? The world is deluged with a glut of disruptive technology, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experiment.

Schedule a free consultation if your growth plans require a fresh perspective.

Jed is a Solution Advisor at Integris who has specialized in MSP solution development, sales, and marketing communications since 2003.

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