Navigating your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world

We all know that we find ourselves in an incredibly turbulent, complex, rapidly changing, and information-saturated world. Intuitively, we understand that our ability to navigate these turbulent waters is the single biggest challenge we will face for the balance of our careers.

Because these times are unprecedented, we need to intentionally create some mechanisms to help us.  If we’re smart and intentional, we can build some routines, attitudes, and competencies into our personal lives and into our business culture that will help us to survive and thrive, even in these unprecedented times.

In earlier articles in this series, I proposed we intentionally build ‘sails’ into our routines – those habits, attitudes, and processes that power us forward. At the same time, we focus on energy and forward movement, we need to intentionally build ‘keels’ into our lives and corporate cultures.  Keels are those principles, practices, and beliefs that hold us down and keep us on course. Like the sails and keel on a sailboat, the dynamic tension between these two opposing forces empowers us to act at our optimum.

So far, we have examined these sails:

We’ve also looked at these keels:

In this article, we’ll look at the next sail:  A focus on strengths.

It is easiest to understand this idea by thinking in terms of strengths and weaknesses.  In much of our lives, we’ve been in situations where our weaknesses have been pointed out and we’ve been urged to fix them.  So, in elementary school, for example, when we spelled a word wrong, we were often asked to write it multiple times correctly. On a quiz, the items that were wrong were highlighted and those that were right ignored. On the sports teams, we were often coached by pointing out what we did wrong and shown how to do it right, instead of encouraging us to do more of what we did best.

It doesn’t take too long to realize that much of our upbringing has focused on correcting what we did wrong – our mistakes and weaknesses.  I don’t know if that tendency to focus on the negative is part of mankind’s DNA, or whether it’s learned.  Regardless, it extends into our lives as adults as well.  Rarely do people encourage our strengths. That leads us to a common habit of dwelling on our weaknesses – we either deride them or seek to eliminate them.

In spite of that common tendency, research in the last 30 years repeatedly reveals that a far more effective approach is to manage your weaknesses and focus on developing and nurturing your strengths.

One such study, by the Gallup organization, found that companies who focused on developing strengths did considerably better on sales, profit, turnover rates, and engaged employees. 1 That conclusion supports similar conclusions from a variety of disciplines.  In education, students learn better when their successes are praised, as opposed to their mistakes emphasized.  In sports, exceptional coaches work to put their players in situations where they can bring their strengths to bear on the game.

While we are just recently documenting this phenomenon, the Bible reveals that organizing by strengths (‘gifts’ in Biblical terminology) has been a core way that God has organized his people.  Read this passage from the book of Romans, which is one of several that make the same point:

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ, we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,[b] do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:3-8, NIV)

“Focusing on strengths” then, is a core discipline to help all of us survive and thrive in these difficult times. We can apply it both individually, as well as in the organizations we influence.

Let’s explore ways to do that.

Strengths, according to the Gallup Strengths Center, “are the unique combinations of talents, knowledge, and skills that every person possesses. People use these innate traits and abilities in their daily lives to complete their work, to relate with others, and to achieve their goals.”

The first step to hoisting this sail and letting it power us forward is to accurately assess what our strengths are.  Too many people think they have no strengths or are unable to articulate them.  You might need some help to fully understand yours.  So, you may want to:

  • Spend some time in introspection. What do you think your strengths are?
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You may want to look back in time to situations where you were successful and see if you can ferret out the things that you did to be successful. Is there a pattern?  The pattern most likely reveals a strength brought to bear.

  • Ask people who know you for their views – family, co-workers, etc. You will likely find that they see strengths in you that you do not. You may want to ask them outright what strengths they see in you, and/or you may want to hear their opinion on the list you created.
  • Take a formal ‘strengths’ assessment. An internet search will reveal a number of possibilities.

Once you have an idea of what your strengths are, seek opportunities to bring those strengths to bear on the situation.  Here’s an example from my life.  At one time, I sold surgical staplers to surgeons.  We were trained to find surgeons who were open to them, and then to help them become comfortable with the instruments by accompanying them in surgery.  Since I had was good at organizing things and was very comfortable facilitating small groups, I chose to create mini-workshops of half a dozen surgeons at a time.  I’d treat them to lunch, have an experienced staple user speak, and then gather them around in a laboratory environment to teach them, in a group, how to use the instruments. Applying my strengths to the sales situation boosted my sales dramatically.

There is something about your strengths that gives you pleasure and a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.  You are good at it, and you enjoy it.  That’s a powerful combination.

The same process can be used by leaders to supercharge the performance of their teams.

We are all familiar with SWOT analysis, which seeks to identify the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Because a company is an entity on its own, it has a corporate set of strengths and weaknesses.  The same is true for any sub-groups within the organization:  teams, departments, sales forces, etc. There are certain things that the group, corporately, is good at.

When the organization’s leaders consciously identify those strengths, seek opportunities, and then apply those strengths to the opportunities, they see exceptional performance.

Leaders can apply this idea of focusing on strengths not just to the corporate body, but to each individual within that body. When management intentionally attempts to identify and then apply the individual’s strengths, people are put into positions that allow them to exercise those strengths.  The results are exceptional, like those noted at the beginning of this article.

The starting point is to accept the idea that ‘focusing on strengths’ is a core competency to survive and thrive in these complex times, and then to intentionally, at every level, pursue a strategy of identifying, seeking opportunities, and then applying those strengths.

It is a ‘sail’ that will fill you with energy and power to move forward, regardless of the turbulent environment.


1. Gallup’s study, which analyzed data from 49,495 business units with 1.2 million employees across 22 organizations in seven industries and 45 countries, focused on six key business outcomes: sales, profit, customer engagement, turnover, employee engagement, and safety. Gallup found that on average, workgroups that received strengths-based development improved on all of these measures by a considerable amount, compared with control groups that received less-intensive solutions or none at all. For instance, organizations implementing strengths-based initiatives experienced a 10-19 percent increase in sales, saw a 14-19 percent increase in profit, and reported 22-59 percent fewer safety incidents.

In addition, turnover rates improved significantly. Organizations with already low staff turnover decreased another six to 16 points, and high-turnover companies saw improvements of 26 to 72 points. Finally, 9-15 percent experienced a surge in engaged employees. Gallup reported that almost seven in 10 employees (67 percent) who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged. When employees strongly disagree with this statement, the percentage of workers who are engaged in their work plummeted to 2 percent.

From: Why strength-based development is a good idea,  By Ryann K. Ellis



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