Leadership Means No More Silver Bullets

by  Bill Fox  |  Leadership Development

Over the past 20+ years I have witnessed a repeated and troubling pattern that occurs far too frequently.  The recurring pattern I’m referring to is when organizations choose to settle for a “silver bullet” solution.  With the hope of quickly getting rid of a problem, many organizations are blindly adopting a “cookie-cutter” approach without asking the hard questions first.

Given all the uncertainty in today’s economy, can organizations afford to continue on this track?

I have witnessed countless scenarios like this, and I bet you have too –

  • Enterprise wide resource systems are rolled out with a lot of fanfare and management promises that it will transform the way the organization does business.  A year later everyone is still waiting for the transformation and the search for the guilty begins.
  • Process improvement initiatives such as Agile, CMMI, Lean, Project Quality Offices and any number of other improvement initiatives are started and stopped often in one failed initiative after another.
  • You can add your own example here.  I’m sure that there have been many times where you have seen your organization or another organization in your industry opt for the “cookie-cutter” approach!

Unfortunately, organizations rarely gain any traction or produce any real business value when they look for the “silver bullet”.  Implementing these failed initiatives that aren’t right for a particular organization’s needs means that thousands of dollars are needlessly wasted on training, software, computer hardware, consultants, etc.  Organizations lose even more money from the effects of loss of productivity and employee morale.

Two Ways Leaders Can Begin to Reverse the “Silver Bullet” Syndrome

While we can sympathize with leaders who may be dealing in complex domains and may not have the insight and bandwidth to forge a successful approach or who are sold a “bill of goods”, below are two insights that can help.

First, leaders can start by beginning to ask better questions.  Ask great questions and you will yield the best answers.  When we are captivated and hypnotized by the buzz of the latest industry “silver bullet”, more often than not the great questions don’t get answered, let alone asked.

Over the past 18 months, I had the opportunity to interview 26 top experts in the field of process and performance improvement. Interestingly, the number one main theme that I have identified across these interviews is that these experts ask great questions – yielding better answers and better outcomes.

What are those questions?  I’m in the process of compiling a complete listing of all the stated and implied questions from the interviews that I will be publishing in a future blog post.  In the meantime, here are several five minute interviews with great questions:

Focus on Values, Principles and Practices

A second approach can be found in a ground breaking book, High Performance Operations, where the author, Hillel Glazer, performs a bit of alchemy in describing how organizations can blend compliance into the value stream to lower costs, increase profits, and gain competitive advantage.

Hillel asserts that often times the “silver bullet” approach instills a focus on implementing the “silver bullet” itself rather than a focus on achieving the desired effects or outcomes.  So what’s the downside of that?  It’s probably a lot worse than you think.  Think about it – focusing on a packaged solution usually results in just that and not the intended benefits.

Quoting from the book, Hillel states (in the context of best practices) where he believes leaders really need to focus:

“Organizations must focus on the purposes and outcomes the practices are designed to elicit.  The reason the practices are in the body of work is why the practices are there, not the performance of the practices themselves.”

What do you think?  What are your ideas for solving the “silver bullet” problem?

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What People Are Saying

Jon Mertz  |  16 Jul 2012  |  Reply


In my opinion, the “silver bullet” mindset relates to fast results. “Give me the quick turn” rather than the lasting results.

Part of a leader’s mission is to move people and organizations from Point A to Point B. Point B has to be compelling and, as you state, purposeful. If people buy into Point B, then a motivation of what “can be” begins to take hold. Once this happens, it is then working with teams to determine what processes, systems, structures, etc. need to be in place to achieve Point B. This takes effort, and it may likely take time. The impact, however, is longer lasting and more meaningful.


Bill Fox  |  16 Jul 2012  |  Reply


Thanks for your comment. Agree that the major motivation here is likely “fast results.” Also liked your point, “working with teams to determine what processes, systems, structures, etc. need to be in place to achieve Point B.”


John Richard Bell  |  16 Jul 2012  |  Reply

The cultural scenarios you describe are symbolic of the corporate culture promoted and permeated by the corporation’s leader. In my experience, the principles of this leadership style is hard to change. Your sage advice will likely find a more responsive mindset in the next generation of leaders.

Bill Fox  |  16 Jul 2012  |  Reply


Thanks for your comment. I think I’ve experienced more than my fair share of this leadership style, which has motivated me to take action to try to impact it. I’m looking forward to a more responsive next generation.


David M. Dye  |  17 Jul 2012  |  Reply

Great post,

I’ve long believed that nearly all the ‘easy, single-solution’ problems have been dealt with by the time you’ve honed your leadership chops.

After we have the basics in place, the really significant issues facing our organizations and society generally resist silver-bullets because they are part of larger systems with multiple interacting variables.

But changing those systems doesn’t always lend itself to ‘visible’ leadership. It requires a real talent to maintain the level of analysis required, to make the complex understandable, but without over-simplifying to the point where people (or the leader) start clamoring for the silver-bullet. That’s a tall order, but it’s increasingly the order of the day for our most pressing challenges.

Thanks for the post, Bill.

Take care,


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