Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Fumbling the Creative Handoff

Source: statetechmagazine.com

What happens when someone runs with a creative idea initiated and formulated by someone else? What pitfalls arise when there is a transition from idea generator to idea executor? These are the questions examined by scholars Justin Berg and Alisa Yu in a fascinating new study. They studied the movie industry, examining approximately 5,700 films released over the past century. The scholars identified the person who generated, elaborated, and executed the idea. They evaluated Rotten Tomatoes scores as a measure of the creativity of the movies. What did Berg and Yu discover?  Stanford Leadership Insights summarized their findings:

Films in which there was a “late handoff” — that is, a director received a screenplay written by someone else to make into a movie — tended to be less creative than films in which the same person drove the entire process or drove the process from screenwriting on (an “early handoff”). “The notion of handoffs has been studied very thoroughly in medicine, but not in the context of creative projects,” Berg says. Yet handoffs are quite common in creative work. Engineers often build based on others’ designs; many marketers execute others’ ideas for campaigns; employees are increasingly asked to implement ideas that were crowdsourced from customers. “With creative projects, it’s clear how much handoffs should matter, as you need to be deeply committed, you need to go the extra mile to get this new thing born into the world.”

Berg explained by many filmmakers "fumble" these creative handoffs, particularly if they occur late in the game. “If you’re working on something creative, you can certainly receive the project as a handoff, but it shouldn’t be too late in the process.  Make sure you’re not handing over a mature idea for someone to implement, as you cut off the opportunity for them to develop psychological ownership and a coherent vision, which are key ingredients for turning creative ideas into creative final products.”   Does that mean you should avoid handoffs altogether?  Not necessarily.  Sometimes, you need a different set of skills to bring an idea to fruition.  However, you should get that implementor involved earlier in the process, so that they are part of the idea elaboration process.   They need to understand the concept clearly and become part of shaping and enhancing it.   As they come to "own" the idea, they are more likely to help shepherd it to completion successfully.  

Friday, November 19, 2021

Facilitating Complex Problem Solving in a Crisis

Source: Sioux Land News

Recently, I moderated a lively discussion in which a group of executives compared and contrasted the problem solving and communication of two flight crews:  Air France 447, which crashed in 2009 and killed everyone on board, and United 232, which crash landed in 1989.   The latter flight tragically led to many deaths as well.  However, the crew did a remarkable job of bringing the plane to the ground, saving 184 lives.   Many experts credit Captain Al Haynes for his steady hand leading the crew as it landed the plane after a catastrophic engine failure.   

What did Captain Haynes and his crew do so effectively as compared to the Air France team?  Most experts point to the way that the crew members communicated with one another.   Haynes notes that they utilized their crew resource management training highly successfully.  What were the hallmarks of Haynes' leadership during this crisis?

  1. He made it psychologically safe for everyone to contribute to the discussion.  No one, including Haynes himself, was afraid to say, "I don't know" and to seek help from others.
  2. Haynes and his crew members "thought out loud" as they engaged in problem solving.  In so doing, they all developed a strong shared situational awareness.  They got on the same page quickly. 
  3. Haynes and his crew repeatedly sought to confirm their understanding of each other's statements and conclusions.  They played back what they heard and asked if that was accurately understood.  They asked questions to clarify.  
  4. Haynes insured that people understood their roles and responsibilities clearly.  In flight emergencies in the past, confusion can occur when everyone is focused on the crisis and no one is "flying the plane."  To some extent, that occurred on the Air France flight.   On the United flight, Haynes insured that someone was focused on continuing to fly the plane, while others tried to diagnose the problem and find a way to land the plane.  
  5. Haynes didn't assume he had all the answers.  He was modest, and he recognized and acknowledged his own limits.  In so doing, he marshalled the collective intellect of the team.  

Monday, November 08, 2021

The Sunk Cost Trap and Opportunity Costs: How Competitors Can Attack You

Source: standoutbooks.com

Imagine that your firm's leaders have made a substantial investment over a 15-year period in a particular strategy.  They are investing roughly $20 million in operating costs per year in that strategy, and they have made considerable capital investments as well.  The strategy is not working.  It has not yielded the desired results.  However, key leaders are incredibly committed to the plan.  They are mired in the sunk cost trap, throwing good money after bad, in part because they do not want to admit their grave error publicly.  Leadership has been able to survive this flawed strategy because other aspects of the business have generated enough profit to cover for this sunk cost trap.  With profits generally strong for many years, leaders have not had to acknowledge their mistake or pay a price for their error.  What's the problem though?  Well, there are considerable opportunity costs associated with the sunk cost problem.  The damage to an organization is not just the good money thrown after bad; it's the OPPORTUNITY COST of the flawed strategy.  What other opportunities are we not able to pursue because we are allocating scarce resources in this manner?

Now put yourself in the shoes of a key competitor for a moment. How could they take advantage of this situation?  Well, they could pursue a costly strategy that requires hefty investment, but is likely to draw away many customers from their rival.    The company stuck in the sunk cost trap might not be able to respond effectively.  They don't have the resources to respond, because they are still throwing good money after bad on a losing strategy.   The opportunity costs become a huge liability at that point.   The lesson: If you are looking to gain an edge over a rival, check to see if they are throwing good money after bad, and see if you can put them in a tough spot by making an investment in a strategy that they are not able to match due to scarce resources.  

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Searching for Leaders with Social Skills: Does Supply Meet Demand?

Source: NPR

Raffaella Sadun, Joseph Fuller, Stephen Hansen, and Tejas Ramdas have conducted a comprehensive study regarding executive searches and the skills sought after by companies when hiring to the C-suite. The scholars examined more than 4,600 searches for top executives between 2000 and 2017.  The study stretched across many industries and countries.   HBS Working Knowledge published a summary of the researchers' findings:

“The demand for social skills is increasing in every category of the economy,” says Sadun, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School. "But] it’s not about schmoozing.”

Instead, headhunters and corporate recruiters want candidates with soft skills who can:
  • actively listen to others;
  • empathize genuinely with others’ experiences;
  • persuade people to work toward a common goal;
  • and communicate clearly—or, as Sadun puts it, “touch the chords of listeners.”
Top executives who demonstrate this kind of interpersonal prowess are more likely to be in high demand, particularly at large, multinational, and information-intensive organizations, the research suggests. Those companies see social skills in the C-suite as more important than more traditional operational and administrative abilities, such as monitoring the allocation of financial resources.

The scholars pose a fascinating question after summarizing their conclusions.  They ask whether the supply of executives with these social skills is meeting the demand.  I would ask a related and very important question: Are companies investing sufficiently and effectively enough in the types of leadership development activities that can help foster and enhance these skills in their top leaders?  In far too many companies, I see top executives funding and supporting programs to develop these skills in young high-potential employees or in middle managers, yet they are not taking the time to invest in further development at the top levels of the organization.  Perhaps, more attention should be paid to building the social skills of the C-Suite on an ongoing basis.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Microsoft's Study on Remote Work and Collaboration

Source: geeksforgeeks.org

Stanford Professor Bob Sutton recently posted a link to a fascinating piece of research by Microsoft regarding the shift to remote work. The article is titled, "The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers," and it is authored by Longqi Yang, David Holtz, and a team of other researchers. This study examined emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls and hours worked for more than 60,000 employees from December 2019 to June 2020 (covering both pre-pandemic work and several months after the shift to remote work). Here is what Microsoft discovered:

Overall, we found that the shift to remote work caused the formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed. Remote work caused the share of collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections to drop by about 25% of the pre-pandemic level. Furthermore, firm-wide remote work caused separate groups to become more intraconnected by adding more connections within themselves. The shift to remote work also caused the organizational structure at Microsoft to become less dynamic; Microsoft employees added fewer new collaborators and shed fewer existing ones.

The researchers do point out that the entire study took place with US workers at one company, Microsoft. That's clearly a limitation of the study. Moreover, they only studied the first few months of the pandemic. Companies clearly invested heavily in technology to support remote work and virtual collaboration as the pandemic persisted. Employees may have become more adept at working remotely and collaborating remotely as well. On the other hand, the scholars point out that these workers could "leverage existing network connections, many of which were built in person. This may not be possible if firm-wide remote work were implemented long-term." More work clearly needs to be done, but this research shines a spotlight on the potential downsides of remote work for large numbers of employees in a complex organization.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Changing Your Mindset About Stress

Source: Stanford University

All of us have found ourselves overwhelmed at times by high levels of stress and anxiety. For some, these feelings and emotions can become debilitating. Our performance in a challenging situation suffers greatly. However, the consequences do not always have to be so dire. I recently listened to a fascinating podcast featuring Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum. She's the principal investigator in Stanford's Mind and Body Lab.

Crum has been examining how and why many of us have come to assume that stress should and will be debilitating. In fact, she argues that well-intentioned public health communications tend to reinforce this negative perception about stress. However, her work has explored how our mindset matters. Looking at stress with a different perspective can help us persevere through adversity and actually elevate our performance in very challenging situations. Here's an excerpt from the podcast:

The nature of a challenging situation or a demand in our life. That’s what we been focused on. And what we’ve found is that, if you kinda go back into those core assumptions, what you realize is that, most people have the mindset that stressful situations are inherently debilitating. They’re going to ultimately make us sick, make us struggle, make us crumble under pressure. And when you look at the truth about stress which is like most things very complicated, you realise that that is a simplified assumption. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s only one way of viewing stress and you start to realize that the true nature of stress is more complex.

And in fact, there’s a whole other side of stress that reveals to us that the body’s stress response, the mind stress response, was not designed to be debilitating, but instead designed to help us elevate our performance and behavior to meet the demands we’re facing. There’s a whole side of stress that shows that it can have enhancing qualities on our cognitive functioning, our physical health and on how we behave and interact with others. And so, our work is not necessarily to find out the truth of stress, what it is or what isn’t. But to look at how our mindsets, the core assumptions we make about it shape how we respond in stressful situations. And what we’ve shown is that if we can get people to open their minds to this notion that stress can be enhancing. That stress can help you rise to a new level of understanding, can deepen your connection with others, can make us even physiologically grow tougher and stronger. Having that focus shifts our attention and behaviors in ways that make that mindset more true.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Authentic Leadership

Source: Business Wire

When we transition to a different leadership role, we can and should think carefully about the new skills and behaviors that will be required to succeed in that new position.  For instance, as people shift from a role as a functional expert to being leader of a cross-functional team, they need to consider how much more important their team formation and building skills will be, as opposed to their particular expertise about certain subject matter.  Similarly, when a C-suite executive becomes promoted to CEO, they need to consider how many more outward-facing activities in which they will need to engage, including investor relations, major customer relationship management, outreach to public officials, and the like. 

Having said that, one cannot fundamentally change their leadership style.  Attempts to do so often cause others to perceive leaders as inauthentic.  You are who you are.  You can't and shouldn't try to adapt your style simply because you have a new role.  Naturally, you should be engaging in self-reflection and adapting based on what you learn from experience.  However, you can't alter your DNA as a leader. Lauren Hobart, the new CEO at Dick's Sporting Goods, articulated this challenge well in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. She said,

In this case, Ed (her predecessor) and the board tapped me. When they came and said, “You’re the person,” immediately my thoughts were that I had to change my entire management style. I have been a person who is extremely open. I write letters. In my time as chief marketing officer, I wrote weekly emails to the marketing team, and I would tell them stories about my kids, or about my mom, or a fight I had, or this or that realization about the business. It was always very nonpresidential, in my opinion. I did say to Ed, “Now I’m going to have to change absolutely everything. I can’t be posting selfies in emails to the whole group and to the whole company.” He disagreed and said, “What got Lauren Hobart to be in this position is Lauren Hobart, and we don’t want Lauren Hobart to change.” And so, I haven’t held back at all.