Friday, December 07, 2018

Unlocking Creativity

My new book, Unlocking Creativity, will be released one month from today, on January 7th, 2019.  You can pre-order the book now.  Thank you for taking a look at my new work! I look forward to hearing what you think!


Discussing Your Failures as a Leader

Source: Wikipedia
Allison Wood Brooks and her colleagues have published a new working paper titled, "Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful People Should Reveal Their Failures."   These scholars argue that leaders need to discuss their failures openly.  They should avoid simply talking about past success, because focusing only on past achievements can stir up "malicious envy" on the part of team members.  Brooks explains,  “When people feel malicious envy, they engage in counterproductive work to harm other people.  They tend to undermine others and try to slow them down.”  However, you might be thinking that discussing failures undermines people's perceptions of the leader's competence reduces their ability to inspire and motivate others to follow them.  Brooks and her colleagues find that acknowledging past stumbles does not reduce admiration for the leader.  You can read more about their research in this column from HBS Working Knowledge.

Interestingly, other research suggests that there may be another important reason for leaders to open up about their failures. Research in the field of education by Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her colleagues examined how students responded to stories told about the achievements of great scientists such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday. If students heard only heroic stories of their achievements, they performed worse in science class than if they heard stories of the challenges and obstacles that these scientists faced, and the failures on their path to great achievement.   Students could identify more with those authentic stories of difficulty and challenge.   Moreover, they were more confident in their own ability to excel in science if they heard these stories of challenge and triumph.   

The lesson is clear for leaders.  You not only reduce malicious envy if you open up about past failures, but you may bolster the confidence of your team members.  The belief in their ability to take on new challenges may rise, and as a result, performance of your team may increase as well.  Most importantly, others' perception of your competence may not suffer if you are honest with them about past achievements and struggles.  

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Four Models of Management from Legendary Rock Bands

Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Ian Leslie has written a terrific story for The Economist's 1843 magazine titled, "A rocker's guide to management."  In the essay, Leslie describes four models for organizing a great rock band and draws some conclusions about how to run a start-up and later a more complex business. Leslie writes, "The history of rock groups can be viewed as a vast experimental laboratory for studying the core problems of any business: how to make a group of talented people add up to more than the sum of its parts. And, once you’ve done that, how to keep the band together."  He describes four models for how to run a rock band:

Friends: "We Can Work It Out" - example: The Beatles

Leslie cites research demonstrating that having friendships at work can enhance employee engagement and job satisfaction. Moreover, he notes that the intimate friendships of John, Paul, George, and Ringo meant that they could literally finish each other's sentences.  Of course, working with your closest friends has its costs and risks.  Differences of opinion on issues can turn emotional and interpersonal in a hurry.  Fractures can result within a team.  
Autocracies: "I Won't Back Down" - example:  Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Leslie notes that Tom Petty used to lead the band in a very egalitarian fashion.  He shared all profits equally.  Soon, though, he realized that trying to operate as a team of equals proved problematic.  He shifted toward a more top-down approach and no longer shared profits equally.  People had a hard time accepting his decision at first, but eventually, they worked through their differences and remained a cohesive, productive band for decades.  Leslie also points to "The Boss" - Bruce Springsteen - as an example of an autocratic approach. Springsteen once said, “Democracy in a band...is often a ticking time bomb. If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power. I’ve always believed that the E Street Band’s continued existence is partially due to the fact that there was little to no role confusion among its members.”  Some famous founders have operated autocracies successfully, but of course, autocracies come with serious downsides as well.  The lack of empowerment can be very demotivating in many circumstances.  Moreover, if the leader makes questionable decisions, and they remain unchallenged, team performance can suffer greatly.  

Democracies: "Everybody Hurts" - example:  R.E.M.

Democratic approaches in rock bands, as in startups, can be problematic at times, as people do not understand or accept their roles.  Members find themselves stepping on each other's toes, and they fight over who deserves the credit.  However, democracy worked for R.E.M. and for Coldplay.  Leslie writes, "The democratic model depends on individual members believing that each has the group’s interest at heart, not just their own... R.E.M.’s decision-making process meant they exhibited confidence in each other every day. There must also be a belief in each other’s competence. Tony Fletcher, the biographer of R.E.M., says that “usually in a band there’s someone the others think isn’t good enough, or isn’t pulling their weight.” But that was never the case with R.E.M., all of whose members were skilled in multiple ways. “Everybody Hurts”, the band’s biggest hit, was largely written by the drummer, Bill Berry."  

Frenemies: "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" - example:  The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones learned to respect one another and to divide up their responsibilities clearly.  They each had a defined role.   Mick Jagger ran the business, while Keith Richards focused on music. He didn't always like Jagger's decisions, but he deferred on business matters to this bandmate.  They didn't always get along, but they tended to benefit from a level of constructive conflict and tension.  One reason that they managed to survive as a group for so long is that they didn't let disagreements fester beneath the surface.  They argued it out.   Finding that perfect balance of conflict and compromise can be very challenging though.  Many groups cannot prevent their issue-based disagreements from spilling over into the personal.   



Monday, December 03, 2018

SNL Parody: Netflix Originals

Check out this funny Saturday Night Live parody video, which takes aim at Netflix's strategy for creating tons of original content.  It's a great way to start Monday morning!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Should America Be Run By... Trader Joe's?

I'm honored to be featured on this week's episode of the Freakonomics podcast.  They interviewed me regarding the research that I've conducted about Trader Joe's.  For more information about my research on the company, you can check out my HBS case study (co-authored with David Ager) as well as Chapter 4 of my forthcoming book, Unlocking Creativity

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Team Effectiveness Lessons from The Celtics' Early Season Struggles

Source: Wikipedia
The Boston Celtics basketball team entered this season with much promise and high expectations. Last year, with two of their top players missing, they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.  This year, with superstar Kyrie Irving back from injury and former All-Star Gordon Hayward back from injury as well, many analysts and fans expected a trip to the NBA Finals.  However, they have struggled through the first 21 games.  They have won 11 and lost 10.  What's wrong? Many people have pointed to the fact that they are trying to sort out their roles.  Young players who played a ton of minutes in last year's playoffs have had to adjust to the return of two veterans.   The veterans have had to adjust to the fact that some of these young players developed into major contributors and expect more playing time and more shots.   It seems as though they haven't figured out their roles, and they don't fully understand how they fit together.   Many teams struggle when the members don't have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and when members don't understand how they complement one another.   We should not be surprised if it takes a few months for the Celtics to settle into a groove and become a cohesive unit.  

Research also shows that some level of hierarchy can be beneficial on teams.  A "team of equals" does not always perform best.   Consider research by Nir Halevy and his colleagues.  They have demonstrated some of the benefits of hierarchy.  In fact, they have studied NBA teams.  They collected data over 11 seasons.  They examined the dispersion of salary and playing time among players on each team.  They found that teams with wide dispersions tended to win more games than those with what appeared to be more egalitarian structures.  In short, it helps if all the players recognize who the superstars are, and who the role players are, on the team.   A team of people who all think they are roughly equal doesn't perform best, according to this research.   The researchers argued that a clear pecking order led to more cooperative behavior among teammates.  In fact, they showed that the more hierarchical teams had more assists - a statistic that measures when one player helps a teammate score a basket.  

Could the Celtics have too "flat" a structure?  Perhaps.  Analysts have described them as having lots of interchangeable parts.  They have extolled the virtues of having players who can play "positionless basketball" because that means they can switch on defense all the time (a strategy that can be effective in today's NBA).   Are they right though?  Is a team of interchangeable parts who play positionless basketball really best? 

Consider the Celtics this year.  They appear to have a flatter structure, as opposed to a clear pecking order.   That might be part of the problem.  Everyone surely recognizes that Kyrie Irving is the best player.  However, after that, it may be a bit dicier.  Gordon Hayward is a former All-Star, but he missed all of last year after a gruesome leg injury.  He's clearly not back to full health.  Al Horford is a highly paid former All-Star, but he isn't a high scorer and seems to be showing some signs of age.  Meanwhile, youngsters such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown excelled in the playoffs last year, and they may think of themselves as rising stars in the league.  They may not be ready to defer as easily to these former All-Stars.  Terry Rozier, the back-up point guard, became accustomed to being the starter with Irving injured last year. He may think he's just as good as many of the starters, though he has now had to return to the bench. 

In the November 28th episode of the Celtics Beat podcast (start at 26:00 minute mark), legendary sportswriter Bob Ryan argues this very point about having a clear pecking order.  He describes great teams of the past as having a clear starting five, a few well-defined role players or "specialists" off the bench, and a few players at the end of the bench who know that they aren't going to see much playing time.  

What's the lesson from the Celtics' struggles?  Knowing who the star is and who the role players are can be important in certain kinds of teams.   Clear roles and responsibilities are very important for a team to excel.   An adjustment period is clearly needed when you are trying to integrate new members or re-integrate former members who are returning to a team.  It's not just about putting together the most highly talented set of individuals.  It's about figuring how they fit together, and helping each member understand how they fit with their fellow team members.  Getting people to buy into their role is a key job for a coach and for any team leader.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Draw It and You Will Remember It

Source: pxhere
Myra Fernandes, Jeffrey Wammes, and and Melissa Meade have published an article titled "The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory" in Current Directions in Psychological Science.  The scholars write, 

"The colloquialism 'a picture is worth a thousand words' has reverberated through the decades, yet there is very little basic cognitive research assessing the merit of drawing as a mnemonic strategy. In our recent research, we explored whether drawing to-be-learned information enhanced memory and found it to be a reliable, replicable means of boosting performance."   

How do the scholars explain this powerful effect on our ability to remember concepts? They argue that you have to elaborate on the meaning of a concept in order to create a visual representation of it.  Mroeover, you use your motor skills to craft the drawing, and you use visual processing abilities to examine the picture and determine whether it has accurately depicted what you intended to represent.  Together, engaging these different mechanisms of our brains helps us remember the concept more effectively than if we simply tried to write out notes or visualize the concept.  

The research clearly has implications for education.  I hope to draw on these lessons as I work with students moving forward.  However, the research also has lessons for how leaders work with their teams to craft and implement strategy.   Sketching out strategies and goals may be a good way to both develop a plan as a team and for people to remember key elements of it.   Asking people to synthesize and summarize what they have discussed for an action plan at the end of the meeting can be helpful, but perhaps sketching it out on the whiteboard might be a better way to move forward from a meeting to the implementation process.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Walking the Walk on Culture

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Adam Bryant used to write the terrific Corner Office column for the New York Times.  In that column, he interviewed successful leaders from large and small enterprises.   He's now moved on to become a Managing Director at Merryck and Company, but he still publishes some terrific interviews as articles on LinkedIn.  In a recent interview, he spoke with Mike LaBianca, senior vice president and global head of human resources for Sony Interactive Entertainment - PlayStation.  He asked LaBianca to comment on organizational culture.   Here's what LaBianca told him: 

For leaders, you have to walk the talk. You can talk about all sorts of cultural initiatives, but if you don’t see the leader actually putting those into practice, it actually hinders the development of a culture rather than helps it.

I started my career at Hewlett Packard, and probably the most impactful moment of my career was meeting Dave Packard for the first time. I think he was the chairman at the time. I had only been there five weeks, and I was in accounting. I went to give a report to his secretary, who was away from his desk. He came out and said, “Can I help you?” And I said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Packard. I didn’t mean to disturb you.” And he said, “Nonsense. Show it to me.” 

He looked at me, put his arm around me, and said, “You know, I want to thank you for deciding to invest your career with us. It’s very important that we have people out of college who believe in our mission, believe in what we’re doing. You’re going to be what makes HP great.” It had a very meaningful effect on me. He continued to believe in taking the time to get to know every employee the moment that he could and expressing his support and thanks. That’s the most powerful cultural moment that I’ve ever experienced anywhere.

I think LaBianca is right on the money.   What can leaders do with this advice about walking the walk?  They have to assess their employees' impressions of the culture.  Do people feel as though senior leaders' actions match their words?  Is there a serious disconnect there - a case of empty talk?   Sometimes, leaders won't get straight answers to these questions if they ask themselves, particularly if a major disconnect occurs.  They'll need some help.   They cannot ignore the problem though.  Cynicism can be a pernicious thing in organizations, and it often spreads quickly throughout an organization.