Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Effect of Competition on Creativity

Source: Pixabay
Daniel Gross has published an interesting NBER working paper titled, "Creativity under fire: The effects of competition on creative production." Gross writes the following in describing his key findings:

This paper studies the incentive effects of competition on individuals’ creative output, exploiting a unique field setting where creative activity and competition can be precisely measured and related: tournaments for the design of commercial logos and branding. Using image comparison tools to measure originality, I show that intensifying competition both creates and destroys incentives for creativity. While some competition is necessary to induce high-performing agents to develop original, untested designs over tweaking their existing work, heavy competition discourages effort of either kind.

The key idea here is that a certain amount of competition can encourage people to continue exploring original ideas, rather than simply becoming conservative and making only incremental changes to previous work because of positive initial feedback.  Of course, as Gross notes, the ability to find just the right level of competition to properly motivate creative work is very tricky.  He describes the challenge of achieving the "Goldilocks" level of competition - just balanced in the optimal way.  It's hard to do.  The paper is interesting, nonetheless, because it seems to counter some arguments that have been made in the past suggesting a simple negative relationship between competition and creativity.   In short, those past arguments tend to be very negative toward extrinsic rewards and favor methods for fostering intrinsic motivation as a means of encouraging creative work.   They favor collaboration over competition.  Gross' work suggests that competition can play a favorable role, but only if managed carefully.  

Monday, October 15, 2018

Solo Founders or Teams: Who Has More Success?

None of us is as smart as all of us. Right?  Teams are smarter and more effective than individuals at challenging tasks, right?  Not so fast.  New research by Jason Greenberg and Ethan Mollick examines new ventures.  They found that solo founders tend to achieve better results, at least in terms of certain metrics, than entrepreneurial ventures founded by a team of people.  Here's an excerpt from an NYU summary of the research:  

Common wisdom has assumed that the value of having a team is additive or even synergistic, based primarily on the theory that starting a business requires a portfolio of skills and resources that few individuals possess. However, in “Sole Survivors: Solo Ventures versus Founding Teams,” Professor Greenberg and his co-author, Wharton’s Ethan Mollick, showed that companies started by solo founders survive longer and generate more revenue than those started by teams, while not performing significantly differently across various operating categories.

The authors’ unique dataset was comprised of companies that were crowdfunded via the Kickstarter site between 2009 and 2015, were eventually established formally, and whose performance could be followed for several years. For-profit and nonprofit companies were analyzed separately, and collectively they raised $151 million in crowdfunding and generated approximately $358 million in revenue.

Of course, these results do not suggest that teamwork is not essential for a new venture.  It speaks to the possible frictions and dysfunctional conflict that can occur when you have multiple founders though.  Moreover, it may speak to the speed of decisions in situations where multiple founders must come to an agreement on key strategic choices.  Still, one should not conclude that a solo founder does not need  a strong team around them.   Collaboration is essential in many aspects of a startup, regardless of the structure at the very top.  

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Knowing Other People's Salaries at Work

Source: picpedia.org
In recent years, we have heard some people advocate for pay transparency in organizations.  The recommendations in this regard have received a great deal of publicity, with arguments for and against the concept being made in the press.  Now we have a well-crafted research study that examines the topic.  How does knowledge about fellow employees' salaries affect a worker's motivation and effort? ZoĆ« Cullen and Richardo Perez-Truglia examined this question in a paper titled, "How Much Does Your Boss Make? The Effects of Salary Comparisons."  The scholars conducted a study of over 2,000 workes at a large commercial bank.  They discovered that knowledge about your manager's salary can enhance your motivation.  However, having salary information about your peers can be demotivating.  Here's a summary of the findings from HBS Working Knowledge:

The research results were sometimes counterintuitive, Cullen says. For example, employees worked harder after discovering how much their managers made. For every 1 percent higher in the perceived salary of a manager, employees clocked 0.15 percent more hours.  
But the employees’ extra effort diminished as the difference in rank between employee and manager widened. In some cases, “We were looking at how employees responded to managers who were five promotions away and who they explicitly thought were in positions they themselves would never achieve,” Cullen says. In those cases, the work-harder reaction was much smaller but did not become negative. When employees received salary information about managers who were closer to their own rank, they may have found the salary difference aspirational—just a promotion or two away, she says.

While knowledge of managerial compensation seemed to coax more effort out of workers, the exact opposite happened when employees learned what peers were making. For every 1 percent higher salary a co-worker earned over the employee’s expectation, they worked 0.94 percent fewer hours, the researchers found.  
In a global environment where companies are scrambling to find qualified workers to fill vacancies, another important finding emerged. When an employee learned a co-worker’s salary was 1 percent higher than estimated, chances rose by 0.225 percent that they’d leave the company.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

In Search of Humble Bosses

Source: Flickr
Sue Shellenbarger has written a column for the Wall Street Journal today titled, "The Best Bosses are Humble Bosses."  Schellenbarger notes that many firms are now trying to assess humility right from the start, during the hiring process, because they believe that it's a vital attribute of effective leaders.  She cites a variety of studies suggesting that humility can be a positive characteristic for leaders.   When leaders exhibit humility, positive results include better collaboration among team members, more team learning, and lower employee turnover.  She doesn't discuss psychological safety specifically, but I suspect that humility on the part of leaders tends to make it safer for team members to speak up, and that open dialogue and collaborative learning leads to better team performance.    Here's Shellenbarger's summary of some of the research findings: 

Workplace researchers often rely on subordinates’ reports to assess leaders’ level of humility. In a 2015 study of 326 employees working on 77 teams at a health-care company, researchers asked team members to assess their managers’ humility, based on a scale including their willingness to learn from others or admit when they don’t know how to do something. Team members also assessed their teams’ attitudes and performance.

Teams with humble leaders performed better and did higher-quality work than teams whose leaders exhibited less humility, according to lead researcher Bradley P. Owens, an associate professor of business ethics at Brigham Young University.  The performance gains held up independently of how much team leaders exhibited other positive leadership qualities unrelated to humility.

I know what you might be thinking at this moment.  What about Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, and the like?  They don't strike us as very humble leaders, yet they revolutionized entire industries in many cases.  Of course, Shellenbarger is not suggesting that you MUST be humble to succeed.  However, she's making a case that, for most of us, pulling off the arrogant and largely benevolent dictator model of leadership is highly likely to lead to failure!  The bigger question is: Can firms actually assess humility effectively during the hiring process?  Plenty of research suggetsts that the hiring/screening process at many firms is highly problematic.  So, there's more work to be done, even if we know that humility is a desirable characteristic.   

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Disagreeing with the Boss

Source: maxpixel.net
Vivian Giang has written a useful article for Fast Company about how to disagree effectively with your boss or other senior leaders in your organization.  She draws on the expertise of Priscilla Claman of Career Strategies, Inc.  Giang provides several recommendations:

1.  Know Your Boss' Decision-Making Style

Are they influenced by data and formal analysis?  Do they worry about how their decisions affect interpersonal relationships?  In short, you need to know what type of argument or presentation will be most influential with your boss.  Speak and make your case in a format and style that will make the most impact with that person.  

2.  Recruit Credible Allies

Don't go it alone.  Find others who can rally behind your argument and stand with you.  Perhaps they can even join you in making the case to your boss or other senior leaders.  Or, perhaps, you can identify the leader's confidante or trusted adviser.  Make your case first to that person, as they may be your best channel for presenting a constructive dissent and persuading your boss to listen carefully.  

3.  Identify Your Baggage

Consider your past experiences and your reputation/track record.  Now put yourself in your boss' shoes.  What will they automatically assume about you and your argument?  What will they expect of you?  If you can recognize any baggage that you may bring to the conversation, you can anticipate roadblocks and objections much more effectively.  

Monday, October 08, 2018

Gender Diversity and Venture Capital Firm Performance

Source: Pixabay
HBS Professor Paul Gompers and his colleagues have conducted impactful research on the impact of gender diversity, or lack thereof, in the venture capital industry.  Not surpisingly, they found that venture capital firms tend to have homogenous management teams.   Most of the partners tend to be white men with liberal arts undergraduate degrees and MBAs.  A significant portion attended Harvard Business School.   The representation of women in the venture capital world has not increased much since 1990, according to Gompers' research. He notes, "“We really saw how powerful the force of ‘birds of a feather flocking together’ was. The more similar you are to someone, the more likely you are to work with them.”  The scholars discovered that, "Partners who came from the same school achieved an 11.5 percent lower success rate for acquisitions and IPOs; those who were ethnically homogenous saw a success rate 26 to 32 percent lower."  

To disentangle correlation from causation, Paul Gompers and Sophie Wang conducted another fascinating study.  They reviewed alumni data from universities that accounted for most of the venture capital partners in their sample. They discovered that partners with daughters tended to hire more women as partners in their firms. Then they examined venture capital fund performance, and they found a substantial advantage for funds with at least one woman serving as a partner. According to HBS Working Knowledge, "While the median venture capital fund return is around 14 to 15 percent, funds with a female partner returned 16 to 17 percent. Moreover, having women as partners increased the percentage of successful startups supported by those firms—that either went public or sold for more than their total capital investment—from about 28 percent to about 31 percent." 

Friday, October 05, 2018

Reducing Leader Overconfidence


Daniel Walters, Philip Fernbach, Craig Fox, and Steven Sloman have developed an intriguing and apparently quite effective technique to curb overconfidence.  They published their research in a paper titled, “Known Unknowns: A Critical Determinant of Confidence and Calibration."  Walters described the key findings and implications from this research in a web essay published by INSEAD,  where he serves on the faculty. 

The scholars describe a technique in which people are asked to "explicitly consider the missing pieces of information in a judgment." In other words, they try to identify and write down what they don't know about a situation, i.e. what are the key unknowns? They compared this methodology to another technique often recommended for improving decision-making effectiveness: devil's advocacy. Walters reports that identifying unknowns can be more effective than devil's advocacy. Why? In one of their experiments, they examine two situations: one setting in which people were overconfident and another where they were underconfident. They found that devil's advocacy reduces confidence in both settings. On the other hand, considering unknowns only reduces confidence in the situation where people were initially overconfident.  Devil's advocacy proves to be a "blunt instrument" in their words.  Here's Walters' summary of the research:

The third study allowed us to test whether considering the unknown reduced confidence or improved calibration. In many domains, people demonstrate underconfidence and are overly cautious. A true improvement in calibration would mean that considering the unknowns reduces confidence when people are overconfident, but not when people are well-calibrated or underconfident. In this study, participants answered two sets of general knowledge questions. The questions were divided into nine knowledge domains (e.g. state populations, calorie counts), for which participants varied in their level of overconfidence versus underconfidence. As in the second study, participants either considered the unknown, or considered the alternative (the devil’s advocate technique). Both interventions were compared with a group which had no prompting to ponder additional information. As we predicted, considering the unknowns only reduced confidence when it was misplaced (in overconfident domains), whereas playing devil’s advocate had an equal impact in the subject areas that encouraged overconfident and underconfident responses.

The research is intriguing.  I would offer two caveats.  First, I would argue that many organizational leaders display overconfidence much more frequently than underconfidence.  Second, I have come to believe that WHO plays the devil's advocate, WHEN they play that role, and HOW they serve as the devil's advocate matters a great deal.  Indeed, it is a blunt instrument, particularly if not used properly. However, with some care, the technique can be deployed with much success.