Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Balloon Furniture Challenge

In this video, you can learn how I use the Balloon Furniture Challenge to teach about creative problem-solving and teamwork. Hope you try this exercise in your organization or class!  Thank you to Tom Dodge, John Logan, and NewView.Media for producing this video! 


The Dropout: ABC News Podcast about Theranos

I highly recommend listening to the new ABC News podcast, The Dropout.   Over the course of six enthralling episodes, reporter Rebecca Jarvis takes you through the story of the rise and fall of Theranos, the blood testing company founded by Stanford University dropout Elizabeth Holmes.  There are many lessons from this story, far too numerous to recount fully here.  However, here are three takeaways that I'd like to highlight. 

1. Most importantly, the Theranos story demonstrates the danger of seeing what you want to see, believing what you so desperately want to believe.  Many employees, analysts, directors, and investors wanted the Theranos story to be true.  They wanted this revolution in healthcare to take place.  They wanted badly for the story of a young female entrepreneur disrupting the healthcare industry to be true.  They loved the notion of discovering the "next Steve Jobs."  Unfortunately, this strong desire to want it to be true completely clouded their judgement.  

2. Cultures of fear and low psychological safety exist in all types of organizations, not just large, complex, and bureaucratic ones.  Small startups can also exhibit these problems.  The consequences can be dramatic.  In this case, not only did many investors lose large sums of money, but many patients received inaccurate blood test results.  The impact on patient care and well-being should concern anyone listening to this story. 

3.  Becoming a whistleblower is so very challenging for many reasons.  I find the efforts of Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz to be incredibly courageous.  Many people with more formal authority and industry experience did not come forward in this case.  These two young people stood up for what they believed, even in the face of much skepticism.   Organizations need to find ways to handle these types of complaints more effectively.   Time and again, we see and hear stories of how badly organizations handle complaints from workers who genuinely are concerned about safety, product quality, and the like.  Organizations need to be very clear about the process by which they will handle these types of complaints. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Does Speaking Up Help or Harm Your Career?

Conventional wisdom, backed by plenty of painful examples, demonstrates that speaking up at work brings with it some serious risks. Some leaders do not appreciate dissent and they have been known to shoot the messenger who brings bad news. In contrast, a new study looks at how speaking up might have some beneficial effects for a person's career. 

Mona Weiss and Elizabeth Morrison have published a paper titled, "Speaking up and moving up: How voice can enhance employees' social status." In this article, they provide experimental evidence that voice has some positive effects for workers. They write:

Voice, by constructively challenging the status quo, is one of the primary means by which employees can help their organizations innovate and adapt. Yet it is widely viewed as a risky activity for employees. The risks cannot be denied—supervisors and peers are not always receptive to voice and may respond negatively. However, drawing from theories of status attainment and the agency‐communion framework of interpersonal judgment, we have argued and shown that when it comes to social status, voice has positive implications for employees.

In our survey study, we found that more frequent voice behavior was associated with higher status ratings from coworkers. In our two experiments, we found that employees who raised a concern or offered an opinion that challenged the views of a superior were ascribed higher social status than those who did not.

Naturally, speaking up in a constructive manner is key. Dysfunctional conflict and dissent can be harmful. Moreover, we also have to be mindful that certain leaders, and certain organizational cultures, may not be open to dissenting views. Thus, speaking up can have negative effects in those particular situations. The study does show, however, that others may appreciate someone who speaks up in a constructive and thoughtful manner, thereby actually helping an individual's career prospects.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Look Closely at the Outliers in Your Data

Kellogg Insight has written an article about the research conducted by Joel Shapiro, Clinical Associate Professor and Executive Director for the Program on Data Analytics.   Shapiro has some terrific advice for data scientists attempting to discover opportunities for improving the customer experience.  He recommends avoiding the usual practice of "scrubbing the data" of outliers.  Instead, he advocates mining those outliers for interesting insights about consumer needs and pain points.  Here's an excerpt from the article: 

“The mere presence of outliers in customer experience data means that really good or bad things can happen to customers,” says Shapiro. “Maybe you can move that [experience] toward something that either increases the number of positive experiences or doesn’t detract from them.”  When data scientists come across an outlier, their first inclination may be to discard it in favor of “cleaning” or “smoothing out” the data. After all, the data might have been entered incorrectly or appear as the result of a modeling error. Or it may represent a freak accident—a set of circumstances unlikely to replicate itself. Why waste time accounting for the easily discountable?  Resist that urge, Shapiro says. It is always worth examining why the outlier occurred.

Shapiro's point actually connects quite well with a technique employed by design thinking experts as they conduct qualitative/ethnographic research.   Design thinkers do not simply interview and observe "average/typical users."  They look for "extreme users" - people who out of the mainstream.  Perhaps, if you were studying a project on grocery stores, you might study someone who buys fresh food daily at the store, and prepares home-cooked meals for his or her large family each day.   At the same time, you might study a few individuals who never cook for themselves, and how rarely buy food at the grocery store because they eat out on a regular basis.   In the end, you are not designing a new product or service for these extreme users.  Instead, you are using these extreme users/outliers to gain insight and inspiration.  

Monday, April 08, 2019

Taking a Break Stimulates Creativity: More Evidence

Source: Alfred Wordsworth Thompson (Wikimedia Commons)
In Unlocking Creativity, I write about how achieving some psychological distance from a problem can enhance our ability to develop creative solutions to perplexing problems. In its simplest form, we often think about the value of taking a break or going for a walk. Perhaps more interestingly, research shows that there are other ways to foster psychological distance, and thereby enhance creativity. One can role play, walk a mile in someone else's shoes, imagine a situation several months or years in the future, or leverage travel experiences as a means of enhancing psychological distance.

A recent study confirms the value of simply taking a break or going for a walk. The study demonstrates that creativity often benefits from an "incubation period." Steven Kachelmeier, Laura Wang, and Michael Williamson have written a paper titled, "Incentivizing the Creative Process: From Initial Quantity to Eventual Creativity." They examined the impact that incentives can have on the number of creative ideas that people generate. The scholars found that incentives did not generate a benefit initially, but incentives helped if people had an opportunity to take a break during the task. Kachelmeier told Science Daily, "You need to rest, take a break and detach yourself -- even if that detachment is just 20 minutes. The recipe for creativity is try -- and get frustrated because it's not going to happen. Relax, sit back, and then it happens."

Teach Experts to Think Differently

Source: Wikimedia
I've written an article for Training Magazine, published this past week.  It is titled, "Teach Experts to Think Differently."  You can view the article here.  Hope you find the ideas useful, particularly if learning and talent development are areas of responsibility for you. 

Friday, April 05, 2019

Should Leaders Show Vulnerability?

Source:  Pixabay
Inc. magazine ran a headline this week that said, "Showing Vulnerability at Work Can Hurt You If You're the Boss, Science Finds." Frankly, the headline alarmed me quite a bit.  I've always believed that leaders who demonstrate some vulnerability at times can foster psychological safety, and thereby enhance learning and problem-solving efficacy in teams.  

I decided to dig deeper. The article cites a study by Kerry Roberts Gibsona, Dana Hararib, and Jennifer Carson Marr. Thearticle is titled, "When sharing hurts: How and why self-disclosing weakness undermines the task-oriented relationships of higher status disclosers." What do these researchers find? Based on a series of experimental studies, with undergraduate students as research subjects, they concluded: 

In three laboratory experiments, we found that when higher status individuals self-disclosed a weakness, it led to lower influence (Studies 1, 2 and 3), greater perceived conflict (Studies 1, 2 and 3), less liking (Study 1), and less desire for a future relationship (Studies 2 and 3) by attenuating the status of the discloser. 

The findings appear robust, but I wonder about the limitations of the study.   For example, I wondered:  What type of self-disclosure did the students exhibit?  How did they demonstrate vulnerability?  In one study, they disclosed that they were on academic probation.  In another, they told others that the doctor had chided them for being signicantly overweight.  These disclosures did not have direct relevance to the task though, and they did not come with any discussion of the importance of this issue to the work at hand.  Moreover, the people disclosing these weaknesses did not talk at all about how they were learning from their past experience and trying to improve.   Therefore, I have concerns about jumping to conclusions regarding the benefits or costs of leaders acknowledging vulnerability based on this research.   

An effective leader fosters psychological safety by demonstrating vulnerability through offering examples that show team members that he or she is not infallible.  However, the leader does not simply disclose failures from the past.  They should talk about how they have learned from those failures, or how experimentation helped them innovate.  They aren't simply blurting out personality flaws or weaknesses without some context!  

The scholars do acknowledge the limitations of their work, and they cite possible benefits of expressing vulnerability in work teams.  They cite Amy Edmondson's work, in fact.  She's the researcher who has done the most groundbreaking work on psychological safety.   By the way, Google found that psychological safety is an attribute of high-performing teams, confirming Edmondson's work.  Google also concluded that leaders who show some vulnerability tend to create higher levels of safety.   The scholars acknowledge some benefits of vulnerability toward the end of their paper. They write: 

Finally, although in our studies the goal of the discloser is to influence the receiver, and therefore we describe less influence and greater conflict as negative consequences for the discloser, there may be situations in which increased task conflict and reduced discloser influence actually results in more positive outcomes for the dyad or team (Nembhard & Edmondson, 2006). For example, a team leader might strategically choose to self-disclose a weakness as a way to increase involvement from lower status group members who may be intimidated by the status differences between members of the team.

In sum, be wary of such headlines in popular periodicals.  The underlying research often does not sync completely with the conclusion that has been reached by journalists.  

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Discovering Analogous Inspiration: Can Crowdsourcing and Artificial Intelligence Help?

Source: Pixabay
When trying to develop a creative breakthrough, analogous inspiration can be incredibly productive.  I have written about this type of fuel for the creative process many times, including in a recent blog post about hospitals and Formula One race teams.  I also describe analogous inspiration in the Unlocking Creativity book, with an example about the Reebok Pump sneakers.  

One question you may have is:  How do I come up with the perfect analogy? How do I find great experiences or situations outside my industry from which I can draw inspiration? New research suggests that crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence can help. NYU's Stern School of Business recently posted a description of this research conducted by Professor Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, assistant professor of information, operations and management sciences, and her colleagues at other universities around the globe.  Here's a brief description:

Wilbur Wright, for instance, famously got his idea for using wing warping to steer an airplane while twisting a cardboard box. Using similar methods to solve disparate problems is a common theme in the history of innovation. But as problems become more complex and the amount of scientific information explodes, finding helpful analogies can be difficult, said Niki Kittur, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

As described in a new report to be published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers are addressing this problem by breaking down the process of identifying analogies, using crowd workers to solve individual steps in the process and training AIs to do part of the work automatically.

“We’re developing new tools that could unlock a whole set of interesting possibilities,” said Kittur, the lead author. “We’re just beginning to see how people might use them.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Optimal Networks for Women & Men

Source: Wikimedia
Yang Yang, Nitesh Chawla, and Brian Uzzi have published a fascinating new article titled, "A network’s gender composition and communication pattern predict women’s leadership success."   The scholars examined the differences in social  networks of recent graduates from a top MBA program.  They sought to understand how network composition might affect the career opportunities and progression of these young graduates.  Yang, Chawla, and Uzzi discovered an important gender difference.  Kellogg Insight recently wrote an article about this research.  Here is an excerpt from that article describing the key findings from this study:  

They found an important gender difference: for men, the most significant factor affecting job status after graduation was how “central” they were in their networks—that is, how many highly connected people they have relationships with.  Successful women also tended to be more central, but that alone was not enough to land them a top job. The most successful women often had a tight-knit circle of female colleagues as well.

The reason for this difference may come down to the types of information that men versus women need to succeed. Presumably, having numerous connections provides ready access to what the researchers call “public information,” such as which companies are hiring and which types of candidates they’re seeking. For men, that alone may be enough to land a good job. “Men really need a network that’s going to maximize their access and exposure to market information,” says study coauthor Brian Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

Women, however, “need the same thing men need and one thing more,” Uzzi says. Specifically, women need “private information,” which may include insider tips about a company’s leadership culture and politics, or hints about how to make an impression in a male-dominated industry, for example.  However, women are only likely to put faith in such private information when it comes from trusted contacts with whom they have established relationships. Furthermore, only fellow women can provide the sensitive, gender-specific information that will be useful in a career context—hence the benefit of having connections who are both close and are women.

But there is a caveat, the researchers warn: if the contacts in a woman’s network do not have sufficiently diverse networks of their own, she may find herself in an echo chamber, hurting her chances of success.