Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Blending Big Data and Design Thinking Works Best

Bryant University Professor Lori Coakley and I have published a new article in the American Management Association Quarterly (Fall 2018 issue) titled, "The Human Center of Design Thinking."  In this short essay, we argue that many firms stumble because they focus on a technology in search of a problem.  Put another way, they wield a hammer in search of a nail... rather than seeking out unmet human needs, pain points, and frustrations that must be alleviated.  Moreover, managers sometimes think large datasets, derived from surveys and purchase histories, can provide them all the insight they need about customers.  They are sorely mistaken.   Finally, we explain why we sometimes empathize poorly with our customers, and we offer some tips on how to do so more effectively. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Importance of Luck & Timing: Genuine Humility Indeed

Soure: Pixabay
In a recent interview, Stanford labor economist Paul Oyer discussed some of his research that demonstrates the importance of luck and timing in a person's career.   Here's an excerpt from the article featured on Stanford's website:  

Oyer’s findings suggest that it’s not just that people who like banking go into it and stay in it throughout their careers. Rather, investment bankers are often “made” by the conditions they encounter upon graduating. “That first step you take out of school ends up having long-term ramifications for where you end up working later in life,” Oyer says. “That initial draw in the labor market matters a lot.”

Oyer’s research showed a similar luck-of-the-draw finding for PhD economists on the academic job market. In a year when state budgets are in good shape and university endowments are up, schools do more hiring and a newly minted economist is much more likely to land a job at a higher-ranked university. And that initial job match has dramatic implications for the rest of the economist’s career, Oyer says, as he or she is more likely to publish more and stay at a top-ranked university.

“Every highly successful person had to do a lot of work to get where they are,” Oyer says. “But somewhere along the line they probably got a few good breaks. I think that’s a very important thing to remember, both to keep people who are very successful humble but also to encourage those who haven’t been successful yet to just keep looking for that break.”

This work reminds me of a former Baxter CEO Harry Kraemer's description of what it means for a leader to demonstrate genuine humility.  Kraemer argues that being genuinely humble means recognizing that your accomplishments are not simply due to your know-how and hard work.  Instead, they are a product of luck, timing, and your team. For Kraemer, he also credits the gifts and talents bestowed on him by God.   In short, it's not all about you.  It's about external factors that contribute to your success.  Stanford economist Oyer's research shows just how important luck and timing indeed can be.  

4 Lessons in Creativity: Julie Burstein

If you want to learn more about creativity, check out this interesting TED talk by Julie Burstein, a Peabody Award-winning radio producer and best-selling author.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Dangers of High Expectations

Source: Flickr
Hengchen Dai, Berkeley Dietvorst, Bradford Tuckfield, Katherine Milkman, and Maurice Schweitzer have published a fascinating new study about the dangers of high expectations. Their article is titled, "Quitting When the Going Gets Tough: A Downside of High Performance Expectations."   They note that high expectations can be a very positive force.  For instance, when teachers set high expectations for students, they often achieve good academic results.   Why?  Research suggests that high external performance expectations elevates self-expectations.   

However, the scholars examine what occurs when someone with high external performance expectations hits a roadblock or obstacle early on during a particular effort. they argue the following: "We propose that when initial performance is poor, compared to individuals who face low expectations, individuals who face 6 high expectations will be more concerned about their public image and experience greater embarrassment."  How do individuals cope with this embarrassment?  For some people, persistence may be the right strategy.  They persevere so as to eventually succeed and thus avoid the embarrassment of not meeting external expectations.  For many individuals, though, an opposite reaction occurs. They begin searching for an exit strategy so as to avoid the embarrassment of unfulfilled expectations.  In particular, they hope to find an exit strategy with a "plausibly valid excuse" for quitting, thus enabling them to blame the initial poor performance on unforeseen or uncontrollable circumstances.  

To test their hypothesis about exit strategies, they conducted a study of over 300,000 men's tennis matches.   They showed that, "After losing the first set of a match, players who are expected to win (favorites) are significantly more likely to quit than players who are expected to lose (underdogs)."  A subsequent experimental study confirmed these results.  

What then should we do? Should we lower performance expectations for talented individuals on our teams? Of course not. What we must do, though, is be ready to coach, support, and encourage those who might encounter early setbacks.  Leaders need to focus on how one can learn from an initial failure, rather than seeking to assign blame.   They cultivate a growth mindset among their team members.  

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Who Interacts with the Customer?

Source: USAF Civil Engineer Center
Patrick Gorman recently published an interview with Susan Story, CEO Of American Water Works Company for ChiefExecutive.net.   In that interview, Story describes what it means to be customer-focused.  She explains that, "If you're customer-focused, the next step, is, there's no bad idea and pepole can push back."  That's an interesting connection between customer focus and employee empowerment.  Story argues that you can't say you are customer-focused if you haven't created a culture where the people responsible for interacting with the customer every day have the ability to speak up, challenge the existing ways of working, and offer new ideas.  Story offers an example: 

I’ll give you a great example of the change we’ve made in technology. Several years ago we had a new back office software system put in and the people on frontlines weren’t asked about it. It was very rigid and our employees on the frontlines hated it. And it actually slowed down their ability to deliver customer service.

So with our new chief technology and innovation officer, we got a group of 13 field service reps from all over the country to and said, “Tell us what you need.” And we had technologists in the room and they built what the frontline employees told them they needed and they did it quickly. They met in April by July 31st, they had a prototype, they’re out in the field using it, they got feedback, and by the end of the year, we deployed it to 1,800 field service reps around the United States.

And I think that one of the biggest changes that we’ve made is that we’re trying to let our frontline employees dictate how we do our business, because they’re the ones interacting with our customers every day.

In too many instances, I think senior executives ASSUME that they know what customers want.  They jump to conclusions based on a few anecdotes, or they cling to beliefs about customers that may have been true in the past, but no longer hold.  They also don't empower those closest to the customer to share what they know, and what they have experienced through their interactions with the customer.  Some senior leaders spend a great deal of money hiring consultants to tell them what customers want, while never asking the people on the front lines of their own organizations about customer needs, wants, and pain points.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Learn From Front Line Workers, Make Their Work More Meaningful

Source: Blue Diamond Gallery
I recently read an article that Maryn McKenna wrote for Scientific American several years ago. The article is titled, "Clean Sweep: Hospitals Bring Janitors to the Front Lines of Infection Control." The article describes the efforts by hospitals to control the rate of patient infection, particularly those that are increasingly difficult to treat. McKenna describes how infection-control specialists have partnered with janitorial staff to tackle this perplexing problem: 

Institutions also employ infection-control specialists, who track infections and investigate their causes. Yet when the problem is bacteria on surfaces, eliminating them depends on the building-services crews. “This is the level in the hospital hierarchy where you have the least investment, the least status and the least respect,” says Jan Patterson, president of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. Traditionally, medical centers regard janitors as disposable workers—hard to train because their first language may not be English and not worth training because they may not stay long in their jobs.

At N.Y.U. Langone in 2010, Phillips and his co-workers launched a pilot project that redefined those formerly disposable workers as critical partners in patient protection. Janitors, they realized, know better than anyone else which rails are touched most frequently and which handles are hardest to clean. The Langone “clean team” paired janitors with infection-control specialists and nurses in five acute care units to ensure that all high-touch surfaces were thoroughly sanitized. In its first six months the project scored so high on key measures—reducing the occurrence of C. diff infections and the consumption of last-resort antibiotics—that the hospital's administration agreed to make the experiment routine procedure throughout the facility. It now employs enough clean teams to assign them to every acute care bed in the hospital.

What a terrific story!  I love this example of learning and performance improvement because the leaders respected the knowledge and the abilities of often-neglected front-line workers with low status in the organization.  They partnered with them to get the job done, rather than thinking that the high-status, highly educated senior people had all the answers.  Moreover, they redefined the jobs of these front-line workers, giving them new meaning.  These janitors were not simply completing a set of tasks, such as mopping the floors.  They were helping to save lives by reducing the rate of patient infection.  They were doing incredibly important work.  I see this situation as a terrific example of aligning everyone in the organization in pursuit of a shared goal.  The janitors understood clearly how their work helped fulfill the hospital's main mission of saving lives.  In too many instances, front-line workers don't understand how their efforts contribute to the fulfillment of the organization's mission.  In this case, no such confusion or lack of clarity exists.   

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Unlocking Creativity

Thank you to the San Francisco Review of Books for inviting me to participate in this interview about my forthcoming book, Unlocking Creativity.  You can listen to the entire interview at the link below. 

Friday, November 09, 2018

Saying No to Your Employees

How many times have you submitted a proposal to a leader of your organization and not received a clear yes/no answer?  In far too many instances, hard-working employees come up with an original idea, put together a detailed proposal, and then never receive a direct response.  It seems as though the proposals disappear into a black hole.  Or, in many instances, leaders simply stall endlessly.  They respond that they will have to consult with others in the organization.   When pressed, they blame others in the organization for not responding to them in a timely manner.   Or, they ask for more information and analysis... repeatedly.   They never appear satisfied with the supporting evidence and analysis provided.  Often, in these cases, leaders don't want to proceed with the proposed course of action.  However, they don't want to say no either.  So, they stall endlessly by constantly demanding more information. 

Employees deserve clear yes/no answers in a timely fashion when they propose original ideas.  If the answer is no, they deserve a clear rationale for why the organization does not want to proceed with the proposed course of action.  If employees don't receive a clear and timely response, they will become disengaged.  Trust in leadership will decline.  The flow of creative new ideas will slow to a crawl.   

Why don't leaders provide clear responses in many cases?  They don't want to be unpopular, or they don't have the courage to explain why they are declining to endorse a particular proposal.   Or, they want to go in a different direction, but they aren't prepared to offer a strong, concise explanation for why that's the preferred course of action.   Sometimes, they genuinely need more information to make a sound decision.  In those cases, though, leaders need to be crystal clear about what data they would like to see, and what analysis they would like subordinates to perform.  They need to make it clear that they aren't simply sending employees on a wild goose chase.  

Friday, November 02, 2018

Signaling and Shame: Why We Don't Seek Information & Advice From Others... Even Though We Should

Source:  Pixabay
Arun G. Chandrasekhar, Benjamin Golub, and He Yang have written a fascinating National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled, "Signaling, Shame, and Silence in Social Learning."  They examine how individuals make the choice to seek or not seek information and advice from others.  The scholars argue that seeking information has obvious benefits, in that it helps us to learn from others and make more informed decisions.  On the other hand, asking others for information may bring with a social stigma.  The potential seeker may ask himself or herself:  Will I look incompetent?  Will others question my work ethic?  Will people think that I don't have the adequate experience or education to handle this job?  

The scholars go on to argue that there are two mechanisms that may cause people to refrain from asking others for useful information.  First, signaling may be a concern.  They explain: "One mechanism—a signaling concern—is about managing others’ beliefs. For instance, a pupil concerned about how others perceive him may be reluctant to ask a teacher or a peer basic questions about an assignment, fearing that this person could infer that the pupil is slow or lazy."  Second, shame may be a powerful inhibiting force.  The scholars write, "There is another way stigma can inhibit interaction, which is not about managing beliefs but managing interactions in view of compromised beliefs. To illustrate, the pupil in the example may simply dislike interacting with those who have a negative assessment of him, no matter how this assessment came about. In particular, such feelings can occur even when signaling concerns are irrelevant, because a bad attribute (such as a pupil’s ignorance) is apparent to the potential Advisor irrespective of his seeking decision. We may call this type of inhibition shame." 

To study the mechanisms that might inhibit individuals from seeking information and advice from others, the scholars conducted a field experiment with over 1,200 pairs of individuals in 70 villages in India.   In this setting, as villagers often seek information from others about issues of agricultural production.   The experimental results confirm their hypotheses, namely that signaling and shame concerns inhibit information seeking and learning.  Moreover, they find that signaling matters more in some situations, while shame plays a major factor in others.   Put simply, shame proves to be a major concern when interacting with friends.  Signaling concerns dominate when interacting with strangers and/or acquaintances.  

What's the implication for leaders on teams of all types?  We need to understand how social stigma plays a key role in limiting the information sharing and group learning that may be crucial to solving challenging problems.   Teams do not always perform to their potential because members often focus their dialogue on information common to all members.  They often do not spend enough time sharing, discussing, and integration that is unique to particular members.   Why don't people request vital information from their teammates or their leaders?  Shame and signaling play a key role.  Leaders need to break down these barriers to facilitate more effective team learning and problem solving.