Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Lyft CFO Brian Roberts: Creating a Dialogue, Testing for Understanding


The Wall Street Journal recently published an interview with Lyft CFO Brian Roberts, an MBA classmate of mine from Harvard Business School. Roberts describes his attempts to create an open dialogue with members of his organization. Tatyana Shumsky of the Wall Street Journal writes,

Mr. Roberts regularly holds CFO chats—free-form, large-group conversations open to anyone and everyone in the ride-sharing company—to facilitate communication and give employees greater clarity on company strategy. He also holds frequent office hours, doled out in 10-minute increments, so that any of the more than 150 people on the finance team can get a one-on-one meeting with the CFO to chew over any work topic.

During the interview, Roberts mentions an important a-ha moment during on of these dialogues:

When I did my first chat since the IPO, I think it was probably several hundred people in the room. And there was videoconference, so it was a much larger group. Obviously the stock has been volatile, and I expected a lot of questions about the stock. But a lot of questions were around the strategy. Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?


It was a lightbulb moment for me, because I realized if we have internal employees who are living, breathing Lyft 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the strategy is not clear to them, it means it’s not clear probably to the external world as well. And so from that, it gave me a very good lens for the next time I’m in front of investors to make sure that we’re really crisp in terms of why we’re doing certain things and what’s the purpose of strategies.

I've witnessed far too many organizations in which top executives think that they have communicated the strategy clearly, but in fact, employees remain confused or unsure.  I've always advocated a "check the pulse of the organization" approach whereby senior leaders go out into the organization, often in an informal fashion, to see if their message has "gotten through" to employees in the way that they intended.  Do people understand the goals?  Do they understand why we are doing what we are doing?  Do they understand how they can contribute to the fulfillment of our organizational objectives?  Roberts has developed an effective mechanism to get direct feedback.   More executives should follow his lead. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

When Substitutes, Not Direct Rivals, Pose the Most Serious Competitive Threat

Source: Pixnio
Years ago, many strategy faculty members used to teach an old Harvard case study about the breakfast cereal industry.   The U.S. industry operated as an oligopoly.  A few firms dominated the market (General Mills, Kellogg, Post).  The firms competed in terms of new brands, flavors, and the like, yet they tended to avoid competing heavily on price.   The market leaders tended to have a stranglehold on the supermarket shelf, making it difficult for new players to enter the market.   In short, the industry tended to be quite attractive for the incumbent players.  

Things have changed.  Cold cereal sales have declined by 6% over the past five years.  As the Wall Street Journal reports today, 

Cereal makers, under increasing competitive pressure, are struggling to improve sales of puffed rice, wheat flakes and oat clusters that were once a standard part of Americans’ morning routines.  Fast-food chains are beckoning customers with new breakfast products and bacon-laden promotions. More people say they are eating less sugar and more protein, or forgoing breakfast altogether. Snack bars for on-the-go consumers are ubiquitous.  “There’s a lot more competition for breakfast than there ever has been,” General Mills Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Harmening said in a recent interview.

What's the lesson from this story of the changing fortunes of the breakfast cereal industry?   In many cases, the most serious competitive threat for a company does not come from its direct rivals.  Instead, it comes from substitutes - i.e. alternative products and services that fulfill a similar human need.  In other words, snack bars, yogurt, and fast-food restaurants have displaced cereal in the daily morning routine of many Americans.  General Mills didn't get beat by Kellogg or vice versa.  They are getting threatened by these substitutes.  The same dynamic plays out in many industries.  Often, this type of substitution threat proves much more difficult to detect in the early going, and then much more challenging to address moving forward.  Executives have to think carefully and broadly about substitutes as they plot their firms' strategies.  For instance, what's a substitute for auto insurance?  Well, it might be Uber, Lyft, and other options that have reduced the number of people owning and driving personal automobiles.    

Monday, August 19, 2019

Many Workers Don't Feel The Same Way About Innovation as Executive Leaders Do

Source:  PxHere
SurveyMonkey recently conducted a survey on behalf of Fast Company regarding employee attitudes about innovation.  They questioned over 3,000 workers in this study.  The results demonstrate a wide disparity between executive beliefs and lower level employee attitudes and beliefs.  

According to Jay Woodruff of Fast Company, "71 percent of C-level respondents believe they have opportunities to personally contribute new or innovative ideas at work."  Unfortunately, Woodruff reports that, "only 22 percent of lower level individual contributors feel the same way."

Meanwhile, the study also shows a marked difference in beliefs regarding the extent to which the culture supports creative thinking. Woodruff writes, "While 48 percent of C-level respondents believe their workplaces encourage innovative thinking, only 30 percent of individual contributors agree."
What's happening here?  Nothing new, I would argue.  Unfortunately, prior studies have documented similar results.  As I have explained in earlier writings, executives say that they want creative thinking, but their behavior often makes it seem as though they simply desire compliance and control.  Their words simply don't match their actions.  No wonder then that workers are cynical about initiatives designed to encourage innovation.  

Leaders need to ask themselves:  Are my actions expressing a desire for compliance or a desire for creativity?   What systems and processes encourage or discourage one or the other?  What do our incentive systems reward or punish? Of course, they can't just engage in self-reflection.  Leaders have to ask others, because top executives may be seeing their organization through rose-colored glasses.  

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Three Techniques for Smart Prototyping

Source:  Flickr
Here is my latest article about the prototyping stage of the design thinking process.   I've published it as a guest post on the Experience Point blog.  The title of the short piece is "Three Techniques for Smart Prototyping."  In the article, I explain some of the typical mistakes that we make when trying to prototype new ideas, and I offer several strategies for enhancing our approach.  I hope you find the article useful and informative. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Why Employees of Acquired Firms Leave in Droves (And Can We Predict Turnover In Advance?)

Source: Flickr
The Wharton School's J. Daniel Kim has written a good paper titled, "Predictable Exodus: Startup Acquisitions and Employee Departures." Kim finds that 33% percent of workers brought into a company through an acquisition of a startup leave within 12 months, compared to 12 percent of other employees with similar backgrounds. Why do they leave? Could we actually predict whether such high turnover will occur BEFORE we make a deal and acquire a startup? Kim has developed a rather ingenious strategy for examining that question. He explains how he constructed a measure he calls "startup affinity." 

I track employee departures prior to the acquisition along with their destinations. While these individuals leave before the acquisition, their decisions to join a young firm or an established company provide useful information for predicting their peers’ post-acquisition retention outcomes. When aggregated up, these mobility choices reflect the firm’s tendency to attract workers who prefer to transition to startups rather than established firms. Following this reasoning, I define firms to have a strong affinity for startups if their former employees – who leave prior to the acquisition – systematically tend to move to other young companies.

Kim then goes on to examine the relationship between startup affinity and worker turnover after an acquisition:

I find that the pre-acquisition departure patterns strongly predict the acquired employees’ decision to stay with the buyer. In short, target companies with a strong affinity for startups exhibit much higher rates of turnover following an acquisition. Furthermore, these effects are magnified when the acquiring firm has a lower startup affinity than the target firm, lending empirical support to the role of organizational mismatch. Therefore, ex-ante differences in the target and buyer’s organizational type largely explain why many acquisition deals fail to retain the new workers while others succeed in capturing talent. 

What does this mean for larger firms employing an acquisition strategy to target technology and talented employees at startups in their industry or a related market?   Companies have to do some strong self-diagnosis before embarking on an acquisition spree.  They have to understand their current workforce and culture, and in so doing they can assess whether they are a good match for the target firm's employee population.   Remember, those workers don't get to choose to be employed by the acquiring firm.  They have chosen to work at that startup.  They can then vote with their feet after the deal.  If there's a strong mismatch between the employee population and the acquiring firm, you can expect a significant dose of turnover.  Perhaps that's not concerning to some executives, but in many cases, a big chunk of the value of the deal is tied to the intellectual capital embodied in the workforce.  If those folks leave, what is left?  Often, the remaining physical assets (technology, etc.) aren't worth nearly enough to justify the takeover price if the workers leave in droves.  


Friday, August 09, 2019

Clarifying Information Priorities to Make Better Decisions

Source:  flickr
Former Army Colonel Robert Hughes, now a professor at the Kellogg School, has some great advice for leaders facing tough decisions. In a feature for Kellogg Insight, he argues that you have to identify and clarify your information priorities. According to Hughes, "This means determining the most important information they will need in order to decide—as early as possible—whether the plan is moving forward as intended, or whether it might need to be adjusted." He goes on to explain, "“The leader’s role is to define what success looks like for each operation. Then you think about what essential information is needed throughout the plan to achieve success.”

Establishing your information priorities is only a first step though. Hughes argues that you have to link those information priorities to decision points that you anticipate will occur moving forward. In other words, you have to anticipate key choices you will have to make and roughly when you might need to make them, and identify the data you will need to make those decisions effectively. 

Finally, Hughes argues that you have to communicate your information priorities clearly and concisely to your team. You have to encourage people to share key data, including problems or unexpected issues that arise. Moreover, you have to be willing to adjust your plans and priorities when things don't work out as planned.

Hughes' advice is terrific. I love the notion of anticipating the information you may need to make good decisions as you execute a plan of action. In addition, I think it's critically important to anticipate key decisions that you might have to make, and preparing yourself to make those choices as much as possible. Mountaineer David Breashears once told me that he played out many scenarios in his mind before beginning to climb a mountain. Moreover, he thought carefully about the types of tough decisions he might face, including whether to turn around himself or to direct a team member to return to base camp. Breashears argued that thinking carefully about the "exit decision" before you launch is critically important to helping make that challenging decision. He also argued that you have to discuss those issues with your team before you begin your journey. His advice is very consistent with Hughes' approach to planning and execution. Both men have offered good lessons applicable to business leaders.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

"I Don't Think My Company Tells Me The Truth"

I recently read a great interview, conducted by Wharton's Mack Institute for Innovation Management, with accomplished entrepreneur and angel investor David Kidder (author of the new book, New To Big).   Kidder talks about how to create an environment conducive to growth and innovation.   He explains the keys to "productive failure" as part of that culture.  Here is an excerpt:

I think there are a couple qualities to productive failure. One is that it was done inexpensively. You got to a truth on a cost basis that was much, much less than say the planning model, which makes predictions and then tries to make them true. The cost base of the learning is really important. Secondly is that the person who’s delivering that productive failure is actually telling the commercial truth. Often when I do my keynotes, the CEO of the company will come to me and say, “I don’t think my company tells me the truth.” And my response to this is, “Because it doesn’t, because your cost of failure is too high.” You have these amazing people who want this company to be successful, but the organization is largely intellectually dishonest... As a result of this, you have these zombie ideas, these zombie companies, these zombie programs that literally won’t die because there are people who are trying to make their ideas work. Here’s a rule of investing: You never invest in an entrepreneur who loves their idea, ever, because they have no elasticity or permission to change it. You want to invest in entrepreneurs who are obsessed with the customer problem, with total permission to solve it, even if it means letting go of truths about yourself or your product that are no longer true. I think that, coming full circle, you need to have the mindset and mechanics and the permission inside the leader and the organization so that people are in a position to actually lower the cost of failure and, as well, they can tell you the truth.

I love the notion that you don't want people who are in love with their ideas.  You want people in love with a perplexing problem, people who are willing to learn and to shed ideas that are not working.   I also think it's very important for CEOs to acknowledge that people aren't telling them the truth in all cases, and then to discover WHY that might be the case.  What have those leaders done that has discouraged people from telling the truth? 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Perceiving Yourself as an Underdog Really Can Enhance Performance

Source: Wikimedia
We've all heard professional athletes "feed off" of the desire to prove others wrong.  They cast themselves as underdogs who have been written off by the experts and the pundits, and then they profess to be highly motivated to challenge the doubters.   +Here in New England, we have seen Tom Brady constantly talk about how we had to fight to become the starter at the University of Michigan, and how he was just a 6th round draft pick and 4th string quarterback when he entered the National Football League. Is the underdog effect real? Does it actually help or hurt to perceive oneself as an underdog? Samir Nurmohamed of the Wharton School has published a new study in the Academy of Management Journal about how our self-perceptions affect our performance. The paper is titled, "The Underdog Effect: When Low Expectations Increase Performance." 

Nurmohamed conducts a series of studies to examine the underdog effect.   Interestingly, perceiving oneself as the underdog doesn't always help us.  Nurmohamed finds that underdog expectations can have a beneficial impact on performance.   However, the research shows that it depends on the perceived credibility of those observing and judging one's abilities.   If the outsiders' credibility is high, then underdog expectations have a negative impact on performance.  However, when outsiders' credibility is perceived as low, then underdog expectations have a positive effect on one's performance.  

Monday, July 29, 2019

Reducing Confirmation Bias

Can students be trained in a way that helps reduce confirmation bias on an unrelated task/decision in the near future?  Anne-Laure Sellier, Irene Scopelliti, and Carey K. Morewedge set out to addressz tha the question an interesting study.  They have published their results in an article titled, "Debiasing Training Improves Decision Making in the Field."

They offered students an opportunity to participate in a serious game-based training exercise.  They informed the students that this exercise could improve their "managerial decision-making ability." The exercise took 80-100 minutes. The scholars report that, "The one-shot debiasing intervention consisted of playing a serious video game, “Missing: The Pursuit of Terry Hughes.” Playing this game once has been shown to significantly reduce the propensity of players to exhibit confirmation bias..."  

At least six days later, and in some cases well over a month later, students worked to solve the "Carter Racing" business case during one of their regular class sessions.  The case is based loosely on the Challenger space shuttle launch decision, and it had nothing to do with the game-based training that they had experienced earlier.  If you avoid confirmation bias, you have a better chance of making a sound decision in the Carter Racing case.   

The results were quite striking. The scholars report, "Trained students were 29% less likely to choose an inferior hypothesis-confirming case solution than were untrained students. A reduction in confirmatory hypothesis testing appeared to explain their improved decision making in the case." Why did this significant impact occur? They do not know for sure, but they speculate that perhaps, "Games may be uniquely engaging training interventions."   Since we could all benefit from avoiding confirmation bias, I found the intervention interesting and useful as we begin to think about how to develop the decision-making abilities of leaders.   

Friday, July 26, 2019

Your Decision-Making Abilities are Terrific! Uh-oh... such praise can be problematic.

Source: Flickr
I've written extensively about the sunk cost problem.  We have a hard time letting bygones be bygones in business and in life.  Worse than that, we throw good money and effort after bad.  Psychologists call this phenomenon the escalation of commitment.   We would like to believe that we are not vulnerable to this decision-making trap, but most of us will encounter it no matter our intelligence, experience, or expertise. Recently, I happened upon a 2008 study by Niro Sivanathan and colleagues. The article was titled, "The promise and peril of self-affirmation in de-escalation of commitment."  It has some interesting new lessons regarding the sunk cost trap.  

The authors conducted a series of interesting experiments.  In one study, they gave some participants information that affirmed their abilities, but these skills were not relevant to the decision at hand.  For other participants, they gave them information that affirmed their decision-making abilities.  They told them, "Your decision-making orientation suggests that you possess the ability to decode and analyze complex data with ease. More often than not, you are able to use the analyzed data to make a sound and profitable decision.”   Naturally, they also had a control condition in their experiment.  What did they find?  The authors write, "Following a poor managerial decision, individuals who received feedback affirming an important ability that was directly related to this decision (decision-making abilities in Study 3, Hypothesis 3B) showed increased escalation of commitment to their decision."  

What's the lesson here?  I think we can now realize why people who have been highly successful in the past can find themselves in the sunk cost trap.  They have made a series of wonderful decisions in the past, and they probably were praised mightily for their decision-making abilities.  However, that may make it quite difficult to admit errors moving forward.  Therefore, they may find themselves unwilling to walk away from bad decisions, and indeed throwing good money after bad in a failing situation.  

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Cultural Enhancers, Not Yes Men or Women

Source: Pixabay
Adam Bryant, Managing Director at Merryck & Co., conducted a terrific interview recently with Dawn Zier, former CEO of Nutrisystem, a company at which she led a very successful turnaround.   Zier described what she looks for as she builds a management team.  She doesn't want yes men or women, and she doesn't want people who simply fit into the existing culture.  She wants people who bring new ideas, and who enhance the culture.  I love the concept of cultural enhancers, as opposed to the notion of finding people who fit the existing culture.  Here's an excerpt from the interview.  

One thing I always tell my team is that I don’t want “yes” people around me. That’s not helpful to the organization. What I value is a diverse set of opinions. I’ll go around the room and hear different opinions, but pretty quickly you have to come together and decide on what the path is going to be. At that point, we should all be rowing in the same direction.

But I actually don’t like to use the phrase “cultural fit” anymore. I like saying “cultural enhancers,” because you always want to continue to build and enhance the culture. So I spend a lot of time in interviews really trying to assess that. Moving from cultural fit to cultural enhancer is important because each person brings something unique to the table.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Why Don't People Buy Into Your Vision?

Source:  pxhere
Andrew Carton and Brian Lucas recently published an Adminstrative Science Quarterly paper titled, “How Can Leaders Overcome the Blurry Vision Bias? Identifying an antidote to the Paradox of Vision Communication.”   They explore how leaders often craft vision statements poorly, resulting in a lack of understanding and buy-in on the part of their followers.   Carton recently summarized the key point of their research in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton.  He describes what they call the "blurry vision bias" that afflicts many leaders:    

The blurry vision bias is the tendency for most people — including leaders — to think abstractly rather than concretely about the distant future. Leaders might invoke vagaries such as “we aim to impact the world” rather than vivid images like “bring smiles to customers’ faces.” Therefore, most visions are, ironically, not very visionary. 

Why does this bias exist? First off, we don’t have direct experience with the future for a pretty self-evident reason: It hasn’t happened yet! So, we tend to speculate about it in very broad, general terms. Although it is useful to think about the future in general terms because it allows for flexibility, the problem is that when we communicate this generality and vagueness to other people, it often has some unfortunate consequences: It is not very motivating because it is not emotionally appealing, and it stifles coordination because different employees have a different understanding of what we aspire to achieve in the future.

I've definitely witnessed blurry visions in many organizations, and they definitely result in strategy execution problems.  One thing that I often remind leaders is that they have to test for understanding and alignment in multiple ways at multiple levels of the organization.   They must try to do so informally.  They have to go out into the organization and see how people have interpreted and understood what they have tried to communicate.  To do so, leaders can't ask leading questions or pose inquiries that are not likely to elicit honest responses.  In other words, they can't ask: "Does our vision statement make sense to you?  Do you agree with our vision statement?"  Instead, leaders need to ask open-ended questions that simply ask people to reflect on what they have come to perceive and understand about the direction of the organization.   In so doing, leaders can discover if a lack of alignment, buy-in, and shared understanding exists.  

GetAbstract Editor's Pick of the Week

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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Are Your Employees Afraid of You?

Source: Pixabay
Megan Reitz and John Higgins have written a good Harvard Business Review article titled, "Managers, You’re More Intimidating Than You Think."    They write, 

Most of us believe that we’re approachable to our employees. In a survey we conducted with 4,000 professionals, two-thirds reported they are never or rarely scary to those junior to them.  We’re even more sure that we’re approachable to those who are our hierarchical equals or superiors. Asked whether their peers and their bosses would find them scary, 75% of respondents said it was extremely unlikely in the case of their peers and 80% in the case of their boss.

Yet we know from our other research streams of the last five years that many people think twice before speaking up in organizations because they find colleagues intimidating. This doesn’t add up. Other research shows that managers in particular need to accept that people see them as much scarier than they realize — and it’s hurting their businesses.

My research and experience working with executives at many companies confirms the conclusions presented here by Reitz and Higgins.  The self-perception of leaders often does not match the perceptions of those who work for them.   Most leaders do not have any sense of the fear that they have instilled in their people.  At times, of course, it's not anything major that the leaders have done.  It's simply the fact that employees in many organizations have a natural reticence to speak up.  It seems to come with the territory in most large firms.   Leaders need to lower the barriers, and it starts with recognizing how intimating they may appear to others.  

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Power of Telling Hard Truths

Source: Flickr
As I prepare for teaching some new material during the fall semester, I came across this terrific article by Jena McGregor last year in the Washington Post.  It's titled, "A lesson from GE: The power of telling hard truths - and the peril of avoiding them."   She described the cultural deficiencies that conributed to the downfall of GE. She explains that these cultural flaws did not just manifest themselves in the past few years; they stretch back two decades. McGregor describes a "history of selectively positive projections, a culture of overconfidence, and a disinterest in hearing or delivering bad news."  She argues that the company had a strong "can-do" attitude; unfortunately, that created certain problems.  McGregor writes, 

"In professional workplaces where a can-do attitude is valued above all else, and fears about job security remain common, getting unvarnished feedback and speaking candidly can be especially hard... Add to that its history as a business icon - GE was known as much for its vaunted management practices as it was for its actual products - and leadership experts say it's easy for a sense of overconfidence to creep in."

She goes on to quote Peter Crist, Chairman of Crist Kolder Associates (an executive search firm) and Chairman of the Board of Wintrust Financial Corporation.  Crist explained,  "It's the mindset of invulnerability that iconic companies create - that we are a special entity.  There was a time when GE players had a certain arrogance to them." 

McGregor closes the article with some good recommendations from Ethan Burris, professor of management at the University of Texas - Austin.  She writes,

"Burris suggests they (leaders) have to model the behavior, being realistic about goals and forecasts and candid when things go wrong.  They should host town halls where employees can speak up without criticism, structuring them so bad news can flow to the top.  For instance, he recommends getting mid-level managers to first interview lower level employees about what's not working to make sure tough subjects are aired." 

This week, as I taught a case study about the Columbia space shuttle accident to a group of Japanese executives here in Tokyo, several of them told me that they have begun to start meetings in a different manner than usual. They ask first for bad news before people can begin to share success stories from the past week or month.   It reminded me of a startup back in Boston where the leaders used to tell managers that they had to share two problems or pieces of bad news for every celebratory brag that they shared in a meeting.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Voice is Not Enough

Source: pixabay
If leaders want to build employee buy-in and commitment, they need to do much more than provide opportunities for people to express their opinions. Voice is not enough to achieve buy-in and build trust.  People need to believe that they are actually being heard, that their views are being genuinely considered, and that they have had a legitimate opportunity to influence plans and decisions.  In short, employees need to know that leaders are actually listening.   Employees want to see changes occur as a result of their ideas and suggestions.   If nothing ever changes, employees stop offering their ideas.  Engagement suffers, and intrinsic motivation declines.  

What are some signs that leaders are actually listening?   

  • The leader asks questions, trying to understand an employee's ideas more thoroughly.  
  • The leader plays back what he or she has heard, seeking to confirm an accurate understanding of employee views.
  • The leader asks others for input and feedback on an employee's suggestions.   
  • The leader thanks those who have the courage to express dissenting views.
  • The leader comments directly about what he or she has learned from direct communication with employees, and he or she seeks to learn more through further dialogue.  
  • The leader follows up promptly when an employee makes a suggestion, rather than letting recommendations simply hang out there in limbo for weeks or months.

Monday, July 15, 2019

'Tis Better to Give Than To Receive

We've always heard the wise old adage, "It is better to give than to receive." Scholars Ed O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer (from University of Chicago and Northwestern respectively) set out to test this piece of advice empirically.   The researchers designed a simple experiment.    They provided their research subjects (college students) $5 per day for five straigth days.  They told 50% of the students to spend the money on themselves.  They directed the others to give the money to others each day.  The scholars asked the students to respond to a questionnaire each night, evaluating their happiness.  As you can see in the chart below, the "givers" maintained a high level of happiness throughout the week.  Meanwhile, the "receivers" began the week almost equally as happy as the "givers" in this study.  However, the receivers experienced a substantial decline in happiness as the week progressed.  

Source:  Chicago Booth Review
How do the scholars explain the results displayed above?   Alice Walton summarizes one of their explanations in her article for Chicago Booth Review:

The phenomenon may have to do with someone’s vantage point, the researchers suggest. When we receive money or goods repeatedly, it’s easy to compare the results and become acclimated to them. In fact, research over several decades has explored “hedonic adaptation,” a theory of happiness that suggests people quickly become accustomed to good things and return to their original happiness level.   But giving seems to work differently, suggest O’Brien and Kassirer. When people give, the endpoint isn’t always apparent, therefore comparison—and acclimation—aren’t as likely. As they write, “The happiness we get from giving appears to sustain itself.”

Friday, July 12, 2019

Rationalizing Bad Decisions: How Moral Disengagement Plays a Key Role

Source: Pixabay
Darden Ideas to Action, a site that features cutting edge research insights from the Darden School at UVA, published a fascinating piece earlier this year titled, "TALKING OURSELVES INTO IT: HOW WE RATIONALIZE BAD CHOICES."  The article describes research by James Detert and Sean Martin, along with several colleagues from other schools.  Jim and I went to graduate school together, and he is a terrific scholar of organizational behavior.   You can read the underlying research here.  

These scholars have documented a rationalization process that they call "moral disengagement" that unfolds when we are trying to justify to ourselves and others our poor decisions.  Detert and Martin have created a typology of moral disengagement strategies, and they offer some examples of the types of pharses associated with each strategy.  Here are the eight types.  The list proves a useful tool for self-reflection.  You can ask yourself:  Am I thinking or saying something similar to these phrases?  If you answer yes, it might be time to step back and reconsider your course of action or your decisions.  

Here are eight common moral disengagement strategies and what they sound like:

Moral justification (“This is actually the morally right thing to do; we’re actually helping them by doing this.”)

Euphemistic labeling (“I’m just ‘borrowing’ this.” “It’s ‘collateral damage.’”)

Advantageous comparison (“Doing A, is not as bad as doing B.” “It’s not like I’m doing B.”)

Displacement of responsibility (“My boss told me to do it.” “I’m just following orders.”)

Diffusion of responsibility (“Everyone’s doing it.” “It’s a group decision.” “This is just a small part of a bigger system.”)

Distortion of consequences (“This is a victimless crime.” “No harm done.” “It’s no big deal.”)

Attribution of blame (“They brought it on themselves.” “Buyer beware.”)

Dehumanization (“They’re a bunch of dogs.” “They’re like robots.”)

8 Books on Creativity Every Entrepreneur Should Read

Thank you to TSOHOST for featuring Unlocking Creativity on your list of "8 Books on Creativity Every Entrepreneur Should Read."  I'm very honored to be in such great company. 

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Problems with Priorities

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/
160866001@N07/46537652121
As I observe many different leaders struggle with strategy execution, I notice that priority-setting tends to be at the root of the problem.   How do leaders struggle with establishing and communicating priorities?  Here are four patterns of dysfunction that I have observed:

1.  Leaders change their priorities quite often.  Members of the organization think to themselves, "This too shall pass" as they observe the latest "flavor of the month" or "management fad" being championed from the top.   Alternatively, employees simply find themselves confused as to what they should be doing. 

2.  Members of the organization do not agree with the priorities established by the leader.  In some cases, leaders do not recognize the disenchantment.  In other cases, they convince themselves that the employees simply "don't get it" and don't have the strategic vision necessary to chart the organization's path as well as those at the top.   This type of "leader knows best" thinking can be dangerous though.  Moreover, employee engagement falls, and therefore, productivity decreases when employees do not believe that the leader's priorities match their values.  

3.  Leaders do not communicate their priorities clearly.   Too often, the leadership team assumes that employees throughout the organization understand the goals and objectives, when in fact, people are somewhat confused or unclear about the strategic direction and priorities.  

4.  Leaders set too many priorities.  At this point, employees perceive everything as urgent and important.  In some sense, if everything is crucial, then nothing is really crucial.  People do not know how to allocate their time and effort properly in these situations.  

Monday, July 08, 2019

Hiring Etiquette for Employers

Source:  needpix.com
We've all heard the usual advice for job seekers as they prepare for interviews:  prepare thoroughly, be punctual, ask good questions, follow up promptly with a thank you note, etc.   How about for employers?  Are there rules of etiquette that should apply to the interviewers and the firms that are hiring?  Sue Shellenbarger examines this question in the Wall Street Journal this week.   She argues that some firms are treating job seekers poorly, and in so doing, are hurting their reputation amongst qualified and talented candidates.  Therefore, these firms could find it much more difficult to attract talented people in the future. 

What are some examples of bad etiquette described by Shellenbarger?   First, some firms simply do not inform finalists that they have not been chosen for a job.   Others never respond or respond very late to inquiries from interviewees.   It seems that some hiring managers simply do not want to have the uncomfortable communication with a candidate that they rejected.  However, avoiding that conversation can have damaging effects on a firm's reputation.   Second, interviewers themselves are unprepared in some cases.  They behave poorly during an interview, or demonstrate that they are not ready to conduct a professional interview with the job seeker.   In some cases, they rely on technology to conduct virtual interviews, yet the interviewers are not adept at utilizing the technology.  Third, firms draft poorly defined job descriptions at times, or they seem to change the role in the midst of the hiring process.  Thus, they confuse job seekers.   Finally, some firms conduct a lengthy series of interviews and then do not fill the position at all.   Because they do not explain their actions to interviewees, they leave the the impression that they have may have been manipulating job seekers.  Shellenbarger tells the story of one job seeker who was asked to deliver a presentation with an innovative recommendation for an organization.   The enterprise never filled the job, and never followed up with the applicant.  The job seeker wondered whether the organization was simply using the interviews to collect free advice. 

I loved this article because it made the important point that a company has to consider how the conduct of a hiring process shapes the image of the organization moving forward.  The missteps in that hiring process can make it very difficult to attract the best candidates moving forward.  Etiquette is not just important for candidates.  Firms and their interviewers have to be professional as well.

Tiger and Federer, and the Case for Generalists

Source: Bleacher Report
David Epstein has published a terrific new book titled, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World." He makes the case for not specializing too early in life, but instead, taking advantage of a period of sampling and discovery. He makes a strong case for why generalists tend to innovate more effectively. In fact, he offers an interesting contrast in the book between Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger specialized at a remarkably young age. Federer did not. He argues that we seem to be favoring the specialists such as Tiger, and extolling the virtues of intense focus, and failing to recognize the value of generalists. Here's an excerpt:

I found more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range—and that it is worth it. I dived into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination. And I was stunned by an enormous body of work demonstrating that learning is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks a lot like falling behind.

The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger's precocity and clarity of purpose, we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.

I wholeheartedly agree. I've argued that we need more polymaths, more Renaissance men and women, because they often can connect intriguing ideas and concepts from disparate fields in ways that lead to creative breakthroughs. Moreover, specialists can become closed-minded and dogmatic as their expertise deepens in a particular field. Of course, we need specialists in our organizations, but we must take great care to nurture the inquisitive, curious generalists who just might help us develop our next groundbreaking new product or service.  Sometimes, these generalists may seem as though they don't add as much immediate value. Sometimes, their minds might wander.  They may tinker a bit too much, at least according to the typical ways that executives might evaluate their performance.  We just might want to tolerate a bit of that unorthodox thinking though if we want new ideas to flourish. 

Monday, July 01, 2019

Advice for our Younger Selves

Source:  Pixnio
Christian Jarrett reported recently in BPS Research Digest about a new study by Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, published in the Journal of Social Psychology. The paper is titled, "If I knew then what I know now: Advice to my younger self."  The scholars examined what advice people above the age of 30 would give to their younger selves. Jarrett explains the findings:

Their findings show that people’s advice to their younger selves is overwhelmingly focused on prior relationships, educational opportunities and personal worth, echoing similar results derived from research into people’s most common regrets in life. Moreover, participants who said they had followed the advice they would give to their younger selves were more likely to say that they had become the kind of person that their younger self would admire. “…[W]e should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves,” the researchers said. “The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.” 

The two studies followed a similar format with the participants (selected to be aged at least 30 years) asked to provide either three pieces or one piece of advice to their younger selves; to reflect on whether following this advice would help them become more like the person they aspire to be or ought to be; whether they had actually followed the advice later in life; to consider a pivotal event that had shaped them in life, especially in light of the advice they’d chosen to give their younger selves; and to reflect on what their younger self would make of their current self. Participants mostly gave themselves advice around relationships (“Don’t marry her. Do. Not. Marry. Her.”), education (“Go to college”), selfhood (“Be yourself”), direction and goals (“Keep moving, keep taking chances, and keep bettering yourself”), and money (“Save more, spend less”).

I enjoyed digging into this paper because I think it has important implications regarding the value of self-reflection.  Several years ago, I heard former Baxter Healthcare CEO Harry Kraemer, now a professor at Kellogg, discuss his nightly routine of self-reflection.  Each night, Kraemer takes a few moments to think back to how he conducted himself throughout the day, both in his professional and personal life.   Kraemer has developed a set of useful questions to use during this reflection time:
  1. What did I say I was going to do today in all dimensions of my life?  What did I actually do?
  2. What am I proud of?  What am I not proud of?
  3. How did I lead people?  How did I follow people?
  4. If I lived today over again, what would I have done differently?
  5. If I have tomorrow (and I am acutely aware that some day I won’t) and I am a learning person, based on what I learned today, what will I do tomorrow in all dimensions of my life that are important (as a father, as a leader, as a son, as a spouse, as a spiritual person, etc.)?
I cannot say that I have Kraemer's discipline for daily self-reflection, but I have taken to trying to take some time every few weeks or months to consider these questions.  While I would benefit from pondering these questions more often, I do think that even the occasional time to reflect has been extremely helpful.  This research certainly bolsters Kraemer's argument and makes me want to try to make more time for reflection on a more frequent basis.  

Saturday, June 29, 2019

How to Avoid Choking During Your Next Job Interview

Sian Beilock, President of Barnard College, has written a good HBR digital article titled, "Why Talented People Fail Under Pressure."   She writes,

When the pressure is on, we tend to panic — about the situation, its consequences, and what others will think of us — and as a result we apply too much cognitive horsepower to what we are doing. We start overthinking something that usually comes naturally to us.  

How we can avoid panicking in these types of situations, such as a crucial job interview?  Beilock argues that we need to shift our thinking to other tasks in ways that use up some of our cognitive horsepower.  That prevents us from overthinking the challenge at hand.  She explains:

If you notice that you are starting to overthink, try singing a song, repeating a one-word mantra, or focusing on the three key points you want to get across to your audience. These approaches use up that cognitive horsepower that could otherwise be used against you.. Let’s say you’re preparing for a job interview. You know your resume inside and out, and in normal circumstances, you can easily recount your strengths and accomplishments. But when you sit down in the interview chair, you freeze up. If you take time beforehand to occupy your prefrontal cortex with unrelated activities, you’re less likely to overthink in the moment and more likely to be able to communicate your message effectively.

For more on Beilock's work on coping with pressure, see her great book, "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To."  

Friday, June 28, 2019

Silencing the Specialist on Corporate Boards or Management Teams

Imagine that you have hired a specialist on your management team, and they are, by far, the most qualified and knowledgeable team member on a particular topic.  Perhaps they know far more about cybersecurity than anyone else on the team, for instance.  What happens when generalists on the team comprise a majority and push for a particular decision about which the specialist disagrees strongly.  How do you handle this conflict?   How do you reconcile the views of the majority with the lone dissenting voice of the specialist?  

Randall Peterson of London Business School has written about this topic in the context of boards of directors.    He describes how specialists can be silenced on boards in many cases, and how that can lead to big trouble.   Here is an excerpt of an article Peterson wrote several months ago for Strategy & Business. In the article, he argues that boards often lack "open and frank discussion" and makes the case for a process of "qualified consensus" to protect against truly disastrous decisions.  Peterson explains: 

I have found consistently in my own research that majority-rule voting actually fails when the will of the majority is used to silence legitimate and specialist minority voices. What is right for the many ought to prevail, but not at the expense of the rights and specialist knowledge of a minority. This means that boards must understand the full implications of their two duties — care and loyalty — especially at a time when they are hiring more specialists. And it’s worth remembering that the sincere embrace of those two duties on the part of each director is key if majority rule is to function effectively.

So if, say, the digital specialist director in my example ends up voting against a cybersecurity-related decision she believes to be ill-advised, but a majority of her fellow board members vote for it, that director needs to consider whether her peers truly understand the risks. She needs to ask herself whether their decision is fully informed, and if not, she is obliged to raise this issue, rather than simply accept the vote. What follows in practice is that when a director believes that a particular decision is fundamentally wrong, whether for ethical reasons or because it violates regulations or because it represents a disastrous strategy, that individual director should be able to challenge boardroom colleagues. This does not mean that each board member must entirely agree with, and vote in favor of, every decision the board makes. But there is an important distinction between a decision that an individual judges to be suboptimal and a decision that the board member believes is totally wrong.

Boards should therefore operate on the principle of qualified consensus. By qualified consensus I mean a state in which a majority are in favor, and no one believes the decision is fundamentally wrong. Board chairs should be giving every member the opportunity to explain a dissenting point of view, to which the others listen and respond. You might think that this already happens as a matter of course. Yet I often hear about cases where the board literally hears the dissent, but does not recognize the distinction between a suboptimal decision and one that is seen as truly wrong. Giving a dissenting member the opportunity to speak up is just not on the board’s radar screen often enough… Unfortunately, open and frank discussion that arrives at consensual and informed decisions — and thus incorporates understanding of the point above — is too often lacking among boards. For example, in another global study of board directors by the London Business School, scheduled to be published in late 2018, 64 percent reported misunderstandings in the boardroom to be commonplace, and one-third reported the need to revisit decisions.
Source:  Harvard Business Review

While Peterson writes here about boards of directors, one might apply his thinking to the top management team and other senior teams as well.   These teams have to think carefully about how they handle the specialist who dissents.  How do you treat that person's voice, and do different types of dissent matter?  I personally like the distinction between an undesirable decision and one that is fundamentally wrong.   Teams at the top definitely need to think about how to build psychological safety, and how to handle dissenting voices once candor is encouraged.    

Thursday, June 27, 2019

John Oliver on Climbing Everest

One of our Bryant University alumnae, Lauren Reichert, brought this hilarious video to my attention this week.  In this clip, John Oliver offers a very humorous take on the wave of people trying to summit Mount Everest in recent years.  Given my research on the reasons why teams get in trouble on the mountain, I thought it would be interesting to many readers of the blog.  For more on my work about Everest expedition teams, see this recent article by Kyle Stock for Bloomberg, or this article from Entrepreneur magazine published in 2016.

The Six Mindsets Behind Creative Thinking

Bryan Collins has written an article for Forbes about the core ideas in my book, Unlocking Creativity.   He has some terrific new examples of his own regarding the mindsets that inhibit creativity in many organizations.   You also can listen to my appearance on Bryan's podcast through this link.   Hope you find the article and podcast interesting and thought-provoking!

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Simple Way to Get a Fresh Set of Eyes on a Problem

Christian Jarrett of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports this week on a new study by Duke University scholar Sarah Gaither and her colleagues.  The article describes experimental research highlighting the power and efficacy of a simple technique for boosting one's creativity.  Here's an excerpt from Jarrett's article: 

Source:  PxHere
In a new paper in Developmental Science, a team led by Sarah Gaither at Duke University presents evidence that prompting children to think about their own multiple identities boosts their problem-solving skills and increases their flexible thinking.... In the first of three studies, Gaither and her team split 48 six- and seven-year-olds into two groups. One was the intervention group and these participants spent time reflecting briefly with a researcher about eight of their various social identities, such as “friend”, “girl” and “reader”. This process concluded with the researcher saying “That is so cool that you are lots of things at the same time.” The other group served as a control and these participants chatted briefly with a researcher about eight of their different physical attributes, such as having two feet and a mouth. Similar to the intervention condition, the control condition ended with the researcher saying “That is so cool that you have a lot of things at the same time.” Afterwards all the children completed four different problem solving and flexible thinking challenges... The findings were consistent, with the children who reflected on their multiple identities outperforming the children in the control condition on all four of the tests.

This research proves quite consistent with earlier work on the effects for adults of gaining "psychological distance" that I described in my book.   For instance, I described experimental research in which people displayed more creativity when they were able to gain social distance from a problem through imagining themselves as different people, or imagining others tackling the same problem.  Sometimes, we can be 'too focused' on a problem.   Multitasking is awful, of course, but some concerted effort to 'unfocus" amidst intense work on a problem can be helpful.  One way to gain distance is through the intervention described here.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Your Professional Decline & Your Happiness

Source:  Wikipedia
Arthur Brooks has written a thought-provoking article for The Atlantic titled, "Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think."  Brooks reviews the literature regarding the age at which professional productivity peaks in various fields, as well as some of the research on personal happiness.  He closes with some thoughts about how he will approach his work and life moving forward (Brooks has just stepped down as President of the American Enterprise Institute and will be joining the Harvard faculty this summer).   Here's an excerpt from Brooks' terrific essay:

What’s the difference between (Johann Sebastian) Bach and (Charles) Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.

The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin.  How does one do that?  A potential answer lies in the work of the British psychologist Raymond Cattell, who in the early 1940s introduced the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Cattell defined fluid intelligence as the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower. Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating.

Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

Careers that rely primarily on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60.

Here’s a practical lesson we can extract from all this: No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.  Like what? As Bach demonstrated, teaching is an ability that decays very late in life, a principal exception to the general pattern of professional decline over time.

Later in the article, Brooks (now in his early 50s) articulates four commitments he has made to himself as he enters the next stage of his career and life.  

1.  Jump:  Be ready to leave something you love and shift to something new that fits your stage of life more appropriately.  

2. Serve:  Brooks notes that, "An effort to serve others can play to our strengths as we age."

3.  Worship:  Brooks notes the importance of his spiritual life and how it need not be detached from his work life.  He intends to focus on his spiritual life even more moving forward.  

4.  Connect:  Brooks explains that healthy relationships are key to happiness in life, and that one can make time for those relationships without necessarily sacrificing achievement altogether.  

I have not done justice to the fascinating article in this short blog post.  I hope that I have intrigued you, though, and that you will read the entire essay.   

Monday, June 17, 2019

Giving Feedback: Stay on Your Side of the Net

Source: www.maxpixel.net
Adam Bryant, managing director of Merryck & Co, has a terrific article for the New York Times (for which he used to write regularly), about how to build a successful team. He based this essay on over 500 interviews he conducted with senior executives over many years while writing the Corner Office column for the newspaper.   One piece of advice that Bryant offers is to "stay on your side of the net" when giving a team member constructive feedback on his or her performance.  Here's an excerpt:

A big part of holding people accountable for their work is a willingness to have frank discussions about problems and misunderstandings that inevitably arise among colleagues. But the fact is that most managers go out of their way to avoid these “adult conversations.” It’s understandable. They can be unpleasant, and most people would rather deliver good news instead of bad. Also, you never quite know how somebody’s going to react to feedback. That is why problems are often swept under the rug, and maybe dealt with months later in an annual performance review.

One of the smartest tips for having such conversations is to make sure you “don’t go over the net.”  It means you should never make statements that include assumptions about the motivations behind someone’s behavior. Instead, you should stay on your side of the net and talk only about what you’re observing and your own reactions and feelings. That way, it’s harder for people to get their back up because you’re not devising rationales to explain someone else’s behavior. 

Consider, for example, the small but important difference in approaches in the following paragraph: "I’ve noticed you keep showing up 20 minutes late, and it seems like you don’t care." The boss has gone over the net here and accused the person of not caring. "I’ve noticed you keep showing up 20 minutes late, and it makes me feel like you don’t care." Here, with just a small language tweak, the boss is staying on the right side of the net, and avoided an overheated conversation because the employee can’t argue about how someone feels.

This approach was first described to me by Andrew Thompson, the chief executive of Proteus Digital Health, who said he uses it as a counterweight to a natural tendency of human beings. “People concoct all this imaginary garbage about why the person is doing this to them when in fact the person may not even realize that they’re doing anything,” Mr. Thompson said.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

How to Boost Your Creative Powers While You Travel

This evening, I'm writing this blog post as I look out on the streets of Dublin, Ireland.  For those who have visited this nation's capital, you  know that it's quite a vibrant city.  Fortunately, I've managed to be here during a wonderful period of sunny, albeit quite cool, weather.   Watching people stroll by on the cobblestone streets and sidewalks reminds me of the of power of travel as a stimulant for our creativity. IDEO's David and Tom Kelley once wrote about the ways in which observations while we travel can stir the brain.  They argue that we notice things that we normally take for granted amidst our daily routines at home:  

Things stand out because they're different, so we notice every detail, from street signs to mailboxes to how you pay at a restaurant. We learn a lot when we travel not because we are any smarter on the road, but because we pay such close attention. On a trip, we become our own version of Sherlock Holmes, intensely observing the environment around us. We are continuously trying to figure out a world that is foreign and new. Too often, we go through day-to-day life on cruise control, oblivious to huge swaths of our surroundings. To notice friction points - and therefore opportunities to do things better - it helps to see the world with fresh eyes.

In Unlocking Creativity, I explain why travel can be such a stimulating experience:

Saint Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”  Travel disrupts our normal routines, and novelty stimulates the brain.   Living in another nation can open people’s eyes to new perspectives and cause people to question the typical ways that things are done in their home country.  Immersing yourself in another culture provides insight as to how people in other countries work, live, and play – and perhaps most importantly, how they approach certain types of problems.  

What then are some practical steps we can take this summer amidst our travels to ignite our creativity?
  1. Look for what is simpler and easier to do in this new place than at home, and try to identify what is more difficult or challenging to accomplish. What makes people smile and what makes them frown the most?
  2. Notice how people's daily routines differ from those of your friends, neighbors, and co-workers at home.  
  3. Watch out for products or services that do not exist at home.  Ask whether you are noticing a new trend emerge, or whether this particular innovation is simply well-suited to this location, but not relevant at home. 
  4. Ask yourself why people in this new place seem to enjoy some of the same things you enjoy at home, but in other instances, seem to have quite different wants and needs. 
  5. Ask the locals what they love about living here, and what they would like to see change. 
  6. Stroll into a supermarket or apparel store, and ask yourself why the layout differs from at home.  Why are retailers presenting products in a different manner?