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

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?

Monday, June 03, 2019

Unlocking Creativity Ranked by BookAuthority as a Top Creativity Book

Unlocking Creativity made it to the Best New Creativity Books list as ranked by BookAuthority! 

BookAuthority collects and ranks the best books in the world, and it is a great honor to get this kind of recognition. Thank you for all your support!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Summer Reading List - 2019

As summer begins, I thought that I would share some recommended reading for those interested in learning more about leadership. Here are six books that I enjoyed immensely:

  • This book chronicles the remarkable rise and fall of Theranos, the blood testing startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes 
  • A terrific study in leadership, with all of Churchill's towering strengths and intriguing flaws described in depth.  This biography also draws on some fascinating source material never drawn upon by previous biographers, including the King's diaries.  
  • Former Netflix executive Patty McCord writes about organizational culture, drawing upon her work shaping the culture and people strategy at Netflix.  
  • Bahcall combines physics, psychology, and business knowledge to explain why bold ideas often get rejected by organizations, and how enterprises can structure themselves to nurture these crazy ideas.  

  • I've always believed that building a culture of candor is critical to exceptional organiztional performance.  Scott draws upon her research, as well as her time in industry, to describe how to engage employees in productive conflict and debate.  
  • Edmondson draws upon more than two decades of research on psychological safety to offer leaders key insights regarding how to build an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up.  
Oh... and you might wish to take a look at a book called Unlocking Creativity too! 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

How to Start a Presentation or Speech

Stanford's Matt Abrahams offers some important and useful advice for those crafting a speech or presentation.  He argues that you need to grab people's attention at the start, and he advises against the usual introductory remarks that people often give at the start of a speech or presentation.  I've listened to a number of speeches lately in which the speaker seems to talk for a minute or two before actually diving into the main content. It's a slow, often uninteresting start. They aren't grabbing my attention. Abrahams must hear that type of start often. He does a nice job of explaining how to launch more effectively. 

The most precious commodity in today’s world is not gold or cryptocurrency, but attention. We are inundated with a tremendous amount of information vying for our focus. Why then would so many people squander away an opportunity to gain attention by starting presentations or meetings with: “Hi, my name is … and today I am going to talk about …” This is a lackluster, banal, disengaging way to begin. Not only does it lack originality, it is downright silly since most speakers start this way while standing in front of a slide displaying their name along with the title of their talk.

Rather than commence with a boring and routine start, kick off your presentation like a James Bond movie — with action: You can tell a story, take a poll, ask a provocative question, show a video clip. Starting in this manner captures your audience’s focus and pulls them away from other attention-grabbing ideas, people, or devices. This action-oriented approach works for meetings, too. On your agenda, have the first item be one or two questions to be answered when you start. In this way, participants get engaged from the moment the meeting begins.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Advice for the Graduating Class of 2019

Each spring, I try offer a few words of wisdom on this blog to the students about to graduate from college, here at Bryant University and at other institutions as well.   This year, I'd like to focus on a simple, yet challenging, recommendation: Learn to walk a mile in others' shoes. 

What do I mean by that?  The ability to empathize with others will serve you well in your personal and professional lives.  Being able to walk a mile in the customer's shoes can help you design and deliver an exceptional customer experience.   You can learn customers' pain points and frustrations.  Developing the capability to empathize with co-workers and teammates can help you identify how their skills and abilities complement your own, as well as how your actions impact them positively or negatively.  Walking a mile in your supervisor's shoes enables you to determine the challenges and pressures that he or she faces.   You can learn how to help him or her achieve key objectives.   Finally, the effort to empathize with subordinates enables you to understand the organizational barriers that prevent them from excelling at their jobs.  Moreover, you will discover what makes them tick, what they are passionate about, and what they aspire to achieve in the months and years ahead.  

Perhaps most importantly, walking a mile in others' shoes enables more constructive dialogue and debate.   To paraphrase from the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, seek first to understand before trying to be understood.  Try to discover where others are coming from on an issue, and seek to learn their motivations and interests.  Seek to inquire, not simply to advocate, during meetings.  Doing so will lead to more productive conversations, better decisions, and more effective teamwork.  

While I've framed this advice in the context of teams and relationships at work, the same lessons apply to our personal relationships.  Learn to walk a mile in your friends' and partners' shoes, and you will find yourself engaged in healthier interpersonal relationships.  Others will appreciate your efforts to emphatize with them during trying situations.  Good luck to everyone in your future endeavors!  I wish you much happiness and success.  

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Shooting the Messenger: How Do We Perceive The Bearers of Bad News?

Leslie John, Hayley Blunden, and Heide Liu have published a new paper titled, "Shooting the Messenger" in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.    In a series of experiments that find  people have a tendency to “shoot the messenger" even when the bearer of bad news is innocent, i.e. they bear no responsiblity for the actual failure/mistake being reported.   Moreover, they find that, "When bad news is unexpected, messenger dislike is pronounced."  The scholars also discovered that, "Messenger dislike is correlated with the erroneous belief that the messenger had malevolent motive."  Finally, they discovered that, "The tendency to dislike bearers of bad news is mitigated when recipients are made aware of the benevolence of the messenger’s motives."  

I often recount to managers the famous quote from Retired General Colin Powell:  "Bad news isn't wine.  It doesn't improve age."  Unfortunately, bad news often does age in organizations, as people at lower levels are afraid to share this information for fear of being blamed, perceived as incompetent, or tasked with solving the problem without adequate and resources to do so.   Unfortunately, the situation often grows worse as the bad news remains unreported. Small problems mushroom and escalate into serious crises before senior leaders learn about the the issues.  

Finally, I often tell senior leaders that they only need to shoot the messenger once in their tenure to create a climate in which people feel unsafe speaking up.  Unfortunately, the institutional memory of a "shoot the messenger" incident can be quite lengthy.   People will recount the story years later, perhaps even inaccurately over time... but by then, the damage is done.  

What should you definitely NOT do as a leader trying to insure the uncovering of bad news before it's too late?  Don't tell your people the following:  "Come to me with solutions, not just problems."  That's a recipe for discouraging the bearers of bad news.  Sometimes, these innocent bearers of bad news simply don't know how to solve the problem at hand.  They need help.  Don't discourage them from disclosing the issue and asking for help.  

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Imagine We Are All New to the Company

Source: Fortune
This morning, I had the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue among roughly 40 executives about how to avoid or prevent the sunk cost trap.   In other words, how do you avoid throwing good money after bad on failing projects?   One executive offer this technique that he has currently initiated with his team.  He and many of his team members have been with the company for quite a long time.  He's asked them all to imagine that they are brand new to the organization.  The question is simple:  If you joined from the outside today, which practices, projects, or investments would you question?  Would you understand why we do what we do?  Would you make different choices about where to continue investing?   The "imagine we are all new" technique has great value, though just a simple hypothetical exercise.  

The exercise reminds me of a story about Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, the two longtime leaders at Intel.   Grove called it the "Revolving Door Test" - and he used this test to help make the decision to exit the DRAM business at Intel in the early 1980s.  Grove explains how he and Moore were debating whether to continue investing in the DRAM business, despite the fact that the unit had been losing share for years to Japanese rivals.  

I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”

Friday, May 03, 2019

Three Conversations in One

Last night, during a panel discussion featuring 10 accomplished Bryant University alumnae, Jaime Diglio - President of SomethingNew LLC, offered some insightful comments about how we should approach the conversations we have with others (she's pictured speaking in this photo of several panelists).  Diglio described how each exchange with another individual actually involves three separate conversations.  First, there's the conversation going on in your head.  What are you thinking and what do you intend to say?  Second, there are the words being spoken by you.   What are you actually saying?  Third, the is the conversation being heard by the other party.  What is he or she hearing? How is he or she interpreting what you have said?  All too often, what we intend to say is not what we actually say, and what is being heard is not what we think we are communicating.   Recognizing the potential misalignment is so important if we are to have meaningful and constructive conversations with others.  Testing for understanding is crucial.  Asking others to play back what you have said, to confirm your communication, can be a powerful tool for identifying misunderstandings before they become highly problematic.   

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Why Has Amazon Struggled to Increase Whole Foods' Revenues?

Source: Wikimedia Commons
According to the most recent Amazon earnings reports, the company's Whole Foods Market subsidiary continues to show sluggish sales performance.   Revenues during the most recdent quarter only grew 1%.   Sales were relatively flat in prior quarters.   Why is Amazon struggling to increase Whole Foods' revenues despite repeated attempts to showcase lower prices on key products?  Why hasn't introducing discounts for Prime members been more successful in driving revenue growth?

Yale School of Management Professor Soheil Ghili recently commented on the company's struggles. He told Yale Insights

"There might be some non-price factors, but the main challenge is indeed the prices and the “Whole Paycheck” brand image of Whole Foods. It is true that Amazon Prime membership is commonplace among high-income households that are likely to be—or have the potential to become)—Whole Foods customers. However, data on the incomes of Prime customersand U.S. income distribution suggest that the majority of Prime members have household incomes below $100,000 a year. Converting those Prime members to regular Whole Foods customers would require much sharper price cuts than Whole Foods/Amazon is now offering."

Ghili goes to question who the customers are that Amazon is targeting.   The choice of target customer matters a great deal with regard to the appropriate competitive positioning and marketing strategies for Whole Foods.  He explains, 

"Whether you are competing against Trader Joe’s or against Walmart has significant implications on how you want to respond. If you want to poach TJ customers, lowering prices might help with some. (Certainly not all; I for one, don’t see myself leaving TJ for Whole Foods!) If trying to poach from Walmart, you’d better establish cheaper stores and brand them anything other than “Whole Foods.” This, by the way, is something Amazon is already thinking of doing, in parallel to slashing Whole Foods prices."

I find this discussion quite interesting, because I've always been puzzled about the Whole Foods strategy.  The company achieved remarkable success by positioning itself as a highly differentiated, premium price grocer with an exceptional customer experience.  Yes, it is true that the company's sales growth had stalled prior to the Amazon acquisition, as traditional grocers expanded their organic offerings, often at lower prices.  However, it's not clear that the appropriate response by Whole Foods is to try to walk away from the "Whole Paycheck" image.  I fear that Whole Foods runs the risk of being "stuck in the middle" strategically.  They have alienated some of their core customers by weakening the customer service experience and changing the mix of products in their stores.  They have potentially alienated some of their best employees as well.  Meanwhile, the price cuts do not appear substantial enough to bring in waves of customers who would otherwise shop at lower-priced rivals.  Whole Food has to decide who they really want to be when they grow up.  It doesn't seem that they have made a clear choice at this point.  Do they want to be Apple or Southwest?  Which is it?   My gut says that they have a much better chance of thriving as Apple than trying to transform into Southwest. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Design Thinking: The Irony of Making Big Bets on a Test & Learn Methodology

I was interviewed recently for an article titled, "How to make the case for design thinking" by Stephanie Overby. The piece was just published by The Enterprisers Project this week. Here's an excerpt, in which I make the point that some organizations make big bets on adopting design thinking... going against the very philosophy of the methodology. which is to test, experiment, and learn - iterating often to get better faster.  

Start Small with Design Thinking

Organizations do not need to make big bets on design thinking to see returns. “It’s ironic, actually, that some organizations have made huge bets right out of the gate, when the ethos of design thinking is ‘experiment and test,’” says Mike Roberto, management professor at Bryant University and author of "Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets."

“Moreover, teams do not have to embrace the entire methodology at first. They can start by focusing on certain elements of the process.” They might begin by adopting some field research or end user techniques or embracing a prototyping philosophy. “Pick a relatively manageable problem, assemble a team, and give design thinking a test drive,” advises Roberto. “Strive for a small win. Then share the story of those positive results. Win some allies and, in so doing, build some momentum in the organization around design thinking. Then move on to some more challenging projects.”

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.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Unlocking Creativity: A Conversation on Dr. Diane Hamilton's Radio Show


I had the opportunity to appear on Dr. Diane Hamilton's radio show this week. She's the author of Cracking the Curiosity Code: The Key to Unlocking Human Potential.  We talked about my latest book, Unlocking Creativity, as well as some other topics related to leadership and innovation. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Studying Analogous Experiences: A Hospital and a Formula One Ferrari Racing Team

Firms can learn a great deal from studying organizations in other fields, rather than simply benchmarking rivals within their industry.   How do you choose the organizations to examine? Think in terms of analogous experiences.  What specific process, system, or behavior do we want to improve?  Who has similar challenges, and how might we learn about how they overcome those challenges?   For Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, Great Britain's largest pediatric hospital, the payoff from studying an analogous experience turned out to be quite substantial.  Who did they study? A superb Formula One Ferrari racing team!   Several years ago, Gautum Naik of the Wall Street Journal reported on this fascinating cross-industry learning experience. Here's an excerpt:  

Thousands of such "handoffs" occur in hospitals every day, and devastating mistakes can happen during them. This one went off without a hitch, thanks to pit-stop techniques of the Ferrari race-car team.

"It was smooth. We didn't miss anything," said Dr. McEwan, a senior anesthesiologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. His role as leader of the handoff was partly modeled after Ferrari's "lollipop man," who uses a large paddle to direct drivers to the pit.

In one of the more unlikely collaborations of modern medicine, Britain's largest children's hospital has revamped its patient handoff techniques by copying the choreographed pit stops of Italy's Formula One Ferrari racing team. The hospital project has been in place for two years and has already helped reduce the number of mishaps.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Breaking Up L Brands

CNBC reported this week that hedge fund Barington Capital has called for a break-up of L Brands, the parent company of Victoria's Secret as well as Bath and Body Works. James Mitarotonda of Barington Capital called upon the company to address the poor performance of the Victoria's Secret business.   He noted, "We believe that the declining performance of Victoria's Secret is primarily due to merchandising missteps and the failure to maintain a compelling brand image that resonates with its target consumers."   Mitarotonda pointed out that, in contrast, Bath and Body Works has performed exceptionally well in recent years.  Therefore, he would like L Brands to split into two separate firms.  He argued that investors are not placing "appropriate value" on Bath and Body Works because of the struggles at the Victoria's Secret business.   The proposal comes on the heels of news earlier this week that Target plans to unveil several lines of lingerie and sleepwear to compete with Victoria's Secret.  The once-mighty retailer appears to be receiving pressure on multiple fronts.  

I find the development quite interesting given that one of my MBA student teams performed a strategic analysis of L Brands last semester. They offered a highly critical examination of the Victoria's Secret strategy, arguing the brand requires a significant overhaul.  They pointed that management had  lost touch with key consumer trends.   Their analysis, frankly, is as thorough and insight as the critique put forth by Barington Capital.  I'm a proud professor!  

One should note that the proposed break-up, in and of itself, won't fix these branding and merchandising issues at Victoria's Secrete.  Simply breaking up without addressing the competitive positioning problems will not magically unlock value in the long run.   Moreover, the key question that needs to be asked about the strategy is whether there are substantial synergies between the two chains.  If there are, then breaking up will actually destroy some value.   On the other hand, if limited economies of scope exist, then a strong case can be made for addressing the Barington Capital proposal.   From afar, I don't see a compelling case for synergies that require these two firms to stay together.   Simply sharing corporate services is not a strong enough rationale for keeping the two units in one corporation.   The firm's products are rather distinct.  They don't share many suppliers.  They do share customers, but do the two companies use a wealth of common customer data to enhance each business?    It's hard to know from the outside.   Without some signficant revenue enhancement or cost reduction from collaboration between the two units, the case for a break-up appears compelling.  It will be interesting to see management's response, given that they have not been shy about divestitures in the past.  

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

What If We Have to Argue the Other Side's Position?

Imagine that your team has arrived at an impasse.  After a constructive debate about two viable options, the dialogue begins to deteriorate.  People's positions begin to harden, and two polarized camps emerge.  Individuals begin restating their arguments, often forcefully, rather than sharing new information or analysis.  Voices and tensions rise.  What can you do as a team leader in these circumstances?

Here's one interesting strategy you might consider.  I learned about this technique from the leader at a non-profit organization several years ago.  The senior management team had arrived at an impasse.  The leader adjourned a contentious meeting one day by giving team members some homework.  He asked the members in each of the two entrenched camps to come back the next day with a memo and presentation that made the case for the option for which the opposing camp had advocated.  In short, he asked each subgroup to step into the other side's shoes.  

He wanted them to try to understand the other side's perspective, line of reasoning, and assumptions.  He felt that they had stopped listening to each other and ceased trying to understand one another.   Asking them to swap roles could deepen mutual understanding, and in so doing, perhaps help the team uncover common ground or opportunities for compromise.  

In the end, the exercise did not immediately end the impasse, but it led to a much more constructive dialogue and debate.  Ultimately, they chose a course of action with which everyone could live, and for which all team members agreed to cooperate on implementation.  Everyone did not get all that they wanted, but they felt that they had been heard and understood by their colleagues and their leader, and thus, they could commit to the final decision.   

Friday, March 01, 2019

Will Divesting Old Navy Help The Gap?

Khadeeja Safdar reports in the Wall Street Journal today that Gap Inc. is splitting into two publicly traded companies. Old Navy, the company's low-priced apparel chain, will become an independent firm, while another company will operate the other brands including Gap, Banana Republic, and Athleta.  The article notes that Old Navy has been the highest-performing brand in the portfolio for some time, and that it has surpassed the company's namesake brand in total revenue.   Gap Inc.'s stock rose 25% when the news broke.  Safdar reports on the comments offered by CEO Art Peck when announcing the breakup:  

“The other brands overlap each other but overlap Old Navy less,” Mr. Peck said on a conference call with analysts Thursday. He said separating the two would allow both to make quicker decisions and focus their investments. Mr. Peck has long said the brands have advantages over their competitors because of the parent company’s combined size.

I have doubts about whether this move alone will help the core Gap brand address its long-running troubles.  Gap's struggles extend far beyond the issues experienced by many brick-and-mortar chains as consumers flock to e-commerce options.  Gap has been "stuck in the middle" strategically for years.   What do I mean by that?  Well, Old Navy has clearly occupied a low cost position in the casual apparel market.  Banana Republic has established a more differentiated, premium-priced position with higher quality and more professional clothing.  What's the Gap brand position in the market? For years, they have floating somewhere between a low cost and differentiated position, unclear about who they are or want to be.  I've been writing about this strategic problem and discussing it with students for at least ten years.  See this past blog post, for instance. Today's Wall Street Journal article describes one aspect of this problem:

Some analysts have said that Old Navy’s rise has expedited the Gap brand’s demise. “When your prices are lower and it’s essentially the same merchandise, you’re going to cannibalize the sales at the higher-end brands,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester. “There’s no differentiation.”

Will splitting off the Old Navy brand fix this strategic issue at the Gap brand?  I don't see a clear reason why it will, unless other substantial changes are made.  Simply splitting the company in two does not address the "stuck in the middle" problem.  The Gap is not just stuck in the middle of Old Navy and Banana Republic; they are stuck in the middle of a host of other strong, well-positioned low cost and differentiated apparel brands.  

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Are You an Overconfident Leader?

Dartmouth Professor Sydney Finkelstein, author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent, has published a thought-provoking article in the Wall Street Journal this week. He poses four questions that leaders can ask themselves to determine whether they suffer from overconfidence. I think it's a useful list. Here are the four questions:

1.  How much time do I really spend listening?
2.  Do I originate most of the ideas?
3.  Do I often feel like I’m the smartest person in the room?
4.  Do I think of myself as indispensable to my business’s success?

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Apologizing for a Mistake at Work

Source:  Pixabay
We often hear about the importance of ackowledging failures and mistakes at work, and then learning from them.   Instead, of course, we often see people trying to make excuses or even hiding mistakes to avoid blame or finger-pointing.   Fear drives out opportunities for relationship-mending and learning in many instances.   How, though, should we apologize for a mistake that we have made at work?  What are the elements of an effective apology?   Some research by Roy Lewicki, Beth Polin, and Robert Lount Jr. sheds light on this issue.  

Lewicki and his colleagues have identified six components of an apology.  These components are:

  • expression of regret
  • explanation
  • acknowledgement of responsibility
  • declaration of repentance
  • offer of repair
  • request for forgiveness
Their experimental research has shed light on the structure of the most effective apologies.  First, and not surprisingly, they find that an apology consisting of more of these components is more efficacious than an apology containing fewer elements.   Second, they examined which elements were most important.   Lewicki and his colleagues find that an acknowledgement of responsibilty is the most critical component.   The second most important element is an offer to repair the damage. The third most critical feature of an apology is an explanation of the error.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Heterogeneity in Experience Levels Helps Startups Succeed

Source: Pexels
You might think that a startup management team consisting entirely of highly experienced managers would clearly outperform teams including members with little experience.  After all, it would seem that past experience launching and running start-ups should be a good thing.  However, that bit of conventional wisdom turns out to be incorrect according to some interesting research by Dorina Thiessa, Charlotta SirĂ©nb, Dietmar Grichnika.  They published a paper titled, "How does heterogeneity in experience influence the performance of nascent venture teams?: Insights from the US PSED II study" in the Journal Business Venturing Insights.  They examined 519 startups using a longitudinal dataset of new ventures in the United States.  Here is what they found:

Our results concerning management and start-up experience heterogeneities demonstrated that venture teams comprising only inexperienced members or only highly experienced founders seemed to be inefficient with regards to expected revenue and the progress of the venture. More specifically, even when heterogeneous teams had an overall low average level of management or start-up experience, they often outperformed those comprising only experienced team members. Furthermore, teams with lower levels of average management or start-up experience benefited from heterogeneous distributions of experience the most. One explanation for these results is that diversification of experience levels enabled team members to escape their own “knowledge corridors” (Gruber et al., 2013, p. 280), broadening the cumulative knowledge set of the team and thereby enabling more innovative insights and market responses, which ultimately resulted in improved venture performance. An accumulation of homogenous experience may also foster the use of mental shortcuts such as overgeneralization, and decreased engagement in counterfactual thinking (imagining alternative outcomes for past events) that assist in formulating more effective market responses (Baron, 1998, Baron, 2000, Shepherd et al., 2003). Thus, nascent venture teams with only experienced team members may fail to extract important insights from entrepreneurial action because team members become increasingly trapped in prevailing ways of thinking.

In sum, experience comes with some limitations or drawbacks.  You may have blinders on, or perhaps you cling too strongly to pre-established notions about how a new venture should be launched, structured, and led.  On the other hand, a team of novices will not likely thrive either. You need a mix of old hands and fresh eyes.  

Friday, February 22, 2019

How to be Awesome at Your Job Podcast Episode

Check out the latest episode of the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast by Pete Mockaitis. I had the privilege of being interviewed by Pete for this episode. We talk creativity and innovation in organizations, and we have some fun with a rapid fire set of questions about all sorts of things including:
  • one of my dad's nuggets of wisdom, which I share with my students each year
  • my favorite quote from Michelangelo
  • my Starbuck addiction
  • my love for teaching young people

Friday, February 15, 2019

How Does Team Size Affect Innovation?

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Lingfei Wu, Dashun Wang & James Evans have published a paper in Nature titled, "Large teams develop and small teams disrupt science and technology."   The scholars assembled a dataset of more than 65 million papers, patents, and software projects from 1954-2014.  They discovered that larger research teams tended to develop incremental improvements, while small teams conceived disruptive innovations.   

The findings remind me of Steve Jobs' preference for small teams.  Ken Segall, formerly an advertisting agency creative director, worked with Jobs for many years.  He described Jobs' philosophy on super-smart, small teams in an article for Fast Company several years ago:

Start with small groups of smart people–and keep them small. Every time the body count goes higher, you’re simply inviting complexity to take a seat at the table... The idea is pretty basic: Everyone in the room should be there for a reason. There’s no such thing as a “mercy invitation.” Either you’re critical to the meeting or you’re not. It’s nothing personal, just business.

Steve Jobs actively resisted any behavior he believed representative of the way big companies think–even though Apple had been a big company for many years. He knew that small groups composed of the smartest and most creative people had propelled Apple to its amazing success, and he had no intention of ever changing that. When he called a meeting or reported to a meeting, his expectation was that everyone in the room would be an essential participant. Spectators were not welcome.

For more on the Wu, Wang, and Evans study, check out this interview with two of the authors:

Thursday, February 14, 2019

What Should You Ask Your Job Interviewer?

Source: Pixabay
Adunola Adeshola has written an interesting article for Forbes about the types of interview questions that can help you stand out as a job applicant.  She points out that many candidates spend a great deal of time preparing answers to the questions that their interviewer may ask.  However, they often do not spend a sufficient amount of time coming up with distinctive and thoughtful questions to pose during the interview.  Joseph offers three suggested questions:

1. Ideally, if offered this role, what are the biggest priorities you’d like me to tackle immediately in my first 90 days?

2. I noticed that you all are big on collaboration and failing fast [or other aspects of the company’s culture], what other qualities are you looking for in the new hire that will make fitting in with the team a no brainer?

3. Is there anything that concerns you about my background being fit for this role?

The first question enables you to picture yourself in the role.  What will the work be like?   How much autonomy and responsibility will I have?  What are the expectations for me, and what will I need to deliver on during the early part of my tenure?  It helps the applicant determine whether they will be engaged and enthused, as well as to identify whether they can succeed in this role.  On the other hand, it also shows the interviewer that you are forward-thinking and doing your best to prepare to be successful in this new role.   The second question enables in the candidate to make a strong case for why they fit culturally with this organization, or perhaps to discover ways in which he or she might not be a good fit.  Finally, the last question is risky if you are not prepared to address possible shortcomings in your candidacy.  On the other hand, if you are prepared, it enables the applicant to discuss some possible worries that are likely to be on the mind of interviewers.