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.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

How Do You Compare Very Similar Options?

Source:  JBSA
You face a tough decision, and there appear to be two very similar options.  How do you choose?  University of Texas Professor Art Markman discusses this topic in an article for Fast Company this week.  He describes research that he has conducted about alignable vs. nonalignable differences.  He explains:

Research I did early in my career found that there are two kinds of differences that emerge from comparisons. Some differences are directly related to what a pair of options have in common. For example, if you are deciding between two apartments, one might be on a higher floor in the building than the other. These differences are called alignable differences, because they relate to how the information about the options is placed in correspondence.  Some differences are unrelated to what the options have in common. For example, one apartment might have a breakfast nook, while the other does not. These differences are called nonalignable differences.

When we compare options, we often focus intently on the alignable differences.  If there are few of these distinctions, we conclude that the alternatives are quite similar.   We struggle to decide.  However, we need to make sure that we are also examining the nonalignable differences.  These might be quite important, and they ought to be considered carefully.  Markman suggests stopping the comparison and contrast for a moment.  Use your imagination for a bit.  Try to imagine what it will be like to live with a particular option, and that may help you understand the attributes that you care about a great deal.  Then do the same thing with the other alternatives.  As you examine each option in this imaginative way, you might come to understand that some of these nonalignable differences matter a great deal more than others.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

How Does Narcissism Affect Team Performance?

Source: Wikipedia
Emily Grijalva, Timothy D. Maynes, Katie L. Badura, and Steven W. Whiting have published a new research article titled, "Examining the “I” in team: A longitudinal investigation of the influence of team narcissism composition on team outcomes in the NBA."  Narcissism in the NBA?  I'm shocked!  LeBron James?  Kevin Durant?  These folks are narcissistic? Come on! Actually, the research is terrific, because they collected detailed information about game-level performance. What did they find? The authors report that, "Teams with higher mean and maximum levels of narcissism as well as higher narcissism members in core roles (i.e., central and influential roles) had poorer coordination and in turn performance than teams with lower levels."  That finding should not surprise us at all.  

Perhaps even more interestingly, they looked at how narcissim related to performance over time.  They found that coordination improved over time for teams with low levels of narcissism.   You get to know one another better, understand each other's strengths and roles, and your collaboration is enhanced. On the other hand, teams with high narcissism did not experience similar types of improvement in coordination among the players.    Narcissism, then, appears to get in the way of the type of collaboration, information sharing, and integrated action that high performing teams must exhibit.   

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Brainstorming with Green, Yellow, and Blue Questions

Bob Tiede has published a guest post by me on his excellent Leading with Questions blog.  The short piece focuses on how you can sift through your green, yellow, and blue ideas during a brainstorming session, and why that's helpful as you move from ideation to prototyping. The green/yellow/blue technique comes from Emily Ma of Alphabet.  

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Churchill, Brooke, and Protecting Against a Sanguine Outlook

Source: Wikipedia
As mentioned in a post two weeks ago, I've been reading Andrew Roberts' incredible biography of Winston Churchill. At one point, Roberts describes Churchill's appointment of Alan Brooke as Chief of the Imperial General Staff during World War II.   Roberts writes:

As we have seen, one of the most useful insights Churchill gained from the Great War was the phenomenon he had seen in Haig's Intelligence Department.  'The temptation to tell a chief in a great position the things he most likes to hear is one of the commonest explanations of mistake policy,' he had written.  'Thus, the outlook of the leader on whose decisions fateful events depend is usually far more sanguine than the brutal facts admit.' Churchill therefore appointed men like Brooke and Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, who told him exactly whaat they thought he needed to hear.  Brooke did not seek out confrontation with the Prime Minister, but neither did he shy away from it.  He tended to choose his battles carefully, not opposing him on trivial matters.  He was to tell Moran that 'every month' of working with Churchill 'is a year off my life.'   Earlier in 1941, Lord Vansittart had told the newspaper editor W.P. Crozier that 'Churchill needs people beside him who can say quite firmly "No" when he wants to do something wrong and insist that he must not do it.  Such a man was Brooke, whom Churchill respected and whom he knew would not allow him to repeat such errors as Gallipoli or Greece.  

That's a fantastic story of the rationale behind a crucial appointment.  Every leader should reflect upon this story and learn from it.  

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Apportioning Blame When a Group Failure Occurs

Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Do all team members receive an equal portion of blame when a group failure occurs? That is the question explored by researchers Ginger Zhe Jin, Benjamin F. Jones, Susan Feng Lu, and Brian Uzzi in a paper titled, "The Reverse Matthew Effect: Consequences of Retraction in Scientific Teams."  To study this question, the schlars gathered data on roughly 500 academic papers that had been retracted between 1993 and 2009.   These retractions occurred due to "ample evidence that a paper fabricated data, plagiarized the work of others, committed a major error, or had other serious problems."   The researchers found that the junior faculty members tended to incur more serious repurcussions than the senior faculty members who had co-authored with them.   The senior people did not experience a drop in their citation rate relative to the control group, while the junior faculty members did.  

What explains the unequal apportionment of blame.   The authors posit two explanations in an article on Kellogg Insights:

The first is that more eminent authors have typically published a larger body of work than their greener coauthors.  “When you’ve seen someone’s prior work,” he says, “you’re confident in that person. But the person without that reputation, you can’t judge. It’s realistic to assume that the person you haven’t seen before is likely to be the source of the problem.”  The other explanation is far less generous: Perhaps the better-known member of the team uses his or her social and institutional power to deflect the blame from him- or herself and to scapegoat less prominent collaborators.

The paper offers a warning to those who experience failure as part of a group project.  They need to be careful about how others judge them, as well as how their more senior teammates might deflect blame.   Of course, the broader implication is that we should evaluate how much finger pointing and scapegoating goes on after failures.  In general, organizations will thrive if they can focus on learning from failure rather than assigning blame.  In fact, finger pointing often crowds out learning and improvement efforts. 

Friday, February 01, 2019

A Downside to Rock Star Employees

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Sue Schellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal published a column this week titled, "The Downside of Carrying the Most Weight at Work." She describes too much dependence on rock star employees can be a bad thing. Schellenarger points to an interesting study by Ning Li and his colleagues published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The article is titled, "Achieving more with less: Extra milers’ behavioral influences in teams." In that study, Li and his colleagues find that these team rock stars can have a powerful positive influence on team effeciveness. The scholars argue that extra milers enhance a team's "monitoring and backup processes" - thereby enhancing team effectiveness. Li and his colleagues explain:

A high quality team monitoring and backup process involves both monitoring and backup. The monitoring aspect of the process is about developing acceptable behavioral standards and detecting deviations from this standard. The backup aspect, on the other hand, refers to engaging in cooperative behaviors, such as picking up slack, fixing errors and supporting each other. 

Schellenbarger reports, though, that Li's forthcoming publication will highlight a potential negative influence of rock stars. It has to do with the dependency that can form within a team, and how that may adversely affect individual members' creativity. She writes,

Stars who do creative work, however, tend to stifle individual co-workers, discouraging them from developing their own insights, he found in a new study of 94 sales teams and 84 R&D teams set for publication soon. “You somehow create a dependency, so that others rely on you,” says Dr. Li, an associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Iowa.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

How Your Imagination Can Make You a Better Negotiator

Source: Sarah & The Spider (Flickr)

When negotiating, we would love to have a strong BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement).  In those instances, the attractive fall-back plan enhances our leverage at the negotiating table.  Moreover, it boosts our confidence as we negotiate with a counterparty. 

What happens, though, if we don't have a solid alternative? Are we doomed to be a very weak position at the negotiating table? Michael Schaerer, Martin Schweinsberg, and Roderick Swaab have explored these questions in a new paper titled, "Imaginary alternatives: The impact of mental simulation on powerless negotiators."   They find that imagining an attractive alternative can have beneficial effects, even when no such option exists.  The scholars summarize their findings:

The present research demonstrates that negotiators can act powerfully without having power. Researchers and practitioners advise people to obtain strong alternatives prior to negotiating to enhance their power. However, alternatives are not always readily available, often forcing negotiators to negotiate without much, or any, power. Building on research suggesting that subjective feelings of power and objective outcomes are disconnected and that mental simulation can increase individuals’ aspirations, we hypothesized that the mental imagery of a strong alternative could provide similar psychological benefits to having an actual alternative. Our studies demonstrate that imagining strong alternatives causes individuals to negotiate more ambitiously and provides them with a distributive advantage: negotiators reached more profitable agreements when they either had a strong tendency to think about better alternatives (Study 1) or when they were instructed to mentally simulate an attractive alternative (Studies 3-4). 

The findings demonstate the incredible power of our imagination, and they warrant further investigation outside of the laboratory.  

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Benchmarking Mindset

In this new animation video, we briefly tell the story of the Survivor reality TV show debut and Hollywood's tendency for copycat behavior. You'll also discover what you can learn about creativity from rock legend Dave Grohl & his idols, The Beatles. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Office of "How" - not "No"

Source:  Symantec
Adam Bryant of  Merryck & Company recently posted a terrific LinkedIn article, in which he interviewed  Amy Cappellanti-Wolf, Chief Human Resources Officer at Symantec.   In the interview, Cappellanti-Wolf talked about making the transition to a technology firm (having worked at Disney and Frito-Lay previously).   She notes:

I had a couple of interviews where I was told, “You don’t have a technology background.” I had to say, “It doesn’t matter. I’m smart and agile and can learn quickly.” I had to prove myself, check my ego at the door, and show that I’m a lifelong learner who can get my hands dirty and connect with people who really get the business, so I could learn to speak their language. 

Once you begin to speak their language, they’re more apt to bring you into these conversations, rather than seeing you as a corporate HR person who isn’t really commercial. And commercial is the word I use often to describe myself, because I’m not about building policies or rules. I think rules can take away choices. I want to be the office of “how,” not the office of “no.”

That final sentence really struck me.  To drive creativity and innovation in organizations, we need to create a workplace environment of "how" rather than "no".   How can we make this work?  How might overcome those challenges?  How could we address the shortcomings of this proposal, without discarding the idea altogether?   Before we simply poke holes and reject flawed ideas, we need to ask "how" we might be able to improve those ideas or build upon them.   We also can't simply expect to govern behavior by rules and procedures.  We have to give some autonomy to our people and trust them to make good decisions, given appropriate guidelines, training, and mentorship.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

LEADx Podcast

Check out the latest LEADx podcast episode in which I discuss the benchmarking curse, the challenge of dealing with naysayers, and the ways in which we can achieve psychological distance so as to stimulate creativity.  Great stories about the TV show Survivor and many other instances of creativity or the lack thereof. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

Do We Actually Want Some Dissatisfied Employees?
MIT researcher George Westerman has written a provocative post on the MIT Sloan Management Review website. The title of his short article is, "The New Digital Mandate: Cultivate Dissatisfaction."  Westerman writes:  

The problem is that employee satisfaction can be a double-edged sword. While satisfied employees are good for current activities, that very satisfaction can inhibit innovation. Transformative innovation is difficult. It is far easier to stick with what we know works and tweak the current process than it is to start over. People who are satisfied with the current way of doing business are not likely to transform it.

People who transform their organizations must be aggravated enough with the current situation that they’re willing to bear the effort and risk to change it. Leaders who want their organizations to continuously transform must not only look for dissatisfaction on which to capitalize, but also be willing to cultivate dissatisfaction in their employees.

Westerman argues that there is a right and a wrong way to be "dissatisfied" in an organization.   A useful form of dissatisfaction involves a willingness to question the conventional wisdom and the commonly accepted ways of doing things.   It means protecting the organization against complacency.   The wrong type of dissatisfaction involves pointing fingers and blaming others for problems that arise, while not offering constructive alternatives.   

I agree wholeheartedly. A certain amount of healthy and constructive restlessness can be a powerful positive force in an organization. Andy Grove, long-time CEO of Intel, once argued that organizations need to have a few "helpful Cassandras" who can bring some healthy paranoia to the table.  Grove once wrote, "I believe in the value of paranoia. Business success contains the seeds of its own destruction."  Of course, what you do not want are naysayers who simply look for all the reasons a new idea won't work.  You don't want people who are stopping innovative ideas in their tracks.  You would like people who are looking broadly for potential threats to a firm's competitive advantage and are protecting against complacency.  

Friday, January 18, 2019

Creativity is for Everyone

I would like to hear from you! What is ONE INSPIRING THING that leaders can do to stimulate the creativity of their team members? Hope to write a LinkedIn article describing some of your favorite methods. Please leave your thoughts as a comment here on the blog. Thanks!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Straddling: Whole Foods Discontinues 365 Store Format

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Supermarket News reported yesterday that Whole Foods will not be opening additional 365 format stores. The company had launched the small-format 365 stores two years ago in an attempt to provide a less expensive option targeted at millennial shoopers.   CEO John Mackey explained the move in a memo to his staff: "However, as we have been consistently lowering prices in our core Whole Foods Market stores over the past year, the price distinction between the two brands has become less relevant. As the company continues to focus on lowering prices over time, we believe that the price gap will further diminish."  Count me as someone who was skeptical of this strategy even before Amazon acquired Whole Foods and began to lower prices in the traditional stores.  Let's take a look back at the original rationale for the 365 stores.  Annie Gasparro of the Wall Street Journal reported on the strategy in 2016:

Announcing the plan last month, executives said these new stores would have a trendier atmosphere, with high-tech ways of interacting with shoppers that help keep its costs down.  Some retail analysts said the value-focused chain, which is expected to largely carry private-label foods, could help Whole Foods compete with Trader Joe’s, which tends to attract younger shoppers who want affordable, natural foods.

A Reuters article by Lisa Baertlein, published in 2016, revealed some skepticism about the 365 strategy by industry analysts:

“Our goal is to compete in the marketplace without lowering the Whole Foods standards,” Turnas told Reuters during a recent store tour. He said 365 stores will complement Whole Foods’ premium, full-service sister brand – often dubbed ‘Whole Paycheck’ in popular culture in reference to its perceived higher prices. But the new chain will have to work hard to avoid being labeled “a cheaper Whole Foods”, said Kevin Kelley, a principal at strategy and design firm Shook Kelley, which has worked with Whole Foods and other grocers.

Why did the 365 format struggle to gain traction?   I would argue that it's a classic example of a straddling strategy.   The 365 format was caught somewhere in between the traditional business model of Whole Foods and the very successful contrasting business model at places such as Trader Joe's.  For more on Trader Joe's, you might check out a recent Freakonomics episode in which I participated.   Straddling often occurs when incumbent players try to react to successful entrants.  Consider how the legacy airlines tried to cope with entrants such as Southwest and Ryanair.   Among the failed responses were straddling strategies such as United's Ted, Delta's Song, and British Airways' Go brands.  For more on straddling, check out this short video clip from one of my Great Courses lecture series. 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Blue, Yellow, and Green Ideas? A Conversation with Sarah Osteen on the Swayed Podcast

What's the difference between blue, yellow, & green ideas, and why does that matter? What can we learn about creativity from Planet Fitness?  These topics & more in my conversation with Sarah Osteen on her Swayed podcast this week.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Winston Churchill, Groupthink, and the Dardanelles

Source: Wikipedia
I'm reading Andrew Roberts' masterful biography of Winston Churchill right now.   I've discovered some terrific lessons in decision making.    For instance, the Dardanelles disaster in World War I offers a fascinating example of groupthink and overconfidence, as well as the risks when advocacy crowds out inquiry in a decision-making process.   Roberts describes a key War Council meeting on January 13, 1915: 

Because Churchill seemed to be giving the Admiralty's collective view, none of the politicians asked Fisher or Wilson for their thoughts, and they remained silent throughout the meeting.  It wsa therefore assumed that they were in favour, which they were not. "Neither made any remark and I certainly thought that they agreed," Churchill wrote later. "He was my chief," Fisher would say, "and it was silence or resignation."  

Unfortunately, Churchill did not recognize that silence does not equal consent.  Neither Churchill nor any of the other War Council members inquired as to the views of key military experts.   They did not invite more discussion and input, and certainly did not seek dissenting views.  Roberts writes, "A collective 'groupthink' permeated the meeting of 13 January, encouraging optimism and discouraging incisive questioning, a problem made all the worse by Fisher 's and Jackson's silence."  He derives his conclusion after quoting the conclusions from the Dardanelles Commission's official report about the military debacle: 

Mr. Churchill thought that he was correctly representing the collective views of the Admiralty experts.  But, without in any way wishing to impugn his good faith, it seems clear that he was carried away by his sanguine temperament and his firm belief in the success of the undertaking which he advocated... Mr. Churchill had obtained their support to a less extent than he himself imagined... Other members of the Council, and more especially the Chairman (Asquith), should have encouraged the experts to give their opinion, and indeed, shoud have insisted upon their doing so.

I highly recommend Webster's book, though I have to warn you that it approaches 1,000 pages in length.  However, I've found it to be an incredible enhancement to my understanding of leadership.  

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Forbes Interview with Andy Molinsky

What advice do you have for young professionals about how to unlock their own creative thinking? I’m the CEO of a startup and I think I have the next big idea in my industry. What can I do to make sure I don't fall victim to the barriers to creativity you outline in your book? I answer these questions and more in this Forbes column by Brandeis Professor Andy Molinsky.

Lessons in Creativity from U2, Mark Twain, and The Beatles

Source:  Billboard
Check out my article on LinkedIn to learn more about what we can learn about creativity from two legendary rock bands and one of America's greatest novelists. 

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Unlocking Creativity: The Resistance to New Ideas

Here's a brief video clip explaining some of the reasons why we face a persistent resistance to new ideas in many organizations. 

Monday, January 07, 2019

Unlocking Creativity Released Today, January 7th!

Thank you to everyone who helped and supported me throughout the process of writing my latest book, Unlocking Creativity.   The book launches today, published by Wiley.  Here's a quick recap:

If you think your enterprise needs to hire its way to creativity, think again. Established organizations have all the creative talent they need already in their ranks. You just need to activate this latent potential, making room for the original thinkers to flourish. In Unlocking Creativity, you will learn to recognize and understand the six organizational mindsets that block creativity—and strategies to overcome them.

For more information, check out the video below, read my latest LinkedIn article (Lessons in Creativity from U2, Mark Twain, and The Beatles), listen to this recent podcast interview, or visit my website.