Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Gratitude & Its Impact on Creativity

Source:  SDW Tech Integration Now

In the past, I have blogged about interesting research on gratitude in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. I thought I would share new research on the topic.  Nashita Pillay and her colleagues published a new study earlier this year (January 2020) in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.  The paper was titled, "Thanks for your ideas: Gratitude and team creativity."  The scholars examined the impact that expressing gratitude has on a team's ability to accomplish a creative task.  The researchers conducted two experimental studies.  In one study, they asked 1/2 of the participants to write about something for which they were grateful.  The other half were in the control condition.  Here is the instruction for the "gratitude" condition:

There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. For the next 5 min, think back and write in detail about why you are grateful or thankful for your team members. These team members include the people you just worked with and past team members. Please elaborate on why you feel grateful or thankful and provide contextual information where necessary.

Then, the research subjects worked in groups to accomplish a team creativity task (How might we creatively improve university education?).   The scholars asked the participants to generate ideas that were both practical and original.   What did they find?   Gratitude enhances the intellectual exchange of ideas within teams, and as a result, team creativity rises.  In a second study, they confirmed that gratitude has a more beneficial effect than positive emotions in general.  Why does gratitude have this positive impact on team creativity.  The scholars offer this explanation:

In grateful teams, initial ideas shared by team members would be more likely to trigger a response gesture by which the team works collectively to improve on the ideas.  The more effort teams with higher gratitude put into thinking and systematically integrating others’ ideas, the more likely that these ideas will become intriguing or novel—and would otherwise have been harder to generate (Stasser & Titus, 1987). Team members who feel grateful should be motivated to think deeply and thoroughly about how to reciprocate the benefits they have received from others and, in turn, engage in more information elaboration during team discussion, thereby supporting and building on others’ ideas.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Boeing 737 MAX: Company Culture and Product Failure


Source: Picpedia

My latest case study, Boeing 737 MAX: Company Culture and Product Failure, has been published this week by the University of Michigan's William Davidson Institute.  The case (and teaching note for faculty) are available directly from the institute, and they will be available soon from the Harvard Business Publishing website as well.  Here's a short description of the case study: 

In October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the sea soon after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia. Investigators identified a problem with the new Boeing 737 MAX jet’s stall-prevention system (known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS). However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowed airlines to continue flying the jet, while Boeing worked on some changes to the MCAS software. Less than five months later, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed six minutes after takeoff. Once again, a faulty sensor triggered a misfire of the MCAS software. The system pushed the nose of the plane down repeatedly. The pilots could not determine how to stop the sharp descent, and the plane plunged into the ground at more than 500 miles per hour. Four days later, facing immense pressure from government officials around the world, Boeing grounded its entire fleet of 737 MAX jets.

The Boeing board of directors faced a multi-part dilemma. Was the current CEO still the right person to lead the company, or to what degree, if any, was he responsible for the position Boeing found itself in? Had something gone awry with the company’s culture after decades of engineering excellence? How did it come to happen that pilots suddenly experienced fatal difficulties flying the latest model of one of the world’s most-used passenger jets? And, how could Boeing ensure such a situation would not happen again?

Monday, November 02, 2020

Are You Spending Your Time Correctly?

Source:  Northwestern University
I'm looking forward to reading Harry Kraemer's new book, Your 168: Finding Purpose and Satisfaction in a Values-Based Life. Kraemer is the retired CEO of Baxter Healthcare and currently executive partner with Madison Dearborn Partners, a private equity firm based in Chicago. Kraemer also serves on the faculty at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.   Kraemer describes a challenging exercise we can and should undertake to examine how we are spending our time each week.   Here's an excerpt from the Kellogg Insight description of the self-reflection activity:

Make a grid with six rows for each of the major aspects of your life, which Kramer defines for everyone as career, family, health, spirituality, fun, and volunteering. Then decide how much of your time you would ideally like to be devoting to each of these activities. Next, figure out how much you actually are devoting. Finally, calculate the difference.

“Only attempt this exercise if you’re in a really good mood,” cautions Kraemer, the former CEO of Baxter International who is now a clinical professor of leadership at Kellogg. The reason: very few people match what they want to be doing with what they actually are doing.

“Every one of us has 168 hours” in a week, Kraemer says. “Do you know where you’re spending your time? And are you spending it where you believe it matters most?”

The exercise indeed may be eye-opening and perhaps will challenge us in ways for which we are not fully prepared.  However, I think we could all benefit from this opportunity for self-reflection. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

“If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing."

Source: Fibre2Fashion.com 

Suzanne Kapner has written a great article about The Gap in the Wall Street Journal this week. She describes in great detail the formidable challenge facing new CEO Sonia Syngal.  The long-running troubles at The Gap are summarized most eloquently by Ivan Wicksteed, former chief marketing officer at Old Navy (one of the retail chains operated by The Gap Inc.).  The article quotes him directly: 

The brand “hasn’t articulated what they stand for,” said Ivan Wicksteed, a former chief marketing officer at Old Navy who left in 2015 and now works for a health-care-technology company. “If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing.

Kapner describes the roller coaster ride at The Gap over the past decade, as the firm's struggles have mounted:

Over the past decade, the Gap brand has careened from one look to another. One year, according to former executives, it wooed younger, budget-minded consumers by competing with fast-fashion chains. The next, it went after higher-income shoppers by selling $600 leather jackets.

The company operates major retail chains:  Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Athleta.  Interestingly, the Gap stores themselves are the weak link at the company.  In large part, that's because the Gap brand has the most muddled competitive positioning.  Old Navy has a solid low cost positioning.  Banana Republic competed with a differentiated, premium price strategy targeting a very different set of customers than Old Navy.   The Gap, however, remained stuck in the middle.  It didn't have the low costs of many major rivals, including its own Old Navy brand, nor the cache to command higher prices.  

Moreover, the Gap wavered over the years between a "selling the basics" strategy more akin to Uniqlo and a "fast fashion" strategy pioneered and mastered by firms such as Zara.   The two strategies require completely different business models:  different supply chains, different management control systems, different store operating models, different types of people in key positions.  Zara's entire business model is tailored toward fast fashion.  In other words, its vertical integration strategy is not well-suited to delivering low prices on basics.  It is, however, very well-positioned to offer trendy fashion in a way that minimizes the downside of "fashion misses" and curtails the need for hefty markdowns.  

In sum, Syngal will have to decide who she wants The Gap to be, and then build an entire business model tailored to deliver that value proposition. It will mean making tough tradeoffs and targeting a particular set of customers, rather than trying to be all things to all people.  

Monday, October 26, 2020

Preparing for a Great Meeting: Spotify CEO Daniel Ek

Source:  Wikimedia

The Observer Effect has published a fascinating interview with Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify.    Ek has a clear and concise take on how to tackle important issues, define his role in the decision-making process, and design effective group meetings.  Here's an excerpt on how he thinks about defining his own role in the decision process in advance of discussions with his team members:

I typically tackle one topic a day which takes a lot of my time. That's my big thing for the day. Before we go into a live team discussion on that particular topic, I invest time to prepare beforehand – reading and talking to members of the team who are either part of the decision-making process or who have insights and context. I sometimes even get external perspectives.

I also think about what my role is at that meeting. Sometimes I'm the approver. Other times, I'm supposed to come with a thoughtful perspective on whether an initiative makes sense or not.   I’ve found that creating this clarity of role for myself is critical. It’s something I challenge my direct reports to think about as they engage with their own teams. I remind them that all meetings are not the same. Even when we are meeting to discuss really, really complicated topics I always ask myself: “What am I going to do in this meeting? What does my involvement really need to be?”

The truth is: it's entirely contextual. I find it crucial to be upfront about everyone’s role in different meetings, I think this is super, super important. Often that's my number one thing: to make sure I know what role I'm playing.

Then, Daniel Ek explains the critical attributes of a highly effective team meeting.   Here's another excerpt from the interview:

A great meeting has three key elements: the desired outcome of the meeting is clear ahead of time; the various options are clear, ideally ahead of time; and the roles of the participants are clear at the time.

I often find that meetings lack one of those elements. Sometimes they lack all those, which is when you have to say, “This is a horrible meeting, let's end it and regroup so it can be more effective for everyone.”

To clarify outcomes, options, and roles ahead of time, we sometimes rely upon a preread. Prereads are a great way to share context so that attendees can quickly get into the meat of the issue and not waste time getting everyone up to speed.

I've always believed that the best leaders think carefully, in advance, about how to structure the decision-making process.  Moreover, they are thoughtful about their own role in that process. Ek does a nice job of articulating the value of this approach from the perspective of a leader running a large, fast-growing organization.  

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Don't Tell Them Your Opinion First!

Annie Duke, author of the new book , How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, participated recently in an interview with Katy Milkman, professor at Wharton. Professor Milkman asked the author which lesson from the book was her favorite. Here's Annie Duke's response... simple, but very important advice for leaders making tough decisions, yet often not followed: 

I think my favorite concept in the book is really simple, but really powerful. If you want somebody’s opinion, don’t tell them your opinion first. It sounds so simple and almost dumb when you hear it, except that nobody does it. When I read an opinion piece and send it [to someone else], I’ll say, “I think they’re cherry-picking the data, and I think the author is biased, and I cannot even believe that someone was willing to say this out loud. What do you think?”

We do that, not just about opinion pieces or TV shows, but also about feedback when it comes to a sales strategy, or whether we should make a particular investment, or who we should hire. We’re asking for people’s feedback, but we’re always offering the very feedback we’re trying to get from them first.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Don't Assume; Empathize First

Take a look at this brief video featuring Ed Batista, a Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer and executive coach. He talks about the strategic importance of empathy. He argues that we often make a series of assumptions when we confront someone whose decisions or actions seem befuddling or even maddening. Rather than make assumptions, we should try to stand in their shoes, and ask ourselves: What is the reason they are making that argument, initiating that conflict, or making that seemingly unjustifiable decision?  What's behind their frustrating course of action?  Challenging our own assumptions can often help us find a path to more effective interaction and potentially collaboration.  

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Two Quite Different Questions that Begin: "What's the Worst Thing..."

Source:  The Clorox Co.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a feature on the new CEO of Clorox, Linda Rendle.  She has become one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs.  Toward the end of the article, Rendle describes how she approaches making tough decisions regarding potentially bold new initiatives.   She reflects, in part, on her work years earlier launching the Green Works line of cleaning supplies.  

Ms. Rendle said she recalls feeling nervous ahead of the 2007 Green Works meeting, having mentally laid out an argument for why the company should implement a widespread rollout of the brand instead of the limited, niche launch executives were planning. At the time, so-called green cleaning products were a minute part of the mainstream market.

“Before I do anything that’s hard, I say: ‘What’s the worst thing that will happen if you do this?’” she said. “And: ‘What’s the worst that will happen if you don’t?’”

In my experience, many managers ask themselves the first question about the worst case scenario.  However, they don't pose the second question.  What is the cost of inaction?  Could we miss a terrific opportunity? Will rivals gain the upper hand?  I think managers should follow Rendle's lead here.  They must ask themselves both questions when approaching tough decisions about high stakes, risky new initiatives. 


Friday, October 09, 2020

Lessons on Curiosity from the Latest Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry

University of California-Berkeley Professor Jennifer Doudna earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this week. We can learn a great deal from her about the importance of curiosity, and how we can nurture that it in our employees and our children. Click here to read a short excerpt from my book on creativity, in which I describe a few lessons we can take from Doudna's upbringing.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Changes in Leadership, Reflection, and Reduced Commitment to Outdated Plans


University of North Carolina scholars Hanna Kalmanovich-Cohen, Matthew Pearsall, and Jessica Siegel Christian have published an interesting new study in a paper titled, "The effects of leadership change on team escalation of commitment."  The authors completed two studies as part of this research project.  In one of those studies, they conducted an experiment using the Food Truck Challenge simulation that I created in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing.   In the simulation, students try to maximize revenue for a food truck business.  To accomplish that goal, they must try to determine the optimal location and menu for the truck.  

The scholars created teams of three students and assigned a leader to each group.   For 1/2 of the teams, the researchers changed the group leaders after the first round of the simulation.  For the other teams, the leader remained the same throughout the game.   The scholars wanted to understand whether a change in leadership would reduce commitment to outdated plans.  Would new leaders engage in thoughtful reflection with their team about past choices? Would they examine feedback and adapt more effectively?   The researchers summarized their findings as follows:

We found evidence that a new leader promoted reflection behaviors within the team and reduced commitment to outdated plans. Therefore, teams that experienced leadership change avoided escalation of commitment over time. Further, such teams were better able to respond to feedback, to identify and correct errors in their updated plan and make course corrections by focusing on error reduction. In contrast, teams with ongoing leaders were more likely to remain committed to their initial plans, which then lead to greater escalation behavior and less of a focus on error reduction in the next performance episode.

What's the practical implication of this research finding? The scholars elaborate:

Leaders and teams can be trained in situation assessment, and to question whether objectives and methods are still appropriate and whether alternative courses of action may be viable, especially following environmental or other changes (Gurtner, Tschan, Semmer, & Nägele, 2007; Konradt et al., 2016). By finding ways to incorporate reflection into their regular activities, employees can better understand their actions and carefully diagnose the gap between what actually happened with what should or could have happened.

The results may not surprise us, but they remind us of the powerful impact that sunk costs can have on our decision making.   Moreover, the study demonstrates the importance of reviewing and evaluating our past decisions critically, being willing to updating our beliefs as new evidence emerges, and being open to adapting in the face of results that did not meet expectations.  We shouldn't need a new leader to shed outdated plans.  We need to get better at doing so without a change in leadership.  However, we also must remind ourselves that a new leader alone, without critical reflection, will not save us from poorly designed and seriously outdated plans.  

Monday, October 05, 2020

Others' Failures Are Valuable Learning Opportunities

Source: Flickr

Let's face it: we often are pretty bad at learning from our own failures. We make excuses, blame uncontrollabe external causes, and argue that we simply have to "move on" and not dwell on the past. What about learning from others' failures? Can we improve by examining others' mistakes carefully and systematically? Bledow, Carette, Kuhnel, and Bister conducted an experimental study several years ago on this subject. They published an article in the Academy of Management Learning and Education titled "Learning from others' failures: The effectiveness of failure stories for managerial learning." In a training setting, they gave research subjects stories about others' failures or successes. The stories all provided the same learning content, whether failure or success. They examined whether failures stimulated more learning than successes. Here is an excerpt from the paper, in which they explain their results: 

In support of the reasoning that failure stories stimulate deep information processing and result in enhanced learning transfer, we found that listening to others’ managerial failures led to more elaboration as compared to listening to other people’s managerial successes. Intensified elaboration, in turn, yielded higher transfer of newly acquired knowledge to a subsequent task. This effect was more pronounced for people who see failure as a valuable source of learning...

Because failure and success stories conveyed the same learning content and differed only in the way it was presented, framing of the learning content as a failure triggered the motivation to process the stories more thoroughly. Learners responded to the negative valence of failure stories with increased elaboration, which then resulted in enhanced learning. This study thus supports the assumption that a motivational mechanism is at play and yields the learning benefits associated with being exposed to others’ failures.

I should stress that I don't think we should conclude that learning only comes from failure. In fact, other studies demonstrate that powerful learning comes from being able to COMPARE successes with failures. In so doing, we get better at determining the true causes of particular good or bad results. Tel Aviv University scholars Schmuel Ellis and Inbar Davidi examined after-action reviews conducted by Israeli military units. They compared units that conducted post-event reflection exercises after successful and unsuccessful navigation exercises with those who only examined failures.   They discovered that groups who evaluated both successes and failures developed a richer understanding of the drivers of good and bad outcomes.  People who studied both successes and failures performed better over time than those who only studied failures. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Perfectionism: A Barrier to Innovation

Source:  Best Buy
Take a look at this recent interview (start at 4:15) with Corie Barry, CEO of Best Buy.   In the interview she describes how Best Buy had been piloting curbside pick-up service in some of its stores prior to the COVID pandemic.  The introduction of curbside at some stores was part of a plan to introduce the service across the store network over the course of more than a year.  Then, in a matter of 48 hours, they decided to shift the entire nationwide store network to curbside pick-up ONLY because of the COVID quarantines and shutdowns.  48 hours.  The interview asks her why it had to take more than a year to introduce such a new service prior to COVID.  Why couldn't they innovate faster?  She offers a compelling explanation of the barriers to innovation at many large firms.  Barry explains,

"As a retailer, we are geared toward perfection around process... As a brick and mortar retailer, you are not as geared to just push out a new experience and iterate quickly on the process behind it.  We are geared at putting out there a perfect SOP (standard operating procedure), and then you just run it... It was not as much in our DNA to put out there something that might not be perfect." 

Barry highlights a key barrier to innovation at many large well-established firms.  They resist introducing new products and services until they feel as though the innovation is perfect.  They don't want any failures or mistakes.  They don't want any negative customer feedback.   Yet, the desire for perfection slows them down substantially.   Moreover, it deprives them of the vital learning-by-doing that comes with soliciting feedback from customers (and front-line employees) early and often.  Every brick-and-mortar retailer, and frankly every large firm, should consider this discussion about perfectionism and ask whether it's holding their organization back too.



Monday, September 28, 2020

Stop Relying on Heroes to Get the Job Done

Source: Pixabay

Sara Brown has written a good piece for the MIT Sloan Management Review. The title of the article is "4 ways to design employee experience in the remote work era."  Brown draws on an interview with research scientist Kristine Dery. In the article, Brown & Dery argue that organizations have to reduce their reliance on heroic behavior on the part of employees to get to the job done.  Here's an excerpt:  

Companies that deliver strong employee experiences deliberately move away from a culture of heroics, in which employees often have to go above and beyond to find ways to deliver for customers, becoming “heroes” in the organization, Dery said. 

Instead of depending on heroic employees, companies should focus on processes and systems that can deliver for customers consistently and solve more complex problems. “Let’s figure those things out, and then let’s embed those into our organization, either through technology or through behaviors or through new metrics. That connection is much more systemic,” she said.  Implementing systems includes:

-Integrating operations across silos to make it easier for employees to innovate and deliver on the customer experience.
-Allowing seamless access to data and information about customers, putting power into the hands of employees to do what technology can’t do.
-Digitizing work, which allows for employee mobility — especially important now — and employee self-help.
-Using employee platforms, which allow employees to search for information and ideas, easily share knowledge, and reduce duplication.

Companies should also consider a dedicated customer experience team. “That phase where different employee experiences across the company were creating all sorts of quite chaotic decisions and responses was managed much more effectively by companies that had a dedicated [employee experience] team, that were looking at that right across the organization, and able to create more systemic accountability measures,” Dery said. These companies were able to get technology into the hands of employees faster, and could anticipate speed bumps ahead of time, instead of reacting to them after the fact.

This notion of moving beyond "heroic behavior" reminds me of the research conducted by Anita Tucker, Amy Edmondson, and Steve Spear years ago on first order vs. second order problem solving.  First order problem solving often involves heroic behavior.  It involves corrective action by front-line employees who are often going above and beyond to get the job done.  However, the same problems keep emerging, and over time, heroes don't always emerge to stop bad things from happening. Tucker and her colleagues explain the distinction and its importance:

Research on problem solving makes a distinction between fixing problems (first-order solutions) and diagnosing and altering root causes to prevent recurrence (second-order solutions). First-order problem solving allows work to continue but does nothing to prevent a similar problem from occurring. Workers exhibit first-order problem solving when they do not expend any more energy on a problem after obtaining the missing input needed to complete a task. Second-order problem solving, in contrast, investigates and seeks to change underlying causes of a problem.

So, ask yourself:  Are we too reliant on heroes in our organization?  Do the same problems keep resurfacing?  Are we thinking systemically when we examine the reasons why problems occur?

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Distinctive Strategic Positioning: Don't Panic and Just Abandon It Amidst the Pandemic

Source: Wikimedia

Suppose your firm has a distinctive strategic positioning and a powerful competitive advantage.  Then along comes COVID.   Some managers may panic and abandon key facets of the unique strategy in an effort to cope with difficult economic and social conditions.   Some firms, though, have prospered despite the pandemic, in part because they have capitalized on the fact that so many people are spending a great deal of time at home.   Stihl is an interesting example of a firm with an unorthodox strategy that has resisted the temptation to abandon distinctive elements of its business model over the years, including during the past six months.  They have demonstrated that personal relationships and interactions still matter to consumers, even in an age of increasing online transactions, curbside pick-up, and home delivery.  

Stihl is one of the world's leading chainsaw manufacturers, headquarted in Germany. A recent Bloomberg story is titled, "Stihl Still Sells Chainsaws the Old-Fashioned Way." The firm is still owned by the descendants of founder Andreas Stihl.  Here's how the article opens:

If a limb falls on your car or you suddenly need to carve a wildfire break around your house, Amazon.com will zip you a Husqvarna 120 Mark II chainsaw in a few days for $180.  It's not so easy with America's top-selling brand, though. On the Stihl website, no prices are shown, and once you select a product, you’ll have to click through to find a nearby dealer – typically a small hardware store – that may or may not offer delivery. It’s an anachronistic, clunky sales machine, seemingly ill-suited to shopping during a pandemic. It’s also working just fine thanks.  Stihl (pronounced 'steel') sales so far this year are up 20 percent over 2019 and in the U.S. it is on pace for the best year in its near century of business, both in terms of revenue and units sold.

The company doesn't sell through big box stores.  In fact, in the past, Stihl has boasted about not selling in these establishments.  They once runs ads saying that you wouldn't find their chainsaws in a box, not even a big box.   The ad referenced the fact that the dealer staff often assembled and taught you how to use the product before you left the small neighborhood store.  The article ends noting the loyalty of its customers:

The strategy might not make for as many transactions, but it makes for a stickier, more lucrative customer. The personal touch, apparently, still works in a digital, distanced world.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Reflecting on the Past Six Months: What's Permanent vs. Temporary?

Source: Wikimedia

In a recent Fortune article by Michal Lev-Ram, several chief human resource officers comment on lessons from the pandemic.   Here's an excerpt with a perspective shared by Grace Zuncic, CHRO at Chobani:

There are some silver linings to the current challenges facing HR officers: Being pushed to rethink the workplace, even when it happens for all the wrong reasons, can lead to fruitful results. “We were always wondering when that moment of disruption would arrive,” said Grace Zuncic, chief people officer at Chobani, and another participant at the recent event. “You never wish for it to come in the form of a pandemic, and yet, we have this opportunity to redefine how things will be done.”

Beyond just human resources, all areas of a business should be looking carefully at the changes and innovations introduced over the past six months.   Leaders need to be asking the question:  Which of these changes should stick (be permanent), and which is a temporary stopgap measure to get through the pandemic?   Some innovations clearly are delivering great value to customers, employees, and/or suppliers.  These new products, processes, and systems should stay.   Curbside pick-up at many retailers, for instance, should NEVER go away.  Customers are finding it incredibly useful and valuable.  Sorting through the changes that should stick will be crucial for many organizations.  Forced to innovate, many firms have come up with some ingenious solutions.  These should not be simply discarded if/when we return to normalcy.   We shouldn't wait for a vaccine to begin to ask questions about the permanence of new practices; that conversation should be ongoing, starting as soon as possible.  

Friday, September 11, 2020

Projecting Self-Confidence, not Self-Doubt

Source: Pixabay

Kellogg Insight recently featured some very useful advice on how to project self-confidence in the workplace by Ellen Taaffe, Clinical Assistant Professor of Leadership and Director of Women's Leadership Programs at the Kellogg School of Management.   Her focus on the language people use is very constructive.  Here's an excerpt: 

On a day-to-day level, Taaffe says, you can project self-confidence by recognizing and minimizing how often you use qualifying language.

“I was recently on a call where a more junior person was sharing some good work that she had developed,” Taaffe says. “As she shared her recommendation, no one was responding. She started to speed up, audibly losing confidence before asking ‘Am I making any sense?’ I thought, Ugh. The pressure, when one is intimidated or doubting themselves, is real. It is easy to get rattled and diminish our contributions and confidence with how we communicate.”

Taaffe recommends avoiding rhetorical questions or opening qualifiers, because every “Does that make sense?” or “This may be a bad idea but…” signals doubt and indicates to listeners that the statement is less worthy of consideration.  Instead, confirm that your audience is following along using far more confident-sounding open-ended questions, such as “What are your thoughts?” or “What questions do you have?”  Taaffe also advises couching your idea in a brainstorming frame such as “What could we learn if we did…?” This has the added benefit of starting a dialogue that engages others and asks them to contribute.

Afterwards, check in with mentors and colleagues for advice about the ways your performance can continue to adjust and adapt.“

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

When It Comes to Creativity, Face-to-Face Interaction Matters

Source:  Wikimedia

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many firms have extended their working from home policies indefinitely.   People may not be returning to the office for quite some time.  We all know many of the challenges of working from home, particularly if you have young children or kids trying to engage in remote learning.   Still, for many firms, they have found that employees have been remarkably productive while not coming to the office.  Many companies have talked openly about perhaps having a substantial chunk of the workforce never return to the office again, even after COVID subsides.  Geoff Colvin of Fortune wrote recently, though, about the potential costs and risks of remote work.  He argues that creativity and innovation will suffer if we lose opportunities for face-to-face interaction.  Colvin quotes Steve Jobs, from Isaacson's biography:   “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat.  That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.” Here's a more extended excerpt, in which Colvin discusses the research on this subject:

In one of the most revealing studies of creativity in the workplace to date, researchers from MIT, Northeastern University, University of Cologne, University of Bamberg, and Aalto University studied several teams working on projects involving computer science, economics, psychology, and other fields; their findings were published in the International Journal of Organisational Design and Engineering in 2012. The subjects wore small badges called sociometers to record interactions within the teams, and the creativity and quality of the teams’ ideas were rated by peers on a scale of one to five. The results show strikingly what a deeply human experience it is to be creative in a group. The more that group members faced each other, the more creative was their output. The more they looked into each other’s eyes, the more creative they were. The more willing they were to confide in one another, the more creative they were. 

Facing each other, looking into the eyes, confiding—all those behaviors reflect and build trust. The researchers measured trust within the groups and found that it was crucial to the whole process. Their conclusion: “There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction to build up this trust.”

Monday, September 07, 2020

No Time for Ambiguous Leadership

Source: Psychology Today

Adam Bryant writes terrific articles on leadership based on his interviews with leaders in a variety of industries.  Bryant used to write for the New York Times; his most recent article was published by Strategy + Business.   It's titled, "Ambiguous Times are no time for Ambiguous Leadership."  In that piece, Bryant tells a terrific story about Tom Lawson, CEO of FM Global.  

The commercial property insurance company is headquartered near our Bryant University campus.   The firm has a unique competitive positioning in the insurance business.   Most firms rely heavily on actuaries to evaluate risk.  FM Global relies on engineering and science to develop an in-depth understanding of the risk of various practices and systems. Then they apply their knowledge to help mitigate their clients' risk. As Jenny Chao, senior research scientist at the firm, told the New York Times several years ago: "I blow things up to try to predict and prevent explosions. I also test products designed to prevent explosions and make recommendations on how clients can avoid risks."

In Bryant's article, he explains CEO Lawson's philosophy about clarity of communication.  Lawson argues that employees will fill any vacuum with speculation and assumption.  Sometimes, leaders aren't aware of the subtle signals being interpreted and misinterpreted by employees.   Here's an excerpt from Bryant's article:

Tom Lawson, the chair and CEO of FM Global, a property insurance company headquartered in Johnston, R.I., shared a similar story. “As I was moving up through the different management positions, I learned the hard way about how people can interpret a message,” he told me. “I was running our research group, where we have a lot of science Ph.D.s. One morning, it was rainy and horrible as I drove to work. I got to the parking lot, which was full, so I had to park far from the building and walk through the pouring rain without an umbrella. I was drenched and running late for a conference call.

“So, I walked right past the receptionist, didn’t talk to anybody, went into my office, and shut the door. I did my conference call and then forgot to open my door when it was over. About three hours later, our head of research knocks on the door. He said, ‘Can I talk to you? We’ve got a problem. Everyone’s saying that the company’s in financial trouble and that our research is going to get outsourced.’ I said, ‘What?’ Then he said, ‘You walked right into the building on the day we released our financials, and you didn’t talk to anybody. You shut your door and you locked yourself in.’”

Lawson added: “In fact, our financials were fine, and I told him the story of what happened, and he started laughing. I spent the rest of the day walking around, telling people that everything was fine. But it was a great example of how your actions can be misinterpreted. If you don’t communicate, people will make up narratives themselves, and those narratives may be negative.”

Friday, August 21, 2020

Making Decisions under Conditions of Extreme Uncertainty

Source: Pixabay
Harry Rutter, Miranda Wolpert and Trisha Greenhalgh are British professors in the areas of public health, mental health, and primary care health respectively.   They have written a blog post titled, "Managing Uncertainty in the COVID-19 Era."   The post appeared on the British Medical Journal website.  They offer five rules for coping with high degrees of uncertainty and making sound decisions in that context.  I think the rules are incredibly applicable in a wide array of settings, not simply in healthcare.  Here are the five rules:  
  1. Most data will be flawed or incomplete. Be honest and transparent about this.
  2. For some questions, certainty may never be reached. Consider carefully whether to wait for definitive evidence or act on the evidence you have.
  3. Make sense of complex situations by acknowledging the complexity, admitting ignorance, exploring paradoxes and reflecting collectively.
  4. Different people (and different stakeholder groups) interpret data differently. Deliberation among stakeholders may generate multifaceted solutions.
  5. Pragmatic interventions, carefully observed and compared in real-world settings, can generate useful data to complement the findings of controlled trials and other forms of evidence.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Why Don't My Employees Trust Me?

Sourrce: Pixabay
Cara Brennan Allamano, senior vice president at Udemy, recently shared results from her firm's survey of 1,000 workers across the country.   She published the findings in Fast Company
  • 63% believe their employers are using the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty as an excuse to trim down their organizations
  • 61% believe their employers are using workplace downsizing during the pandemic to transition to a more automated workforce
  • 52% believe their employers are leaning toward relocating their employees and organizations because of COVID-19
The numbers might shock you initially.  However, consider for a moment the abysmal employee engagement scores at many organizations before the COVID pandemic.  It's no wonder, then, that we see many employees with such perceptions about their employers' intentions during the crisis.   

Leaders need to ask themselves:  Why don't our employees trust me?  They have to be honest with themselves.  If they can't confront the truth, or don't seem to understand the reasons, leaders must find confidantes who will tell them the unvarnished truth.   Too often, I hear leaders make excuses.  They blame employees for holding misperceptions.  I think that's a misguided reaction, and frankly, one that is potentially very harmful to the organization in the long run.   Employees believe what they believe.  Perhaps their beliefs aren't true, but leaders must ask themselves:  WHY do they hold these beliefs?  Don't blame the employees.  Fix the situation.  Get to the root of why employees have come to be so skeptical and cynical about top leadership's intentions.  In my view, leaders should ask themselves three questions:
  1. What did I do in the past that caused an erosion of trust in the organization?
  2. When did my actions not match my words in the past?
  3. Have I acted in ways that employees might perceive as unfair or unjust?  Why did they come to see my actions in that way?  

Friday, August 07, 2020

Understanding Your Employees' Aspirations

Source:  Needpix.com

In a recent interview published on the Knowledge@Wharton website, Dartmouth Professor Syd Finkelstein talked about lowering employee anxiety and communicating effectively with your employees during this time of remote work.   He explains what should be happening during one-on-one conversations with your team members. In particular, he describes how leaders should try to understand their employees' pain points and aspirations. 

The second thing is more of an individual idea, which is for each individual on your team to carve out some time to have that one-on-one conversation, not the big Zoom meeting or the BlueJeans meeting or whatever it is. One of the best ways you can signal that you really care about somebody – and this will help alleviate their anxiety – is if you try to understand what it is they need and what they want in their own careers at this point in time.

That could be starting to think about, “Well, within a year hopefully we’re on the other side and here’s what I’d like to do.” Or, “I have an aspiration to be a senior VP or a C-suite executive here” — to actually spend the time partnering, where you’re not only providing advice, but you’re actually helping them execute on this. For example, if somebody needs certain skills to get to the next stage, you help them figure out how they can get those skills. If that means a new assignment, a new opportunity, you do that.

That’s just good management of people. But when you do that, especially now, you’re demonstrating in a real way – not just with words, which are important – that you care about each individual person and you want them to succeed, and you want to understand what’s going on in their lives now, and work together to try to get them to the next stage, whatever that happens to be.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Creativity: More Ideas Leads to Better Ideas

Source:  Flickr
This week, I came across a terrific paper publishedy by clinical neuropsychologist Rex E. Jung and his colleagues in Frontiers of Psychology.  The paper is titled, "Quantity yields quality when it comes to creativity: a brain and behavioral test of the equal-odds rule." 

For years, design thinking advocates such as the practitioners at IDEO and instructors at the Stanford d.School have argued that creative problem-solving techniques should first focus on generating lots of ideas, while deferring judgement.  The notion is that you have the best chance of coming up with a truly great idea if you brainstorm as many ideas as possible. Some quote Linus Pauling who once said, "The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."  Is this true, though?  Does idea fluency (the number of ideas developed) relate positively to creativity and originality?    Jung and his colleagues examined that question using a multi-method research approach.  They not only collected data on a series of behavioral measures from a pool of 246 research subjects, but they conducted neuroimaging as well.   Here is what they sought to study, as described in the opening to their paper: 

There is a long history, within the creativity literature, noting an association between idea fluency (the number of ideas generated) and the associated quality, originality, and/or creativity of the ideas that are produced on divergent thinking tasks (Wallach and Kogan, 1965). This notion has since been conceptualized as the “equal-odds rule” by Simonton (1997), which states that “the relationship between the number of hits (i.e., creative successes) and the total number of works produced in a given time period is positive, linear, stochastic, and stable.” This principle has great appeal in that it conforms broadly to evolutionary principles (i.e., there is a variation/selection process; Campbell, 1960), it is parsimonious (Simonton, 1984b), and it conforms to excitatory and inhibitory neuronal processes familiar to the neurosciences (Logothetis, 2008).

At the opening of their discussion section, the authors summarize their findings: 

We found that quantity was associated with quality on measures of divergent thinking customarily associated with creative cognition. Subjects who produced more descriptions of abstract visual designs produced more creative descriptions of the designs as measured by judges who were blind to subject demographics. These results provide compelling support for the equal-odds rule which underlie BVSR theories of creative cognition, and which have been demonstrated repeatedly in Big C cohorts throughout history. Importantly, these results were obtained in a college sample ranging in creative achievement (0–144), and intellectual capacity (80–153), thus spanning the normal ranges of both creative and intellectual abilities. We found that fluency and creativity were highly related to one another when measured using a test of divergent thinking and the consensual assessment technique. Finally, we found that fronto-subcortical brain networks were implicated in performance of both fluency and creativity measures, with a common locus across both measures being the frontal pole.

The research confirms Pauling's observation:  "The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Offering Predictability in Turbulent Times

In a recent article for McKinsey, Stanford Professors Robert I. Sutton and Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao offered some highly useful tips for leaders navigating the current tumultous environment.  They offer key insights regarding predictability and understanding.  Sutton and Rao argue that leaders must try to offer as much predictability as possible to their employees.  Moreover, they have to explain the rationale for their actions clearly and concisely.  Here's an excerpt:


The protective powers of predictability are a central theme in psychologist Martin Seligman’s classic research on learned helplessness. His “safety-signal hypothesis” was inspired by the air-raid sirens used in London during the Blitz, in 1940 and 1941, when German bombers attacked the city night after night. Because England’s warning system was so reliable, Londoners could go about their business without fear of being killed by German bombs so long as the sirens were silent. When the sirens wailed, they knew it was time to scurry underground to “the Tube” and other safe locations.

The upshot of Seligman’s work is that threats to well-being do less harm if reliable signals enable 

people to know when they are safe from the threat versus when it is imminent, fear is warranted, and it is time to take action to minimize risk. Conversely, if people never feel safe, their feelings of powerlessness cause them to suffer constant anxiety, despair, and, ultimately, physical and mental illness.


While predictability is about the potential for bad (or good) things to happen (or not), understanding is about the why. We humans have a burning need for explanations of important events in our lives. When events, especially distressing ones, are uncertain—and clear-cut answers aren’t forthcoming—people get anxious and generate plausible explanations. Once people invent, articulate, and spread such imagined explanations, they can have a hard time letting them go, no matter how incomplete, biased, or downright wrong they are, suggests research by Prashant Bordia and his colleagues.3

Dampening the anxiety that fuels distracting rumors requires explaining decisions in enough detail to convey that you, as a leader, are treating the people affected with nuance and care. Leaders also do well to rely heavily on simple headlines and repetition, because the anxiety provoked by crises can make it hard for people to process complex information.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Know-it-all vs. Learn-it-all Leaders

Listen to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella speak about "know-it-all" vs. "learn-it-all" leaders and organizations.   Great way of applying growth mindset to organizational leadership and transformation.   He discusses this topic during the first portion of the video interview.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Shadow Boards of Younger Employees

Source: Needpix.com
My former student, Cassidy Forsley, recently shared an interesting article on LinkedIn. It's a Harvard Business Review article titled, "Why You Should Create a 'Shadow Board' of Younger Employees." I enjoyed reading the article, as I've encountered companies employing such practices over the years. Each time, I've been impressed with the results. The article authors, Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell, describe how Prada and Gucci have used shadow boards successfully.  They write: 

A lot of companies struggle with two apparently unrelated problems: disengaged younger workers and a weak response to changing market conditions. A few companies have tackled both problems at the same time by creating a “shadow board” — a group of non-executive employees that works with senior executives on strategic initiatives. The purpose? To leverage the younger groups’ insights and to diversify the perspectives that executives are exposed to.

I think one benefit of a shadow board is that executives sometimes hear perspectives that their direct subordinates and middle managers are fearful of sharing with those in the C-suite.   A lack of psychological safety limits the views and information flowing to the top.   However, as one CEO joked to me, "the young employees are just stupid enough to tell me the truth!"  In other words, they aren't worried as much at times about the negative career repurcussions of sharing the unvarnished truth with top executives.   The shadow boards also enable companies to tap into the insights of younger consumers as well as spot social and technological trends.  Furthermore, as the authors argue, it increases employee engagement, thereby helping with talent retention.  

Monday, July 20, 2020

Hiring: Ask Why, What, and How

Source: modernhealthcare.com
Kevin Lofton is CEO of Catholic Health Initiatives. He has served in that capacity since 2003. Catholic Health Initiatives is the country's third largest nonprofit healthcare system. It includes roughly 100 hospitals across 17 states. Several years ago, he participated in an interview with Adam Bryant, then of the New York Times. Here's Lofton on how he hires. I think the why/what/how progression is very helpful to consider as you interview. 

How do you hire?

I start with the “why” — why are you here, why would this role fit into your career path, and why are you interested in coming to our organization? I then focus on the “what” — what are the things that you’ve done that relate to what you might do here, and what are your ideas for how you can help us?

And then I move to the “how,” and that’s where character comes in. How do you do business? Somebody might be a cardiovascular surgeon who is going to put a lot of money on our bottom line, but if they yell at nurses in the operating room, then we don’t want them.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Reflecting on your Decision-Making Mistakes: Anne Mulcahy

Source:  CNBC
In this article for McKinsey, former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy reminds us that you need to analyze the decisions you didn't make, as well as the decisions you have made, when reflecting on your mistakes. The missed opportunity may be a bigger mistake than the poor decision that you made. 

Decisiveness is about timeliness. And timeliness trumps perfection. The most damaging decisions are the missed opportunities, the decisions that didn’t get made in time. If you’re creating a category of bad decisions you’ve made, you need to include with it all the decisions you didn’t get to make because you missed the window of time that existed to take advantage of an opportunity.

She also writes about the absolute necessity to cultivate internal critics on your team:

My own management style probably hasn’t changed much in 20 years, but I learned to compensate for this by building a team that could counter some of my own weaknesses. You need internal critics: people who know what impact you’re having and who have the courage to give you that feedback. I learned how to groom those critics early on, and that was really, really useful. This requires a certain comfort with confrontation, though, so it’s a skill that has to be developed.

I started making a point of saying, “All right, John-Noel, what are you thinking? I need to hear.” And this started to demonstrate that even if I did show my colors quickly, they could still take me on and I could still change my mind. The decisions that come out of allowing people to have different views—and treasuring the diversity of those views—are often harder to implement than what comes out of consensus decision making, but they’re also better.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Essence of Excellent Mentorship

Source:  PxFuel
We've all heard the age-old advice: Find a terrific mentor.  Ask them good questions.  Learn from their successes and failures.  Gather feedback from them before making high-stakes decisions.  But what makes a terrific mentor?  Can we identify the "secret sauce" to excellent mentorship?

Brian Uzzi, Yifang Ma, and Satyam Mukherjee have conducted a fascinating large-scale study that may shed some important light on this question.  The scholars compiled a remarkable dataset of over 37,000 scientists and mentees.  They examined more than 1 million research papers produced by these scholars over a 57 year period.   Moreover, they looked at major prizes won by the researchers.  

They found something quite interesting.  The most successful protégés often make their make in subject areas distinct from those in which their mentors earned their stellar reputations.   Kellogg Insight described the research in a recent article as follows:

In some ways, this goes against conventional wisdom: students who are successful and carry on their mentors’ work are often perceived as rising stars. But in the long run, the most successful scientists are those who chart their own paths.

Uzzi and his colleagues try to identify what makes terrific mentors whose protégés soar.  They argue that the best mentors don't try to create a "mini-me" at all.   However, they do share a "secret sauce" with their mentees.  What is this secret sauce?   Again, here's an excerpt from the Kellogg Insight article about the research:

It’s clear that the best mentors pass on something that goes far beyond subject-matter expertise. (If that were the case, mini-me mentees would have been the most likely to succeed.)  Uzzi and his coauthors believe that what’s being passed between future prizewinners and protégés is tacit knowledge. Mentees aren’t just learning concrete skills from their mentors. They’re also picking up how their mentors come up with research questions, how they brainstorm, how they interact with collaborators, and so on—knowledge that is difficult to codify and often learned by doing.

That's the secret sauce.  Tacit knowledge.  In a mentoring relationship, focus on the critical skills that enabled the mentor to succeed, not just the subject matter expertise. 

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Which Music Do We Prefer? Interesting New Research

https://freesvg.org/
We know that Spotify, Apple, and others have developed sophisticated algorithms to recommend music to listeners. While many customers know precisely what they would like to listen to, others are open to discovery. Spotify distinguishes between those listeners with a "closed" vs. "open" mindset. The algorithms are especially important for those with an open mindset. 

Now we have a new academic study that suggests an interesting way to predict the music we will enjoy. David Greenberg, Sandra Matz, Andrew Schwartz, and Kai Fricke have published a paper titled, "The Self-Congruity Effect of Music" in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  They write: 

Across three studies we show that people prefer the music of artists who have publicly observable personalities (“personas”) similar to their own personality traits (the “self-congruity effect of music”)... Our findings are largely consistent across two methodological approaches to operationalizing an artist’s public personality: (a) the public personality as reported by the artist’s fans, and (b) the public personality as predicted by machine learning on the basis of the artist’s lyrics.

The scholars also show powerful evidence of a gender effect in music preferences.  They write:

The present article also provides the first evidence that listeners tend to prefer music from artists of the same sex, which had been previously theorized but not studied empirically (Hagen & Bryant, 2003). That is, the gender-fit between the listener and artist was found to be a significant predictor of musical preferences.

So, the next time you say yourself, "I love that artist's music."  Ask yourself, what do you know about that performer?  Why do you like that artist?   For companies, of course, the implications are profound.  Can they use this finding to refine their algorithms, without intruding on our personal privacy?  What if listeners were willing to disclose more about their personality in order to discover more music they would enjoy?   

Book of the Month

Thank you to Alex Urrea, Managing Partner at Eduscape, for selecting Unlocking Creativity as a book of the month selection and for his thoughtful review.  Urrea writes:

Unlocking Creativity, written by Michael Roberto, is a perfect read for all educational leaders and classroom teachers who want to generate comprehensive plans on how to approach this period in education. Mr. Roberto writes about the six mindsets that we must shift in order to think creatively and constructively; I believe that we must reflect on these mindsets so we don’t retreat to the usual comfort zones that have produced mediocre and factory-like results in education for decades.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Essential Summer Reading List

Source: Getty Images
Thank you to Jack McCullough, founder and president of the CFO Leadership Council, for including my book, Unlocking Creativity, on his list of essential summer reading.   McCullough's complete list may be found in this Forbes article published last week.  

Monday, July 06, 2020

Farming for Dissent at Netflix

Source:  Wikimedia
Yesterday, I listened to the first episode of the Recode by Vox podcast, Land of the Giants: The Netflix Effect.  The episode focuses on Netflix's vaunted corporate culture.   Many of you have probably read a great deal about the Netflix culture and the famous slide deck describing its tenets and values that circulated widely on the internet for years.   This episode takes a comprehensive, balanced look at the culture, highlighting its strengths and limitations.  I found one particular aspect quite interesting, given my work on decision making.  Here's an excerpt from a description of the episode by Recode/Vox:

Another tenet — “farming for dissent” — came out of one of the company’s biggest failures. You might remember it as a punchline: Qwikster.  The short version: In 2011, Hastings wanted to move his company from its core DVD-by-mail service to online streaming, which was growing quickly but was still a smaller part of his business. So he tried splitting Netflix into a DVD business and a streaming business named Qwikster. Which meant that if his customers wanted the same services they were already getting before, they would have to subscribe to both and end up paying 60 percent more.  Netflix veterans still wince about the experience: The company was skewered on social media and by SNL. Its stock dropped 70 percent, and more than 700,000 people canceled their subscriptions.

Eventually, Hastings admitted that Qwikster’s name, the price hikes, and the way the company talked about it all had been a huge blunder. He rolled back the changes.  But in Hastings’s narrative, the failure was useful for Netflix’s culture. He thinks that many of his top employees could have told him he was wrong but were too afraid or at least too in awe of their CEO’s former successes to say anything.

“Everyone knows the tale of the self-absorbed, arrogant CEO who doesn’t listen. And there’s an element of that, because we have been so successful at so many things before that,” Hastings told us earlier this year at Netflix’s offices in Los Angeles. “But the more subtle one is that I had been so successful before that most of the executives thought ... ‘But Reed has been right on so many things. I’ll bet he’s right on this one. And I’m just not seeing it.’”

After the debacle, Hastings instituted “farming for dissent,” a formal practice where employees are supposed to run their big ideas by colleagues and have them tell you candidly — on a Google Doc that’s open for everyone to see — what’s wrong with it. It’s considered integral to the company that your coworkers tell you what they really think of your idea, even if — perhaps especially if — you’re their boss.