Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The "Kill the Company" Exercise


Author and consultant Lisa Bodell has created a simple, yet ingenuous, exercise for stimulating change and innovation at companies. Like many people, she noticed how unproductive many strategic planning processes could be. She also observed the barriers that prevented managers from recognizing the need and urgency for change. Therefore, Bodell asks executives to engage in a powerful exercise to reshape their thinking. She directs them to put themselves in the shoes of their firm's primary competitors. Then Bodell poses the question: What could those rivals do to attack and even destroy our company? The exercise exposes a series of key vulnerabilities. Then, managers can rank those threats from most to least substantial. The exercise also enables managers to identify key assumptions and beliefs, perhaps taken-for granted as part of the conventional wisdom, that deserve questioning and challenging. Moreover, Bodell urges managers to ask the all-important question: Why do these vulnerabilities exist? What practices, processes, and choices leave us in a position of weakness vis a vis our primary rivals? Bodell also notes that managers then can turn this exercise around and examine their key competitors in a new light as well. They can pose the question: If we address some of these weaknesses effectively, could we gain the upper hand on some of our rivals? Which shortcoming, if addressed, would provide us a powerful competitive advantage?

Monday, January 10, 2022

Warming Up Before Solving a Tough Problem

Source: NY Times

Suppose your team has a very challenging, complex problem to solve.  You would like to generate some creative solutions to that problem.  What might you do BEFORE you gather the team together as a mechanism for stimulating more innovative thinking?   You could encourage the team to warm up before tackling the issue together.  What types of "warm-up" should you engage in before "running the race" together?  

1.  Physical activity:  As Annie Murphy Paul notes in her fabulous new book, The Extended Mind, engaging in some physical activity can be an effective way to enhance your brainpower.  Moreover, getting outdoors for that activity can be especially powerful.   Getting the blood moving is essential to thinking clearly and creatively.  

2.  Be an anthropologist:  Rather than simply immerse yourself in spreadsheets and data, go out into world and observe some actual customers.   Watch how your firm's products and services are actually being used, and watch for those pain points experienced by your customers. 

3.  Imagine someone else tackling this problem:  Scholars Evan Polman and Kyle Emich have shown that research subjects are more likely to solve a challenging problem if they imagine someone else faced that particular predicament (rather than being in that situation themselves).   

4.  Engage in an improv exercise:  A simple "yes-and" exercise can be a powerful way to get people to lower their inhibitions, think more freely, and become more comfortable offering bold and original ideas despite some reservations or concerns.  

5.  Brainstorm questions, not answers:  Ask the team to come up with different questions that they would like to answer regarding this problem.  What might they like to learn more about in this situation?  These efforts can be effective at helping people reframe the problem before the team in a manner that may stimulate more creative thinking.  In many cases, the initial frame may be too narrow, and therefore, it may constrain the range of options considered.  

6.  Gather some physical materials:  We can think more creatively if we have objects to touch, feel, and work with along with our team.  They might enable us to build mock-ups as we later brainstorm together, or we might use the materials to illustrate a customer pain point more clearly (rather than simply using words spoken or on a page).  

7. What would we never do?  Ask the team to generate a list of solutions that your company would NEVER choose.  Then ask the team to explain WHY these options would not be considered.  What orthodoxy or conventional wisdom does that reveal? Should that conventional wisdom or these assumptions be questioned before trying to solve this problem? 

Friday, January 07, 2022

Unlocking Creativity

Today marks the 3-year anniversary of the publication of Unlocking Creativity. To celebrate, I'm giving away 10 copies of the book! To enter the drawing, please share a post describing a useful technique employed by you/your team to improve creative problem solving. Tag me on social media & use #unlockingcreativity to enter the drawing. 


Thursday, January 06, 2022

Widen Your Lens: How Might I Learn From Others Far From My Technical/Industry Domain?


For the most part, we tend to focus on learning from others within our technical or industry domain.  However, adopting this narrow lens means we are missing out on some valuable and impactful learning opportunities.  When working with companies, I often encourage them to go beyond simply benchmarking their direct rivals.  I pose the question: Who is world class at solving a complex problem that you are facing at the moment?  Who has come up with an ingenuous solution to a thorny issue confronting your organization?  Go study that organization.  Don't try to copy what they are doing, because naturally, they are in a totally different context. Instead, attempt to discern some key principles regarding how they have solved that particular problem. Then consider how you might apply those principles to develop enhanced practices within your own organization.

My favorite example of this type of "stretched" or "widened" lens for learning comes from a story I read in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. The article, by Gautam Naik, is titled, "A Hospital Races To Learn Lessons Of Ferrari Pit Stop: Auto Crew Teaches Surgeons Small Errors Can Add Up On the Track, or in the ICU." The article tells the familiar tale of how surgeons in at Great Ormond Street Hospital, a UK-based pediatric care center, were worried about the possibility of medical errors during "handoffs" - i.e., those crucial times when a patient is transferred from one unit to another, or from one clinical care team to another. "Fumbled handoffs" represent a common source of medical accidents. Naik writes, "A 2005 study found that nearly 70% of preventable hospital mishaps occurred because of communication problems, and other studies have shown that at least half of such breakdowns occur during handoffs.

Naik describes a fascinating moment that occurred one day as Drs. Allan Goldman and Martin Elliot watched one of their favorite sports on television. The physicians observed in awe as a Formula One auto racing pit crew engineered a remarkably efficient and safe handoff each time the driver entered the pit during a race. They decided to try to learn from these racing crews and apply those lessons to their work in the hospital. Naik describes what happened next:

In early 2005, Dr. Elliot, Dr. Goldman and Mr. Catchpole traveled to Ferrari's headquarters in Maranello, Italy, and sat down with Nigel Stepney, the racing team's technical director. As a test car roared around a nearby track, the visitors played a video of a hospital handover and described the process in pictures.  The Ferrari man wasn't impressed. "In fact, he was amazed" at how clumsy and informal the hospital handover process appeared to be, recalls Mr. Catchpole, now a researcher at Oxford University.

In that meeting, Mr. Stepney described how each member of the Ferrari crew is required to do a specific job, in a specific sequence, and usually in silence. By contrast, he noted, the hospital handover was often chaotic. Several conversations between nurses and doctors went on at once. Meanwhile, different members of the team disconnected or reconnected equipment to a patient, but in no particular order.   In a Formula One race, the "lollipop man" with a paddle ushers the car in and signals the driver when it's safe to go. But in the hospital setting, it wasn't always clear who was in charge. Though the anesthesiologist had nominal responsibility to take the lead during a handover, sometimes the surgeon assumed that role -- or no one at all.  The crew at Ferrari trained for the worst contingencies. "If Michael Schumacher comes in five laps early because it's raining and he wants wet-weather tires, they're prepared," says Mr. Catchpole, referring to the Ferrari driver and seven-time world champion, who recently retired. The hospital team dealt with problems as they came up.

After carefully distilling key lessons from the study of the auto racing pit crews, the doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital developed a new protocol for handoffs.  The procedure was detailed - 7 pages of carefully orchestrated steps for a safe transfer of the patient.  What happened when the physicians implemented this new protocol?  Errors and information omissions decreased by more than 40%!  Importantly, the doctors didn't try to simply copy what they observed.   Instead, they identified key principles and approaches that could be adapted and applied in their quite different context.   That "translation" and "adaptation" is essential when learning outside your own technical/industry domain.  

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Fighting Decision Fatigue

Source: Discover Magazine

Rachel Feintzeig has written a Wall Street Journal article this week titled "Decision Fatigue is Real: Here's How to Beat it This Year."  The article notes that many people are feeling overwhelmed during the pandemic by the sheer number of seemingly consequential decisions they must make, both personally and professionally.   Scholars describe a phenomenon called anticipatory regret, in which people look ahead to why they might be unsatisfied with the choice they are about to make, and as a result, they find themselves unable to act now.  

What can we do to overcome decision fatigue?  I was reminded of a research study from many years ago, conducted by Stanford Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt.  She studied the speed of strategic decision making in what she called "high velocity environments" - contexts in which conditions were changing quickly and unpredictably.   Eisenhardt found that the CEOs who could overcome hesitancy and make faster decisions tended to consult frequently with "experienced counselors" or "confidantes" during the decision-making process.  These individuals served as vital sounding boards, and they helped the CEOs overcome their hesitation about moving forward.  The confidantes can leverage their own experience and knowledge to help the CEO sift through alternatives and assess risk.   They can offer an objective assessment when perhaps others are only advocating for their preferred course of action.  Finally, Eisenhardt found that consulting with a experienced confidante can help boost the confidence of the CEO in the face of high uncertainty and ambiguity.  They can help leaders overcome analysis paralysis.  

So, who then will serve as your experienced and trustworthy confidante?  Can they be an effective sounding board for you, so that you can overcome decision fatigue, make timely choices, and move forward?   I would note that this confidante need not always be on your team.  The individual may be outside your team or organization, yet willing to lend an ear when you need advice and a sounding board on a tough decision. Their outside status may be helpful, because they won't have all the biases and allegiances that may shape the perspective being offered by team members.  

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

A Lesson In Setting (and Achieving) Our Goals

Source: Mission to Learn

We can learn a great deal about setting and achieving goals by studying how people engage in physical exercise. That's precisely what University of Pennsylvania scholar Katy Milkman has done very successfully in her career. She features some of that insightful research in her terrific new book,

In one study, Milkman examined the behavior of approximately 2,500 employees at Google.  She studied their exercise habits.   In this NPR interview, Milkman explains the motivation for and structure of the study: 

And we had this insight from research on habits that it seems like the kinds of people who form the stickiest habits have a really consistent routine. They do it in the same time, at the same place over and over again. And so we thought, OK, what if we sort of adopt that insight and build it into our program? One group was basically encouraged to go to the gym at a really consistent time. Then we have a second group, and this is the comparison, where they also told us their ideal time, say, 9 a.m., and we reminded them to go at that time, but we encouraged them to go whenever it was convenient for them. And as a result, that group went at about the same frequency but in a more varied manner. So half of their gym visits were at this consistent time and the other half were all over the place.

What do you think?  I bet you think that the group committed to always going to the gym at 9am would adhere to their exercise goal more successfully.  Well, that's what I thought before I read the results too.  However, that did not turn out to be the case!  She explains why: 

But the big surprise to me was that it was actually the group who had gone at the same frequency but in a more varied way. And when we dug into the data, we figured out why. The answer seems to be that the people who had formed those routines that were really consistent were really rigid. So more often than not, they're going to the gym at that time if they're going, and they actually did form a slightly stickier habit after the end of our program around visiting the gym at that usual time. But if they don't go at that time, they don't go at all, right? So you miss your 9 a.m. slot? Oh, I'm not going to the gym today. Whereas the other group, they go to the gym at 9 a.m. a lot. But if they missed 9 a.m., they have a fallback plan. So then they make it at noon or at 5. And as a result, net net, they're going to the gym more. And so what this taught us was that a really important component of habit is actually having some flexibility. It needs to be I have a first best plan, but when that doesn't work, I'm going to get there anyway.

The lesson here regarding flexibility seems especially important as we navigate unpredictable and turbulent circumstances in our external environment these days.  However, remember that the flexible group still aimed for that 9am gym visit.  They didn't leave their goal completely wide open.   However, they did have a contingency plan - a commitment to get to the gym whenever convenient if they could not visit at 9am.  That combination of a routine coupled with some flexibility seems to be the sweet spot when it comes to successfully achieving our goals.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

It's More than OK to say "I don't know."

Source: Lean Enterprise Institute

Mandy Gilbert, Founder and CEO of Creative Niche, wrote an interesting article several years ago for Inc.  The title of the essay was, "Why Saying 'I Don't Know' Is a Sign of a Strong Leader."  The article reminded me of a conversation I had with a UK-based CEO in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.  She recounted a story of her first meeting with her top management team after shutting down the corporate offices in March 2020.  This CEO started the meeting by telling the team, "I just want to remind you all that I haven't been through a global pandemic either.  So, let's figure this out together."  Here's what Gilbert wrote in her article that reminded me very much of this story of the CEO confronting the pandemic with her senior team: 

When faced with an obstacle, your gut reaction may be to exert your expertise and quickly provide a solution. However, a much more powerful alternative would be consulting your team out of the gate.ate. "Let's figure this out together" will only have positive outcome. Not only will this show you value their opinion, but it will also help the team come to the right solution. Your colleagues could have been through something similar in a previous role, and consequently offer valuable insight on what the next steps should be.

Some of the biggest wins can come out of not knowing. Admitting you don't know what to do evens the playing field. When everyone feels equal, the problem solving process becomes collaborative rather than authoritative.

Success achieved through a group effort is much more powerful than when achieved through a single person. Imagine the camaraderie and culture that will start to cultivate when the team solves a problem or reaches a target together? As a leader, collaboration should always be your number one priority -- not your self-pride.