Thursday, July 30, 2015

Timing of the Devil's Advocate

As this blog's readers know, I'm a proponent of Devils advocacy as a mechanism for enhancing decision-making effectiveness.  However, some teams make a crucial mistake with regard  to the timing of the devil's advocate.  Specifically, they allow one or more people to begin playing the role of devil's advocate too early in the decision process.  That early critique actually suppresses idea and alternative generation.  The best teams wait to critique ideas.  They begin by focusing on generating a wide range of options.  Then they begin engaging in critical analysis.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Stanford Professor Yossi Feinberg has identified five common traps that trip up entrepreneurs.  There's one trap that I think applies to any business, startup or large corporation.  Here's Feinberg describing this particular trap:

Don’t try and reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to.

The Internet has democratized access to all kinds of information, and if a successful process or structure exists for a non-core element of your business, use it.  This can be anything from administrative office functions to technical elements on the periphery of your central business proposition. If an effective solution exists, then the chances are it will not add value to your business to develop it from scratch.

Far too many companies fall into the "not invented here" trap.  They build out their own systems and processes when an "off-the-shelf" alternative already exists.  They fail to learn from what others have already succeeded or failed at doing.  They conclude that their business is unique, and that outside solutions simply don't apply.   Of course, you can't just copy others.  You have to adapt what they have done to fit your business.  However, simply starting from scratch and not leveraging what others have done is a big mistake.  

Monday, July 27, 2015

Preparing and Rehearsing for a Meeting with Your Boss

Patti Johnson has written a good Fast Company column titled, "8 Ways to Get the Most out of a Meeting with Your Boss."   Johnson explores how you can prepare effectively for these meetings, as well as how to conduct yourself to get the most out of these interactions.   Here's an excerpt:

Think less about your slides and more about the discussion
I once watched a colleague of mine endlessly tinker with the wording on his PowerPoint slides right up to the moment before his presentation. Of course you need solid content to grab your audience’s attention, but when you’re speaking to senior leaders, you need much more than a striking PowerPoint show. Instead, think of it as a tool for spurring the right conversation.  What decisions will be made during the meeting, and what information will be needed to make them? Pin down those objectives first, then plan your presentation accordingly. And stick to what's essential. Too many slides can signal that you plan to do all the talking or even that you can’t manage your time effectively. 

Focus on your audience, not yourself 
Anticipate the issues your audience cares about most. Put yourself in their shoes, and make a list of potential questions from your listeners' perspective. What do they want to know? Do they want in-depth details or just the headlines? How much time do they want to spend listening to you? If you base your presentation around your audience’s needs and interests, you can align your time and content to fit them.

I think the best part of this advice is that it encourages employees to anticipate how the meeting will unfold.  Putting yourself in the other person's shoes is so crucial.  I would even encourage employees to rehearse how they might respond to certain questions.  You also need to think about timing.  You won't have time to cover everything that you would like to discuss.  That's almost always the case.  So, be clear in advance about what your priorities are.  What must you absolutely cover in the meeting, and what can you defer? 

Friday, July 24, 2015

There is No Optimal Organizational Structure

Many senior executives seem to obsess over organizational structure.   They love to move the boxes and arrows around on organization charts.  Today we are a functional organization; tomorrow we will organize ourselves by product line.  That will solve our problems!  It will make us more customer-focused!  We will improve speed to market!  One year later, they shift to a geographically-focused organization chart.  That will solve our problems!  We need to think globally, but act locally!  We will adapt more effectively to local customs and cultures!   Executives should stop obsessing over the boxes and arrows on those organizational charts.  No "optimal" structure exists.  Each type has its strengths AND its flaws. 

Executives should recall the old adage coined by Rufus Miles, Jr. - a senior government official in the administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. Miles coined the phrase, "Where you stand depends on where you sit." In other words, your stance on key issues depends not simply on your own judgments, values, and beliefs.  It also depends on your position within an organization.  Your views will represent the interests and goals of your unit. 

What is the implication of Miles' perspective?  It means that leaders should focus on getting their team members to understand how the structure of an organization often drives its strategy.   They should challenge the executives to consider this important question:  How might we look at this strategic decision differently if we were organized differently?  In other words, are we allowing structure to drive strategy (rather than the other way around)?   Leaders need to encourage team members to stand in each others' shoes.  They need to be able to understand why people in other units, regions, or lines of business have different beliefs, positions, and perspectives.  They need to understand how current structures might be leading to certain biases in decision making.  In the end, no optimal organizational structure exists.  However, the best firms understand the limitations of their particular structure.   The best companies do not allow the organization chart to drive decision making. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Risks for High Potentials If They Switch Jobs

In today's Wall Street Journal, Joann Lublin writes about the "stay or go" decision for high-potential leaders.  These folks often find themselves in demand these days.  Should they stay at the company that has designated them as a high potential and invested in their development, or should they go to a new employer promising better opportunities, faster promotions, and/or a slice of equity?  Lublin identifies several risks associated with moving to a new employer: 

Job-hopping stars usually lose the extra attention to their leadership development needs. “That’s often when they need it the most,” says John Beeson, author of “The Unwritten Rules,” a book about landing executive promotions. “If you jump ship while a high potential, you may never get those issues addressed,” Mr. Beeson warns. “And they can derail your career.”  Departing high potentials also risk burnt bridges with an employer that has invested time and money grooming them. A surprise exit may harm the reputation of internal advocates who fought for their advancement.  “You need to handle those relationships carefully to avoid causing a rift,” recommends Mike Travis, head of Travis & Co., an executive-search firm in Newton, Mass

I would add that high potentials need to assess the "supporting infrastructure" at their prospective employers.  You cannot succeed on your own.   Therefore, you need to ask these five questions:  
  1. How strong will your new team be?  
  2. Are employees throughout the organization highly engaged?   
  3. Will your peers be supportive and collaborative, or will they constantly compete with you?
  4. How effective are the systems that you will need to do your work? 
  5. Will the firm provide you with continued coaching and development?  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Is It Time to Rethink This Standard HR Practice?

This week Forbes contributor Liz Ryan takes on some standard company policies and procedures that she thinks are outdated and counterproductive.   Among them, she criticizes the rule in many firms whereby employees must notify their manager if they wish to apply for another job within the organization.  Here's an except from her article:  

Most large and many medium-sized organizations still have policies in place that require an employee who wants to apply for a different job in the company to get his or her manager’s approval first.  Any person with three functioning brain cells can instantly think of plenty of good reasons why a manager might prevent a qualified and eager employee from moving into another job.  It’s a pain in the neck to replace a key employee. You might want to keep a great person on your team to boost your own chances at getting promoted... HR people working together with your employees should arrange transfer and promotion interviews. If an employee doesn’t get the job he applied for, his or her manager never even needs to know about it. If s/he gets the job, the manager can be brought into the loop at that point.

I'm curious what readers think about Ryan's recommendation.  I can see both sides of this argument.  In many firms, this rule does inhibit employees from pursuing new opportunities at times.  Some managers do horde talent to the detriment of employees' personal development and to the detriment of the organization's effectiveness as a whole.   On the other hand, Ryan's idea puts human resource professionals in an awkward spot. Moreover, it leaves managers - perhaps very good ones - completely in the dark.   Ideally, human resources should be facilitating career development conversations between managers and subordinates, rather than sidestepping supervisors in this manner.  They should be encouraging and facilitating each manager to talk to their people frequently about their goals and aspirations (not just at an annual performance review).  Moreover, human resources should be talking to managers about employee engagement data, so that they can proactively address situations where people may be frustrated on a particular team.  Finally, human resources should be facilitating discussions at more senior levels about key job openings, so that the organization can proactively identify key talent that it may wish to move into a new opportunity.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hiring for Cultural Fit

Many companies hire for cultural fit.  They want to find employees who share their organization's values, and whose behavior and mindset align with the way that decisions are made and work gets done in their firm.  A recent Knowledge@Wharton article argues that companies need to be careful, however, when considering a candidate's cultural fit.

Cultural fit clearly plays a key role in organizational effectiveness. Consider the study by Nancy Rothbard, Gina Dokko, and Steffanie Wilk, published in Organizational Science in 2009.   They found that companies must cope with a key downside when hiring people with relevant experience.  Specifically, they noted that many experienced employees come with "cognitive baggage" that can inhibit them from being effective at their new firm.  However, a candidate's flexibility and cultural fit tended to offset the negative impact of cognitive baggage to some extent.

What's the downside of hiring for cultural fit?  Hidden biases may creep into your decision-making process. You may simply look for people who are similar to you in many ways, i.e. same educational background, socio-economic status, hobbies and interests, etc.  In other words, you focus on fit with your personal interests and values, rather than organizational norms and attributes.  Kellogg Professor Lauren Rivera recently wrote an article for the New York Times about how we might bond with candidates over things that don't really matter when it comes to organizational effectiveness: “Bonding over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt Scotches in the Highlands or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants was evidence of fit; sharing a love of teamwork or a passion for pleasing clients was not.”  In other words, people tend to make snap judgments based on who they might like to be friends with rather than who could collaborate with others to drive organizational performance.  

Consider your interviewing process for a moment.   What types of questions are you asking?  How are you assessing candidates?   Is the emphasis on fit with the interviewer's interests and values, or are you truly evaluating cultural fit?  How might you alter your hiring process to emphasize the latter and downplay the former?  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Encouraging Others to Set High Expectations for Themselves

We often hear that great leaders and great teachers establish high expectations for their followers and their students. They set the bar high and challenge others to exceed that target. However, I was struck by some advice in a recent column by Fast Company that challenges this conventional wisdom a bit. Natasha Awasthi wrote a piece titled, "7 Hard-Earned Lessons in Leading a Dysfunctional Team." She talked about taking charge of an under-performing group and turning it around. Awasthi offered this important nugget of advice: "Make them exceed their expectations first (not yours)." She goes on to explain:

"A GPS needs to know where you are and where you want to go before it can give you directions. In a similar vein, before you unveil designs for another individual’s work-life, you must plot their starting point, and their desired destination. Your aim should be to thoughtfully and incrementally build an individual’s confidence in her ability to succeed at tasks seemingly out of her reach."

She makes a great point.  Before we charge people with achieving goals that we have established for them, we sometimes have to prove to them that they can exceed their own expectations.  We need to encourage them to set the bar high and show them that they can succeed at achieving those goals.  In short, we have to encourage others to demand a great deal of themselves.  Then they need to see that that achieving those loftier goals is possible.  If they do it for themselves, rather than for us, we are much more likely to succeed as leaders (and teachers).  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Engaging Your Consumer to Create New Products

Leading companies have become much more adept lately at co-creating new products in close partnership with their customers.  They do so in a number of ways, including intensive ethnographic research, crowdsourcing projects, social media contests, customer advisory councils, etc.  One example of an interesting approach is the "Do Us a Flavor" campaign conducted by the Lays brand of potato chips (owned by Pepsico).  This Knowledge@Wharton article describes the effort.  This excerpt explains how the program worked:

Anyone who had a chip idea in mind could visit Lays’ Facebook page, enter some information about their flavor and be rewarded with a shareable image of “their” bag of chips. The company teamed up with Facebook to turn the “like” button into a vote of “I’d Eat That.” Lays’ Facebook cover photo became a rotating billboard, which featured a new submission every few minutes.  A panel of judges and campaign spokespeople — celebrity chef Michael Symon and actress Eva Longoria — helped narrow the contest to three finalist flavors: sriracha, cheesy garlic bread and chicken and waffles, and then opened the vote for a winner to the public.

14 million people voted in this campaign, and the bags of chips for the three finalists flew off the shelves in a matter of hours.  Of course, the campaign's true value extends well beyond the sales of these new flavors of potato chips.  In my view, the value lies in the learning that is taking place as the campaign unfolds.  The brand managers identify flavors that excite customers, as well as those that clearly do not.   They also learn about the type of people most likely to engage closely with the company via social media.  Perhaps these customers share other important needs and wants along the way.   Moreover, the company engages the customer in a way that may lead to more sales for the brand overall.  They drive traffic to important retail partners, and they give those retailers something new and exciting to merchandise.  Finally, they help the company reach millennials, an important group for whom the brand may otherwise become less relevant amidst many new choices.  

Friday, July 17, 2015

Were We Lucky or Smart?

Eric J. McNulty, Director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, has written a highly useful blog post for Strategy+Business.   He examines outcome bias and how to overcome it.  Outcome bias, put simply, is the tendency to evaluate a decision (or set of decisions) simply based on the result.  In other words, if the outcome is positive, people assume that good decisions were made, and that an effective decision-making process was employed.  If the results are less than desirable, people presume that  the parties involved made faulty decisions and engaged in a flawed decision process.    Of course, that need not be the case.  We sometimes achieve great results despite some poor choices and a flawed process.  Similarly, we sometimes experience poor outcomes despite having made sound decisions.  How do we overcome outcome bias?  McNulty has a simple question that should be considered when great results are achieved:  Were we smart and capable or were we simply lucky?  By asking about the role of luck, we get people to consider the role of external and/or uncontrollable factors that may have contributed to our success.  It causes us to look beyond ourselves and to look beyond the simple explanation that our wonderful capabilities led to success. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Communicating Your Organization's Vision to Your Team

Kelly and Ben Decker have published a terrific Harvard Business Review blog post about communicating your organization's vision to your team.  They argue that middle managers should follow four basic steps when translating the overall company vision for their direct reports. 

1.  Know your audience:  What do these particular people care about most?   What are their primary goals and objectives?  What is their passion?

2.  Tailor the message:  Hone the communication of the vision to this particular audience.  Having learned about their passions, needs, and wants, you can shape the message in a way that is most appealing to them.

3.  Be specific:  Ok, if that is the vision, what do we do next?  How specifically do we act in ways that advance the vision?  Be specific and concrete.

4.  What's in it for them?   Sure, they care about the organization as a whole.  In the end, though, they are also self-interested.  How will these actions enable them to meet their personal goals?  Why will they benefit from the pursuit of this organizational vision? 

Monday, July 13, 2015

How the Powerful Perceive & React to Fair/Unfair Situations

The Boston Globe reported yesterday on a new study by Stanford researchers Takuya Sawaoka, Brent L. Hughes, and Nalini Ambady.  They examined how powerful people perceived unfair treatment.  The scholars conducted a series of experiments.  In those studies, they primed some people so that they recalled a situation in which they had significant power over others.  They discovered that people primed in the "high-power" state were much more likely to expect fair treatment, and they  are more likely to perceive treatment as unfair relative to those in the "low-power" state.   However, they also found that participants in the "high-power" condition were significantly less likely to perceive situations as unfair or unjust when they benefit or when others are harmed. 

In this article in Science Daily, Sawaoka commented on the findings: "Powerful people are only faster to notice unfair situations when they're the victims.   Our findings also suggest that powerful people are slower to notice unfair situations that victimize other people, and this converges with other research demonstrating that the powerful are less empathetic to the plight of others."

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Downside of a Strong Corporate Culture

New research by two professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University suggests that we should reexamine the impact of organizational culture on firm performance.  They argue that strong cultures serve a useful purpose, but they become a liability when faced with the threat of disruptive innovation.  A strong organizational culture enhances efficiency, because everyone is on the same page.  They can coordinate their activities effectively.    A weaker culture means a broader diversity of viewpoints.  It diminishes efficiency, but it might enhance the organization's ability to adapt to a changing external world.  The finding should not surprise you.  We have been aware of this good news/bad news story about organizational culture for years.  Nevertheless, it bears repeating... we all need the reminder that a strong culture is not all roses and rainbows.  Here's an excerpt from Kellogg Insights that summarizes the findings of this research: 

New research by Willemien Kets, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School, suggests that a strong culture serves a utilitarian purpose: it sets expectations, increasing the likelihood that, faced with uncertainty, members of a team will all be on the same page.  Kets, along with her coauthor, Alvaro Sandroni, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School, argues that cultural norms make interactions easier—a good thing much of the time. But in fast-changing industries, or in a tumultuous economy, the broader diversity of viewpoints that a weaker company culture engenders can lead to fewer missed opportunities.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Jimmy Kimmel Strikes Again: The Cold Pressed Juice Craze

Juice bars have become the new craze.  We see many of these stores opening up around the country.   Here in Boston, many new juice bars have opened in recent months.   Customers $8-$10 for a freshly created juice at these stores.  Jimmy Kimmel decided to see whether people really knew what they were buying. Let's take a look at this hilarious sketch!

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

What happens if you feel you can't express dissent?

Imagine you are in a meeting, and you sense that the group has prematurely converged on a solution.  The leader does not seem to want to hear dissenting views.  What do you do?  The easy answer is to have the courage to speak up anyway.  That's tough though, and it may embarrass the boss.  A one-on-one meeting might be more productive.  Talk to the leader privately.  Discuss how you think several people may have other ideas or alternatives that they are reticent to put forward.  Don't critique the current plan.  That may put the leader on the defensive.  Instead, simply suggest that it might be worthwhile to examine other options, if for no reason then that the discussion may help strengthen the current proposal.  Talk about others who perhaps have ideas that they have not shared.  Suggest that the leader invite a broader discussion.  This type of discussion in a one-on-one meeting with the leader often is a more effective way forward as opposed to direct confrontation in a large meeting.  

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

First-Time Managers: Weak at Influence and Persuasion

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has reported on an interesting finding from its research.  The organization reviewed 360-degree feedback for first-time managers, and it discovered that many of these individuals received poor evaluations for their ability to influence others.  However, people reported that the ability to exercise influence was an important leadership competence that would have made these managers much more effective.  

How do you influence others?   CCL points to the research of SUNY-Albany Professor Gary Yukl and four basic approaches to influencing others described in his work.  You can attempt to persuade others through logical arguments and analysis.  In contrast, you can appeal to their hearts, using an emotional and inspirational message.   Third, you can give others voice and seek their input as a means of building buy-in for a proposal.  Finally, you can offer resources and help to another party if they will help you enact a particular idea or initiative.  

What do the best leaders do?  They match the persuasion and influence tactic to the situation at hand.  They examine the circumstances as well as the people they are trying to influence.  Once you understand these factors, you can choose the right influence tactic - i.e. the one best-suited to achieve your goals in this situation.  

Monday, July 06, 2015

Urgent vs. Important Work: The Eisenhower Matrix

George Ambler has a terrific blog post about the so-called Eisenhower Matrix that is definitely worth reading in full. Ambler quotes the former president and five-star general, "“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” He refers to the Eisenhower Matrix, popularized by Stephen Covey in his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The concept focuses our attention on the notion that what we often deem urgent is not, in fact, that crucial to our success (personal and/or organizational). Effective leaders don't allow busywork and "fighting fires" to crowd their schedule, leaving little time for important work that may be strategic and longer term in nature.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Overclaiming: How We (Mistakenly) Judge our Contributions to Group Work

Melissa Dahl recently wrote an article in New York Magazine about University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Epley's research on "over-claiming" behavior.   By overclaiming, Epley means the tendency for people to claim too much credit for their contributions to group work.   He and his co-authors have asked people to estimate the percentage of work that they believe they contributed to a group's output.  They found that the sum of all members' estimates consistently exceed 100%.  Why does this take place?  Plain and simple, people are egocentric.  

In more recent work, Epley has explored the over-claiming phenomenon in more depth.  He has found that, "People wrongly assume that time spent on a project is productive time spent on a project, and claim credit accordingly."    In one experiment, he asked people to work in groups of three to tackle word puzzles.  Two people actually did the work, while one person was assigned to act as a supervisor.  They were asked to "leverage the synergies" of the team.   In another set of groups, the third person simply was asked to be an observer, rather than a supervisor.  The two groups did equally well on the word puzzles. In other words, the supervisor did not make a meaningful contribution.   However, they claimed to have made a substantial contribution!   

Epley explains the meaning of this finding:  "People like awarding themselves E's for effort, another tendency that can result in claiming more credit than you really earned."  In other words, people aren't really judging their contribution to the task's accomplishment.  They are measuring the time and effort that they spent on the task.  Of course, time and effort does not equate to substantive contribution in many cases!  

How does one stop the over-claiming from becoming a problem within a group?  In a paper with Harvard Professor Eugene Caruso, Epley discovered that asking team members to reflect on the contributions of their fellow team members can make a big difference.  In other words, you have to direct people to look beyond themselves.   If asked to focus on others for a moment, rather than themselves, over-claiming is reduced.   That's an interesting finding, but I don't think a bit of reflection solves the problem entirely.   I do something a bit different that helps to address over-claiming behavior.  At the end of a major group project, I ask students to evaluate the contributions of all team members, but I tell them that the sum of all percentages must equal 100%.  That too does not solve the problem entirely, but it helps.