Thursday, December 27, 2018

New Year's Resolutions: Put Your Imperfections Behind You!

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Fresh starts are real!  This week we will hear a lot of advice about setting the appropriate New Year's resolutions. We'll also hear about how hard it is to actually adhere to our resolutions.   So many of us establish diet or exercise goals this time of year, but by the spring, we find ourselves struggling to stick with our original plans.  Having said that, recent research does suggest that New Year's Day might be a more effective day for setting a bold goal than a "typical" day during the year.   

Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman,  and Jason Riis published a paper three years ago titled, "Put Your Imperfections behind You:Temporal Landmarks Spur Goal Initiation When They Signal New Beginnings."  They studied "temporal landmarks" - i.e. days that “stand in marked contrast to the seemingly unending stream of trivial and ordinary occurrences” in our lives. These landmarks include birthdays, holidays, new beginnings (of a year or semester), and major life events such as a wedding.  These scholars examined whether an event that marked a "new beginning" could be motivating for people to pursue a particular goal.   Dai, Milkman, and Riis found that landmarks that represent new beginnings are useful to us because they enable us to "leave our old selves behind" and to embrace a better version of ourselves.  We can "disassociate" ourselves from our past imperfect selves, in a sense, at these landmark moments.  That motivates us to pursue a new goal, perhaps to eradicate a bad habit.  

In sum, New Year's Day might just be the right time to attempt to pursue a bold new goal regarding your career, personal well-being, or other aspect of your life.  Of course, much work will remain with regard to adhering to that goal.  However, the holiday will certainly be advantageous when it comes to initiating the pursuit of this new goal, much more effective than January 3rd or 4th might be... unless that happens to be your birthday or some other key moment in your life.  

Book Presentation at Business Value Forum: February 20th!

I'll be speaking about my new book, Unlocking Creativity, at the Business Value Forum on February 20th.  The event will take place from 7:30am-9:30am at Bryant University.  The BVF is a non-profit organization that brings together local business leaders for learning and networking opportunities.  Please consider registering for this event!  

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Stress: Gift Givers Need To Worry Less About Their Choices

Source: Pixabay
Several years ago, Karl Halvor Teigen and his colleagues published an article titled, "Giver-receiver asymmetries in gift preferences."  As some of us scramble for last minute gifts this Christmas Eve (not me, I'm done!), we might want to keep in mind a few of their findings.  Perhaps retailers too should consider these research conclusions as they think about their marketing and merchandising strategies, though they may apply the lessons quite differently than consumers should.  Here is what Teigen and his colleagues found.   Gift givers and receivers have starkly different preferences regarding the nature of presents exchanged.  For example, receivers tend to enjoy practical and useful gifts, but givers often opt for more exclusive, less practical items.  Similarly, givers tend to prefer gift cards, while receivers would rather have cash.  Finally, givers often stress about insuring that the gift will arrive on time for an important holiday or event.  Receivers are much more forgiving than we think about a late arriving present.   In sum, the study shows that givers might want to rethink their strategies and stop worrying quite as much as they do.  Don't let stress hamper your celebration of Christmas.  After all, it's not really about the gifts anyway.  

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Boards of Directors: What Happens to Female Dissenters?

Source: Blue Diamond Gallery
Juan Ma and Ithai Stern of INSEAD have published a paper titled, "Gender's Impact on Directors' Career Trajectories."  They examined the disparate impact on men and women of an expression of dissenting views during board of director meetings.  They explain their results:

We find that directors, male and female, are significantly less likely to continue serving on the focal board after issuing a dissenting opinion.  All else equal, dissenters are more than twice as likely to be dismissed from the focal board compared to those who did not dissent.  We also find that female dissenters will be more likely than male dissenters to be knocked off the board due to the in-group/out-group bias: a female dissenter was almost four times more likely to be dismissed compared to her female colleague who did not dissent, while a male dissenter was only (less than) twice as likely to leave the board following a dissenting opinion.

They also found that female dissenters are more likely to be dismissed if there are other female directors on the board.  The scholars explain that result by arguing that the boards may feel that they can "afford losing the female dissenter, as they are no longer subject to the societal pressure to have (at least) one woman on the board."  

Source: Harvard Business Review
The findings are troubling, if not surprising, to many scholars who have examined corporate governance practices.  Many boards do not have constructive debates.   Dissenters are marginalized easily, and they are viewed as disruptive or unhelpful.  Female board members often bring an important, different perspective to board meetings, but it's hard for them to contribute if they are penalized so strongly for expressing dissent.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Is Tesla Highly Vulnerable to a Hidden Risk or Ambiguous Threat?

source: flickr
This week, I read Charles Duhigg's incredible article about Elon Musk at Tesla (ok, I'm biased... Charles is my former student). The lengthy piece, written for Wired, is titled Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk: Life Inside Tesla's Production Hell.  Duhigg's article is based on an in-depth investigation of the company and its mercurial leader.  He explains:

Over the past six months I’ve communicated with dozens of current and former Tesla employees, from nearly every division. They describe a thrilling and tumultuous workplace, where talented engineers and designers have done some of their proudest work but where, as one former executive put it, “everyone in Tesla is in an abusive relationship with Elon.” Almost all these employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements or fears of being sued or fired by Musk. (Even those with positive things to say asked for anonymity.)

The story describes Musk firing employees on the spot without much warning.  It describes his brilliance, as well as the incredible insights that he has had about revolutionizing the car industry.  Duhigg also describes a turbulent workplace and somewhat shocking tirades and rather unpredictable behavior by the boss.  He writes,

At Tesla, Musk’s oddness was accepted. He was, after all, the leader, the biggest stockholder, the visionary. But sometimes his impatience would turn into tirades. “We called it ‘the idiot bit,’ ” a senior engineering executive told me. “If you said something wrong or made one mistake or rubbed him the wrong way, he would decide you’re an idiot and there was nothing that could change his mind.” Musk would openly deride employees in meetings, according to numerous sources, insulting their competence, bullying those who had failed to perform, demoting people on the spot.

Duhigg describes the dismismall or departure of many of his senior managers over the past few years.  Some left due to burnout, disagreements about the direction of the firm, or other opportunities.  Others were fired by Musk.  As I read the article, I wondered about more than whether whether talented managers will continue to flock to Tesla because of the exciting work and ambitious goals.  I wondererd whether Tesla could be highly vulnerable right now, despite the fact that it has ramped up product and begun to turn a profit.  Clearly, they build a beautiful car that has wowed consumers.  They have cultivated high willingness-to-pay for a premium product.  On the other hand, what if there's a problem with product quality or safety?  What if an ambiguous risk or threat emerges?  Will people be willing to share the bad news with Musk, or will such risks remain hidden?  Could such a hidden risk become the firm's Achilles heel?  Duhigg writes about pushing back if you disagreed with Musk:

And a troubling trend emerged, according to former executives: If someone raised concerns or objections, Musk would sometimes pull the person’s manager aside and order that the offender be reassigned, or potentially terminated, or no longer invited to meetings. Some executives began excluding skeptics out of self-preservation. “If you were the kind of person who was likely to push back, you got disinvited, because VPs didn’t want anyone pissing off Elon,” one former executive who reported to Musk told me. “People were scared that someone would question something.”

Those statements worry me a great deal.  Bad news does not rise to the top in most organizations. It often remains hidden.  Ambiguous risks certainly get downplayed or suppressed if leaders create the wrong kind of climate or environment within the firm.  As the organization grows, it will become harder for Musk to know everything.   Will people filter the information that he receives in ways that could become very problematic?  Stay tuned.  

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

New Website! (Blog Continues Here)

I've published a new personal website.  Check it out at 
You can find more information about my books, simulations, and Great Courses lectures there.   The blog will remain at this URL, and I'll continue to post regularly.  Thanks for being a loyal reader!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Falling in Love with Rosy Scenarios

Source: Flickr
Optimism can be a powerful force in an organization.   Certainly, leaders need to be optimistic if they wish for the firm to accomplish ambitious goals and objectives.   We won't get anywhere if people are always saying, "We can't do that.  It's not realistic.  That won't work here."   Having said that, leaders sometimes fall in love with rosy scenarios.  They fail to question assumptions, and they don't look closely enough at worst-case scenarios.  David Breashears, the great mountaineer and accomplished filmmaker, once told me that some leaders are not really leaders; they are cheerleaders.  He said that they never talk about failure.   Breashears pointed out that you have to express confidence in your team, but you have to consider and prepare for failure scenarios.  If you don't, you could die on a mountain.  

My experience suggests that many leaders don't want to talk about failure.  They enjoy setting very ambitious targets and celebrate the notion of achieving the impossible.   However, the best leaders understand precisely the nature of the challenge that they are setting forth for the organization.  They might be setting aggressive targets, but they understand the risks.  They have probed each assumption, and they recognize where things can go wrong.  Researcher Gary Klein advocates the use of the pre-mortem, an exercise designed to imagine what failure might look like before you embark on a project, so that you can either build contingency plans or alter your initial strategy so as to enhance the odds of success.   Many leaders do not utilize pre-mortems, though they are highly effective in institutions such as the military.  

In today's Wall Street Journal, Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann have penned an in-depth look at the fall of GE, based upon extensive interviews with current and former employees.  At point, they describe former CEO Jeff Immelt's penchant for unbridled optimism.   They offer this anecdote:

Already the chief of GE’s largest business by sales, Bolze, 52 years old and square-jawed, was in the race to succeed Immelt, and he was about to add a huge new global portfolio of power plants and thousands of workers to his fiefdom.  Moving through the slides, Bolze came to the proposed annual sales growth rate of the power business: 5%.

There was ample reason for skepticism. Power had been struggling to meet targets, and its sales hadn’t grown that quickly in years. Global investment in new gas-fired power plants was slowing. Energy efficiency was on the rise. That meant future revenue from the highly profitable service contracts GE had signed was likely to fall, or at least to grow less quickly. Global gross domestic product, a reliable proxy for the power market, was below 4%.  It was a rosy assumption that cried out for interrogation, the very point of the formal review. As the room watched, Immelt gave the desk in front of him a confident slap.  

“Great, next page,” he said.

Immelt could be tough on executives in his own way in these briefings, but it wasn’t usually for being too optimistic. “Where’s the guy I used to know?” he would ask an underling who told him Immelt’s targets couldn’t be hit. When the mood soured, the tone changed. “Your people,” Immelt would say, “don’t want it bad enough.”

The story is rather disconcerting, but don't think that GE and Immelt are unique.  This story plays out in many organizations each day.  The most successful leaders become comfortable with managing a delicate balancing act.  They aim high, but they critically examine how failure might occur.  They uncover hidden risks, and they probe for faulty assumptions and problematic strategies.   They are healthy skeptics.  

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Are Reluctant Leaders More Effective?

Source: Wikimedia
Sam Walker has written an intriguing piece for the Wall Street Journal this week. The article's title is: "The Eisenhower Code: Happy to Serve, Reluctant to Lead."   Walker recounts how Ike initially was not interested in running for president, after serving the country honorably and capably as a military leader.  However, he eventually did choose to stand for election and became a very successful two-term president.   Walker cites other reluctant leaders from George Washington to Moses, each of whom served their people very effectively.   Walker points to research by Professor Laura Empson on the topic of reluctant leadership:  "A 2014 study by London’s Cass Business School found that reluctant bosses are better at navigating office politics and maintaining control while also promoting autonomy. Because they came to power by doing hard work in the trenches, their leadership is often viewed as more legitimate."    I'm quite sure reluctance is not a prerequisite for success, but there's something to the point that overly ambitious folks can sometimes get themselves into trouble.  

Walker then recounts the story of a hospital executive who reluctantly became CEO.  Chuck Stokes served as the chief operating officer of a Houston-based hospital operator for many years. He did not want to be chief executive.  However, he reluctantly took the job when he was called upon, and he served very capably.   Walker concluded, "While Mr. Stokes has made a fine CEO, his ongoing reluctance raises an interesting question: Maybe the source of our leadership emergency isn’t a lack of talent, but the growing pile of things we expect leaders to do."  

Clearly, some very talented people are reluctant to became the chief executive because of the many demands on the job, including the external aspects of the role.  Some highly successful folks simply don't want to deal with investors, the press, and other external constituents.  They like to work diligently and quietly to execute, and they enjoy building great teams.  It's an interesting point, and one that we have to consider given how many complex organizations are and how many directions we are pulling leaders in at times.  Having said that, my experience suggests that many leaders don't do a great job of managing their time.  They take on many external roles and tasks, when they perhaps should focus more on simply leading their company.  It requires tough tradeoffs, but the best leaders recognize that there are limits to their time and attention.  

Friday, December 07, 2018

Unlocking Creativity

My new book, Unlocking Creativity, will be released one month from today, on January 7th, 2019.  You can pre-order the book now.  Thank you for taking a look at my new work! I look forward to hearing what you think!

Discussing Your Failures as a Leader

Source: Wikipedia
Allison Wood Brooks and her colleagues have published a new working paper titled, "Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful People Should Reveal Their Failures."   These scholars argue that leaders need to discuss their failures openly.  They should avoid simply talking about past success, because focusing only on past achievements can stir up "malicious envy" on the part of team members.  Brooks explains,  “When people feel malicious envy, they engage in counterproductive work to harm other people.  They tend to undermine others and try to slow them down.”  However, you might be thinking that discussing failures undermines people's perceptions of the leader's competence reduces their ability to inspire and motivate others to follow them.  Brooks and her colleagues find that acknowledging past stumbles does not reduce admiration for the leader.  You can read more about their research in this column from HBS Working Knowledge.

Interestingly, other research suggests that there may be another important reason for leaders to open up about their failures. Research in the field of education by Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her colleagues examined how students responded to stories told about the achievements of great scientists such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday. If students heard only heroic stories of their achievements, they performed worse in science class than if they heard stories of the challenges and obstacles that these scientists faced, and the failures on their path to great achievement.   Students could identify more with those authentic stories of difficulty and challenge.   Moreover, they were more confident in their own ability to excel in science if they heard these stories of challenge and triumph.   

The lesson is clear for leaders.  You not only reduce malicious envy if you open up about past failures, but you may bolster the confidence of your team members.  The belief in their ability to take on new challenges may rise, and as a result, performance of your team may increase as well.  Most importantly, others' perception of your competence may not suffer if you are honest with them about past achievements and struggles.  

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Four Models of Management from Legendary Rock Bands

Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Ian Leslie has written a terrific story for The Economist's 1843 magazine titled, "A rocker's guide to management."  In the essay, Leslie describes four models for organizing a great rock band and draws some conclusions about how to run a start-up and later a more complex business. Leslie writes, "The history of rock groups can be viewed as a vast experimental laboratory for studying the core problems of any business: how to make a group of talented people add up to more than the sum of its parts. And, once you’ve done that, how to keep the band together."  He describes four models for how to run a rock band:

Friends: "We Can Work It Out" - example: The Beatles

Leslie cites research demonstrating that having friendships at work can enhance employee engagement and job satisfaction. Moreover, he notes that the intimate friendships of John, Paul, George, and Ringo meant that they could literally finish each other's sentences.  Of course, working with your closest friends has its costs and risks.  Differences of opinion on issues can turn emotional and interpersonal in a hurry.  Fractures can result within a team.  
Autocracies: "I Won't Back Down" - example:  Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Leslie notes that Tom Petty used to lead the band in a very egalitarian fashion.  He shared all profits equally.  Soon, though, he realized that trying to operate as a team of equals proved problematic.  He shifted toward a more top-down approach and no longer shared profits equally.  People had a hard time accepting his decision at first, but eventually, they worked through their differences and remained a cohesive, productive band for decades.  Leslie also points to "The Boss" - Bruce Springsteen - as an example of an autocratic approach. Springsteen once said, “Democracy in a often a ticking time bomb. If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power. I’ve always believed that the E Street Band’s continued existence is partially due to the fact that there was little to no role confusion among its members.”  Some famous founders have operated autocracies successfully, but of course, autocracies come with serious downsides as well.  The lack of empowerment can be very demotivating in many circumstances.  Moreover, if the leader makes questionable decisions, and they remain unchallenged, team performance can suffer greatly.  

Democracies: "Everybody Hurts" - example:  R.E.M.

Democratic approaches in rock bands, as in startups, can be problematic at times, as people do not understand or accept their roles.  Members find themselves stepping on each other's toes, and they fight over who deserves the credit.  However, democracy worked for R.E.M. and for Coldplay.  Leslie writes, "The democratic model depends on individual members believing that each has the group’s interest at heart, not just their own... R.E.M.’s decision-making process meant they exhibited confidence in each other every day. There must also be a belief in each other’s competence. Tony Fletcher, the biographer of R.E.M., says that “usually in a band there’s someone the others think isn’t good enough, or isn’t pulling their weight.” But that was never the case with R.E.M., all of whose members were skilled in multiple ways. “Everybody Hurts”, the band’s biggest hit, was largely written by the drummer, Bill Berry."  

Frenemies: "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" - example:  The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones learned to respect one another and to divide up their responsibilities clearly.  They each had a defined role.   Mick Jagger ran the business, while Keith Richards focused on music. He didn't always like Jagger's decisions, but he deferred on business matters to this bandmate.  They didn't always get along, but they tended to benefit from a level of constructive conflict and tension.  One reason that they managed to survive as a group for so long is that they didn't let disagreements fester beneath the surface.  They argued it out.   Finding that perfect balance of conflict and compromise can be very challenging though.  Many groups cannot prevent their issue-based disagreements from spilling over into the personal.   

Monday, December 03, 2018

SNL Parody: Netflix Originals

Check out this funny Saturday Night Live parody video, which takes aim at Netflix's strategy for creating tons of original content.  It's a great way to start Monday morning!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Should America Be Run By... Trader Joe's?

I'm honored to be featured on this week's episode of the Freakonomics podcast.  They interviewed me regarding the research that I've conducted about Trader Joe's.  For more information about my research on the company, you can check out my HBS case study (co-authored with David Ager) as well as Chapter 4 of my forthcoming book, Unlocking Creativity

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Team Effectiveness Lessons from The Celtics' Early Season Struggles

Source: Wikipedia
The Boston Celtics basketball team entered this season with much promise and high expectations. Last year, with two of their top players missing, they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.  This year, with superstar Kyrie Irving back from injury and former All-Star Gordon Hayward back from injury as well, many analysts and fans expected a trip to the NBA Finals.  However, they have struggled through the first 21 games.  They have won 11 and lost 10.  What's wrong? Many people have pointed to the fact that they are trying to sort out their roles.  Young players who played a ton of minutes in last year's playoffs have had to adjust to the return of two veterans.   The veterans have had to adjust to the fact that some of these young players developed into major contributors and expect more playing time and more shots.   It seems as though they haven't figured out their roles, and they don't fully understand how they fit together.   Many teams struggle when the members don't have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and when members don't understand how they complement one another.   We should not be surprised if it takes a few months for the Celtics to settle into a groove and become a cohesive unit.  

Research also shows that some level of hierarchy can be beneficial on teams.  A "team of equals" does not always perform best.   Consider research by Nir Halevy and his colleagues.  They have demonstrated some of the benefits of hierarchy.  In fact, they have studied NBA teams.  They collected data over 11 seasons.  They examined the dispersion of salary and playing time among players on each team.  They found that teams with wide dispersions tended to win more games than those with what appeared to be more egalitarian structures.  In short, it helps if all the players recognize who the superstars are, and who the role players are, on the team.   A team of people who all think they are roughly equal doesn't perform best, according to this research.   The researchers argued that a clear pecking order led to more cooperative behavior among teammates.  In fact, they showed that the more hierarchical teams had more assists - a statistic that measures when one player helps a teammate score a basket.  

Could the Celtics have too "flat" a structure?  Perhaps.  Analysts have described them as having lots of interchangeable parts.  They have extolled the virtues of having players who can play "positionless basketball" because that means they can switch on defense all the time (a strategy that can be effective in today's NBA).   Are they right though?  Is a team of interchangeable parts who play positionless basketball really best? 

Consider the Celtics this year.  They appear to have a flatter structure, as opposed to a clear pecking order.   That might be part of the problem.  Everyone surely recognizes that Kyrie Irving is the best player.  However, after that, it may be a bit dicier.  Gordon Hayward is a former All-Star, but he missed all of last year after a gruesome leg injury.  He's clearly not back to full health.  Al Horford is a highly paid former All-Star, but he isn't a high scorer and seems to be showing some signs of age.  Meanwhile, youngsters such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown excelled in the playoffs last year, and they may think of themselves as rising stars in the league.  They may not be ready to defer as easily to these former All-Stars.  Terry Rozier, the back-up point guard, became accustomed to being the starter with Irving injured last year. He may think he's just as good as many of the starters, though he has now had to return to the bench. 

In the November 28th episode of the Celtics Beat podcast (start at 26:00 minute mark), legendary sportswriter Bob Ryan argues this very point about having a clear pecking order.  He describes great teams of the past as having a clear starting five, a few well-defined role players or "specialists" off the bench, and a few players at the end of the bench who know that they aren't going to see much playing time.  

What's the lesson from the Celtics' struggles?  Knowing who the star is and who the role players are can be important in certain kinds of teams.   Clear roles and responsibilities are very important for a team to excel.   An adjustment period is clearly needed when you are trying to integrate new members or re-integrate former members who are returning to a team.  It's not just about putting together the most highly talented set of individuals.  It's about figuring how they fit together, and helping each member understand how they fit with their fellow team members.  Getting people to buy into their role is a key job for a coach and for any team leader.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Draw It and You Will Remember It

Source: pxhere
Myra Fernandes, Jeffrey Wammes, and and Melissa Meade have published an article titled "The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory" in Current Directions in Psychological Science.  The scholars write, 

"The colloquialism 'a picture is worth a thousand words' has reverberated through the decades, yet there is very little basic cognitive research assessing the merit of drawing as a mnemonic strategy. In our recent research, we explored whether drawing to-be-learned information enhanced memory and found it to be a reliable, replicable means of boosting performance."   

How do the scholars explain this powerful effect on our ability to remember concepts? They argue that you have to elaborate on the meaning of a concept in order to create a visual representation of it.  Mroeover, you use your motor skills to craft the drawing, and you use visual processing abilities to examine the picture and determine whether it has accurately depicted what you intended to represent.  Together, engaging these different mechanisms of our brains helps us remember the concept more effectively than if we simply tried to write out notes or visualize the concept.  

The research clearly has implications for education.  I hope to draw on these lessons as I work with students moving forward.  However, the research also has lessons for how leaders work with their teams to craft and implement strategy.   Sketching out strategies and goals may be a good way to both develop a plan as a team and for people to remember key elements of it.   Asking people to synthesize and summarize what they have discussed for an action plan at the end of the meeting can be helpful, but perhaps sketching it out on the whiteboard might be a better way to move forward from a meeting to the implementation process.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Walking the Walk on Culture

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Adam Bryant used to write the terrific Corner Office column for the New York Times.  In that column, he interviewed successful leaders from large and small enterprises.   He's now moved on to become a Managing Director at Merryck and Company, but he still publishes some terrific interviews as articles on LinkedIn.  In a recent interview, he spoke with Mike LaBianca, senior vice president and global head of human resources for Sony Interactive Entertainment - PlayStation.  He asked LaBianca to comment on organizational culture.   Here's what LaBianca told him: 

For leaders, you have to walk the talk. You can talk about all sorts of cultural initiatives, but if you don’t see the leader actually putting those into practice, it actually hinders the development of a culture rather than helps it.

I started my career at Hewlett Packard, and probably the most impactful moment of my career was meeting Dave Packard for the first time. I think he was the chairman at the time. I had only been there five weeks, and I was in accounting. I went to give a report to his secretary, who was away from his desk. He came out and said, “Can I help you?” And I said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Packard. I didn’t mean to disturb you.” And he said, “Nonsense. Show it to me.” 

He looked at me, put his arm around me, and said, “You know, I want to thank you for deciding to invest your career with us. It’s very important that we have people out of college who believe in our mission, believe in what we’re doing. You’re going to be what makes HP great.” It had a very meaningful effect on me. He continued to believe in taking the time to get to know every employee the moment that he could and expressing his support and thanks. That’s the most powerful cultural moment that I’ve ever experienced anywhere.

I think LaBianca is right on the money.   What can leaders do with this advice about walking the walk?  They have to assess their employees' impressions of the culture.  Do people feel as though senior leaders' actions match their words?  Is there a serious disconnect there - a case of empty talk?   Sometimes, leaders won't get straight answers to these questions if they ask themselves, particularly if a major disconnect occurs.  They'll need some help.   They cannot ignore the problem though.  Cynicism can be a pernicious thing in organizations, and it often spreads quickly throughout an organization.  

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Not All Failure is Smart Failure

Source:  Flckr

Several months ago, long-time executive and now Duke Professor Jon Fjeld published an article for Sloan Management Review titled, "How to Test Your Assumptions."   He begins the article by questioning the "fail fast" approach embraced by many entrepreneurs in recent years.   He notes that many startups do not understand the lean startup philosophy, and they are implementing it in a haphazard and ineffective way.  He writes: 

The enthusiasm surrounding the “lean startup methodology” and its many offshoots has created a mindset that entrepreneurs should just launch, failing early and often — iterating, to use startup parlance. But failure alone does not teach. If there are an infinite number of bad ideas, eliminating one gets us no closer to a good idea. Rather, the businessperson contemplating a new venture must begin by evaluating factors that have to be true for the venture to succeed. He or she also must model these factors in a way that allows for reasonable testing. For example, the assumption that people will buy a product for the asking price is a big one; it would take a full launch to completely validate this. Therefore, the entrepreneur must split big assumptions into discrete, manageable assumptions that can be tested at a level of detail allowing for efficient learning.

He makes a terrific point.  Not all failure is instructive.  At times, you can fail, but find yourself unable to distinguish among many causal factors to which that failure can be attributed.  In fact, these types of failures can be enormously costly, because individuals can derive incorrect attributions easiliy, and then make the wrong kinds of changes in hopes of averting failure in the future.  Failing fast works best when you can test your ideas in ways that enable you to identify what went wrong and WHY it went wrong.   Sometimes, two or three possible causes should be considered, and another test may be conducted to determine which of these factors led to the failure.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thanksgiving: Expressing Gratitude Enhances our Well-Being

Source: Grisson Air Reserve Base
For past Thanksgiving holidays, I've blogged about some interesting research regarding the benefits of expressing gratitude. For instance, last year, I wrote about experimental research conducted by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough that demonstrated the benefits associated with counting our blessings.   

This year, I'd like to share the findings from another important study about gratitude.  Several years ago, Sheung-Tak Cheng, Pui Ki Tsui, John Lam published a paper titled, "Improving Mental Health in Health Care Practitioners: Randomized Controlled Trial of a Gratitude Intervention."  In explaining the meaning and impact of their research, the scholars wrote, "This study revealed that an intervention involving writing gratitude events led to a reduction in perceived stress and depressive symptoms among health care practitioners. It is possible that such positive effects among these professionals can also lead to an improvement in both productivity and quality of patient services."

What precisely did these researchers do in their study?  102 physicians, nurses, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists participated in this research project.  The health care practitioners wrote diaries about work-related events twice per week for four weeks.  The scholars directed some participants to describe events about which they were thankful.  They directed others to describe something that annoyed them.  Naturally, the scholars included a control condition in their study.   They found that the gratitude diary entries often described receiving assistance from colleagues or benefiting in some other way from a constructive relationship with a co-worker.   The scholars found that writing about gratitude reduced perceived stress and depressive symptoms among the healthcare practitioners.  In short, expressing gratitude seemed to have a positive effect on the workers' well-being.  The scholars speculate that these positive effects might actually enhance the care of patients, though they do not measure that in this particular study.  

We often hear about the importance of self-reflection.  Some leaders take a few moments at the end of each day or week to reflect upon what they have accomplished recently, as well as the mistakes that they have made.  This type of reflection can enhance learning and lead to continuous improvement.  These studies suggest that these moments of self-reflection ought to also include some time for considering those things and people for which we feel very grateful.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  I'm certainly grateful to those who take the time to read this blog! 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Blending Big Data and Design Thinking Works Best

Bryant University Professor Lori Coakley and I have published a new article in the American Management Association Quarterly (Fall 2018 issue) titled, "The Human Center of Design Thinking."  In this short essay, we argue that many firms stumble because they focus on a technology in search of a problem.  Put another way, they wield a hammer in search of a nail... rather than seeking out unmet human needs, pain points, and frustrations that must be alleviated.  Moreover, managers sometimes think large datasets, derived from surveys and purchase histories, can provide them all the insight they need about customers.  They are sorely mistaken.   Finally, we explain why we sometimes empathize poorly with our customers, and we offer some tips on how to do so more effectively. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Importance of Luck & Timing: Genuine Humility Indeed

Soure: Pixabay
In a recent interview, Stanford labor economist Paul Oyer discussed some of his research that demonstrates the importance of luck and timing in a person's career.   Here's an excerpt from the article featured on Stanford's website:  

Oyer’s findings suggest that it’s not just that people who like banking go into it and stay in it throughout their careers. Rather, investment bankers are often “made” by the conditions they encounter upon graduating. “That first step you take out of school ends up having long-term ramifications for where you end up working later in life,” Oyer says. “That initial draw in the labor market matters a lot.”

Oyer’s research showed a similar luck-of-the-draw finding for PhD economists on the academic job market. In a year when state budgets are in good shape and university endowments are up, schools do more hiring and a newly minted economist is much more likely to land a job at a higher-ranked university. And that initial job match has dramatic implications for the rest of the economist’s career, Oyer says, as he or she is more likely to publish more and stay at a top-ranked university.

“Every highly successful person had to do a lot of work to get where they are,” Oyer says. “But somewhere along the line they probably got a few good breaks. I think that’s a very important thing to remember, both to keep people who are very successful humble but also to encourage those who haven’t been successful yet to just keep looking for that break.”

This work reminds me of a former Baxter CEO Harry Kraemer's description of what it means for a leader to demonstrate genuine humility.  Kraemer argues that being genuinely humble means recognizing that your accomplishments are not simply due to your know-how and hard work.  Instead, they are a product of luck, timing, and your team. For Kraemer, he also credits the gifts and talents bestowed on him by God.   In short, it's not all about you.  It's about external factors that contribute to your success.  Stanford economist Oyer's research shows just how important luck and timing indeed can be.  

4 Lessons in Creativity: Julie Burstein

If you want to learn more about creativity, check out this interesting TED talk by Julie Burstein, a Peabody Award-winning radio producer and best-selling author.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Dangers of High Expectations

Source: Flickr
Hengchen Dai, Berkeley Dietvorst, Bradford Tuckfield, Katherine Milkman, and Maurice Schweitzer have published a fascinating new study about the dangers of high expectations. Their article is titled, "Quitting When the Going Gets Tough: A Downside of High Performance Expectations."   They note that high expectations can be a very positive force.  For instance, when teachers set high expectations for students, they often achieve good academic results.   Why?  Research suggests that high external performance expectations elevates self-expectations.   

However, the scholars examine what occurs when someone with high external performance expectations hits a roadblock or obstacle early on during a particular effort. they argue the following: "We propose that when initial performance is poor, compared to individuals who face low expectations, individuals who face 6 high expectations will be more concerned about their public image and experience greater embarrassment."  How do individuals cope with this embarrassment?  For some people, persistence may be the right strategy.  They persevere so as to eventually succeed and thus avoid the embarrassment of not meeting external expectations.  For many individuals, though, an opposite reaction occurs. They begin searching for an exit strategy so as to avoid the embarrassment of unfulfilled expectations.  In particular, they hope to find an exit strategy with a "plausibly valid excuse" for quitting, thus enabling them to blame the initial poor performance on unforeseen or uncontrollable circumstances.  

To test their hypothesis about exit strategies, they conducted a study of over 300,000 men's tennis matches.   They showed that, "After losing the first set of a match, players who are expected to win (favorites) are significantly more likely to quit than players who are expected to lose (underdogs)."  A subsequent experimental study confirmed these results.  

What then should we do? Should we lower performance expectations for talented individuals on our teams? Of course not. What we must do, though, is be ready to coach, support, and encourage those who might encounter early setbacks.  Leaders need to focus on how one can learn from an initial failure, rather than seeking to assign blame.   They cultivate a growth mindset among their team members.  

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Who Interacts with the Customer?

Source: USAF Civil Engineer Center
Patrick Gorman recently published an interview with Susan Story, CEO Of American Water Works Company for   In that interview, Story describes what it means to be customer-focused.  She explains that, "If you're customer-focused, the next step, is, there's no bad idea and pepole can push back."  That's an interesting connection between customer focus and employee empowerment.  Story argues that you can't say you are customer-focused if you haven't created a culture where the people responsible for interacting with the customer every day have the ability to speak up, challenge the existing ways of working, and offer new ideas.  Story offers an example: 

I’ll give you a great example of the change we’ve made in technology. Several years ago we had a new back office software system put in and the people on frontlines weren’t asked about it. It was very rigid and our employees on the frontlines hated it. And it actually slowed down their ability to deliver customer service.

So with our new chief technology and innovation officer, we got a group of 13 field service reps from all over the country to and said, “Tell us what you need.” And we had technologists in the room and they built what the frontline employees told them they needed and they did it quickly. They met in April by July 31st, they had a prototype, they’re out in the field using it, they got feedback, and by the end of the year, we deployed it to 1,800 field service reps around the United States.

And I think that one of the biggest changes that we’ve made is that we’re trying to let our frontline employees dictate how we do our business, because they’re the ones interacting with our customers every day.

In too many instances, I think senior executives ASSUME that they know what customers want.  They jump to conclusions based on a few anecdotes, or they cling to beliefs about customers that may have been true in the past, but no longer hold.  They also don't empower those closest to the customer to share what they know, and what they have experienced through their interactions with the customer.  Some senior leaders spend a great deal of money hiring consultants to tell them what customers want, while never asking the people on the front lines of their own organizations about customer needs, wants, and pain points.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Learn From Front Line Workers, Make Their Work More Meaningful

Source: Blue Diamond Gallery
I recently read an article that Maryn McKenna wrote for Scientific American several years ago. The article is titled, "Clean Sweep: Hospitals Bring Janitors to the Front Lines of Infection Control." The article describes the efforts by hospitals to control the rate of patient infection, particularly those that are increasingly difficult to treat. McKenna describes how infection-control specialists have partnered with janitorial staff to tackle this perplexing problem: 

Institutions also employ infection-control specialists, who track infections and investigate their causes. Yet when the problem is bacteria on surfaces, eliminating them depends on the building-services crews. “This is the level in the hospital hierarchy where you have the least investment, the least status and the least respect,” says Jan Patterson, president of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. Traditionally, medical centers regard janitors as disposable workers—hard to train because their first language may not be English and not worth training because they may not stay long in their jobs.

At N.Y.U. Langone in 2010, Phillips and his co-workers launched a pilot project that redefined those formerly disposable workers as critical partners in patient protection. Janitors, they realized, know better than anyone else which rails are touched most frequently and which handles are hardest to clean. The Langone “clean team” paired janitors with infection-control specialists and nurses in five acute care units to ensure that all high-touch surfaces were thoroughly sanitized. In its first six months the project scored so high on key measures—reducing the occurrence of C. diff infections and the consumption of last-resort antibiotics—that the hospital's administration agreed to make the experiment routine procedure throughout the facility. It now employs enough clean teams to assign them to every acute care bed in the hospital.

What a terrific story!  I love this example of learning and performance improvement because the leaders respected the knowledge and the abilities of often-neglected front-line workers with low status in the organization.  They partnered with them to get the job done, rather than thinking that the high-status, highly educated senior people had all the answers.  Moreover, they redefined the jobs of these front-line workers, giving them new meaning.  These janitors were not simply completing a set of tasks, such as mopping the floors.  They were helping to save lives by reducing the rate of patient infection.  They were doing incredibly important work.  I see this situation as a terrific example of aligning everyone in the organization in pursuit of a shared goal.  The janitors understood clearly how their work helped fulfill the hospital's main mission of saving lives.  In too many instances, front-line workers don't understand how their efforts contribute to the fulfillment of the organization's mission.  In this case, no such confusion or lack of clarity exists.   

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Unlocking Creativity

Thank you to the San Francisco Review of Books for inviting me to participate in this interview about my forthcoming book, Unlocking Creativity.  You can listen to the entire interview at the link below. 

Friday, November 09, 2018

Saying No to Your Employees
How many times have you submitted a proposal to a leader of your organization and not received a clear yes/no answer?  In far too many instances, hard-working employees come up with an original idea, put together a detailed proposal, and then never receive a direct response.  It seems as though the proposals disappear into a black hole.  Or, in many instances, leaders simply stall endlessly.  They respond that they will have to consult with others in the organization.   When pressed, they blame others in the organization for not responding to them in a timely manner.   Or, they ask for more information and analysis... repeatedly.   They never appear satisfied with the supporting evidence and analysis provided.  Often, in these cases, leaders don't want to proceed with the proposed course of action.  However, they don't want to say no either.  So, they stall endlessly by constantly demanding more information. 

Employees deserve clear yes/no answers in a timely fashion when they propose original ideas.  If the answer is no, they deserve a clear rationale for why the organization does not want to proceed with the proposed course of action.  If employees don't receive a clear and timely response, they will become disengaged.  Trust in leadership will decline.  The flow of creative new ideas will slow to a crawl.   

Why don't leaders provide clear responses in many cases?  They don't want to be unpopular, or they don't have the courage to explain why they are declining to endorse a particular proposal.   Or, they want to go in a different direction, but they aren't prepared to offer a strong, concise explanation for why that's the preferred course of action.   Sometimes, they genuinely need more information to make a sound decision.  In those cases, though, leaders need to be crystal clear about what data they would like to see, and what analysis they would like subordinates to perform.  They need to make it clear that they aren't simply sending employees on a wild goose chase.  

Friday, November 02, 2018

Signaling and Shame: Why We Don't Seek Information & Advice From Others... Even Though We Should

Source:  Pixabay
Arun G. Chandrasekhar, Benjamin Golub, and He Yang have written a fascinating National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled, "Signaling, Shame, and Silence in Social Learning."  They examine how individuals make the choice to seek or not seek information and advice from others.  The scholars argue that seeking information has obvious benefits, in that it helps us to learn from others and make more informed decisions.  On the other hand, asking others for information may bring with a social stigma.  The potential seeker may ask himself or herself:  Will I look incompetent?  Will others question my work ethic?  Will people think that I don't have the adequate experience or education to handle this job?  

The scholars go on to argue that there are two mechanisms that may cause people to refrain from asking others for useful information.  First, signaling may be a concern.  They explain: "One mechanism—a signaling concern—is about managing others’ beliefs. For instance, a pupil concerned about how others perceive him may be reluctant to ask a teacher or a peer basic questions about an assignment, fearing that this person could infer that the pupil is slow or lazy."  Second, shame may be a powerful inhibiting force.  The scholars write, "There is another way stigma can inhibit interaction, which is not about managing beliefs but managing interactions in view of compromised beliefs. To illustrate, the pupil in the example may simply dislike interacting with those who have a negative assessment of him, no matter how this assessment came about. In particular, such feelings can occur even when signaling concerns are irrelevant, because a bad attribute (such as a pupil’s ignorance) is apparent to the potential Advisor irrespective of his seeking decision. We may call this type of inhibition shame." 

To study the mechanisms that might inhibit individuals from seeking information and advice from others, the scholars conducted a field experiment with over 1,200 pairs of individuals in 70 villages in India.   In this setting, as villagers often seek information from others about issues of agricultural production.   The experimental results confirm their hypotheses, namely that signaling and shame concerns inhibit information seeking and learning.  Moreover, they find that signaling matters more in some situations, while shame plays a major factor in others.   Put simply, shame proves to be a major concern when interacting with friends.  Signaling concerns dominate when interacting with strangers and/or acquaintances.  

What's the implication for leaders on teams of all types?  We need to understand how social stigma plays a key role in limiting the information sharing and group learning that may be crucial to solving challenging problems.   Teams do not always perform to their potential because members often focus their dialogue on information common to all members.  They often do not spend enough time sharing, discussing, and integration that is unique to particular members.   Why don't people request vital information from their teammates or their leaders?  Shame and signaling play a key role.  Leaders need to break down these barriers to facilitate more effective team learning and problem solving. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

IDEO's Response to Criticism of Design Thinking

Source: Medium
Fast Company's Katherine Schwab interviewed IDEO's Michael Hendrix this week for an article titled, "IDEO Breaks Its Silence on Design Thinking Critics." Schwab writes, "Over the last year, Ideo’s philosophy of “design thinking“–a codified, six-step process to solve problems creatively–has come under fire. It’s been called bullshit, the opposite of inclusive design, and a failed experiment."   I am a proponent of design thinking, but I understand the criticism.  Many people and organizations have adopted the language of design thinking, or sought to embrace the approach, without effecting real change.  They have talked the talk about innovation, without walking the walk.  Organizations have spent a great deal of money on innovation programs with little real impact. 

Schwab explains, "Part of the problem is that many people use the design thinking methodology in superficial ways. Hendrix calls it the “theater of innovation.” Companies know they need to be more creative and innovative, and because they’re looking for fast ways to achieve those goals, they cut corners."   Like Hendrix, I've observed many large organizations fail when trying to embrace or adopt design thinking.  I've seen plenty of theater.  He goes on to argue that the culture at many firms lacks the key elements required to truly succeed with a design thinking approach to innovation.  Hendrix notes that many organizations do not have a climate of psychological safety, where people trust that they can speak up and offer ideas without being rebuked or marginalized.  Moreover, he notes that many companies have not embraced a culture of play - a necessary precondition, in his view, for succeeding at design thinking. 

In my forthcoming book, I offer one other explanation for why design thinking fails in many organizations.  In my mind, the creative process is a fundamentally non-linear process.  It moves in fits and starts on many occasions, and it involves a great deal of iteration.  You find yourself moving off in unexpected directions at times, and reversing course when roadblocks or failed experiments occur.   Many companies have tried to implement IDEO's design thinking methodology, but they have perceived the stages of that process as sequential in nature.  They have applied a linear mindset to an essentially non-linear process.  They think that ideation always follows empathy-based research, and that prototyping always follows ideation.  Organizations are used to analyzing, planning, and then executing.  The creative process simply does not unfold in that linear fashion.  

Sunday, October 28, 2018

John Cleese: Lecture on Creativity

Many years ago, the English actor John Cleese, co-founder of the Monty Python comedy troupe, gave a terrific lecture on creativity.  He offered some wonderful reflections about the creative process.  Here's an excerpt: 

There is one negative thing that I can say and it's negative because it's easier to say what creativity isn't...  a bit like the sculptor who when asked how he sculpted a very fine elephant explained that he'd taken a big block of marble and then knocked away all the bits that didn't look like an elephant.  The negative thing is that creativity is not a talent.  It is not a talent.  It is a way of operating... When I say a way of operating, what I mean is that creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have.   It is, for example, and this may surprise you, absolutely unrelated to IQ provided you're intelligent above a certain minimal level.  

Here's the video of the complete lecture: 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Value of "Stupid" Questions

Source: Hyatt Hotels
David Gelles interviewed Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of  Hyatt Hotels, recently for the New York Times Corner Office column.   In the interview, Hoplamazian describes his early days as CEO of Hyatt, when he was quite unfamiliar with the business.  He explains why "stupid" questions proved quite powerful.  

It was pretty intimidating in some ways. I came into the business, and I was pretty ignorant. I knew a lot about the financial and tax structure of Hyatt because I had helped put the company together in the whole family reorganization. But I didn’t really know the business; I didn’t grow up in the business. That level of ignorance was super powerful because it just let me ask a whole bunch of stupid questions, which served me extremely well. Those simple questions often led to interesting discussions about why we do certain things the way we do, and that led to changes. But it was organic as opposed to me coming in thinking that I knew better. It was actually the result of inquiry.

Hoplamazian's comments about the value of "stupid" questions speak to the importance of bringing some non-experts into the decision-making process on your team from time to time.  Experts may be wedded to the past, to the way things have always been done.  They can be trapped by the conventional wisdom.  Smart people with a broad range of other experiences can bring fresh perspective. They can ask, "Why are we doing it this way?"   Done effectively, these questions don't have to be threatening.  They don't have to disparage the existing ways of working.  They can simply inquire, seeking to understand, rather than being critical.   The right quesiton might not be "Why do you do it THAT way?" Instead, it might be, "Help me understand the rationale for that approach or that process." 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Great Mentoring: Let the Protégé Lead

Source: Max Pixel
Diane Brink, IBM's former Chief Marketing Officer for Global Technology Services, shared her thougths recently with Kellogg Insights regarding the mentor-protégé relationship. How do you make this relationships as mutually beneficial as possible? She offers a number of good recommendations in an article titled, "5 Ways to Get the Most out of a Mentor–Protégé Relationship."  My favorite suggestion is: "Let the Protégé Lead."  Here is Brink's advice, as summarized by Kellogg Insights:

For protégés, commitment means more than sitting back and nodding in agreement with every suggestion the mentor makes. Mentees need to own the relationship.  Brink describes a protégé who would always send an agenda for their mentoring meeting a week beforehand: “I thought ‘Oh, my gosh. This guy is really thinking about not only how he can use my time effectively, but how he can really move the relationship to something that is going to be beneficial for him.’ That was pretty impressive.”

In any mentoring situation, it should be the protégé who sets the priorities. Brink likes to remind mentees that they really drive their own careers.  “You’re going to have a lot of people providing their point of view on what you should be doing with your career,” she says, “and it’s not their decision.”  Agreeing to make the mentee’s agenda a priority keeps him or her from being swayed towards a career path he or she may not be interested in following. And it takes pressure off the mentor to act as an all-knowing guru.