Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Learning Something New... Without Forgetting the Old

Kristin Wilson and Scott Rockart have published an intriguing paper titled, "Learning in Cycles."  In this article, the scholars examine how firms learn and adapt over the course of business cycles.  They examine a critical challenge that organizations face as they encounter cycles.  Firms must learn and apply new lessons and skills at different points in a business cycle, but they must not forget old lessons and capabilities... as they may need them again in the future as the cycle changes once more.   In a feature on Duke's Fuqua Insights web page, Rockart explains some of their findings:  

“What people learn, and what people need to do well, differs at different points of a cycle,” Rockart said. “Imagine you’re a waiter, and during the week you are working with families, taking time over a meal, whereas on the weekends your customers are college kids looking to party. In order to be a good waiter during the week, you introduce yourself, you take time to talk, but on the weekends you are moving fast and not spending as much time with each customer. The waiter knows they need to act differently in those different settings. They’re constantly being reminded because the cycle is so fast.”

But at firms, Rockart said, these cycles can last years.   “So it’s very easy for individuals to forget what they used to know, and even more importantly, to lose confidence in the importance of what they used to know,” he said. “If you’re a manufacturer, when things are booming, you need to make sure you can get supplies, hire workers, and expand a factory. During a downturn you may have to do very different things: make sure your customers won’t fail on credit; that your inventories are lean and your costs are controlled; and reduce your workforce.”

I think the finding is particularly important because we often hear that managers must "unlearn" old behaviors and ideas as they learn and adapt to new competitive realities.  Yet, this research shows that can't discard our learning completely.  Some of those lessons, skills, and capabilities will be useful again as business cycles change. How can we learn without completely forgetting? It's a fascinating challenge for many leaders. This work reminds me of a memorable quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

Friday, August 24, 2018

Who Asks For Feedback?

Should leaders ask for feedback?  Of course.  Everyone should desire constructive input that can help them learn and improve.  Do they ask for feedback?  Oh, now we might have a very different story!  Bradley Busch recently wrote a blog post for the British Pyschological Society's Research Digest about a study of feedback-related behaviors by primary school teachers.   Busch summarized the research findings of James Spillane, Matthew Shirrell, and Samrachana Adhikari.  The three scholars recently published a paper in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis titled, "Constructing “Experts” Among Peers: Educational Infrastructure, Test Data, and Teachers’ Interactions About Teaching.  Spillane and his colleagues examined the tendency for teachers to ask for, or not ask for, feedback from their peers.  Busch highlights a key finding from this study:

The researchers found that the best teachers, as measured by those who had a higher percentage of students who met the minimum requirement to pass their class, and whose classes had higher than average test scores, were no more likely to be sought out by their colleagues for their advice. On the other hand, these expert teachers were the ones who were actually more likely to seek advice from their peers the following year. It seems that the better the teacher performed, the more likely they were to go out and obtain feedback on how to be even better.

The finding that the most able are not particularly sought after for their advice and are instead more likely to seek it from others is perhaps unsurprising. Other research, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, has found that the least able tend to have an inflated view of their abilities, which would presumably lead to them seeking out less feedback. After all, why would one seek out advice if they think there is little room for development? As for the expert teachers in this study, the researchers speculate that their advice-seeking tendencies may be explained as “they represent a group of teachers who are constantly striving to improve by seeking out advice and information from others”.

For me, the study leads naturally to a question about leaders in a variety of organizational settings.  Do the highest performing leaders have a tendency to ask for feedback more often than lower performing individuals?  Are the highest performers not sought out more often by their peers for help and advice?  Future research should explore these interesting questions.   My sense is that we will find results quite similar to those described here in an educational setting. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Getting the Most out of College

Tomorrow I'll head off to bring my oldest daughter off to college.  I'm incredibly excited for her, but I know that I'll miss her a great deal.  Each year on this blog, I often provide some advice for incoming college students... hoping my own students will take a look and perhaps heed some of my advice.  This year, I want to share some thoughts from a very good column in the New York Times this week.  Frank Bruni wrote a column titled, "How To Get The Most Out of College."   Among other things, he touches on some of the key findings from research by Gallup, Purdue University and the Strada Education Network.  Here's Bruni's summary of the results of that work (emphasis added): 

Previously known as the Gallup-Purdue Index and now called the Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, it has questioned about 100,000 American college graduates of all ages about their college experiences, looking for connections between how they spent their time in college and how fulfilled they say they are now. The study has not found that attending a private college or a highly selective one foretells greater satisfaction. Instead, the game changers include establishing a deep connection with a mentor, taking on a sustained academic project and playing a significant part in a campus organization. What all of these reflect are engagement and commitment, which I’ve come to think of as overlapping muscles that college can and must be used to build. They’re part of an assertive rather than a passive disposition, and they’re key to professional success.

My experience validates this research finding.  My students who have achieved these "game changers" have achieved academic and professional success, while thriving personally as well.  Find a mentor, engage in an in-depth piece of academic work, and become a leader of a campus organization or initiative.  Those are key elements to a successful college experience.  

Friday, August 03, 2018

The Benefits of Losing a Star Employee (Temporarily)

We often convince ourselves that star employees are indispensable.  We worry about losing them, even for a short time.  At some firms, managers restrict the ability of star employees to attend professional development opportunities, because they fear letting them leave even for a week.  Or, they resist attempts to rotate high potentials to other units, even though such lateral transfers might be very beneficial for the individual's development and for the organization's long term effectiveness. Such attitudes about star employees merit examination. Are stars actaully so indispensable? Might losing them, perhaps for a short time, actually be beneficial for a team? John Chen and Pranav Garg examine these issues in a fascinating new paper titled, "Dancing with the stars: Benefits of a star employee’s temporary absence for organizational performance" - published in Strategic Management Journal.  

The scholars obtained statistical data on individual and team performance in the National Basketball Association from 1991-2015.  They examined how teams performed when a player was lost due to injury for a period of time.  Not surprisingly, the researchers find that team performance declines when a star player is absent due to injury.  However, they find that team performance rebounds to a level higher than pre-injury when the star player returns to the basketball court.  The scholars argue that performance increases because team members develop new knowledge and find new ways of working together in the star's absence.  The improved routines and teamwork lead to higher performance when the star returns.   Moreover, the star's absence provides opportunities for other team members to display and enhance their skills.  

Should you send your star employee to that leadership development program or other professoinal development opportunity? Yes. The authors argue that it's a win-win scenario, benefiting the individual employee and the team overall. Here is an excerpt from their paper:

Sending a star for a training program may be a win-win scenario. While the star is away, the firm can discover new routines and provide opportunities to non-stars that might actually improve the firm’s overall prospects on critical projects. At the same time, training programs can help the star develop team building or leadership skills that contribute to the firm’s longer-term roadmap upon her return... Our study underscores the idea that disruption may foster learning. In doing so, we echo recent thinking that an organization “periodically needs to shake itself up, regardless of the competitive landscape” (Vermeulen, Puranam, and Gulati, 2010: 71) and search for new routines, even when it is performing well.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Stop Telling People to Find Their Passion

Source: Public Domain Pictures
Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton have written a forthcoming article in Psychological Science titled, "Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?"  In this paper, they draw upon Dweck's work on growth vs. fixed mindsets, and they apply this framework to the topic of people's passions and interests.   In this paper, they contrast individuals with a fixed theory of personal interests to those with a growth theory.   Those with a fixed theory believe that they possess a passion for certain types of work, and they simply must discover those interests.  Individuals with a growth theory believe that interests must be "cultivated through investment and persistence."  

The scholars conduct a series of studies to examine the impact that these different theories have on motivation and behavior.   They discovered that, "A fixed theory was more likely to dampen interest in areas outside people's existing interests."  Moreover, they found that people with a fixed theory believed that they would be highly motivated once they discovered their passion.  In a sense, they foresee an easy path once their underlying interests and passions are revealed/discovered.  Those with a growth theory of interests tend to adopt a more realistic outlook, namely that they will encounter difficulties as they pursue a passion.  

Finally, perhaps most importnatly, in their final experimental study, the scholars discover an important relationship between a growth theory and persistence in the pursuit of an area of interest:

Inducing a fixed theory led students to discount a newfound interest more definitively upon exposure to challenging content. Difficulty may have signaled that it was not their interest after all. Taken together, those endorsing a growth theory may have more realistic beliefs about the pursuit of interests, which may help them sustain engagement as material becomes more complex and challenging.

This new research strongly complements earlier work at Stanford by Bill Barnett and Dave Evans. In their book, "Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life," Barnett and Evans apply deisgn thinking principles to the process of discovering and building a career.   They argue that one does not find his or her passion by sitting in a dorm room pondering life's big quesitons.  Instead, they argue that one should adopt a learn by doing approach, much like a design thinker.  You prototoype as a design thinker, and you can do the same with regard to building a career.  In short, you try various things, by shadowing an alumnus for a day, taking an internship, meeting with mentors in various fields, attending a professional conference, or trying a course in a different field.  Through these actions, you learn about what interests you and what does not.  In many ways, Barnett and Evans are arguing that you must cultvate and develop your interets through action, rather than waiting for a passion to be revealed through some "aha" moment.  Now, O'Keefe, Dweck, and Walton provided sound psychological research that complements the practical guide to designing a career offered by Barnett and Evans in their terrific book.  

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Spanx CEO Sara Blakely: Workarounds, Questions, Observation

This Stanford interview with Spanx founder and CEO Sara Blakely is chock full of leadership insights.   For those who do not know the story, Blakely came up with her initial product idea when she designed a simple workaround before heading to a party.  One night, she cut the bottom of of a pair of pantyhose so that she would have the appropriate undergarment to go with her white pants.  As design thinkers often say, a workaround is a bright flashing light indicating a customer pain point or frustration.   In this case, Blakely didn't notice some other user's workaround; she developed it herself.  

In the video below, take special note of how she talks about always observing and asking questions. She says, “I think of a lot of ideas at traffic lights. I pay attention to things that haven’t evolved and why. I ask myself questions all day, every day. I could be looking at a table and be like, ‘Why is the table like that? When was the table first created? Is that the actual best design for a table? Or could there be something different?'"   

Blakely also discusses her philosophy about failure in this video, something I write about in my upcoming book on creativity.   From identifying workarounds to asking questions and sharing failure stories, Blakely's approach to leadership and innovation bears close examination.