Thursday, March 28, 2019

Discovering Analogous Inspiration: Can Crowdsourcing and Artificial Intelligence Help?

Source: Pixabay
When trying to develop a creative breakthrough, analogous inspiration can be incredibly productive.  I have written about this type of fuel for the creative process many times, including in a recent blog post about hospitals and Formula One race teams.  I also describe analogous inspiration in the Unlocking Creativity book, with an example about the Reebok Pump sneakers.  

One question you may have is:  How do I come up with the perfect analogy? How do I find great experiences or situations outside my industry from which I can draw inspiration? New research suggests that crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence can help. NYU's Stern School of Business recently posted a description of this research conducted by Professor Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, assistant professor of information, operations and management sciences, and her colleagues at other universities around the globe.  Here's a brief description:

Wilbur Wright, for instance, famously got his idea for using wing warping to steer an airplane while twisting a cardboard box. Using similar methods to solve disparate problems is a common theme in the history of innovation. But as problems become more complex and the amount of scientific information explodes, finding helpful analogies can be difficult, said Niki Kittur, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

As described in a new report to be published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers are addressing this problem by breaking down the process of identifying analogies, using crowd workers to solve individual steps in the process and training AIs to do part of the work automatically.

“We’re developing new tools that could unlock a whole set of interesting possibilities,” said Kittur, the lead author. “We’re just beginning to see how people might use them.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Optimal Networks for Women & Men

Source: Wikimedia
Yang Yang, Nitesh Chawla, and Brian Uzzi have published a fascinating new article titled, "A network’s gender composition and communication pattern predict women’s leadership success."   The scholars examined the differences in social  networks of recent graduates from a top MBA program.  They sought to understand how network composition might affect the career opportunities and progression of these young graduates.  Yang, Chawla, and Uzzi discovered an important gender difference.  Kellogg Insight recently wrote an article about this research.  Here is an excerpt from that article describing the key findings from this study:  

They found an important gender difference: for men, the most significant factor affecting job status after graduation was how “central” they were in their networks—that is, how many highly connected people they have relationships with.  Successful women also tended to be more central, but that alone was not enough to land them a top job. The most successful women often had a tight-knit circle of female colleagues as well.

The reason for this difference may come down to the types of information that men versus women need to succeed. Presumably, having numerous connections provides ready access to what the researchers call “public information,” such as which companies are hiring and which types of candidates they’re seeking. For men, that alone may be enough to land a good job. “Men really need a network that’s going to maximize their access and exposure to market information,” says study coauthor Brian Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

Women, however, “need the same thing men need and one thing more,” Uzzi says. Specifically, women need “private information,” which may include insider tips about a company’s leadership culture and politics, or hints about how to make an impression in a male-dominated industry, for example.  However, women are only likely to put faith in such private information when it comes from trusted contacts with whom they have established relationships. Furthermore, only fellow women can provide the sensitive, gender-specific information that will be useful in a career context—hence the benefit of having connections who are both close and are women.

But there is a caveat, the researchers warn: if the contacts in a woman’s network do not have sufficiently diverse networks of their own, she may find herself in an echo chamber, hurting her chances of success.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Unlocking Creativity: A Conversation on Dr. Diane Hamilton's Radio Show


I had the opportunity to appear on Dr. Diane Hamilton's radio show this week. She's the author of Cracking the Curiosity Code: The Key to Unlocking Human Potential.  We talked about my latest book, Unlocking Creativity, as well as some other topics related to leadership and innovation. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Studying Analogous Experiences: A Hospital and a Formula One Ferrari Racing Team

Firms can learn a great deal from studying organizations in other fields, rather than simply benchmarking rivals within their industry.   How do you choose the organizations to examine? Think in terms of analogous experiences.  What specific process, system, or behavior do we want to improve?  Who has similar challenges, and how might we learn about how they overcome those challenges?   For Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, Great Britain's largest pediatric hospital, the payoff from studying an analogous experience turned out to be quite substantial.  Who did they study? A superb Formula One Ferrari racing team!   Several years ago, Gautum Naik of the Wall Street Journal reported on this fascinating cross-industry learning experience. Here's an excerpt:  

Thousands of such "handoffs" occur in hospitals every day, and devastating mistakes can happen during them. This one went off without a hitch, thanks to pit-stop techniques of the Ferrari race-car team.

"It was smooth. We didn't miss anything," said Dr. McEwan, a senior anesthesiologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. His role as leader of the handoff was partly modeled after Ferrari's "lollipop man," who uses a large paddle to direct drivers to the pit.

In one of the more unlikely collaborations of modern medicine, Britain's largest children's hospital has revamped its patient handoff techniques by copying the choreographed pit stops of Italy's Formula One Ferrari racing team. The hospital project has been in place for two years and has already helped reduce the number of mishaps.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Breaking Up L Brands

CNBC reported this week that hedge fund Barington Capital has called for a break-up of L Brands, the parent company of Victoria's Secret as well as Bath and Body Works. James Mitarotonda of Barington Capital called upon the company to address the poor performance of the Victoria's Secret business.   He noted, "We believe that the declining performance of Victoria's Secret is primarily due to merchandising missteps and the failure to maintain a compelling brand image that resonates with its target consumers."   Mitarotonda pointed out that, in contrast, Bath and Body Works has performed exceptionally well in recent years.  Therefore, he would like L Brands to split into two separate firms.  He argued that investors are not placing "appropriate value" on Bath and Body Works because of the struggles at the Victoria's Secret business.   The proposal comes on the heels of news earlier this week that Target plans to unveil several lines of lingerie and sleepwear to compete with Victoria's Secret.  The once-mighty retailer appears to be receiving pressure on multiple fronts.  

I find the development quite interesting given that one of my MBA student teams performed a strategic analysis of L Brands last semester. They offered a highly critical examination of the Victoria's Secret strategy, arguing the brand requires a significant overhaul.  They pointed that management had  lost touch with key consumer trends.   Their analysis, frankly, is as thorough and insight as the critique put forth by Barington Capital.  I'm a proud professor!  

One should note that the proposed break-up, in and of itself, won't fix these branding and merchandising issues at Victoria's Secrete.  Simply breaking up without addressing the competitive positioning problems will not magically unlock value in the long run.   Moreover, the key question that needs to be asked about the strategy is whether there are substantial synergies between the two chains.  If there are, then breaking up will actually destroy some value.   On the other hand, if limited economies of scope exist, then a strong case can be made for addressing the Barington Capital proposal.   From afar, I don't see a compelling case for synergies that require these two firms to stay together.   Simply sharing corporate services is not a strong enough rationale for keeping the two units in one corporation.   The firm's products are rather distinct.  They don't share many suppliers.  They do share customers, but do the two companies use a wealth of common customer data to enhance each business?    It's hard to know from the outside.   Without some signficant revenue enhancement or cost reduction from collaboration between the two units, the case for a break-up appears compelling.  It will be interesting to see management's response, given that they have not been shy about divestitures in the past.  

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

What If We Have to Argue the Other Side's Position?

Imagine that your team has arrived at an impasse.  After a constructive debate about two viable options, the dialogue begins to deteriorate.  People's positions begin to harden, and two polarized camps emerge.  Individuals begin restating their arguments, often forcefully, rather than sharing new information or analysis.  Voices and tensions rise.  What can you do as a team leader in these circumstances?

Here's one interesting strategy you might consider.  I learned about this technique from the leader at a non-profit organization several years ago.  The senior management team had arrived at an impasse.  The leader adjourned a contentious meeting one day by giving team members some homework.  He asked the members in each of the two entrenched camps to come back the next day with a memo and presentation that made the case for the option for which the opposing camp had advocated.  In short, he asked each subgroup to step into the other side's shoes.  

He wanted them to try to understand the other side's perspective, line of reasoning, and assumptions.  He felt that they had stopped listening to each other and ceased trying to understand one another.   Asking them to swap roles could deepen mutual understanding, and in so doing, perhaps help the team uncover common ground or opportunities for compromise.  

In the end, the exercise did not immediately end the impasse, but it led to a much more constructive dialogue and debate.  Ultimately, they chose a course of action with which everyone could live, and for which all team members agreed to cooperate on implementation.  Everyone did not get all that they wanted, but they felt that they had been heard and understood by their colleagues and their leader, and thus, they could commit to the final decision.   

Friday, March 01, 2019

Will Divesting Old Navy Help The Gap?

Khadeeja Safdar reports in the Wall Street Journal today that Gap Inc. is splitting into two publicly traded companies. Old Navy, the company's low-priced apparel chain, will become an independent firm, while another company will operate the other brands including Gap, Banana Republic, and Athleta.  The article notes that Old Navy has been the highest-performing brand in the portfolio for some time, and that it has surpassed the company's namesake brand in total revenue.   Gap Inc.'s stock rose 25% when the news broke.  Safdar reports on the comments offered by CEO Art Peck when announcing the breakup:  

“The other brands overlap each other but overlap Old Navy less,” Mr. Peck said on a conference call with analysts Thursday. He said separating the two would allow both to make quicker decisions and focus their investments. Mr. Peck has long said the brands have advantages over their competitors because of the parent company’s combined size.

I have doubts about whether this move alone will help the core Gap brand address its long-running troubles.  Gap's struggles extend far beyond the issues experienced by many brick-and-mortar chains as consumers flock to e-commerce options.  Gap has been "stuck in the middle" strategically for years.   What do I mean by that?  Well, Old Navy has clearly occupied a low cost position in the casual apparel market.  Banana Republic has established a more differentiated, premium-priced position with higher quality and more professional clothing.  What's the Gap brand position in the market? For years, they have floating somewhere between a low cost and differentiated position, unclear about who they are or want to be.  I've been writing about this strategic problem and discussing it with students for at least ten years.  See this past blog post, for instance. Today's Wall Street Journal article describes one aspect of this problem:

Some analysts have said that Old Navy’s rise has expedited the Gap brand’s demise. “When your prices are lower and it’s essentially the same merchandise, you’re going to cannibalize the sales at the higher-end brands,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester. “There’s no differentiation.”

Will splitting off the Old Navy brand fix this strategic issue at the Gap brand?  I don't see a clear reason why it will, unless other substantial changes are made.  Simply splitting the company in two does not address the "stuck in the middle" problem.  The Gap is not just stuck in the middle of Old Navy and Banana Republic; they are stuck in the middle of a host of other strong, well-positioned low cost and differentiated apparel brands.