Friday, April 26, 2019

Design Thinking: The Irony of Making Big Bets on a Test & Learn Methodology

I was interviewed recently for an article titled, "How to make the case for design thinking" by Stephanie Overby. The piece was just published by The Enterprisers Project this week. Here's an excerpt, in which I make the point that some organizations make big bets on adopting design thinking... going against the very philosophy of the methodology. which is to test, experiment, and learn - iterating often to get better faster.  

Start Small with Design Thinking

Organizations do not need to make big bets on design thinking to see returns. “It’s ironic, actually, that some organizations have made huge bets right out of the gate, when the ethos of design thinking is ‘experiment and test,’” says Mike Roberto, management professor at Bryant University and author of "Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets."

“Moreover, teams do not have to embrace the entire methodology at first. They can start by focusing on certain elements of the process.” They might begin by adopting some field research or end user techniques or embracing a prototyping philosophy. “Pick a relatively manageable problem, assemble a team, and give design thinking a test drive,” advises Roberto. “Strive for a small win. Then share the story of those positive results. Win some allies and, in so doing, build some momentum in the organization around design thinking. Then move on to some more challenging projects.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Balloon Furniture Challenge

In this video, you can learn how I use the Balloon Furniture Challenge to teach about creative problem-solving and teamwork. Hope you try this exercise in your organization or class!  Thank you to Tom Dodge, John Logan, and NewView.Media for producing this video! 


The Dropout: ABC News Podcast about Theranos

I highly recommend listening to the new ABC News podcast, The Dropout.   Over the course of six enthralling episodes, reporter Rebecca Jarvis takes you through the story of the rise and fall of Theranos, the blood testing company founded by Stanford University dropout Elizabeth Holmes.  There are many lessons from this story, far too numerous to recount fully here.  However, here are three takeaways that I'd like to highlight. 

1. Most importantly, the Theranos story demonstrates the danger of seeing what you want to see, believing what you so desperately want to believe.  Many employees, analysts, directors, and investors wanted the Theranos story to be true.  They wanted this revolution in healthcare to take place.  They wanted badly for the story of a young female entrepreneur disrupting the healthcare industry to be true.  They loved the notion of discovering the "next Steve Jobs."  Unfortunately, this strong desire to want it to be true completely clouded their judgement.  

2. Cultures of fear and low psychological safety exist in all types of organizations, not just large, complex, and bureaucratic ones.  Small startups can also exhibit these problems.  The consequences can be dramatic.  In this case, not only did many investors lose large sums of money, but many patients received inaccurate blood test results.  The impact on patient care and well-being should concern anyone listening to this story. 

3.  Becoming a whistleblower is so very challenging for many reasons.  I find the efforts of Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz to be incredibly courageous.  Many people with more formal authority and industry experience did not come forward in this case.  These two young people stood up for what they believed, even in the face of much skepticism.   Organizations need to find ways to handle these types of complaints more effectively.   Time and again, we see and hear stories of how badly organizations handle complaints from workers who genuinely are concerned about safety, product quality, and the like.  Organizations need to be very clear about the process by which they will handle these types of complaints. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Does Speaking Up Help or Harm Your Career?

Conventional wisdom, backed by plenty of painful examples, demonstrates that speaking up at work brings with it some serious risks. Some leaders do not appreciate dissent and they have been known to shoot the messenger who brings bad news. In contrast, a new study looks at how speaking up might have some beneficial effects for a person's career. 

Mona Weiss and Elizabeth Morrison have published a paper titled, "Speaking up and moving up: How voice can enhance employees' social status." In this article, they provide experimental evidence that voice has some positive effects for workers. They write:

Voice, by constructively challenging the status quo, is one of the primary means by which employees can help their organizations innovate and adapt. Yet it is widely viewed as a risky activity for employees. The risks cannot be denied—supervisors and peers are not always receptive to voice and may respond negatively. However, drawing from theories of status attainment and the agency‐communion framework of interpersonal judgment, we have argued and shown that when it comes to social status, voice has positive implications for employees.

In our survey study, we found that more frequent voice behavior was associated with higher status ratings from coworkers. In our two experiments, we found that employees who raised a concern or offered an opinion that challenged the views of a superior were ascribed higher social status than those who did not.

Naturally, speaking up in a constructive manner is key. Dysfunctional conflict and dissent can be harmful. Moreover, we also have to be mindful that certain leaders, and certain organizational cultures, may not be open to dissenting views. Thus, speaking up can have negative effects in those particular situations. The study does show, however, that others may appreciate someone who speaks up in a constructive and thoughtful manner, thereby actually helping an individual's career prospects.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Look Closely at the Outliers in Your Data

Kellogg Insight has written an article about the research conducted by Joel Shapiro, Clinical Associate Professor and Executive Director for the Program on Data Analytics.   Shapiro has some terrific advice for data scientists attempting to discover opportunities for improving the customer experience.  He recommends avoiding the usual practice of "scrubbing the data" of outliers.  Instead, he advocates mining those outliers for interesting insights about consumer needs and pain points.  Here's an excerpt from the article: 

“The mere presence of outliers in customer experience data means that really good or bad things can happen to customers,” says Shapiro. “Maybe you can move that [experience] toward something that either increases the number of positive experiences or doesn’t detract from them.”  When data scientists come across an outlier, their first inclination may be to discard it in favor of “cleaning” or “smoothing out” the data. After all, the data might have been entered incorrectly or appear as the result of a modeling error. Or it may represent a freak accident—a set of circumstances unlikely to replicate itself. Why waste time accounting for the easily discountable?  Resist that urge, Shapiro says. It is always worth examining why the outlier occurred.

Shapiro's point actually connects quite well with a technique employed by design thinking experts as they conduct qualitative/ethnographic research.   Design thinkers do not simply interview and observe "average/typical users."  They look for "extreme users" - people who out of the mainstream.  Perhaps, if you were studying a project on grocery stores, you might study someone who buys fresh food daily at the store, and prepares home-cooked meals for his or her large family each day.   At the same time, you might study a few individuals who never cook for themselves, and how rarely buy food at the grocery store because they eat out on a regular basis.   In the end, you are not designing a new product or service for these extreme users.  Instead, you are using these extreme users/outliers to gain insight and inspiration.  

Monday, April 08, 2019

Taking a Break Stimulates Creativity: More Evidence

Source: Alfred Wordsworth Thompson (Wikimedia Commons)
In Unlocking Creativity, I write about how achieving some psychological distance from a problem can enhance our ability to develop creative solutions to perplexing problems. In its simplest form, we often think about the value of taking a break or going for a walk. Perhaps more interestingly, research shows that there are other ways to foster psychological distance, and thereby enhance creativity. One can role play, walk a mile in someone else's shoes, imagine a situation several months or years in the future, or leverage travel experiences as a means of enhancing psychological distance.

A recent study confirms the value of simply taking a break or going for a walk. The study demonstrates that creativity often benefits from an "incubation period." Steven Kachelmeier, Laura Wang, and Michael Williamson have written a paper titled, "Incentivizing the Creative Process: From Initial Quantity to Eventual Creativity." They examined the impact that incentives can have on the number of creative ideas that people generate. The scholars found that incentives did not generate a benefit initially, but incentives helped if people had an opportunity to take a break during the task. Kachelmeier told Science Daily, "You need to rest, take a break and detach yourself -- even if that detachment is just 20 minutes. The recipe for creativity is try -- and get frustrated because it's not going to happen. Relax, sit back, and then it happens."

Teach Experts to Think Differently

Source: Wikimedia
I've written an article for Training Magazine, published this past week.  It is titled, "Teach Experts to Think Differently."  You can view the article here.  Hope you find the ideas useful, particularly if learning and talent development are areas of responsibility for you. 

Friday, April 05, 2019

Should Leaders Show Vulnerability?

Source:  Pixabay
Inc. magazine ran a headline this week that said, "Showing Vulnerability at Work Can Hurt You If You're the Boss, Science Finds." Frankly, the headline alarmed me quite a bit.  I've always believed that leaders who demonstrate some vulnerability at times can foster psychological safety, and thereby enhance learning and problem-solving efficacy in teams.  

I decided to dig deeper. The article cites a study by Kerry Roberts Gibsona, Dana Hararib, and Jennifer Carson Marr. Thearticle is titled, "When sharing hurts: How and why self-disclosing weakness undermines the task-oriented relationships of higher status disclosers." What do these researchers find? Based on a series of experimental studies, with undergraduate students as research subjects, they concluded: 

In three laboratory experiments, we found that when higher status individuals self-disclosed a weakness, it led to lower influence (Studies 1, 2 and 3), greater perceived conflict (Studies 1, 2 and 3), less liking (Study 1), and less desire for a future relationship (Studies 2 and 3) by attenuating the status of the discloser. 

The findings appear robust, but I wonder about the limitations of the study.   For example, I wondered:  What type of self-disclosure did the students exhibit?  How did they demonstrate vulnerability?  In one study, they disclosed that they were on academic probation.  In another, they told others that the doctor had chided them for being signicantly overweight.  These disclosures did not have direct relevance to the task though, and they did not come with any discussion of the importance of this issue to the work at hand.  Moreover, the people disclosing these weaknesses did not talk at all about how they were learning from their past experience and trying to improve.   Therefore, I have concerns about jumping to conclusions regarding the benefits or costs of leaders acknowledging vulnerability based on this research.   

An effective leader fosters psychological safety by demonstrating vulnerability through offering examples that show team members that he or she is not infallible.  However, the leader does not simply disclose failures from the past.  They should talk about how they have learned from those failures, or how experimentation helped them innovate.  They aren't simply blurting out personality flaws or weaknesses without some context!  

The scholars do acknowledge the limitations of their work, and they cite possible benefits of expressing vulnerability in work teams.  They cite Amy Edmondson's work, in fact.  She's the researcher who has done the most groundbreaking work on psychological safety.   By the way, Google found that psychological safety is an attribute of high-performing teams, confirming Edmondson's work.  Google also concluded that leaders who show some vulnerability tend to create higher levels of safety.   The scholars acknowledge some benefits of vulnerability toward the end of their paper. They write: 

Finally, although in our studies the goal of the discloser is to influence the receiver, and therefore we describe less influence and greater conflict as negative consequences for the discloser, there may be situations in which increased task conflict and reduced discloser influence actually results in more positive outcomes for the dyad or team (Nembhard & Edmondson, 2006). For example, a team leader might strategically choose to self-disclose a weakness as a way to increase involvement from lower status group members who may be intimidated by the status differences between members of the team.

In sum, be wary of such headlines in popular periodicals.  The underlying research often does not sync completely with the conclusion that has been reached by journalists.