Saturday, June 29, 2019

How to Avoid Choking During Your Next Job Interview

Sian Beilock, President of Barnard College, has written a good HBR digital article titled, "Why Talented People Fail Under Pressure."   She writes,

When the pressure is on, we tend to panic — about the situation, its consequences, and what others will think of us — and as a result we apply too much cognitive horsepower to what we are doing. We start overthinking something that usually comes naturally to us.  

How we can avoid panicking in these types of situations, such as a crucial job interview?  Beilock argues that we need to shift our thinking to other tasks in ways that use up some of our cognitive horsepower.  That prevents us from overthinking the challenge at hand.  She explains:

If you notice that you are starting to overthink, try singing a song, repeating a one-word mantra, or focusing on the three key points you want to get across to your audience. These approaches use up that cognitive horsepower that could otherwise be used against you.. Let’s say you’re preparing for a job interview. You know your resume inside and out, and in normal circumstances, you can easily recount your strengths and accomplishments. But when you sit down in the interview chair, you freeze up. If you take time beforehand to occupy your prefrontal cortex with unrelated activities, you’re less likely to overthink in the moment and more likely to be able to communicate your message effectively.

For more on Beilock's work on coping with pressure, see her great book, "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To."  

Friday, June 28, 2019

Silencing the Specialist on Corporate Boards or Management Teams

Imagine that you have hired a specialist on your management team, and they are, by far, the most qualified and knowledgeable team member on a particular topic.  Perhaps they know far more about cybersecurity than anyone else on the team, for instance.  What happens when generalists on the team comprise a majority and push for a particular decision about which the specialist disagrees strongly.  How do you handle this conflict?   How do you reconcile the views of the majority with the lone dissenting voice of the specialist?  

Randall Peterson of London Business School has written about this topic in the context of boards of directors.    He describes how specialists can be silenced on boards in many cases, and how that can lead to big trouble.   Here is an excerpt of an article Peterson wrote several months ago for Strategy & Business. In the article, he argues that boards often lack "open and frank discussion" and makes the case for a process of "qualified consensus" to protect against truly disastrous decisions.  Peterson explains: 

I have found consistently in my own research that majority-rule voting actually fails when the will of the majority is used to silence legitimate and specialist minority voices. What is right for the many ought to prevail, but not at the expense of the rights and specialist knowledge of a minority. This means that boards must understand the full implications of their two duties — care and loyalty — especially at a time when they are hiring more specialists. And it’s worth remembering that the sincere embrace of those two duties on the part of each director is key if majority rule is to function effectively.

So if, say, the digital specialist director in my example ends up voting against a cybersecurity-related decision she believes to be ill-advised, but a majority of her fellow board members vote for it, that director needs to consider whether her peers truly understand the risks. She needs to ask herself whether their decision is fully informed, and if not, she is obliged to raise this issue, rather than simply accept the vote. What follows in practice is that when a director believes that a particular decision is fundamentally wrong, whether for ethical reasons or because it violates regulations or because it represents a disastrous strategy, that individual director should be able to challenge boardroom colleagues. This does not mean that each board member must entirely agree with, and vote in favor of, every decision the board makes. But there is an important distinction between a decision that an individual judges to be suboptimal and a decision that the board member believes is totally wrong.

Boards should therefore operate on the principle of qualified consensus. By qualified consensus I mean a state in which a majority are in favor, and no one believes the decision is fundamentally wrong. Board chairs should be giving every member the opportunity to explain a dissenting point of view, to which the others listen and respond. You might think that this already happens as a matter of course. Yet I often hear about cases where the board literally hears the dissent, but does not recognize the distinction between a suboptimal decision and one that is seen as truly wrong. Giving a dissenting member the opportunity to speak up is just not on the board’s radar screen often enough… Unfortunately, open and frank discussion that arrives at consensual and informed decisions — and thus incorporates understanding of the point above — is too often lacking among boards. For example, in another global study of board directors by the London Business School, scheduled to be published in late 2018, 64 percent reported misunderstandings in the boardroom to be commonplace, and one-third reported the need to revisit decisions.
Source:  Harvard Business Review

While Peterson writes here about boards of directors, one might apply his thinking to the top management team and other senior teams as well.   These teams have to think carefully about how they handle the specialist who dissents.  How do you treat that person's voice, and do different types of dissent matter?  I personally like the distinction between an undesirable decision and one that is fundamentally wrong.   Teams at the top definitely need to think about how to build psychological safety, and how to handle dissenting voices once candor is encouraged.    

Thursday, June 27, 2019

John Oliver on Climbing Everest

One of our Bryant University alumnae, Lauren Reichert, brought this hilarious video to my attention this week.  In this clip, John Oliver offers a very humorous take on the wave of people trying to summit Mount Everest in recent years.  Given my research on the reasons why teams get in trouble on the mountain, I thought it would be interesting to many readers of the blog.  For more on my work about Everest expedition teams, see this recent article by Kyle Stock for Bloomberg, or this article from Entrepreneur magazine published in 2016.

The Six Mindsets Behind Creative Thinking

Bryan Collins has written an article for Forbes about the core ideas in my book, Unlocking Creativity.   He has some terrific new examples of his own regarding the mindsets that inhibit creativity in many organizations.   You also can listen to my appearance on Bryan's podcast through this link.   Hope you find the article and podcast interesting and thought-provoking!

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Simple Way to Get a Fresh Set of Eyes on a Problem

Christian Jarrett of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports this week on a new study by Duke University scholar Sarah Gaither and her colleagues.  The article describes experimental research highlighting the power and efficacy of a simple technique for boosting one's creativity.  Here's an excerpt from Jarrett's article: 

Source:  PxHere
In a new paper in Developmental Science, a team led by Sarah Gaither at Duke University presents evidence that prompting children to think about their own multiple identities boosts their problem-solving skills and increases their flexible thinking.... In the first of three studies, Gaither and her team split 48 six- and seven-year-olds into two groups. One was the intervention group and these participants spent time reflecting briefly with a researcher about eight of their various social identities, such as “friend”, “girl” and “reader”. This process concluded with the researcher saying “That is so cool that you are lots of things at the same time.” The other group served as a control and these participants chatted briefly with a researcher about eight of their different physical attributes, such as having two feet and a mouth. Similar to the intervention condition, the control condition ended with the researcher saying “That is so cool that you have a lot of things at the same time.” Afterwards all the children completed four different problem solving and flexible thinking challenges... The findings were consistent, with the children who reflected on their multiple identities outperforming the children in the control condition on all four of the tests.

This research proves quite consistent with earlier work on the effects for adults of gaining "psychological distance" that I described in my book.   For instance, I described experimental research in which people displayed more creativity when they were able to gain social distance from a problem through imagining themselves as different people, or imagining others tackling the same problem.  Sometimes, we can be 'too focused' on a problem.   Multitasking is awful, of course, but some concerted effort to 'unfocus" amidst intense work on a problem can be helpful.  One way to gain distance is through the intervention described here.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Your Professional Decline & Your Happiness

Source:  Wikipedia
Arthur Brooks has written a thought-provoking article for The Atlantic titled, "Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think."  Brooks reviews the literature regarding the age at which professional productivity peaks in various fields, as well as some of the research on personal happiness.  He closes with some thoughts about how he will approach his work and life moving forward (Brooks has just stepped down as President of the American Enterprise Institute and will be joining the Harvard faculty this summer).   Here's an excerpt from Brooks' terrific essay:

What’s the difference between (Johann Sebastian) Bach and (Charles) Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.

The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin.  How does one do that?  A potential answer lies in the work of the British psychologist Raymond Cattell, who in the early 1940s introduced the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Cattell defined fluid intelligence as the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower. Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating.

Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

Careers that rely primarily on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60.

Here’s a practical lesson we can extract from all this: No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.  Like what? As Bach demonstrated, teaching is an ability that decays very late in life, a principal exception to the general pattern of professional decline over time.

Later in the article, Brooks (now in his early 50s) articulates four commitments he has made to himself as he enters the next stage of his career and life.  

1.  Jump:  Be ready to leave something you love and shift to something new that fits your stage of life more appropriately.  

2. Serve:  Brooks notes that, "An effort to serve others can play to our strengths as we age."

3.  Worship:  Brooks notes the importance of his spiritual life and how it need not be detached from his work life.  He intends to focus on his spiritual life even more moving forward.  

4.  Connect:  Brooks explains that healthy relationships are key to happiness in life, and that one can make time for those relationships without necessarily sacrificing achievement altogether.  

I have not done justice to the fascinating article in this short blog post.  I hope that I have intrigued you, though, and that you will read the entire essay.   

Monday, June 17, 2019

Giving Feedback: Stay on Your Side of the Net

Adam Bryant, managing director of Merryck & Co, has a terrific article for the New York Times (for which he used to write regularly), about how to build a successful team. He based this essay on over 500 interviews he conducted with senior executives over many years while writing the Corner Office column for the newspaper.   One piece of advice that Bryant offers is to "stay on your side of the net" when giving a team member constructive feedback on his or her performance.  Here's an excerpt:

A big part of holding people accountable for their work is a willingness to have frank discussions about problems and misunderstandings that inevitably arise among colleagues. But the fact is that most managers go out of their way to avoid these “adult conversations.” It’s understandable. They can be unpleasant, and most people would rather deliver good news instead of bad. Also, you never quite know how somebody’s going to react to feedback. That is why problems are often swept under the rug, and maybe dealt with months later in an annual performance review.

One of the smartest tips for having such conversations is to make sure you “don’t go over the net.”  It means you should never make statements that include assumptions about the motivations behind someone’s behavior. Instead, you should stay on your side of the net and talk only about what you’re observing and your own reactions and feelings. That way, it’s harder for people to get their back up because you’re not devising rationales to explain someone else’s behavior. 

Consider, for example, the small but important difference in approaches in the following paragraph: "I’ve noticed you keep showing up 20 minutes late, and it seems like you don’t care." The boss has gone over the net here and accused the person of not caring. "I’ve noticed you keep showing up 20 minutes late, and it makes me feel like you don’t care." Here, with just a small language tweak, the boss is staying on the right side of the net, and avoided an overheated conversation because the employee can’t argue about how someone feels.

This approach was first described to me by Andrew Thompson, the chief executive of Proteus Digital Health, who said he uses it as a counterweight to a natural tendency of human beings. “People concoct all this imaginary garbage about why the person is doing this to them when in fact the person may not even realize that they’re doing anything,” Mr. Thompson said.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

How to Boost Your Creative Powers While You Travel

This evening, I'm writing this blog post as I look out on the streets of Dublin, Ireland.  For those who have visited this nation's capital, you  know that it's quite a vibrant city.  Fortunately, I've managed to be here during a wonderful period of sunny, albeit quite cool, weather.   Watching people stroll by on the cobblestone streets and sidewalks reminds me of the of power of travel as a stimulant for our creativity. IDEO's David and Tom Kelley once wrote about the ways in which observations while we travel can stir the brain.  They argue that we notice things that we normally take for granted amidst our daily routines at home:  

Things stand out because they're different, so we notice every detail, from street signs to mailboxes to how you pay at a restaurant. We learn a lot when we travel not because we are any smarter on the road, but because we pay such close attention. On a trip, we become our own version of Sherlock Holmes, intensely observing the environment around us. We are continuously trying to figure out a world that is foreign and new. Too often, we go through day-to-day life on cruise control, oblivious to huge swaths of our surroundings. To notice friction points - and therefore opportunities to do things better - it helps to see the world with fresh eyes.

In Unlocking Creativity, I explain why travel can be such a stimulating experience:

Saint Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”  Travel disrupts our normal routines, and novelty stimulates the brain.   Living in another nation can open people’s eyes to new perspectives and cause people to question the typical ways that things are done in their home country.  Immersing yourself in another culture provides insight as to how people in other countries work, live, and play – and perhaps most importantly, how they approach certain types of problems.  

What then are some practical steps we can take this summer amidst our travels to ignite our creativity?
  1. Look for what is simpler and easier to do in this new place than at home, and try to identify what is more difficult or challenging to accomplish. What makes people smile and what makes them frown the most?
  2. Notice how people's daily routines differ from those of your friends, neighbors, and co-workers at home.  
  3. Watch out for products or services that do not exist at home.  Ask whether you are noticing a new trend emerge, or whether this particular innovation is simply well-suited to this location, but not relevant at home. 
  4. Ask yourself why people in this new place seem to enjoy some of the same things you enjoy at home, but in other instances, seem to have quite different wants and needs. 
  5. Ask the locals what they love about living here, and what they would like to see change. 
  6. Stroll into a supermarket or apparel store, and ask yourself why the layout differs from at home.  Why are retailers presenting products in a different manner?

Monday, June 03, 2019

Unlocking Creativity Ranked by BookAuthority as a Top Creativity Book

Unlocking Creativity made it to the Best New Creativity Books list as ranked by BookAuthority! 

BookAuthority collects and ranks the best books in the world, and it is a great honor to get this kind of recognition. Thank you for all your support!