Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Benefits of Giving Advice (not just receiving advice)

Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, Katherine Milkman, Angela Duckworth, and Dena Gromet have conducted some fascinating new research on the benefits of giving others advice.   Of course, we all believe that we can learn and grow by seeking advice and feedback from others, perhaps with more experience and expertise than us.   However, this study examines the benefits from giving advice to others.  How does the giver benefit?  According to the authors, giving others advice, even on an issue about which you are struggling or feeling challenged, can raise your self-confidence and motivation.  In so doing, it can help us achieve our goals more effectively. 

The scholars conducted an experiment with approximately 2,000 high school students.  Eskreis-Winkler explains the research and their findings in this article for Knowledge@Wharton:  

We recruited about 2,000 students and randomized them to one of two conditions. Either they’re in the treatment, which is that they give advice to younger students, or they’re in the control condition, which is practice as usual and they didn’t receive anything in particular. The program was online, so teachers took their students to the computer lab and students signed in. There was this very aesthetically pleasing, graphically designed program that students walked themselves through. They were asked to be coaches. We said, “Help us help other students.” Then the treatment — they went through a series of exercises that tried to elicit their advice.

There were some multiple-choice questions that asked them to advise on optimal study locations. There were some open-ended questions where they were writing notes of advice to younger students. The whole experience was short, but it was meant to make them feel like bona fide advisers. They had information to give, and we were getting it, and we were actually going to give it to younger students.

The hypothesis was that this act of stepping into the adviser role would raise the students’ confidence, increase their motivation. It was a pretty high bar, but we were hoping and expecting that it would, in turn, raise the students’ achievement levels. We collected the students’ grades over the academic quarter to see whether this intervention, which was delivered to students at the beginning of the third quarter, would increase their grades. And it did. We specifically pre-registered and predicted in advance that it would raise their grades in a target class. This is a class in which students self-report that they’re most motivated to improve. Math is a subject that’s notoriously difficult to change student achievement and a subject in which many students lack confidence. We thought this advice-giving intervention would be effective in math, and we did find that the students’ target grades and their math grades improved relative to students in the control condition.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Put Your Work (and Yourself) Out There!

Last week, Renee Fleck authored a blog post titled, "The best creative advice of 2019: Words of wisdom for every designer."   There are some gems in there from various design professionals.  My favorite is from Lisa McCormick, a freelance illustrator and graphic designer.   Her advice:  "Be a factory, not a warehouse."   Here's the explanation:

“My college professor said this and it really stuck with me. It’s a reminder to not be “too precious” about your work and hide it until everything is absolutely perfect (that day will never come). Swallow your pride and put yourself out there and share your work. Keep making things, try new ways of creating, and take risks. It’s better to keep creating and putting yourself out there so you can get honest feedback and move forward.  So, be a factory by continuously creating and putting your work out there. Don’t be a warehouse, storing work in a dark corner that never sees the light of day.”

I concur completely.   Unfortunately, many of us await perfection before putting our ideas and our work out there.  We lose precious opportunities for feedback, adaptation, and iteration.   We censor ourselves because we are afraid of the judgment of others.  If we want to boost our creativity and our learning potential, we have to overcome this self-made obstacle.  

Monday, December 16, 2019

Four Tips for Speaking Up Effectively

Source: Flickr
Suppose you have a dissenting opinion to share, or perhaps you are the reluctant bearer of bad news.  How can you be sure that leaders in your organization will listen attentively and genuinely consider your views?  What strategies can you employ to speak up effectively?  Here are four tips:

1.  Know your audience.   Understand the background of the person you are trying to persuade and influence.  What makes them tick?  How do they make decisions?  Are they fact-based decision-makers who want reams of data and evidence, or do they rely on their intuition at times?  What's the history of this particular person on this issue?   An effective dissent is not simply the collection of important facts and logical arguments.  Effective dissent entails TAILORING your argument to the people you are trying to persuade.  

2.   Work through the gatekeepers.   For many senior leaders, important information often flows to them through key gatekeepers.   Understand who these people are that have significant influence on the person you are trying to persuade.   Who does that leader rely on as a sounding board or confidante?   Sometimes, the most effective case of speaking up does not entail a direct conversation with a leader, but instead, works through these gatekeepers.  In other cases, the gatekeeper may not relay the message for you, but they can help you determine HOW to convey your message effectively.  

3.  Ask questions.   Don't simply state your opinions and proclaim the facts that support your argument.  Ask questions that help you understand how leaders are thinking about a particular issue.  Ask questions that encourage leaders to question assumptions and examine other alternatives.  The most effective dissenters bring people along, often encouraging leaders to come to the conclusion themselves that they may be headed in the wrong direction.   You are much more likely to succeed if they come to question their own arguments.   

4.  Tell a story.  Don't just convey facts and data through bullet points and charts.  Make sure you have crafted a compelling story - a narrative that integrates the key facts and arguments.  You are much more likely to persuade someone with a story than with a list of bullet points. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Asking Open-Ended Questions of Your Team

Jan U. Hagen, Zhike Lei, and Avner Shahal have written a short digital article for Harvard Business Review about their research on aircraft crews.  Unsurprisingly, they find that captains who create  psychologically safe environment, and who actively seek input from their crew members, tend to perform more effectively and make better decisions.   Still, it's worth reading the piece as it does highlight some of the key ways that we can engage our teams effectively as leaders. For instance, they point out that the most effective aircraft captains use open-ended questions to solicit input from others.   They summarized their findings as follows: 

The captain’s style of communication had a major impact on crew performance in two major ways. First, crews performed consistently better under intense time pressure when the copilot was included in the decision making process than when the captain analyzed the problem alone and simply gave orders. Second, captains who asked open-ended questions — “How do you assess the situation?”; “What options do you see?”; “What do you suggest?” — came up with better solutions than captains who asked simple yes or no questions. By contrast, the latter method resulted in the copilot affirming the captain’s decision and proved worthless to problem evaluation and solving.

The takeaway we gathered here is that involving colleagues as equal decision partners by asking them questions — a form of leadership that organizational development scholar Ed Schein terms “humble inquiry” – taps into the other person’s expertise and aids constructive, factual information exchange. These questions are not simply for the sake of participation, but rather to gather information, opinions, and proposals for action. Teams who continuously exchanged information, analyzed the facts, evaluated options, made decisions, implemented them, and then reviewed what they had implemented, were the most successful in safely completing their flight simulations.

I think the importance of open-ended questions cannot be overstated.  Too often, managers ask leading questions, or questions that constrain the way that their team members will tend to think about a problem or situation.  The open-ended question often enables a leader to gather a broader range of perspectives and alternative solutions.  

Monday, December 09, 2019

Leading Virtual Teams

Source: Wikimedia
Many of us perform a great deal of work virtually these days.   While many technologies have enabled effective virtual work, significant challenges remain when it comes to leading teams whose members are not co-located.  I recently came across a blog post by my former colleague, Michael Watkins (author of the bestseller, The First 90 Days), about how to lead virtual teams effectively.  He offers ten terrific tips.  I found two of his suggestions particularly helpful.  They are posted below:

Get the team together physically early-on. It may seem paradoxical to say in a post on virtual teams, but face-to-face communication is still better than virtual when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust, an essential foundation for effective team work. If you can’t do it, it’s not the end of the world (focus on doing some virtual team building). But if you can get the team together, use the time to help team members get to know each other better, personally and professionally, as well to create a shared vision and a set of guiding principles for how the team will work. Schedule the in-person meeting early on, and reconnect regularly (semi-annually or annually) if possible.

Commit to a communication charter. Communication on virtual teams is often less frequent, and always is less rich than face-to-face interaction, which provides more contextual cues and information about emotional states — such as engagement or lack thereof. The only way to avoid the pitfalls is to be extremely clear and disciplined about how the team will communicate. Create a charter that establishes norms of behavior when participating in virtual meetings, such as limiting background noise and side conversations, talking clearly and at a reasonable pace, listening attentively and not dominating the conversation, and so on. The charter also should include guidelines on which communication modes to use in which circumstances, for example when to reply via email versus picking up the phone versus taking the time to create and share a document.

I agree with both of Michael's recommendations here.  I would simply add an important element to his concept of a communication charter.  All teams, whether virtual or not, should think carefully about shared norms and ground rules with regard to how team members will interact.   That goes beyond the very specific types of ground rules associated with online or phone conversations described above.  All teams should consider developing shared norms and ground rules regarding how they will engage in thoughtful debate, express dissent respectfully, engage in active listening,  avoid interrupting others, prepare for meetings, and provide necessary materials in advance (among other things).   Leaders need to hold people accountable for adhering to these ground rules.  What's the best way to develop these norms?  Collaboratively.  Rather than simply providing your team with a set of rules, a leader is best served to work with the team to develop shared norms which everyone is comfortable adhering to moving forward.   Buy-in is crucial.  

Friday, December 06, 2019

Making Time for Big Picture Thinking

Adrian Granzella Larssen has written a terrific Fast Company article titled, "How to get out of the weeds and make time for big-picture thinking."  Larssen introduces executive coach Melody Whiting's perspective on why we often overload our schedules.  Whiting argues that a busy schedule reinforces our self-perceptions.  Here's an excerpt:
Source: Wikipedia

Everyone’s busy, and that’s not exactly by accident. Wilding’s take is something that might be uncomfortable to hear: “It makes us feel useful and wanted, and especially for people who are leaders or traditionally high achievers, that’s how they source their self-worth—via accomplishments and what they get done.”

Larssen has some good suggestions for how to rethink the way we manage our time, so that we can have more time for strategic thinking and reflection.   I highly recommend the article.  Among other things, Larssen reminds us of the value of the Eisenhower Matrix, a simple diagnostic tool that the former president and military leader recommended for setting the right priorities.  

Monday, December 02, 2019

Why Entrepreneurs Don't Learn From Their Mistakes

Source: Flickr
Edinburgh University Business School Francis Greene has written a terrific, research-based article for the Wall Street Journal titled, "Why Entrepreneurs Don't Learn From Their Mistakes."   Greene challenges the fail fast philosophy espoused by many in the the start-up community, by arguing that the credo only works if we actually learn effectively from our mistakes.  However, Greene's research shows that entrepreneurs don't actually learn very well over time.   Greene explains:

While second-chance stories are comforting, my research shows that entrepreneurs don’t learn from their mistakes. In fact, it’s the opposite: Fail once and you’re most likely to fail again. Believing in the myth only sets entrepreneurs up for more failure—and leads to disappointment and frustration.

There are many reasons why this is so, but the most important is basic psychology: Learning is a complex process that usually doesn’t proceed as simply and obviously as we hope. We struggle to take away lessons about what went wrong and then apply those insights to new situations. Or we simplify our experiences and leave out key details that would help us get a complete picture of why things went wrong.

I should note that Greene's research focuses on whether entrepreneurs who experienced a failed startup are more likely to be successful at their next start-up than first-time founders.   The "fail fast" philosophy, of course, does not simply talk about learning from complete failures.  It describes an iterative, experimental, prototype-based approach to building a startup.   You hopefully don't fail completely, thus going out of business.   You encounter small experiments that fail, and you hopefully learn from their to improve your business model. 

Still, Greene's research resonates with me and is consistent with plenty of other research showing that humans are constrained in their ability to learn from failure.  We like to believe that failure is a wonderful professor, but we often don't derive the right lessons and make the correct changes in the aftermath of an unsuccessful event.   I highly recommend reading the article for more detail on why we struggle so badly to learn from our mistakes.