Monday, April 12, 2021

Subtracting Features to Enhance Products: We're Biased Against Doing That

Source: Wikimedia

Diana Kwon recently wrote a Scientific American article titled, "Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy."  She opens with an anecdote about how kids learn to ride a bicycle today versus in the past.  When I was a kid, my father installed training wheels on my bike, as many other parents did.  Today, more and more parents are opting to purchase balance bikes for their children.  These two-wheel bicycles have no pedals.  Kids learn balance and coordination on these bikes. Many say that these bikes are much more effective than training wheels.  Kwon asks the question, "Given the benefits of balance bikes, why did it take so long for them to replace training wheels?" 

To answer that question, Kwon describes a fascinating new research study published in Nature by Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin Converse, Andrew Hales and Leidy Klotz.  The article is titled, "People systematically overlook subtractive changes."  The authors found that people tend to focus on adding components and features when trying to improve a product or service, rather than considering how they migth subtract features and attributes.  This bias toward addition appeared quite strong in their research.  

For me, this interesting research has implications beyond product design.  It explains a great deal about the strategic mistakes that firms often make.   In strategy, we often talk about the power of choosing what not to do.  Great firms make tradeoffs, rather than trying to be all things to all people.    Choosing what not to do means subtracting features.  Southwest took away assigned seats and first class cabins.  Ikea took away furniture assembly and delivery.   Trader Joe's took away branded products, extensive product selection, self-checkout, and loyalty cards.  Edward Jones took away investment opportunities in penny stocks, options, and commodities.   Stihl took away distribution through big box retailers.   Why do firms struggle to make tradeoffs.  We have often said it's because managers become enamored with growing the top line, and they want every customer they can get... rather than thinking carefully about how to create a distinctive, difficult-to-imitate position in the market, tailored to a particular customer segment.  Now this research explains that there may be a persistent bias against subtraction inherent in the way that we think about improving existing products and services. That may be getting in the way of making good strategic tradeoffs. 

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

How about Building a "To-Don't List" for Yourself?


Diana Shi has written an article for Fast Company in which she describes how she tried to craft a "to-don't list" as a means of improving her effectiveness while working remotely. She defines it as follows: "In essence, the list is a curated collection of activities that can derail your energy and motivation. They’re often alluring but end up creating a distracting spiral, sapping you of your most productive hours."   Shi began by reflecting on her daily activities and trying to identify those that derailed her and lowered her effectiveness and personal satisfaction.   Shi discovered that the list helped her in several important ways:

1.  The list offered helped her establish some personal accountability by providing a visible reminder of the actions that distracted her or prevented her from maintaining her energy and focus.  Her list included items such as not sitting in one place for more than an hour,  drinking too much caffeine, or engaging in a specific inefficient work practice to which she had become accustomed.  

2. The list helped her spot unhealthy patterns in her daily routine.  She identified the times and the activities during which she had high energy and productivity, as well as the practices that were not as effective. She quotes time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders: " “I think a to-don’t list is helpful if you’re working remotely.  A lot of times our minds wander because we’re simply bored and seeking stimulation. Knowing what your unhealthy patterns may be when you’re bored, and preemptively limiting them, can help you to make better choices in the moment."

3.  Finally, the list helped her feel a sense of accomplishment, just in a  different way that a traditional to-do list.  She writes, "Something can be said for being able to look over your list of “to-don’t’s” and not crossing them off, but congratulating yourself on the self-control needed to follow them. I felt less defeated, since I didn’t have an entire collection of tasks to address by late-afternoon. Moreover, my “to-don’t” bulletin made me aware of why it was I hit a wall."

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Teaching at Bryant University's College of Business

I have some terrific colleagues on the faculty - passionate, dedicated professors who love what they do.  Thank you to New View Media for creating this video for the College of Business at Bryant.  For more videos featuring our young alumni as well as other faculty, go to our YouTube channel at: 

Monday, March 29, 2021

A Simple Strategy to Help Us Achieve Our Goals

Source: Gold Dust Dental Lab

Katie Mehr, Amanda Geiser, Katherine Milkman, and Angela Duckworth have published an interesting new study that highlights a simple strategy that might help us achieve our goals.  They studied people's efforts to exercise more often.  They introduced a simple strategy; they call it "copy-paste prompts."  In their experiment, they gave some participants the following instructions:

"In this study, we want to help you learn about an effective hack or strategy that someone you know uses as motivation to exercise. Over the next 2 days, we’d like you to pay attention to how people you know get themselves to work out. If you want, you can ask them directly for their motivational tips and strategies."

In other words, participants had to actively seek out goal achievement strategies from people they knew.   They compared the behavior of participants receiving these instructions to a control group, as well as a group that passively received advice on how to meet exercise goals.  In short, encouraging people to benchmark and learn from others is an effective way to nudge them toward putting in the work to achieve their goals.  It's much better to encourage them to ask for advice rather than telling them what to do.  It's simple and intuitive, and it's not a costly intervention.  The scholars discovered that, 

"A brief and virtually costless copypaste prompt improved goal-directed outcomes over the following week. Specifically, this nudge led to greater increases in the amount of time spent exercising than did passively receiving a strategy of similar quality, highlighting the value of actively finding goal-related strategies among one’s peers."  

Why did this simple strategy prove effective?  They provide several reasons.

1.  Examining the effective strategies of peers raises the probability that individuals will actually employ advice.  Moreover, hearing what works for their peers increases people's beliefs in their own abilities to achieve certain goals. 

2.  The advice may be more "customized and goal-relevant" since the individuals chose the peers from whom they wanted to learn.  

3,  People feel a sense of empowerment and autonomy when they seek out information and advice themselves, rather than being told what to do. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Demonstrating Impact, Showing You Care

Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of TIAA
Source:  WSJ

In Google's Project Aristotle, Julia Rozovsky and her team identified the five most important attributes that distinguish the highest performing teams at the company from the lowest.  Impact was one of these five characteristics.  Rozovsky and her group defined impact as follows:  "The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact."  What happens, though, if workers don't always feel as though they are having a significant impact on the company's broader goals and objectives.  What if some workers never interact with customers, and thus, never see the positive effect their actions have on customer experience and satisfaction? Leaders need to bridge that gap. They need to create a "line of sight" between the workers' actions and the customer. They need to demonstrate and affirm that the workers are having an impact.  In so doing, leaders also can show their front-line employees that they truly care about them and value their efforts.  

Here's a great example of a leader who understood the importance of affirming impact. Thasunda Brown Duckett is the new CEO of TIAA.  Prior to that, she served in several senior executive positions at JP Morgan Chase, including as CEO of their Auto Finance business.  In an interview with David Gelles of the New York Times, she described one of her early moves as leader of that business at JP Morgan Chase: 

When I was named C.E.O. of Auto, within the first 90 days I went to the mail room, and I told them, “Keep doing your job with excellence. If you don’t put that payment in the right chute, and it accidentally goes to mortgage, then the customer doesn’t post on time, they’re upset, and they end up closing their account with us. But you started that process. So when you hear me talk about our customer experience having improved, brush your shoulders off.”  And they go, “You’re welcome. You know we got you.” At that moment I was able to connect them to Chase, to this bigger narrative. And now they know that T cares about everybody.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Why Do Entrepreneurs Keep Entering Highly Unprofitable Industries?

Source: New York Times

During the early days of my strategy courses, we often learn about Porter's five forces as a tool for evaluating industry structure.  We often examine industriest at the extreme - either highly profitable (such as pharma) or highly unprofitable (such as airlines or fitness centers).  We use the framework to try to explain the level of profitability in these markets.  Of course, one examine barriers to entry quite closely.  Low barriers to entry tend to depress profits in an industry, because new players can easily come in and compete on a relatively even playing field with incumbent firms.  

Students often ask me a question:  "Why do entrepreneurs keep entering these industries with consistently low profits? Don't they understand how hard it is to make money in these markets?"   What a terrific question!  As I read a New York Times story this morning about two new upstart airlines, the question really hit home again.  Why enter the airline business when it has been so unprofitable for decades?  After all, Richard Branson has told a great joke about the business.  He says that people always ask him how to become a millionaire.  He says it's quite easy.  You just start as a billionaire and then open an airline.  

What is happening in these industries?  For me, three factors explain the continued entry into unprofitable markets. 

1.  The low barriers to entry make it quite enticing for entrepreneurs.  They don't see the major obstacles that often obstruct entry into other industries.   They would love to be an entrepreneur, and they are looking for "easy targets" - i.e. markets that they can access more readily than some others.  

2.  They enter because, to them, it's a lifestyle business. They aren't think simply in terms of profit maximization. Fitness centers is a good example.  People open gyms because they have a passion for fitness and wellness.  They also would love to be their own boss.  A similar phenomenon has emerged in the wine industry. Many people enter the business because of their passion for the art and craft of making wine.  It's also a status symbol to enter the industry. Witness the celebrities who enter, including athletes, movie producers, and actors and actresses.  

3.  Entrepreneurs think to themselves, "I'm different. I'll be the exception to the rule."  In fact, some of the most compelling business stories are those of firms that have made strong profits in very unattractive industries. People know the remarkable story of Southwest Airlines, or Ryanair in Europe.  Or, they have observed the success of Planet Fitness and Trader Joe's (both companies about which I have written case studies - Planet Fitness case and Trader Joe's case).   Therefore, entrepreneurs think to themselves, "I can do that!"  Or, they look at the many failures in the industry and think, "That won't be me. I'm smarter than that!"  Unfortunately, they often don't understand quite what that it takes to position a firm to survive and thrive in a very challenging industry.   Hubris clouds their judgement as well.   

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Is Courage a Double-Edged Sword?

Source: Wikimedia

We all would like to believe that we have the courage to make difficult choices in our lives, whether they be personal decisions, or choices at work or about our careers. How does courage impact our decision making? Kellogg Professor Derek Rucker and University of Illinois-Chicago Professor David Gal set out to examine this question. They started by noting that a great deal of experimental research has documented the loss aversion phenomenon, i.e. the notion that losses loom larger than gains.  Yet, they wondered why people actually make very bold decisions at times in their personal and professional lives.  Loss aversion does not always seem to inhibit their ability to take a big swing.  To examine this issue further, the scholars conducted several interesting experiments.

In one experiment, they studied the decision making of over 500 research subjects. First, they asked half of the participants to write about an occasion when a person they knew had displayed courage. The other half of the research subjects wrote about an individual accomplishing something quite ordinary. Then the participants faced a decision. One half of the research subjects confronted a crucial decision regarding a serious illness. The other half faced a fairly trivial choice regarding a small sum of money. Those who wrote about someone's past courageous choice were much more likely to choose the riskier option in the medical decision. However, when it came to the fairly trivial monetary decision, little difference existed between the two groups of participants. Courage didn't play a factor in the trivial choice.  It mattered a great deal on the serious, high-risk decision.  

In a second experiment, they recruited over 400 research subjects. One half read about a substantial career gamble. The others read about a significant monetary gamble.  In other words, this time both choices involved a high degree of risk.  They wanted each choice to evoke some degree of fear. Their pretesting confirmed that. However, pretesting also revealed that the career gamble was "more purposeful, couragous, and worthy of respect." Then they asked each research subject to rate how important courage was to them. Finally, the participants had to make the crucial decision (either about career or money). In both decisions, courage increased people's willingness to make the riskier choice, but much more so for the career gamble than the monetary situation.

Rucker concludes, “This suggests that, in contrast to some of the findings in controlled laboratory gambles, people might have a radically different response to risk in some situations. When people see an opportunity to be courageous, and want to see themselves as courageous, that may actually lead to a preference for the riskier option.”

What do we make of these findings?  Well, courage certainly is a desirable attribute.  It enables us to make bold choices that can propel our organizations and careers forward.  However, we have to wonder if our desire to feel and appear courageous might push us to make some rash or ill-advised decisions at times.  Should we really approach the serious decision with a greater propensity to take risk as compared to the trivial decision? Is that an appropriate thing to do?  Courage, it appears, is a double-edged sword. 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Does Your Organization Have Good Mechanisms for Upward Feedback?

Source: picpedia

TINYpulse has published a good blog post about employee retention.  While the conclusions are not at all surprising, they are worth reviewing.  As the economy recovers, retaining top talent will be a substantial challenge for many firms.  Here's one key item from the blog post: 

Employees won’t stay if there isn't a culture of encouraging upward feedback

Employees that don’t feel comfortable giving upward feedback are 16% less likely to stay at their companies, according to TINYpulse. Feedback shouldn’t just flow one way. Open communication is key to understanding the needs and points of improvement for both managers and employees.

Qualtrics reports that 60% of U.S. employees reported having a way to provide feedback about their own employee experience. But only 30% said their feedback is acted upon by their employer.

It’s great when employees have upward evaluation systems in place. But when they believe their leadership can’t or won’t do anything to improve a problem, they may consider their employers to be ineffective.

Encourage employees to regularly communicate their thoughts. An open line of communication will demonstrate to employees that their opinions are important. Regular and honest communication shows employees that they’re valued, and it also allows you, as a leader, to recognize when adjustments might need to be made to improve employee retention.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

It's Not So Easy to Walk in Someone Else's Shoes


Leaders can be much more effective if they demonstrate empathy for their team members.  However, many of us struggle at times to empathize.   In fact, quite surprisingly, we may empathize LESS if we have been in another person's shoes in the past, and we have faced simliar obstacles.   Several years ago, Rachel Ruttan, Mary-Hunter McDonnell, and Loran Nordgren reported on some fascinating research they had conducted concerning our capacity to empathize.   Here's an excerpt from their Harvard Business Review article, in which they summarize the findings from a series of experimental studies:

Taken together, these results suggest that people who have endured a difficult experience are particularly likely to penalize those who struggle to cope with a similar ordeal.  But why does this occur? We suggest that this phenomenon is rooted in two psychological truths.

First, people generally have difficulty accurately recalling just how difficult a past aversive experience was. Though we may remember that a past experience was painful, stressful, or emotionally trying, we tend to underestimate just how painful that experience felt in the moment. This phenomenon is called an “empathy gap.”

Second, people who have previously overcome an aversive experience know that they were able to successfully overcome it, which makes them feel especially confident about their understanding of just how difficult the situation is. The combined experience of “I can’t recall how difficult it was” and “I know that I got through it myself” creates the perception that the event can be readily conquered, reducing empathy toward others struggling with the event.

What's the implication of this finding?  We have to step back and not dwell so much on our own successful experience overcoming certain obstacles or adversity.  Perhaps we were fortunate to have a great mentor who helped us through a tough spot, and this person does not.  Or, maybe we benefited from a strong team around us that provided crucial support, complementary skills, and key expertise.  Perhaps most importantly, though, we have to try to remember our struggles during the process, rather than only dwelling on the successful outcome we may have achieved.  We sometimes forget the setbacks and gloss over the tumbles and failures along our path.   

The other day, I read a Wall Street Journal article about a unique exercise conducted at Furman University and Denison University.   Many professors participated in a program in which they tried to learn how to solve the Rubik's Cube in less than five minutes.  The activity placed the professors back in the shoes of a novice learning a new task.  After going through the process, many faculty members experienced a healthy dose of humility.  They had forgotten how hard learning a new skill or body of knowledge could be.  The hope was that this attempt to stimulate more empathy for their students could make them better teachers.  

The same type of activity might be useful for business leaders.  Going back and working for a few days on the front lines of the organization might open their eyes to the challenges and obstacles faced by those employees, particularly during these trying times.  At Hilton Hotels, CEO Chris Nassetta took over when the firm needed a turnaround.  He directed his top managers to work one week per year in the firm's hotels.  They took on jobs on the front lines, such as housekeeping, facilities, or front desk work.  They gained a new appreciation for what was happening at the ground level in the organization.  In Nassetta's view, it made them all better leaders.  

Monday, March 01, 2021

The Classic Traps Encountered by New Leaders

Michael Watkins wrote one of the best books on leadership transitions - The First 90 Days.  He's a friend and former colleague from HBS, and he now teaches at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. Through his research, Michael identified some of the classic traps experienced by new leaders in their early months in charge. Here are a couple of the traps that seem to me the most worrisome for new leaders:

Not engaging in social learning

Watkins argues that new leaders sometimes isolate themselves during the early months in charge.  They spend an inordinate amount of time reading reports, analyzing data, and meeting with a close circle of direct reports.  Unfortunately, they do so at the expense of engaging with a broader range of voices throughout the organization.  They forget that there is much more to learn from people than from data.  Watkins explains that you build a reputation very quickly of either being approachable or not.  It's hard to modify those first impressions if you isolate yourself at the start.  

Staying too long with the existing team

Sometimes, new leaders stick with the incumbent team because they want to give those people the benefit of the doubt, despite concerns from the board and others about their performance.  In other cases, they convince themselves that they must keep those people because of their institutional knowledge.  Certainly, wholesales changes simply for the sake of bringing in your own people can be hasty and even distastrous.  However, leaders should beware of failing to make changes when a broad swatch of the organization witnesses serious under-performance within the top team.  Failing to make needed changes will cause people to lose faith quickly in a new leader. 

Getting captured by the wrong people

Certain people will work hard to influence and persuade the new leader.  They will do so because they want to preserve or enhance their own power.  They may try to protect their priorities in the face of potential change.  Or, they may push agenda items that they could not persuade the previous leader to endorse.  New leaders have to be very careful about being "captured" by the wrong people.  Leaders may not only get bad advice. People throughout the organization are paying attention.  If they think that the leader is surrounding himself or herself with the wrong people, it will again diminish faith and trust in the new leader.  

Friday, February 26, 2021

Stimulating Creativity & Innovation While Working From Home

Source: Pixabay

S. Mitra Kalita wrote an interesting article for Fortune this week about unlocking creativity amidst the pandemic, with so many people working from home.   Kalita writes:

CEOs are nervous as they ponder how working from home affects output, innovation, and productivity in the long term, according to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor. “Creativity is the biggest single issue,” he told the Financial Times. “New ideas and new customers and new segments and new business models [are] all the CEOs are concerned about.”

Kalita went to explain, "A Leesman survey of 145,000 workers globally found 28% of those working from home said they were unable to collaborate on creative work."  These numbers surely are troubling.  Yes, vaccination rollouts have picked up speed, and many of us have high hopes of a return to normalcy.  However, we surely will have many people working from home in the future, even when the pandemic hopefully subsides.  We have to conquer the challenge of creativity and innovation in a remote work environment.  Kalita interviewed Blythe Towal, a senior manager of engineering for Shield AI, for the article.  She offered the writer some good principles for how they keep employees innovative at Shield AI in these trying circumstances.  I've summarized and added some commentary below.  

Good ideas come from everywhere: Use virtual collaboration as a means of democratizing participation in meetings and projects.  That type of democratization may come in many forms virtually... chat, break-outs, polling, as well as normal conversation during meetings.  

Overcommunicate:  Encourage instant messaging and frequent check-ins, to make up for the fact that informal conversations don't just naturally happen while people pass one another in the hallway.  You might think certain messaging is being redundant, but put aside that fear.  You can't connect too much when working remotely.  As I've written elsewhere, you have to engineer serendipity to spark innovation in a remote work environment.  

Connect: Use "all-hands" type meetings not only to communicate, but to encourage the formation of bonds across units and teams.  Seek to build relationships and expand people's social networks.  Use these opportunities to also help new employees integrate and connect. 

Values matter: An emphasis on shared values helps people remain poised amidst the tendency to be fighting fires constantly during turbulent times.  It also helps insure alignment while people are dispersed geographically. 

Project positive energy: Watch out for negative energy.  Be realistic, but relentessly optimistic.  Don't get bogged down by small failures or hiccups. Focus on the big picture, and celebrate any and all triumphs together.  Small wins are crucial.  Don't just focus on the large projects and goals.  You need to build momentum and use small wins to persuade those who might be skeptical about innovative ideas and initiatives.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Leading in a Fog: Discomfort with the What-If Questions

Source: Wikimedia

I recently read Adam Bryant's interview with Penny Herscher, veteran Silicon Valley board director and CEO.    He asked Herscher about lessons for leading "in a fog" - i.e., in a highly ambiguous, unpredictable environment.   Herscher argued that management teams need to consider the tough, uncomfortable "what-if" questions.  She explained:

My observation is that many leadership teams aren’t comfortable doing broad scenario what-ifs. It makes them uncomfortable. On one of my boards, I asked, “What if XYZ happens and you’re out of cash in October? What are you going to do?” Just asking the question is so powerful for the leadership team. If you don’t ask the question, they don’t go through all the logic of how it might happen, and then think about how to prevent it by managing to other priorities.

It’s as if you have to ask the leadership team, “Are you comfortable asking each other these scary questions?” Because once you can name them, they’re not quite so frightening. I find that more conservative leadership teams typically don’t want to look at the bad possible scenarios. It’s easier not to think about it. But if you’re facing a difficult, scary situation, thinking through the worst that can happen helps you prepare to prevent that worst thing from happening.

I agree wholeheartedly with Herscher.  I think many management teams want to avoid thinking about the worst.  They believe in the power of being relentlessly optimistic.  However, one can be bold and optimistic, and yet still be prepared for alternative scenarios.  Some management teams talk about the worst in private, but they always sugar coat any discussions with a broader set of employees.  They think that being too negative will hurt morale.  However, playing to "close to the vest" can backfire.  Employees can sense that the firm is operating in a very challenging and turbulent environment.  They can see the risks ahead, the icebergs ahead in the water.  If management only provides happy talk, then employees grow worried.  They wonder whether management is truly prepared for what the future may bring.  Employees may even lose faith in top management.  The best leaders confront reality and don't sugar coat the situation and gloss over an organization's weaknesses.  They name the problems and the challenges, but then make a persuasive case why the organization can and will overcome those obstacles.   

Friday, February 19, 2021

Could Repeated Practice Reduce Creativity?

Source: Wikimedia 

Columbia Professor Melanie S. Brucks and Stanford Professor Szu-chi Huang have published a thougght-provoking new paper titled, "Does Practice Make Perfect? The Contrasting Effects of Repeated Practice on Creativity." These scholars asked the question: "Could repeatedly 'exercising' the creativity muscle help build up creative performance over time?" Brucks and Huang conducted three studies with over 800 research subjects. Their results proved surprising. Here's an excerpt from a Stanford Business Insights article about the research:

According to recent research by Stanford Graduate School of Business alumna Melanie S. Brucks and associate professor of marketing Szu-chi Huang, regular brainstorming sessions are not likely to lead to an increase in unique ideas. In fact, the average novelty of your output — that is, the degree to which your inspirations depart from convention — actually might decrease over time.

“It was surprising,” says Brucks, who earned her PhD in marketing at Stanford in 2019 and now is an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia University. “People got worse at one type of idea generation, even as they thought they were getting better at it.”

Huang, who studies motivation, also admits she was taken aback by the results, which are detailed in an article, “Does Practice Make Perfect? The Contrasting Effects of Repeated Practice on Creativity,” recently published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. “In my field, practice is always good. It’s always about practice — do it every day and you will learn and improve your skills, or at least build good habits. But it turns out that to get better at creativity, you need to do some creative thinking about creative thinking.”

The authors found that the participants thought they were becoming more creative over time, but in fact, the number of novel ideas decreased. The scholars explain that the brain may become more inflexible as it concentrates on a particular activity repeatedly. That damages divergent thinking capabilities, unfortunately.

What can we do to maintain or boost our creative abilities while engaging in repeated brainstorming or other types of creative problem-solving activities? Change things up! Inject novelty into a team's approach to problem solving. Disrupt routines quite intentionally. Use a variety of exercises, rather than the same type of brainstorming or problem-solving process. Even change the time of day perhaps.  Huang concludes, "To practice creativity effectively, we have to change how we define practice... The structure needs to be more dynamic."  

Monday, February 15, 2021

Employee Performance Depends, in part, on Leader Mindset

Source: Wikimedia

Katherine Muenks and her co-authors have published a fascinating article titled, "Does My Professor Think My Ability Can Change? Students’ Perceptions of Their STEM Professors’ Mindset Beliefs Predict Their Psychological Vulnerability, Engagement, and Performance in Class."  In my view, this paper about teaching and learning has very important implications for leadership, employee engagement, and employee productivity.   

The authors studied student perceptions about their professors' mindsets.  Did the instructor have a growth mindset (everyone can improve with the right effort, coaching, etc.) or a fixed mindset (individuals have a fixed level of ability in a particular discipline)?  Through a series of studies, the scholars show that student perceptions about the professor's mindset matters a great deal.  If students perceived that the faculty member believed in each person's ability to grow and develop his or her skills, then those students were more engaged. Moreover, they performed better in the class. The scholars go further though.  They write:

"Across all studies, we controlled for students’ personal mindset beliefs and found that, even while controlling for these personal beliefs, students’ perceptions of their professors’ mindset beliefs predicted their anticipated and experienced psychological vulnerability in class. In other words, students’ perceptions of what powerful people in the environment (e.g., their professors) believe about intelligence predict students’ psychological experiences and performance in that environment—regardless of what students themselves personally believe about intelligence...

Importantly, in Study 4, we were able to control for students’ general perceptions of how warm or competent their professor was. These analyses largely demonstrate that the associations of perceived professor mindset on students’ psychological experiences in class are not simply a function of how friendly or competent they perceive their professor to be."

In short, the professor's mindset mattered, even after controlling for the student's own mindset!  Moreover, the effect on student performance did not hinge on perceptions about the warmth or competence of the professor.  

What's the implication for business leaders?  I would argue that employees are also evaluating and judging their managers.  They are ascertaining whether that leader has a growth or a fixed mindset.  They will more engaged, more invested in their work and their own personal development, and more productive if their leaders display a growth mindset.   

Friday, February 12, 2021

Declare Your Unstated/Hidden Assumptions

Source: Wikimedia

Managers many a number of crucial assumptions when they make strategic decisions or craft strategic plans.   No strategy rests simply on a body of facts or evidence.  Ambiguity and unpredictability about the future always reigns, and therefore, managers must build their plans based on certain assumptions. Of course, we often don't identify these assumptions explicitly.  They remain hidden.  Declaring your assumptions enables them to be discussed and debated.  They can be tested and probed critically.  Otherwise, managers may take certain assumptions for granted, treating them as truth, when they may actually be quite shaky.   Several years, Mark Hollingworth wrote a good article for Ivey Business Journal, in which he explained the six primary benefits of including a statement of your assumptions any strategic plan: 
  1. Inclusion facilitates the analysis of any organization’s business plan by a financial institution, venture capitalist or angel investor. The risk of making a bad investment will be reduced if the investors understand and share the strategic assumptions of the organization’s management team.
  2. Differences in points-of-view about strategic assumptions are the source of many of the conflicts that arise between investors and company management – and within a management team itself. Strategic assumptions represent the shared values, beliefs and vision of the management team. Demanding that they be included in a strategic plan will force management teams to hold the difficult internal conversations required and that allow them to uncover, challenge, and capture their shared assumptions.
  3. Knowing they need to exit a strategic planning process with a complete, shared set of strategic assumptions forces a management team to use a much more rigorous strategic planning process.
  4. Face-to-face, it is very difficult for most people to defend strategic assumptions which are ungrounded or that they do not believe or share.
  5. Developing and debating strategic assumptions with groups of employees is an excellent way to gain buy-in and commitment to the organization. Having to declare and justify the assumptions upon which a plan is built means that it is difficult for a CEO to impose his or her views. With increased levels of employee buy-in, there is a greater probability that the strategic plan will actually be implemented.
  6. By presenting strategic assumptions for rigorous debate and analysis, the probability is minimized that investors, employees, management and any other stakeholders will waste time, money and energy on trying to implement plans that have little chance of generating the promised results.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Super Bowl Coaches, The Curse of Expertise, and The Importance of Perspective Taking

Source: Sporting News

As we approach the Super Bowl this weekend, here's a quick look back at the history of NFL championship coaches.  The data are clear.  In football, championships are generally not won by coaches who were formerly superstar players.  33 coaches have won the 54 Super Bowls that have taken place. Several coaches have earned multiple championships, including Bill Belichick (6) and Chuck Noll (4). Of those coaches, only 1 man made the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player (Mike Ditka). Only 2 men earned Pro Bowl status as players (Mike Ditka and his mentor, Tom Landry, who made it to one Pro Bowl as a punter for the New York Giants in the 1950s). None of the other Super Bowl winning coaches earned Pro Bowl status as a player. 

Why might great players not thrive as coaches in the league?  Multiple potential explanations exist.  However, I'll focus here on something called the curse of expertise.   Put simply, experts sometimes have a difficult time teaching much less experienced and accomplished people.  Why?  They forget what's it like to be in the novice's shoes.  They can't predict the types of challenges and problems that the novice will face when mastering a new skill.   In many cases, the expert may not even be fully aware of the "how" behind certain highly effective results.  It comes so naturally to them that they don't have a complete understanding of the process that leads to those successful outcomes.   

Moreover, a study by Yale psychologists Matthew Fisher and Frank Keil shows that experts think they can teach and explain effectively.  In other words, they often don't recognize the curse of expertise.  Fisher and Keil conducted a series of experiments demonstrating that, "Highly educated individuals tend to overestimate their ability to explain their own areas of formal expertise."   In short, they argue that the experts' "confidence is unwarranted."  

Managers in business face the same curse of expertise as they lead teams and organizations.  They may not be able to recognize the problems and challenges that front-line or entry-level workers face as they try to master their job.  They may be overconfident in their ability to teach their team members.  To overcome the curse of expertise, managers need to get better at perspective taking.  They need to be able to step into their employees' shoes.  They must ask open-ended questions to learn about the challenges their team members are facing.  They have to reflect back and recall some of the early failures and stumbles in their career.   They need to check in with their employees and test for understanding after explaining something to them.  How did they interpret what I said?  Did they understand my rationale, my thinking, my logic?  Finally, managers need to invite questions.  What more would you like to know?  How can I clarify what I have explained?  The better managers become at perspective taking, the more likely they are to overcome the curse of expertise.  

Monday, February 01, 2021

Sharpening Your Active Listening Skills

The Center for Creative Leadership offers a concise description of six important active listening skills. Here's a quick summary:

1. Pay attention: Avoid distractions such as cell phones and laptops. Avoid interrupting the speaker. Maintain eye contact. Watch for body language that might signal your approval, disapproval, anger, etc. Take notes if necessary, but be sure not to bury your head in your notepad. Don't start thinking through your response while the other person is speaking.
2. Withold judgment: Try to put aside your own pre-conceived notions or positions on the issues at hand. Don't jump to conclusions until you've heard the entire explanation/argument. Identify some of your own assumptions, and be sure to acknowledge that these presumptions might not be valid. Treat your beliefs as testable hypotheses rather than settled truths.

3. Reflect: Paraphrase what you have heard periodically, and ask if you have understood the other party correctly.

4. Clarify: Ask questions to elicit further explanation. Start with open-ended questions. Follow up with clarifying and/or probing questions. Generally, you should avoid questions that simply require a yes/no answer. Refrain from posing the leading question. Seek to understand what the other party is feeling, not simply what they are thinking or saying (strive for empathy).

5. Summarize: Synthesize what you have heard periodically, and ask for confirmation of your understanding. Seek consensus on key points for future action or follow-up.

6. Share: Having sought to understand the other party, you can now try to share your own ideas and perspectives.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Why We Should Frame Feedback as Advice

Source: Pixabay

Jaewon Yoon, Hayley Blunden, Ariella Kristal and A.V. Whillans published a Harvard Business School working paper recently on the topic of seeking (and providing) constructive feedback.  They argue that we should request advice from colleagues and leaders, rather than asking for feedback.  Yoon and colleagues demonstrate through a series of experiments that, "People offer more critical and actionable input when they are asked to provide advice (versus feedback)—even when they are asked to provide comments on identical output."  

What's wrong with asking for feedback?  The scholars argue that feedback often is associated with evaluation in the workplace.  In other words, we almost always shift into evaluative mode, rather than developmental mode, when asked to provide feedback to someone else.  They point to past research showing that being in an "evaluative" mode tends to reduce the constructiveness of feedback.  When we are in evaluative mode, we tend to look backward, rather than focusing on suggestions for how to improve performance moving forward.  The scholars state that, "When focusing on an evaluation of past performance, input givers are less likely to consider how the recipient could perform better in the future."

Yoon and her colleagues summarize the findings from the experiments they conducted:  

Findings from four experiments suggest that asking for feedback may inadvertently prevent givers from delivering useful input. When asked to provide feedback across a variety of work-related tasks—whether they were asked to evaluate a stranger’s cover letter (Study 1A), a colleague’s work performance (Study 1B), or an instructor’s teaching (Study 2) — people provided less critical or actionable input than when they were asked to provide advice. Asking for feedback focused the givers’ attention on evaluation, which hindered constructive feedback delivery. In contrast, advice givers persisted in providing more constructive input even when they were prompted to focus on evaluating the recipient (Study 3). These results suggest that asking for advice could be a powerful way to solicit constructive comments, even in cases where evaluation must accompany input, such as during annual reviews that require performance-based ratings.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

What Would My Replacement Do Differently?

Source: Wikimedia

Jessica Stillman writes on this week about Dave Girouard, co-founder of Upstart and former president of Enterprise at Google.   Stillman decribes how Girouard protects himself against complacency and over-confidence. She quotes Girouard: ""While I'm doing some things okay, I can be lulled into a place of feeling good about myself when I'm probably not doing some other things very well."  Therefore, Girouard imagines that board has chosen to fire him and replace him with a truly spectacular chief executive.  "What would she do differently than what I'm doing?" he asks himself.  Then after identifying key actions that new CEO might undertake, he poses the question, "Why the hell aren't you doing those things?"  

Girouard's mental exercise reminds me of the famous story about Andy Grove and Gordon Moore pondering the future of Intel's DRAM memory chip business in the early 1980s.  In his terrific book, Only the Paranoid Survive, Grove wrote,

“I looked out the window at the Ferris wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance when I turned back to Gordon, and I asked, ‘If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?’ Gordon answered without hesitation, ‘He would get us out of memory chips.’ I stared at him, numb, then said, ‘Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back, and do it ourselves?'”

Friday, January 15, 2021

Standing in the Shoes of Front-Line Employees

How can leaders understand the challenges, frustrations, and obstacles faced by front-line employees as they set out to perform key tasks and serve customers?  Simply surveying them, or speaking with them from time to time, may not be sufficient.  Management by walking around is effective, but perhaps only provides a glimpse of the true nature of front-line work.  Moreover, word spreads quickly that the boss is walking around, and people may change their behavior if they know management is heading their way.  When I worked at Staples, I can recall Tom Stemberg, founder and former CEO, telling us that word would spread like wildfire once he popped into a store unexpectedly.  All the other stores in the region learned very quickly that he was in the area.  Shockingly, the stores looked immaculate by the time he arrived later that day.  

So, what else can leaders do to understand the needs and challenges of front-line employees?  How can they learn what daily work is really like for those associates? Here's a quick story about Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton Hotels, excerpted from my book, Unlocking Creativity.   Leaders should follow his example.  

Leaders across all types of organizations should consider how they can empathize genuinely with their employees. Great new ideas may emerge from these efforts. Chris Nassetta took over as CEO of Hilton Hotels in 2007. He had to engineer a turnaround at the struggling chain. Nassetta decided that his executives needed to connect more closely with the associates on the front lines – to understand their concerns, identify their frustrations, and hear their ideas. He worried that the top management team had lost touch with those doing the real work. Nassetta remembered learning a great deal in his first job in the hotel business, cleaning toilets as an eighteen year old at the Capitol Holiday Inn in Washington, D.C. He decided that it was time to return to his roots. 

Nassetta directed his top managers to spend one week per year working at one of the Hilton hotels around the world. He did the same, thereby modeling the behavior he expected from his team members. They took on housekeeping tasks, helped the facilities and grounds crew perform maintenance, and greeted guests at the front desk.[i] Nassetta notes, "Their job is harder than your job. You get in there, and you pay them the respect."[ii] The management team learns a great deal from this “immersion” process each year, and new ideas emerge from the many conversations that take place between executives and front-line workers. 

[i] I first learned about this initiative during a conversation with Kimo Kippen, former Chief Learning Officer of Hilton Hotels, at a meeting of the Human Resources Leadership Forum in Arlington, Virginia in December 2012.

[ii] Scott Mayerowitz, “How Hilton's CEO Led the Company's Massive Turnaround,” Inc., July 30, 2014. Accessed March 3, 2018.

Monday, January 11, 2021

"Know Your Book" - Ellen Kullman on Self-Awareness

Former DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman offered some terrific career advice in a recent interview with Kellogg Insight.   She explained that people build a "book" on you from day one in a company.  Good or bad, accurate or not, you need to know your book.  Understand the impression you have made, the track record you are establishing.  That type of self-awareness is crucial, she argues, as you advance in your career.  Here's an excerpt: 

Have a high “say-do ratio.” So if you say you’re going to do something, do it. And if you do it, do it well. I had a reputation for saying what I was going to do and getting it done. The other thing is, can people trust you? And it’s not, are you trustworthy or not? It’s, do they believe you are? Every company that you work for writes a book on you. And that book starts the day you walk through the door, and it doesn’t end when you leave. Know your book, right? Know what people say about you in the company.

And you’ll find there’ll be mentors, or sponsors, or people who will give you that kind of feedback. And you need to seek that out. Because the people that struggle the most are the ones that either didn’t know their book, or didn’t believe their book. And I think that comes down to self-awareness. Self-awareness is one of the traits that has helped me the most through my career: understanding the impact I have on people—good, bad, or indifferent.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Deliberately Foster Presence of Mind


Amy Murphy, a director with PwC US, and Columbia Business School Professor William Duggan have penned a good article for Strategy+Business about cultivating presence of mind. They argue that this approach helps foster creative thinking. Here's an excert: 

How do you improve your presence of mind? It helps to realize you don’t always need it. If you’re working on a familiar task, go ahead and keep working until you finish it, even if it takes until midnight. With familiar tasks, you already know what to do: You don’t need a new idea, you don’t need presence of mind. But if it’s a task where you need a creative answer, don’t work until midnight. Instead, carve out time to give your mind the space to wander. 

When you need a new idea, throughout the workday try to take in as many examples from history as possible that might relate to your problem. Don’t work late: Spend the evening on something that gives your mind a rest. Go to the gym, have dinner with friends, take a long shower, and above all get a good night’s sleep. This greatly increases your chances of a flash of insight to solve your problem.   You can practice this discipline in smaller bits too, by scheduling time in your day for short walks, or making coffee, or some other activity that enables you to clear your mind, if only for 15 minutes. 

Don’t confuse this type of relief from excessive focus with distraction. Creative relaxation is deliberate: something you choose to do. Distraction is reactive and almost involuntary. Your mind flits from one activity to another. Some call it multitasking, but in reality you cannot do many things at once. Your brain needs time to shift from one thing to the other. When you’re distracted by each new task, there’s not enough time for presence of mind.

I agree wholeheartedly.   In my work, I talk about the need to combine focus + unfocus to achieve creative breakthroughs.  Immerse yourself in a challenging problem, but punctuate that focus with some deliberate attempts to distance yourself from the problem.   Adopt this strategy deliberately.  However, I argue that it's more than about taking a break.  It's about finding specific ways to step back and achieve social, temporal, physical, and cultural distance from a perplexing problem.   For instance, Amazon's "working backwards" technique is a fantastic way to achieve temporal distance and gain fresh perspective.  Read more about "working backwards" here.