Monday, July 26, 2021

The Dangers of a "Tight" Meeting Agenda

Source: Brooks Group

Everyone seems to complain about the number of meetings crowding managers' daily schedules.  Moreover, plenty of people express frustration at the inefficiency of many of these meetings.  Conventional wisdom suggests a number of prescriptions for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings.  For instance, many experts call for clearly defined meeting agendas that are communicated clearly to all participants.  However, managers need to be aware of the crucial risks associated with keeping meeting agendas too "tight" - i.e., regimented and structured.   

Yes, managers need to keep their teams on track.  Frequent diversions from the meeting agenda can be frustrating for everyone involved.  However, managers are not always aware of key issues and concerns in advance of a meeting.  A crowded, overly regimented agenda leaves no room for participants to surface problems, risks, or concerns.   Therefore, managers need to make room in each meeting for an opportunity for some unplanned discussion of issues about which leaders may not be aware.  

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Most Common Career Advice Given to Your 20-Year Old Self

What advice would you give your 20 year old self?  That's the key question LinkedIn asked people recently.  Jessica Stillman of reported on the results.   She described the most common theme to emerge from the responses:

What do all of these replies have in common? Each focuses on action, experimentation, and course correction rather than pre-planning and rigid goals. The right way to make the most of your career, commentator after commentator insisted, isn't to have a grand blueprint or follow a pre-arranged path. Instead it's to just get started, learn along the way, and keep moving forward. Action beats endless deliberation any day.

Stillman quotes several of the folks who responded to LinkedIn's question:

Executive coachTracy Wilk. "Careers are long.  There's no need for a mad rush to find the ideal job. The first part (i.e., 10+ years) of your career is about testing multiple jobs and understanding what you like/dislike and are good and bad at."

Hireproof co-founder Max Korpinen:  "Don't spend so much time planning and researching the perfect career path -- you don't know what 'work' is yet anyway. Aggressively explore all options that seem interesting, learn, iterate, and you'll arrive to the 'perfect path' much faster," he advises his younger self.

Terrific advice.  It reminds me of the terrific book, Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.  They too argue that we should take action, experiment, and learn... rather than sitting in our room pondering what we want to do with our lives.  

Monday, July 19, 2021

Identify and Address Friction to Sell Your Creative Ideas

Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal have published a new book titled "The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas."   In the book, they focus on how to persuade others to support and endorse your innovative ideas.   Nordgren and Schonthal argue that one must identify the sources of "friction" that might cause people to resist your proposal.  Many innovators work very hard to convince others of the highly attractive new features of their concept.  However, they don't spend enough time understanding the obstacles that might cause people to be hesitant to adopt, despite the attractive attributes being offered.   The authors explain that four sources of friction exist: 

Inertia: Does the idea represent a major change?
Effort: What is the cost of implementation?
Reactance: Does the audience feel pressured to change?
Emotion: What negative feelings might the idea produce?

To address the sources of friction, you may change attributes of your new concept, and/or you may change the messaging around the idea.  To do this effectively, you must demonstrate a great deal of empathy.  You must step into the other person's shoes and understand their pain points and frustrations.   You have to understand why they might not see the new idea the same way you do, despite its compelling features and characteristics.  

Friday, July 16, 2021

Don't Just Analyze Historical Data; Listen to the Front Lines Today

Source: PxFuel
Carsten Lund Pedersen has written a terrific article this month for MIT Sloan Management Review. The article is titled "Gain Competitive Advantage by Transcending the Front-Line Paradox."   Pedersen argues that too much reliance on historical data, and too little emphasis on what front-line employees are seeing and hearing, can be trouble for organizations.  He writes, "Leaders who turn to front-line workers for their input and predictions when making strategic decisions have an edge over those who rely on their own analysis of historical data that may not reflect the current reality."  

Pedersen recalls the wisdom of Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, who once argued that people at the "periphery" of the organization often sense competitive threats long before they come to attention of senior leaders. Years ago, I quoted Grove on this very topic when writing about how leaders can uncover hidden risks and become better problem finders. The quote comes from Grove's excellent book, Only the Paranoid Survive.  Here's the Grove quote that I shared at that time:

“Think of it this way: when spring comes, snow melts first at the periphery, because that’s where it’s most exposed… In the ordinary course of business, I talk with the general manager, with the sales manager, with the manufacturing manager. I learn from them what goes on in the business. But they will give me a perspective from a position that is not terribly far from my own. When I absorb news and information coming from people are who are geographically distant or who are several levels below me in the organization, I will triangulate on business issues with their view, which comes from a completely different perspective. This will bring insights that I I would not likely get from my ordinary contacts.”   

Pedersen's article is definitely worth reading.  My favorite paragraph focuses on the need for leaders to exit their "echo chambers" in order to make better decisions:

Front-line employees, then, can offer a true treasure trove of insights to be used in strategic decision-making. Yet, top management teams rarely ask these employees about impending strategic issues they anticipate at the organizational front lines, or for their opinions on how a new product might fare. Many executives therefore deprive themselves of new information that could improve their analyses — and they risk making decisions in isolation within the C-suite echo chamber.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Your Next Customer Could Be Your Mom

I read an intriguing story in Fortune recently about Carvana, the company that has re-envisioned the new used-car buying experience. The article, by Nicole Gull McElroy, focuses on the organizational culture.   McElroy describes the core principles at the heart of Carvana's organizational philosophy. One principle proves to be particularly compelling. It's so powerful because it's so simple: treat every customer like your mother.  Why is this principle so effective at communicating the organization's values and philosophy?  It clearly guides employee behavior.  They don't need much explanation, or even guidance from senior management.  They can apply this criteria independently in any decision they make.  Would I act in this manner if my mother was buying this car?  McElroy explains:

This growth story, say the Carvana founders, is rooted in a single concept to which nearly every human can relate: Your next customer could be your mom. And that’s what Rachel Haynes, a customer advocate, was shooting for when in May 2020 she managed the sale of a BMW to one Texas husband as a Mother’s Day surprise for his wife, who had recently beat cancer. Haynes surprised the couple on delivery day, filling the back seat of the car with balloons, signs of congratulations, and a gift basket stocked with a blanket she crocheted, a bottle of Champagne, and a Starbucks gift card. No one asked her to do that; it isn’t in her job description and had no bearing on a commission check (Carvana doesn’t offer any to begin with).

“We said it from an early stage: We’ll take the best person with the best skill set every time,” says Keeton. “No expert is worth a ding to our culture.” That constant focus on culture is why, he says, anecdotes like that aren’t outliers at Carvana. Envisioning your mom on the receiving end of a sale is one of the company’s seven guiding principles. The remainder: We’re all in this together; there are no sidelines; be brave; zag forward; stay scrappy; and don’t be a Richard. (That last one is a tweaked version of, ahem, don’t be a word that rhymes with sick.  

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Avoiding the Tough Decision: Do We Prefer Bad News?


How much do we hate making tough decisions?  A great deal!  In fact, we dislike that process so much that we might just prefer a worst case scenario.   Why?  In that situation, the decision no longer rests in our hands.  We are forced to select a course of action, rather than having to consider several options.  This preference for the worst case has been identified in new research published in the Journal of Consumer Researech.   Kate Barasz and Serena Hagerty co-authored a study titled "Hoping for the Worst: A ParadoxicalPreference for Bad News."   They report on a series of studies that they conducted. They write,

"Nine studies investigate when and why people may paradoxically prefer bad news—for example, hoping for an objectively worse injury or a higher-risk diagnosis over explicitly better alternatives. Using a combination of field surveys and randomized experiments, the research demonstrates that people may hope for relatively worse (vs. better) news in an effort to preemptively avoid subjectively difficult decisions (studies 1 and 2). This is because when worse news avoids a choice (study 3A)—for example, by “forcing one’s hand” or creating one dominant option that circumvents a fraught decision (study 3B)—it can relieve the decision-maker’s experience of personal responsibility (study 3C)."

I find this article fascinating.   I think decision avoidance represents a major issue for managers in many instances.   Tackling a difficult and contentious issue worries them for many reasons.  In numerous instances, we find managers engaging in conflict avoidance.  They don't want their team members battling with one another.   Moreover, they seek to avoid the stress associated with a challenging decision.  In other situations, managers exhibit risk aversion.   Making a tough decisions means accountability and potential career consequences if they select the wrong course of action.  They prefer to have the decision out of their hands for fear of damaging their opportunities for advancement, rather than seeing the situation as opportunity to shine in a tough spot.  

This research also relates to the work that Amy Edmondson, Richard Bohmer, and I conducted with regard to downplaying ambiguous threats or risks.  In a study of the Columbia space shuttle accident, we argued that teams and organizations often will mobilize effectively and quickly to address a clear and present danger.  However, they will downplay and discount ambiguous threats.   We offer several explanations for this behavior.   One hypothesis, consistent with this study on bad news, suggests that people downplay ambiguous threats because they are engaging in decision avoidance.  

Friday, June 25, 2021

Leading a High-Energy, Productive Meeting

Source: Tameday

Elizabeth Doty has written a good article for Strategy+Business titled, "How to Boost People's Energy and Productivity During Meetings."  Doty offers several useful strategies. 

1.  Offer a clear, compelling prompt.  Most often, this prompt should come in the form of a question that both focuses the discussion and stretches people's thinking.

2. Don't start with a blank slate. Give people some fuel to energize their thinking. Doty writes, "You might provide a messy first draft or a sketch for them to react to, or tell the story of a recent incident that relates to the project goal. One of my colleagues likes to start work sessions with a live phone interview with a customer, employee, or stakeholder."   I love the interview technique.  What a great way to ground the discussion in the actual challenges faced by key constituents and to insure that executives are not too isolated from what's really happening on the front lines.  

3.  Consider shifting formats.   We have all become pretty adept at the breakout group format in Zoom these days.  Don't let that notion go away when you return to in-person meetings.  Provide some time for small subgroup discussions amidst a larger team meeting.  For instance, David Garvin and I wrote in the past about the power of what scholars call the dialectical inquiry method for making decisions.  In that technique, you break a team into multiple subgroups and ask them to generate contrasting alternatives. Then, the subgroups come together to debate these options, critique each other's ideas, and then revise their proposals.  

4.  Give the team some templates to help structure their thinking.   These templates might include an affinity map, journey map, cause-effect diagram, or business model canvas.  These structures can help channel the conversation and provide a tangible product at the end of the meeting that can be shared with others and that captures everyone's thinking.  

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Happiness and Our Openness to New Experiences

Source:  Wikimedia

Harvard Professor Arthur Brooks has a great column in The Atlantic this week. The essay is titled, "Don't Approach Life Like a Picky Eater."   Brooks writes:

Openness to a wide variety of life experiences, from visiting interesting places to considering unusual political views, brings happiness. “Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “will himself sound the depths of his own being.”

He had the data on his side. Openness, also known as neophilia, is strongly, positively associated with happiness. Of course, you can push this too far, becoming chronically disgruntled without a constant stream of novelty, or turning into a danger addict always searching for the next extreme experience. True happiness comes from a healthy, balanced neophilia that cultivates a love for the adventure of life.

Brooks argues that we should consciously choose "curiosity over comfort" at times.  I agree.  Neuroscience indeed confirms that novelty stimulates the brain in positive ways. However, we need to be aware of the dangers of impulsive behavior.  We don't want to pursue a new experience simply because it's novel, and we don't want to engage in reckless behavior in search of a short-term thrill.  That is unlikely to lead to sustained happiness.  With some care and thoughtfulness, however, we can adopt a mindset of healthy restlessness. 

Case Studies on Leadership & Strategy

For those working on syllabi for the fall, here is a list of some of the case studies I've published over the past ten years.  I'm glad to answer questions about any of this material.
In addition, you might be interested in reviewing some of the simulations I've developed in collaboration with Harvard Business Publishing and Forio.   These simulations include the Everest Leadership and Team Simulation, co-authored with Amy Edmondson, and the New Venture Simulation: Food Truck Challenge.  

Friday, June 04, 2021

What Factors Might Derail Your Career?

Source: Career Advancement Blog
Elena Lytkina Botelho and Katie Semmer Creagh have published an HBR article titled, "What to Do if Your Career is Stalled and You Don't Know Why."   In this piece, they describe research on what has derailed the careers of successful managers as they try to reach the C-suite.  Botelho and Creagh analyzed the circumstances regarding 113 talented individuals rejected during the final round of the selection process for C-suite roles at their companies.  They found three sometimes misunderstood factors that explained the derailing of many successful careers: 
  • Executive presence: "This is an ill-defined catchall for a multitude of issues from the seemingly trivial but career damaging body odor, to deeper challenges, such as when someone doesn’t carry herself/himself in a way consistent with company culture. Often executives who fail to appear confident get comments about lackluster executive presence."
  • Communication style:  Candidates stalled if they seemed too academic or cerebal, appeared to be too long-winded, failed to engage people with effective storytelling, or if they used "I" instead of "We" too often.  Sadly, some also stumbled because they spoke with a significant accent.  
  • Peer-level relationships:  Some candidates received stellar reviews from their managers, but failed to connect well with their peers.  They were perceived as too competitive, or perhaps too interested in personal vs. team success.   The best candidates demonstrated a more effective ability to persuade and influence their peers. 
What's the lesson for individuals trying to protect against a future career derailment?  Be sure to gather feedback on these issues, not just your ability to deliver results or accomplish important tasks.  Don't assume that silence on these issues from your boss means you are performing well along these important dimensions.  Ask about these factors, seek out advice from mentors, and find ways to work on your personal development in these areas.  Be proactive, rather than being vulnerable to a surprise derailment in the future.  

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Sustaining a Culture of Experimentation After the Pandemic Subsides


Did your company shift and adapt in an agile manner during the early months of the pandemic?  Were you impressed with how the organization was willing to try new things? Did this period of time mark a break from past situations all too often characterized by "analysis paralysis" and slow, bureaucratic planning processes?   Many organizations can answer "yes" emphatically to all three questions.  Now the challenge is to maintain this culture of experimentation and agility as the pandemic subsides.  That will be difficult for many firms.  Some will backslide into past practices.  In an article for Fortune, Mark Hoplamazian,  CEO of Hyatt, argues that we can't go back to business as usual.  We have to continue to embrace the culture of experimentation that has been essential for firms to survive and even thrive during the pandemic.  He writes: 

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves into a chronic yet more manageable state, business leaders might be tempted to return to the comfort of business as usual. That would be a mistake.

While some organizations were stopped in their tracks by the onset of the pandemic, those that welcomed experimentation were a step ahead in their ability to manage through it. Accustomed to being agile and listening to their stakeholders, they had a kind of strategic muscle memory that allowed them to smoothly embrace new ideas, behaviors, and practices.

But here’s the tricky thing about experimentation: It means being comfortable with some experiments not working out. Continuously learning and modifying is a critical piece of the puzzle.

It’s no secret that the pandemic brought the travel and hospitality industries to a screeching halt, and it’s my firm belief that Hyatt’s focus on listening, testing, learning, and adapting is what led us through the pandemic and put us on a clear path to recovery.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Reflect & Learn: Post-Project Evaluation of Initial ROI Analysis

Source: Praxis

Upon completion of a project, have you ever gone back to evaluate the initial return on investment analysis used to justify the decision to proceed with that initiative?  This type of post-project evaluation can be very instructive.   Did the project deliver the type of return that was expected?  Why or why not?  Did the project fail, or were the expectations regarding the benefits and returns simply overinflated?  

The purpose of this anlaysis should not be to blame people for misguided cost/benefit analysis, or to punish those who did not deliver results in line with expectations.  Instead, spotting errors and and deriving lessons from this type of reflection can enable an organization to enhance the quality of its decisions moving forward.   ROI analyses will improve, enabling managers to make more informed, higher quality decisions.  

What types of issues and errors should one look out for when evaluating results relative to that initial analysis?  Here are a few questions to ask: 
  1. Were we experiencing confirmation bias as we collected and analyzed the data?  
  2. Did we make fail to engage a devil's advocate to challenge our forecasts and predictions?  
  3. Did we make some assumptions that were overly optimistic?   Did we back into certain assumptions simply to make the return on investment seem attractive?
  4. Were the initial investment figures unrealistically low?   Did we have to make substantial additional investments that probably should have been anticipated at the outset?  
  5. Did we fail to account for opportunity costs when considering the attractiveness of this opportunity?
  6. Were people hesitant to challenge or critique the analysis because they perceived the investment to be a "pet project" of the CEO or another senior leader?

Thursday, May 20, 2021

A Stubborn Attachment to Existing Beliefs

Source: Rand Corporation
In 1962, Roberta Wohlstetter published a fascinating book titled, "Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision."   She examined why officials did not perceive the threat of a potential attack in Hawaii appropriately.   She opened her book by writing, "It would be reassuring to believe that Pearl Harbor was just a colossal and extraordinary blunder.  What is disquieting is that it was a supremely ordinary blunder." Later, in assessing the decision making of key leaders, she notes how many of them held a strong pre-existing belief that the Japanese would never attack the United States. That belief clouded their assessment of data and signals, and ultimately led to misguided judgments. She wrote, "Apparently human beings have a stubborn attachment to old beliefs and an equally stubborn resistance to new material that will upset them."  Truer words have never been written. 

I'm reminded of this quote when I think about an organization I've been studying for quite some time.  This once very successful organization made a series of strategic decisions more than a decade ago based on a core set of beliefs and assumptions.   Those beliefs and assumptions were consistent with the strong preferences of senior leaders - i.e., they aligned quite well with the interests and aspirations of top managers and board members.  Years later, quite a bit of evidence suggests that some of those assumptions were invalid.  Yet, leaders remain stubbornly attached to those beliefs.   They haven't been willing to confront the data, question those beliefs, and change course.  

Poor governance practices have exacerbated the problem, as board members prefer not to question the assumptions or the strategy, given that some of the initiatives were "pet projects" in which they were emotionally invested.  Less than desirable outcomes and results are constantly rationalized away, much like a retailer that explains away its poor financial results during a particular quarter by pointing to "weather conditions" that reduced traffic to its stores.  Funny how quarterly financial reports never seem to talk about favorable weather conditions bolstering sales and profits!  

Perhaps the most frustrating element of this story is that the stubborn attachment to existing beliefs has not only led to an unwillingness to change direction or abandon misguided plans, but has led to a "doubling down" on failed policies.  The sunk cost trap is clearly at play.   The organization finds itself throwing good money (and effort) after bad.  The problem, as is often the case, is not simply the prior investment of financial resources.  It's the huge emotional sunk cost; it's the unwillingness to admit when one is wrong.  

Whenever you witness the sunk cost trap in action, you should not only pay attention to the wasted resources as good money is thrown after bad.  One should also pay close attention to the opportunity costs. What opportunities have been missed and what investments have NOT been made because so many resources continue to be allocated based on a stubborn attachment to long-held beliefs and assumptions?  In this particular organization I've studied, the opportunity costs in many ways have been far more substantial than the actual expenditures wasted in support of invalid beliefs and assumptions.  

Has your organization found itself in this predicament?  How can you as a leader help to identify implicit and explicit assumptions and beliefs that need to be tested, challenged, and validated?  How can you protect against the stubborn attachment that Wohlstetter wrote about so eloquently nearly sixty years ago?

Friday, May 14, 2021

Becoming a Better Delegator

Many leaders struggle with a tendency to micromanage at times.  I just read a good short piece at Fast Company by executive coach Melody Wilding about becoming a better delegator.  She offers three pieces of advice.  I've added a fourth key point.  

1.  Assess the cost of your perfectionism. 

What negative impact is it having on others?  Are they losing opportunities to develop and grow?  Are they becoming more disengaged at work because of your micromanagement?  Losing talented people can be a huge cost of your perfectionism.  However, you also have to consider the personal cost.  Will you experience burnout because of your tendency to micromanage?  Be honest with yourself.  Are you experiencing a loss in productivity because you are overburdened?  

2.  Strive for small wins. 

If you are hesitant to delegate, start with some low-stakes tasks.  Get those off your plate.  For this evaluation, I suggest the use of the Eisenhower matrix.   Consider those activities that do urgently need to be done, but are not that important.  Start by delegating those tasks.  Once you realize that others can handle that work, you will grow more confident in delegating more critical work to them.  

3.  Focus on the what and the why, but delegate the how.  

You need to establish the goals and explain why they are important.  Explain what needs to be done.   Describe why that is necessary.  Paint a picture of what success will look like.  Then let others determine how best to accomplish those objectives.  

4.  Establish checkpoints up front. 

Make sure you establish some opportunities to check in with the people doing the work.   However, don't look over their shoulder at every turn.  Instead, think through a few key milestones or checkpoints.  Establish those beforehand and communiate them clearly, and then meet with your team members at that point to check on progress.   When you do meet, don't just tell them what to change and why.  Ask good questions.  Encourage them to evaluate their own progress and let them propose the corrective action before you put forth an opinion.   

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Speaking Up Effectively

Source: Flickr

After facilitating a conversation the other day with a group of managers, I went back to review something I wrote back in 2009 in a book titled Know What You Don't Know.   The managers asked me how one can dissent in the most persuasive and constructive fashion, particularly in situations where they feel as they the leader may not want to hear an opposing viewpoint.    

Suppose you have a dissenting view, but you aren't sure how to bring your point forward. How can you put forth a different perspective without eliciting a defensive reaction from your boss or backlash from your peers?  I have argued that, "Speaking up requires more than crafting the right series of statements... In large, complex organizations, individuals must pay close attention to social and political dynamics. They need to find a way to gain access to key decision-makers and to build support for their viewpoints."  Here are my tips for speaking up effectively, with a focus on how to manage the political and interpersonal dynamics of your organization:  

Know your audience: Learn about the person you are trying to persuade. Present your arguments in a way that fits that person’s preferred mode of processing information.

Understand the history: Determine who will feel most threatened by your attempts to shine a spotlight on a particular problem. Avoid placing blame on that person; focus on how to improve the situation.

Seek allies and build coalitions: Strength resides in numbers. Find others who will support your viewpoint. Present a united front.

Work through key confidantes and gatekeepers: Identify the individuals who have the ear of the person you ultimately must persuade. Seek them out and try to bring them onboard first.

Focus first on divergent thinking: Remember that your near-term goal should not be to persuade everyone to adopt your view immediately. Begin by simply trying to encourage people to think differently about the situation at hand.

Present alternative solutions: Do not just point out the problem; offer a series of possible solutions. Make it clear that you want to help fix the problem.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Why Leaders Should Share Stories of Adversity & Failure

Source: Wikipedia

Leaders should set high expectations for their team members, much as great teachers do.  They should demand excellence and maintain high standards.  At the same time, leaders have to instill a belief in their team members that these lofty goals are achievable.  They have motivate others to work through adversity.  Too often, employees perceive the path to success for senior executives as seemingly smooth and fast.  They don't know about the obstacles, failures, and mistakes.  Understanding the rocky nature of the path to success actually matters.  Leaders who share stories of their own challenges and failures can actually motivate their employees more effectively than those that appear infallible.  Moreover, sharing failure stories actually helps build pscyhological safety, as Amy  Edmondson has argued.   In Unlocking Creativity, I wrote about fascinating research by Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her colleagues on this topic.  Here's an excerpt: 

Recent research by Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and her colleagues demonstrates that children learn more effectively when they appreciate the hardships and struggles of people who ultimately attained great discoveries. They asked more than 400 high school students to read stories about famous scientists. Some students read stories about the mistakes that Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Michael Faraday made at one point or another. The narratives recounted how these scientists learned and recovered from their failures on the path to a remarkable breakthrough. Other students read stories about the personal hardships experienced by these three scientists. For example, they learned about how Faraday came from a very poor family and encountered religious prejudice throughout his life. The third group of students read heroic tales of achievement by these three individuals, with little discussion of failures or adversity.

The researchers tracked the students’ grades in their science class before and after they read these stories. The average academic performance of the three groups did not differ prior to the study. Remarkably, the students who read stories about intellectual struggles and personal adversity exhibited higher science grades in the subsequent six-week period than the students who read heroic stories of scientific genius. Most importantly, the lowest-performing students experienced the biggest boost in performance after learning about the messiness of the scientific process.

Leaders should think about sharing their own stories of adversity and failures with colleagues and subordinates. Organizational learning expert Amy Edmondson argues that the most effective leaders model curiosity for team members and acknowledge their own fallibility. In so doing, they make it safe for team members to experiment and make mistakes. Individuals become comfortable pursuing the issues and questions that arouse their curiosity, because they do not fear being blamed or punished if their experiment fails.

Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of Spanx, remembers conversations with her father as a child. He often would ask about her recent failures. Blakely recalls telling him, “Dad, Dad, I tried out for this, and I was horrible!” He did not express disappointment in his daughter. Blakely loved his response, “He would actually high-five me and say, ‘Congratulations, way to go!’ Failure for me became not trying, versus the outcome.”

Blakely has tried to send the same message to everyone in her organization. Several years ago, she played the Britney Spears song, “Oops, I Did It Again” at a company-wide meeting. Then she recounted a series of errors that she had made as Spanx grew and prospered. Blakely sent a clear message to her team: I’m fallible too. I understand that failure will occur when people try new things.

- Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, Janet Ahn, Jondou Chen, Fu-Fen Anny Fang, and Myra Luna-Lucero, "Even Einstein struggled: Effects of learning about great scientists’ struggles on high school students’ motivation to learn science," Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, no. 3 (2016): 314-328.
- Amy Edmondson. Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).
- Kathleen Elkins, “The surprising dinner table question that got billionaire Sara Blakely to where she is today, Business Insider. April 3, 2015. Accessed March 5, 2018.
- Shana Lebowitz, “A self-made billionaire explains how Britney Spears helped her teach a key business lesson to her employees,” Business Insider, June 22, 2016. Accessed March 5, 2018.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Creativity & The Power of Persistence

Source: Thrive Global

Does our creativity diminish over time?  Most people think so.  They believe that that we are likely to generate our most creative and innovative ideas during the early stages of brainstorming.  Unfortunately, people are being misled because they think that those ideas that are harder to generate (i.e., that take some time to surface) are less innovative. They are mistaken in that belief. Those ideas you generate quickly and easily are not necessarily your most creative concepts.  

Professors Loran Nordgren and Brian Lucas have conducted a series of studies demonstrating that our creativity increases with some persistence.   Moreover, they have shown that people's failure to recognize the power of persistence comes at a cost.  Nordgren notes that people's mistaken beliefs may actually cause them to give up prematurely in search of transformative ideas, and therefore, not to maximize their creativtity. Nordgren explains, "People think their best ideas are coming fast and early.  You’re either not seeing any drop-off in quality, or your ideas get better. People don’t maximize their creative potential, and part of that is because of these beliefs." 

It's perhaps not surprising that people don't recognize the power of persistence when it comes to creativity.  As brainstorming begins, people tend to generate lots of ideas.  As time passes, it becomes more difficult to offer original ideas.  The drop in quantity often leads to a drop in energy in the group.  There's a sense that the team is floundering a bit.  Those feelings likely cause people to conclude that they are not likely to generate highly creative ideas if they continue their conversation.  Teams should not fall into this trap though.  They should not confuse quantity with quality.  Perhaps they need a break to achieve some pscyhological distance from the problem.  However, they should not give up. They should persist.  

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.