Wednesday, December 29, 2021

A Lesson In Setting (and Achieving) Our Goals

Source: Mission to Learn

We can learn a great deal about setting and achieving goals by studying how people engage in physical exercise. That's precisely what University of Pennsylvania scholar Katy Milkman has done very successfully in her career. She features some of that insightful research in her terrific new book,

In one study, Milkman examined the behavior of approximately 2,500 employees at Google.  She studied their exercise habits.   In this NPR interview, Milkman explains the motivation for and structure of the study: 

And we had this insight from research on habits that it seems like the kinds of people who form the stickiest habits have a really consistent routine. They do it in the same time, at the same place over and over again. And so we thought, OK, what if we sort of adopt that insight and build it into our program? One group was basically encouraged to go to the gym at a really consistent time. Then we have a second group, and this is the comparison, where they also told us their ideal time, say, 9 a.m., and we reminded them to go at that time, but we encouraged them to go whenever it was convenient for them. And as a result, that group went at about the same frequency but in a more varied manner. So half of their gym visits were at this consistent time and the other half were all over the place.

What do you think?  I bet you think that the group committed to always going to the gym at 9am would adhere to their exercise goal more successfully.  Well, that's what I thought before I read the results too.  However, that did not turn out to be the case!  She explains why: 

But the big surprise to me was that it was actually the group who had gone at the same frequency but in a more varied way. And when we dug into the data, we figured out why. The answer seems to be that the people who had formed those routines that were really consistent were really rigid. So more often than not, they're going to the gym at that time if they're going, and they actually did form a slightly stickier habit after the end of our program around visiting the gym at that usual time. But if they don't go at that time, they don't go at all, right? So you miss your 9 a.m. slot? Oh, I'm not going to the gym today. Whereas the other group, they go to the gym at 9 a.m. a lot. But if they missed 9 a.m., they have a fallback plan. So then they make it at noon or at 5. And as a result, net net, they're going to the gym more. And so what this taught us was that a really important component of habit is actually having some flexibility. It needs to be I have a first best plan, but when that doesn't work, I'm going to get there anyway.

The lesson here regarding flexibility seems especially important as we navigate unpredictable and turbulent circumstances in our external environment these days.  However, remember that the flexible group still aimed for that 9am gym visit.  They didn't leave their goal completely wide open.   However, they did have a contingency plan - a commitment to get to the gym whenever convenient if they could not visit at 9am.  That combination of a routine coupled with some flexibility seems to be the sweet spot when it comes to successfully achieving our goals.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

It's More than OK to say "I don't know."

Source: Lean Enterprise Institute

Mandy Gilbert, Founder and CEO of Creative Niche, wrote an interesting article several years ago for Inc.  The title of the essay was, "Why Saying 'I Don't Know' Is a Sign of a Strong Leader."  The article reminded me of a conversation I had with a UK-based CEO in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.  She recounted a story of her first meeting with her top management team after shutting down the corporate offices in March 2020.  This CEO started the meeting by telling the team, "I just want to remind you all that I haven't been through a global pandemic either.  So, let's figure this out together."  Here's what Gilbert wrote in her article that reminded me very much of this story of the CEO confronting the pandemic with her senior team: 

When faced with an obstacle, your gut reaction may be to exert your expertise and quickly provide a solution. However, a much more powerful alternative would be consulting your team out of the gate.ate. "Let's figure this out together" will only have positive outcome. Not only will this show you value their opinion, but it will also help the team come to the right solution. Your colleagues could have been through something similar in a previous role, and consequently offer valuable insight on what the next steps should be.

Some of the biggest wins can come out of not knowing. Admitting you don't know what to do evens the playing field. When everyone feels equal, the problem solving process becomes collaborative rather than authoritative.

Success achieved through a group effort is much more powerful than when achieved through a single person. Imagine the camaraderie and culture that will start to cultivate when the team solves a problem or reaches a target together? As a leader, collaboration should always be your number one priority -- not your self-pride.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Think about the "Why" as You Ask People to Return to the Office

Source: Glassdoor

Dr. Alexandra Samuel has written a thougthful piece for the Wall Street Journal titled, "How Bosses Can Lure Remote Workers Back to the Office."  According to Samuel, tather than insisting that people return and risking the loss of many talented employees, managers should focus on making it attractive to come back to the office.  She argues that employees need to understand the purpose of coming into the building, rather than continuing to work from home.  Here's an excerpt:

Remind people of the creative, collaborative and collegial benefits of time on site. That may mean reorganizing their work so that you shift people away from tasks that are best done solo (like writing or data analysis) and toward work that really thrives on in-person collaboration (like brainstorming or strategic planning).

As much as possible, give priority to projects that involve people working closely together. This is a great time to bring forward a neglected project that requires a lot of creativity and intellectual engagement, and is likely to be fun and engaging for your team...

Offer a range of spaces that encourage conversation, gathering and collegiality: Not just enclosed boardrooms for 20 but small meeting rooms for two to six people, conversation clusters made up of a few easy chairs or sofas, cafe tables with two or three chairs, and big communal tables where people can perch and chat if they need to check email or take care of a little work in between meetings. (After all, there’s no point in sequestering people in solitary cubicles once they’ve come into the office: For quiet, focused work, it makes more sense to spend the day working remotely.)

I think Samuel makes a very important point here.  Asking people to return to the office simply to work alone at their cubicle makes little sense.  On the other hand, employees will see the value of in-person interaction if the work requires intense collaboration, interpersonal communication, and group problem solving.  Giving them a challenge that is stimulating will also be enticing.  Making sure they have some autonomy with regard to how to solve the problem you put in front of them is very important too.  

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Challenge of Leading with Empathy

Kristin Peck, CEO of Zoetis     Source:

Fortune writer Chris Taylor has written a thought-provoking and informative column titled, "Empathy is the go-to leadership skill of the moment—and yes, it can be learned."  Taylor begins by profiling Kristin Peck, CEO of Zoetis (a Fortune 500 pet health company).   Peck used empathy effectively during the early portion of the pandemic and has acheived very high levels of employee engagement as a result.  Taylor goes on to outline more generally the benefits of leading with empathy:

The positive results of an empathic approach are undeniable: In a 2021 Empathy in Business survey by consulting giant EY, 89% say empathy leads to better leadership, 85% say it boosts productivity, and 87% say it increases levels of trust among employees and leaders.

The issue appears especially important to younger employees. According to the 2021 State of Workplace Empathy survey from benefits administration firm Businessolver, 90% of Gen Z respondents say they are more likely to stay with an empathic employer.

On the other hand, Taylor describes some unsettling data regarding empathetic leadership.  As it turns out, leaders worry about how they may be perceived if they demonstrate empathy.  Moreover, employees often view leaders' attempts to be empathetic as inauthentic... perhaps even as a charade.  Fortunately, Peck avoided these pitfalls.  

On the one hand you have leaders, who may not be comfortable expressing vulnerability because of how they might be perceived. In the Businessolver survey, 68% of CEOs said they feared they would be less respected if they show empathy—a shocking 31-point rise from the previous year.

On the other hand you have employees, who are often skeptical that the company is interested in their welfare, and don’t feel that they are truly in a safe space to discuss or reveal such issues. In fact in the EY survey, 46% of employees said they thought their companies’ efforts at promoting empathy were dishonest.

Leaders at all levels should consider this final point very seriously.  Nearly 1/2 of the respondents in that EY survey were highly skeptical of leaders' efforts to demonstrate empathy.  Think carefully, then, about how to genuinely try to stand in your employees' shoes, understand their needs and pain points, and perceive the workplace as they do.  Be ready to back up your words with actions.  Be consistent in your behavior.  Don't just feel their pain; do something about it.  Remember that listening without action may be perceived as just an empty gesture.  Employees may wonder if you were really listening at all.  

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Fumbling the Creative Handoff


What happens when someone runs with a creative idea initiated and formulated by someone else? What pitfalls arise when there is a transition from idea generator to idea executor? These are the questions examined by scholars Justin Berg and Alisa Yu in a fascinating new study. They studied the movie industry, examining approximately 5,700 films released over the past century. The scholars identified the person who generated, elaborated, and executed the idea. They evaluated Rotten Tomatoes scores as a measure of the creativity of the movies. What did Berg and Yu discover?  Stanford Leadership Insights summarized their findings:

Films in which there was a “late handoff” — that is, a director received a screenplay written by someone else to make into a movie — tended to be less creative than films in which the same person drove the entire process or drove the process from screenwriting on (an “early handoff”). “The notion of handoffs has been studied very thoroughly in medicine, but not in the context of creative projects,” Berg says. Yet handoffs are quite common in creative work. Engineers often build based on others’ designs; many marketers execute others’ ideas for campaigns; employees are increasingly asked to implement ideas that were crowdsourced from customers. “With creative projects, it’s clear how much handoffs should matter, as you need to be deeply committed, you need to go the extra mile to get this new thing born into the world.”

Berg explained by many filmmakers "fumble" these creative handoffs, particularly if they occur late in the game. “If you’re working on something creative, you can certainly receive the project as a handoff, but it shouldn’t be too late in the process.  Make sure you’re not handing over a mature idea for someone to implement, as you cut off the opportunity for them to develop psychological ownership and a coherent vision, which are key ingredients for turning creative ideas into creative final products.”   Does that mean you should avoid handoffs altogether?  Not necessarily.  Sometimes, you need a different set of skills to bring an idea to fruition.  However, you should get that implementor involved earlier in the process, so that they are part of the idea elaboration process.   They need to understand the concept clearly and become part of shaping and enhancing it.   As they come to "own" the idea, they are more likely to help shepherd it to completion successfully.  

Friday, November 19, 2021

Facilitating Complex Problem Solving in a Crisis

Source: Sioux Land News

Recently, I moderated a lively discussion in which a group of executives compared and contrasted the problem solving and communication of two flight crews:  Air France 447, which crashed in 2009 and killed everyone on board, and United 232, which crash landed in 1989.   The latter flight tragically led to many deaths as well.  However, the crew did a remarkable job of bringing the plane to the ground, saving 184 lives.   Many experts credit Captain Al Haynes for his steady hand leading the crew as it landed the plane after a catastrophic engine failure.   

What did Captain Haynes and his crew do so effectively as compared to the Air France team?  Most experts point to the way that the crew members communicated with one another.   Haynes notes that they utilized their crew resource management training highly successfully.  What were the hallmarks of Haynes' leadership during this crisis?

  1. He made it psychologically safe for everyone to contribute to the discussion.  No one, including Haynes himself, was afraid to say, "I don't know" and to seek help from others.
  2. Haynes and his crew members "thought out loud" as they engaged in problem solving.  In so doing, they all developed a strong shared situational awareness.  They got on the same page quickly. 
  3. Haynes and his crew repeatedly sought to confirm their understanding of each other's statements and conclusions.  They played back what they heard and asked if that was accurately understood.  They asked questions to clarify.  
  4. Haynes insured that people understood their roles and responsibilities clearly.  In flight emergencies in the past, confusion can occur when everyone is focused on the crisis and no one is "flying the plane."  To some extent, that occurred on the Air France flight.   On the United flight, Haynes insured that someone was focused on continuing to fly the plane, while others tried to diagnose the problem and find a way to land the plane.  
  5. Haynes didn't assume he had all the answers.  He was modest, and he recognized and acknowledged his own limits.  In so doing, he marshalled the collective intellect of the team.  

Monday, November 08, 2021

The Sunk Cost Trap and Opportunity Costs: How Competitors Can Attack You


Imagine that your firm's leaders have made a substantial investment over a 15-year period in a particular strategy.  They are investing roughly $20 million in operating costs per year in that strategy, and they have made considerable capital investments as well.  The strategy is not working.  It has not yielded the desired results.  However, key leaders are incredibly committed to the plan.  They are mired in the sunk cost trap, throwing good money after bad, in part because they do not want to admit their grave error publicly.  Leadership has been able to survive this flawed strategy because other aspects of the business have generated enough profit to cover for this sunk cost trap.  With profits generally strong for many years, leaders have not had to acknowledge their mistake or pay a price for their error.  What's the problem though?  Well, there are considerable opportunity costs associated with the sunk cost problem.  The damage to an organization is not just the good money thrown after bad; it's the OPPORTUNITY COST of the flawed strategy.  What other opportunities are we not able to pursue because we are allocating scarce resources in this manner?

Now put yourself in the shoes of a key competitor for a moment. How could they take advantage of this situation?  Well, they could pursue a costly strategy that requires hefty investment, but is likely to draw away many customers from their rival.    The company stuck in the sunk cost trap might not be able to respond effectively.  They don't have the resources to respond, because they are still throwing good money after bad on a losing strategy.   The opportunity costs become a huge liability at that point.   The lesson: If you are looking to gain an edge over a rival, check to see if they are throwing good money after bad, and see if you can put them in a tough spot by making an investment in a strategy that they are not able to match due to scarce resources.  

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Searching for Leaders with Social Skills: Does Supply Meet Demand?

Source: NPR

Raffaella Sadun, Joseph Fuller, Stephen Hansen, and Tejas Ramdas have conducted a comprehensive study regarding executive searches and the skills sought after by companies when hiring to the C-suite. The scholars examined more than 4,600 searches for top executives between 2000 and 2017.  The study stretched across many industries and countries.   HBS Working Knowledge published a summary of the researchers' findings:

“The demand for social skills is increasing in every category of the economy,” says Sadun, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School. "But] it’s not about schmoozing.”

Instead, headhunters and corporate recruiters want candidates with soft skills who can:
  • actively listen to others;
  • empathize genuinely with others’ experiences;
  • persuade people to work toward a common goal;
  • and communicate clearly—or, as Sadun puts it, “touch the chords of listeners.”
Top executives who demonstrate this kind of interpersonal prowess are more likely to be in high demand, particularly at large, multinational, and information-intensive organizations, the research suggests. Those companies see social skills in the C-suite as more important than more traditional operational and administrative abilities, such as monitoring the allocation of financial resources.

The scholars pose a fascinating question after summarizing their conclusions.  They ask whether the supply of executives with these social skills is meeting the demand.  I would ask a related and very important question: Are companies investing sufficiently and effectively enough in the types of leadership development activities that can help foster and enhance these skills in their top leaders?  In far too many companies, I see top executives funding and supporting programs to develop these skills in young high-potential employees or in middle managers, yet they are not taking the time to invest in further development at the top levels of the organization.  Perhaps, more attention should be paid to building the social skills of the C-Suite on an ongoing basis.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Microsoft's Study on Remote Work and Collaboration


Stanford Professor Bob Sutton recently posted a link to a fascinating piece of research by Microsoft regarding the shift to remote work. The article is titled, "The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers," and it is authored by Longqi Yang, David Holtz, and a team of other researchers. This study examined emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls and hours worked for more than 60,000 employees from December 2019 to June 2020 (covering both pre-pandemic work and several months after the shift to remote work). Here is what Microsoft discovered:

Overall, we found that the shift to remote work caused the formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed. Remote work caused the share of collaboration time employees spent with cross-group connections to drop by about 25% of the pre-pandemic level. Furthermore, firm-wide remote work caused separate groups to become more intraconnected by adding more connections within themselves. The shift to remote work also caused the organizational structure at Microsoft to become less dynamic; Microsoft employees added fewer new collaborators and shed fewer existing ones.

The researchers do point out that the entire study took place with US workers at one company, Microsoft. That's clearly a limitation of the study. Moreover, they only studied the first few months of the pandemic. Companies clearly invested heavily in technology to support remote work and virtual collaboration as the pandemic persisted. Employees may have become more adept at working remotely and collaborating remotely as well. On the other hand, the scholars point out that these workers could "leverage existing network connections, many of which were built in person. This may not be possible if firm-wide remote work were implemented long-term." More work clearly needs to be done, but this research shines a spotlight on the potential downsides of remote work for large numbers of employees in a complex organization.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Changing Your Mindset About Stress

Source: Stanford University

All of us have found ourselves overwhelmed at times by high levels of stress and anxiety. For some, these feelings and emotions can become debilitating. Our performance in a challenging situation suffers greatly. However, the consequences do not always have to be so dire. I recently listened to a fascinating podcast featuring Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum. She's the principal investigator in Stanford's Mind and Body Lab.

Crum has been examining how and why many of us have come to assume that stress should and will be debilitating. In fact, she argues that well-intentioned public health communications tend to reinforce this negative perception about stress. However, her work has explored how our mindset matters. Looking at stress with a different perspective can help us persevere through adversity and actually elevate our performance in very challenging situations. Here's an excerpt from the podcast:

The nature of a challenging situation or a demand in our life. That’s what we been focused on. And what we’ve found is that, if you kinda go back into those core assumptions, what you realize is that, most people have the mindset that stressful situations are inherently debilitating. They’re going to ultimately make us sick, make us struggle, make us crumble under pressure. And when you look at the truth about stress which is like most things very complicated, you realise that that is a simplified assumption. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s only one way of viewing stress and you start to realize that the true nature of stress is more complex.

And in fact, there’s a whole other side of stress that reveals to us that the body’s stress response, the mind stress response, was not designed to be debilitating, but instead designed to help us elevate our performance and behavior to meet the demands we’re facing. There’s a whole side of stress that shows that it can have enhancing qualities on our cognitive functioning, our physical health and on how we behave and interact with others. And so, our work is not necessarily to find out the truth of stress, what it is or what isn’t. But to look at how our mindsets, the core assumptions we make about it shape how we respond in stressful situations. And what we’ve shown is that if we can get people to open their minds to this notion that stress can be enhancing. That stress can help you rise to a new level of understanding, can deepen your connection with others, can make us even physiologically grow tougher and stronger. Having that focus shifts our attention and behaviors in ways that make that mindset more true.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Authentic Leadership

Source: Business Wire

When we transition to a different leadership role, we can and should think carefully about the new skills and behaviors that will be required to succeed in that new position.  For instance, as people shift from a role as a functional expert to being leader of a cross-functional team, they need to consider how much more important their team formation and building skills will be, as opposed to their particular expertise about certain subject matter.  Similarly, when a C-suite executive becomes promoted to CEO, they need to consider how many more outward-facing activities in which they will need to engage, including investor relations, major customer relationship management, outreach to public officials, and the like. 

Having said that, one cannot fundamentally change their leadership style.  Attempts to do so often cause others to perceive leaders as inauthentic.  You are who you are.  You can't and shouldn't try to adapt your style simply because you have a new role.  Naturally, you should be engaging in self-reflection and adapting based on what you learn from experience.  However, you can't alter your DNA as a leader. Lauren Hobart, the new CEO at Dick's Sporting Goods, articulated this challenge well in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. She said,

In this case, Ed (her predecessor) and the board tapped me. When they came and said, “You’re the person,” immediately my thoughts were that I had to change my entire management style. I have been a person who is extremely open. I write letters. In my time as chief marketing officer, I wrote weekly emails to the marketing team, and I would tell them stories about my kids, or about my mom, or a fight I had, or this or that realization about the business. It was always very nonpresidential, in my opinion. I did say to Ed, “Now I’m going to have to change absolutely everything. I can’t be posting selfies in emails to the whole group and to the whole company.” He disagreed and said, “What got Lauren Hobart to be in this position is Lauren Hobart, and we don’t want Lauren Hobart to change.” And so, I haven’t held back at all.

Friday, September 17, 2021

What Builds Trust in Organizations?


PwC has recently conducted an extensive research study on the topic of trust in organizations.  They asked consumers, employees, and executives about the factors that enhance trust in a business.  Among consumers and employees, the top three factors that build trust were:

1.  Accountable to customers and employees

2.  Clear communications

3.  Admits to mistakes

I found #3 particularly interesting, and of course, it relates directly to the top item in the survey responses (accountability).  Every organization will make mistakes.  How does that firm respond in those situations? Do they own the mistakes, apologize to customers and/or employees, and work diligently and transparently to rectify the situation?  All too often, executives don't own up to mistakes in a timely fashion, if at all.  Or, they try to blame external conditions or uncontrollable factors for lower-than-expected performance.   Customers and employees see right through such unsatisfactory explanations.  Employees also come to believe that a double standard exists.  They are held accountable for errors, but executives are not.  Leaders need to create a safe environment where everyone, including the people at the top, can talk candidly about errors so that learning and improvement can take place.  

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Self-Reflection: How Am I Spending My Time?

Many people complain about their daily or weekly schedule.  Too many meetings.   Too much time spent fighting fires.  Not enough opportunities to interact with customers and other external constituents.  While these complaints may be justified, many of us don't take the opportunity to periodically engage in serious self-reflection about how we allocate our time.  Leaders at all levels should make it a regular habit to examine their calendar and ask themselves a few questions:

  1. What types of activities are taking up most of my time?
  2. Are there some important activities that are not receiving sufficient attention?
  3. Who in the organization or outside the organization should I be spending more time with in the coming weeks and months?
  4. How can I build in some time into my calendar for broader strategic and long term thinking/planning?
  5. What activities do I need to reduce or even eliminate so as to make time for other important matters?
  6. Where in my schedule will I build in an opportunity for systematic, routine self-reflection, not just about the allocation of my time, but about other important aspects of my professional and personal life?

In short, let's all stop complaining about our schedule and start doing something about it.  Carve out the time needed to conduct critical work.   Question 5, though, will be the most difficult one.  We can't make time for crucial activities without taking some things off our plate.  We have to give up some activities to make time for others.  

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Right Way to Set the Bar High

Successful leaders set high expectations for their team members and challenge them to tackle lofty goals, much like effective teachers and coaches do. How you set and raise the bar matters a great deal, though. To get it right, leaders can learn a lot from what the most effective teachers and professors do... Check out my latest article (The Right Way to Set the Bar High), published by Chief Learning Officer, to learn more about this topic.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Companies are Copycats; Customers crave Novelty

Source: Glenn Francis
(via Wikimedia) 
In Unlocking Creativity, I described how benchmarking practices tend to lead to copycat behavior.  Firms imitate, rather than innovate, after studying their rivals closely.   Many reasons exist for this phenomenon.  I focused on the considerable body of research in psychology regarding fixation.  Specifically, we know that human beings "become attached to a specific mental set – a way of thinking about a problem based on solutions that have worked in the past... Mental sets can facilitate problem-solving at times, but becoming fixated on an inappropriate solution from past experience can inhibit creativity."    One glaring example of herd behavior within a prominent industry:  broadcast network television's approach to primetime programming.   Time and again, after a new genre gained popularity, copying became rampant.  The original Hawaii Five-O, for instance, spurred a wave of imitation that vaulted police dramas from 1% of the primetime schedule in the mid-1960s to nearly a third of the programming by the mid-1970s.  In the late 1970s, the sudden popularity of the CBS drama Dallas spawned a wave of copycats in the primetime soap opera category.  

Interestingly, we have mounting evidence that consumers prefer novelty over imitation.  A new neuroscience study has examined consumer preferences in music.  This research demonstrates that customers love novelty.   Robert Hackett and Declan Harty reported on this work in Fortune:    

A new study in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience finds that, over the decades, people tend to prefer newness and variety in music. In an analysis of Billboard top hits spanning from 1958 to 2019, researchers determined that the trend holds true not just for individuals over a lifetime, but population-wide over generations. People crave constant novelty, in other words. Chart-topping tracks tend to demonstrate more “harmonic surprise” over time, the authors say.

Robert Kennedy's research regarding the television networks demonstrates a similar result. While the networks love to copy one another, ratings tend to be higher for novel programs.  Of course, novelty brings with it increased variability.  Perhaps copycat behavior is the safer choice:  low risk, low return.  Managers in many industries have strong reasons to prefer the safer choice; career concerns may compel them to avoid high variability strategies.  

Still, we have to take these findings seriously as we consider our decisions about new products and services.  Doing what's best for our managerial careers may not be what's best for our customers.  How can companies help managers get more comfortable pursuing strategies of novelty rather than herd behavior?  

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Big Hit or Big Flop: Extreme Outcomes for High-Status Project Leaders

A project manager has had a remarkable track record.  Surely, it makes good sense to assign him or her to lead the next high-profile project in your organization. Right? Not so fast. Balazs Szatmari, Dirk Deichmann, Jan Van Den Ende, and Brayden King have published a fascinating new study titled “Great Successes and Great Failures: The Impact of Project Leader Status on Project Performance and Performance Extremeness.” They find that high-status project leaders may be prone to extreme outcomes: perhaps another blockbuster hit, but just as likely, a major flop.

The scholars examined the video game industry in depth. They studied 349 games developed between 2008 and 2012. Kellogg Insight summarized the findings:

Leaders with high status, the research revealed, are prone to extremes—big successes or big flops—while moderate status is associated with the highest average level of project performance. Why? With status comes everything a leader needs for a project to succeed: resources, support, the faith of executives and team members. But there is peril, too: high-status project leaders are often overburdened. And precisely because of their status, the people around them may not offer honest feedback. “We tend to be too deferential to people who we consider to be higher status. And where we give deference, what we should be doing is increasing our scrutiny—or at least, scrutinize them as much as we do people of lower status,” King says. “There is greater potential for them to let their egos take control and produce something that sounds good to them but that is in reality a terrible idea.”

Naturally, organizations should not avoid assigning important projects to successful leaders.  What can they do, then, to mitigate the risks identified in this research?   First, they need to create a system of continuous feedback, beginning early and often.  Don't let the project get too far without shining some sunlight on it, and allowing multiple constituents to offer constructive feedback.  Yes, you can trust highly successful project leaders, but that doesn't mean they should delay obtaining input and critique from others.  Second, for each project, regardless of the track record of the leader, milestones must be established at the outset, and leaders should be accountable for providing comprehensive updates on the progress toward those milestones at regular intervals.  Establish clear criteria for evaluating the project at each milestone meeting.  Openly discuss the exit strategy if the project flounders; in other words, be ready to cut your losses, rather than throwing good money after bad simply because of the leader's track record.  Third, be sure to utilize a peer review system or devil's advocate.   Encourage feedback from someone outside of the project.  If it's not their baby, they will be able to provide more objective input.  Finally, examine the project team closely.  Has the team not invited any new members since the last project led by this particular leader?  Has the team grown too like-minded over time?  Is there someone on the team who is respected for their willingness and ability to offer unvarnished advice and criticism?

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Leaders: Don't Say, "Tell Me Why I'm Wrong"


Some well-meaning leaders have tried to solicit dissenting views from their team members by saying, "Tell me why I'm wrong."  They invite team members to explain why the proposed course of action is not advisable or feasible.  However, I think leaders are asking the wrong question here.  Inviting people to openly oppose you doesn't necessarily create the type of constructive dialogue and debate you envision.  People may have questions or concerns about a proposal, but they might not be ready to stand in direct opposition to the boss.  Alternatively, they may not be sure if the recommended course of action is appropriate.  They may simply have some questions about key assumptions, beliefs, or data.   Ironically, asking people to oppose you openly may not create a safe environment for discussion at all; it may discourage team members from speaking up. 

What should leaders ask instead?  Here are a few alternatives:

  • What questions do you have about this proposal?
  • What assumptions do you think might need further testing and validation?
  • How might this plan go off track?
  • What obstacles might we face if we try to implement this plan?
  • Here's how I see this scenario unfolding.  What am I missing?
Asking these types of questions can create a productive conversation, and even encourage dissent, without asking someone to stand on an island in direct contradiction to the boss.  

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?