Friday, February 26, 2021

Stimulating Creativity & Innovation While Working From Home

Source: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 22, 2021

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

Source: Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 19, 2021

Could Repeated Practice Reduce Creativity?

Source: Wikimedia 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 15, 2021

Employee Performance Depends, in part, on Leader Mindset

Source: Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 12, 2021

Declare Your Unstated/Hidden Assumptions

Source: Wikimedia

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

Friday, February 05, 2021

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

Source: Sporting News

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 01, 2021

Sharpening Your Active Listening Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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