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: