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.