Monday, January 24, 2022

When Hiring Leaders from the Outside Fails

Source:  NBC Sports

When organizations struggle and falter, they often look to the outside for new leadership.  They hire CEOs from companies that they consider to be top notch.   If the firm has excelled, then presumably, it has star members of the C-suite who could make terrific CEOs elsewhere.  So goes the logic.  Of course, we know that these outside hires don't always work out.  The question is why. 

I've been thinking about this topic over the past few weeks, as we have witnessed a number of National Football League teams fire their head coaches.   Among these firings, two more of New England Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick's proteges lost their jobs as head coaches of other teams.  Observing these dismissals, I decided to compile the NFL win-loss record of all of Belichick's former assistant coaches during his time as the boss in New England:  175 wins, 252 losses, and 1 tie for a winning percentage of 40.9%.  That's awful.  Only one of his former assistants managed to compile a winning record (Bill O'Brien with 52 wins and 48 losses).  

Why have Belichick's proteges failed so miserably?  Several hypotheses come to mind. 

1.  The most obvious conclusion:  None of these assistants had Tom Brady as their QB!  As we all know, even Belichick has a losing record as a coach without Brady.  More generally, these proteges didn't have all the other talent that accompanied Brady in New England. University of Texas coaching legend Darrell Royal once said, "It's not about the X's and the O's, but the Jimmys and the Joes."  In other words, perhaps we overrate coaching and don't attribute enough of team success to the players themselves.  In corporate terms, perhaps we place too much credit for success at the feet of a few top executives at successful firms and forget about the impact of many others supporting them.  

2.  Some of these proteges try to copy the Belichick style and system in its entirety rather than adapting to the new situation in which they find themselves.  Moreover, these proteges attribute the Patriots' success to some factors that are not, in fact, the primary drivers of the team's high performance.  Kalyn Kahler wrote an article for the Bleacher Report two years ago titled, "When the Patriot Way Goes Wrong." She wrote:

"Listen, we all want to replicate the Patriots' success, but the track record of guys that come out and seem to try to replicate it is tough among front office and coaches," says another source, who has interviewed coaching candidates coming from New England, including Patricia. "Authoritarian, very hierarchical organizations, whether they are in football or otherwise, that's what you get: You don't get people to develop their own way.... "There is a sort of skepticism when people interview people coming out of New England," the source who has interviewed Patriots coaches, including Patricia, says. "Some of the New England ways have been so draconian. ... The league does look at those experiences and say, 'Are these guys trying to replicate a really, really difficult model to replicate?' It is certainly a focus when you talk to those prospects."

Many business leaders make the same mistake.  They try to import the exact methods and techniques to which they attribute their former organization's success.  They fail to assess the situation and adapt accordingly. 

3.  Many of these proteges had little or no professional football experience outside of working for Belichick in New England.   Therefore, they did not have a solid understanding of how different his methods were from those to which other players and coaches were accustomed.  A incomplete appreciation of the culture of other organizations left them ill-prepared to take over another team.   Business leaders fall into the same trap if they take on a CEO role after spending their entire career in one organization (think about some of the former GE executives who stumbled elsewhere).  

4.  Perhaps these Belichick proteges believed that the Super Bowl rings on their finger would automatically generate buy-in and commitment on the part of the players on their new teams.   However, it doesn't work that way.  Yes, people will respect your past success, but you still have to build buy-in from the ground up.  You have to cultivate trust and respect.   Moreover, you have to convince players that the methods are key to winning.  They aren't stupid. They see Tom Brady on the Patriots and think, "Are these dictatorial methods really the path to winning, or were those rings simply a result of having the greatest QB of all time?"  Rightly or wrongly, that's the way some will think.   Business leaders face similar challenges when they switch organizations.  Employees will quickly tire of hearing that certain methods "worked before in my prior organization and can work again here."  

5.  Finally, one has to consider the impact that Belichick's hands-on style may have on the development of talent in his organization.  Note that Belichick's mentor, Bill Parcells, has had a coaching tree that has been far more successful (Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton, etc.).  Similarly, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh had incredibly successful coaching trees.  Does the way that those coaches led their teams matter? Perhaps they delegated more effectively, and in so doing, they developed the coaching talent around them more successfully.  Understanding the leadership style of a person's former boss may be critical as you hire C-suite executives from another firm.  Did the person work for a micromanager, and as a result, are they as prepared to make decisions on their own as you would like them to be?

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The "Kill the Company" Exercise


Author and consultant Lisa Bodell has created a simple, yet ingenuous, exercise for stimulating change and innovation at companies. Like many people, she noticed how unproductive many strategic planning processes could be. She also observed the barriers that prevented managers from recognizing the need and urgency for change. Therefore, Bodell asks executives to engage in a powerful exercise to reshape their thinking. She directs them to put themselves in the shoes of their firm's primary competitors. Then Bodell poses the question: What could those rivals do to attack and even destroy our company? The exercise exposes a series of key vulnerabilities. Then, managers can rank those threats from most to least substantial. The exercise also enables managers to identify key assumptions and beliefs, perhaps taken-for granted as part of the conventional wisdom, that deserve questioning and challenging. Moreover, Bodell urges managers to ask the all-important question: Why do these vulnerabilities exist? What practices, processes, and choices leave us in a position of weakness vis a vis our primary rivals? Bodell also notes that managers then can turn this exercise around and examine their key competitors in a new light as well. They can pose the question: If we address some of these weaknesses effectively, could we gain the upper hand on some of our rivals? Which shortcoming, if addressed, would provide us a powerful competitive advantage?

Monday, January 10, 2022

Warming Up Before Solving a Tough Problem

Source: NY Times

Suppose your team has a very challenging, complex problem to solve.  You would like to generate some creative solutions to that problem.  What might you do BEFORE you gather the team together as a mechanism for stimulating more innovative thinking?   You could encourage the team to warm up before tackling the issue together.  What types of "warm-up" should you engage in before "running the race" together?  

1.  Physical activity:  As Annie Murphy Paul notes in her fabulous new book, The Extended Mind, engaging in some physical activity can be an effective way to enhance your brainpower.  Moreover, getting outdoors for that activity can be especially powerful.   Getting the blood moving is essential to thinking clearly and creatively.  

2.  Be an anthropologist:  Rather than simply immerse yourself in spreadsheets and data, go out into world and observe some actual customers.   Watch how your firm's products and services are actually being used, and watch for those pain points experienced by your customers. 

3.  Imagine someone else tackling this problem:  Scholars Evan Polman and Kyle Emich have shown that research subjects are more likely to solve a challenging problem if they imagine someone else faced that particular predicament (rather than being in that situation themselves).   

4.  Engage in an improv exercise:  A simple "yes-and" exercise can be a powerful way to get people to lower their inhibitions, think more freely, and become more comfortable offering bold and original ideas despite some reservations or concerns.  

5.  Brainstorm questions, not answers:  Ask the team to come up with different questions that they would like to answer regarding this problem.  What might they like to learn more about in this situation?  These efforts can be effective at helping people reframe the problem before the team in a manner that may stimulate more creative thinking.  In many cases, the initial frame may be too narrow, and therefore, it may constrain the range of options considered.  

6.  Gather some physical materials:  We can think more creatively if we have objects to touch, feel, and work with along with our team.  They might enable us to build mock-ups as we later brainstorm together, or we might use the materials to illustrate a customer pain point more clearly (rather than simply using words spoken or on a page).  

7. What would we never do?  Ask the team to generate a list of solutions that your company would NEVER choose.  Then ask the team to explain WHY these options would not be considered.  What orthodoxy or conventional wisdom does that reveal? Should that conventional wisdom or these assumptions be questioned before trying to solve this problem? 

Friday, January 07, 2022

Unlocking Creativity

Today marks the 3-year anniversary of the publication of Unlocking Creativity. To celebrate, I'm giving away 10 copies of the book! To enter the drawing, please share a post describing a useful technique employed by you/your team to improve creative problem solving. Tag me on social media & use #unlockingcreativity to enter the drawing. 


Thursday, January 06, 2022

Widen Your Lens: How Might I Learn From Others Far From My Technical/Industry Domain?


For the most part, we tend to focus on learning from others within our technical or industry domain.  However, adopting this narrow lens means we are missing out on some valuable and impactful learning opportunities.  When working with companies, I often encourage them to go beyond simply benchmarking their direct rivals.  I pose the question: Who is world class at solving a complex problem that you are facing at the moment?  Who has come up with an ingenuous solution to a thorny issue confronting your organization?  Go study that organization.  Don't try to copy what they are doing, because naturally, they are in a totally different context. Instead, attempt to discern some key principles regarding how they have solved that particular problem. Then consider how you might apply those principles to develop enhanced practices within your own organization.

My favorite example of this type of "stretched" or "widened" lens for learning comes from a story I read in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. The article, by Gautam Naik, is titled, "A Hospital Races To Learn Lessons Of Ferrari Pit Stop: Auto Crew Teaches Surgeons Small Errors Can Add Up On the Track, or in the ICU." The article tells the familiar tale of how surgeons in at Great Ormond Street Hospital, a UK-based pediatric care center, were worried about the possibility of medical errors during "handoffs" - i.e., those crucial times when a patient is transferred from one unit to another, or from one clinical care team to another. "Fumbled handoffs" represent a common source of medical accidents. Naik writes, "A 2005 study found that nearly 70% of preventable hospital mishaps occurred because of communication problems, and other studies have shown that at least half of such breakdowns occur during handoffs.

Naik describes a fascinating moment that occurred one day as Drs. Allan Goldman and Martin Elliot watched one of their favorite sports on television. The physicians observed in awe as a Formula One auto racing pit crew engineered a remarkably efficient and safe handoff each time the driver entered the pit during a race. They decided to try to learn from these racing crews and apply those lessons to their work in the hospital. Naik describes what happened next:

In early 2005, Dr. Elliot, Dr. Goldman and Mr. Catchpole traveled to Ferrari's headquarters in Maranello, Italy, and sat down with Nigel Stepney, the racing team's technical director. As a test car roared around a nearby track, the visitors played a video of a hospital handover and described the process in pictures.  The Ferrari man wasn't impressed. "In fact, he was amazed" at how clumsy and informal the hospital handover process appeared to be, recalls Mr. Catchpole, now a researcher at Oxford University.

In that meeting, Mr. Stepney described how each member of the Ferrari crew is required to do a specific job, in a specific sequence, and usually in silence. By contrast, he noted, the hospital handover was often chaotic. Several conversations between nurses and doctors went on at once. Meanwhile, different members of the team disconnected or reconnected equipment to a patient, but in no particular order.   In a Formula One race, the "lollipop man" with a paddle ushers the car in and signals the driver when it's safe to go. But in the hospital setting, it wasn't always clear who was in charge. Though the anesthesiologist had nominal responsibility to take the lead during a handover, sometimes the surgeon assumed that role -- or no one at all.  The crew at Ferrari trained for the worst contingencies. "If Michael Schumacher comes in five laps early because it's raining and he wants wet-weather tires, they're prepared," says Mr. Catchpole, referring to the Ferrari driver and seven-time world champion, who recently retired. The hospital team dealt with problems as they came up.

After carefully distilling key lessons from the study of the auto racing pit crews, the doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital developed a new protocol for handoffs.  The procedure was detailed - 7 pages of carefully orchestrated steps for a safe transfer of the patient.  What happened when the physicians implemented this new protocol?  Errors and information omissions decreased by more than 40%!  Importantly, the doctors didn't try to simply copy what they observed.   Instead, they identified key principles and approaches that could be adapted and applied in their quite different context.   That "translation" and "adaptation" is essential when learning outside your own technical/industry domain.  

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Fighting Decision Fatigue

Source: Discover Magazine

Rachel Feintzeig has written a Wall Street Journal article this week titled "Decision Fatigue is Real: Here's How to Beat it This Year."  The article notes that many people are feeling overwhelmed during the pandemic by the sheer number of seemingly consequential decisions they must make, both personally and professionally.   Scholars describe a phenomenon called anticipatory regret, in which people look ahead to why they might be unsatisfied with the choice they are about to make, and as a result, they find themselves unable to act now.  

What can we do to overcome decision fatigue?  I was reminded of a research study from many years ago, conducted by Stanford Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt.  She studied the speed of strategic decision making in what she called "high velocity environments" - contexts in which conditions were changing quickly and unpredictably.   Eisenhardt found that the CEOs who could overcome hesitancy and make faster decisions tended to consult frequently with "experienced counselors" or "confidantes" during the decision-making process.  These individuals served as vital sounding boards, and they helped the CEOs overcome their hesitation about moving forward.  The confidantes can leverage their own experience and knowledge to help the CEO sift through alternatives and assess risk.   They can offer an objective assessment when perhaps others are only advocating for their preferred course of action.  Finally, Eisenhardt found that consulting with a experienced confidante can help boost the confidence of the CEO in the face of high uncertainty and ambiguity.  They can help leaders overcome analysis paralysis.  

So, who then will serve as your experienced and trustworthy confidante?  Can they be an effective sounding board for you, so that you can overcome decision fatigue, make timely choices, and move forward?   I would note that this confidante need not always be on your team.  The individual may be outside your team or organization, yet willing to lend an ear when you need advice and a sounding board on a tough decision. Their outside status may be helpful, because they won't have all the biases and allegiances that may shape the perspective being offered by team members.