Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Innovators Think Like Global Travelers

I'm here this week at Oxford University in the UK with 2 colleagues and 22 Bryant University students.  As we move about the school and the city, I'm reminded of how valuable international travel can be for us.  We benefit not simply because of the cultural competence we build, but because thinking like a traveler is an essential habit of an innovative thinker.  Tom Kelley of IDEO talked about this critical habit/skill in a talk some years ago at Stanford University.  I think you will enjoy this short video clip: 

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Are You Feeling Uncomfortable? It May Be a Sign of Learning & Progress

Source: Three Teachers Talk

My dissertation adviser and mentor, David Garvin, used to love to quote Dr. Peter Carruthers of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.   Carruthers once said, 

“There’s a special tension to people who are constantly in the position of making new knowledge.  You’re always out of equilibrium.  When I was young, I was deeply troubled by this.  Finally, I realized that if I understood too clearly what I was doing, where I was going, then I probably wasn’t working on anything very interesting.”   

The quote came to mind when I read about a new set of studies by Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach.  Kasandra Brabaw recently wrote about the research for the University of Chicago's Booth Review.  The scholars examined whether discomfort could be a motivating force for people or an impediment to learning and performance.  The authors conducted a series of experiments (both in the field and online).  They encouraged some of the research subjects to "seek out discomfort and take it as a measure of progress toward their goal."  Their findings demonstrated that being encouraged to seek discomfort increased motivation to take on emotionally challenging tasks.  Why?  People tended to reappraise discomfort as a positive cue, as a sign that they were making progress and learning something valuable.  In some of their experiments, the scholars showed that you don't have to even tell people that discomfort should be seen as a sign of progress; they tend to come to that conclusion on their own in certain circumstances.  

At the end of the feature about this research, Brabaw summarizes the key lessons, with a word of caution as well.  She writes, 

"Woolley and Fishbach make sure to point out the danger of taking it too far. Just like sharp and unexpected pain can be a cue to stop exercising, emotional pain can be a signal to take care with your mental health, they write. But taken cautiously, adopting a “no pain, no gain” mentality when you know something will make you feel awkward, sad, scared, or uncomfortable can boost your motivation to stick with it."

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Power Can Be Dirty, But It Doesn't Have To Be

"Power Can Be Dirty, But It Doesn't Have To Be." - That's the title of Chapter 2 in Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro's new book:  Power, For All.  The book offers an in-depth examination of how individuals wield power in organizations.  The authors argue that we all have to understand how power works and how we can use our power in constructive ways to achieve important objectives.  In Chapter 2, they argue, "Power is neither inherently moral nor inherently immoral.  History shows us that power can be used for virtuous purposes as well as dishonorable ones.  Whether it becomes dirty in our hands depends on how we gain and keep it and the purpose for which we use it."  

How should think about the power we may possess (or lack)?  In this interview, Casciaro explains:

Power comes from control over valued resources. You have power if you have something that the other person or group needs or wants and if they have few alternatives to you to get it, such that you control their access to that valued resource. So in any power relationship, you want to ask: “What is it that people want?” Because if you understand that, you are well equipped to try to deliver it. And “Who controls access to it?” Because if you figure that out, you can create some dependency so that people need you to get a desired resource.

Every power relationship, no matter with whom or in what context, can be read and understood based on the four elements that result: Do you have what the other party wants? How many alternatives to you do they have to get it? But you’re not done. Because whether you have power over them is conditional on whether they have power over you. So you also need to know: Do they have something that you want? Do you have alternatives to them for getting it?

These four elements are always playing with each other in a power relationship, and they give us four strategies to rebalance power with somebody: get them interested in the resources you’ve got, become less substitutable as a source of those things, make yourself less interested in what they’ve got, and increase the number of your alternatives to get what they’ve got.

Of course, power can be intoxicating, as the authors acknowledge and explain.   To protect against the corrosive effects of power, they argue that we must cultivate humility and empathy in our leaders at all levels of an organization.  Empathy, of course, has become a much-discussed concept lately, particularly during the pandemic.  Leaders need to work hard on developing empathy with their employees as well as their customers.  That takes a concerted effort to avoid the isolating nature of top leadership positions.  I also believe fervently that leaders need to make sure that they are retaining some level of normalcy in their lives.  It is certainly more efficient for top executives to have someone else grab your dry cleaning, order your groceries delivered, and hire landscapers to take care of your lawn.  However, engaging in some of these activities yourself, rather than outsourcing them, will keep you connected with how many of your employees and customers live on a daily basis.  It keeps you grounded.  No amount of leadership workshops can replace the empathy-building that occurs from engaging in these simple tasks of daily life.  If you want to be empathetic and humble, think about how you live your life, not just how you conduct yourself at work.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Knowing Who You Are, and Who You Are Not

Some companies try to be all things to all people, and they often achieve mediocre performance (or much worse).  Others have a clearly defined target market and make sound decisions about how they will stand our from the competition.  They make tradeoffs - determining precisely what they will not do (that others in the market typically do).  A few companies go so far as to clearly articulate the tradeoffs they are making, even in their marketing materials.  Recently, we received a brochure in the mail from Viking.  The pamphlet described their various cruise offerings.  My wife and I have never been on a cruise, and we didn't have any prior knowledge about Viking.  I was struck by one page in particular in the brochure though.  It proclaimed, "What Viking Is Not: We do not try to be all things to all people. Instead, we focus on delivering meaningful experiences to you."  As you can see below, the company then explained specifically what it did not provide or offer (making for a stark contrast with many other cruise companies). 

Gene Sloan, who has written about cruising for more than 25 years, recently published a lengthy article about Viking.   Sloan wrote (underlining is mine for emphasis),

There are some cruise lines that try to be all things to all people. Viking isn’t one of them. The upscale cruise brand has carved out a niche since its founding in 1997, catering specifically to a certain type of thoughtful, inquisitive, generally older traveler who is looking to explore the world and learn a thing or two along the way.

Most Viking customers are approaching their retirement years — or are already there — and they’re eager to finally see all the places they didn’t have time to visit when they were raising kids and establishing careers in their younger years. For this subset of travelers, Viking offers a wide range of both ocean and river cruise itineraries that have a heavy focus on the destinations visited. These aren’t cruises where it’s all about the ship.

Viking voyages bring a lot of extended stays in ports where passengers get more time to explore historical sites and experience the local culture than is typical on cruises. The line offers included-in-the-fare tours in every port, allowing every passenger on board to get a guided experience during stops without having to pay extra. (In general, Viking voyages are highly inclusive, in keeping with its “no nickel-and-diming” philosophy.) On board, Viking’s programming revolves heavily around what the line calls “cultural enrichment” — lectures by experts on topics related to the places its ships visit as well as cultural and culinary offerings that often have a local tie-in.

What Viking ships don’t offer is a lot of onboard amusements aimed at families and younger travelers. In fact, the line doesn’t even allow children under the age of 18 on its ships. It’s one of the only major cruise brands in the world with such a rule. Viking ships also don’t cater to the party crowd. If it’s a floating celebration that you’re looking for in a vacation, this isn’t the line for you. As Viking founder Torstein Hagen likes to say, a Viking cruise is the “thinking person’s cruise,” not the “drinking person’s cruise.”

Michael Porter wrote about the importance of making strategic tradeoffs many years ago.  Many companies falter on this issue though.  They want to have it all, and they are obsessed with top line growth.  Moreover, they are afraid to so loudly and clearly proclaim to potential customers who they are AND who they are not.  However, the lesson here is critically important.  Exclaiming clearly who you are not will make you all the more attractive to the target market on which you have set your sights.  

Thursday, June 09, 2022

From Technical Expert to Leader: From Certainty to Vulnerability

Recently, Matt Abrahams conducted a podcast interview with Dr. Lloyd Minor, Dean of Stanford Medical School (pictured to the left).  Minor described the transition from practicing medicine, and in particular surgery, to becoming a complex institution's leader.  He explained that clinical practice often involves situations in which there is a clear correct answer...and a clear wrong answer.  Leading an organization often means finding yourself in much more ambiguous situations.  Effective leaders recognize that the "right" answer may not be obvious in many circumstances, acknowledge what they don't know about the issue at hand, and invite input from others to help them sort through an ambiguous situation.  Here's an excerpt from this terrific interview:

There is a clear right and wrong with most things in my clinical field. Sure. You know, leadership is very, very different from that. I rarely find myself do I get it right the first time. And I depend upon the feedback of others. And the thing is if, unless this is, you know, a critically important time sensitive decision, and we were faced with many of those during COVID, in those cases, you do the best you can and, and you recalibrate very quickly. In cases that are not as acute as they have been during COVID, you can put up a straw person, you can float an idea, you can express your opinion in your belief about this is the way we think we should go. And some of that will be embraced, some of it won’t, but if you take the feedback. It’s not gonna affect your credibility as a leader.

 It’s very different than a surgical procedure. You wouldn’t want to tell a patient before you do a surgical procedure. You know, I think I’m gonna do it this way today, but that may not work. And so, you know, we’ll then do something different tomorrow or next week. I mean, no one wants to hear that. And for me, that was a recalibration as a leader. And I feel really fortunate to have had both sides represented. And I think it’s made me able to act definitively when the circumstance requires it. And when people around me expect me to act definitively and also to be more graduated and incremental when the situation justifies that approach.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Lessons from the House of Gucci

I just finished reading Sara Gay Forden's terrific book: House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed.   Forden wrote the book two decades ago, but it has recently received a great deal of renewed attention due to the release of the movie starring Lady Gaga.  The book is filled with family intrigue, squabbles, and of course, a murder plot.  However, the book also provides a compelling examination of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Gucci enterprise over the years.   As such, it offers a number of important management lessons.  
For me, one intriguing lesson centers on the attempt by Maurizio Gucci to restore and enhance the Gucci brand when he tooks over from the prior generation.  His instincts were solid in that he was quite worried about the dilution of the brand that had occurred over the years.  The desire to drive top line growth had led the company to develop and sell less expensive products for the masses.  The problem, of course, is that such efforts often make it much more difficult to remain highly attractive to the luxury consumer willing to pay top dollar for a quality product, but only as long as it retains a high degree of exclusivity.  This growth trap ensnares many companies pursuing niche differentiation strategies. 

Recapturing the premium positioning after a brand has been diluted can be very difficult.  The reason is that it takes time to change consumers' minds about a brand.  Moreover, trimming the product portfolio can be challenging to execute.  The company has to essentially retrench to restore the brand, but that can be very painful to do.   Maurizio tried to execute a "cold turkey" approach to restoring the brand.  His efforts to quickly eliminate lower-priced, lower-quality products led to a precipitous drop in revenues.  At that point, he had not yet done the groundwork required to transition the product line.  He failed on the execution of what is admittedly a tricky repositioning exercise.  Over time, new professional management managed to implement the repositioning very successfully, restoring the brand's luxury image.  In the end, strategy and vision are important, but execution often proves to be the difference between success and failure for a brand repositioning effort.