Friday, December 4, 2009

One of the truths about “teambuilding” activities

In my work, I do leadership training and development, among other things. I was once asked to do some teambuilding activities with the staff for a law office. The person who contacted me had seen me work with another group and was impressed with how quickly that group had bonded after a long day of activities. Then I had to tell them one of the truths of teambuilding: a group can come together as a team if they want to; if they don’t, they won’t.

In my experience, people who do not regularly do teambuilding with their group believe that they can overcome conflict by having a few activities to smooth over troubles. I have found that not to be the case. If this is a group that is just recently started to work together or who have not been working closely previously, then teambuilding activities would help.

However, if this is a group that has been working for a while and has been having trouble, then it won’t necessarily work. Conflict is rarely a group thing, us versus them kind of thing. Even when you have do have groups or factions formed, it mostly comes down to a couple of people who have the initial or central conflict. Then it becomes an issue of their friends and cohorts getting involved.

If you can isolate that and deal with it separately, then you can move on. For most leaders, the question comes down to how publicly they want to take of the problem – and it IS the leader’s problem. It can be done during a teambuilding/conflict resolution session. The advantage is that it can be taken care of once and for all so that everyone understands that the conflict has to be over with. However, some group shy away from such public confrontations. It can also leave one or more people publicly humiliated. In a private discussion, the leader has more control of the situation and avoids public embarrassments. However, outside the private meeting, people can still talk and push rumors one way or another.

People have to attend a teambuilding session with the attitude that they want to truly work better as a team. Most people do, most of the time. It is the leader’s job to know that before hand or to work on developing the individual members until they are ready to be team members.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Myth and Paralysis of Unintended Consequences

During the last 12 months, much has been said and written about the dangers of taking one action or another to address any number of critical issues impacting the region, state, country and world. There is one troublesome caution: beware of unintended consequences.

Regardless of what solution is proposed, there is always someone who will obstruct some proposed solution with the warning that, “We don’t know what unintended consequences might arise from that.” Of course, that’s just an obstructionist tactic. Everything has unintended consequences!

Throwing out the specter of unintended consequences has the unspoken demand that you craft a perfect solution and that you have complete knowledge of the future. How stupid is that assumption?

Everything has a series of consequences and reactions further on down the road. Nothing is completely isolated. No one can guarantee that something does not have unintended consequences.

However, my response to an unintended consequences argument would likely be, “I sure hope so. Otherwise, it’s such a minimal action that we’re taking here. In fact, I hope we have great unintended consequences.”

For a second, let’s look at three examples of unintended consequences in the real world.

One pharmaceutical company was testing a new drug, sildenafil citrate. However, after a few human trials, it looked like it was not really as effective as they hoped. Stopping the tests, they tried to collect the remaining pills they had given their test patients. Some of them were upset. They wanted to keep taking the drug. It wasn’t helping their heart condition, but they wanted it anyway. You would know the drug by its commercial name, Viagra. The unintended medical consequence: it helped treat erectile dysfunction. The unintended consequence for the company, billions of dollars in unexpected profits.

An industrial products company had its engineers working on a better product than what it already had. Sadly, one of its engineers came up with a new product that was actually worse than what they had been offering. It was a complete failure. The company wanted something that was much stronger than what they had. The new discovery was actually way, way weaker than what they were already selling. So, it was shelved. Most companies would have trashed all that research and forbidden people to ever mention it again. Ten years later, that engineer saw a new way to apply his discovery: the adhesive that makes Post-It Notes easy to put up and take down and put up again. The unintended consequences for millions of office workers: an easy way to mark things without tape or glue. The unintended consequence for the company, millions of dollars in unexpected profits.

The last example is perhaps the biggest unintended consequence in history and one you are quite familiar with, Christopher Columbus. He was on his way to India but landed in the Americas. The unintended consequence for Spain, billions of dollars in new wealth that helped make it a world power. For you and me, the unintended consequence is the New World with all its opportunities and challenges.

Monday, October 5, 2009

An Effective Interview

I was watching "Morning Joe" last week when Irshad Manji, Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, came on to talk about the importance of "moral courage." While I was certainly impressed by her ideas, I was more impressed with her presentation. The video shows what a great presenter she is.

She was bright, enthusiastic, personable and engaging. I enjoyed just listening to her. She disagreed in a very nice, polite way. It is a great example of how to do this type of public presentation for any good leader. I would look for her again. Actually, she would be a great addition to the show! I think she could be on Fox and handle them well!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

When does the leader have a conflict of interest?

I saw an item on the Internet about a study of doctors’ attitudes about ordering treatments and conflict of interest. I don’t have a link to the item, but I will keep looking for it and hopefully link it later on.

Here is the essence of the item. Some doctors were asked to decide on a treatment for a fictional patient. They were given a set of symptoms and test results. They were given the option of two treatments: one a tried and tested approach; another a new therapy that did not have a significantly greater likelihood of succeeding but that they could bill for a higher amount. Which did they choose? Overwhelmingly, the more expensive therapy. Okay, now, the question was posed with their spouse as the patient. Which did they choose this time? Overwhelmingly, the first one. I don’t know if it was the same group of doctors or a different one.

So, when they have no personal connection to the patient, they chose the one that will make them more money, even if it does not help the patient any more than the other one. When they have a connection to the patient, they go for the tried and tested. Clearly, if doctors have a monetary interest in the way they decide what treatment patients get, then it becomes a conflict of interest.

We trust our doctors but we don’t really know what challenges they face in who treatment to order. We don’t know what conflicts they have along the way. The point I want to make, however, is that we are all conflicted to some extent. Our leaders are especially conflicted. They must often decide whether to do something that is good for the organization versus what is good for them. We have our own battles with those types of challenges.

When I do training, I have to balance how much effort to put into any given session versus how much I’m going to get from it. However, the trainees don’t know that. They don’t know if I have given them everything I could or did just enough to get by. The real test of leadership, in this case, is to figure out what to do when no one else knows. As the old saying goes, integrity is what you do when no one is looking. As patients, we don’t know whether the doctor is ordering something for us because it is the best thing for us or for his checkbook. Likewise, we don’t really know if our organization’s leader is ordering us to do things because it is what he/she thinks is best for us (the organization) or for them.

This just goes to reinforce that trust is part of what keeps people working with you and that your integrity is what they hope keeps you there, too.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

We're behind, just where we want to be!

It was something that was repeatedly said by Sen. John McCain during his presidential campaign. His supporters kept saying that he was known for coming back from behind to win. In October, as his poll numbers kept dropping, he kept telling supporters, "My friends, we've got them just where we want them."

Now, let's talk basketball.

It's halftime, and your team is behind. Should you stay or head for the exit to beat the crowd? Most people would say, "Go now and get a slice of pizza for the drive home." Not so fast, say Wharton professors Jonah Berger and Devin Pope in a research paper titled "When Losing Leads to Winning" that looks at how teams perform when they're behind. The results of that research are summarized in a Knowledge@Wharton article. And, unlike John McCain, your team may still have a chance if they aren't as far behind as he was.

According the research, based on the results of more than 6,500 college basketball games, "(A) college squad that is leading by six points at halftime is the victor about 80% of the time." So, your team is behind by only one point. Do they still lose? Apparently not. According to the data, teams down by only one point at halftime actually win 51.3 percent of the time. Seems counter-intuitive.

As Berger and Pope see it, when a team is behind by such a small margin, the losing team can literally see the game within reach and works that much harder. "Take any situation where someone is so close to a goal that they can almost taste it," Berger noted. "The fact that they're almost there makes them work harder."

There are lessons to be learned here for your team, whether it's a business, community or sports team. According to Pope, "A lot of tools are used in the workforce to motivate people, such as wages, bonuses, etc. While surely these things can have motivating effects, one should not underestimate the potential importance of psychological motivation as well. This paper shows that the psychological impact of being behind by a small amount can cause significant increases in performance."

The lesson is that smaller, more achievable goals are more effective than bigger, loftier goals that may be out of reach. Of course, you need to stop and look around every so often to see where you are and reset your goals on a more frequent basis.

Well, it's half-time, finish reading the Wharton article while the dancers do their routine and the concession stands are still long.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Word of mouth success depends on whose mouth is whispering

Word-of-mouth buzz is said to be golden, worth more than any advertising. We all do some form of it, as consumers and as leaders. We talk about everything and everyone who we like and dislike. If it's good word-of-mouth, it really helps out. But, getting people to talk about you or your product is the hard part. Where do you start? Who do you start with?

Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania marketing professors Raghuram Iyengar and Christophe Van den Bulte think they have an answer to those two questions. The pair of researchers worked with University of Southern California preventive medicine professor Thomas W. Valente on a research project for a pharmaceutical firm to determine just who is the best carrier for their message within groups of doctors.

I would assume that the more well-known leaders within the doctors' group would be the best targets. Convince them and they would convince others to use your drugs. Makes sense, right? Maybe not.

According to an article in Knowledge@Wharton, it's actually doctors within a subgroup, and not necessarily self-reported leaders, who are the most influential. What distinguishes these doctors? The researchers identified one doctor, "Physician 184," who was not among the most prominent of doctors. Physician 184 did not think of himself as an opinion leader. However, he was well-known among doctors for working with patients suffering from the disease the pharma company was targeting with its drugs. He was also seen as someone who "worked tirelessly and closely with colleagues to solve problems and get things done."

What is different in this work is that the researchers did not try traditional marketing techniques to identify the most influential. They used a more anthropological approach to determine who was doing the heaving whispering in other doctors' ears.

The self-reported opinion leaders, it turns out, lagged behind the "Physician 184" types at adopting new therapies for treatment. "Physician 184" types were more attuned to the latest methodologies in their area of interest and were seen by others as more knowledgeable than the self-reported leaders.

The article has a a link to the down-loadable research report published in the Marketing Science Institute Working Paper Series.

While you may not have the money for a complete research project like this one, you should start to think about who you are targeting for your word-of-mouth campaigns, regardless of your business or social marketing goals.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Does innovation time pay off? Google it.

So, your organization talks a lot about innovation but never really gets around to spending time on it. There are a few meetings here and there when something urgent comes up, but nothing really happens. After the meeting, the idea is forgotten until the next crisis.

That's not unusual. People talk about it but don't do much about it. I think organizations don't think the time is well invested. Let me rephrase that. Leaders don't think time spent on innovation is a productive investment. If you want to find out whether time spent on innovation is a good investment, Google it. But, don't just do a search. Look at how Google spends time being innovative, and find out how effective it can be.

According to an article in the New York Times, Google lets its employees spend 20% of their time "to work on whatever projects fan their passions." The results? Very solid, by any measure.

It's a litany of really neat products: Google Earth, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and SketchUp, just to list a very few.

It has been an excellent investment of time and people. For employees, the freedom to be truly creative and get paid for it is the real bonus.

Friday, February 13, 2009

What Color Is Your Message?

While color is often a personal choice, it can have an impact on how you deal with people. According to an article in Science magazine, the colors you use affect how your message is received.

Researchers tested the impact of color on how well people performed certain tasks. "For those that required attention to detail--such as proofreading a list of addresses--participants were slightly more accurate when the background was red, compared to blue or white. Blue, on the other hand, stimulated creativity."

Researchers also tested the impact of color on advertising. "Volunteers who viewed two versions of a fake camera ad--one that featured detailed images of the camera's features and accessories, and one that featured more creative photos (see picture)--rated the first ad more favorably when it appeared on a red background and the second one more favorably when it appeared on a blue background."

It's not conclusive, but it's worth considering. What colors do you use in your environment with your team. Makes you rethink beige.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gaming the Incentives Game

I've always thought that measuring and rewarding people on tight metrics is short-sighted. I call it "What gets rewarded gets distorted." I remember that one boss justified paying some people more than others by saying, "They're the rainmakers. They bring the money in." So, the rest of us, who produced what they sold, were not really important, only the ones involved at the very end. That we produced a great product and made their job so much easier was not to be considered. That the sales people left other duties behind because they did not contribute to their sales meant that they were added to the rest of our work. So, some saw it as being punished for doing a good job.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath write a great article in Fast Company on what they call the focusing illusion, the way incentives and other metrics tend to distort what gets done in business or any enterprise that uses them. Dan and Chip provide several examples of people who changed their behavior, perhaps to the detriment of the organization but to their own advantage, as a result of the metrics/incentives.

In short, they point to how these metrics, intended to fix some problem, can be gamed by the participants and hurt the organization. They start out with the example of former NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien, who had a problem with interceptions. At one point, when his contract was renegotiated, a clause was inserted that penalized him for each interception. What did O'Brien do? He dramatically reduced the number of passes he attempted, reducing the number of interceptions, which may have hurt the team in the end but made sure that his pay was not cut.

I have one example that irks me, Burger King. After I order at my local BK at the drive-thru, I pull up to the window where I pay and am promptly directed to move forward to a door where they deliver my order. I might understand if there is a long line behind me, keeping orders from being placed. However, this happens at all times, even when there is no one behind me. This is intended to keep workers focused on getting the orders out as quickly as possible and cut the time it takes for customers to get their order, that time being measured by how long you wait at the window. Once you move your vehicle up to the door, the clock stops. So, to the BK managers, it looks like they have a phenomenal 3-5 second wait time for order delivery. It must look great at BK headquarters. Of course, it really ticks me off. I make a point of avoiding BK because of that, except that my younger son insists that he wants the Chicken Tenders only from BK.

I have one more example, except that I can't recall where I read it. However, I remember some of the details. One company, faced with customers complaining about deliveries taking too long to get to them, instituted a metric that tracked every order up through the time the order actually left the plant gate. So, the shipping department would get the orders packed, whether they were actually complete or not, and physically carry them outside the plant to a storage location just outside the gates and marked the order as having left the plant, which was technically true. The managers saw a dramatic reduction in orders left but customers were worse off as delivery time actually deteriorated. In the end, the managers started to give the shipping department more control and responsibility for how they did their work, improving actual delivery times.

The simple lesson is that virtually any policy, metric and incentive system can be gamed unless it is well thought out. Rewards left strictly to metrics can hurt an organization and ignores the crucial role that good managers/leaders play.

Friday, January 16, 2009

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper

So said T. S. Eliot, Nobel Prize winning poet. And, as it turns out, so do the Mayans. According to various sources, mostly on the web, Dec. 12, 2012 will mark the end of one age and the start of an other, or not. The world may end on that day through some sort of cataclysm, or it may just be another day.

With the inauguration of Barack Obama, what will we get? Depending on who you talk to, it is either the start of a new era of progress and hopefulness or the sad end of an era.

In either case, the world will not end or reboot. It will keep going. Remember the year 2000 hype? It was either to be a disaster of crashing planes, closed banks and computer mayhem or it was the start of a new era? It was neither. On January 1, 2000, it was just another day.

So, what's a leader to do? Actually, nothing, I think. We just go on doing what we were doing all along, getting our people and organizations focused and moving forward, always. Just don't wait for the end to come about or some magical change to take place. Get excited for the history of the day, but don't start behaving as if history is taking over for you.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Staying On The Creative Edge

As a leader, one has to keep a sharp edge at all times. The day-in, day-out struggle of getting your organization moving forward can wear down your edge. After a while, you tend to get dull, as does your thinking. So, how do you keep that sharpness? There are many ways to do it. Today, I will suggest one: find a new challenge to focus on during your off time. It can be related to what you do or not, as long as it is somewhat removed from the daily issues you deal with.

For example, if you work in the insurance industry, you already spend quite a lot of time focusing on risk, projections, HR, customer turn-over, etc. Few people in the insurance industry deal with every type of insurance segment. More likely, they deal with a niche: autos, business, residential, shipping, legal or some other segment. If you deal with auto insurance, create a challenge to think about in, say, shipping insurance issues. You can also take on a challenge about something complete unrelated to insurance. Think about traffic issues in your neighborhood, city, region, state, etc. Think about solid waste disposal issues. Take your pick. Read a magazine in an unrelated discipline: waste disposal, accounting, shopping malls, dental practice, retirement communities, marine construction or any random industry. Pick the current topic in the industry and set a challenge to come up with a solution to some small part of that topic.

Currently, I have my own challenge. I picked economic development. It's not my field directly, but it touches on some things that interest me. Specifically, I picked the topic of creating home-grown industries in the area where I live.

I did some quick research and started looking at what strengths we have: labor with a wide variety of skills but with more on the lower skills level; access to good shipping and international ports; good natural resources within a couple of days' shipping; university support centers; some governmental and private investment opportunities; and training support. I looked at what industries we had in the past and what industries we have now. I did a cursory match of all of these and came up with furniture building as my first result. It does not require great capital investments and is a minimal skills level industry. We have a strong forestry industry nearby. The market may be the biggest challenge, but we need to focus on a niche we can target. It is also an industry that can be developed in small or even cottage-style plants, as opposed to a car factory that needs millions in capital, equipment, land, suppliers and labor.

I attack the problem during my spare moments: driving, waiting at someone's office, early in the morning, doing yard work, etc. Will I solve this problem? Maybe. I might come up with some ideas that I can forward to someone else who might be able to do something with it. Maybe not. So, what does it do for me? It keeps me thinking and stretching my capabilities. It reinforces that the analytical skills I use for my regular job do not get dull. It gives me a break from the routine. It gives me new perspectives–always a welcome dose of renewal.

I will work on this for a while and put it away. Later, I will come up with another challenge and look at that for a while. What I bring back to my regular job, every time I do this, is a new urge to improve what I am doing there.