Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Scanning Your Environment

When organizations fall behind the competition, we often hear people describe how the enterprise had become increasingly insular in recent years. Managers focused on enhancing operational efficiency, and they fixated on internal processes and procedures. As a result, they did not recognize key trends and changes in the marketplace. They did not spend enough time learning about new types of competitors. How can we become better at scanning our external environment? Here are four key steps that can enhance your efforts:

1. Make time for environmental scanning on your agenda. Carve out space on your calendar each week to learn about new technologies, products, or competitors. Dedicate some time each year to attend a conference, speaker, or workshop that falls outside of your normal routine. If you don't make time for scanning, it's easy to allow other duties to crowd out this key activity. 

2. Identify some young people in your organization with whom you can connect on a regular basis. Talk to them about social and technological trends. Compare and contrast how they use their smartphone, computer, television, automobile, and other devices differently than you do. Inquire as to how their consumption patterns might differ from yours (currently or when you were their age). 

3. Make it a habit to read the major SEC filings of your competitors. Don't just read the articles that appear in the Wall Street Journal. Dig into the details found in those financial reports. Read what analysts are saying about the competition as well. Consider listening to a few earnings calls from your rivals. It's amazing how many managers have never actually dug into these types of documents. They rely on journalists to tell them about major events taking place in their industry without studying the competition more closely. 

4. Take a look at what your suppliers are doing. Many environmental scanning efforts focus on customers. That's important, naturally. However, you can also glean a great deal of information from your partners and vendors in the supply chain. How is their business changing? Are they selling to different people? Have their portfolios of products and services changed? Have any of them started to vertically integrate? Suppliers must adapt as they see changes downstream in the value chain. Watching for those adaptations can tip you off to key trends in your market.

Walk My Mind - Listen to my "Walkcast"

Walk My Mind describes itself as an organization that "provides a platform that fosters walking, learning, listening and community."  The company's website features "walkcasts" with educators and authors.   The goal is to promote two healthy habits coming together (walking and learning).    You can listen to my "walkcast" here.  I discuss leadership, decision-making, and problem finding.  Enjoy!  

Monday, October 16, 2017

Blind Spots that Derail Careers

Fast Company's Stephanie Vozza writes this week about the need for accurate self-assessment.  She argues that being blind about our weaknesses can derail our careers.  She cites a new book by Kellogg School of Management Professor Carter Cast.   In his book, Cast describes five blind spots that impede our careers:

  1. A me-first attitude that leads to poor listening skills
  2. Micromanaging others, hindering your ability to build and lead a team
  3. Being too comfortable with routines and resisting change
  4. Having narrow perspectives on business that undermine your ability to be strategic
  5. Not following through on promises due to poor organization or task management skill

Friday, October 13, 2017

How to Stop Being a Micromanager

We have all worked for a micromanager at one point or another in our careers.   The experience can prove very frustrating.  We cherish our autonomy and believe in our abilities.  We become frustrated when a micromanaging boss meddles in our work.  Moreover, we become disenchanted when that meddling slows us down, creating numerous delays while our competition passes us by.   Of course, we all have probably micromanaged one of our employees or team members at some point or another.  Those in glass houses... 

How can someone stop being a micromanager?   Naturally, a simple recipe does not exist.  Here are a few baby steps in the right direction though:

1.  Make a list of the types of decisions in which you have been involved heavily over the past month or so.   Now divide the list into two categories: the ones in which you absolutely must be involved, and the ones where you  might test letting go a bit.  Give it a few weeks or a month, and see how things go.  Let your subordinates know that you are going to try to let go on those particular decisions.  Review and assess periodically to see if the change has been productive.  

2.  Identify the people you trust the most in the organization.  Consider providing them more autonomy.  Talk with them about the opportunities that they wish to pursue, and the situations where they feel confident moving with less direction and oversight. 

3.  Examine your calendar.  How can you free up some time to think more strategically about the direction of the organization?  What meetings or commitments are soaking up your valuable time, while strategic issues receive less attention than they deserve?  Consider shifting responsibility to subordinates so that you can find time to address high-stakes, high-risk issues that warrant your undivided attention.  Extract yourself from a few meetings and follow up to see how things went without your presence. 

4.  Review the forms and memos that arrive on your desk for signature and approval.  How many layers of approval exist on those issues?   Do you need to be one of those layers?  Consider changing the rules and procedures to provide others more autonomy.  For example, might you change the spending limit above which people must obtain your approval?   Do you need to sign off on as many personnel requisitions as you do?   Does someone really need your approval to reserve that particular space or hold a special event in your offices?  

5.  Assess your email inbox.  Do you need to be involved in all those email threads?  How might you reduce your email traffic by 10%?   Consider the situations from which you could extract yourself.  Think about how much more productive you can become if you eliminate 10% of your emails.  

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Scarcity of CEO Talent? Are Board Members Right?

Joann Lublin of the Wall Street Journal reports today on directors' beliefs about the CEO talent pool. She writes:

The pool of executives qualified to take over the top job at the biggest U.S. companies is incredibly shallow, especially in the technology industry, a recent survey of directors finds. On average, directors of Fortune 250 companies estimate that fewer than four people inside and outside their company have the management expertise and industry-specific knowledge to step into the CEO role and run it as well as its current leader, according to a Stanford University survey of 113 such directors. Board members also say an average of six executives could perform at the same level as the head of their largest rival. 

I found these results interesting. It certainly explains why CEOs receive very high compensation packages. The question, however, is whether directors are right. Apparently, the conventional wisdom is that the talent pool is very shallow. Do directors have concrete evidence to support this belief? What if they are wrong? What would that mean for corporate leadership, governance, and compensation? I haven't seen any concrete, valid research that supports the conventional wisdom here. I'm not saying they are absolutely wrong; I would just like to see proof.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Telling the Hard Truth at Work

Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2017
Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal interviewed me during her research for today's column titled, "The Best Ways to Tell the Hard Truth at Work."   She addresses the topics of how to encourage candor across the enterprise, provide honest feedback to others, and tell the hard truth in a constructive fashion.  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Feedback's Impact on Innovation: A Key Tradeoff

Harvard Business School Professor Daniel Gross has a very intriguing new product development research article forthcoming in the Rand Journal of Economics.   Gross studied the impact of feedback on innovation efforts.  Specifically, he collected data from over 4,000 commercial logo design contests from an online platform.  Gross tried to understand the impact of feedback on the quality of subsequent submissions.  However, he also studied whether feedback might discourage some applicants from submitting additional designs in future rounds of the competition.  

What did Gross discover?    First, not surprisingly, feedback does improve the quality of subsequent work.   However, feedback also discourages future participation.  People who receive low ratings in the initial round are less likely to continue in the contest.   "A majority of players (69.5%) whose first rating is the lowest possible rating will subsequently stop investing in the contest."  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  Weeding out low performers can be efficient.  However, Gross finds that the detrimental impact on participation is NOT exclusive to individuals who receive negative feedback initially.  He also finds that, "Feedback can simultaneously reduce incentives for high-performers to participate, relative to incentives in a state of ignorance, by revealing or enabling high quality competitors."   Yikes!  We can actually discourage good people from continuing by being critical of their early work.  We should not be surprised by this finding.  Let's face it.  We all have a hard time receiving critical feedback at times.  

Thus, a tradeoff exists.   Quality improves, but participation suffers, when we provide critical feedback.  There's good news here though.  What's the net effect?  Gross argues that, "Feedback significantly increases high-quality output, with gains in quality far outweighing the costs to participation."  Moreover, he argues that, "Making feedback private yields modest incremental benefits by shrouding information on competitors' performance, which in turn reduces attrition."   In sum, we will have to live with some attrition when we provide critical feedback, but the net effect is positive in the innovation process.  

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Building a Culture of Trust

Neuroscience researcher Paul J. Zak has been studying trust for many years.   A recent Inc. column by Marissa Levin summarized some of his key research findings.  Zak has discovered that people at high-trust organizations experience less stress, higher productivity, more engagement, and more job and personal satisfaction.  How does one build a culture of trust in your organization?  Zak advocates eight strategies:

  • Recognize excellence
  • Provide challenging (but not impossible) work for people
  • Give workers the autonomy to choose how to do their work
  • Give employees voice, particularly in how they design their jobs. 
  • Communicate clearly, concisely, and frequently. 
  • Build relationships among employees. 
  • Facilitate whole-person growth and development. 
  • Show vulnerability as a leader, thus making others feel psychologically safe. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Boards of Directors Assessing Corporate Culture: It's About Time!

The Board of Directors bears responsibility for oversight and control of the management of an enterprise. Their duty to monitor management actions and performance includes assessing the risks that the organization faces. Unfortunately, many boards have been caught by surprise by recent scandals and crises at firms such as Wells Fargo, General Motors, Volkswagen, Uber, Toshiba, and Theranos. Key risks remained hidden for lengthy periods of time. When the boards finally became aware of these issues, the damage had largely already been done... to company reputation, share price, etc. In many of these cases, investigators and analysts have blamed the corporate culture. The organizational cultures encouraged inappropriate behavior and discouraged people from sharing bad news. The boards in many of these situations did not understand the dysfunctional elements of the corporate cultures. 

The Wall Street Journal reports today that some boards have decided to become more involved in understanding and evaluating organizational culture. Joann Lublin reports:

Corporate culture counts. But bad culture can damage a company’s reputation, results and recruitment. That’s why boards are starting to scrutinize the cultures of companies they serve. Directors at Whirlpool Corp. , for example, make sure its workers feel comfortable divulging bad news by tracking internal surveys. Companies such as Citigroup Inc. and CACI International Inc. have formed board culture committees. 

Culture describes the way values and actions create a unique business environment. One recent study found that a positive corporate culture improves company profits. Yet “few boards currently have an explicit focus or formalized approach to cultural oversight,’’ said Helene Gayle, a director ofCoca-Cola Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co. A blue-ribbon panel co-led by Ms. Gayle wants boards to monitor corporate culture as vigilantly as they do risks. The 34-member commission, organized by the National Association of Corporate Directors, released an extensive report on Wednesday that suggests how boards could bolster their oversight of company culture. 

Can board oversight and intervention help? Absolutely. As Lublin reports, Whirlpool went through a scandal in 2010, and the company instituted changes at the behest of the board. They focused on encouraging workers to share bad news. The result? According to the Wall Street Journal, "Worker survey scores about their willingness to speak up rose 10 percentage points between 2010 and 2015." 

I would add one important recommendation to this push on the part of several boards. Before engaging in culture audits and other monitoring mechanisms, these boards also need to look in the mirror. They must evaluate the board's culture. Are people able to speak freely in board meetings? Do directors have the appropriate incentives? Does risk management get sufficient attention on the agenda at meetings? The boards cannot be effective at evaluating and enhancing the organization's culture if they do not practice what they preach.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Marathon Complete!

I completed one of my sabbatical goals yesterday - running the Twin Cities Marathon.  I'm so grateful to my family for all their support, and to many friends, family, colleagues, and former students who contributed to my charitable campaign.  Thanks to the generosity of many people, I have raised $5,989 for Homes for our Troops.  This amazing organization builds specially adapted homes for severely disabled military veterans.  I'm so proud to have contributed to their incredible work.  If anyone would still like to donate (just $11 more to pass $6,000!), you can do so by clicking here.   Now, back to my academic goals for this sabbatical - gotta write this book!  

Friday, September 29, 2017

Norwegian Airlines: Are They Built to Last?

Travelers in my area have been enjoying incredibly low fare trips to Europe on Norwegian Airlines. Right now, you can book a one-way flight for next week from Providence, Rhode Island to Shannon, Ireland for $169. With these low fares, Norwegian has been growing rapidly here in the northeast. The question is: Can they succeed in this highly competitive space? Have they replicated the Southwest and Ryanair low-cost operating models and applied it successfully to intercontinental travel? The Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column has some doubts:

The airline operates a very different growth model to tried and tested low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines Co. in the U.S. and Ryanair in Europe. These combine a disruptive approach to operations with a conservative one to finances. Crucially, strong balance sheets and fat margins have given them the muscle to expand through downturns, when rivals are in retreat and customers hungry for bargains.

With its slim margins and leveraged balance sheet, taking advantage of a downturn will be much harder for Norwegian. Frequent fliers may hope its ambitious project to disrupt the North Atlantic oligopoly thrives. History suggests they shouldn’t get their hopes up.

The Wall Street Journal has expressed skepticism about the airline in the past as well.  In July, the Heard on the Street column noted that Norwegian's costs have been rising over the past four years. Columnist Stephen Wilmot wrote, "You can’t build a low-cost airline without low costs."

The combination of slim or negative profit margins and high debt does indeed pose a serious challenge.  A cyclical downturn will occur at some time in the not-so-distant future.  At that point, the company may struggle to service its debt.   Even if they can make their interest payments, the high debt load relative to rivals may put Norwegian at a serious strategic disadvantage.  Traditional low cost carriers have maintained low debt loads as a competitive weapon, using the flexibility that a conservative capital structure provides to bludgeon higher-cost rivals.   Will competitors take advantage of Norwegian's debt load and launch a price war at a very inopportune time, during a cyclical downturn perhaps?  

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Disney Revamps Its Stores... Again

Disney has once again tried to overhaul its retail strategy. The New York Times reports today that Disney has opened a new prototype store in California. Reporter Brooks Barnes explains the changes in the store format:

Quietly, like a mouse on tiptoe, Disney overhauled its retail store at the Northridge Fashion Center mall in late July. Out went the twisty Pixie Path aisles, the ornate displays, the green walls and the color-changing fiberglass trees. In came a movie-theater-size screen, a simplified floor plan, white walls and more items for fashion-conscious adults... The redesign makes Disney’s stores a bit more like Disney’s theme parks. For instance, daily parades at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida will be streamed live to those colossal video screens. During the parades, store personnel will put out mats for shoppers to sit on and roll out souvenir carts stocked with cotton candy and light-up Mickey Mouse ears.

Of course, Disney tried to overhaul its retail stores seven years ago.   Now they are trying again to reshape their retail strategy in the face of intense competition from online retailers, as well as major players such as Target and Wal-Mart.  As with the prior revamp, I think Disney has to ask itself two fundamental questions:

1.  Do the stores represent a sufficient experience that justifies customers making a special trip to the store, as opposed to buying elsewhere?  Does that experience enhance customer's willingness to pay for its products?  If they can't answer yes to those two questions, then they should reconsider this vertical integration strategy.  

2.  Should Disney have 300+ stores across the country, mostly in shopping malls?  Or, should Disney consider slimming down the store count considerably, and opting for a "flagship store" strategy in major cities around the world?  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Is Regret a Bad Thing?

Do you have some decisions or actions that you regret? Perhaps it's an action taken yesterday that you wish could be taken back. Or, perhaps you regret something you wished that you had done in the past. Is regret clearly a bad thing? Research by Colleen Saffrey, Amy Summerville, and Neal Roese suggests that people may actually have a favorable view of regret, and that it might serve a useful purpose for us. They write,

"People value their regret experience. They value it in both an absolute sense (the favorable aspects outweigh the unfavorable aspects) and in a relative sense (as compared to other commonly experienced negative emotions). This is a surprising finding given the assumption of the aversiveness of regret..."

Why might regret be a positive thing? The scholars argue that regret can be a mechanism for self-improvement. Experiencing regret might be part of the self-reflection process that leads to learning. As a result, we may come to avoid past behaviors that were not good for us or for others. Similarly, we might come to realize why certain actions should be taken, though we may have failed to take those actions in the past.  

Consider for a moment the occasions during which you may have regretted an action or decision at work.  Are you using those moments of regret to reflect, learn, and change?  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Pressure for Directors to Sit on Fewer Boards

The Wall Street Journal's Sarah Krouse and Joann S. Lublin report today that several major institutional investors have been pressuring companies to reduce the number of directors that simultaneously sit on a number of other boards of directors.  The writers report that, "The number of directors on five or more corporate boards has declined in recent years."   Why the pressure?  Investors argue that these directors cannot possibly provide adequate attention to their monitoring and oversight duties at a company if they sit on many other boards at the same time.  That makes good sense to me.   In fact, a study by research firm Equilar "suggests that leaders with multiple outside corporate board seats and their employers make more money, but their shareholders see lower returns than those with one or zero outside directorships."   Still, more than 60 directors of firms on the S&P 500 serve on five or more boards of directors at this time.   That should change.  Shareholders and other constituents deserve directors who are not only highly capable, but also who have the proper amount of time to devote to understanding a firm and its industry and engaging in effective oversight and control.  

Monday, September 25, 2017

How Specific Should a Worker's Contract Be?

A set of studies by Eileen Chou, Nir Halevy, Adam Galinsky, and the late J. Keith Murnighan have examined how specific labor contracts should be. They conducted experiments on an online labor market. They wanted to know whether specifying work duties and responsibilities increased or decreased employee motivation. Here is what they found, according to Stanford Leadership Insights:

Across nine different experiments, the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect. But why? The researchers found that the more general contracts increased people’s sense of autonomy over their work. Those findings dovetail with previous psychological research showing that increased autonomy boosts motivation, which leads to a ripple effect of other desirable outcomes.

Indeed, this research proves consistent with the work decades ago of Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham.  Those scholars argued that one could enhance intrinsic motivation by, among other things, designing jobs that provided workers with a substantial dose of autonomy.  Of course, one has to have some guidelines and policies.   You can't provide no direction at all.   In my view, you have to be more specific with regard to WHAT needs to be done, but less specific with regard to HOW it should be done.  In short, you have to establish goals and objectives, but you should empower your employees to discover the best ways to achieve those goals (provided they uphold ethical and legal rules and responsibilities).  

IDEO's Tim Brown: How to Solve Problems Like a Designer

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Selling the Problem vs. Selling the Solution

Entrepreneur and investor Dave Bailey has written an outstanding column for Medium.   Bailey addresses the importance of focusing as an entrepreneur on the problem you are trying to solve.   He argues that startups often become enamored with their solution or their technology in particular, but they don't explain adequately the customer need that they are addressing.  What pain point are you alleviating?  What problem are you solving for the user?   How will take away a roadblock, inefficiency, or frustration that users are experiencing?   Bailey explains:

As Steve Jobs said: you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. Jobs understood that when you try to reverse-engineer the need statement from the product, it’s too easy to lose touch with reality.

After 6 months of intense product development — this happened to me. My product was my baby and I wanted to talk about with everybody.  When I didn’t lead with the need, it was often greeted with confused looks. I was giving people the ‘answer’ without telling them the question — like a weird game of ‘Jeopardy’.

Even when I did start with the need, I only afforded it a sentence or two. I’d describe the need to perfectly frame my product. In other words, I did the exact opposite to Steve Jobs. At when the confused looks continued, I got defensive. ‘Trust me, it’s a problem — ok?

Bailey recommends writing a customer need narrative.  He argues that it's more than one sentence.  It's a clear and compelling paragraph that "outlines a thesis on how to make peoples’ lives better."  Certainly, many entrepreneurs fall in love with their idea.  They get excited about the technological innovation.   Unfortunately, many forget that the product is simply a means to an end.  Keep the end in sight, with the end being a better experience for the user.   Sell your problem first, not your idea.  

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Herb Kelleher on Market Share

Entrepreneur Joel Gascoigne tweeted a quote from Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher yesterday. The quote describes Kelleher's views on the pursuit of market share vs. profitability. I think he's hit the nail right on the head.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Dark Side of Board of Director Mentoring Relationships

Joann Lublin wrote a Wall Street Journal article this week titled, "Boards Try Buddy System to Get Newcomers Up to Speed."   Lublin describes how some boards have assigned mentors to new directors, so that experienced board members can help newcomers assimilate to the culture of the group.   Lublin offers the example of Carol Martz mentoring new director Amy Chang at Cisco Systems.  She explains, 

More boards are pairing new members like Ms. Chang with seasoned mentors like Ms. Bartz as they scramble to improve their oversight of management in the face of intensified investor scrutiny. Board buddies can help newcomers figure out the boardroom’s cultural norms, power brokers—and even the right place to sit.  Mentors make sure “you don’t come in as a bull in a china shop,” observes Steven R. Walker, managing director of the board services group at the National Association of Corporate Directors.

I certainly understand the importance of helping new directors learn the ropes when joining a board.  These mentoring relationships certainly appear to have a good intent.  However, I do have some worries about such systems.  What if the mentors provide the wrong message?  What if they encourage newcomers to refrain from challenging the status quo, expressing dissent, or asking the tough questions.  In the article, Martz acutally encourages Chang not to apologize for asking a challenging question.  However, some directors might provide very different advice.  They might promote norms that include conflict avoidance and deference to management.   Long-time directors might protect the harmony of the group, and in doing, send a signal that speaking up is not welcome.  Rocking the boat might not be the right strategy during your first board meeting. However, discouraging people from ever rocking the boat might also be a very dysfunctional dimension of some of these mentoring conversations.  

Monday, September 18, 2017

Curiosity Affects the Brain, Enhances Learning

Several years ago, Daisy Yuhas wrote an interesting article about new neuroscience research regarding curiosity and leanring. I came across the article today, and I thought it was worth sharing the key lessons. Yuhas explains the findings from a study about how intellectual curiosity affects the brain and shapes learning.


Neuroscientist Charan Ranganath and his fellow researchers asked 19 participants to review more than 100 questions, rating each in terms of how curious they were about the answer. Next, each subject revisited 112 of the questions—half of which strongly intrigued them whereas the rest they found uninteresting—while the researchers scanned their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

During the scanning session participants would view a question then wait 14 seconds and view a photograph of a face totally unrelated to the trivia before seeing the answer. Afterward the researchers tested participants to see how well they could recall and retain both the trivia answers and the faces they had seen.

Ranganath and his colleagues discovered that greater interest in a question would predict not only better memory for the answer but also for the unrelated face that had preceded it. A follow-up test one day later found the same results—people could better remember a face if it had been preceded by an intriguing question. Somehow curiosity could prepare the brain for learning and long-term memory more broadly.


To me personally, the implications are quite profound.  As a professor, I should strive to tap into and stimulate a person's intellectual curiosity about a particular subject.  If I can do that successfully, they may learn more effectively.   Similarly, we can leverage these findings as we think about how we train workers in our organizations.  If workers approach a new task with curiosity, then perhaps they will learn the required skills more effectively.   

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Scott Galloway's "Amazon Clinic"

For those intrigued by my post yesterday regarding Amazon and possible future acquisition targets, you should take a look at NYU Professor Scott Galloway's talk titled "Amazon Clinic."  He presents some fascinating and startling data on the state of retail in the United States, including the dramatic overbuilding of malls in past decades and the steep decline in foot traffic over the past few years.  

Bryant Alumni Reception in Minneapolis

Several days prior to running the Twin Cities Marathon, I'll be hosting a reception for Bryant alumni in Minneapolis along with Robin Warde, Director of Alumni Engagement at Bryant.  The event will take place at 4 Bells in Minneapolis on Thursday, September 28th.  Hope to see many alumni, including former students, at this event.  For more information, click here.  

Andrew Curtis Podcast

If you are interested, Andrew Curtis interviewed me for a recent episode of his podcast.  You can access it via iTunes here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Will Amazon Buy Nordstrom Next?

Back on May 11th, NYU Professor Scott Galloway appeared on Kara Swisher's Recode Decode podcast. During that conversation, he predicted that Amazon would acquire Whole Foods. One month later, Jeff Bezos made his move. Amazon purchased the organic supermarket retailer for $14 billion. Yesterday, Professor Galloway appeared on Swisher's podcast again. This time, he predicted that luxury retailer Nordstrom might be Amazon's next big acquisition target. He explained, "It would be cheap, it’s in Seattle, they’re operationally very sound, it’s a great company and they’re [Amazon is] trying to establish relationships with high-end brands, which they have been unable to do. Nordstrom has those and a lot of credibility, and a lot of wealthy households have a Nordstrom credit card."

Like many brick and mortar retailers, Nordstrom has experienced a sales slowdown as mall traffic has declined. In fact, news reports in June indicated that the Nordstrom family was considering taking the company private. Earlier this week, the company announced that it was opening a test store next month called Nordstrom Local. The Wall Street Journal explained the concept: 

Nordstrom Local, scheduled to open Oct. 3 in West Hollywood, Calif., will span 3,000 square feet, far less than the 140,000 square feet of one of Nordstrom’s standard department stores. It will contain eight dressing rooms, where shoppers can try on clothes and accessories, though the store won’t stock them. Instead, personal stylists will retrieve goods from nine Nordstrom locations in Los Angeles, or through its website. The stylists can also pull together looks for shoppers through a “style board” app.

Is this acquisition a real possibility? I can certainly see Professor Galloway's logic. However, as he notes in the podcast, the company is led by the Nordstrom family. Indeed, the firm's ownership structure could be a formidable obstacle. The Nordstrom family owns roughly 1/3 of the company, and family members continue to lead the retailer. Amazon would find it very difficult to acquire the company without the family's consent. However, Galloway's comments do make you wonder whether other retailers might be acquisition targets. As Amazon contemplates opening a second headquarters with up to potentially 50,000 employees, it's clear that Bezos' ambitions know no limits. Could a luxury apparel retailer be next? Nieman Marcus, anyone? They have been struggling. They announced an exploration of strategic alternatives several months ago. Perhaps they might be a target. They are not as operationally sound as Nordstrom's, and they have considerably more debt, but perhaps it's a more attainable target.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Three Ways Leaders Can Build Trust

I was asked a very important question today during a presentation to a group of senior finance executives from a wide array of Fortune 500 companies.   One person asked, "How does a leader build trust?  What are the most important and effective ways to do so?"  I offered three suggestions. 

1.  Acknowledge your own mistakes.  Be transparent about those situations in which you stumbled, and talk about how you learned from those incidents.  They will come to trust you and be willing to come forward to talk about their concerns and failures if you acknowledge ways in which you struggled during your career.  

2.  Avoid engaging in the charade of consultation (a phrase coined by my friend and best-selling author Michael Watkins).   In other words, if you have already made up your mind about a decision, don't engage the team in a lengthy analysis and dialogue, all the while steering them to your preordained decision. You're wasting their time and insulting their intelligence.  They recognize that the decision has already been made, and their trust in you will erode if you engage in this charade. 

3.  As Teddy Roosevelt once said, "“People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."  In other words, they won't trust you simply because of your competence.  You have to show them that you care about them as individuals.   If they believe that, then they will trust and follow you.  

Picking the Right Job for You Based on an Interesting Interview Question

Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable, described her favorite job interview question recently in an interview with CNBC. She likes to ask candidates: "What part of this role do you love and you can't stop doing? And what part do you hate doing?" Quarles knows the most important facets of the role she is trying to fill. If someone loves those critical facets of the job, then Quarles feels comfortable with that candidate. In short, she wants to make sure that the candidate's passion matches the needs and demands of this particular role.

However, the second part of the question is important as well. What do you hate? As she says, everyone has certain work that is less desirable to them. Quarles goes on to ask the candidates how they will manage those aspects of the job... work that must be done, but understandably, may not be the type of activity about which the candidate is passionate. 

I'm struck by this question, because I think every job seeker should ask themselves this question during the search process. The candidate should be trying to understand the job description and the demands of the role, and they should be asking themselves if they will be excited about enough of that activity to make the work meaningful and fulfilling to them. The candidate also has to think about the negative aspects of the job and whether they can handle that work without becoming frustrated or disengaged. No one wants to work diligently to land a job that they will, for the most part, hate doing.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Do You Find Your Calling or Craft It?

I listened to an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast in which Shankar Vedantam interviewed Yale Professor Amy Wrzesniewski.  The episode focuses on the notion of finding your calling.  When it comes to choosing a job or profession, many people advocate finding your passion.  According to this line of thinking, if you search long and hard, you can discover your vocation or calling, and as a result, you will find your work meaningful.   If you do meaningful work, then you will be happier, more engaged, and more productive. What's the problem with that line of thinking?  Well, what if you spend a great deal of time pondering your future, and you cannot discern your calling?  What if you simply aren't sure?  Many young people become incredibly frustrated because they simply aren't sure what their calling is.  They don't know how to find it.  

Professor Wrzesniewski has a different point of view, one that bears serious consideration.  She has studied how people find meaning in their work.  Wrzesniewski argues that some people engage in a practice she calls "job crafting."  On the podcast, she explains her study of workers who cleaned the halls and rooms at a hospital.  When asked to describe their job, some workers talked strictly about the responsibilities listed in the job description.  In contrast, others defined their job differently.  They talked about how they engaged with doctors, nurses, patients, and the patients' families.  They viewed their job as involving responsibilities beyond those mandated by their supervisors.  According to Wrzesniewski, these workers had "crafted" their job in a way that felt much more meaningful to them. They were part of the process of caring for these patients, not simply the person responsible for washing the floors or taking out the trash.   

Wrzesniewski argues that we can all engage in the job crafting process.  In so doing, we can make meaning in our work.  We don't necessary find meaning only by searching our soul to discover our calling.  We can also find meaning by shaping how we define the job we do, the roles we play in an organization, and the constituents with whom we interact.  Wrzesniewski argues that job crafting often involves thinking how we interact with others at our organization.  We often find meaning in those relationships and in how we serve various constituents.  

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

We Dwell on the Negative

New research from Stanford Professor Zakary Tormala and graduate student Aaron Snyder examines how individuals weigh the pros and cons when making a decision. They found that people tend to dwell on the negative. According to their research, "People feel more conflicted when faced with many positives and a few negatives than they do when faced with many negatives and a few positives."   Tormala explains: "“Suppose you are evaluating a person — for example, a job candidate — and you make a list of his or her positive and negative qualities. Even assuming you come up with positives and negatives that are equally relevant and compelling, the negatives tend to carry more weight.”   Adding just one or two negatives to a list of many positives can cause people to feel conflicted, uncertain, and ambivalent about a decision.   Put simply, we dwell on those negatives, even if they are few in number.  

Is there something inherently wrong with this bias toward negativity?  I worry that it may lead to much indecision, and that inability to take action can be a problem in many situations.   Moreover, it may cause us to lose confidence in our ability to make the right call in tough circumstances.  We might exhibit far too much risk aversion in certain situations because of this negativity bias.  On the other hand, perhaps the mind has found a way to prevent us from making rash decisions.  It might just be pumping the brakes for us a bit, so that we don't simply look at the world through rose-colored glasses, as we are want to do in many circumstances.  How do we find the right balance?  Often, the team around us can help us.   Some people are inherently more positive than others.  They can push back when some are dwelling on the negative.  Similarly, some members can challenge those who are exhibiting overconfidence or excessive optimism.  

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

A Strategy for Solving Problems Creatively

Theodore Scaltsas wrote a Harvard Business Review article last year in which he outlined an interesting strategy for solving problems creatively. Scaltsas explains that the brain mines our past experience for possible solutions when it faces a problem. Yet we think of creativity as inventing entirely new solutions to perplexing challenges. Are we really inventing something new each time we come up with an ingenious solution to a vexing problem? Perhaps not. Scaltsas explains: 

So how do new solutions emerge? The answer to that question is rooted in how one approaches the problem. Although the brain’s solution-generating mechanism is inherently predictive (bringing familiar solutions to a given problem) you can also address an intractable problem by reinventing the problem itself. Doing so coaxes the brain into proposing old solutions for types of problem these old solutions have not solved before.

One way of triggering these solutions is to imagine ways out of the fix you’re in by imagining that the circumstances blocking your progress are being lifted one by one. This produces different versions of the challenge. One of these new hypothetical versions may well resemble a type of problem that you have solved in the past. Your mind will then fire out a whole new set of solutions, one or more of which may work. If the solution you select for the new version of the challenge is untypical for the original version, it can certainly qualify as a creative solution to the new one.

What Scaltsas has proposed is essentially a strategy for helping people reframe complex problems. By reframing in this manner, one triggers the mind to search for solutions embedded in our past experience. To make this concept more concrete, Scaltsas uses a famous historical example. He recounts the story of Odysseus and the Trojan Horse. He explains how Odysseus reframed the problem, and thereby came up with a deceit-based strategy rather than a combat-based plan for defeating the enemy: 

The lesson is not that the Trojan Horse was a new solution per se. Misdirection of that kind is the staple of any con artist. The creativity lies in the fact that Odysseus was able to transform the 10-year-old problem of overpowering the Trojans into a problem of deceiving them, which opened up a whole new set of ready-made solutions that he was already master of. And given the 10 years the Greeks had spent failing to win the war, Odysseus was able to make a convincing case that his treating the core problem not as one of combat but as one of deceit offered an unexplored path to success.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Homes for our Troops


Exactly one month from today, I'll be running the Twin Cities Marathon (October 1st).  The marathon represents one of my goals during this sabbatical year from Bryant University.  I'm running to raise funds for an organization called Homes for our Troops, an amazing and well-managed charity that helps build specially adapted homes for severely disabled veterans.  I hope you will join me in support of this incredible organization, rated four out of four stars by Charity Navigator.   You can donate by clicking here.  Thanks so much for your support!  

Avoiding Analysis Paralysis

University of Chicago Professor Sanjog Misra commented to the business school's magazine about the problem of analysis paralysis.  Professor Misra offered an interesting perspective on how to avoid this classic decision trap.  He teaches a class focused on the use of algorithms and data analysis in marketing.  Misra argued that you have to be very clear about the question you are trying to answer BEFORE you begin your analysis.   Moreover, he advocated for more clarity about the answer you are trying to achieve.  Misra recommended trying to sketch out the parameters of an idea answer before you start evaluating the data.  He explained:

This isn’t a totally new idea, just new to analytics. In the business world, one wouldn’t want to put out a call for proposals with no details about what he or she is looking for. We wouldn’t want to wade through a million proposals to decide what suits our needs. That would be silly. Instead, when you put out a call for proposals or a purchase order, you typically outline a very detailed specification of what you want. Similarly, it’s worthwhile speccing out the “answer” you are looking to find. You don’t go around aimlessly.  One of my interpretations of Peter Kennedy’s 10 commandments about data analysis is, “Thou Shall Not Fish.” That’s something I emphasize in my classes. Of course, sometimes mining for data is actually what’s required. So if the objective is to fish, then you should be fishing. If it isn’t, the commandment applies.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

How Confident Should We Be in Our Hiring Decisions?

Hiring decisions are so critical for leaders, yet they often prove to be the most vexing choices that individuals have to make. Organizations are constantly seeking better ways to screen candidates. Today, I came across a fascinating quote from renowned behavioral economist Richard Thaler about our ability to make good hires. Thaler refers to some interesting research about the National Football League draft. Here's his comment:

“Take all the [NFL football] players picked at a certain position, and rank them in the order in which they’ve been picked. Now ask yourself, ‘What’s the chance that nth player is better than the n + 1?’ If teams were perfect, it would be 100 percent. If they were coin flipping, it would be 50 percent. Across all the drafts and all the positions, the answer is 52 percent. The next time you’re hiring somebody and you’re absolutely sure that this person is the answer, ask yourself whether you have as much information as NFL teams, who got to watch the guy play [in college] for three years.”

Now that is a sobering commentary.  Consider how much work the NFL executives and coaches do in preparation for the draft.  It is an incredible amount of research.  Yet, the success rate clearly doesn't prove to be very good.  The factors that trip up NFL general managers are similar to the issues that impair corporate hiring decisions.  Can the person fit our system?  Do they have the right attitude as well as talent/skills?  Can the person be coached?  Do they have a great resume, but perhaps lack certain key intangibles?  Do they excel in certain areas, but are those the right metrics on which we should focus?  

Monday, August 07, 2017

High Status Firms: Hiring Advantage but Retention Challenge

Scholars Matthew Bidwell, Ethan Mollick, Roxana Barbulescu, and Shinjae Won have written a new paper titled, “I Used to Work at Goldman Sachs! How Firms Benefit From Organizational Status in the Market for Human Capital.” The scholars discover, unsurprisingly, that high status firms have a powerful hiring advantage. Knowledge@Wharton summarizes the key finding: 

If a firm is high status, it possesses a hiring advantage (“preferential labor market access” in the paper’s language), but the advantage is not what one might think. It isn’t better pay or more interesting or challenging work: It’s the belief that having worked for such an employer can help you get a better job later on.  “You essentially can pay people in reputation,” says Mollick. “They will take less salary early on because the reputation will result in a higher salary later.” 

How substantial was the impact of status in the employment choices made by MBA graduates in the study? According to the authors, the impact was especially critical in investment banking (shocker!), "where respondents’ odds of accepting a job offer nearly doubled with a one-unit increase in their perception of the firm’s reputation."

Interestingly, though, the hiring advantage that high-status firms possess turns into a retention disadvantage later on in people's careers.   These workers may value status over pay when they are looking for a job right out of school, but eventually, they want firms to show them the money!   The scholars found that, "Workers’ pay rises faster with seniority in high-status firms than lower-status firms."    What's going on?  Now these workers have the high-status firm on their resume.  They view themselves as highly attractive candidates on the job market.  Indeed, they probably do have many outside opportunities that are quite lucrative. Thus, they demand high wages if the firm wishes to retain them.  Of course, many of these high-status firms that recruit at top business schools understand that retention will be difficult.  They don't even mind as people leave in many cases.  They cultivate their alumni network, much as a university would.  Why?  After all, these former employees who leave a banking or consulting firm become potential clients for the firm when they move to a different company.  

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Failure Has Become Fashionable

Everyone is talking about becoming more tolerant of failure these days.  You read it everywhere.  Failures are really learning opportunities.   You learn more from failure than success.  You have to be willing to fail if you wish to innovate.  Experimentation entails some failures; without them, you won't create anything truly bold.  You have to make it ok to fail.  

Is it really true? Should failure be acceptable in your organization?  HBS Professor Amy Edmondson has noted that there is a spectrum of reasons for failure.  Some failures are truly preventable.  They result from people knowingly deviating from procedures or not paying close enough attention to specifications.  These types of failures are blameworthy events.  They are not acceptable.  At the other end of the spectrum are intelligent failures.  These failures result from the experimentation process.   In these situations, people are trying to learn through hypothesis testing or exploratory experiments.   These types of failures, according to Edmondson, are praiseworthy events.  

Are all experiments praiseworthy?  Of course not.  Some experiments are well-designed and carefully  implemented.  Others are hastily arranged and not well-designed.  You want to encourage people to make smart bets.  They should be engaging in enlightened, disciplined trial and error in the iterative process.  They shouldn't just be haphazardly trying new things.  Failures that emerge from a well-designed experiment are praiseworthy events.  We should not send the message, though, that all testing is good testing.  We should encourage people to put some thought into how they execute tests, experiments, and prototypes.  Are they designed in such a way to elicit highly useful user feedback?  Was data collected in an unbiased way, or were people simply trying to confirm what they already believed?  Did people pick the right sample, and were appropriate controls chosen if a hypothesis was  being tested?  These types of questions need to be asked when people fail during the iterative process.   We want to tolerate certain types of failure because we want to maximize learning. However, poorly designed tests and experiments do not lead to effective learning.  

Friday, August 04, 2017

Supporting Homes for our Troops

Thank you so much to all my readers who have contributed to my campaign to support Homes for our Troops.  I'm running the Twin Cities Marathon on October 1st to support this amazing organization that builds specially adapted homes for severely disabled veterans.  I'm very grateful for your contributions to date.  If anyone would still like to contribute or learn more about my effort, you can visit my campaign page here.  Thanks!  

Is It a Curse to Be Labeled a Star?

Jennifer and Gianpiero Petriglieri have written a terrific Harvard Business Review article titled, "The Talent Curse."   In this essay, they argue that being labeled as a "high potential" or "future leader" can be detrimental to many talented employees.   The label changes their behavior and mindset, and as a result, their stress level increases, performance suffers, and attitude toward the organization sours.  They explain:

In an age when companies wage wars for talent, it is hard to acknowledge that for some people, being recognized as talented turns out to be a curse. But it does. Aspiring leaders work hard to live up to others’ expectations, and so the qualities that made them special to begin with—those that helped them excel and feel engaged—tend to get buried. They behave more like everyone else, which saps their energy and ambition. They may start simply going through the motions at work—or, like Thomas, look for an escape hatch. This curse strikes the talented even in companies that invest heavily in their development—places where executives are sincerely dedicated to helping people thrive.

What are the signs that being labeled as a star may actually be a curse for you?  They cite three symptoms of trouble. First, are you determined to prove that you are worthy of your label as a star, rather than focused on simply using your talents effectively to achieve personal and organizational goals?  Do you stress short term performance at the expense of continuing to learn and grow?  Second, have you become very focused on your image?  Do you want to be your authentic self, but find yourself trying to be someone else?  Third, are you going through the motions now, with aspirations of eventually doing meaningful work down the road?  Have you convinced yourself that it's okay that you aren't passionate about your work at this point, because you will have a chance to find passion and purpose in the future?  

In sum, you have to ask the question: Has the star, high potential, or future leader label fundamentally changed my behavior?  If so, you have to take a hard look at your mindset, attitude, and behavior.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Irrational Desire to Complete a Set of Tasks, Purchases, etc.

Kate Barasz, Leslie John, Elizabeth Keenan, and Michael Norton have completed a new study demonstrating that people have an irrational desire/need to complete sets of tasks, purchases, assignments, etc. Barasz says, "People really don't like to leave things incomplete." HBS Working Knowledge describes the implications of their research: 
  
Do you want customers to refer more of their friends to your company’s website? Ask them to refer friends in arbitrary “batches” of five at a time. Looking to increase charitable giving to your nonprofit organization? Ask potential donors to contribute a set of six gifts. Are you and your fiancĂ© struggling to write thank-you cards for all those wedding shower gifts? Try batching the unwritten cards into sets of eight. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of writing one note at a time, you’ll feel oddly motivated to finish a whole set at a time.

In one study, the scholars conducted a field experiment with the Canadian Red Cross.  They tested three types of donation request with more than 7,000 donors during the Christmas season in 2016.  One group of donors received a request for cash donations.   A second group received a request to donate so as to fund the giving of particular items to people in different spots around the globe.  A location marker on a visual of the globe indicated where their money was funding a particular item. The third group of donors received a request to donate funds for a "Global Survival Kit" of six items. As they donated each item, a line stretched further around the globe, going around the entire earth if all six items were funded. The prospective donors did not have to donate all six items.  They could choose to donate a single item if they wished.  Barasz notes, “Who wants to donate six blankets, when you can donate one blanket and feel just as good? But, if you frame it as a set, then there is a reason to want to complete the set and to donate all six of the items.”

What did they find? 21% of the people in the third group chose to donate all six items. That was more than 4 times as many people donating as compared to the second group, and 7 times as many people donating as compared to the first group.  In short, framing the decision as a set to be completed has a substantial impact on donor behavior.  Presumably, the same type of framing may have a significant impact on customer or employee behavior.   It may not seem rational to be compelled to complete a set, but that's the way many individuals feel.  

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bud Light's Decline: What's the Brand Promise?


The Wall Street Journal reports today that Budweiser and Bud Light continue to experience market share declines in the United States.   The chart shown here documents the eroding share over the past six years for the Bud Light brand.  The main Budweiser brand also has experienced share decreases over this time.  The article attributes the declines to the growing appeal of craft beers and imports.   The article makes me wonder about Budweiser and Bud Light's brand promise.  What is it, and has it been updated effectively for the current market environment. What is Bud selling these days, and has it positioned itself appropriately amidst the heightened competition from craft brews and imports?


Consider the concept of a brand promise.  What is a brand promise?   Hinge Marketing describes it as "the tangible benefit that makes a product or service desirable." Workfront defines it as " a value or experience a company’s customers can expect to receive every single time they interact with that company." Workfront argues that a highly effective brand promise has five attributes: simple, memorable, credible, different, and inspiring.  

Does Bud Light have a brand promise that meets these five criteria? Has it updated that brand promise for the current competitive situation and to meet today's customer needs and desires?  It's not clear to me that they have figured out how they should position themselves in this current environment.  

What's an example of a brand promise that does meet these five criteria?  How about Ritz Carlton?  Their brand promise is quite compelling:  "Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen."  


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

LEGO Boost: Continuing to Renew & Extend the Core

Great firms don't simply diversify into new businesses when their core business appears to be maturing.  Diversification attempts sometimes have two deleterious effects.  First, companies find themselves extending into areas in which they do not have distinctive capabilities that can lead to competitive advantage.  Second, the attention focused on the new businesses can accelerate deterioration of the core, as management becomes distracted and resources stretched thin.   Top performing firms search for ways to deepen their competitive position, to reinvigorate their core business.  Great firms don't simply accept the apparent decline of their core business.  

LEGO went through some substantial challenges in the early 2000s. Jargon Vig Knudstorp became CEO in 2004, and he engineered a remarkable turnaround.   He focused on what made the firm successful for decades - the LEGO bricks and the play associated with those iconic bricks.   Over time, LEGO has reinvigorated the brand and the famous LEGO bricks.  Moreover, the firm has deepened its competitive position with new product offerings and brand building efforts such as the LEGO movie.  

Now the Wall Street Journal reports on the introduction of a new line of products called LEGO Boost.  The products seek to capitalize on the movement to teach kids how to code.   Geoffrey Fowler reports:

Learning programming is awesome when you’re making Lego robots fart. “Usually Legos cannot fart, so we made these Legos fart a lot,” says Eleanor, 9 years old, who helped me code dance moves, jokes and simulated bodily functions into Lego Boost, a new take on the iconic bricks. “Also burp. Don’t forget the burping,” she adds.  Making Lego bricks come to life is a big deal for children aged 7 to 12—as well as for parents who want to teach them the basics of programming.

This new product line appears to build nicely off of the success of the company's Mindstorms products.  Mindstorms is used to teach older kids about robotics.  The Boost product line aims to introduce coding to younger children (ages 7-12).   The product line is consistent with the brand positioning, and it leverages what the company is already good at doing.  LEGO Boost appears to be another way in which LEGO continues to reinvigorate the core business and deepen its competitive position, rather than trying to do new things for which LEGO does not have a distinctive capability.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

We've all heard the stories of the startup team working late into the night, day after day, as they try to build their business, or the bankers sleeping in the office while they try to close a big deal.  Research suggests that sleep deprivation can have some significant costs though, and not just in terms of personal health. Michael Christian and Aleksander Ellis wrote a paper titled, "Examining the Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Workplace Deviance: A Self-Regulatory Perspective."  By deviance, they mean "a wide spectrum of behaviors that violate organizational norms and threaten the success of a company, ranging from rudeness and withheld effort to theft and violence."

The authors conducted a series of studies on sleep deprivation.  In some cases, they conducted field research, and in other instances, they performed experimental studies in the laboratory.  They found that sleep deprivation does indeed increase deviant behavior in organizations.   For instance, in one experimental study, they split their research subjects into two groups.  one group was able to get a normal night's sleep, while the other did not sleep for 24 hours.  Then the students had to mentor fellow business school students and answer inquiries from business school applicants.  The sleep-deprived students were more likely to provide "inappropriate, negative, or hurtful responses" to questions from fellow students or applicants.  Similarly, in a field study, they found that nurses were more likely to engage in deviant behavior if they were sleep deprived.  


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Networking Inside & Outside the Firm to Drive Innovation

Linus Dahlander, Siobhan O’Mahony, and David Gann have conducted a fascinating new study regarding researchers at IBM.   They studied more than 600 technical experts at IBM, people responsible for many of the firm's patents.  They paid attention to how these experts networked with others both inside and outside the firm.  In an HBR digital article, the scholars summarize their findings:  

We measured the breadth of each person’s external social network by the different types of external sources they interacted with. Then we assessed how the breadth of each person’s external network was associated with subsequent innovation outcomes at IBM, like the quantity and quality of the patents the individual produced.

Surprisingly, we found that our respondents’ most common sources of inspiration for new ideas were their colleagues inside, rather than outside, the firm. In contrast with current theories of open innovation, people with broader external networks were no more innovative than people with narrow external networks. Many of the experts relied mostly on internal networks and were still innovative. To better understand this puzzle, we examined how people allocated their time among their information sources inside and outside IBM.

We discovered that experts with a broad external network were more innovative only when they devoted enough time and attention to those sources... This is an important finding, as many managers are keen on the idea that networking and forming external ties can boost the flow of ideas that spurs innovation. What we found is, for that to happen, employees need to devote significant time and attention to creating and sustaining their external relationships. In some cases, people who focused on learning from colleagues inside the organization were just as innovative.

About 30% of the respondents who had a broad external network did not allocate enough time to learn from those relationships. These people would have been better off deepening relationships with their colleagues inside the firm. For spending time inside the company is also important to understanding the firm’s innovation needs and knowing how to develop and execute on innovative ideas.

In sum, the best innovators engage in a balance of external and internal networking.  They scour the outside world for ideas, but they do so given a solid understanding of what's happening within their firm.  Moreover, they engage with people in sufficient depth so as to truly learn from them, rather than simply gaining a superficial understanding of the trends and developments in the outside world.  You can't simply have coffee with a hundred people in search of the next big idea. You have to immerse yourself in certain contexts, whether they be internal or external.   Learning takes time, as does relationship building.   

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Avoiding Confirmation Bias

Earlier this year, Tom Stafford wrote a column for the BBC's website about how to combat confirmation bias.  In other words, how do we avoid the problem of searching for and relying on data that confirm what we already believe (while dismissing or avoiding data that contradict our pre-existing beliefs)?  

Stafford recalls a famous set of experiments by Charles Lord,  Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper.  In one classic study from several decades ago, they looked at how people's attitudes toward the death penalty changed after being exposed to two contrasting studies - one demonstrating a powerful deterrent effect for the death penalty and another showing the exact opposite finding.   Lord, Ross, and Lepper found that people's attitudes polarized after looking at the two studies.  Why?  They assimilated the data in a biased way, relying heavily on the information that supported their pre-existing beliefs.  

Stafford describes a second experiment that these scholars conducted.  In this subsequent research, they compared two strategies for trying to combat confirmation bias.  They analyzed the impact of two different sets of instructions for people.   They were given these instructions before looking at the data.  Stafford summarizes what these scholars discovered: 

For their follow-up study, Lord and colleagues re-ran the biased assimilation experiment, but testing two types of instructions for assimilating evidence about the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent for murder. The motivational instructions told participants to be "as objective and unbiased as possible", to consider themselves "as a judge or juror asked to weigh all of the evidence in a fair and impartial manner". The alternative, cognition-focused, instructions were silent on the desired outcome of the participants’ consideration, instead focusing only on the strategy to employ: "Ask yourself at each step whether you would have made the same high or low evaluations had exactly the same study produced results on the other side of the issue." So, for example, if presented with a piece of research that suggested the death penalty lowered murder rates, the participants were asked to analyse the study's methodology and imagine the results pointed the opposite way.

They called this the "consider the opposite" strategy, and the results were striking. Instructed to be fair and impartial, participants showed the exact same biases when weighing the evidence as in the original experiment. Pro-death penalty participants thought the evidence supported the death penalty. Anti-death penalty participants thought it supported abolition. Wanting to make unbiased decisions wasn't enough. The "consider the opposite" participants, on the other hand, completely overcame the biased assimilation effect – they weren't driven to rate the studies which agreed with their preconceptions as better than the ones that disagreed, and didn't become more extreme in their views regardless of which evidence they read.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

What's the "Optimal" Failure Rate at Netflix?

When Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, and Crown became mega-hits for Netflix, many people credited the analytics capabilities of the company. Mining the customer data had enabled the firm to project the type of original programming that would be highly successful. By this logic, Netflix would achieve a lower failure rate on new shows than the major television networks. After all, broadcasters such as CBS and NBC cancel a substantial share of their new shows each year, some after only a few episodes. 

On the recent Netflix earnings call, many investors were pleased to hear about strong subscriber growth at the firm. However, some investors came away concerned about the amount of spending taking place as the firm acquires or develops new content. Moreover, some observers and analysts have expressed concern about the recent cancellations of some new Netflix original shows. Tom Huddleston Jr. reported on the company's reaction to this criticism in a recent Fortune article:

Meanwhile, also on the Monday earnings call, Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos defended the company's recent cancellations of a handful of expensive, but underperforming, original series. "The more shows we have, the more likely in absolute numbers that you’ll see cancellations, of course," Sarandos said. The executive compared Netflix's recent spate of cancellations—including big-budget series like The Get Down and Sense8—to traditional TV networks that cancel nearly one-third of their new shows after their first seasons. Netflix, he said, has renewed 93% of its original series. With respect to the shows that Netflix opted not to renew, Sarandos argued: "If you’re not failing, maybe you’re not trying hard enough."

This quote from Sarandos raises a fascinating question.  What is the "optimal" failure rate at Netflix?  Surely, we would like the failure rate to be lower than the broadcast networks.  We would like to see the company reaping the benefits of its analytics capabilities.  At the same time, no one should want Netflix's failure rate on original programming to be zero.  We want the firm to take some chances in hopes of landing some surprising breakthrough hits.  Hopefully, the firm isn't simply guessing or drawing on the intuition of the "creatives" in the business.  We would like to see them engaging in "enlightened" experimentation, using big data to guide them while still taking some risks.   If they balance data mining and risk-taking in an effective way, the failure rate won't be zero, but it will be much lower than their broadcast and cable competitors.  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Proxy Fight at P&G: Can Activist Investors Drive Effective Change?

The Wall Street Journal reports today that activist investor Nelson Peltz has launched a proxy fight with Proctor & Gamble.  No company this large has ever faced a proxy fight.  The investor seeks a board seat in hopes of driving change. Peltz has been frustrated with the lackluster revenue and earnings growth at the consumer products giant over the past several years. According to the article, "Mr. Peltz’s Trian Management Fund argues that P&G failed to capitalize on a five-year savings plan that shrank the company by tens of thousands of employees, more than a dozen factories and hundreds of brands. Trian casts doubt on whether a second, five-year, $10-billion savings plan announced by P&G last year will produce results." 

Many observers and analysts have wondered whether activist investors would push for a breakup of P&G. After all, the company does operate a number of businesses including grooming (e.g., Gillette), fabric and home care (e.g., Tide, Cascade), oral and personal care (e.g., Crest, Prilosec), baby and feminine care (e.g., Pampers and Tampax), and household items (e.g., Bounty, Charmin). However, the company already has divested several units that appeared to be somewhat unrelated to their core brands; P&G divested its pet food, battery, coffee, and potato chip businesses in recent years. Peltz has signaled that he's not pushing for further divestitures at this time. 

What's the problem at P&G?  In my mind, the company can't cut its way to enhanced long run performance.  Perhaps costs are bloated, and some efficiencies must be attained.  However, the core problem remains innovation and growth.  In the heyday of A.G. Lafley's first tenure as CEO, P&G excelled because it generated product innovations that drove robust revenue growth (consider the remarkable success of Febreze and Swiffer).   These innovations have not come at the same pace in recent years.  Moreover, customers have traded down from the premium-priced products offered by P&G to more affordable brands.  Consider the success of upstarts in the razor business, as well as the increasing success of private labels in a number of P&G categories.  

What then of the proxy fight led by Peltz?  It seems to me that activist investors can be helpful at times in forcing difficult reorganizations, cost-cutting initiatives, and divestitures that management may be unwilling to undertake.  However, activist investors are not well-equipped to help companies jumpstart innovation and revenue growth.  How will this proxy fight solve the underlying growth problem at P&G?   It won't.   The company has much more challenging work to do than simply fending off an activist investor's attempt to snag a board seat.  



Sunday, July 16, 2017

Knowledge Increasingly Generated by Teams Rather than Solo Artists

Do great breakthroughs in knowledge occur as a result of a brilliant mind working alone, perhaps through some brilliant flash of insight? Or, is knowledge creation fundamentally a collaborative endeavor? Has the process of knowledge creation changed in recent years? Has it become more collaborative? Northwestern scholars Stefan Wuchty, Benjamin Jones, and Brian Uzzi studied these questions and have written a paper titled, "The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge." 

The authors examined nearly 20 million articles from the Institute for Scientific Information Web of Science database. These articles include work from a range of fields including science, engineering, social sciences, the arts, and the humanities. They also studied more than 2 million patents issued during the time that these articles were published. 

The scholars report that, "For science and engineering, social sciences, and patents, there has been a substantial shift towards collective research. In the sciences, team size has grown steadily each year and nearly doubled from 1.9 to 3.5 authors per paper over 45 years." The authors found that solo authors tend to be more prevalent in the arts and the humanities, though collaboration has increased there as well. Moreover, the authors discovered "a broad tendency for teams to produce more highly cited work than individual authors" - a finding true across all fields. In fact, that trend toward higher citations of collaborative work has picked up in recent years. 

In sum, collaboration has become more important and more prevalent over time in the knowledge generation process. This statement represents more than just a well-worn cliche; the empirical data support this claim in clear and convincing fashion.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sir Ken Robinson: How To Escape Education's Death Valley

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson has provided some excellent thinking on the state of education.  I love listening to him describe how we stifle creativity in our children at times, and how we can shift our thinking as educators.  Here's one of his terrific TED talks:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Top Sales People Really Don't Make the Best Managers

The conventional wisdom is straightforward - the top individual performers don't always make the best managers.  That old adage holds true especially in the field of sales.  Many people believe that the best sales people don't make the best managers.   Is it true?  New research examines this assumption, drawing upon one of the most extensive databases ever collected to research this topic.  

Alan Benson, Danielle Li, and Kelly Shue examined data on salespeople at more than 200 firms. These scholars analyzed how individual performers did prior to promotion.  Then, after these individuals were promoted to managers, they examined how the performance of their new subordinates was impacted.   The richness of the data enabled the scholars to compare salesperson performance under this new boss vs. other previous supervisors.   What did they find?  Chicago Booth Review reports:  

The best salespeople did not make the best managers: demonstrated sales skill, as evidenced by managers whose sales doubled before their promotion, corresponded to a 10 percent drop each in the sales performance of new subordinates.  The typical newly minted manager is in charge of five people. Therefore, the doubling of a manager’s sales predicts a total team sales drop equivalent to half the sales of one worker.

Thus, the conventional wisdom is true.  Moreover, the negative impact of promoting the wrong people is substantial.  Companies need to understand the skills and qualities required to become good sales managers, and based on that analysis, they must change their promotion criteria.  Meanwhile, they must find other ways to reward top individual performers, rather than using promotion as a key incentive.