Friday, May 28, 2010

Drilling for Certainty, by David Brooks


Drilling for Certainty

In the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the political debate has fallen into predictably partisan and often puerile categories. Conservatives say this is Obama’s Katrina. Liberals say the spill is proof the government should have more control over industry.
David Brooks
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But the real issue has to do with risk assessment. It has to do with the bloody crossroads where complex technical systems meet human psychology.
Over the past decades, we’ve come to depend on an ever-expanding array of intricate high-tech systems. These hardware and software systems are the guts of financial markets, energy exploration, space exploration, air travel, defense programs and modern production plants.
These systems, which allow us to live as well as we do, are too complex for any single person to understand. Yet every day, individuals are asked to monitor the health of these networks, weigh the risks of a system failure and take appropriate measures to reduce those risks.
If there is one thing we’ve learned, it is that humans are not great at measuring and responding to risk when placed in situations too complicated to understand.
In the first place, people have trouble imagining how small failings can combine to lead to catastrophic disasters. At the Three Mile Island nuclear facility, a series of small systems happened to fail at the same time. It was the interplay between these seemingly minor events that led to an unanticipated systemic crash.
Second, people have a tendency to get acclimated to risk. As the physicist Richard Feynman wrote in a report on the Challenger disaster, as years went by, NASA officials got used to living with small failures. If faulty O rings didn’t produce a catastrophe last time, they probably won’t this time, they figured.
Feynman compared this to playing Russian roulette. Success in the last round is not a good predictor of success this time. Nonetheless, as things seemed to be going well, people unconsciously adjust their definition of acceptable risk.
Third, people have a tendency to place elaborate faith in backup systems and safety devices. More pedestrians die in crosswalks than when jay-walking. That’s because they have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways.
On the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a Transocean official apparently tried to close off a safety debate by reminding everybody the blowout preventer would save them if something went wrong. The illusion of the safety system encouraged the crew to behave in more reckless ways. As Malcolm Gladwell put it in a 1996 New Yorker essay, “Human beings have a seemingly fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another.”
Fourth, people have a tendency to match complicated technical systems with complicated governing structures. The command structure on the Deepwater Horizon seems to have been completely muddled, with officials from BP, Transocean and Halliburton hopelessly tangled in confusing lines of authority and blurred definitions of who was ultimately responsible for what.
Fifth, people tend to spread good news and hide bad news. Everybody wants to be part of a project that comes in under budget and nobody wants to be responsible for the reverse. For decades, a steady stream of oil leaked out of a drill off the Guadalupe Dunes in California. A culture of silence settled upon all concerned, from front-line workers who didn’t want to lose their jobs to executives who didn’t want to hurt profits.
Finally, people in the same field begin to think alike, whether they are in oversight roles or not. The oil industry’s capture of the Minerals Management Service is actually misleading because the agency was so appalling and corrupt. Cognitive capture is more common and harder to detect.
In the weeks and hours leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, engineers were compelled to make a series of decisions: what sort of well-casing to use; how long to circulate and when to remove the heavy drilling fluid or “mud” from the hole; how to interpret various tests. They were forced to make these decisions without any clear sense of the risks and in an environment that seems to have encouraged overconfidence.
Over the past years, we have seen smart people at Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, NASA and the C.I.A. make similarly catastrophic risk assessments. As Gladwell wrote in that 1996 essay, “We have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life.”
So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest.
This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society.

12 Things Good Bosses Believe, by Bob Sutton

12 Things Good Bosses Believe

What makes a boss great? It's a question I've been researching for a while now. In June 2009, I offered some analysis in HBR on the subject, and more recently I've been hard at work on a book called Good Boss, Bad Boss (forthcoming in September from Business Plus).
In both cases, my approach has been to be as evidence-based as possible. That is, I avoid giving any advice that isn't rooted in real proof of efficacy; I want to pass along the techniques and behaviors that are grounded in sound research. It seems to me that, by adopting the habits of good bosses and shunning the sins of bad bosses, anyone can do a better job overseeing the work of others.
At the same time, I've come to conclude that all the technique and behavior coaching in the world won't make a boss great if that boss doesn't also have a certain mindset.
My readings of peer-reviewed studies, plus my more idiosyncratic experience studying and consulting to managers in many settings, have led me identify some key beliefs that are held by the best bosses — and rejected, or more often simply never even thought about, by the worst bosses. Here they are, presented as a neat dozen:
  1. I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me.
  2. My success — and that of my people — depends largely on being the master of obvious and mundane things, not on magical, obscure, or breakthrough ideas or methods.
  3. Having ambitious and well-defined goals is important, but it is useless to think about them much. My job is to focus on the small wins that enable my people to make a little progress every day.
  4. One of the most important, and most difficult, parts of my job is to strike the delicate balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough.
  5. My job is to serve as a human shield, to protect my people from external intrusions, distractions, and idiocy of every stripe — and to avoid imposing my own idiocy on them as well.
  6. I strive to be confident enough to convince people that I am in charge, but humble enough to realize that I am often going to be wrong.
  7. I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong — and to teach my people to do the same thing.
  8. One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is "what happens after people make a mistake?"
  9. Innovation is crucial to every team and organization. So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas. But it is also my job to help them kill off all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.
  10. Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.
  11. How I do things is as important as what I do.
  12. Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.
What do you say: does that about cover it? If not, tell me what I missed. Or if you're not quite sure what I mean in these brief statements, stay tuned. Over the coming weeks, I'll be digging into each one of them in more depth, touching on the research evidence and illustrating with examples.
If you're like most people I meet, you've had your share of bad bosses — and probably at least one good one. What were the attitudes the good one held? And what great, workplace-transforming beliefs could your worst boss never quite embrace?
Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life. His last book was the New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

8 Reasons Why Children Misbehave (With Solutions!)

8 Reasons Why Children Misbehave (With Solutions!): "

One of the most common expressions parents can be heard saying is, “I don’t understand why he’s/she’s doing that”. There are eight, very common reasons why children misbehave. It is extremely useful for parents to know these because if they can pinpoint the root cause of the misbehavior, they can be more successful at reducing it.

Listed here are the eight most common reasons why children misbehave and a solution to help reduce or eliminate the problem:

1) They want to test whether caregivers will enforce rules.

Children’s main job is to figure out how their complex world works. In order to master the things they need to at each developmental level they will test their parents. They are literally trying to see where the boundaries are, or, if they exist at all. Although testing is frustrating for parents they should know that it is normal and that this is their chance to really make a difference in their child’s life.

How? By setting boundaries and limits and consistently following through on them. This way, their children will adopt positive values and gain self-esteem

2) They experience different sets of expectations between school and home.

Consistency is hugely important in making a child feel safe and secure and able to have a comfortable understanding of the world and how it works. If they are receiving mixed messages from home and school they will feel uneasy inside and express this through more testing than normal and will feel an inner sense of stress.

The best thing a parent can do is learn a simple method to discipline and then have a conversation with their child’s teacher. During this conversation, the parents should explain their method and ask how the teacher handles situations. The goal is to try and use some of the same language at both the school and at home. With a consistent, clear message, children will rise to the expectation and be happier in the process.

3) They do not understand the rules, or are held to expectations that are beyond their developmental levels.
Sometimes, parent expectations go beyond their child’s abilities. Discipline and guidance strategies should always take into account the child’s developmental level. For example, it would be unreasonable to tell a 2 year old to clean up his room and expect that he will finish the job. At this age, children need a lot of support and guidance to do a job like this.

Reading books about what children can do at each age is helpful with this problem so that parents can know what is developmentally appropriate for them to expect of their child.

4) They want to assert themselves and their independence.
Children begin to show their desire for more independence at around age two. They start to want control over certain areas of their life so that they can feel capable and independent. It doesn’t take long for children to identify the areas they CAN control, much to the chagrin of parents. Situations like eating, sleeping, brushing teeth, and dressing are great examples of times when children recognize their power to get you upset and therefore make them feel in control.

What is the solution? Give them loads of choice in their daily life so that they feel in control of their life in other, more positive ways. As well, it is key to learn a simple, loving method to discipline so that misbehavior are taken care of easily, without any emotion required. Without emotion, there is no reason for the child to want to rebel in order to gain control.

5) They feel ill, bored, hungry or sleepy.

When children’s basic needs aren’t met regularly each day they are always more likely to misbehave, cry, throw a tantrum, etc.
The solution to this is simple: have a routine where the child eats, has individual play time, parent and child play or interaction time and sleeps.

6) They lack accurate information and prior experience.

When children do something such as go to cross a road for the first time, they do not know that they are supposed to look both ways, so we all know that we must explain to them to look left and look right, etc. However, the same technique needs to be applied to discipline situations. Children will repeat a behavior over and over until they have accurate information as to what they should be doing instead and prior experience of the consequence if they continue the behavior.

Using clear, concise language stating what they “need” to be doing rather than what they “shouldn’t” be doing is extremely important. Better to say, “Carry this carefully”, rather than, “Don’t drop this”. In other words, give them something to use as prior knowledge for next time.

7) They have been previously “rewarded” for their misbehavior with adult attention.
No parent would ever think of purposefully rewarding bad behavior, but it subtly happens quite often.

Remember, negative attention is still attention so if they misbehave and their parent either yells or spanks, they have just been rewarded.

If the child whines, cries or throws a tantrum and mom or dad eventually gives in to make them become quiet, they have just been rewarded.

The solution? Say what you expect without emotion and then follow through consistently if they continue the negative behavior. The two keys here are: no emotion and little talking.

8) They copy the actions of their parents.

The best teacher of how to misbehave or act and speak inappropriately is by watching mom or dad misbehave or act and speak inappropriately. Remember, what children see and experience in the home is what their normal is. So, if they see mom and dad yelling, they will yell. If they get spanked, they will likely use hitting to express their anger or frustration. If they hear, “What?” instead of “Pardon?” that is what they will use. How can we expect any different?

Although not always simple, parents need to look at parenting as a life lesson in personal growth. I always say that children can make open and willing parents into the best human beings in the world because they have the opportunity to practice being their best selves every single day of the year. Looking at parenting this way makes it easier to catch oneself more often and start demonstrating good behavior by modeling it.

Image: MagnusRules

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Erin Kurt, B.Ed, spent 16 years as a teacher and nanny around the world. Now, she applies her expertise as a parenting expert and author of Juggling Family Life. You can learn more about Erin and her simple, loving parenting method, and subscribe to her weekly parenting tips e-zine at

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17 Things I Believe: Updated and Expanded, by Bob Sutton

17 Things I Believe: Updated and Expanded: "

In gearing up for my next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, I am putting together a list of "12 Things that Good Bosses Believe," which you will soon see on this blog and elsewhere. In the process, I took two or three ideas from my old list of "15 Things I Believe" that has been on this blog for a long time. So I decided it was a good time to update and expand that list, as I have not changed much in the last couple years. So I spent the morning updating the new list, now "17 Things I Believe," which you can see to the left.

The first 9 items aren't really changed much, although one or two of the links are updated. Items 10 through 16 are all new. And item 17, which I removed for awhile, is back because I thought it was important to remind others -- and myself -- that there is a lot more to life than work. Here is the new list. As always, I would love your comments, and as this is a pretty big change, if you have ideas about items you might add (or subtract) if it was your list, or that you think I should add or subtract, I would love to hear your reactions. Here it is (and note that #17 has no link):

Sometimes the best management is no management at all -- first do no

Indifference is as important as passion.

In organizational life, you can have influence over others or you
can have freedom from others, but you can't have both at the same time.

Saying smart things and giving smart answers are important. Learning to
listen to others and to ask smart questions is more important.

You get what you expect from people. This is especially true when it
comes to selfish behavior; unvarnished self-interest is a learned
social norm, not an unwavering feature of human behavior.

Avoid pompous jerks whenever possible. They not only can make you
feel bad about yourself, chances are that you will eventually start
acting like them.

The best test of a person's character is how he or she treats those
with less power.

8. Err on the side of
optimism and positive energy in all things.

It is good to ask yourself, do I have enough? Do you really need more
money, power, prestige, or stuff?

Anyone can learn to be creative, it just takes a lot of practice and
little confidence

"Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong."

If you are an expert, seek-out novices or experts in other fields. If
you are a novice, seek out experts.

Sutton's Law: “If you think that you have a new idea, you are wrong.
Someone else probably already had it. This idea isn’t original either; I
stole it from someone else”

"Am I a success or a failure?" is not a very useful question

The world would be a better place if people slept more and took more

Strive for simplicity and competence, but embrace the confusion and
messiness along the way.

17. Jimmy Maloney is right, work is
an overrated activity.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Seven Hints for Selling Ideas, By Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Seven Hints for Selling Ideas: "

Regardless of how good it is, no idea sells itself. Before getting commitment to proceed with an idea for a new product, process, venture, technology, service, policy, or organizational change, innovators must sell the idea to potential backers and supporters, and neutralize the critics. They must find resources, expertise, and support. They must convince colleagues to advance the idea in meetings they don't attend.

People whose ideas get traction — that manage get out of the starting gate — take advantage of this practical advice for selling ideas.

  1. Seek many inputs. Listen actively to many points of view. Then incorporate aspects of each of them into the project plan, so that you can show people exactly where their perspectives or suggestions appear.

  2. Do your homework. Be thoroughly prepared for meetings and individual discussions. Gather as much hard data as possibly to have command of the full facts, and speak knowledgeably from a broad information base. Know the interests of those to whom you're speaking, and customize the message for them.

  3. Make the rounds. Meet with people one-on-one to make the first introduction of your idea. It's always a good idea to touch base with people individually before any key meetings, and to give them advance warning of what you and others are planning to say at the meeting. Then they can be prepared (and coached) in your point of view. And you know theirs, so you can modify your proposal accordingly.

  4. See critics in private and hear them out. One-on-one meetings are especially important when you expect opposition or criticism. Groups can easily turn into mobs. Avoid situations in which critics can gang up on you, or when a group of people leaning positive turn negative because the listen to a few loud voices. Never gather all of your potential critics in one room hoping to hold one meeting to brief everyone all at once. This kind of event mainly helps them discover each other and their common concerns, so they coalesce as a group united in opposition to the idea.

  5. Make the benefits clear. Arm supporters with arguments. You might rehearse them for meetings in which questions about your project will come up. Stress the value that the idea will produce for them and other groups. Remember that selling ideas is at least a two-step process. You sell one set of people so they can sell others. You convince them to back you because you reduce the risk to them by giving them the tools for selling their own boards or constituencies.

  6. Be specific. Make your requests concrete, even while connecting your idea to unassailable larger principles. Wait to approach high-level people until your have tested the idea elsewhere and refined your vague notions. The higher the official, the more valuable and scarce his or her time, and thus the more focused your meeting must be. Use peers for initial broad discussions, then ask top executives for one simple action.

  7. Show that you can deliver. People want to back winners. Early in the process, provide evidence, even guarantees, that the project will work. Later, prove that you can deliver by meeting deadlines and doing what you promised.


British Petroleum: Why can't they say they are sorry and trying to make sure it will never happen again? by Bob Sutton

BP: Why can't they say they are sorry and trying to make sure it will never happen again?

As I read The new York Times and Wall Street Journal every day, I ended-up reading BP's huge "Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Response" ad twice today.  I suspect it was written by their legal department, as there are things it does not contain that really bug me and will bug others and -- by the way, are bad crisis management, if you believe the best studies on what leaders can do to protect the reputation and long-term financial performance of their firms when the shit hits the fan (I talk about some of this research here and in links within it).
1. There is not a hint of human compassion, it is cold, carefully crafted language. It simply lists facts, it offers no sympathy to the people who died, none to those whose livelihoods will be affected, and none about the animals who are dying.  The language is utterly without a hint of warmth or empathy for anyone.  This gives me the creeps and I believe reinforces the perception they are a cold heartless company with executives who care about no one but themselves.
2. There is not a hint of an apology or admission of mistake.  The language is very indirect and legalistic. They say: "BP has taken full responsibility for dealing with the spill.  We are determined to do everything we can to minimize impact.  We will honor all legitimate claims."  Perhaps they can't apologize or admit error, but look at research on executives and firms that weather crises more effectively (a great example is Maple Leaf Foods, see the CEOs apology). Researchers who study errors or setbacks have shown that the problem with this strategy of pointing fingers at others and not accepting blame is that when you talk as if you are a hapless victim of a problem caused by others or by forces that no one can control (as BP seems to be doing), you also are seen as lacking the power to fix it.... it amplifies the perception that you are out of control and don't know what you are doing.
3. Finally, and this is also consistent with research on how to deal with a crisis or failure, I see not even a hint in this statement that BP is doing everything (or anything) within its power to learn from this horrible spill so that it is unlikely to ever happen again, and if it does, so they will be able to respond more quickly and effectively next time. This kind of language and attitude is crucial for both perceptual and objective reasons.   From a perceptual standpoint, it conveys more compassion and also that all those people and animals will not have suffered in vain.   From an objective standpoint, clearly, there are many lessons from this fiasco, and any competently ran company learns from mistakes -- indeed, I think all of us wonder what they might already be doing differently in their many other drilling platforms.  I think that talking about that would help them.
There is plenty of blame to go around here, and I am sure that BP does not deserve all of it.  But I think they could handle both the optics and objective elements of this crisis far more effectively (And I wonder if in the end the lawyers' advice will cost them more money, as so many politicians and prosecutors will be motivated by their heartless response to go after them with special vehemence).
No doubt, there are many facts I don't know about what is really happening.  But these omissions disturb me and, if you are a leader, you might want to use this as an opportunity to think about how you would handle such a PR nightmare if it hit your organization.  It is a lot cheaper and easier to learn from BP's errors than it your own.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Forget carrots and sticks, they don't always work - Telegraph, Daniel Pink

Forget carrots and sticks, they don't always work - Telegraph

Forget carrots and sticks, they don't always work

In the first of a new series on business development, we reveal how a new approach to motivating teams is changing corporations for the better

Truth often begins as heresy. Five centuries ago, human beings were certain that the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and that the lowly sun revolved around our glorious planet. Then Copernicus came along with a shocker: Sorry, folks, it's the other way around. Today, every school child knows that the Earth revolves around the sun – that this once heretical notion is, in fact, correct.
Neil Davidson might be launching his own Copernican revolution in business. In 1999, he and Simon Galbraith founded Red Gate Software, a firm based in Cambridge that makes development tools for programmers. Like almost all companies, Red Gate has a sales force. But unlike most companies, Red Gate has committed an act of managerial heresy: it has eliminated commissions for its salespeople.
As I write in my new book, Drive, about what motivates us, we all think we know that commissions are the fuel of sales. Without commissions, where's the motivation?
But maybe, in the end, money isn't the best motivator.
In the early days of the company, Davidson created a fairly straightforward commission scheme. But, of course, salespeople figured out a way to game it – by pushing sales into the time period most advantageous for them, by underselling one month to show a bigger gain the following month, and so on. This wasn't because they were unethical; it was because they were rational humans responding logically to a particular incentive structure.
So Davidson made the system more complex – and salespeople responded by increasing the complexity of their own behaviour. On and on it went, until both the management team and the sales force seemed more focused on the compensation system than on making great software and selling it to customers who needed it.
Davidson feared that commissions were doing more harm than good – that this largely unexamined business practice might be quietly undermining his 150-employee company. He wrote on his blog: "That's what our sales salary system felt like – a gigantic, complex and medieval Spirograph centered on an assumption that wasn't true."
So, with some trepidation, he approached his sales team with the bizarre idea of scrapping sales commissions altogether and simply paying people a healthy flat salary. The response surprised him.
"The salespeople thought the move was, generally, a good one, but that other salespeople wouldn't," Davidson says.
"When I explained it to Tom [not his real name] he said, 'It sounds like a really good idea. But James would never like it; he's solely motivated by money. Remove the commission and he'll leave.' James said, 'Sounds great. But it will never work with Tom. Money is all that drives him.'"
Not only were commissioned sales not leading to better performance, it wasn't even the arrangement salespeople themselves preferred.
In the absence of commissions, Red Gate's total sales have increased. And while two salespeople left the company – uncomfortable with the new regime – most stayed and are thriving – including Tom and James.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Maury Weinstein – founder of System Source, an IT services company in Baltimore, Maryland – followed a similar path. He and partner Bob Roswell eliminated commissions for their company's sales force in 1994. Weinstein says it's one of the reasons that System Source has flourished for so long – and why the median tenure at his company is 17 years, greater than the lifespan of most firms in this intensely competitive industry.
Both Weinstein and Davidson have found that challenging the sanctity of commissioned sales can bring several, often unexpected, benefits.
For example, in Red Gate's case, managers were spending a huge amount of time and energy policing the compensation system and arbitrating disputes over who deserved what. Once pay arrangements became simpler, leaders could focus their efforts on more useful activities.
Davidson says: "Rather than relying on carrots [sell more and you can buy the new car] and sticks [don't sell enough and you won't be able to feed your kids], we are compelled to make our salespeople's work more interesting, to set better goals and encourage teamwork."
Indeed, improved teamwork is another advantage.
"By their very nature, individual commissions discourage collaboration. Why help 'Mary' close the deal when she'll get the gains from the sale?" says Weinstein. "The comp plan was dividing people."
But at both Red Gate and System Source, once commissions were no longer around, collaboration and commitment increased.
And then there's the experience of the companies' customers. When we buy, we often see the salesperson as an adversary with whom we're locked in a zero-sum battle. That sort of relationship, says Weinstein, is ultimately bad for business.
Ending commissions, he said, sent "a strong message to the staff: We're not just paying you for what you close in the next five minutes. We want you to be an agent for the customer rather than a salesperson."
In the end, an elaborate system of commissions might have been the problem rather than the solution.
"Imagine you could construct a sales robot, programmed solely by the rules in any sales structure," Davidson wrote on his blog. "How would it behave? It would steal deals off other salespeople, sell customers software they didn't need, argue with its boss over its commission and backstab its colleagues. That wasn't the behaviour we wanted, but our commission structure sent a strong signal that it was."
Should every company eliminate commissions for its sales staff? Probably not. But should entrepreneurs, managers, and the rest of us step back every now and again and question the supposedly fixed laws of the universe? Definitely. Just ask heretics like Copernicus, Neil Davidson and Maury Weinstein.
Daniel H Pink is an author and business leader who writes about the world of work. His most recent book is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Canongate Books)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Narcissism, Partnership and Strategy, by Walter Kiechel

Narcissism, Partnership and Strategy:

As the great Nebraskan Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz, Omaha, 1899) used to sing, 'There may be trouble ahead...' An article in the latest issue of Academy of Management Learning and Education reports that over the past 25 years college students in the U.S. have scored steadily higher on tests for narcissism. Professors Bergman, Westerman and Daly note that 'the mean narcissism score of 2006 college students on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) approached that of a celebrity sample of movie stars, reality TV winners and famous musicians.'

Fabulous. If that weren't bad news enough, 'Narcissism in Management Education' (Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2010, Vol. 9, No. 1, 119-131) also cites research indicating that 'narcissistic tendencies such as materialistic values and money importance tend to be particularly evident in business students.'

Most studies of narcissists in business focus on their usually awful eventual effect on co-workers. To ride along with them can be energizing, even inspiring at first, but frequently ends in tragedy. As I was reminded last week when I caught one of the last New York performances of Lucy Prebble's 'Enron,' which pretty much reduces that company's rise and fall to a story about Jeff Skilling's increasingly delusional hubris. (A hit in London, the play bombed in Babylon on the Hudson, which already has enough challenges to its own hubristic tendencies these days.)

In a terrific 2001 HBR article, Michael Maccoby argued that a "productive narcissist" can be good for a company — setting out a vision, rallying the troops to achieve it. (As examples he cited Jack Welch and George Soros.) But in my observation, narcissism in strategy-makers almost always represents an invitation to disaster.

This for at least two reasons. Narcissistic executives usually create around themselves a miasma of distrust. They take credit for other's work, value no one else's ideas as highly as their own, and are so busy looking after No. 1 that they can be oblivious to the welfare of others. This makes it tough to develop a strategy in consultation with colleagues, who usually know more about vital details of the competitive situation than the Great One. And even tougher to actually carry the strategy out, except under the narcissist's lash, which most talented people quickly lose a taste for.

The more fundamental problem may be that with sufficient feeding of their grandiosity, narcissists deteriorate in their ability to do what psychologists call 'reality testing,' being able to spot the difference between the movie they're playing in their heads (guess who the star is) and what's actually going on in the world.

The classic posterboy for this syndrome: John De Lorean, father of the Pontiac GTO, who when he wasn't hanging out with movie stars or marrying again was going to set the automotive world on fire with the De Lorean Motors gull-wing doored DMC 12. The entrepreneur's arrest for drug-trafficking — allegedly to raise money for his failing company — put the finishing touches on that endeavor; even though he eventually beat the charge, he would spend the rest of his days bouncing down the stairs, eventually into personal bankruptcy.

In the face of what may be a rising tide of MBAs with, how shall we say, narcissism issues, and the chance that some may climb into strategy-making positions, the news of Britain's new coalition government comes as all the more intriguing. Here you have two politicians, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, heads of rival parties, who, admittedly under serious pressure, manage to quickly form a partnership that has at least some observers suspecting that the country may have lucked into a governing solution better than any one party could have afforded.

For all the usual bromides about how 'you can't run a company by committee' and 'you gotta have clear lines of authority,' partnerships have worked remarkably well in running a few fabled companies, including in setting their strategy. The modern Walt Disney Co. was at its best when Michael Eisner was complemented by Frank Wells. Coca-Cola's patrician, aloof Roberto Goizueta wouldn't have accomplished nearly as much without the consummately personable Donald Keough presenting a smiling corporate face to the world. Some of us wonder whether Goldman Sachs would be in the doghouse it is today if it had stayed with its tradition of two-headed leadership — John Weinberg teamed with John Whitehead, Robert Rubin with Steve Friedman. Astaire wasn't the only Nebraskan who appreciated the value of a good partner — to every Warren Buffet, his Charlie Munger.

If you have responsibilities for forging strategy, consider asking yourself three partnership-related questions:

  1. Would the enterprise be better off if I were sharing this work? More information boiled into the process, including that all-important dissident information? More minds and hands enlisted in the success of the strategy from the outset?
  2. If I were to recruit a partner or two, who would they be, and why? As wonderful as you and your mix of skills likely are, imagine all that a complementary set might bring to the brew.
  3. If you don't have a partner already, why not?

Hmmm, anyone else detect of slight whiff of narcissism in the air around here?

Walter Kiechel III is the former Editorial Director of Harvard Business Publishing, former Managing Editor at Fortune magazine, and author of The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World. He is based in New York City and Boston.


The Creative Process Gone Wrong, by Bob Sutton

The Creative Process Gone Wrong:

One of my students, Rob, just sent me a link to this video on how the design of the stop sign is ruined by a bad creative process -- unfortunately, this parody resembles the process in far too many organizations and teams that try to do creative work in real organizations. It is funny but disturbing. He
saw this in Tina
class, who teaches a fantastic class on the creative

This video brought to mind three things:

1. One of the main sicknesses you see in this video is a failure to kill ideas. Most of the ideas are, on their own, sort of logical. But when you mash them all together, the complexity ruins the experience for the users and the designers end up doing many things, but none very well. See this post about Steve Jobs on the importance of killing good ideas for more on this crucial point.

2. Th process in the video, where a good idea isn't shown to users or customers, but each internal voice adds more and more, and forgets the big picture in the process, also reminds me of the stage gate process at its worst, where it each stage, the product or service is made worse as it travels along.

3. Finally, if you want a great companion innovation video, check out Gus Bitdinger's amazing song "Back to Orbit," which he wrote and performs. I wrote a bit more about it here. It was Gus's final project for an innovation class that Michael Dearing and I taught a few years back, and he does an amazing job of summarizing the key points of my favorite creativity book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball. It sort of addresses both the problems in the stop sign video and the solutions -- and in general is a delight and very instructive on the creative process.

This all raises a broader question: What are the most important things a boss can do to speed and improve the creative process. Certainly, talking to customers and users to identify their needs and test your ideas is standard and increasingly, so is the advice that you've got to kill a lot of good ideas, not just bad ones. I have also always been enamored by the power of a fast and civilized fight, and touch on a lot of other related topics in Weird Ideas That Work. Also, don't miss Diego's 17 Innovation Principles at Metacool;I especially like #17: It's not the years, it's the mileage. But I also know that there are some essential elements being left out here... what would you add?


Graduation Advice, by Michael Josephson

Whenever I’m asked to give a commencement speech, I’m intimidated by the challenge of finding something to say that’s profound and practical without being trite. I haven’t succeeded yet, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. So here are some thoughts for graduates:

  • By all means, set goals and go after your dreams, but know that your ultimate happiness will depend not on your plans but your ability to cope with unexpected turns and unavoidable ups and downs. You may not get what you thought you wanted, but if you’re willing to adapt, you can get something even better.

  • Don’t ever underestimate the power of character. If you want to win, don’t whine. Success is made from hard work, perseverance, and integrity, not luck.

  • Listen to both your heart and your head. Pursue your passions, but don’t confuse feelings with facts. Almost nothing is as good or as bad as it first appears, and all things change.

  • Remember, pain and disappointment are inevitable, but tough times are temporary. The enduring impact of experiences and the true nature of relationships are only revealed by time. Persist with confidence that no negative emotion can withstand your will to be happy.

  • Fill your life with laughter, but don’t confuse fun or pleasure with happiness. Don’t sacrifice a thousand tomorrows for a few todays.

  • Live within your means and don’t overestimate your ability to resist temptations that threaten your relationships or reputation.

  • How you make a living is important, but how you make a life is vital. If you don’t pay attention to your personal relationships, no amount career success will be enough.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.


Friday, May 14, 2010

the tao of productivity, by leo babauta

the tao of productivity

Become content, want little.
Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me ontwitter or identica.
In this age of digital communication, we’re busier than ever. And yet, in all of our sound and fury, we seem to have no time for focus, for what’s important, for thinking.
To find this focus, we will need to completely rethink the need for productivity.
Think of our culture’s obsession with productivity: with the need for “hard work” and working long hours to get things done, with the need to be busy busy busy all the time, with the need to make lists and check them off, with the need to juggle countless projects and make more revenue and accomplish more and more. But for what? What’s the point of all this obsession? It leads to burnout, stress, anxiety, unhappiness, greed, confusion, and no time for family, friends, and yourself.
What would happen if we threw all that out the door? What if we said, “I want to get important things done, but the rest can go to hell.”? Let’s create a new creed: Simplicity, purpose, focus, silence, and joy. Let’s make beautiful and useful things, and love doing it.
With this “new” conception of productivity (which is actually as old as work itself), we can adopt some new principles. The principles I propose are inspired by Taoism, a philosophy that has deeply informed my life. I am not a Taoist, nor an expert at it, and many of the things I’ll write below are not exactly in line with it.

Be Content

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
~Lao Tzu
This is the foundation of the Tao of Productivity: the old version of productivity was founded in the desire for more, to be greater, to accomplish more. But instead, let go of this desire, and realize you already have enough.
If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you’re already rich, do you need to make more money? Do you need to do more and more?
If you’re content, you do because it gives you joy, not because of a desire for more.
When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

Master Non-Action

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.
Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master’s way.
This will be the hardest principle to master, I believe, because our old obsession with productivity was an obsession with doing. It helps me to think of nature: it does nothing, it doesn’t hurry, and yet everything gets done.
Why does everything get done in nature? Because:
1. There is nothing that truly needs to get done — whatever happens is good.
2. What happens is a result of the actual nature of things — they will do what they do because of what they are.
Think of how this applies to your work: can you relinquish what you think “needs” to be done? And can you rethink things so that things happen because of what they are, not because you force them to happen? It’s not an easy task, but it can happen if you keep an open mind and contemplate “needs” and the nature of things.
The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

Relinquish Control

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
This is another difficult change: to let go of our need for control. We try to control our environment, control our behaviors, control our minds, control other people, control outcomes. And yet, it’s all an illusion: we have no control over what happens. Things go wrong all the time, plans fail, we fail, and we feel like failures because of it. Because we thought we could control something, and it didn’t happen.
Controlling other people is a huge source of conflict. Stop trying to control employees, co-workers, bosses, team members, loved ones. Let them do what they want, and work with you how they will.
So how do you work without control? It takes time to learn this, but the idea is to let things happen, and act (or not act) within the flow of those events. Let people do as they please, and find calm amid this swirl of activity and people.
The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

Stop Planning

Other people have a purpose;
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.
This goes hand-in-hand with letting go of control. Stop planning, stop trying to control how things will go and what the outcomes will be. Life never goes according to plan, so why stress yourself out worrying about the future and then worrying about the past when plans get disrupted?
Live in the moment, with no fixed outcome in mind. Let things happen, and be content with what happens. Do work, of course, but do it because it gives you joy.
My system for doing this: The One Thing System.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

Let Go of Success & the Need for Approval

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
you position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
Success is something that’s ingrained in our culture, and almost every moment of our childhoods and schooling are geared towards success. But it’s a hollow concept. Who defines success? Why is it so important? What happens when we don’t achieve it? And what happens when we do, and still want more, or realize it wasn’t worth all the effort, and that we’ve wasted our lives?
Keep your feet on the ground. Find balance, and contentment. Forget about “success”.
The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn’t try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.
That quote says it all really. I have nothing to add. Give up the need for approval, and the need for “productivity” fades away.

Do Your Work, & Step Back

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
This is a lesson we have a hard time learning. We do our work, and then need to do more, and more. Instead, step back. You will thank me for it.