An Opposable Mind

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Reading an article today reminds me of why I love new ideas.

Usually, it’s not because the notion is absolutely foreign to me. Instead, the best feeling is when I am able to recognize some piece of thinking I have already done, taken to an entirely new level by someone obviously much smarter than I am.

In the July 2007 Harvard Business Review, an article entitled “How Successful Leaders Think” stopped me in my tracks. I realized upon reading it that the author had articulated for the first time in my understanding the way I try to think, when I do my very best thinking, or designing.

Roger Martin, the author, starts by quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said that “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” is the sign of a truly intelligent individual.

His modern day research of successful corporate leaders backs this up.

He compares the importance of this kind of intelligence with the evolution of the opposable thumb. Human beings have the most developed opposable thumbs in the animal kingdom, and have been able to create magnificently simply because of their ability to maintain a sustained and precise tension between the fingers. Without it, there would be no ability to write, build, paint and use tools.

This mechanical tension is likened to a certain mental tension – the ability to hold competing ideas in mind at the same time, without discarding one or the other prematurely. In other words, an “opposable mind,” according to Martin.

With an opposable mind all sorts of magic can be created, and the good news that he delivers at the end of the article is that it can be learned, grown and deepened through practice, just like any other skill.

We are born with this kind of mind, he says, but often become anxious because we prefer simplicity and clarity to ambiguity and complexity. This leads us to develop simplistic answers, and to cling to them as if they were gospel truth.

My grandfather did not believe that man really landed on the moon. It was just simpler to believe that it was all a hoax.

Many believe that the earth was created in 7 days, that Eve ate an apple in a garden, that Noah built a boat that saved all creatures from a flood and that Jonah was literally swallowed by a whale which somehow happened to be a fish.

Over time, mankind has progressed in many ways, but not without a fight.

Our tendency is to seek the right answer and discard the wrong – quickly and permanently. Education systems that encourage this kind of thinking even into the college years don’t help the situation.

Martin notes that what he calls “integrative thinkers” welcome complexity, and are therefore able to see the entire problem at once, without trying to break it into small pieces. They also question cause-and-effect relationships that are over-simplified e.g. “if we pay people more money then they will be more productive.”

He gives the example of Red Hat, the software manufacturer, whose CEO was able to abandon the conventional thinking of his industry to create a new revenue model for itself, allowing it to stay ahead of its competitors.

If there is one thing that I aspire to bring to my clients, it is solutions that are based on opposable thinking. At the times when we have been able to achieve these kinds of breakthroughs, it truly has been a collaborative effort that pulls the best from their direct experience, and a fresh look at their issues that I sometimes bring.

While it’s not the easiest path to take, it usually is the most fruitful.

This flies in the face of Caribbean Practice

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The following excerpt was used as the basis for an article to be published in next week’s issue of JobSmart: follow the link www.go-jamaica.com/jobsmart.

To add a comment on the JobSmart article, click on the link below this article saying “0,1,2… comments.”

From an article in HBR, August 2003, by Larry Summers, ex-President of Harvard University:

“But what is most special about the American research university is that it is a place where the authority of ideas, rather than the idea of authority, reigns supreme. At Harvard, we consider it an extremely important accomplishment when a 25-year old graduate student who has been here a mere 18 months makes a discovery that disproves the pet theory of a 55-year old professor who has been here 30 years. Indeed, the professor whose theory has been disproved might be the first to congratulate that graduate student.”

Hmm… food for thought, as this applies so far and wide in Caribbean societies — in business, academia, the church and elsewhere.

Study on Workplace Engagement

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I found this study astounding, although not altogether surprising.

It was published in the 2003 HBR in an article entitled Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy, by authors Kim and Mauborgne.

Their central finding is that employees will commit to a manager’s decision — even one they disagree with — if they believe that the process the manager used to make the decision was fair.

In other words, employees care as much about the process used to derive the outcome, as they do about the actual outcome themselves. This says much about how Caribbean managers need to manage, in order to gain the buy-in that is needed to change behaviour and produce a positive culture.

For example, in the case of the Jamaican workforce, the book Why Workers Won’t Work as well as our project report from the Trinidadian Executive in Jamaica both describe the importance of respect in the local workplace. (A summary of the book can be downloaded by sending email to fwc-whyworkers@aweber.com, and the Trinidad report can be downloaded by sending email to fwc-triniexec@aweber.com.)

In coming to decisions in the Jamaican workplace, it is critical that managers go the extra mile to demonstrate a certain kind of respect for the workers. The following paragraph from the HBR article seems to fit in perfectly:

“Fair process responds to basic human needs. All of us, whatever our role in a company, want to be valued as human beings and not as “personnel” or “human assets.” We want others to respect our intelligence. We want our ideas to be taken seriously. And we want to understand the rationale behind specific decisions. People are sensitive to the signals conveyed through a company’s decision-making processes. Such processes can reveal a company’s willingness to trust people and seek their ideas – or they can signal the opposite.”

The authors mention 3 basic principles of fair process:

  • Engagement — involving individuals in the decisions that affect them by asking their input and allowing them to refute the merits of one another’s ideas and assumptions
  • Explanation — everyone understands why final decisions are made as they are. All inputs were considered impartially in the interests of the company. This helps people accept the decision even if it runs counter to their own opinion.
  • Expectation clarity — once a decision is made, managers state clearly the new rules of the game. What are the news standards, and how are people to be judged?

The authors also make the case for 2 psychological kinds of justice, distributive and procedural (which I will simply refer to as Model A and Model b.)

In Model A, the idea is that when people get what they deserve (compensation or promotion) they feel satisfied with that outcome. They will reciprocate by fulfilling their obligations to the company to the letter.

In Model B, trust and commitment are built, which produce voluntary cooperation, which in turn drives performance, leading people to go beyond the call of duty by sharing their knowledge and applying their creativity.

I remember a funny story told to me by a good friend of mine over 15 years ago, that illustrates the difference between the two (thank you Tom B.)


Some kids used to pass by an old man’s house that had a zinc roof on the way from school each day. It was the kind that made a very loud sound when it rained.

One day, they decided to pelt his roof just to hear the sound it made, and sure enough it was loud like gunshots!

The old man, who had a reputation for being crotchety, ran out, and shouted at them and waved his stick, looking quite upset. The kids ran away laughing.

The following day, they told their friends, and even more of them showed up to stone the old man’s roof, hear the loud sounds it made, wait for him to come out, watch him wave his stick and have a good laugh.

On the third day, even more showed up, and the same thing happened, except that the following morning, the old man woke up with an idea.

Once again, the kids showed up, but this time he was there waiting outside. He called them over, and told them that he would pay each of they $1 to pelt stones on his roof that day.

They cried with glee- was was not only crotchety, he was also insane!

They pelted, he paid up and they ran off happily.

The following day, they showed up again, and this time he apologized, as he only had a quarter for each of them. They pelted his roof, and took their money and ran.

The next day they came, he again apologized and said that no he had only pennies to give.

They refused — he couldn’t expect them to pelt stones on his roof for that little money! So they left in a huff, never to return.


In summary, the old man was able to manipulate the kids into adopting Model A, when they had in fact started out by using Model B. Once they moved to Model A, he could take control of their desires.

So it goes for many employees, who respond to their managers using Model A because their managers are using it themselves.

The authors presented the following summary in the form of a chart:

Model A

  • Tools: resource allocation economic incentives, organizational structure
  • Attitude: Outcome satisfaction “I got what I deserved”
  • Behaviour: Compulsory cooperation “I’ll do what I’m told, or else”
  • Performance: Meets expectations


Model B

  • Tools: Fair Process (engagement, explanation, expectation clarity)
  • Attitude: Trust and commitment “I feel my opinion counts
  • Behaviour: Voluntary cooperation “I’ll go beyond the call of duty”
  • Performance: Exceed expectations (self initiated)

The authors make the point that fair process is rare in companies. When managers are asked for evidence that they are fair, they point to equitable treatment, authority and freedom given, resources provided and rewards earned.

The authors say that these answers confuse fair outcomes/results with fair process.

Most managers are loathe to get too much into engagement, explanation and expectation clarity for reasons that I find particularly pertinent to managers in the region.

The first reason has to do with power. Some keep the rules for success and failure vague as a way to keep control. Others use memos, speeches and purely one way communication to keep away direct challenges. For these managers, fair process is a threat to their authority.

The second reason comes from an unconscious belief that people will only care about what’s best for themselves in the very narrow, short- term sense. However, the research shows that people will go along with decisions they disagree with, and might impact them negatively as long as they perceive the process to be fair.

In other words, they can understand that short-term sacrifices are sometimes needed to advance long-term interests — if they trust the process.

N.B. The authors note that fair process is not the same as consensus, compromise or democracy.

The Put-Down: A Guy Thing

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I read the following excerpt of an article on humor from the 2003 Harvard Business Review that I find interesting.

“Female executives in this research consistently used more humor than their male counterparts, but men used more put-down humor. Women were more likely than men to use complimentary humor or humor that otherwise expressed caring, warmth, and support; they used significantly less humor that put down subordinates and marginally less that put down superiors.

Researchers have shown that in interpersonal relations, men tend to assert rather than downplay status differences, while women do the opposite.

Although people of both sexes use humor largely to build bridges, some organizational psychologists believe that for men, put-down humor may also be a way to establish and maintain hierarchical status.

Surpassing Customer Expectations and A Happy, Fun Workplace?

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In a Harvard Business Review article dated from July 2003 entitled “What Really Works” by Nohria, Joyce and Roberson, the authors reveal some interesting research that makes a couple of very different points.

The two points come from their observation that winning companies use a combination of management practices that can be thought of as 4 mandatory practices and 2 optional practices.

The mandatory practices are strategy, execution, culture and structure.

The 2 optional practices can be chosen from a menu of 4 practices. They are Talent, Leadership, Innovation and Mergers & Partnership.

Among the many items of interest are a couple of points.

The first is the following:

“Evergreen winners deliver offerings that consistently meet customer’s expectations, and they’re very clear about the standards they have to meet. But they don’t necessarily strive for perfection… In fact, fully one-third of winning companies offered only average product quality. Which goes to show that many customers don’t care about a level of quality that goes beyond their needs and desires; they won’t necessarily reward you for exceeding their expectations. They will, however, punish you severely if you don’t meet their expectations. You tumble quickly when you fail on execution.”

In a prior blog, I wrote about the fact that the ICC Cricket World Cup, with its emphasis on “World Class Standards,” has so far failed to create an experience that West Indian cricketing fans are interested in paying a premium for.

This research finding seems to back up that assertion by showing that expectations that customers don’t have might not be not worth meeting. (I prefer to think in terms of customer experiences, as that is much more precise than talking in terms of vague “expectations.”)

In other words, then, experiences that customers are not willing to have just might not be worth creating.

On the other hand, experiences that customers believe that they must have are absolutely necessary, and not in some theoretical way, but in a felt way – deep down inside the bones of the customer. Mangers need to be careful not to superimpose experiences on the customer they do not want.

For example, it may very well be that a customer of world class standard cricket wants to be able to watch the game without having someone next to them blowing a conch shell… or selling peanuts… or shouting loudly… or dancing at every minute, or offering them food to eat that their “Auntie” made just this morning including something from a goat.

However, for a Caribbean customer, these are required experiences that make Caribbean cricket what it is.

The second point was the following:

“Our study made it clear that building the right culture is imperative, but promoting a fun environment isn’t nearly as importing as promoting one that champions high-level performance and ethical behaviour.”

In effect, the authors’ research results disprove the myth that if the company creates a fun environment, then employees will be so happy and “all else will follow.”

The problem with trying to create an environment based on “fun” is that not only is the stated value wide open to interpretation, but it also leaves management chasing after every employee complaint that they are not having “fun.”

Improvement then becomes a matter of trying to plug all the leaks in the fun people expect to be having. Unfortunately, no company can be expected to be the grand provider of all things that are fun… in fact, to commit to this goal seems to me to violate the principle that each person is actually responsible for their own fun in the first place.

Fun, and happy employees, seem to me to be more of a fortunate by-product for those people who happen to enjoy cultures of high performance and ethical standards. For those employees that do not enjoy such cultures, then the workplace will always be a miserable place.

Companies that try to make their employees happy run a grave risk of putting the cart before the horse.

HBR: Proving Some Common Sense

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I like it when a source like the Harvard Business Review finds some evidence that backs up some hunch I have had. Here are a couple:

From the June 2006 issue.


When to Let Them Duke It Out

In a white paper I wrote a few years ago entitled “An Executable Strategy for Every Employee” (available by sending email to fwc-exstrategy@aweber.com) I argued that it is important to have executives fight amongst each other in order to come to consensus. We encourage that they do so in our particular approach to strategic planning.

This is the very opposite of dividing up a document into parts and then farming it out to different vice presidents.

In this short article, Tony Simons and Randall Peterson show that

  1. Teams whose members mistrust one another are less effective in implementing their strategic decisions
  2. Decisions imposed by a powerful executive are twice as likely to create distrust that damages implementation, than decisions derived by consensus

In short, politically driven teams, or those driven by mistrust benefit the most by making consensus decisions.

I witnessed a CEO fired during a strategic planning retreat (to his surprise.) In 18 months, his successor who was at the retreat was also gone.

It was an ugly situation that undermined any trust that might have been possible, and today the company still suffers from the aftermath of that inexplicable decision.

A the very end, the authors deliver a zinger — CEOs that think this doesn’t apply to them might be in trouble, as the vast majority of CEOs in the study “couldn’t accurately describe the level of trust among their team members. It’s as if they were describing a different team and did not realize it.”


The High Cost of Chinese Labour

Replace the word Chinese with the word Caribbean and all of a sudden, this article makes sense to us in the region.

Low cost labour measured on an hourly basis is an incomplete indicator of total costs.

In fact, the cheaper the labour, the more likely there is to be turnover because a 5 cents per hour difference might be small to someone earning US$10 per hour, but to a Chinese worker earning 75 cents per hour, it represents a big difference.

Here in the region, our workers seem to be quite inefficient, evidenced by the number of human beings sitting idle or moving sluggishly at any fast-food establishment, construction site or manufacturing facility.

Yet, we know that if you take many of those same people and give them visas to live in Toronto, all of a sudden they are able to work many times harder at 2-3 jobs at one time.

Why?

It seems that our managers do not understand the total costs of labour, as described in this article, and fail to take into account the costs related to turnover. Whenever a manager says “I can just find someone else,” they are probably ignorant of this cost.

Also, managers fail to see that hiring 10 people is not the same as hiring 5 at double the wage. It might be the same in the narrow sense of dollars and cents paid in payroll, but the principle of the mythical man month is well-known to software developers, but ill-understood outside that industry.

Here is the idea: doubling the number of programmers on a project almost never cuts development time in half. The reason is that while the number of people may increase linearly, the number of working relationships and communication channels to manage increases by the square of the number of people.

For example, increase the team by 1 person, from 3 to 4, and the number of communication links goes from 3 squared =9 to 4 squared = 16. Increase from 5 to 10 and the number of links goes from 25 to 100.

Managing these links becomes much more difficult very quickly.

To put it in more concrete terms, the number of ways in which one worker could diss another (resulting in the need for a managerial intervention to prevent a fight or a prolonged cold shoulder) goes up dramatically. Their job becomes radically harder extremely quickly.

By virtue of these socio-psychological economies of scale, it makes sense to hire very carefully, and to consider total costs (measurable or not) rather than just the unit cost of labour.

Measuring the Mood

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Now and again I read an article that takes my breath away. Taking the Measure of Mood by Patrick O’Connell appeared in the March 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review and it did just that.

The idea is simple and has powerful ramifications for our region.

But first, a little background. The author is a chef at The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. Their goal is to provide customers with nothing less than a transformative experience.

They do so by training their staff to be keenly observant and sensitive to guests’ words and behaviour–especially to body language. They also developed a system for tracking and communicating this information to everyone who needs it.

They are trained to quickly evaluate the mood of a party, by using the indicators that we all use–body language, eye contact, voice tone, etc. They start off by assigning the party an initial score on a scale of 1 to 10, and logging that score into their database.

They go to work on those parties that enter the establishment with low scores to increase this subjective assessment to at least a 9.

They use common facilitation skills — asking questions, paraphrasing, clarifying, asserting, etc. Actually, they use ALL the means at their disposal to increase the score, including the choice of waiter, speed of service, taste of entrees, seating, music, etc.

They consider the job done when the customer volunteers their personal story, which for the staff is the proof that an emotional connection has occurred.

While I have tackled the issue of customer experience creation at different points in this this blog — click here to see a page of past Chronicles entries on the topic — this takes things to another level.

Something about this article brings me home to our region. In the past year, I have spent nights at hotels in a variety of countries, and there is truly something distinct about the service we render here in the Caribbean.

In other posts, I have referred to it as “Friend Service.” This is the closest I can come to describing the feeling that happens when an emotional connection is made, and the switch is turned ON with a Caribbean customer service provider.

(When the switch is OFF, by contrast, the experience is positively painful.)

This article has led me to think that a service provider who is emotionally intelligent, is better able to read the mood of a person or group of people However, if I use the definition of Emotional Intelligence that I have been using lately, that explanation seems inadequate.

How to define the skill is the next problem I’ll be tackling, but my instincts tell me that we have an advantage over service providers in other cultures, for whatever reason, in detecting the unspoken experience that other people are having. I am guessing that this advantage carries over into the customer service profession.

I have my theories regarding slavery, our education system or our parenting styles that are my best guesses, but I will be exploring the subject further in future posts, and in my work.

What to Do About Whining

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I have always been wary of those exercises in which companies do an opinion survey to try to find out what employees are unhappy about.

Typically, the next step is to create teams to tackle the items of unhappiness, in the hope that by correcting them they will go away, yielding happy employees.

In theory, this seems to make sense. In practice, it never does.

Why?

I think it is because we humans will always and forever have thoughts that are unhappy ones, no matter how much material wealth we possess, friends we have or family who love us. It appears that we each possess an invisible and eternal “unhappy thought generator” embedded in our genetic makeup.

Companies that think they can solve the problem of unhappy thoughts with the latest team-building program (or anything else) are fighting a losing battle. shortly after the program is complete and the problem solved, the whining starts again, except that now it is directed at a different target.

A May 2004 article from in the Harvard Business Review’s forethought sections seems to back this up to some degree. The article is called “Whining Away the Hours: Employee’s complaints are often good for morale, particularly when nothing’s done about them.”

The author, John Weeks, argues that employees that get together to whine about innocuous items are actually engaging in a form of community in which sharing what they don’t like actually connects them together.

He distinguishes between “recreational negativity” from “constructive dissent,” and argues that an important skill for executives is to be able to tell the difference between the two. He adds that “there is nothing people enjoy complaining about more than a meddling manager who runs around trying to fix things that no one really wants or expects to be fixed.”

I remember a manager I worked with who claimed to be able to save $50m by simply cleaning up a database… (this in a factory that earned $100m per year.) He took himself quite seriously, which made him the regular butt of office jokes.

P.S.

Based on my prior post on cleaning up the promisphere, I would say that any complaint involving a threat to the promisphere, constitutes constructive dissent.

Customer Experience "Intelligence"

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An article entitled Understanding Customer Experience recently came out in the February 2007 issue of the Harvard Business Review that echoed some of my earlier posts on the topic.

Here is one of those prior posts.

I am convinced that a focus on experience can be more easily taught to Caribbean service workers, than training based on abstract standards or vague definitions of “customer needs.”

Perhaps there is scope for something called “Experience Intelligence” which has to do with a customer service provider’s ability to scope out the experience that the customer is having in the moment. This phrase seems like a much more precise way to define this important skill.

Getting Rid of the Perfect Executive

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Getting Rid of the Perfect Executive?

Well, maybe that would be unwise.

It is probably a better idea to get rid of the executive who somehow thinks or acts like he is perfect, because of the damage he does to those around him.

So goes the thinking I happened upon in two separate Harvard Business Review articles (I am wading through a pile of my unread back issues.)

One article is entitled “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” and was written in February 2007 and was co-authored by Peter Senge. The other is called Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer and was written back in November of 2003.

The basic idea I took away is that the executive’s job is too complex to pretend that any one person can figure it all out. Also, the more an executive defends the idea that they have figured it all out, the more difficult they make it for the people around them to be authentic, and therefore effective.

As the author the second article, David Gray, puts it, “… few of us would dare to cultivate a healthy ignorance, or nescience, within our own fields of endeavor, where we often take pride in what we purport to know.”

Here in the Caribbean region, we have been steeped in the school of all-knowing leadership, from Backra (the all-powerful slave-owner) to modern day CEO’s, parents, principals, priests, dons and politicians. Those in power like it that way. So do those who are not.

That is, until the person in power fails spectacularly (like the majority of our politicians) and it starts to become painfully obvious that the messiah’s manifesto and message aren’t enough to make a drop of difference.

This very old, colonial, British style is long outdated in Britain, but it lives on in the colonies, and especially those in management in our institutions. It is stale, stiff and dull, but it still gives some vague psychological comfort… kind of what it’s like to hang out with your grandfather.

The only thing is that at some point you must grow up, because your grandfather probably did not move with the times (mine had trouble believing that man had actually landed on the moon.)

Managers and executives must reach for a style that is authentic. With respect to publicly expressing feelings and emotions, this is a tall order for most of our region’s executives who probably aren’t too used to “sharing” in private, let alone before strangers.

However, the pace at which human information is growing might allow most executives to be authentic about their growing inability to know everything.

That would be a start.