Safety and exploration

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I am currently reading the wonderful book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. In it, Brooks discusses the work of John Bowlby:

He theorized that what kids need most are safety and exploration. They need to feel loved by those who care for them, but they also need to go out into the world and to take care of themselves. Bowlby argued that these two needs, while sometimes in conflict, are also connected. The more secure a person feels at home, the more likely he or she is to venture out boldly to explore new things. Or as Bowlby himself put it, “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” [Emphases added]

When I read this paragraph it immediately made me think of management practices. The need to create a safe environment where people can re-group, reflect and improve on one side.  The need to allow people to venture into unknown territories and attempt novel approaches without fear of retaliation one the other side.

Bob Sutton emphasizes how managers should act as human shields:

The best bosses are committed to letting their workers work—whether on creative tasks such as inventing new products or on routine things such as assembling computers, making McDonald’s burgers, or flying planes. They take pride in being human shields, absorbing or deflecting heat from inside and outside the company, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling idiots and slights that make life harder than necessary on their people.

At the same time he points out that great bosses believe in making it safe for people to take risky actions and “fail forward,” by developing a “forgive and remember culture”.

I usually don’t like to think of managerial relationships as parental relationships as these induce an automatic bias towards hierarchy and… well, paternalism. However, as Brooks points out based on Bowlby work, the parental duty includes an important balance between creating safety, cohesion, rules, order and most importantly love and allowing the child to venture into unknown territories that enable growth. I think it might be beneficial for managers to think in these terms of safety and exploration when designing work environments.

How are you creating safety and exploration for your employees?


What are you doing about alpha-male type behavior?

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A few days ago the Research Digest Blog published a post called “How male oil rig staff learned to lose their machismo” describing how negative behaviors like demonstrating physical prowess, taking risks, concealing technical incompetence and coming across as fearless and unflappable were deterred in an oil rig by adopting collectivist goals (especially putting safety first), defining competence according to task requirements rather than masculine ideals and having a learning orientation towards work.

It surprises me every time to see that individuals in companies and societies adopt behaviors that are detrimental to the general good of the organization because of fear of consequences and humiliation. Bob Sutton in his latest post discusses this in the context of learning from mistakes, quoting from an article by Larry Prusak about the importance of being wrong and learning from it. Sutton emphasizes how he, as someone that writes about this subject on a regular basis, was amazed to reconsider his reaction to Alan Greenspan’s admission that he was wrong after the financial crisis after rethinking about it as part of the process of learning from failure. Instead of celebrating the fact that someone high up in our government admitted their mistake and tried to learn from them, most of the press devoted to this admission concentrated on the outcome of the mistakes that already happned. A missed opportunity to learn and develop for the future.

The oil rig study reminded me of a different study/story that I heard about on radiolab (and is also described by Sutton in his book and here). To make a long story short: scientists following a group of baboons discovered that the group, which was characterized by bulling and violence, completely changed its behavior after a disaster killed almost all of the alpha males in the group. The new males that arrived in the group did not start acting like bullies because they had no role models for this behavior. The culture that developed in the group was much safer, collectivistic and emphatic.

Besides the fact that these kinds of findings always reminds me that we need more women in key roles, it also says something about the approach managers should adopt to individualistic alpha male type behavior. If it is hiding information or bullying others it should be banned entirely. This means that managers should not only actively discourage such behaviors by calling it on the spot and by firing people who fail to stop demonstrating such behaviors but should supplement it with a supportive atmosphere for behaviors that are in the greater interests of the group.


The right job and the manager’s role

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Bob Sutton wrote a very interesting post a few days ago. Here are the main parts of it:

I realized that while much of what I write about focuses on bad versus good bosses, jobs, and organizations, that I ought to also be emphasizing that there are many perfectly good jobs out there held be people who are, nonetheless, quite unhappy because the kind of work they do, the mission of their organization, and a host of other factors simply do not mesh well who they are and what they would want to be.

But some of us have jobs that don’t fit who we are and we would be much happier doing another kind of work … I thought of three signs that someone is in the wrong job. These are:

1. “People whose careers aren’t the right fit often feel like impostors, even if they are very skilled at their jobs.”

2. “Another symptom is constant annoyance with the demands being made of them, even though these are reasonable for the business they’re in.”

3. “An additional warning sign is a feeling that their current work doesn’t rank very high in their value system.”

This little list just begins to scratch the surface…

Sutton raises great points and I think the three signs are right on. As someone who went through (and actually is still going through) a career change, I can say that this is exactly what I felt before I made the decision to make the move for a different career and job.

Having said that, I think Sutton de-emphasizes the importance of the subject so close to his heart – good bosses and bad bosses. Yes, we need people need to find a fit between them and the job and not everybody can do any job. However, I believe there is a connection between the boss (or manager), his relationship with his employee and the appearance of the signs in that same employee. If a manager’s job is to take the hurdles of employees out of the way and help each employee find his or her strengths and help reach a sense of flow, then it is a manager’s job to see the sign in his employees. It is not always in his ability to influence all of the relevant dimensions (the entire organization value system for example) but he does have an important affect on the employee’s day-to-day environment.

So, the three signs Sutton details are not only important as a self-reflection tool but also as a management tool. If your employees are experiencing any of the signs, maybe you are not doing your job as a manger very well…



Coercing cognitive-thinking hierarchy

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Two unrelated quotes connected in my head this week.

The first is a short sentence I read while reading an interview with one of Isreal’s leading investment manager (sorry, can’t find link) which roughly translates to something like this:

Off course you have managerial hierarchy, but it does not mean that you must have a coercion of cognitive-thinking hierarchy

The second quote comes for Bob Sutton amazing book Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company:

Another reason so many companies rely on obsolete methods and technologies is that the people who defend and use them are often more powerful than those who advocate new and superior ways. The past successes of the old guard helps them gain powerful positions and control precious resources, which they use to undermine people who come who come along with better ways that will help the company, but threaten their dominance.

In places where innovation is key there is a need to shift gears and understand that the top-down approach is good for parts of the process, but not for the intellectual parts of it (and in many jobs, this is the main part). There is a big difference between standing up, heading or leading something, being accountable for it on one side and controlling it on the other. In creativity, control is an illusion, as the success of a manager depends on others and on his ability to lose control. The fact that you are responsible does not mean that you have all the answers. Probably the opposite is true. Status and power, especially those based on past success should make a manager less confident in his ability to produce new ideas and demand that he will be open to new perspectives and ideas.

So, in addition to managerial hierarchy do you also coerce cognitive-thinking hierarchy? Is that really wise?


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Handouts of slides and the right questions

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I have been in the business of teaching with digital presentations for a few years now. Since my early days as an instructor in the Israeli Air-Force, when computers were emerging and we were trying to understand how to use this tool to enhance our teaching abilities.

And as long as this tool has been around, there was this debate about whether, as a teacher, you need to distribute your slides before the class, so people can use it to jot down notes while you talk, or after the class, so it won’t distract the students and allow them to look up ahead in your notes.

This is a question I have been grappling with for a long time now (I usually give everything away before class, but in a slightly different version). So, I was excited yesterday to read in the BPS digest blog about a new study trying to find an answer to this question in an organized research methodology. This is how the conclusions of the study are explained by the blog:

The findings provide preliminary evidence that lecturers should provide their students with handouts during the lecture. Regarding the more extensive note-taking that took place when handouts were held back until after a lecture, the researchers speculated that this was ‘unlikely to be a deep encoding task’, which would normally be expected to aid memory retention, and may instead have acted merely acted as a distraction.

‘The data reported here represent only a first step and do not resolve this issue,’ the researchers concluded. ‘In no case, however, did having the handouts during a lecture impair performance on the final tests. Even when there were no differences in final test performance, students still benefited in the sense that they reached the same level of learning with less work.

While I totally agree with Bob Sutton’s take on this that: “This is not an earth-shaking problem or issue, but I have been amazed to see how vehemently some faculty feel about this issue, so I am glad to see a little evidence”, it still left me wondering. Are we asking the right question? Isn’t this a simplistic way to see the world? Black or white. Yes or no. With handouts or without? Evidence is necessary, especially in a debate that borders on the emotional without any factual representation, but the question in my mind should be a little different.

The question should not be whether giving out handouts before class is good or not, the question should be why, when and how we should give out handouts. My experience (as a student) is that most handouts are a waste of paper; they usually don’t explain the material very well and are a waste in every sense. In many cases, instead of giving a handout of the slide with six pages, a simple word handout is much more effective. However, I have seen some professors preparing and handing out great slides, because their class is built-in a way that supports the use of the slide as handouts as well. Some of the best uses I have seen are those that use a different set of slides for the class (as a handout) and a different one for the presentation, so they don’t lose the element of surprise and keep the text on every slide to a minimum, but are still able to provide the class with concise and useful slides to take notes on.

I guess research on this issue will continue into the future, but that is a good thing. I also know that this type of quantitative research has to focus on a small question in order to pinpoint a specific issue. But we not all live in academic experience. And in many areas of life, asking the right question is an important skill.  This happens in many fields of life, personal issues, politics, and business. We tend to go into an issue and see it as a yes-no question. Should we or shouldn’t we. However, sometimes, the question is not yes-no but why, how and when.


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Productivity, creativity and spaghetti sauce

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Another great quote from Bob Sutton’s book Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company, this time, dealing with the face design firm IDEO:

I am also sometimes asked to talk to reports and executives from other firms about IDEO, and the question they ask most is, “Why are the people there so creative?” The short answer is the IDEO understands that, especially in the early stages of product development process, management oversight can drive out creativity.

In a world depending more and more on creativity, the fact that management oversight can drive out creativity puts a question mark around the idea of management oversight (or, as I like to call it, rules).

The more I think about it, the more I get convinced that the business world, generally speaking, is divided into two  distinct parts. Productivity driven – where the focus is efficiency – and creativity driven – where the focus is effectiveness. While one is focused on the short-term – making the most out of what we have now – the other is long-term focused – making sure we have more later. As the quote suggests and as I have written before, they operate under very different assumptions and thus convey very different concepts for effective management. And while you need to have elements of both no matter what your business is doing, the overall balance between them is important.

In the past, you could have succeeded with 80 percent productivity focus and 20 percent creativity focus. (or even less than that). Now, the world has changed. In many areas, the rate of creativity can’t keep up with the real world. When a cell-phone model becomes obsolete in six months, you can’t spend 80 percent of your time making it better. You have to spend 80 percent of your time coming up with the next model. So while focusing on making your products, cheaper, better, faster, is important and your business can’t survive without it, the important word here is survive. In order to really excel, to make breakthroughs, you not only need ti improve on what you have, you need to reinvent.

And if that is the case, then 80 percent of you management structure should be a structures that supports innovation and creativity. And guess what? The traditional hierarchical structures not only do not give the support for innovation, they actually, as Sutton points out, suppress it.

Two questions to ask:

  1. In my organization how much focus is given to productivity and how much to creativity?
  2. Is my management style in line with the main focus of my team/department?

The answers to this questions not only helps you better understand where you are, they will also help you understand what it is you need to do. I am not saying that efficiency is not important anymore. Organizations still need to focus on it and some departments probably should focus mostly on it. It is just that we need to stop treating it like the only answer.

Sutton’s book is called Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company. But if you think about it, the ideas he talks about in his book, are not really weird at all. They are only weird if you assume a productivity-efficiency focused business. And this is what we had for the last 100 years. But for creativity-effectiveness focused organizations, these ideas are not weird, they are just different.

In his famous TED talk, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce. The greatest insight Moskowitz produced was that there isn’t one perfect way to make spaghetti sauce like everybody else thought. There are actually a few peaks of needs for different groups of people. A lot of the discussion in the world of management is based on the assumption that there is one way to manage. I know I have sometimes made this mistake. But the more I think and read about it, I understand that just like with spaghetti sauce, management has a few good recipes. You just need to understand the needs before choosing the right sauce.


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What you aren’t seeing

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I started reading Bob Sutton’s Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company and came across this quote:

The British and U.S. air forces were concerned because many of their planes were being shot. They wanted to use more armor, but were not quite sure where to put it. Wald put a mark on every bullet hole in the airplanes that returned from battle. He found that two major sections of the fuselage – one between the wings and the other between the tails – had far fewer bullet holes. He decided to put the armor in these places, where he saw fewer, not more, holes. Why? Because it stood to reason that the planes were hit randomly. The planes he analyzed had not been shot down! So it was the holes he wasn’t seeing – in the planes that weren’t returning – that needed extra protection.

It reminded me of a concept I wrote about a few times before in my blog – the missing piece (see: 1, 2, 3).

We are so focused on one side of the question or issue, that we forget to consider the opposite side.

Instead of asking – how can we improve the product to attract more customers? – we should try asking – what will happen if we stop completely using the product? Instead of asking – what can I do to help my employees become better? – we should try asking – what am I doing that is preventing my employees giving their best work? Instead of asking – what is preventing me from reaching excellence? – we should be asking – what should I do in order to reach excellence?

It is not that the first questions are not important. They are. It is just that by changing our point of view, even just for the point of changing it, we open new directions and dimensions.

What is not there is sometimes just as important as what it there. Let’s try shifting our focus to the other side.


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