Photo by Image Editor (and originally by Raphael)

I am reading Barry Schwartz’s new book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. I am sure I am going to mention it a lot here on the blog. Here is a first taste:

Acting wisely demands that we be guided by the proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of a practice was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of doctoring is to promote health and relieve suffering; the telos of lawyering is to pursue justice. Every profession—from banking to social work—has a telos, and those who excel are those who are able to locate and pursue it. So a good practitioner is motivated to aim at the telos of her practice. But it takes wisdom—practical wisdom—to translate the very general aims of a practice into concrete action.

If purpose is indeed an all encompassing concept that every aspiring manager should master then this idea of telos probably lies in the middle of it. While, as Schwartz says, it is only the beginning of translating that general aim into concrete action, it is a good place to start. A place I am not sure we reach for enough.

How many of you have stopped in the last week\month\year and asked – “why am I doing this”?

When was the last time you started a meeting by asking: “So, does anybody have thoughts about why we are here? Why are we doing it? What is the purpose of our work?”

In the management world talks about vision, goals and desired outcomes are ubiquitous. Talks about what lies underneath them are scarce.

I know on which side of the equation I would like to be.

What about you?


The probability of a desired outcome

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Dan Ariely writes a fascinating blog post about outcomes in management:

If you practice kicking a soccer ball with your eyes closed, it takes only a few tries to become quite good at predicting where the ball will end up. But when “random noise” is added to the situation—a dog chases the ball, a stiff breeze blows through, a neighbor passes by and kicks the ball—the results become quite unpredictable.

If you had to evaluate the kicker’s performance, would you punish him for not predicting that Fluffy would run off with the ball? Would you switch kickers in an attempt to find someone better able to predict Fluffy’s involvement?

That would be absurd. And yet it’s exactly how we reward and punish managers. Managers attempt to make sense of the environment and predict what will result from their decisions.

It reminded me of something I wrote not a while back:

But judging results does not mean that we should ignore efforts or processes. In a football game, just like in real life, people have to make many decisions under pressure. Sometimes the outcomes of those decisions are positive and sometime they are not. But even if the outcome is negative it does not necessarily mean that decision was wrong. It just means it led to an unwanted outcome. And vice versa. Good decisions could lead to bad outcomes.

When you think about it, big parts of management are attempts to decrease variance. To make sure the same desired outcomes happen again and again. But as Nassim Taleb will tell you (in The Black Swan), it is all a game of probability. You can never make sure the result will be the same every time. What you can do is try and make the process as tight as possible in order to increase the probability of a desired outcome. This is true for manufacturing and programs like six-sigma and it is true for new product development and innovation.

I agree with Ariely completely. There is a need to change our focus on outcomes and put more focus on the right processes. And this doesn’t have to start with board of directors. Every manager can start this change. Ask yourself – how am I evaluating my employees? Is my feedback and recognition based solely on outcomes or does it take into account the process as well? Do I start a learning discussion by focusing on what the final outcome was or do I start by asking how did we get to that outcome?

Like many biases, our bias toward outcomes is, like Ariely says, understandable. But it does not mean it is something we can’t manage or change. By asking the right questions and focusing managerial effort and concentration on process and decisions we can easily increase the probability of a right outcome.



The bad equilibrium of office conversations

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Dan Ariely reports, both on and on his blog, on a fascinating experiment that I think has many implications to managing people. The setting they chose for their example was online dating and first dates. The idea was that during first dates or first encounters online, the two people usually are carful and don’t want to rock the boat. So they limit their questions and conversation to boring stuff like the weather or the food. These if of course not a conversation that is in their best interest, because although it means not offending the other side, the couple does not actually learn much about each other and might waste time and effort going into a relationship that is not right for either of them. This is what economists call bad equilibrium.

In order to change that, the experiment took willing participants and gave them a list of pre-approved questions that were anything but small talk – questions ranging from “whether you have STDs?” to “Have you ever broken someone’s heart?” to my favorite ice breaker: “How do you feel about abortion?” (which always reminds me of that Seinfeld episode). What they found out was that these questions actually prompted livelier, deeper more meaningful conversation.  As Ariely summarizes it:

By forcing people to step out of their comfort zone, risk tipping the relationship equilibria, we might ultimately gain more than if we just fall back on those tropes that are safe for everyone, and useful to no one.

Usually when people talk about stepping out of the comfort zone, they talk about new skills or behaviors that people need to acquire. While I am not sure I completely agree that in terms of skills we should push people so hard to go out of their comfort zone, there is no denying that there is opportunity for learning in these kinds of situations. However, you will never find people talking about deliberately pushing people out the comfort zone in emotional relationship oriented situation. But this is exactly the kind of behaviors we need to see more from managers.

Think about all those undiscussables that were just under the surface in your your last meeting. Or how weekly gathering of your team looks like. Do you feel like everybody is just being careful not to rock the boat? But isn’t rocking the boat, to a certain degree what these gatherings are really about? Do we really need to put everybody together in the same room so they can talk about the things everybody already know? Isn’t facing the issues, talking about them and finding shared ways to deal with them is the point of all of these meetings.

This experiment is a great example of the fact that managers should sometimes take a stand and make their people go through uncomfortable processes in order to stimulate discussions that open issues into the air. I am aware that it is a challenge to find the right process and right questions to ask. But the only way to find them is to experiment. Will it be awkward? Yes. Will you make mistakes and cross the bar and maybe insult people? Probably yes. But in the long term, it is worth the effort.

How can you change the bad equilibrium so you’re the important thing are discussed?



On the difficulties of the questions-based approach

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This week I spent in the Israeli Air Force training some of its commanders on different aspects of communication and feedback. While there, I tried to implement some of the issues I regularly write about in this blog, trying to practice what I preach. What did I find? It is so hard!

One of the main exercises I participated in is a simulation of a feedback situation between a commander and a soldier. After I watch the feedback I am supposed to give my opinion of how the conversation went and use a pre-determined scale to score it. The soldiers are used to being asked a question or two about how they did and then hearing an account of their performance with recommendation for the future.

I, however, believe in the importance of resisting the temptation to provide answers, so I conducted my sessions using a lot of questions, trying to allow the person de-brief himself, see other points of view and gain insights as well as develop an ability of reflexivity. I knew it is going to be hard for me to resist saying what I think is right instead of taking the slow path of asking questions. What I did not expect is the resistance of the commanders to my method.  “Just tell us what the bottom line is”, they demanded. “All these questions and self-reflection is a waste of time, we did some things right and some things wrong – tell us what!”. For a minute there, I had to question what I believe in. For a minute there, I had to ask myself, am I doing the right thing, insisting not to give them the answers? And after I thought about it a little, it just hardened my resolve.

I do believe that people do not always know what is good for them. Not because their stupid, but because the human mind is built in a way that minimizes effort, be it physical or cognitive. Just this week the blogosphere is filled with the results of a study saying humans are happier when they’re busy, but inclined towards idleness (also see here). We know from an abundance of research into behavioral economics that people are really bad in predicting what will make them happy and how happy they will be. I do believe that there are things in life that for some people, need to be forced upon them, because they are not able to appreciate them until they actually experienced them. Yes, in the short-run, this method is annoying, frustrating and time-wasting. But when it comes to developing commanders, managers, leaders and every other kind of employee, we should not focus to much on the short-run. We need patience to build an ability of practical wisdom.

It is more important to built abilities, to make sure there is no dependency and to make sure there is always a challenge for the people around us, then making them happy in the short-run. I am not saying you should NEVER give answers. It is not like I sat there and said nothing the entire week. I am just saying you should sometimes deliberately avoid it and just focus on asking the right question and helping others ask the right questions themselves. Nametag Scott has a great post on this issue this week. Here is a short excerpt:

“Is it your place to fix this?”

That’s the question you have to ask yourself.

Especially when someone you love finds themselves on the precipice of disaster.

Sometimes you have to back off.

Yes, it requires great emotional restraint.

Yes, it requires significant self-control.

But if you don’t let people come to their own conclusions, make their own decisions and make their own mistakes, you fractionize their experiences and rob them of valuable learning opportunities.

So, I ask you once again: are you resisting the temptation to give answers?


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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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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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I was watching an amazing talk by Dan Myer on how to give math classes a makeover. Watch it! It’s worth your ten minutes. I won’t ruin it for you. However, I liked one of the main starting points for his talk. Here it is:

David Milch, creator of “Deadwood” and other amazing TV shows, has a really good description for this. He swore off creating contemporary drama, shows set in the present day, because he saw that when people fill mind with four hours a day of, for example, “Two and a Half Men,” no disrespect,  it shapes the neural pathways, he said, in such a way that they expect simple problems. He called it, “an impatience with irresolution.” You’re impatient with things that don’t resolve quickly. You expect sitcom-sized problems that wrap up in 22 minutes, three commercial breaks and a laugh track. And I’ll put it to all of you, what you already know, that no problem worth solving is that simple. I am very concerned about this, because I’m going to retire in a world that my students will run. I’m doing bad things to my own future and well-being when I teach this way. I’m here to tell you that the way our textbooks, particularly, mass-adopted textbooks, teach math reasoning and patient problem solving, it’s functionally equivalent to turning on “Two and a Half Men” and calling it a day.

I feel this on myself. When is the last time you looked at something new and asked yourself – how does it work? And sat to think about it and find out by trial and error. Kids start out being really curious. A small child really wonders how things work and sets out to try to understand things, usually by trail and error. Along the way, we lose that. Seth Godin wrote:

We often forget to teach kids to be curious. A student who has no perceived math ability, or illegible handwriting or the inability to sit still for five minutes gets immediate and escalating attention. The student with no curiosity, on the other hand, is no problem at all. Lumps are easily managed.

Same thing is true for most of the people we hire. We’d like them to follow instructions, not ask questions, not question the status quo.

Godin and Myer talk about the same thing. And I think that our “impatience with irresolution” is not only an issue in studying math problems. It represents a problem in our business world and a problem with how we manage people and relationships. As I have written before a couple of times, people think in events and not in processes. We sometimes neglect to see the long-term effects of how something happening right now can affect the future. It is another facet of short-term thinking.

So, managers don’t invest in the little things, don’t resist the temptation to give answers , strive for efficiency instead of effectiveness and use too many rules that don’t require our employees to develop and use judgment.

We need to re-integrate patience into our lives. As Myer says, it starts with the way we educate our children. But it continues with the way we manage our businesses.


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