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The Business Sensei

Future Retrospective

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Once upon a time there was a staircase. Although it wound its way up from floor to floor in the manner traditionally associated with staircases, this was no ordinary staircase. Although it stood in a courthouse in Franklin, Ohio, in a fashion much like other staircases, yet it was not like the other staircases. With most staircases, those who look down see stairs beneath their feet. With this staircase, however, those who looked down saw the floor below and those people walking up the stairs. They saw those who stood at the bottom of the staircase, for this staircase, you see, was made of clear glass. While we have no information as to whether those climbing the staircase felt a sense of vertigo when they looked down, we do have definitive information about what they said when they looked down: “Hey, those people at the bottom of the stairs are staring up my dress.”

Although the news report was slightly vague on this point, we may safely assume that this comment was made only by those who were, in fact, wearing a dress.

But yes, it seems that people on the staircase made an observation that had eluded the architects who designed the staircase: that if you can look down through the glass, you can look up through it as well.

When questioned on this point, the architects responded by saying that they had naturally assumed that no one would be so inappropriate as to stand at the bottom of a glass staircase in a courthouse and look up women’s dresses.

When this insightful observation was relayed to the judge, he replied that, “If people always exercised good judgment and decorum, we wouldn’t need this building.”

The architects had carefully considered their building material. They had thought about how to make the glass durable and resilient. They had considered the problems involved in building a glass staircase in such a way that it would continue to look good even after having hundreds of people walking up and down it each day. They had, in fact, solved each one of these problems.

What they had not considered was how the customer, to wit, the people in the courthouse, would actually use the product. They were so fixated on the concept that a staircase is for walking on, not staring through, that they failed to consider the ramifications of their architectural decisions. To be fair, architects are hardly unique in making this type of mistake. It can be very easy to let your assumptions about how something should work or how it will be used to blind you to how it will actually work or be used. Consider the example of the business school competition to design a helicopter. The contest was judged on a number of factors, including the weight of the finished product. The winner was the helicopter without an engine. Apparently, no one had included “able to fly” in the criteria for success. The assumption that, of course, a helicopter should fly was so taken for granted that no one thought to see if it was included in the rules.

On the bright side, it had considerably less severe consequences than the situation involving the helicopter that flipped upside down while in flight. Or the data analysis software package that looked like it had crashed the computer, causing users to reboot shortly before the calculations were complete. Or the organizational improvements that led to a massive talent exodus.

In each situation, the people designing the end result honestly believed they were giving the customers, including the employees in the final case, what the customers had requested and that belief prevented them from considering any other possibilities.

“We asked!” the designers protested. “That’s what they said they wanted.”

Were the customers really asking for a helicopter that flipped upside down or an expensive glass staircase that had to be subsequently covered? Of course not. But somehow, that’s what the designers heard.

The problem was that they asked the wrong questions, further leading them into their one, narrow, view of the result. Thus, no one ever stopped to imagine how the end product, be it staircase, contest rules, helicopter, software, or organizational procedures would actually be used.

In each situation, rather than seeking information, the people asking the questions sought validation. They already had an idea in their heads, and any inquiries they made were aimed at confirming that idea, not testing it.

When you say, “This is what you wanted, right?” or “What do you think of this approach?” odds are you aren’t requesting information; you are requesting validation. Indeed, even if you are seriously trying to get information, such questions usually get you validation instead. This is because the client assumes that you, as the expert, know what you’re talking about.

So how do you ask for information? One answer is to change the time frame. Instead of asking them to imagine the future, pretend it’s the future and imagine the past: “If we went with this approach, and six months from now you weren’t happy, what would have gone wrong? If you were happy, what would have gone right?”

This small change causes people to actually imagine using the product or living with the new procedures. Now, instead of validation, you’ll get information. That information may shake up your carefully constructed vision of the future, but that’s fine. Better now than after the sightseers congregate at the bottom of that glass staircase. A future retrospective also forces you to more honest with yourself and address the issues in front of you.

What challenges are you facing? If, six months from now, you had successfully addressed your most persistent problems, what would you have done to make that happen?

Death of Thousand Knives

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Very few companies are ever driven out of business by their competitors.

I’ve found that this statement upsets a great many people, all of whom are quick to jump up and start providing examples of companies that were, in fact, driven out of business by their competitors. This is missing the point. Indeed, it’s rather like a detective in a murder mystery concluding that the cause of death was that the victim’s heart stopped. It matters whether the heart stopped due to lead poisoning, for example in the form of a bullet, or due to some other cause. Indeed, understanding exactly what led to that heart stopping moment is a key part of solving the mystery.

Similarly, while it’s not so unusual for a failing company to have the coup de grace administered by a competitor, how they got to that point makes all the difference. Focusing only on the end point provides a very simple, comfortable solution, but not necessarily a particularly useful one.

Robotic Chromosomes, for example, was a company that dominated a particular niche in the bioinformatics market. They were an early entrant into the field and their products were initially the best on the market.

Over the course of several years, though, they developed a view of their clients as idiots. The fact that their clients were all highly educated research scientists did not enter into the equation. If they had trouble using the software, they were idiots. As a result, the company became increasingly less open to feedback from either their clients or from the market. While their market share was increasing faster than the market itself, they could get away with that attitude. Eventually, though, their growth started lagging the growth in the market. Phrases like “law of large numbers” and “temporary aberration” were batted about. When their market share started shrinking, phrases like, “temporary aberration” became even more popular. The view of the clients as insanely stupid for buying competing products also became more common.

Today, they no longer exist. Were they driven out of business by their competitors? Only in the sense that they put themselves in a position to allow their competitors to drive them out of their dominant position in the market. Sure, their competitors may have pushed them over the cliff, but they were the ones who chose to walk to the edge and lean over.

Now, it may reasonably appear from the preceding description that Robotic Chromosomes was taken down by a clearly defined event, that is, viewing clients as idiots. That is not, however, quite correct. While it may appear that way in retrospect, the reality is that Robotic Chromosomes suffered from a series of cascading errors. Each mistake was small, easily overlooked or ignored. Each mistake led to more mistakes until eventually the company was suffering from so many small cuts that it eventually had no strength left to resist when its competitors moved in. So how does a company avoid this death of a thousand knives?

The obvious answer is that they needed better communications. While true, it again misses the point. Communications is where problems show up, but the communications are rarely the problem. Rather, the dysfunctional communications are the symptom of the problem. It’s critical to look beyond the symptoms to identify the real problem. Otherwise, you spend all your time looking at the wrong things, as Robotic Chromosomes so eloquently demonstrated.

Avoiding that fate requires a willingness to accept negative feedback; it means being willing to hear what people are saying about your product, your service, or your management style. If you aren’t willing to listen, or if you structure the way in which you listen to negate the feedback, you’re setting yourself up for failure, one step at a time. For example, creating a culture that mocks and demeans your clients is not a recipe for success, and closes you off from valuable feedback from those clients.

Being willing to accept feedback is only a first step though. You have to create a context in which employees are not afraid to give you that feedback, and in which they believe that providing feedback is worthwhile. If people that they’ll be punished for being critical or regarded as “not a team player,” it’ll be hard to get them to provide feedback.

Next, you need to clearly define your goals and also define how you’ll know whether you’re succeeding or failing. Robotic Chromosomes had very fluid definitions of success, definitions that shifted regularly to avoid facing unpleasant results. It’s important to separate the evaluation of the feedback you’re getting from the testing to see if the criteria for that evaluation are valid. In fact, verifying the validity of your criteria should be done before you then evaluate your feedback: otherwise, it’s too easy to redefine success and give yourself a few more cuts. None of them seem all that bad at the time.

Step by step, over the course of several years, Robotic Chromosomes successfully created an environment where any negative feedback could be ignored because that feedback was always coming from idiots.  Their competitors didn’t drive them out of business. They drove themselves out of business; their competitors simply put them out of their misery. How will you avoid the death of a thousand knives?

The Blofeld School of Management

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Fans of James Bond movies might recall a scene that goes something like this:

We are looking at an unidentified room. Two people we’ve never seen before are standing in front of a desk. We might be able to see the back of the head of the man who sits behind that desk. A voice rings out:

“You have failed SPECTRE. Number 3, why did you not kill 007 as ordered?”

Number 3 stammers out some response and the voice turns its attention on the other person.

“Number 5, you have also failed SPECTRE…”

Eventually, Number 3 is told everything is forgiven and he can leave. Of course, this is SPECTRE. As soon as he walks out of the room he’s dropped into a tank of piranhas, or the bottom of the elevator turns out to be a trap door and Number 3 learns that Maxwell Elevators really are good to the last drop, or he dies in some other Rube Goldbergesque manner.

SPECTRE, as all Bond fans know, is the villainous organization headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the evil genius who spends most of his time trying unsuccessfully to kill 007. Of course, given his track record, as evil geniuses go, he frequently seems more like Wile E. Coyote.

Blofeld’s problem, of course, is that every time one of his agents makes a mistake that agent dies. Those whom James Bond doesn’t kill are terminated by Blofeld himself. This makes it extremely difficult to conduct any form of on-the-job learning. When every mistake is fatal, the lessons tend to come a little too late to do much good. As learning organizations go, SPECTRE has issues.

Although the consequences are generally not so flashy, businesses do face some similar problems. Granted, most business mistakes don’t make for a good action movie, and dropping people in piranha tanks is generally frowned upon. However, there is still the very real problem of figuring out how to enable people to learn from their mistakes without those mistakes harming the business. James Bond, after all, at least gets a script.

Part of the challenge is that even when leaders are well-trained and highly skilled, there is a big difference between what one learns in most management training classes and the actual experience of leading a team, department, division, or company. That doesn’t mean that the training is useless, but it does mean that the training needs to be appropriate.

In sports, for example, athletes drill constantly: they practice the fundamental skills of their sport until they can execute those skills without thought. Doing that, however, is not enough to make an athlete a successful competitor. Such training is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

As a soccer-playing friend once commented to me, there’s a big difference between the drill and the game. The drill is controlled and predictable; the game is not. The game is confusing and chaotic, and in the moment of truth all those carefully drilled skills simply vanish away. The problem is that chaos is overwhelming: it takes getting used to in order to navigate it. The Japanese term, “randori,” used to describe Judo competition, means “seizing chaos.”

Athletes practice getting used to chaos by moving past drills and practicing in various free play scenarios: mock games, spring training, practice randori, etc. These experiences enable the athlete to experience the chaos in small doses and hence become increasingly comfortable with it. They learn which skills to execute when. The day of the actual tournament, they are ready. When they do make mistakes, they also have something fall back on to improve their skills, as opposed to something to fall into and get eaten.

Business leaders can produce much the same results through the use of predictive scenarios. A predictive scenario is a live-action serious game focused around leadership and negotiation. Like all serious games, it both educates and entertains. Because it is live-action, rather than a computer game, leaders are forced to interact with other people as they would in daily life. Because the game is complex and competitive, participants engage with the game: there is no one right answer. Rather, the situation is chaotic and ambiguous; it’s not possible to predict an optimal solution or a perfect move. Participants are forced to constantly revise and adjust their strategies in order to counter what other players are doing.

Thus, a predictive scenario becomes a powerful practice environment for leaders who want to improve their skills and the skills of their subordinates without risking the financial health of the business. As with athletic training, a mistake is an opportunity to develop new skills or improve existing ones. Surprise outcomes will often indicate someone whose potential is not being developed or recognized: an employee may turn out to be a unexpectedly skilled speaker, be remarkably talented at inspiring and motivating others, display unexpected gifts as a salesman, or reveal themselves to be a masterful problem solver. If that’s not the job they already do, you’ve just been alerted to talent being wasted!

After the game, participants can analyze the action much as an athlete would analyze her performance with her coach. This analysis helps the participant recognize whether problems that arose were the result of a lack of skill or a failure to correctly apply a skill. In either case, you know what to do. There’s no need to guess, no expensive consequences, and no need for piranha tanks.

One of the other advantages of a predictive scenario is that the setting need not be restricted to a pale imitation of the office. Rather, it can be anything imaginable, provided that it forces participants to act as leaders, negotiate with one another, work together, come into conflict, and so forth. You could even be James Bond… or see just how well Mr. Bond would actually do against a Blofeld who knew what he was doing.

Take Two Aspirin

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As we all know, when we have a cough, the best thing to do is to visit a Cough Doctor. When we have a fever, we visit a Fever Doctor. Also, when our car is making a funny knocking noise in the key of C, we take the car to a mechanic who specializes in funny knocking noises in the key of C. Or maybe we just hope the problem will go away because the only mechanics we know deal with knocking noises in the key of B.

Okay, so maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration. We don’t actually look for Cough Doctors or Fever Doctors and I very much doubt that anyone outside Car Talk would ask if the knocking noise is in the key of C. When we go to the doctor because of a cough or a fever, we go because the doctor understands, or can figure out, why we have that cough or fever. When we take the car to the mechanic because of that weird knocking noise, it’s because we’re hoping that the mechanic can figure out why that noise is happening and what it means. We go to the doctor or the mechanic because of our symptoms, but we don’t go to Symptom Doctors. To be fair, Symptom Doctors are great when all we have is a cold: take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

The fact is, treating symptoms can make us feel a lot better. Having a fever isn’t much fun, and a couple of aspirin can work wonders. Of course, if that fever is because we have the flu, then maybe suppressing it isn’t the best thing to do. That knocking noise from the left rear wheel can be easily tuned out by simply playing the radio loudly enough. Then we don’t have to worry about it until the wheel comes off. Hopefully, this happens while we’re at the gas station and not when we’re traveling at 65 mph on the freeway. Treating symptoms doesn’t make the underlying cause go away, it just lets us feel good. Therein lies the problem.

The symptoms we see are only that: the symptoms. That cough and fever might be a mild cold or it might be the flu. That knocking noise might be nothing or it might be a wheel getting ready to declare its independence from the collective body that is your car. When it comes to fevers and coughs, we can usually tell what’s going on and most of the time the consequences of being wrong are only inconvenient or a bit uncomfortable. With cars, most of us are not quite so good at figuring out what the noise means, while a trained mechanic can do it in minutes or seconds. Not only do they know what it means, they also know the cause, and which parts of the car are affected. The symptoms enable them to identify the problem, and by treating the problem, they also make the symptoms go away. The converse, as we’ve discussed, is not true.

So why would anyone call a Symptom Doctor? Well, just treating the symptoms makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something. We feel better for a brief time. Most important of all, we feel successful. When the symptoms return, we just want them to go away again and we want to feel successful again. So we call the Symptom Doctor back and once again the symptoms go away for a brief period.

In one situation, a certain engineering manager had a team that was always argumentative to the point of being unable to reach agreement on anything. After carefully observing the situation, he decided the problem was that Joe disagreed with everyone too much. Joe had a “difficult personality” and hence was the cause of team’s problems. He fired Joe. Lo and behold, everyone stopped arguing. The manager was very proud of himself for solving the problem. Four months later, a different member of the team had revealed herself to have a “difficult personality.” That’s right, the arguments and lack of agreement had returned in force. Firing Joe hadn’t solved anything; it had simply made the symptoms disappear for a short time. When they reappeared, they were worse than before.

Now, in this particular example, the manager was his own Symptom Doctor. Symptom Doctors can also be brought in from outside: companies hire “Decision Consultants,” or “Consultants For Leaders Who Don’t Listen,” or “Consultants For Leaders Who Listen Too Much,” or “Consultants For Leaders Who Listen With Their Head Cocked At A Funny Angle.” Okay, maybe the last one is a joke. The results of going to a Symptom Doctor, however, are rarely a joke. They are wasted time, wasted energy, and lost resources.

So what do you do instead? Like going to the doctor or the mechanic, you need someone who can understand what is going on. Not a Symptom Doctor, but someone who either knows, or can figure out, what the symptoms mean. It may not be as cheap or as easy as going to a Symptom Doctor, but, unlike the Symptom Doctor, it just might solve your problem.

Taken For Granted

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Which animal runs faster, the coyote or the roadrunner?

What I find when I ask this question is that I get some funny looks, and then most people tell me that it’s the roadrunner. The reasons always vary, and I’ve heard some very interesting technical explanations for why roadrunners run faster, which, I was assured, have nothing to with the famous Warner Brothers cartoon. Nonetheless, they conclude that the roadrunner is faster.

In fact, despite what many of us learned as children watching the Bugs Bunny Show, a roadrunner actually runs at only 20 mile per hour, compared to around 40 for a coyote. Unlike the Roadrunner, real roadrunners escape being eaten by flying, not running. However, real coyotes are slightly more skilled in the use of rockets and other high tech gadgets than the fictional Wile E. Coyote.

The problem with things we “just hear” or other information that we’re exposed to so often that we come to take it for granted is that we may never really stop to think about the data. While I doubt very many people believe that real coyotes carry around an Acme catalog and are capable of running on thin air until they look down, the canonical image of a roadrunner for many people is a flightless bird that goes, “Beep, beep!”

Now, the fact is that unless you are being chased by a coyote on a large red rocket (in which case the strategy is to step to one side and let the rocket fly out of control), knowing that a coyote can outrun a roadrunner is probably unimportant. However, in the business world such unquestioned, hidden, assumptions can cause us to miss opportunities or fail to see potential innovations that are right in front of us.

Part of the problem is that creating an unquestioned assumption does not require showing generations of children cartoons for fifty years. A hidden assumption can be created in a matter of minutes by how we describe a problem or present a scenario, and what we automatically take for granted can become as hard to change as granite. On one occasion, I ran a management training exercise in which I handed participants large envelopes containing various items. The participants had to trade and negotiate to get the things they actually wanted. They were unable to complete the exercise because each person became convinced that at least one of the others was holding out on him: no one would admit to having two of the items, apples and leaves, which led to the assumption that those who did have them were sitting on them to force concessions from the rest of the participants. The hidden assumption that everyone made was that the items they wanted must have been handed out in the envelopes. Thus, no one thought to walk down the hall to the cafeteria to get an apple or thought to pull a leaf off the tree outside the window, even though both those solutions were staring them in the face – one person even walked down the hall for a cup of coffee, passing by the fruit bowls!

Identifying the hidden assumptions can be a tricky business since they are, by definition, hidden. Getting at those assumptions is not always all that simple. It requires taking the time to list everything you think you know about the situation, especially since you may not realize you “know” it: the belief that all the items were in bags, for example, was a very difficult assumption for the group to identify. Sometimes, the listing exercise does the job: once everyone puts their assumptions on the whiteboard, you realize that one or more of them just don’t make sense. Frequently, though, that’s not sufficient. In that case, we must do something surprisingly difficult: asking not what would prove our assumptions right, but what would prove them wrong?

Asking the questions that would prove our assumptions wrong turns out to be an unexpectedly challenging task. We want to be right, so we tend to look for the evidence that will support our positions or beliefs: “Of course all the items must have been in bags, I saw the bags handed out,” or “Of course roadrunners are fast, they can run 20 miles per hour! Why do you think they’re called roadrunners?” What we don’t automatically do is ask the questions, “Must items start in bags?” or “How fast are coyotes?”

Organizational cultures are filled with these hidden assumptions, taken for granted and passed from one employee to another. The breakthrough products come when people look past them and ask the questions that disprove what everyone knows to be true. Of course, if Wile E. Coyote had ever thought to question the hidden assumption that he can’t run as fast as the Roadrunner, the ACME corporation would probably be out of business; given their products, perhaps that’s not so bad a thought.


It Takes a Process

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Large projects can be very intimidating. It’s easy to feel like you are standing at the foot of a very tall and imposing mountain. Working on the project can easily overwhelm even very talented people. It can be hard to feel like you’re making progress when there’s always a lot to do and when it feels like problems are constantly cropping up. When you climb that mountain, it can often feel like there’s always fog ahead of you and behind you so that you can’t see how far you still have to go and you can’t tell how far you’ve come.

When I decided to write my first book, I didn’t jump in and start writing. Even though I’ve executed some very large projects, my first step was to learn a process for writing books. In this case, the process I used came from someone who had written over two dozen books, so I figured he had some clue what he was talking about. I subsequently modified the process by bringing in some of the lessons I’d learned from other complex projects and adjusting it to suit my personal style and to correct a few short-comings.

The trick with processes is that they serve to organize and simplify complex operations. They create structure. Writing a book is complex: there are a lot of moving parts. If nothing else, keeping track of the chapters, what’s ending up in each one, making sure there are no contradictions, that something mentioned in an earlier chapter is followed up on later, and so forth, can easily become nightmarish. However, using an organized system turns that nightmare into routine. Other projects have their own headaches that can by managed by having the right processes in place.

Processes, however, often feel awkward and alien when you’re first learning them. This is like the student in my jujitsu class who once said to me, “I’d never do that technique. It doesn’t feel natural.”

Of course it didn’t feel natural, he hadn’t practiced it! Processes are the same. They rarely feel natural at first. You have to get used to them. Processes also serve both logistical and psychological functions.

From a logistical perspective, a process serves as an organizational structure for projects that have a lot of moving parts. When designed well, the process captures the moving parts, or at least provides a way of making sure that they don’t get lost. Lost pieces of a project are a little like Roger Rabbit: just as he can escape from handcuffs only when it’s funny, lost pieces tend to show up only when it’s most inconvenient.

Psychologically, a good process protects us from having to spend our time and energy constantly wondering what we’re forgetting. This can be amazingly distracting. With a good process in place, even if some things still slip through the cracks, the frequency and severity of problems are minimized and are far less likely to derail the project. A process is, in essence, a way of breaking down a large project into goals and subgoals, while also providing a framework for keeping track of them all. This allows you to measure progress, making the whole project seem less intimidating. Put another way, you’ve at least cleared the fog from below, so you can see how far up the mountain you’ve climbed, and you have the tools to navigate the fog ahead of you.

Processes are not just about accomplishing large projects though. A good process can make it easier for new hires to become productive: for example, having a sales process helps new salesmen know what to say and how to demo the product. In this case, the process is serving to reduce confusion and provide structure to someone who is entering a new environment. By learning the process, they also learn what matters and what does not. Without a process, becoming productive is slower and involves a lot more wandering around in the fog.

Of course, no process is ever perfect. Once you’ve learned the process, you must modify it to fit you and to fix shortcomings. For team projects, part of how the team reaches its most productive stages is by figuring out how to modify the process so that it works for everyone on the team.

You wouldn’t climb a mountain without preparation. Tackling large projects without some sort of process is similarly unwise.

It Doesn’t Look Like Progress

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“I can’t believe I need to explain that to this group.”

I might be tempted to mention where I most recently heard that phrase, except that I’m sure I’ll hear it again before long. That’s because it’s a very familiar complaint, one that comes up in a lot of groups. I can recall saying it myself a few times and I imagine that most of you have heard it at least once. If not, well, either that’s a problem or you’ve been incredibly lucky. Odds are, it’s the former. All too often, when that sentiment comes up, it’s seen as a problem for the group.

As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “the strength of the individual is the group and the strength of the group is the individual.” Put another way, groups can be very effective at getting things done. The right group with the right people can achieve great things and be a joy to be part of.  The flip side, of course, is that the wrong group or the wrong people can make for a horrendous experience. How does a group become one of those really effective, “feels great to be part of” teams?

I imagine that some of you are thinking, “Well, isn’t that Forming, Storming, and all that stuff?” Well, yes. But does that tell you anything? Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing) describes a process of relationship development over time. It sounds very clean and neat when described on paper or in a talk, but the reality is fairly messy. The “I can’t believe I need…” questions are an example of that messiness.

For groups to be effective, or, put another way, for two or more heads to be better than one, everyone needs to get at least near to the same wavelength. Group members must go through the process of figuring out what everyone actually thinks about a topic. Again, this sounds very neat and simple, but the reality is anything but.

The tendency is for each member of the group to assume that what everyone wants is what they want. Together with that tendency is the tendency of each individual to assume that if no one is asking questions then everyone else must know the answer and that they are the only ignorant person. For those who like technical terms, we’re talking about False Consensus and Pluralistic Ignorance.

If the group is around long enough, and the members are invested enough in the group, at some point someone realizes that some attitude, belief, or value that they took for granted and assumed that everyone else agreed with turns out not to be so universal after all. At that point, if that person is invested in the group, they might very well express some variant of, “I can’t believe I need to explain that to this group.”

The presence of that statement represents a developing awareness in the group that they are operating with, if not a false consensus, at least an untested consensus. In fact, even when everyone more or less agrees with the broad concept, each individual will tend to view the details in very different ways.

How the group responds to the statement determines what happens next. The best-case scenario is that the statement triggers subsequent discussion that enables the group to develop a real and robust consensus. That new consensus may or not be precisely what members thought going into the discussion. On the other hand, if the group responds by shutting down the speaker, that’s a bad sign: the group is not ready to accept that there is a great deal of variation in how members view a topic or that members may not even agree at all; group members don’t have a strong enough relationship to accept differences along that axis. Should the group respond to “I can’t believe…” by just flipping over to the new point of view, the situation is not much better. The group is substituting one illusion of consensus for another, but not doing the work of learning to address substantial differences (some groups can’t even handle trivial differences without dissolving into pointless argument, which is even worse).

So, if you’ve never heard anyone express the sentiment that they can’t believe they have to explain something to the group, that probably means your group is stuck. On the other hand, if you find that you can’t believe that you must “explain that” to your group, be happy. You’re making progress.



Winning Was Easy: The Tragedy of Star Wars

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Winning was easy young man. Governing’s harder.

                                                 — President George Washington (Hamilton)


When I’ve done jujitsu demos, we would often conduct “what if” scenarios: given a situation, how would one of the demonstrators use jujitsu to get out of it? Some of the situations members of the audience would imagine were, to say the least, creative: “You’re on your face, with your arms and legs twisted into knots and …”

The response to such scenarios was always, “How did you get there in the first place?”

Watching The Last Jedi, I had a similar reaction: “How did they manage to get into that mess in the first place?”

For those who haven’t figured it out from some of my other articles, I am something of a Star Wars fan. As I watched The Last Jedi, I couldn’t help but think of it in an organizational psych context. How did the galaxy get from the fall of the Empire and potential rebirth of the Republic at the end of Return of the Jedi, to the First Order and the collapse of the rebellion that we saw in Force Awakens and Last Jedi?

More simply, how did the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke (or is it Snookie?) take power and establish the sort of industrial base necessary to build massive dreadnaughts and the Starkiller Base? One thing we can say with some certainty is that “Supreme Leaders” don’t just waltz in and take power when things are going well. However, when government is (at least perceived to be) not functioning and political and economic conditions are chaotic, Supreme Leaders tend to find much more fertile ground for their promises of order: humans (and aliens, but since Star Wars aliens are functionally human, we’ll treat them all as human) hate organizational ambiguity. Just think about how unpleasant it can be when you don’t know what’s expected of you on the job or how you’re going to get your job done, then multiple that by a few powers of 10.

This suggests that after Emperor Palpatine got shafted at the end of Return of the Jedi (remember, he was dropped down a shaft), the nascent Republic was unable to re-establish a functional government. Without a functional galactic government, when the remnants of the Empire returned as the First Order with Snoke at the helm, they would have found ineffective military resistance and a galaxy open to their message of order.

This is a little surprising: Palpatine had only been in power for roughly 25 years. The Galactic Senate had only recently been disbanded (during Episode IV). The mechanisms of government, as well as the actual people, should still have been in place. Sure, 25 years seems like a long time, but a galaxy is a very big place and cultures containing trillions or quadrillions of people do not change quickly. So again, how did we get there?

At this point we need to go to a very scary place: the prequel trilogies. I realize this may be painful for some, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

What we see in the prequel movies is that in addition to his dark powers, Palpatine is also a consummate politician. Most, if not all, of his manipulations were done using words and political acumen. The Force almost never came into it. In fact, Palpatine’s manipulation of the Galactic Senate, the Trade Federation, and the political system are no different from what plenty of less than scrupulous organizational leaders have done without any magical powers at all. Even Palpatine’s seduction of Anakin Skywalker was done purely through words and a deep understanding of practical psychology. Once Palpatine took control, he did not use the Force to govern; rather, he used the existing mechanisms of governance.

That’s the thing about organizations: no matter the size, they need social mechanisms to keep them functioning. Small groups can work informally with a loose decision-making process. Very large organizations, up to and including Galactic Empires, need a formal structure complete with functionaries and deliberative bodies that can carry out the instructions from the top. Even Palpatine, for all his power, could not rule a galaxy without that structure. The galaxy is just too big and there’s just not enough time for one person to pay attention to all the details. Organizations much smaller than the Empire run into that problem: Tom Watson Sr. maintained a very flat organizational structure at IBM; his son, Tom Watson Jr., instituted a management structure because otherwise the company would have become ungovernable as it grew. Once Palpatine dissolved the Senate, he replaced it with Moffs and Grand Moffs; essentially, middle managers. Even Sith Lords need lieutenants to carry out their orders, at least if they want to have time to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. More to the point, Palpatine recognized that running a galaxy requires a large bureaucracy and that transitioning from the existing mechanisms of the Republic to those of Empire took time. That sort of transition is necessary when implementing a dramatic cultural change.

Palpatine’s organizational changes provoked outcry and rebellion across the galaxy. To be fair, his changes involved altering the existing culture at a profound level, so resistance was to be expected. This is hardly surprising to anyone who has ever attempted even a more benign organizational change, although most fights over that changes do not include duels, battle cruisers, and Death Stars. However, those fights can still be extremely bitter and exhausting for all concerned, for all their lack of special effects.

The original trilogy, episodes IV-VI, told the story of that rebellion against Palpatine’s organizational change. However, the story did not focus on matters of governance or organizational behavior, but on using the Force to defeat Palpatine and Darth Vader. That the Force was the focus is hardly surprising: aside from the fact that lightsaber duels and telekinesis are more exciting that “Organizational Psychology: The Movie,” Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are Jedi. They view the world through the lens of the Force. For Yoda and Obi-Wan, the goal was to train another Jedi capable of defeating the two Sith. Actual governance of the galaxy wasn’t really their primary focus. Like anyone who has a specific background or expertise, there is a tendency to view problems through the lens of that expertise (this article being no exception 😊). This tendency can cause problems when it blinds us to other, equally important, components of the situation, like who would run the galaxy once Palpatine was let go.

The answer, apparently, was no one. We might suspect, as one economist pointed out, that the construction, and subsequent destruction, of two Death Stars was enough to bankrupt the government and trigger a galactic depression. It may be that the recently disbanded Senate was unable to come together and pass legislation, and Palpatine’s governors were not inclined to cooperate. It may be something else. What we do know is that after another approximately 25 years, Luke Skywalker has given in to despair, the Republic is down to so few planets that they can be functionally destroyed by the Starkiller Base, the First Order has control of enough of the galaxy’s industrial base that they can build the Starkiller Base, and the remnants of the Resistance have no resources and no allies. Whatever the message of the Resistance was, it clearly hasn’t been convincing anyone other than the true believers. Similarly, in any organization, it’s important to seek out information from outside the group and find out how your message is being received.

Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, the man who defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, could not recreate the Republic. Leia Organa, princess and general, was apparently also unable to do so. The new government that did eventually emerge was headed by Snoke and his disciple, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. With Snoke’s death, the galactic government is now in the hands of a man with no impulse control and a tendency to throw temper tantrums and engage in the gratuitous use of Force. On the other side, Rey is at least Ren’s equal in the Force. Given Ren’s inability to control himself and Rey’s incredible self-discipline, she’s potentially far more capable than he is. And yet, neither one of them has the training to run a galaxy. Some things require expertise that comes from years of education and practice on top of raw talent. Just trusting your feelings isn’t going to cut it.

Organizations need to think about their needs both in the immediate term and in the future. Thinking about expected changes can help the organization predict what skills it will need. When Palpatine took charge, he knew exactly what to do and had the people in place to do it. Even so, it took him 25 years to mostly complete his personnel changes. The Rebellion was not so well organized, and paid the price. If you wait until the moment you need the skills to start developing them, it’ll be too late. This last point is true not just at an organizational level, but at an individual one as well.

The tragedy of Star Wars is that Our Heroes have spent their time focusing on the Force, as though the Force is what governs the galaxy. Like duct tape, the Force might hold the universe together, but it’s about as good at the actual mechanisms of governance as a roll of duct tape. As with any organization, to be successful the Rebellion needs to identify and develop its core competencies, which includes learning how to govern should they win. Otherwise, the cycle will just repeat. They can only get so far relying on Force.

Trust Your Feelings, Luke

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“Trust your feelings…”

— Obi Wan Kenobi


Star Wars made it seem so simple: all a Jedi had to do was trust his or her feelings and they would do the right thing. It certainly worked out pretty well for Luke in the original movie (Episode IV), blowing up the Death Star and all. But then came The Empire Strikes Back and it turned out that learning to trust your feelings involved running around in a swamp with a grouchy Muppet on your back.

Feelings are certainly useful, and they can help us make better decisions. However, just as Luke discovered, it’s not quite as easy as Obi Wan originally made it seem. In fact, trusting our feelings in the heat of the moment can often lead to very bad decisions: in a training exercise I was running, one participant was completely convinced that another participant was lying to her. She based this on her infallible instincts, aka feelings. When we debriefed at the end, it turned out he wasn’t lying. He was telling her the complete truth and would have helped her if she’d let him. In general, letting our feelings rule the day works out badly when we’re tired, hungry, frustrated, confused, angry, or even overly happy.  In each of these cases, strong feelings can overshadow judgment.

So, when are feelings useful?

It helps a great deal to train your feelings. The point of Luke running around the swamp may have been primarily to make Jedi training look mysterious, however for serious athletes, constant drills and training serve to develop their skills and hone their instincts. The master fencer picks up on subtle cues of posture and blade position that reveal what their opponent is likely to do next. It is because of their training that they can trust and act on their feelings.

Feelings can be very useful when planning future strategy. When you feel strongly, good or bad, about a particular course of action, that’s often a good clue that it’s worth exploring that action more thoroughly. Why do you feel that way? What about that course of action appeals to you or does not appeal to you? Just to make things more complicated, feeling good about a course of action doesn’t mean that the action will succeed just as feeling bad about a course of action doesn’t mean it is a bad choice. You might feel good only because the action feels safe or you might feel bad because the action involves something new and different. In that case, the correct choice might be to go against your instincts.

When engaged in a long and complex project, be that designing software or producing marketing materials, it can help to pause periodically and admire your work. If you don’t like it while it’s in progress, that’s a bad sign. Pay attention to your feelings: they’re likely telling you something is wrong.

Training feelings can be tough. Athletes do it through many days and weeks of practice. Jedi do it by running around a swamp. In a business setting, sufficiently complex and elaborate training games can serve the same purpose, only with better food and without the humidity. Such games, in addition to their other benefits, are fun and can help build organizational cohesion.

Like Obi Wan said, “Trust your feelings.” But take the time to make your feelings trustable.

Cognitive Diversity? Mr. Johnson is Right!

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In Mel Brooks’ classic comedy, “Blazing Saddles,” there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie where the inhabitants of Rock Ridge are trying to decide how to handle the crime wave besetting their town. As they meet in the church, Reverend Johnson calls up the various townspeople to speak: Van Johnson, Howard Johnson, Olson Johnson, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Don Johnson, Gabby Johnson, and so forth. After each Johnson says their piece, the next Johnson gets up to say, “Mr. Johnson is right.” The multitude of Johnsons don’t have any particularly creative ideas, but they did come to a very quick agreement on what to do.

I was reminded of this scene when reading Bari Williams’ article, “Tech’s Troubling New Trend: Diversity Is in Your Head,” in the New York Times.

Needless to say, the crowd in Rock Ridge are not very diverse. In the church scene, the high point of diversity comes when Gabby Johnson gives a passionate speech in authentic, if incomprehensible, frontier gibberish. What makes him an example of diversity? Well, all the other Johnsons spoke clearly articulated English. However, even Gabby’s authentic frontier gibberish didn’t stimulate any divergent thought in the group.

Bari Williams’ article discusses Apple’s vice-president of diversity and inclusion, Denise Smith, saying that, “There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”

Perhaps all 12 men could be named Johnson?

The problem with this concept of “cognitive diversity,” as it’s known, is that it doesn’t work. It might sound good (although even that’s debatable), but if the goal is a team that can come up with varied and creative ideas, “cognitive diversity” by itself is a waste of time. It’s more likely that such a team will come up with fewer, less creative ideas, and more rapidly reach a consensus without considering a variety of options.

Why doesn’t cognitive diversity work? Fundamentally, because we can’t see cognitive diversity. Our minds respond to our environments. What we see around us influences how we direct and use our mental focus: The inputs shape the outputs. A dull, flat, colorless environment tends to be vaguely depressing, while a bright, open, colorful environment tends to be mentally stimulating. When the people around us all look like us, our thoughts tend to converge as well. When the people around us are physically different from us, we start to think in more diverse ways. The group is more likely to come up with more different ideas, and more likely to spend a greater amount of time exploring and developing those ideas.

To be fair, it is harder to bring a more physically diverse group of people together into a team than it is to do so with a same-sized homogeneous group. The more diverse group might spend a longer period in an awkward, “get to know you,” stage before it really starts to become productive. On the other hand, more diverse groups tend to be able to solve a wider range of problems, deal with a wider range of unexpected situations, and generally perform better than more homogeneous groups.

A focus on cognitive diversity just yields homogeneity. If you truly want people to think different, a focus on physical (i.e. race, gender, ethnicity, etc) diversity is the best way to do it.

For the people of Rock Ridge, diversity came as a bit of a shock. They didn’t adapt to it easily, but when they did they were able to find a way out of their predicament. To succeed, they had to learn to break down some walls. Corporations may have to learn to break down a few barriers as well in order to build effective, diverse teams.