999 Light Bulbs on the Wall

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

Just as we have to reframe negative news, we have to reframe failure. As we’ve discussed throughout this book, failure is a form of feedback. In Thomas Edison’s case, the feedback was that he learned a great many ways to not make a light bulb. This is easy to say, but hard to live: that’s a big part of why innovation is so difficult. Without innovation, though, organizations become stuck: they lose the excitement and novelty that made them great. Just as individual growth is key to maintaining individual motivation, innovation is the organizational growth that is key to maintaining a vibrant, exciting organization. So why is it so hard?

Isaac Asimov wrote in his classic novel, Foundation, that the people who most fiercely defend the status quo today are the same people who yesterday most bitterly opposed it becoming the status quo. So it is with innovation.

Innovation involves disrupting the comfortable, familiar, safe ways of doing things. Although a culture may start out aggressive and entrepreneurial, if the organization is successful then, over the years, people learn to be careful. Partly, we’ve been taught since childhood not to make mistakes: mistakes are VERY VERY BAD. Mistakes mean a low grade and that Goes On Your Permanent Record. Remember all the talk about your permanent record from when you were in school? It’s time to shake those habits; they are about as useful as worrying about a monster under your bed.

Another piece of the puzzle is that we start to measure all the different ways we can cut costs and we start thinking about how much better the business would do if all that wasted effort and misdirected work were just eliminated. We reward managers for staying under budget, not for taking bold steps in the service of the organization. As we discussed in chapter 8, where there is no room for mistakes, there is no room for learning: the same is true about innovation. When we get too focused on counting beans, all we become good at is counting beans.

The challenge is distinguishing between exploration, which leads to new products and services, and actual waste. Exploration is a dirty business and a lot of it fails. That’s only waste if you don’t bother to learn how not to make those light bulbs.

Balzac preaches real engagement with one’s own company and a mindful state of operation, especially by executives – who must remember that culture “just happens” unless and until they learn to recognize that their behaviors play a huge part in creating and cementing it. It covers the full spectrum of corporate life, from challenging bad decisions to hiring, training, motivating teams – and the secrets of keeping people engaged and learning – and/or avoiding actions which do the opposite. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to participate in creating and steering company culture.”

 

Sid Probstein

Chief Technology Officer

Attivio – Active Intelligence

 

To Succeed, Plan to Fail

I’m getting tired of hearing people say, “Oh I get it. We didn’t plan to fail, we failed to plan.”

When I’m working with a business to help them understand why their process is failing or their projects are off course, sooner or later someone comes out with this little gem. At that point, everyone nods sagely as though they’ve actually solved something. They are missing the point. If that was all that was wrong, they wouldn’t need help.

Sure, it’s certainly true that if you fail to plan, you’re far more likely to fail, but knowing that doesn’t actually address the real problem: they are taking the “failure is not an option” mindset. This is a fantastic line in a movie, but has some problems in reality.

When we take the mindset that failure is something that cannot be accepted, we are implicitly stating that failure is a terrible thing, something so terrible that we cannot even consider it. It’s an attitude similar to that taken by many martial artists, who teach their students that they must never allow themselves to be taken off balance. All their training is then based on the idea of never being off balance. As a result, when they are off balance, they freeze.

A youthful student once watched Morehei Uyeshiba, the founder of Aikido, sparring with a much younger, stronger opponent. After Uyeshiba defeated the guy, the young student said to him, “Master, that was amazing. You never lose your balance!”

Uyeshiba’s reply: “You are mistaken. I frequently lose my balance. My secret is that I know how to regain it quickly.”

Uyeshiba recognized that loss of balance is a normal part of any fight. By training to rapidly regain his balance, he stripped the experience of its emotional content. It was merely something that happened, and something which he well knew how to recover from. As a result, not only were his opponents unable to capitalize on taking him off balance, when he took their balance, they didn’t know what to do.

Failure is the same. When failure becomes something we fear, it can cause us to freeze. At one company, the first hiccup in a string of successes led to panic by the CEO. He wasn’t used to failing, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

The problem is that fear of failure causes us to avoid risk and not experiment with new ideas. When something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, we figuratively lose our balance and become momentarily stuck. If we think that failure means something terrible will happen, we opt for the safe course. Unfortunately, the safe course is often not the best course or the wisest course. It’s merely the one that minimizes the short-term risk to us, potentially at the cost of long-term risk to the team. That, of course, is just fine: if the entire team fails, no one is to blame.

Conversely, when we accept that along the route to success there will be many failures along the way, and when we practice viewing failures as a form of feedback, the negative emotional component of failure is eliminated. Instead, we simply have information: something we attempted did not work the way we expected. What does that mean? What is that telling us about our plan? About our process? About the competitive landscape?

Failure is a way of calibrating our efforts and focusing our energy. Particularly early in a project, small failures are, or should be, common. The less defined the project, the more exploration needs to occur in order to adequately and accurately define the milestones. Indeed, early milestones are best thought of as little more than wishful thinking: opportunities to put stakes in the ground and see what happens when we get there. It’s the chance to see how well the team members are working together, how effective the leader is being, how effectively the team can make decisions and implement a course of action.

When we fear failure, the fear itself is often more damaging than the failure! The key to succeeding at large, important projects is to recognize that failures will happen along the way. By accepting the information that failure gives us and cultivating the mindset that failures are recoverable and useful, failure truly does make us more, not less, likely to succeed.

Letting it linger

This is an excerpt from my book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

A common decision making trap is allowing the decision to linger after it’s made. This is particularly true with difficult decisions that are not easily reversed. At one company, the decision was made to fire the VP of Software Development. This was a very good decision for a very large number of reasons. But then someone decided that they should really hire someone to take his place before they told said VP that he was being fired. This man was not stupid. He could figure out that something was up even if he didn’t know exactly what. More to the point, though, was that keeping him there while they secretly searched for a replacement meant that they were effectively making the fire/no-fire decision over and over again each day! For each person they interviewed, they had to decide not just whether that person was a good hire, but whether he was good enough to enable them to actually go through with firing the current VP. Months later, the VP was still there and the problems at the company were much worse.

When you make a decision and then find excuses to not implement it, either it’s a bad decision in the first place, or the reason you don’t want to implement it is due to decision fatigue. Either way, you are facing the choice again and again. In one way or the other, you need to execute that decision. When you let it linger in some shadowy twilight world between life and death, you only suck the energy and morale out of everyone.

Organizational Psychology for Managers is an insightful book that reminds the business leader of basic principles of leading a successful organization in an engaging style. As a business owner for over 25 years, I am aware of these principles; however, I need reminding of how these principles work together and impact the energy and success of my company. Throughout the book, the author demonstrates these concepts into a clear perspective  by citing examples within other companies which is always a helpful technique and is often eye opening .  These are situations that I may not have thought about before. This book holds the reader’s interest from start to finish. I look forward to his next book!

 

Elizabeth Brown

President

Softeach, Inc.

Difficult decisions or difficulty with decisions?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

Some years ago, when I was getting married, my wife and I engaged in the traditional ritual of the Choosing of the China. After trying to choose between china patterns all afternoon, the thought of being eaten alive by creatures from another planet was looking more and more attractive. Fortunately, it wasn’t an available option! By the end of the day, I just wanted the choices to end. I was ready to agree to anything. Indeed, I’ve often wondered if the reason police shows never use choosing china patterns as a form of interrogation is that it is seen as just too cruel.

In their book, “Willpower,” psychologist Roy Baumeister and NY Times reporter John Tierney discuss the phenomenon of will and decision making in great detail. From an organizational perspective, though, there are some key points that we need to consider as they have far reaching effects on organizational effectiveness.

As anyone who has ever had to choose china patterns can attest, the process is exhausting. We can only make so many decisions in a day before we start to feel like our brains are turning to goo and are trickling out of our ears. Part of the problem is that decisions are not always obvious: you’ll recall in chapter 11 we discussed the point that part of focusing on a task is being able to distinguish what is important from what is not. That separation is a form of decision making. Tuning out that annoying coworker in the cubicle down the hall is a decision. Indeed, what Baumeister found is that our decision making and our overall willpower are inextricably linked. The more decisions we have to make, the less willpower we have left for other things, like focusing on a problem or being creative.

Part of why decision making in groups works the way it does is that the energy people have determines the types of decisions they can make. In stage one groups, people are spending most of their time and energy just figuring out how to work together; thus, we end up with directive leadership being the most effective style in that situation. The group members lack both the decision making skill and energy for more sophisticated decision making techniques. As the group members become more comfortable with one another, the combination of learning to work together and increasing skill at decision making enables the group to develop and move to higher levels of performance.

Unfortunately, unlike physical tiredness, the sort of mental tiredness that comes with decision fatigue isn’t always so obvious. It’s not like we stop making decisions; rather, we just make increasingly poor decisions. When we’re mentally tired, we have trouble making the types of decisions that involve risk. We’re much more likely to just choose the thing that’s easy, which is generally to do little or nothing; to not try that new initiative or explore that new product idea. The planned bold new leap forward at dawn becomes a hesitant shuffle by the end of the day. Whether at an individual or a group level, we are subject to decision making errors of this sort. With groups, though, the poor decision is then amplified by the echo chamber effect of group polarization.

 

Riveting!  Yes, I called a leadership book riveting.  I couldn’t wait to finish one chapter so I could begin reading the next.  The book’s combination of pop culture references, personal stories, and thought providing insights to illustrate world class leadership principles makes it a must read for business professionals at all management levels.

Eric Bloom

President

Manager Mechanics, LLC

Nationally Syndicated Columnist and Author

Now can I solve the problem?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

Unfortunately, you still can’t solve the problem. There’s still just a bit more to do before you dive in and implement your solution. Examine the goals you just developed: how will you carry them out? Which steps can you plan and which steps can you not plan in advance? How will you know if you’re successful? This last point may seem silly: after all, if you’re successful, the problem will go away! While that’s true, it helps to identify precisely what you expect to happen and when. Back to goals and feedback: we want to know if we’re succeeding before we get to the end. Conversely, if we are solving the wrong problem or if our solution is flawed, we want to know this as early as possible. As with all goals, we have to define our intermediate steps and identify the factors that will tell us if we’re going off course. At the end, we don’t want to get bogged down arguing about whether or not we’ve succeeded: by defining our criteria ahead of time, before we’re invested in the results, we avoid the danger of getting somewhere random and simply declaring that to be the finish line.

If the implementation of the solution is going to be carried out by other people, it pays to bring them into the process at this point if we haven’t brought them in already. People who have to implement a solution will feel more engaged and committed if they are involved early on in the process of coming up with that solution: respect their competence and build relatedness. On a purely practical level, they are also likely to have expert insights that others may not: I worked once with an architecture firm whose head architect made a point of involving builders in the earliest stages of design. He told me it was because that way he wouldn’t end up giving the client drawings for something that didn’t exist.

At this point, you can go ahead and implement your solution. At the end, do a final check: did it work? Since you’ve already defined the criteria for success, at least in theory this shouldn’t be too hard to determine. In practice, it’s often a bit messier than it sounds on paper, so be prepared for that. If it didn’t work, you have a choice in how to respond:

Option 1: Clearly the failure is someone’s fault. Heads must roll!

Option 2: What have learned that we didn’t know before? Remember our discussion of hindsight in chapter 11. Just because something is obvious now doesn’t mean it was obvious before. Based on what we’ve learned, how can we now solve the problem? What else have we improved along the way?

Cultures that focus on blame typically go with option 1. However, the more optimistic and successful organizations choose option 2. That doesn’t mean not doing a post-mortem and trying to identify mistakes or failing to refine your processes; it simply means that you’re proceeding from the perspective that you have competent, committed people who have no more interest in wasting their time on a wild goose chase than you do. The secret to solving large, difficult problems is accepting that there will be mistakes along the way. The secret to optimistic organizations is that they actually treat those mistakes as feedback and learning opportunities instead of merely giving the concept lip-service.

We’ll return to these concepts when we discuss organizational diagnosis later in this chapter.

Balzac combines stories of jujitsu, wheat, gorillas, and the Lord of the Rings with very practical advice and hands-on exercises aimed at anyone who cares about management, leadership, and culture.

Todd Raphael
Editor-in-Chief
ERE Media

Could you make that noise again?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

Ever listen to NPR’s “Car Talk?” For those who might have been under a rock for the past 25 or so years, Car Talk features “Click and Clack, the Tappit Brothers,” also known as Tom and Ray Magliozzi, taking questions about and giving advice on car repair. In the course of the hour show, they will take several calls, laugh at their own bad jokes, and ask a series of questions such as, “Does it make that noise when you turn to the right or to the left?” “And it goes away above 30 miles per hour?” and, “Could you make that noise again?” I suspect the last question is mostly because they find it hilarious to listen to callers attempting to imitate the odd sounds their cars are making.

What Click and Clack are doing through their apparently random questions is identifying the symptoms of the problem. The symptoms are not the problem; they are merely the symptoms. However, when we understand the symptoms, we are able to gradually identify the problem. Going back to our discussion of goal setting, we are defining and executing learning goals. We are setting goals that will help us answer several important questions:

  1. What are the observed symptoms? Exactly what is happening?
  2. When do the symptoms occur? All the time? At certain times?
  3. When did it start? What changed?
  4. Where do they occur? In one location or many? In one product or many? At one customer site or many?
  5. How long do they last?
  6. What is affected?
  7. Who is affected?

 

Organizational Psychology for Managers is phenomenal.  Just as his talks at conferences are captivating to his audience, Steve’s book will captivate his readers.  In my opinion, this book should be required reading in MBA programs, military leadership courses, and needs to be on the bookshelf of every Fortune 1000 VP of Human Resources.  Steve Balzac is the 21st century’s Tom Peters.

Stephen R Guendert, PhD

CMG Director of Publications

 

Effective problem solving

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

One of the things that world class successful organizations, the organizations that keep innovating and growing and reinventing themselves, have in common is a remarkably effective ability to solve problems. What is interesting, however, is that they don’t necessarily get it right the first the time; often, perhaps, but not always. What they are extremely good at is knowing how to solve problems in ways that constantly reinforce their cultural beliefs of optimism and success.

To begin with, problem solving is really a question of goal setting. In this case, it is a goal where the outcome is to make the problem go away. Unfortunately, that’s not really enough information to create a specific goal, although plenty of businesses try. There are, however, many ways to make a problem go away at least temporarily. Hence, if that’s all you focus on, you end up with a problem that feels like a boomerang in a Saturday morning cartoon: it keeps coming back and whacking you upside the head. Thus, we need to do a bit more work in order to formulate effective goals around solving our problem.

Before we can solve a problem there is one thing we absolutely have to know. What might that be? Whether I ask this of college students or managers, I always get the same response: puzzled looks and then people start yelling out answers such as, “the solution,” or “the cost of the problem,” or “what resources we need,” or a host of other answers. Eventually somebody says, “Don’t we have to know what the problem is?”

Exactly. Before you can find a solution, you have to identify the problem. As obvious as this may sound, if you don’t know the actual problem, then your solution isn’t likely to fix it. There are a great many solutions out there looking for problems.

A problem can be broken down into three major pieces: there is the actual problem, whatever that may be. We don’t know what the problem is because we can’t actually see it; what we can see are the effects of the problem. That may mean deadlines being missed or angry customers calling to complain or a lack of motivation or difficulty hiring or retaining talent, or countless other things. Those are the symptoms of the problem. Finally, there are the things that occur around the problem, things which attract our attention but which are basically irrelevant to the situation. They look important but they’re not. That’s known as chrome: the shiny stuff that draws our eye and distracts us from what really matters.

 

Balzac preaches real engagement with one’s own company and a mindful state of operation, especially by executives – who must remember that culture “just happens” unless and until they learn to recognize that their behaviors play a huge part in creating and cementing it. It covers the full spectrum of corporate life, from challenging bad decisions to hiring, training, motivating teams – and the secrets of keeping people engaged and learning – and/or avoiding actions which do the opposite. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to participate in creating and steering company culture.”

 

Sid Probstein

Chief Technology Officer

Attivio – Active Intelligence

Creating effective routines

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

Basically, a routine is a series of actions that we perform so often that they become automatic and which often produce a particular mindset. The more we practice the routine, the more rapidly we create the mindset. Eventually, merely contemplating the routine will initiate the mental state, although performing the routine is still essential most of the time if we want it to last. When an athlete executes a pre-performance routine, that routine is intended to get them physically and mentally prepared for competition. Many people create morning routines around breakfast, coffee, and reading the news as a way of mentally preparing to focus on the day’s work. My first jujitsu sensei used to tell us that the reason we bowed as we entered the dojo was to leave the day’s baggage at the door so that we could concentrate on the workout. If we practiced the routine with that image in mind, it worked. If we didn’t, it didn’t.

Quite often, though, routines are created less carefully. They just build up over time: for example, the student I described in the opening to this chapter was in the process of building up a routine around her throws. Throw, focus on the negative, produce a negative, pessimistic mindset, repeat. Of course, as she built that mindset, her throws would get worse, there would be more negatives to focus on, and so it went. When this process isn’t interrupted, students start dreading the practice of throwing because they’ve built such negative associations.

I’ve encountered this phenomenon in jujitsu, and also when conducting seminars on mental skills techniques for athletes in other sports. It comes up in the business world as well: as I alluded to at the beginning of this chapter, in one particularly dramatic example, a software engineering team at one major company would conduct a post-mortem review after each product ship. Unfortunately, as we know from chapter three, group polarization can produce extremes of behavior in a team. In this case, team members all wanted to demonstrate that they were serious and dedicated and open to giving and receiving criticism. It wasn’t long before each product ship was followed by a laser-like focus on the flaws, while the very real successes were minimized or ignored. Over time, the ability of the team declined simply because they convinced themselves that they just weren’t all that good and eventually product quality followed. Then they really did have something to complain about! Performance reviews are another area in which routines develop over time, a point well illustrated by the number of managers who complain to me about how unpleasant it is to even contemplate the review process!

Riveting!  Yes, I called a leadership book riveting.  I couldn’t wait to finish one chapter so I could begin reading the next.  The book’s combination of pop culture references, personal stories, and thought providing insights to illustrate world class leadership principles makes it a must read for business professionals at all management levels.

Eric Bloom

President

Manager Mechanics, LLC

Nationally Syndicated Columnist and Author

The Power of Routine

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

My son takes Kenpo Karate. At the end of each class, the instructor has the kids bow and then recite the rules of the school, a short bit about effort and character. The kids then remove their belts and leave the mat. One afternoon, though, instead of the head instructor, one of the other black belts was teaching class. As the class drew to a close, the head instructor stepped onto the back of the mat, kneeled down, and bowed with everyone else. Instead of having the kids recite the rules, the black belt teaching the class told the kids to turn and bow to the head instructor. What followed was a moment of pure confusion: some kids started reflexively reciting the rules. Others half turned, then hesitated when they saw other kids not turning or starting to take off their belts. It took the assistant instructor several tries to get everyone to turn around, bow, and then end class normally.

Classes normally follow a very predictable routine. It always begins and ends the same way. Changing that routine, as the instructor found, isn’t easy. This is true for all manner of organizational routines. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about kids or adults: routines are powerful. As we discussed in chapter eleven, athletes use routines all the time to help them focus and prepare for competition.

There are fundamentally two different types of routines: routines that we deliberately create and routines that we just fall into. Both types are equally powerful. However, while deliberately building a routine is generally beneficial, routines we just fall into are as like as not to be counter-productive.

 

Balzac combines stories of jujitsu, wheat, gorillas, and the Lord of the Rings with very practical advice and hands-on exercises aimed at anyone who cares about management, leadership, and culture.

Todd Raphael
Editor-in-Chief
ERE Media

Unity of Crisis

Marvel Comic’s Avengers are a pretty impressive bunch. Thor, Captain America, Ironman, and the Hulk make a fearsome combination: Captain America is practically indestructible, Thor flies around throwing lightning, Ironman, aka Tony Stark, is like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rolled into one, and the Hulk is, well, the Hulk. When it comes to fighting off alien invasions, these guys have power to spare. That’s a good thing, because impressive as they are individually, as a team they aren’t so hot. Their inability to coordinate well would have been a total disaster if they hadn’t had such tremendous power and a friendly script writer in the basement to back them up. In fact, after watching them in action, it’s easy to understand why Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Nick Fury, is bald.

But wait! Sure, the Avengers have their issues, but they do pull together and beat off the invasion. They may have been at each other’s throats earlier in the movie, but aren’t they a team by the end? What’s the problem?

Fundamentally, the problem is that the Avengers are not really ever a team; rather, they are a group of people, more or less, who are able to agree that working together is less awful than the alternative. That, as the poet said, is not exactly a ringing endorsement! Even without Loki’s mind games, they were already barely civil to one another. He merely accentuated what was already happening, pushing them into open conflict.

The Avengers, of course, are fiction. Sadly, this unity of crisis is not. A common problem in business settings are teams whose members barely interact until the pressure of the oncoming deadline forces them to work together at least enough to get something out the door. At one company, this non-interaction took the form of endless debates and decisions that were revisited every week or two. At another company, the team ended up dominated by a couple of loud members, while the rest simply tried not to be noticed. In neither situation was there productive debate, problem solving, or effective decision making; unlike the Avengers, the motions they went through were not particularly dramatic or exciting. On the bright side, again unlike in the movie, no flying aircraft carriers were harmed.

When I’m speaking on organizational development, it’s at about this point that someone interrupts to tell me that they are communicating: they are sending email. Don’t get me wrong; email is a wonderful tool. However, it’s not some sort of magic cure-all. When I actually sit down with groups to look at their communications patterns, we quickly find out that while emails may be sent to everyone in the group, they are really only for the benefit of the team lead. Quite often, the email chain quickly becomes an echo chamber or an electronic trail useful only to prove a point or hurt a competitor when reviews come around.

The challenge every team faces is helping its members learn to communicate. It seems so simple: after all, everyone is speaking the same language. As we see in the Avengers, though, that is not entirely true. While the words all may sound the same, each person is bringing their own perspectives, assumptions, and beliefs to the table. Moreover, each person is bringing their own assumptions about what the goals are and the best way to accomplish them. Also, not unlike the Avengers, there is often a certain amount of friction between different team members. While most business teams do not explode into physical violence, the verbal equivalent does occur. Unlike the Avengers, when that happens many teams simply fall apart. Although the Avengers avoid that fate, it was close. While that experience may be exciting in a movie, I find that most business leaders would rather skip the drama.

So what can be done to create real unity, instead of a unity of crisis? To begin with, it takes time. Sorry, but just like baking a cake, if you simply turn up the temperature of the oven, all you get is a mess. Teams are the same: if you rush, you still spend the same amount of time but with less to show for it.

Assuming that you use your time well, it is particularly important for the team lead to set the tone: invite questions and discussions, but also be willing to end debate and move on. At first, team members will be happy to have the leader end the debate; eventually, though, they’ll start to push back. That’s good news: your team is coming together and starting to really engage. Now you can start really dissecting the goals of the team, and really figure out the best ways of doing things. Start letting the team members make more of the decisions, although you may have to ratify whatever they come up with for the decision to be accepted. Encourage questions and debate, but do your best to keep your own opinions to yourself: the process of learning to argue well isn’t easy and if the team members realize you have a preference, the tendency is for the team to coalesce around that preference. Alternately, the team may simply resist your choice just because it’s coming from you. Better to not go there.

A unity of crisis can be very useful for a one off event, such as saving the world from an alien invasion. But for more mundane, ongoing, projects, real unity is a far better outcome.

 

 

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” and “Organizational Psychology for Managers.” He is also a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.

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