Caught By The Chrome

Anyone remember the power failure during the 2012 Superbowl? Probably not, for all that it lasted for a whopping 35 minutes, or, as comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “only two months short of New Orleans’ personal best.”

The funny thing about the power failure, however, was not Stephen Colbert making jokes about it, but how a number of people blamed the failure on Beyonce. Did Beyonce have anything to do with it? Well, Beyonce was playing at the time, but that’s about the only connection. I know that a lot people think she’s pretty impressive, but knocking out the power to the Superbowl? Even for Beyonce, that’s a bit much. Nonetheless, the fact that the two events were coincident in time meant that, for many people, there must have been a connection.

This is called getting caught by the chrome: rather than focusing on the actual problem in front of us, such as a power failure, our attention is caught by something peripheral. Sometimes, if we get lucky, that bit of chrome might also turn out to be a symptom of the problem, but not always.

Basically, a problem is composed of three elements: the problem itself, the symptoms, and the chrome. Most of the time, we can’t actually see the problem. What we can see are the symptoms and the chrome. The symptoms are useful: they can lead us to the problem. When you go to the doctor and the doctor asks questions about how you are feeling, she is exploring your symptoms. Knowing your symptoms helps her identify what is wrong with you, or at least sound authoritative when she tells you to take two aspirin and call the advice nurse in the morning.

The chrome is the shiny stuff that’s nice to look at: the things that are easy to see and, because it’s easy to see, also easy to mistake for a symptom or the actual problem. Sometimes we also mistake the symptoms for the actual problem, essentially treating the symptoms as chrome instead of as clues to what is actually wrong.

Now, at least for those watching on TV, whether Beyonce was problem, symptom, or chrome, was probably pretty much irrelevant. But for those actually tasked with dealing with the problem, figuring out the difference is considerably more important.

Let’s consider the case of Tim, newly appointed CEO of big data company Hornblower Software. Hornblower is considered a rising star in the big data space, yet when Tim came in, the company hadn’t produced a product in over a year. The reasons for this varied, freely mixing chrome and symptoms. Was it the engineer who was incompetent and insubordinate, doing whatever he wanted and doing it all badly? Was it the engineer who was competent, but completely unwilling to take direction, making changes as he thought fit? Was it the several engineers who did enough to get by but who weren’t willing to make major efforts on the part of the team? The first guy quit shortly after Tim came in, producing a belief that the problems would all go with him.

There is a cliched scene in countless murder mysteries in which our hero is suspected of the murder and arrested. Another murder then occurs while he’s sitting in jail, forcing the police to grudgingly conclude that maybe he really isn’t guilty. The problems at Hornblower didn’t go away when the first guy quit, suggesting pretty strongly that he was at best a symptom of the larger problem, at worst nothing more than chrome. Well, in that case the problem must the other guy, the one would wouldn’t take direction! After all, as the VP of Engineering put it, “I can’t tell him what to do.”

We can certainly agree that if you have an employee who refuses to take any direction that is A problem, whether or not it is THE problem. In this case, it was also a distraction from the real problem.

The trick to solving the real problem is first to identify the real problem. To do that, you have to get away from the chrome and focus on the symptoms. There were many: the lack of products, rogue engineers, infighting, dispirited team members, to list just the major ones. When did they start? Where did they occur? Were there any common elements? When we take the time to examine the symptoms and identify the boundaries of their occurrence, then we can start to understand the real problem. In this case, the common element was the VP of Engineering, who, it turned out, was either intimidating or ineffectual: those who found him intimidating exhibited low motivation, while those who realized that he was a paper tiger simply ignored him. And while he might have been quite competent technically, he wasn’t capable of communicating with other team members, organizing them, or focusing their efforts. The net result was an ineffective engineering organization.

The only real question left at this point is whether Tim will be able to see past the chrome fast enough to make a difference.

Controlling the Little Things

One of the more painful experiences I had in jujitsu was when my instructor taught finger holds. We assume that because our legs are generally quite strong, it would be difficult for someone to force us to go somewhere we don’t want to go. That assumption lasted as long as it took my instructor to apply a finger hold. All he had to do was take control of the smallest joint of one finger and suddenly my legs would go exactly where he wanted them to go. By manipulating one little thing, he could convince people much larger and stronger than he was to become extremely cooperative. Controlling one small joint gave him control over their entire body, however controlling the body did not produce the same control over the arms and legs: the hands and feet still moved freely, and would regularly engage in what may be politely referred to as “nose seeking behavior.”

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, so what? That’s just leverage!”

Well, yes, it is leverage. And if that was the whole point, the correct reaction would indeed be “so what?”

Leverage, as we all know, enables us to move something large through control of something small. Jujitsu is merely a fairly straight-forward application of this principle. However, the principle is not limited to the physical. Our perception of control is determined not by the big things in life that we control, but by the little things. To put this another way, if we want people to tackle big, challenging projects, we have to convince them that they have at least some control over the outcome; they have to believe that their actions matter and have a reasonably good chance of producing positive results. Conversely, when we don’t have control over little things, we tend to assume that we can’t control the bigger things. Even worse, that feeling of not having control translates into a loss of initiative and creativity. Leverage cuts both ways.

In any organization, those stressors that decrease our sense of control are thus the most damaging. Organizational politics are one obvious example, but at a more direct level, the less control employees have over their immediate environment, the less initiative they take overall. Being able to, within reason, decorate your office or cubicle creates a sense of control. Conversely, when companies have elaborate rules that unduly limit personal expression, control is seriously decreased. Without that sense of control, employees become more like the person whose finger is being twisted rather than like the person doing the twisting: they might be compliant, but they are not enthusiastic or committed.

An article in the NY Times discussed how Google addresses exactly this issue. Google doesn’t just allow employees to decorate their work area; employees get to design their work area. Google provides them with the equivalent of high tech tinker toys that employees can use to build the work area they want. Feel like having a treadmill? No problem. Walking desk? Sure. The article pointed out that Google doesn’t even have an official policy about coming in to the office; rather, the assumption is that the employee will work out a reasonable schedule with her team. This is control in action: employees are given control over their environment, even whether to come to the office to work. This control, coupled with making the office an very enjoyable place to work, leads to employees who exercise their control to work longer and harder than anyone could ever force them to work. Indeed, one of the problems Google has is that sometimes they have to chase people out of the office! What would you do to have problems like that?

When we have to force someone to do something, either through threats or through lavish rewards, they don’t get a sense of control or commitment. They are being controlled, but they are not in control. Now, if all we want is compliance, maybe that’s just fine! Indeed, if the task is easy, that may even be sufficient. However, if we want a committed, enthusiastic work force that believes themselves capable of tackling big projects and overcoming apparently overwhelming obstacles, the secret to getting there is to give them control of the little things.

The Measure Of All Things

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

It’s a familiar refrain, one I hear quite often. There’s even some truth to it, at least for those things that are easily measureable. After all, if you want to keep track of how many widgets you are stamping out, maximize efficiency, profit, and so forth, then it really does help to be able to measure it. If you’re mixing ingredients for a cake, it helps be able to precisely measure out a cup of sugar or three eggs. The problem is, not everything quite so easily lends itself to being measured. Take, for example, enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is something everyone wants; let’s face it, unenthusiastic employees are particularly hard to motivate, whereas enthusiastic people are very much self-motivated. Enthusiasm, however, is difficult to measure. The most common attempt to measure something like enthusiasm is to look for things that might indicate enthusiasm: perhaps people arriving early and leaving late is a good marker of enthusiasm. On the other hand, perhaps neither of those behaviors are markers of enthusiasm. After all, why should they be? I admit that it seems likely that they are, but seeming likely is no guarantee of anything. In this case, we’re falling into the trap of grabbing onto something that easy to track and using it to measure the thing we care about. That’s sort of like using a tape measure to determine the correct quantity of flour for a cake simply because the tape measure is handy and the measuring cup is not. In fact, while some people manifest enthusiasm by showing up early and leaving late, others manifest enthusiasm through greater intensity of focus for shorter periods of time or by coming up with ideas at weird hours and so forth. The manifestation depends a lot on the person and the job to be done.

A related problem is confusing how we’re trying measure a thing for the thing itself. In this case, after deciding that coming in early and staying late must be valid ways to measure enthusiasm, someone comes up with the brilliant idea if you just require that everyone arrive early and leave late then they will become enthusiastic. In fact, quite the opposite is likely to occur. A Geiger counter measures radioactivity, but, outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, rewiring a Geiger counter so it clicks wildly doesn’t make the area radioactive.

So, we have a problem. We don’t want measure something by just picking the most convenient yardstick and hoping that it works. We also don’t want to mistake that convenient yardstick, or even an accurate yardstick, for the thing we’re trying to measure. What do we do?

At root, measuring is just a way of comparing two things. A ruler lets us measure length by comparing the length of an object to something – the ruler – with a known length. A Geiger counter lets us measure radioactivity by translating radiation into something we can hear. Thus, if we want to measure enthusiasm, we need to figure out what things we really are trying to compare with one another. Does enthusiasm mean less failure work? Does it mean fewer bugs in the product? More work done in a shorter time? How about greater creativity or a desire to come up with novel solutions to problems? Or maybe people coming up with unexpected and imaginative ways to approach their jobs? Any of the above, but not all of them at once?

Measuring by comparison does provide us with an approach to measuring, and potentially managing, things are inherently hard to measure. It does, however, lack a certain level of precision. On the other hand, that may not be all that important. Sometimes, all you really need is a reasonably good sense of which direction you are going.

“If you can’t compare it, you can’t manage it,” isn’t quite as snappy or as simple as “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” but it is more useful. You just have to find the right points of comparison and be willing to work with a certain degree of imprecision. Once you can do that, it’s amazing how many different, and effective, ways there are to manage the things you can’t measure.

The Incomparables

“Did you hear that? They compared me to Hitler!”

“Favorably, I hope.”

There is a simple way to not publish a book: just tell the publisher that there’s nothing like it on the market. If there’s nothing like it — in other words, it’s unique — then, so the logic goes, there must not be a market for it. Of course, the real problem is that they have nothing to compare the book to; it’s incomparable.

Blake Edward’s classic comedy, The Pink Panther, features the incomparable Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau pursuing a jewel thief. The thief is after the Pink Panther, an incomparable diamond.

“Incomparable” is a popular word in at least a few descriptions of the movie. However, at the risk of mixing metaphors, or at least movies, as Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride: “You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think means.”

The problem with “incomparable” is that when it’s actually true, it doesn’t really tell us very much. Comparison is key to knowing how to value something, be that a meal at a restaurant or a product we want to buy. As Robert Cialdini points out in Influence, knowing that a bracelet costs $50 is relatively meaningless because we only have the haziest idea of what it’s actually worth. But when that same bracelet is priced at “$50, marked down from $100,” now it seems like a much better deal. The comparison tells us the value, Granted, this may be manipulated by clever marketeers, but it still works surprisingly often. For example, in his book, Predictably Irrational, Daniel Arielly describes an ad from the Economist magazine: $59 for a web only subscription, $125 for print, and $125 for print and web combined.

Does this seem odd? The same price for print and print and web? Given that, who would take the print only version? The answer, of course, was very few people; that wasn’t the point. The real point was that putting in that “fake” middle option (yes, you could have chosen it, but why?) made the combined option much more attractive. In fact, the presence of the middle option caused more people to chose the more expensive combined option rather than the web only option, whereas without the middle option more people chose the cheaper web only option. The right point of comparison makes a big difference: given an apple, we look for something else that looks like an apple to compare it to; we don’t compare the apple to an orange. Comparisons are our mental landmarks that help us figure out which way to go: we compare PCs to Macs, grocery stores to grocery stores, clothing to clothing, etc.

This means that when marketing a product, we need to be able to provide some landmarks to go with it. If we don’t provide landmarks, then one of two things happens: either the product is ignored because we’re not sure what good it is or what it is really worth; or, it gets compared to something randomly. In other words, either the blank space in the map confuses people or they take the wrong turn. Thus, it is critically important to frame the comparison properly: being compared to Hitler might make someone look good. More seriously, Dunkin Donuts sells coffee, but Starbucks sells an elegant experience which happens to include a cup of expensive coffee. As coffee goes, Starbucks is expensive; as an “experience,” maybe not so much. Similarly, many companies sell smartphones, but Apple sells a device that, if their commercials are to believed, is integral to a life enhancing experience. On the flip side, Apple is struggling to convince people that the iPad Pro is a reasonable PC replacement: the Pro is a tablet, and it’s hard to compare a tablet to a PC; our brains want to compare it to other tablets because that’s what it looks like. It’s all a question of framing the comparison; even then, the frame has to make sense.

There was nothing incomparable about Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. It’s exactly because the character of a detective is so easy to grasp that his portrayal of the bumbling Clouseau was so incredibly funny… by comparison (and you are probably imagining plenty of characters to compare him to). When you’re looking at your incomparable product, just what will people compare it to?

The Incomparables

“Did you hear that? They compared me to Hitler!”

“Favorably, I hope.”

There is a simple way to not publish a book: just tell the publisher that there’s nothing like it on the market. If there’s nothing like it — in other words, it’s unique — then, so the logic goes, there must not be a market for it. Of course, the real problem is that they have nothing to compare the book to; it’s incomparable.

Blake Edward’s classic comedy, The Pink Panther, features the incomparable Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau pursuing a jewel thief. The thief is after the Pink Panther, an incomparable diamond.

“Incomparable” is a popular word in at least a few descriptions of the movie. However, at the risk of mixing metaphors, or at least movies, as Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride: “You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think means.”

The problem with “incomparable” is that when it’s actually true, it doesn’t really tell us very much. Comparison is key to knowing how to value something, be that a meal at a restaurant or a product we want to buy. As Robert Cialdini points out in Influence, knowing that a bracelet costs $50 is relatively meaningless because we only have the haziest idea of what it’s actually worth. But when that same bracelet is priced at “$50, marked down from $100,” now it seems like a much better deal. The comparison tells us the value, Granted, this may be manipulated by clever marketeers, but it still works surprisingly often. For example, in his book, Predictably Irrational, Daniel Arielly describes an ad from the Economist magazine: $59 for a web only subscription, $125 for print, and $125 for print and web combined.

Does this seem odd? The same price for print and print and web? Given that, who would take the print only version? The answer, of course, was very few people; that wasn’t the point. The real point was that putting in that “fake” middle option (yes, you could have chosen it, but why?) made the combined option much more attractive. In fact, the presence of the middle option caused more people to chose the more expensive combined option rather than the web only option, whereas without the middle option more people chose the cheaper web only option. The right point of comparison makes a big difference: given an apple, we look for something else that looks like an apple to compare it to; we don’t compare the apple to an orange. Comparisons are our mental landmarks that help us figure out which way to go: we compare PCs to Macs, grocery stores to grocery stores, clothing to clothing, etc.

This means that when marketing a product, we need to be able to provide some landmarks to go with it. If we don’t provide landmarks, then one of two things happens: either the product is ignored because we’re not sure what good it is or what it is really worth; or, it gets compared to something randomly. In other words, either the blank space in the map confuses people or they take the wrong turn. Thus, it is critically important to frame the comparison properly: being compared to Hitler might make someone look good. More seriously, Dunkin Donuts sells coffee, but Starbucks sells an elegant experience which happens to include a cup of expensive coffee. As coffee goes, Starbucks is expensive; as an “experience,” maybe not so much. Similarly, many companies sell smartphones, but Apple sells a device that, if their commercials are to believed, is integral to a life enhancing experience. On the flip side, Apple is struggling to convince people that the iPad Pro is a reasonable PC replacement: the Pro is a tablet, and it’s hard to compare a tablet to a PC; our brains want to compare it to other tablets because that’s what it looks like. It’s all a question of framing the comparison; even then, the frame has to make sense.

There was nothing incomparable about Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. It’s exactly because the character of a detective is so easy to grasp that his portrayal of the bumbling Clouseau was so incredibly funny… by comparison (and you are probably imagining plenty of characters to compare him to). When you’re looking at your incomparable product, just what will people compare it to?

The Secret Life of Pies

So there you are on Thanksgiving. Dinner is over and it’s time for dessert. You bring out the traditional impressive array of pies. However, with the exception of some teens, everyone is stuffed (five minutes ago, this included the teens).  The pies just sit there, and you are facing the possibility of a house full of leftover pie.

Of course, some people might not have any problem with this.

But let us suppose that you really would like your guests to eat the dessert. I’m not sure why; perhaps you don’t want a house full of desserts or maybe it involves a clever plot to take over the world (hey, it’s no less believable than many James Bond plots). In any case, how do you get a lot of people to eat the pie?

Well, if you have a lot of people there, it’s not that hard. Just bring out one pie. The moment it looks like there’s not enough dessert for everyone, suddenly everyone is hungry again. Once one person takes a piece, the rest won’t be far behind. Fortunately, the odds are extremely low that your dinner will degenerate into a frantic struggle for control of the pie, although putting out a single pastry could result in a sudden game of scones.

So what does this have to do with business? That depends on how much your company values teamwork. In some companies, teamwork is irrelevant. No one cares, it’s not important, and it’s not how you get things done. In that case, you probably won’t care about the rest of this article. On the other hand, if teamwork does matter to you, then you might want to keep reading. Teams of all sorts tend to be very concerned with pies, and it’s not because an army travels on its stomach. Rather, much like that Thanksgiving dinner, what matters is the size of the pie. Different flavors can help, but primarily size matters.

Ultimately, the degree to which team members will cooperate or compete with one another depends very much on the size of the metaphorical pie they are working towards. When the pie is perceived to be large enough for everyone, you get cooperation. When the pie is perceived to be too small, you get competition.

But isn’t competition healthy? Friendly competition can be healthy under the right conditions. However, when the competition is at work, and the “trophy” directly impacts your job, then the competition quickly starts to look like an episode of “Tom Slick,” complete with all the dirty tricks and without the humor. In other words, not particularly healthy competition.

If all this seems too theoretical, or is just making you hungry for pie, think about Microsoft. For much of their corporate existence, they practiced employee stacking:  members of each team were rated from high to low. The highest rated people got the rewards, and the lowest rated were eliminated. Now, there is a claim that this encourages people to work harder. What it actually did was encourage their top people to avoid working together so that they wouldn’t be in competition with one another. It encouraged hiring weak performers so that there would always be someone to take the fall. It encouraged team members to sabotage one another rather than cooperate. It encouraged people to become very skilled at looking like they were sharing information while still withholding critical details. To be fair, they did work very hard at these tasks. Unfortunately, it can take years to regain the trust lost along the way.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the big pie encourages cooperation while the little pie triggers competition. If you want a successful team, and a successful company, find ways to expand the pie, and focus your competitive instincts on your real competition.

And if you’re bored after your next big holiday meal, you can always try serving a single pie and see what happens. Let me know how it goes.

When Goals Take Over

“Just give me the numbers!”

Falling firmly into the “I just can’t make this stuff up” category, the preceding statement was made by the head of a certain engineering department. He wanted the performance figures on a series of database lookups so that he could determine if the database code was performing up to specifications. This would be a perfectly reasonable request except for one minor problem: the database code was not producing the correct results in the first place. Performance was sort of irrelevant given that getting the wrong answers quickly is not necessarily all that helpful, although it may be less irritating than having to wait for the wrong answers. It’s rather like driving at 75mph when lost: you may not know where you are or where you are going, but at least you’ll get there quickly. Or something.

In another example, the engineers developing a bioinformatics data analysis package spent all their time arguing about the correct way to set up the GUI elements on each page. The problem was that when they actually ran one of the calculations, the program appeared to hang. In fact, I was assured by everyone, it just “took a long time to run.” How long? The answer was, “maybe a few weeks.”

This may come as a shock to those few people who have never used a PC, but a few weeks is generally longer than most computers will run before crashing (or installing an update without warning). Besides, the complete lack of response from the program regularly convinced users that the program had crashed. The engineers did not want to put in some visual indicator of progress because they felt it wouldn’t look good visually. They refused to remove that calculation from the product because “someone might want to try it.” Eventually, they grudgingly agreed to warn the user that it “might take a very long time to run.”

In both of these cases, the team was solving the wrong problem. Although there were definitely complaints about the speed of the database, speed was very much a secondary issue so long as the database wasn’t producing correct results. And while the user interface decisions were certainly important, designing an elegant interface for a feature that will convince the user that the product is not working is not particularly useful. At least rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic was only a waste of time. It didn’t contribute to the ship sinking.

So why were these teams so insistent upon solving the wrong problems? If you give someone a problem they can solve comfortably, and one that they have no idea how to approach, they will do the former. At that point, once goals are set, they become the focus of everyone’s attention and a lot of work goes into accomplishing them. That is, after all, the best thing about goals; unfortunately, it can also be the worst thing about goals.

While clear, specific goals are certainly good things, goals also have to make sense. You need to have the right goals. It can be a very valuable exercise to look at the goals assigned to each person and each team in the company. Do those goals make sense? What problems or challenges are they addressing? Are the goals complementary, or are there significant gaps? If the engineering team is being evaluated on how many bugs they can fix and the QA team on how many new bugs they can find, what happens to the step where fixed bugs get verified? If no one is responsible for that happening, it won’t get done (and didn’t, in several software companies!). If the team focuses on the wrong problems, they’ll spend their time fighting symptoms or revisiting solved problems, and never deal with the real issues.

Therefore, even before you can set goals, you have to know what the problem is that you are trying to solve. That means first separating the symptoms of the problem from the problem itself. The symptoms are only symptoms; frequently, they can point to many possible problems. It’s important to look at the symptoms and brainstorm which problems they could be indicating. When you start developing possible solutions, you then need to ask what the final product will look like if you go ahead with your solution and you need to know what success looks like. Make sure that your proposed solution will actually solve at least some of the potential problems you’ve identified, and develop some way of testing to make sure you are solving the correct problem. In other words, have some checkpoints along the way so you can make sure that you’re actually improving things. Only then can you start to set goals that will effectively guide you to producing the results you actually need.

Once goals are set, they have a way of taking over. What are you doing to make sure you don’t set goals before you know where you’re going?

The Case of the Blind Airplane Pilot

Recently, on Best of Cartalk, Tom told an interesting tale.

Apparently, a plane was delayed taking off. This isn’t the interesting part; in fact, that’s hardly even news. The plane subsequently made a stop and, big surprise, got delayed again. At this point, the pilot announced that since they were going to be sitting at the gate for some time, passengers might wish to disembark and stretch their legs. Everyone left except for Mr. Jones, a blind man. He had apparently flown this flight before as the pilot knew him by name.

“Mr Jones,” the pilot said, approaching the man, “we’ll be at the gate for at least an hour. Would you like to leave the plane?”

“No thank you,” said Jones, “but perhaps my dog would like a walk.”

A few moments later, passengers at the gate were treated to the sight of the pilot, in full uniform and wearing sunglasses, walking past seemingly led by a Seeing Eye dog.

Sometimes things are not what they appear to be. Of course a blind man with a service dog cannot be an airline pilot. The dogs can’t read the instruments. When it comes to choosing leaders, though, sometimes we’re not much different from a blind airline pilot, with potentially similar results if we get it wrong.

The question of whether someone looks like a leader is a concept that has been in the news a bit lately. I was asked on a radio show once what a leader looks like. I created a stretch of dead air when I responded, “Whatever we think a leader looks like.”

This is the problem with leadership: we can’t necessarily agree on what a leader looks like or even what it means to look like a leader.

Where do we learn what a leader looks like? Fundamentally, from our culture via a variety of sources: growing up, it may be through stories, books, TV, and movies. It may be through activities we take part in, such as sports or playing Dungeons and Dragons. It may be through acting in plays or participating in live roleplaying scenarios. In the workforce, people are seen as leaders sometimes just because they physically resemble other leaders or the company founder. Sometimes, merely acting like a known leader or imitating some key characteristic of theirs or being associated with them psychologically is enough to become recognizable as a leader.

The thing is, those cultural lessons are usually superficial and, at best, tell us only what past leaders looked like. Even worse, when someone matches up to the superficial characteristics of leadership, it is a common human response to assume they have other characteristics as well. Which other characteristics? Whichever characteristics the viewer thinks a leader should have. Conversely, those who do not fit the superficial image of “leader” are then assumed to not have the abilities a leader needs to be successful. Thus, an organization that focuses only on what worked in the past will often blind itself to the vast pool of talented people whom it is not promoting, and who are the right people for the problems the organization has today or will have tomorrow.

Ironically, a common reflex when things don’t work is to become frustrated and metaphorically hit the system with a monkey wrench: while percussive maintenance might sometimes work with a mechanical device, even then it works mainly in fiction. In reality, kicking your computer will rarely yield good results for either the computer or your foot. Hiring someone unskilled for the job just to shake things up may feel very satisfying, but the results are similar to hiring a pastry chef to perform open-heart surgery. He may shake things up, but it’s your funeral.

Thus, it is critical to look seriously at what a leader will be expected to do. What role will they play? What skills will they need? Failing to do this makes it easy to fall into the trap of appointing someone with the wrong skillset, or no skills at all. For example, in the early 2000s, Pfizer had two potential CEO candidates: Hank McKinnell and Karen Caten. McKinnell was an aggressive, abrasive man; Caten a woman who was praised for her ability to build teams. Pfizer chose McKinnell. As Harvard Business Review later observed, he was forced out five years later amid declining share prices, his abrasive manner being less than effective despite the fact that it initially appealed to board members’ mental image of what a leader “looked” like.

The image of an airline pilot with a service dog is comical. Choosing the wrong person to lead an organization is not. Leadership is about more than superficial characteristics: leaders require knowledge, skill, and temperament in order to be successful. Actually taking the time to understand the issues at a more than superficial level is critical to making a successful choice. There’s no reason to fly blind.

Kubler-Ross Meets the Saucer People

Hello world!

Kubler-Ross Meets the Saucer People

A psychologist and flying saucers? No, it’s not some bizarre new cooking show from the Food Network. Back in the 1960s, Leon Festinger, of cognitive dissonance fame, and two other psychologists were investigating a flying saucer cult. The cultists believed that the saucers would come and take them from the Earth before all life was destroyed by a great flood. The psychologists wanted to find out what would happen when the world didn’t end on schedule. Although some people might have thought them biased, they did not consider the case where the world did end on schedule.

Interestingly enough, when doomsday came and went with neither flood nor flying saucers, the cultists did not abandon their faith. They concluded that their actions had somehow saved the world, they became even more convinced of their beliefs, and they immediately launched into a massive recruitment drive. It was only after that failed, months later, that the saucer cult collapsed. But, as Festinger went on to observe, that didn’t always happen: sometimes the recruitment drive was successful, and the cult would survive for years after its belief system had been ostensibly proven false.

This phenomenon is hardly unknown in business and non-business realms alike. Sometimes an idea simply won’t die even after reality has stuck the metaphorical fork in it and declared it done. Whether this is a small group fighting to preserve a product idea that’s been abandoned or people stubbornly supporting a political candidate who has lost the primary, the faithful are undeterred by the fact that the flying saucers did not arrive on schedule. Denial is a powerful force, particularly when other people reinforce the belief.

Denial, of course, is one of the stages of grief in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although grieving does not require that any particular person experience the stages in any particular order, or even that each person will experience every stage, nonetheless the model is a powerful tool for understanding how people are likely to react when something they are deeply committed to comes to an end or does not turn out as expected.

It is at that point of experiencing loss, be that the loss of a person or of an idea, that Kubler-Ross meets the saucer people. It is at that point that denial can take charge and then take a flying saucer ride around reality: the loss of an idea is the loss of an abstraction. There is no body; rather, the physical world is unchanged. This can create a profound sense of cognitive dissonance, in which everything can appear as it did before even as everything is also very different.

Denial can be difficult, although hardly impossible, when one is alone. The more people who join in the denial process, however, the easier it gets. When a tightly knit group collectively denies the facts that are in front of it, members of the group are often forced to choose between joining in the denial or abandoning the group. The greater their commitment to the group, the more of their lives they’ve invested in it, the harder it is to leave. And the denial is so tempting… and surely if everyone else is saying the same thing that you are feeling, well, you can’t all be wrong. Well, in fact, you can all be wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Given enough people all in denial together and suddenly what you have is a group that is engaging in something that looks suspiciously like groupthink.

Even for a diffuse social group, the same phenomenon can still take place. Social media dramatically and drastically simplifies the process of denial as it becomes ever easier for group members to collectively reinforce each other’s belief system. As for reality, it’s lucky if it only gets kicked to the curb.

Once again, the group enters the realm of groupthink. It allows in only information that supports its views and denies the validity or existence of anything that does not. In either case, the members of the group are never able to process their loss and some to terms with reality. Whether this is merely a footnote in a history book or a significant cause of financial loss to a business really depends on the situation. Of course, the second situation can often lead to the group becoming one of those footnotes.

So how can you tell if your group is about to take a ride on a flying saucer? There are a few clues.

Are you closing yourself off to input from people or sources who disagree with you? If you only listen to the people who tell you what you want to hear and what you already “know” that’s a danger signal.

Are you turning against the very people whom you used to trust because now they’re telling you something you don’t want to hear? For example, many Bernie Sanders supporters turned against economist Paul Krugman when he criticized Bernie’s economic plan as a fantasy. Suddenly, Krugman was a sellout and the enemy. In fact, it was the Sanders supporters who were embarking on a flying saucer ride.

Are you refusing to allow in anyone who might tell you that you’re wrong? When groups get stuck, they will often use all manner of techniques to avoid considering alternatives. For example, being “too busy” to stop and think is one tried and true approach to simultaneously feeling like you are doing something without actually changing anything. This makes it easier to keep out anyone who might tell you something you don’t want to hear.

The problem with flying saucer rides is that no matter how comforting they might be, eventually they always crash and burn. If you want to make progress, though, you need to find a way to get off the saucer.