Friday, October 28, 2005

Change Management: This Time With Feeling

I had a conversation about process improvement with David Firth, successful and inspired change management consultant in England.

In our discussion, David told me about some work he did with a multinational manufacturer around challenges with their supply chain. Teams of highly intelligent people were not working well together, primarily because they were not communicating effectively.

Leadership called him in to research the problem and to solve it. In that context, I wondered about if he found similar challenges to process improvement across industries.

AK: What do you find to be the biggest block to effective thinking when change is required in businesses?

DF: Here’s an anecdote: I sat down to lunch with a guy from the group from [the multinational manufacturer]. He proudly told me that just before the course, he and his team had been through the Meyers-Briggs test and found that not one of them – in a team of about 15 or 20 people – had an F score.

So they hadn’t any people in their group who tested with emotional characteristics. None at all. The attitude was proudly, “And that’s a great thing, isn’t it?"

AK: What did that tell you?

DF: I was so struck by the sort of analogy of the computer people in the early 1990s -- I know from working in a lot of IT-related industries or IT parts of organizations that there was a heck of a strong culture that sustained rigid attitudes.

AK: How would you describe that culture exactly?

DF: I think it’s a very masculine culture, even if it the employees aren't all men. It’s about gathering things round you, it’s about keeping the tribe together, it’s about being against the world.

AK: Against the world?

DF: Yeah, that’s maybe a bit strong. I’m thinking about what they did in the Wild West movies when the Indians came to attack them . . . ?

AK: They circled the wagons.

DF: Right. I always thought about that in IT departments. It’s a pride in their own language, in the way they do things . . . .

AK: But what does that have to do with not using emotional strengths -- or emotional intelligence? The idea of hunkering down, and being against the world?

DF: The analogy between the IT department is that we’re right as we are, we don’t need to change. This guy was saying, “Not only are we fine as we are, I’m born this way. You can’t change me."

AK: But it also sounds like what you’re saying is that the way that you prove that you’re right Is by demonstrating that there are no emotional components to your decision-making process.

DF: Yes. It’s about being right. And being right demands that you use only your head and deny that there are emotions involved. Somehow it's believed to be not only possible but necessary.

Look, the goal is to get to the right answer. The path is to eliminate everything that they feel doesn’t belong to them because it isn't comfortable.

AK: So as I see it, what you're saying is that this group feels that by limiting their perspective, they are strengthening it. Entertaining the value of new ways of seeing or learning is absolutely out?

DF: Exactly.

More on connections between obstacles to effective thinking at work and creativity in other contexts in future posts.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Some Thoughts on Credibility and Handling Change

How flexible is your organization's ability to expand its brand as the market changes? How do you gauge the persuasiveness of your value proposition as priorities shift?

Expectations are a moving target. Ideas that seem shocking at first can become second nature with repetition. If you want to keep your market's attention, it's essential to determine on an ongoing basis in what regard belief systems hold up over time.

Credibility is what you need for a strong business case, so look at what constitutes credibility where you're sitting right now.

The Russian Formalists Again

Boris Tomashevsky offers a useful vocabulary for this phenomenon. He suggested that conventions (or structures whose meaning we take for granted) have a life cycle whose length often diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of exposure they get.

First, back to Viktor Shklovsky:Convention is by definition what is taken for granted.

Every situation in which we find ourselves constitutes a collection of conventions.

Every situation implicitly defines value through relying on a collection of conventions and by rejecting others.

Put another way, every situation is built on a series of arguments. These arguments support certain behavioral, linguistic, and environmental cues while ignoring or devaluing others.

Conventions contain value propositions that define the look and meaning of power and the possibilities for shifting control. They also define what constitutes credibility.

A kind of situational literacy, then, is necessary to understand how meaning is constructed in any particular environment. Identifying conventions and the arguments that support them is the first step to understanding what constitutes credibility. Once literate, it's possible to respond with an effective (aka persuasive) business case.

As in all learning, this sort of literacy combines emotional and intellectual intelligence that is difficult to parse in one go. However, a vocabulary is helpful to begin.

An Example: In the Jaws of a Dilemma

Horror movies provide a good way of looking at convention in Tomashevsky's terms.

When Jaws first introduced shark-as-immediate-threat, the market can be said to have been naive in relation to the convention. The first film had vacationers genuinely nervous about going into the ocean.

By the second film, audiences were more sophisticated. The shark might have been scary in the context of the film, but the strings were beginning to show. With enough exposure in multiple viewings and ads, the shark began appearing primarily as an object of parody in places like Saturday Night Live.

Parody is a clear indication that a convention has lost its intended value or meaning. If people can laugh at something they once found frightening, the implicit argument ("this shark is scary") has lost its credibility. Tomashevsky called this last stage of a convention's lifestyle "decadence."

Example 2: The Break-Down of a Business Case

I'm introducing this example to make a point about brand, not about politics per se:

It's not entirely due to recent disclosures that the Bush administration has stopped making references to "Weapons of Mass Destruction" as a phrase.

The convention that the US went to war with Iraq was introduced to a market naive, in Tomashevsky's terms, because it had never heard the rallying cry before. Most people took at face value its meaning -- and the implications that combine to make up the convention.

Eventually, through repetition, the words crept into the national vocabulary, and the phrase became one with an argument for war. The country was sophisticated to the convention, in Tomashevsky's term because they took its meaning for granted.

However, like the shark, this convention also had a life cycle. Overexposure began to drain the words of value, and the convention it represented suffered its first bout of decadence. If the words don't have impact, the argument also loses its punch.

Accronyms demonstrate that the sum value of its individual words can be taken for granted. So the Bush Administration created a new term -- WMD -- to reinvigorate the convention and thereby the argument for its political position.

These days, no one takes the argument the phrase represents for granted. It's used more by people like Bill Mahr than by the Republicans. Part of this, of course, comes from new evidence that the argument was not true in the first place. Nothing like being caught in a lie to destroy credibility.

But part of the fault for the fall from grace of WMDs lies in the failure of the Bush administration's to watch over the life cycle of the conventions that together comprise its brand. Overexposure and rigid adherence to a single phrase ran the convention through its life cycle, and its implicit argument couldn't hold up when decadence set in. Markets are conversations, and you have to listen as belief systems change.

As Jonas Karlsson recently pointed out in the September issue of Vanity Fair, "Some people don't like change. Change doesn't much care."

Monday, October 24, 2005

Good Thinking For Financial Services

What does out-of-the box thinking entail? What makes creative problem-solvers effective in business?

I spoke to a Partner in a money management firm who talked to me about the qualities of mind he thinks are most important in financial services professionals.

AK: What do you look for in people you hire?

P: All of the Partners had an interesting conversation about this yesterday. I said, "Listen, we hire analysts right out of business school, and that's what everyone else does, too. So how are we going to get a different view of the world than the competition?

AK: What sort of person would you recruit instead?

P: An ideal person for me would be a journalist. Success in Finance is less about number-crunching than the tendency to be curious and analytical. I can get all the numbers I want from the internet.

AK: Why a journalist?

P: What I need is for someone to interpret data in a way that's different from the next guy. A lot of industry knowledge can create blinders. But if you're a journalist or a psychologist, you'll probably see the big picture in a way I hadn't considered.

AK: So what is the most important skill you're looking for?

P: Curiosity is number one. You have to ask a lot questions and not simply accept what you're told.

Public companies are always going to give you a rosy picture, so you have to really dig in and ask good questions.

AK: What's number two?

P: The second most important quality is tenacity. You have to get on a plane and see a supplier or competitor rather than just taking the latest research at face value.

Curiosity isn't enough in business without an outcome. That comes from tenacity -- trial and error.

You need to be creative -- business is an art.

AK: Do you think curiosity and creativity are heredity?

P: A lot of curiosity and tenacity depend on confidence. Your environment either supports the act of asking questions or it doesn't.

Tools -- particularly education -- helps, too, but not necessarily for reasons most people say.

It's not the actual data you learn in classes that's most important per se.

If you have a good liberal arts education, you've developed a lot of strategies to support your curiosity. And that will help with confidence as well.

So a liberal arts education would be more useful than a business degree in many cases. You've got experience in a variety of disciplines asking questions about things that are entirely unfamiliar to start. . . .

A lot of people don't have the background to support them in this way. I might be the most curious person in the world, but I might not say a word if I am afraid.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Your Company Line: Is Anyone Listening?

Business leaders, brush up your conversational skills and those of your managers. It may be time to stop talking and start listening.

See Harvard Business Review's excellent article on The Passive-Aggressive Organization .

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

What's In the Box?: Mixing It Up with the NYPD

Cross Disciplinary Thinking

If The Box's square footage is defined by ideas that your people take for granted , place your Box next to the contents of someone else's.

Our brains make patterns automatically. When we provide it with data points usually seen in different contexts, new and useful connections emerge.

Cross-disciplinary thinking defamiliarizes ideas that we otherwise consider commonplace and can make us aware of assumptions we otherwise ignore. This awareness, in turn, can lead to new insights and innovative problem solving.

Not to mention very effective business cases.

Here's what I was told by James Shanahan, a retired New York City cop:

JS: I have a martial arts background, and I teach a technique called Verbal Judo .

Law enforcement is usually thought of as aggressive. A martial arts perspective, on the other hand, wants to prevent conflict. . . .

AK: How is Verbal Judo different from other training?

JS: The purpose of Verbal Judo is to "generate voluntary compliance." In plain language, it means getting people to do what you need them to do while allowing them to think it was their idea.

AK: So you're teaching cops to create a business case to resolve conflict?

JS: Exactly.

AK: Why Verbal Judo?

JS: You don't think of talking as a kind of Judo. So I the name gets the attention of my cops but in language they would accept. Obviously, martial arts make sense to people going out to risk their lives every day.

Verbal Judo sits at the meeting point of Eastern and Western philosophies. The combination creates a new approach for old conflicts that might otherwise seem unsolvable.

AK: What problem are you trying to address?

JS: A lot of cops need to remember that the first reaction to a challenging situation doesn't necessarily have to be reflex. They learn from their experience, sure, but they also have to learn to really notice what's going on -- here and now. The individuals they confront are people, just like them.

(Interrupts himself)

You have to understand, these law enforcement students of mine have had lots of time on the job. You get attacked, it's going to influence you the next time.

AK: How does Verbal Judo work?

JS: I don't ask the cops to forget what they know about dangerous situations. Instead, I say, "Just don't GO IN expecting the same thing to happen again." I try to help them to remember to really look at the next situation as NEW.

That can be challenging because all of a sudden a cop can be in the middle of something out of nowhere. So they need to look around and see what they're dealing with NOW. Assess the situation, and try not to jump to conclusions.

If it's possible, I remind them to start talking -- starting a conversation usually works better than shouting. They know it, but most cops start get worn down by experience. In a way, it's all about empathy.

AK: How do your students respond?

JS: They like my class because I understand where they're coming from and am really trying to help. They work hard. But it's a challenge. People who have been in the field for a long time tend to jump to conclusions because it can ultimately be safer for them than trying alternatives.

This means that the cops have to be ready to change tactics at the same time they verbally engage without assuming the worst. On the other hand, they have to get tough if they see that they're in real danger.

It's a tough job. No way around it.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Good Thinking: What Is It Exactly?

Do CEOs value the same qualities of mind as leaders from milieux other than Big Business?

Are there similarities among the kinds of deliverables they demand, strategies they employ, and challenges they encounter?

Over the past three years, I've interviewed scores of executives, educators, entrepreneurs, and creative leaders to find out.

A Starting Point

The impulse for this study was a CEO interview about brand-building conducted three years ago.

In response to a question about brand strategy, my subject responded angrily:

Why is it so hard to find people to think out of the box? I've met thousands of people, hired at least a hundred, and it's impossible to find creative problem-solvers in the numbers you need.

In fact, effective thinking was consistently his biggest challenge as CEO of not one but three multinational corporations.

The more we talked, the more similar my subject's experienced echoed the challenges I faced teaching students from nursery school through university.

It seemed worth looking into.

Some Questions

The first step was to identify some common criteria for successful thinking, regardless of field or cultural/business context. I wanted to know:

  • Do those in charge think about how people learn? (They do.)

  • Do they feel it's easy to cultivate effective thinking? (They don't.)


  • Can they articulate what they're keen to find? (It's often a struggle.)

    More about what I found in future posts.
  • Friday, October 14, 2005

    Pinter ? Wins a Nobel Prize?

    I happily admit to appreciating some of Harold Pinter's early plays. When they were new, they disrupted expectations about identity, relationships, behavior, and safety.

    Most of all, they were fun to teach -- stylish proofs that structure determines meaning. Very good for shaking up a university student's attachment to Cats.

    But a Nobel Prize?

    Expectations are a moving target, and Pinter did the same thing over and over. Even the most radical statements become mundane with enough repetition. Today Pinter's devices seem mechanical and quaint rather than shocking, and the plays seem like a series of acting exercises.

    If you're looking for an intellectual maverick heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett, doesn't Maria Irene Fornes pack more of a punch? Better yet, why not move beyond fantasies of apocolyptic landscapes -- real and emotional -- to something new?

    Julie Taymor, for example, has created a new kind of theater performance.

    Taymor's characters are not quite prop and not entirely human either. Actors strike a surreal balance between abstract and literal representation for an effect that is hard to describe but immediately clear on sight. Pretty radical stuff for the American theater these days.

    And she got Disney to pay for it.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2005

    Crossing Disciplines and Seeing Things New

    The value of working cross disciplines is the possibility it offers to see things new . If insight is what we're after in business or in a classroom, this is one way to find it.

    How Does It Work?

    Psycholinguistics teaches that thinking is associative and meaning changes with context.

    Our mind sees the world in metaphors, as Doc Searls puts it. Our assumptions about individual objects, places, and people are often unarticulated, and as important, they are often culturally consistent.

    We don't much notice of a can of soup in a grocery store. We either eat canned soup, or we don't, and in most cases we don't question the reasons for our choice.

    Seeing New Possibilities In Relationships

    The value or meaning of an object, place, person, etc. is not fixed or irrevocable. It can expand simply by putting it in a relationship with some other object, place, person etc. The objects don't change, but the ideas we usually attach to the objects can.

    The mind craves narrative, a colleague's voice mail used to plead when asking callers to leave a message. When presented with an unfamiliar or incomplete set of data points, we simply create a new pattern.

    A Familiar Example

    What if some nut took that soup can we didn't notice -- or a urinal, say -- and put it in a museum?

    If the pairing is surprising enough (it was), we take time to consider the distance between our expectations and the current juxtaposition. The image becomes symbolic as well as literal.

    Where once it was invisible, we give new attention and meaning to the object, function, image, and environment as well as the relationship among the group.

    Because thinking is associative, the mind finds connections or constructs conceptual bridges between two objects it hadn't consider alike before. In that process, we can find insight into new ways of seeing each member of the pair as well as the pair itself.

    Translate "ways of seeing" as "value," and you've got a strategy for researching and building brand.

    Monday, October 10, 2005

    A Note on Conventional Wisdom

    CEOs and teachers alike complain about a lack of out-of-the-box problem-solving. One approach is to reconsider the way we think about learning.

    What does it take?

    Creative thinking that has practical application requires discovery, careful observation and analysis, trial and error -- usually over a period of time.

    It's also is handy to find a vocabulary that works across contexts so that processes from one discipline can be applied to those in another.

    Here's one that my students found useful when working on critical thinking skills.

    Convention is by definition is what we take for granted.

    Every situation in which we find ourselves constitutes a collection of conventions --of dress, language, behavior, and so on. We operate every day within sets of rules without thinking much about it.

    How do we know when we're experts?

    We tend to define fluency by the automatic nature of our reactions and behaviors within a particular situation.

    In other words, we know we can drive when we don't have to think about it anymore. We are adept at speaking a language, hitting a baseball, or drawing conclusions when we don't have to apply conscious thought.

    Clearly, in some cases this is necessary. Better to be on the road, for example, with those who can avoid accidents without too much pondering than with someone who reexamines every move.

    On the other hand, if we want to satisfy our demand for creative problem-solving, we need to expand our criteria for intellectual accomplishment beyond begin safe and comfortable.

    After all, what hope is there for innovation if the ultimate goal of learning is to stop thinking altogether?

    More on practical applications of post-structuralism in later posts.

    In the meantime, there's nothing like a Russian Formalist to dig you out of a rut. See Vicktor Shklovsky's philosophy on defamiliarization.

    Friday, October 07, 2005

    If You Build It, Will They Come?

    If leading business voices shout into cyberspace and no one hears them, do they make a sound?

    If your organization is not already considered a key source of valuable insight, how do you persuade others to engage with you? Until the market regularly visits your website and other information channels, it's a good idea to invest some effort proving (not saying) that there is value in changing this habit.

    Here are some things to consider:

    Articulate a tight value proposition, and make sure your insights support it. Don't try to be all things to all people. Allow the market to hear that your analysis is both distinctive and new so that your voice is remembered and respected.

    Collaborate, don't compete, if the market respects other voices more than yours right now. Go where the market is if it's not coming to you. Strengthen your credibility and raise your visibility through partnerships. Join discussions with the publishers, electronic content developers, and other experts that your market finds impressive already. If the conversation remains stimulating, the market will follow your distinguished thinkers back to your turf.

    Relationship development requires credibility. Don't leave the it to a PR firm or even to communications professionals within your own organization unless they can discuss insights and strategy on the same level as the really smart people you want to join your team. Choose a high-level thinker for the job.

    Alliance-building can yield surprising benefits, regardless of industry or type of business. I've worked with with non-profits, corporations, arts organizations, and publishers at different times in my career. In all cases, choosing alliance-building over competition allowed each organization to leverage resources. One collective voice became much more resonant than the sum of its parts.

    Two organizations who are great content-development partners on the corporate side are Knowledge@Wharton and HBS Working Knowledge. They're both worth investigating.

    Wednesday, October 05, 2005

    What CEOs Could Learn from Teachers

    Business leaders could learn a lot from educators about the art of communication.

    How do Children Learn? The Same As Adults.

    Most people recognize a great teacher, even if it's hard to explain why. We may not have the words because we think of learning as an intellectual exercise.

    But it's our gut, not our abstract principles, that recognizes greatness.

    We recognize these Great Ones through their engagement and treatment of us as partners in a dialogue. They speak and listen to us individually, even in a packed room. They adjust their content and pace according to the way we listen.

    Great teachers foster discussion by considering our comments -- by learning how we think. They encourage us to make meaningful connections between what matters to us and school. They challenge themselves to contemplate the points we're making and come up with provocative questions that keep us thinking.

    Strong educators work from the assumption that there's always something to learn on both sides of the dialogue. They keep an open mind to our point of view and encourage us to do the same for theirs. They give us astute feedback and challenge us to argue. They consider not only the raw information but also the context, source, and impulse from which it comes.

    Most of all, great teachers make us want to learn. Their genuine engagement in our experience inspires us. Their passion is contagious.

    A Model for Corporate Internal Communications

    What if businesses shaped their internal communications around the model of successful learning in schools?

    If each side believed the other was listening, the results could be much more useful than the usual prepared speeches or training courses. What better way to derive insights that are applicable exactly to your particular business at this particular moment?

    The benefits would be long-term and worth considering. Wouldn't it be cost-saving to design a development program that incites its participants to dig deeper after the a training courses are done? Isn't it more likely for businesses to retain employees if they sparked an interest in learning?

    What if executives everywhere hired and reviewed managers, at least in part, on their ability to do exactly that?

    Monday, October 03, 2005

    Thought Leadership As Bait: Why Should Anyone Bite?

    A friend high up in the world of global tech marketing recently sent me a note to continue the conversation about Thought Leadership. He doesn't think much of Thought Leadership as a model for developing markets:

    Thought leadership as a concept has become the enticing fly on a trout pond cast out with a practiced hand by the fly fisherman (marketer). This bait stares tantalizingly and whets a CEO's hunger for knowledge or a middle manager's insecurity that he or she might not know something.

    Then the fish takes the bait -- you click, register, read and you're on the hook. You immediately realize you've been duped and that juicy fly turns out to be regurgitated content written around the theme of the day. . . .

    Thought Leadership can be simplified as this: it's a perspective (not necessarily an insight) that has gone through some preliminary validation but has never been implemented. So being a Thought Leader is quite a cushy role. You get paid to have a point of view but never have to deliver on it . . . .

    Thought Leadership has value to most companies until it hooks the big trout but until then it is a lure or a punt. No one follows for long.

    Metaphor aside -- Tantrums, rants, points of view or thought leadership are the not all the same?

    My high-level executive friend concedes that the only Thought Leader -- if there is one -- is Peter Drucker.

    Right -- Drucker doesn't rant. He begins, joins, and participates in robust conversations by inviting non-profits into management discourse usually reserved for Big Business.

    It's an ongoing discussion that's very useful for both sides should they decide to really listen.