When All You Have is an Analytic Hammer, Does Every Business Problem Look Like a Nail?

I found the wording of this tweet and article summary interesting: What HR “problems” and “organizational changes” will IBM “solve” with analytic software?

From the Washington Post article (emphasis added):

[IBM] unveiled several new technology services that would apply big data and analytics processes to human resources problems. 

One service, predictive hiring, would use large volumes of behavioral assessments and other employee data to better understand the traits that are characteristic of top performers, and then comb through candidates to identify potential hires. A predictive retention service would analyze workforce data — exit interviews, for instance — to identify those employees most likely to leave.

What strikes me here is the apparent assumption that job applicants bring high-performance traits with them through the door, or they don’t. Period. Color me skeptical of that assumption – and whether big data analytics is even the right tool here.

It sounds like an example of Maslow’s law: If all you have is a [analytic] hammer, every problem will look like a nail.

"We need more people like... us!" Mad Men photo via CNET
Confirmation bias: “We need more people just like us!Mad Men photo via CNET

First, the analytics themselves described in the article seem logically flawed, based on a read of David McRaney’s blog-turned-book You Are Not So Smart.

For example, since existing leaders will largely decide what the attributes of top performers are, they might well end up defining the ideal employee profile in their own image (confirmation bias)!

And analyzing the traits of perceived top performers who have a long history with the company runs afoul of survivorship bias:

You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other…

[For example,] when a company performs a survey about job satisfaction the only people who can fill out that survey are people who still work at the company. Everyone who might have quit out of dissatisfaction is no longer around to explain why. Such data mining fails to capture the only thing it is designed to measure…

The reality is that workers’ attitudes in the workplace can and do change significantly over time in response to the organization’s own traits, for better or for worse, depending on whether the work environment is proactive or risk averse, collaborative or politically charged, collective or exclusive. And employees don’t need big data or predictive analytics to draw those conclusions.

Liz Ryan, former HR VP and founder of Human Workplace, hit that nail right on the head (bad hammering pun intended, sorry) in this article:

In order to hit our goals in any organization, we need to build positive energy in the workplace. We need people to be excited about their work… Anyone in your organization will be able to tell when the excitement level is high… low, or nonexistent…

Physicists proved a hundred years ago that energy moves in waves, and we see waves around us in the air and water. Still, we pretend that the workplace is a linear place made only of easy-to-measure particles… as though the waves aren’t there.

To her credit, Liz Ryan doesn’t pull any punches sharing her disdain for technocratic measurement of employee engagement (and by extension, performance). She calls for other much more effective ‘low tech’ methods:

If we really care what our employees think, it’s easy enough to find out… We could ask them how they’re doing… We all have enough creativity and intelligence to move our organizations without unnecessary, fear-fueled micro-management practices…

The more formal, rigid and hierarchical an organization, the less easily waves of energy and trust will flow… Give up the Employee Engagement survey, drop the junk-science patina on stupid HR practices and learn how to be human at work. You’ll be amazed how the team’s energy will power your success once you let it start flowing.

Business intelligence, when created and used appropriately, can be a powerful force for success. But analytics are not the only arrow in the technology quiver. New tools such as gamification platforms actively engage employees and helps cultivate employee positivity and productivity. For just one example right here in Boston, the WeSpire platform engages and energizes employees around company sustainability and social responsibility programs.

Making a conscious, personal effort to build an energetic, collaborative work culture should yield much better employee outcomes than passively poring over predictive analytics based on past history and potentially flawed assumptions. “The best way to predict the future is to create it” is an old saw, but one that still rings true when considering the right actions and technologies to improve employee performance and successful hiring.

Catching People Doing Things Right is Smart, but Less Fun than Catching People Doing Things Wrong

With a new football season well under way, I thought people might enjoy this blast from the past:

We all know that “catching people doing things right” and recognizing their good work is a tactic of a winning manager. Doing so boosts morale and helps motivate more people to do more things right. It also avoids the potentially serious pitfalls of setting financial incentives for certain worker behavior.

And then there’s another school of thought focused instead on catching workers doing the wrong things, led by the legendary Terrible Terry Tate.


“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python

A while back, Jeff Hayden wrote a clever article for Inc. magazine, The Monty Python Guide to Running a Business, spinning business lessons for entrepreneurs from classic sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the iconic British comedy team.

Not among Jeff Hayden’s top ten “business advice by Monty Python” selections was my #1 choice: The Argument Clinic, also one of Monty Python’s most popular comedy sketches ever. I believe this skit also does a great job portraying the ideal business environment… for killing innovation and creativity, that is! Have a look:

Monty Python’s Michael Palin actually pays for the ‘privilege’ of having an argument in this sketch. Meanwhile, too many real-world businesses with poor company cultures are basically paying their managers to routinely engage in arguments (turf battles, verbal sparring, flame mail wars, etc.) with others in the company!

Such misguided organizations will also have plenty of de facto Verbal Abuse departments (“Stupid git!”) to go along with the endless arguments – all of which are sure to give workers plenty of headaches (though hopefully not from a literal wooden mallet to the head).

Simply put, constant arguing is the opposite of collaborating. Continue reading ““I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python”

The “Door of Success” Opens Both Outward and Inward

I came across a success quote on Twitter invoking a door metaphor that I couldn’t, um, “unlock” the point of.

Fellow Bentley University alum and sales operations blogger Marci Reynolds re-tweeted the quote in question:

I like quotes but I just didn’t get this one: Why would the “door(way) to success” swing only outward and not inward? Does it matter? As long as it opens, right?

Is the point of the quote that being extroverted that is, outwardly focused – is essential to succeed? I hope not, because, as author and TED 2012 speaker Susan Cain compellingly argues, that’s simply not true.

I urge you to listen to Susan Cain’s entire TED talk, but the gist of her presentation is that too often our schools and workplaces are seemingly structured based on the assumption that the best students and workers are extroverts – outgoing types who are in their element working in teams and being “productive.” Unfortunately, few breakthroughs in technology, research or other areas of endeavor have been created by committee.

Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation…Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members…

And when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsized risks — which is something we might all favor nowadays…(I)nteresting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they’re much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas…

And groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.

Susan Cain’s points are well supported by scads of research; Jim Collins’ Good to Great insights into the personality traits of the top “level 5” leaders immediately come to mind: level 5 leaders are often unassuming, self-effacing and display introverted tendencies – the opposite of what Collins calls the “corrosive celebrity CEO.” Yes, introverts can make excellent leaders. It is a serious mistake for extroverts to believe that introverts merely work in a vacuum without input from others.

Susan Cain also goes out of her way to make clear that she does not disparage extroverted people in any way (she mentions that she’s married to an extrovert). Doing so would be plain dumb. Rather, Susan Cain’s key point is that it’s critical for institutions to set up both extraverts and introverts for success by equipping them with the differing environments they need for success.

By helping to ensure the organization’s “door of success” does indeed open both outward and inward, the organization’s will significantly expand its potential for extraordinary “Good to Great” levels of success. Organizations that don’t get this will find its collective door of success frustratingly difficult to open indeed…

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Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”

I got a chuckle from Sandy Kemsley’s tweet that noting someone’s Yogi Berra-style gaffe clearly intended to comment on employee sentiment analysis. It’s an important type of text analytics to analyze and discover “business signals” buried within online reviews, surveys, social media, email and other written expressions of opinion.

But, just as ‘many a truth is said in jest,’ many a truth can also be said by mistake as well: companies should monitor – and avoid – employee “sediment.” Doing so will help ensure an environment of innovation and free-flow of new ideas.

Somehow that ‘sediment’ gaffe triggered a memory (from ‘sediment’ to ‘dirt’ … ‘soil’ … ‘plants’) of an article I read about “potted plant syndrome” in the workplace:

There was a boss who complained that everyone around him was a “potted plant.” He couldn’t understand why his managers wouldn’t take charge of an idea or come up with solutions. In his management meetings, if a manager suggested how to handle a problem or come up with solution, he would tell them how they could do it better or differently. Or, he would argue that they were wrong.

He didn’t realize he was killing commitment and innovation.

The boss was a one-person idea prevention department. His staff was tired of standing out with an idea only to get it shot down, so they stopped offering them. The oblivious boss had sown a staff of “potted plants.”


And now a quick true story of employee ‘sediment’…

Continue reading “Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment””

Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

Source: The Fighter official movie website

Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers

My wife and I watched The Fighter (2010) right after it came out on DVD. It’s an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward, a professional boxer from Lowell, Mass.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for his best interests.  Between his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of stinging defeats and considers ending his boxing career.

The Fighter led me to wonder how many people are out there today with similarly high potential being similarly squandered. Does this suggestion ring true to you?

I am certain the vast majority of people (certainly not just product marketers and product managers) have felt the same gnawing cognitive dissonance during their careers that Micky Ward felt: an awareness that one’s work and skills were somehow being stifled, but knowing neither why nor what to do about it.

I believe the root cause behind the vast majority of struggling products (and, therefore, struggling businesses) is people not living up to their potential due to a non-supportive organizational environment. Like Micky Ward’s frustrations early on in The Fighter, the core issue is a pervasive inability of people, starting with the management team, to work with one another effectively and treat each other properly.

There are many types of managerial dysfunctions that contribute to a non-supportive environment that adversely impacts people, which cannot help but adversely impact products. Here are a few that might ring true to you (though I hope not!) …

Continue reading “Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?”

The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers

With thanks to a tweet by Donald Farmer, I recently came across an impressive graphic representation of the increasing degrees of human imagination.

Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination was designed by John Maeda based on his conversation with Patti Brennan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Similar in design to Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Needs, the Hierarchy of Imagination is represented as a pyramid progressing from the base of reactionary behavior with little or no imagination (Reflex), proceeding upward to Problem Solving, then Creativity, and finally the pinnacle of “completely unrestrained” Imagination.  It is a very thought-provoking, very useful model.

I had a few thoughts on Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination and its application to the workplace and product marketing/management in particular:

  • The hierarchy should not be interpreted as disparaging jobs in which little creativity or problem solving is expected. What sets a worker in such a job apart from others is the level of wisdom they bring to their job (Read more here). That said, a person in the Reflex category had better not find himself in a Peter Principle job situation and be expected to proactively solve problems or provide creative leadership.
  • Many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination. A product manager who spends his time gathering customer enhancement requests and prioritizing bug fixes (Problem Solving) will likely find himself in trouble with his VP who expects him to creatively identify new, ground-breaking features for the next version of the product. Conversely, a “left brain” business owner who prides herself as a Problem Solver is more likely to fail to appreciate the creative work of her marketing manager. She might even be reluctant to recognize new business leads are being generated by creative, engaging marketing programs, choosing to be preoccupied instead with supposed “flaws” as to “how” those marketing programs were executed.
  • Problem Solvers should beware of creativity blind spots. With the thought in mind, I read an article linked on John Maeda’s blog on the challenges creative people might face when pursuing leadership roles. I’m willing to wager that many of those surveyed demonstrating ambivalence towards creative people tend to fit into the imagination hierarchy as Problem Solvers themselves, strongly focused on successful project administration but also generally unaware of the creative value and ultimate business impact of a project’s deliverables. To paraphrase a passage I recall from a Tom Peters book, ‘the project was ahead of schedule and under budget… but no one cared about the final product!’ Such Problem Solvers risk losing their creatives, and with them, their capacity to innovate, gain the attention of new prospects and keep existing customers.
  • In fairness to Problem Solvers, creativity needs to be directed carefully. Product manager turned CEO Barbara Tallent warns product managers to avoid working on “just the cool stuff” instead of what customers have already said they need and will pay for. Read more here.
  • The further you go up the imagination hierarchy, the more vital your skills of persuasion will be. In order for a creative person or someone with “completely unconstrained” Imagination to achieve his vision, he will need to effectively brief others in the organization on the merits of that vision. And if their boss is that prideful Problem Solver, they must effectively “manage up” and earn the boss’ buy-in, enthusiasm and support. Read more here.
  • You can’t “teach” creativity, but you can help cultivate it. On this issue, I really like Patti Brennan’s comment: “teaching creativity doesn’t work but expanding their imaginations might work better.” In her work in patient healthcare, Patti Brennan believes “that in order to get patients to take control of their health, they need to imagine what it looks like to be more healthy.” Well said! The ability to visualize something better than what you are already doing is vital for creativity. Similarly, creativity requires a capacity to empathize with others, whether we are talking about the health problems of patients or the challenges and frustrations of our customers. Good product management and product marketing professionals can translate their empathy towards what customers are going through into well-defined products and clear, relevant, engaging messaging and content.

I found Brennan’s Hierarchy of Imagination very insightful and I look forward to reading more from John Maeda’s Creative Leadership blog.

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Product Managers and Product Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”? [Or: When Leadership Squanders its Innovative Workers]

Today’s “New Rules” Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”