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

I found the wording of this tweet interesting: What software will IBM use to “solve HR problems”? From the article linked in the tweet:

[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 flawed assumption that job applicants bring high-performance traits with them through the door, or they don’t. It sounds like an example of Maslow’s law: If your only tool is a [analytic] hammer, every [HR] problem will look like a nail.

confirmation-bias-at-workplace

“We’re here today to identify the unique traits of our top performers.”

Since existing leaders will decide what the “traits that are characteristic of top performers” are, they may well end up defining the ideal employee profile in their own image – a clear example of confirmation bias.

Analyzing the traits of perceived top performers who have a long history with the company runs afoul of survivorship biasFrom David McRaney’s blog-turned-book You Are Not So Smart:

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…

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.

Liz Ryan, former HR VP and founder of Human Workplace, hits the nail right on the head (bad hammering pun, sorry) in her 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…

Can you measure that excitement level? You can’t measure it, but it will show in the results that you do measure, from customer satisfaction to turnover to earnings per share. Anyone in your organization will be able to tell when the excitement level is high, low, or nonexistent. We’d have no trouble reading the energy waves at work if we remembered to stay human on the job.

To her credit, Liz Ryan doesn’t pull any punches in rejecting impersonal, technocratic measurement of employee engagement. I doubt the predictive analytics described above would fare any better with Liz than the hollow ritual of the annual employee survey:

If we really care what our employees think, it’s easy enough to find out… We could ask them how they’re doing… We can be human at work…

We don’t have to insult our employees by having them fill out surveys so the people charged with employee engagement can go to the leadership team and say “Look! The employees are 68% engaged. Look how well I’m doing my job!”

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.

Analytics, when created and used appropriately, can be a powerful force for success, but there are also many new technologies that help actively engage employees and cultivate employee positivity and productivity. Gamification platforms are just one such example. Here in Boston, for instance, the WeSpire platform engages and energizes employees around company sustainability and social responsibility programs.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it” is an old saw, but it still rings true – especially when leaders choose to seek out genuine, human interactions and build an energetic, collaborative work culture, which should yield much better employee outcomes and improved individual and team performance.

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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.: The Monty Python Guide to Running a Business, spinning business lessons 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, 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.

As noted in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Sony lost the personal music market to Apple and iTunes because its divisions were too busy constantly arguing with each other. Sony could never “get its hardware and software and content divisions to row in unison.”

[A music executive told Isaacson he] “had spent two years working with Sony, and it hadn’t gone anywhere… Steve would fire people if the divisions didn’t work together, but Sony’s divisions were at war with one another.”

Indeed, Sony provided a clear counterexample to Apple. It had a consumer electronics division that made sleek products and a music division with beloved artists (including Bob Dylan). But because each division tried to protect its own interests, the company as a whole never got its act together to produce an end-to-end service (emphasis added).

Arguments can also be induced when workers feel compelled to look over their shoulders instead of working and collaborating openly with others. For one very big example, it is hard to imagine why Marissa Mayer would have enacted the long-discredited HR practice of “stack ranking” (aka “rank and yank”) at Yahoo, given the well-documented havoc it had already wreaked at Microsoft.

Back in 2012, I was stunned to read that Microsoft, led by then-CEO Steve Ballmer, had for years been using stack ranking, which “forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor,” as explained by Kurt Eichenwald in his landmark article, Microsoft’s Lost Decade. Back then, stack ranking “crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate.”

About the same time Yahoo was ramping up its stack ranking agenda (which has so far resulted in two wrongful termination lawsuits), Microsoft finally eliminated it shortly after Ballmer’s departure – a decision that didn’t come a moment too soon:

Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed – every one – cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.

“If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies” (emphasis added).

Time spent by workers, managers, departments, business divisions, etc. on internal arguments and other infighting is time not spent fighting competitors outside the company. Time wasted developing “innovations” in self-preservation, co-worker character assassination and other manipulative office politics is time not spent innovating new products, marketing messages and other creative solutions. The business costs and negative personal consequences of such dysfunctional behavior are massive.

Hmm, I think this article has gotten a bit too serious. Let’s close, then, with one more Monty Python“business lesson,” this time regarding customer service gone very wrong!

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…

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Introverts: Not Networking is Not an Option! (A Brief Interview with Holland-Mark CEO Chris Colbert)

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Buy this Book and Read it Now: The Leader as a Mensch (Book Review)

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Innovative Companies Don’t Have Employee “Sediment”

I really liked this tweet by Sandy Kemsley that noting someone’s Twitter gaffe clearly intended to comment on the need to monitor employee sentiment.

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 ’employee sediment‘ 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.”

Company-Potted-Plant-Staff-Meeting

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

A business professional (we’ll call him “Rick”) met with a company leader to discuss how he wanted a certain SaaS tool to work. Rick listened and asked questions, teasing out from the leader the specific desired outcomes and results he was looking for. In the course of the conversation, the leader drew his thoughts and answers to the questions on a whiteboard.

The next day, Rick presented the plan describing how the actual production implementation would work, delivering the end results the leader had described. Rick’s plan included a time-saving idea involving a simple update to certain existing data that would provide the desired end results much more quickly with fewer workflow steps. Even better, Rick also noted a flaw in one of the leader’s primary assumptions as to how the solution should work; however, Rick’s proposed data update would resolve that issue as well.

Instead of being pleased, the “leader” was angry!  “I told you exactly what I wanted!” he sputtered. “What is this?!”

leader-air-quotesAnd only then did Rick realize the unfortunate reality that the “leader” never wanted Rick to propose an innovative solution; no, the “leader” wanted Rick to merely replicate his desires, wishes and assumptions, exactly as instructed on his whiteboard… flawed assumptions be damned.

Did this “leader” want fries with that?!

Keeping his incredulousness – and that snarky fries remark – to himself, Rick simply obliged and completed the project to the “leader’s” exact – and faulty – specifications. Sure enough, the system processes the “leader” had mandated proved to be so needlessly complicated, the end users rarely followed them.

Not long afterwards, Rick, not terribly interested in becoming a “potted plant,” chose to move on… to much greener pastures.

If a company doesn’t want “potted plants” for employees, they should stop burying their ideas.

Monitor employee sediment, indeed.

If you liked this article, you may also like:

The “Door of Success” Opens Both Outward and Inward

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

The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers

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!) …

Leadership that is disengaged from the company’s original innovation and brand equity. Beware of management who was not around and/or not emotionally invested in the company’s original innovations that earned its success and brand equity in the first place. There are many particularly bad examples out there, such as “professional” management teams as described in this past blog post.

Starbucks is a recent high-profile example of “post-founder” management that missed the mark badly.  After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued an unfortunate strategy of over-expansion while becoming less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, eliminating previous ‘management by the numbers’ and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

In an organization with a management team that just doesn’t “get” it, innovators are much more likely to be “reined in” than celebrated.

Leadership that punishes unsuccessful innovation.

If you say, ‘I want people to take risks,’ and then fire the guy if the outcome fails, it becomes clear how your organization really feels about risk.

– Anthony F. Smith, Consultant and author of the book ESPN the Company: The Story and Lessons Behind the Most Fanatical Brand in Sports.

There’s a great old movie sight gag featuring an overworked bus boy at an understaffed diner. Hurrying with two full armloads of stacked dishes, he slips and drops one armload of dishes that fall shattering to the floor. The slave-driver boss roars, “You idiot! You’re fired!”

The bus boy looks his boss in the eye, shrugs his shoulders, lets the other armload of dishes fall crashing to the floor as well, and walks out.

The lesson is clear: a company culture that punishes workers for honest mistakes, and even worse, for taking a risk and trying out a new idea that doesn’t work out, deserves the plentiful fallout it creates. Nothing stifles innovation (or, for that matter, careers, information sharing, customer service, etc.) like a ham-handed “slap on the wrist” from an authoritarian boss.

Leadership that fails to reward or even recognize successful innovation. Failing to appreciate or acknowledge innovation success might even be worse than scolding unsuccessful efforts. I recall some years ago reading some of the 1985 book Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot. The book described an ingenious manager who single-handedly created a new multimillion dollar stream of revenue for his employer. The manager discovered an innovative breakthrough that transformed tons of scrap material previously hauled away as waste into a vital component of a new product.

Great job, right? Tell that to the manager’s employer, whose collective response was little more than an indifferent shrug. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded in any way for his multimillion dollar innovation (!!) – an injustice that Gifford Pinchot seemed to gloss over and almost excuse:

[The manager] doesn’t seem bitter that he barely received a thank you for creating a new business…He is from that loyal generation who is thankful for a job, and my questions about recognition and rewards made him uncomfortable.

This feeble conclusion to a dismal story debunks the book’s premise; after all, an entrepreneur in charge of his or her own company actually reaps the rewards of his or her innovation, rather than having them gobbled up without even a “thank you” by an indifferent executive team!

In addition to conveying the cynical notion that the manager “should just be thankful he has a job,” the company made a very loud and clear statement about how little it valued innovation and those who engage in it.  I’m sure  that message was received loud and clear, and remembered, by others across that organization.

Leadership that is preoccupied with “problem solving,” not innovating. Referring to the previous sad example, problem solving would have amounted to simply finding a new vendor willing to dispose of ‘all this worthless material waste’ for a few bucks less than the current cost. Innovating is what that manager actually did, turning that scrap material into revenue-generating gold.

An organization unduly focused on linear “problem solving” will readily recognize the former and often underappreciate the latter (even if the innovative efforts prove successful!), perhaps even going so far as to label those innovative efforts as indicative of “not taking direction.”

I discussed this malady in a recent article exploring the Hierarchy of Imagination, in which I suggested that many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination, such as a highly “creative” person reporting to a “left brain”-focused, “problem solver” boss – more likely to be focused on “the numbers” while paying lip service at best to innovation.

James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, comes to mind, no doubt to the chagrin of the city of Boston, once the global headquarters of The Gillette Company. Instead of innovating to grow the top line and revitalize the company, Kilts declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead focused squarely on “the numbers” – massive cost-cutting and fixating on shareholders as the only company stakeholders. With a bloated compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold out Gillette to Proctor & Gamble in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, was instead gone.

In a book he authored, Kilts proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Kilts successfully… [drum roll?] mandated a dramatic reduction in the company’s product SKU count!

Wait, what? This is an example of a keystone “achievement” by the CEO of a global company?! Cue up the sarcastic slow clapping. Paradoxically, Kilts’ book was entitled Doing the Right Thing.

Instead of tinkering over such administrative “problem solving,” I hope your company’s senior executive leaders really are “doing the right thing” – that is, the work they are supposed to do: Increasing the top line by setting the vision, agenda and right environment for creating innovative new products.

I welcome your insights into this topic.

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”