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The Porcelain Elephant In The Room

We need to talk.

We need to talk.

I subscribe to Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) Management Tip of the Day and, every business day, I get a one-paragraph idea for improving my communication and management skills. It’s an intriguing way to get exposed to a wide-range of ideas in short period of time. (Click here to subscribe).

A recent tip summarized how to “Avoid Fighting With Your Spouse When You Get Home From Work.” The article notes “It’s unrealistic and unhelpful for couples to expect that they’ll automatically be in sync when they arrive home; different needs, different recovery times, and different experiences…make it more likely that you’ll be out of sync.”

It’s a good point and it reminds me of a story from a young colleague of mine named Molly. Molly and her husband have been married for just a few years and they both work outside the home. They’re settling in to their careers and their jobs are demanding. They noticed that, when they arrive home, their emotional states are often “out of sync.”

Sometimes Molly would arrive home after a tough day and notice something askew in the house. She might stew on it a bit and, when her husband arrived home, she would “pounce” on him. Sometimes, it’s the other way round – husband arrives home first, stews on something, and pounces on an unsuspecting Molly when she arrives. I suspect that all married couples have had similar experiences.

What makes Molly and her husband different is that they realized that neither one of them was at fault. It wasn’t his or her fault. Rather, it was a question of timing and the degree to which they were in or out of sync emotionally.

So they decided to … buy a porcelain elephant. They also agreed to a timing-and-discussion protocol. The porcelain elephant normally sits on a bookshelf. However, if either Molly or her husband is stewing about something, he or she moves the elephant to a coffee table in the living room. It’s a quiet signal that “We need to talk.”

Let’s replay the same scenario. Molly arrives home in a bad mood, notices something askew in the house, stews about it, and … moves the elephant to the coffee table. Her husband arrives home and notices the elephant. He can immediately ask her what’s wrong or – if he’s really not in the right mood – he can ignore it for up to 12 hours. They’ve agreed that, when the elephant comes out, they’ll have a meaningful conversation to resolve the issue, but not necessarily upon walking in the door.

I think it’s a genius move and a very mature strategy for a young couple. It ensures that the conversation happens while leaving some flexibility for both parties to get in sync emotionally. As the HBR article notes, don’t have the conversation “…right when you get home. Set aside some time to talk when you’re both feeling more relaxed.” Molly and her husband have figured out exactly how to do that.

The Art Of Transformation

grace hartigan the king is dead liteWhat’s the difference between an art and a craft?

A traditional definition focuses on differences in expectations and outcomes. With a craft, we know precisely what the outcome will be, even before we start. We have a set of instructions and, if followed faithfully, the outcome is guaranteed.

By contrast, an artist doesn’t know what the outcome will be. Creating an artwork involves exploration, doubt, questioning, trial-and-error, and no small amount of anxiety. An artist explores the unknown and aims to give us new insights. A good artwork may not be beautiful in a classic sense, but it is always imaginative. A craftsman, on the other hand, creates the expected and delivers beauty and pleasure through execution more than imagination.

I thought of these distinctions the other day when I toured a major new exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism*, at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibition highlights a dozen leaders of the abstract expressionist movement and their work from roughly 1945 to 1960. Here’s how two of the artists describe the creative process:

  • Grace Hartigan: “Eventually, the painting tells you what it wants to be.”
  • Jay DeFeo: “When I start, I don’t know what’s going to happen. When you’re dancing, you don’t stop to think: now I’ll take a step … you allow it to flow.”

It occurs to me that the distinction between art and craft also applies to organizational development. Change management is a craft. Organizational transformation is an art.

We often invoke change management when we begin a concise and well-delineated project. We understand the boundaries and the players. We move through well-defined phases that we can measure objectively. We expect changes to occur between people – perhaps with new reporting structures and alignments. Change management is not easy to master but it seems to me that it is a craft. We often celebrate the end result. We can do that precisely because it is a craft – we know when the process ends.

Organizational transformation is much more like an art. When we seek to transform an organization’s culture, we have only a fuzzy idea of where we’re going. Milestones exist but they’re not well defined. Transformation requires changes within people rather than only between people. We can’t see those changes; nor can we measure them. If we try to measure the unmeasurable, we’ll go off course. Like any other art, transformation involves exploration, doubt, questioning, trial-and-error, and no small amount of anxiety. Paraphrasing Grace Hartigan, “Eventually, the organization tells you what it wants to be.” The secret to success is listening, not measuring.

I sometimes ask my artist friends how they know when a piece they’re working on is finished. None of them has very good answers. Some say they “just know”. Others say that they just get tired of it. Others say that it’s never finished. Whenever they see it again, they’re tempted to make “just a few minor changes.”

It occurs to me that I’ve never been to a party to celebrate an organizational transformation. Perhaps it’s because we just don’t know when the transformation is finished. It’s an art not a craft.

*The Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit is both superb and unexpected. The paintings are exciting and energetic. The painters are almost anonymous. This is the first major exhibition – anywhere in the world — of the women who energized the abstract expressionist movement. That it happened in my hometown makes me more than just a little bit proud. You can see it – and should see it — until September 25th.

The painting illustrating this article is Grace Hartigan’s The King Is Dead, from 1960.

Do Nudges Work? Should We Use Them?

It's for your own good.

It’s for your own good.

Ever since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge in 2008, we’ve been debating the ethics and practicality of “nudging” people into making the “right” decisions.

Thaler and Sunstein mine the same intellectual vein worked by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Dan Ariely, and Charles Duhigg. We may think we make rational decisions but we have biases, habits, and quirks that inject a degree of irrationality into every decision we make. While the other researchers explain how our heuristics work, Thaler and Sunstein give practical advice for nudging people toward rational decisions that serve their best interests.

Thaler and Sunstein refer to their work as “libertarian paternalism”. It sounds like an oxymoron but the basic idea is that you still have the right to screw up your life by making bad decisions. At the same time, we (whoever “we” is) will nudge you into making decisions that are good for you.

Most observers seem to have accepted that nudging by the government or by your employer is ethically acceptable. After all, it’s good for you, right? But there is a minority that objects to the paternalism inherent in the concept. For instance, Michael Beran writes that, “The authors of Nudge seem not to understand that the welfare of a people depends in part on their being free to choose badly. … Probably most people … can point to experiences where their mistakes proved fruitful. … Should we gradually foreclose the freedom to be stupid, we will almost certainly end up being less intelligent.”

So is nudging libertarian paternalism, as Thaler and Sunstein would have it or false benevolence, as Beran would put it? It seems like a debate that’s worth having … but not before we answer a more basic question: does nudging work? Why bother to debate the ethics of a concept if it doesn’t actually work?

So, does nudging work? We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that making one choice easier than another can nudge people in the “right” direction. For instance, if we want to encourage organ donations, we can offer people a choice to donate or not when they get their driver’s license. The driver’s bureau can structure the default option in one of two ways: 1) You’re not a donor unless you opt in; 2) You are a donor unless you opt out. It seems likely that Option 2 would nudge people in the right direction.

As we know, however, anecdotal evidence is very weak. We tend to make up stories that fit our preconceived notions. And Frank Pasquale, writing in The Atlantic, argues that nudges are often too weak to overcome ingrained behaviors. So, is there any controlled, randomized research that would answer a simple question: does nudging work?

Somewhat surprisingly, the first such research was published just last month in Science magazine. (Click here). John Bohannon, the article’s author, reports on 15 controlled trails that involved more than 100,000 people in the United States. The trials involved signing up for various government-supplied social services. In each case, some randomly selected participants were given the “standard application.” Other participants were given a “psychological nudge in which the information was presented slightly differently … for instance, … one choice was made easier than another.”

The results? “In 11 of the trials, the nudge modestly increased a person’s response rate or influenced them to make financially smarter decision.” Bohannon includes data on three of the trials, which moved decisions in the right direction by 2.9%, 3.6%, and 11%. As Bohannon notes, these are modest changes but the costs were probably low as well (no data were given on costs). If so, the cost-benefit may be positive as well.

We now have some solid evidence that nudges actually work. We don’t know the cost-benefit ratios but let’s assume for a moment that they’re positive. If so, the question becomes, should we encourage the government to use them? On the one hand, as Bohannon notes, businesses pay billions of dollars per year for their own nudges, known as advertising. Why shouldn’t the government participate on (closer to) equal footing? On the other hand, libertarians argue that it’s really another kind of nudge – toward the nanny state. I’ll write more about the debate in the future. In the meantime, what do you think?

The Best Way To Disagree

I disagree.

I disagree.

I find that I often disagree with people. It’s not that I’m a bad person or that I have evil intentions. I just have a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic way of looking at the world that doesn’t always fit with other people’s views. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being out of step with the world. There are, however, good reasons to consider how to deal with it.

When I was younger and snarkier, I dealt with it by being competitive. I focused on winning. I’m pretty good with words and I could often come up with a snappy comeback or putdown. I could be sarcastic and snide. I could put the other person in his place. If I left the other person speechless, so much the better. That just proved that I had won the encounter. I felt superior.

Now that I’m a bit older, I realize that it’s more important to win over than to win. When I sarcastically put someone down, I doubt that I won many hearts and minds. Instead of winning people over, I pushed them away. Humiliating another person may feel good but it doesn’t do good.

I’ve learned that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. You start by finding some point of agreement with the other person’s position. It may be small or large, but it allows you to start by validating what the other person has said. You say – metaphorically or literally – “Yes, I’ve heard you. I understand your position.” The other person feels affirmed and recognized.

Then you change the frame, shift the focus, or alter the timeline. Here are some general-purpose ways to do just that:

  • Alter the timeline – “I agree that your suggestion would be helpful in the short run. But I worry that the long-term effects would be very detrimental. Here’s why…” (Of course, you can flip long-term and short-term if that suits your argument).
  • Agree conceptually then shift to the literal or practical aspects of the issue – “I think you’re right. A successful businessman should make a good president. I would just feel better if we had an example of that actually happening.”
  • Agree with your interlocutor’s frame of reference and then change the frame. Often, you’ll want to broaden the frame, like this: “I certainly agree that this would help first graders. But I’m concerned about all primary school students. How can we determine if this will help all students, not just beginners?” On other occasions, you may want to narrow the frame, like this: “I agree that this tax change will be good for most companies in our industry. But our company is an exception because of the way we account for our overseas profits.”

The general technique is known as concession-and-shift. It’s been in use at least since the days of Aristotle and his rhetorical colleagues. The idea is simple: start on a positive note rather than a negative note. Agree before disagreeing. If your interlocutor senses that you’re agreeable and reasonable, she’ll be much more likely to listen to your side of the argument. That’s exactly what you want.

Filtering Water In The Information Desert

It's a desert out there.

It’s a desert out there.

In organizations, large transformation efforts create information deserts. Traditional sources of information dry up. We search for new sources but they’re few and far between. When we do find them, we can’t be sure if the information is tainted or pure. Should we consume it or not?

The lack of information creates additional stress. We know we’re going on a “journey” but we don’t know where. We don’t even know how we’ll know when we get there. Perhaps we’ll never get there. Perhaps we’ll just continue transforming.

We also know that there will be some winners and losers in the process. Some people will get plum assignments; others will be relegated to minor roles. It’s not always clear who will make these decisions or how they will be made. So we don’t know how to behave to improve our chances of success.

We also fear that we’ll lose something. We know what we have today. While it may not be all we want, just knowing what we have brings some degree of comfort. As the organization morphs, we don’t know what we’ll have tomorrow. We could be worse off. Our loss aversion bias makes the possibility of loss seem more likely – and more painful – than the possibility of gain.

When we’re in a real desert, we want to find water. Indeed, we want to find good water. Drinking bad water could be worse than drinking no water at all. So we carry water filtration systems. When we find water, we can purify it and ensure that it will help us rather than harm us.

Similarly, in an information desert, we want to find good, trustworthy sources of information. Since traditional sources of information have dried up, we need to find new sources. But how can we tell if the new sources are trustworthy? Perhaps they’re tainted with rumor and conjecture. Perhaps consuming the information will do us more harm than good.

It’s not easy to create accurate and effective information for a transforming organization. But there are some good filters that can help employees distinguish good information from bad. The simplest one I’ve found is called the triple filter. Some writers say that Socrates created the filters. Others claim Arab philosophers developed them. Regardless of the source, it’s a good communication technique to keep in mind.

According to legend, when someone offered Socrates information – especially information that might be based on conjecture or rumor, he asked three sets of questions:

  1. Is it true? How do we know? How can we verify it? What’s the source? What’s the evidence?
  2. Is it good? This is especially important if the information is about a person. Does it portray the person in a good light? Is it kind? Does it assume positive intent?
  3. Is it useful? Is the information useful to me, the recipient? Can I use it to accomplish something positive?

The process is analogous to deciding what evidence is admissible in court. If the information didn’t pass all three tests, Socrates simply refused to hear it.

I think of these questions as three steps in a linked process. If the information can’t pass the first test – truth — there’s not much point in asking the other two questions. If the information is verifiably true, then it’s useful to continue the process. If the information passes all three tests, then it’s admissible and should be considered in decision making.

Organizations in transition are under a great deal of stress. Bad information only increases the pressure. The triple filter doesn’t make the desert bloom but it helps employees find oases of trust and certitude in a difficult and demanding environment.

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