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Another Reason For Female Executives

Which gender norms should we adopt?

Which gender norms should we adopt?

Want to get stuff done? You may need to compromise occasionally. Who’s better at that? Who do you think?

A recent study in the Journal Of Consumer Research (abstract here; pdf here) suggests that men working with men tend not to compromise. By contrast, men working with women or women working with women are more likely to find the middle ground.

The article, by Hristina Nikolova and Cait Lamberton – professors at Boston College and the University of Pittsburgh respectively — focuses on consumer behavior and is probably most relevant to marketing strategists. But I wonder if it doesn’t have much broader implications as well.

The study revolves around the compromise effect, which is well understood in marketing circles. Let’s say that you want to buy a car and you have two decision criteria: efficiency and prestige. Car X is clearly better on efficiency and OK on prestige. Car Y is clearly better on prestige and OK on efficiency. Car Y is also more expensive than Car X.

Which one do you buy? It’s a tough choice. So the salesperson introduces the even more expensive Car Z, which is even better on prestige than Car Y. Now Car Y is the compromise choice – it’s OK on efficiency and pretty good on prestige. With three choices available, Car Y is not the top of the line on either criterion but it’s acceptable on both criteria. The compromise effect suggests that you’ll buy Car Y.

The compromise effect has been demonstrated in any number of studies. Indeed, it’s why restaurants often add a very high-priced item to their menus. The item probably doesn’t sell very often but it makes everything else look more reasonable.

But what if you’re making the decision with another person? This hasn’t been studied before and Nikolova and Lamberton focus their attention on decisions made by two people acting together (also known as dyads). The authors looked at three different dyads:

  • Male/male
  • Female/male
  • Female/female

Under five different conditions, Nikolova and Lamberton found essentially the same results. First, the compromise effect seems to work “normally” with female/female and female/male dyads. Second, the compromise effect has much less impact on male/male dyads. Such dyads tend to move toward one of the extremes – either Car X or Car Z in our example.

Why would this be? The authors suggest that it has to do with gender norms coupled with the act of being observed. They write, “Normative beliefs about women’s behavior suggest that women should be balanced, compassionate, conciliatory, accommodating, and willing to compromise….” Male gender norms, on the other hand require, “…men in social situations to be maximizers, assertive, dominant, active, and self-confident; their decisions should show leadership, … high levels of commitment … and decisiveness….”

For both genders, being observed influences the degree to which an individual adheres to the gender norms. If you know you’re being observed – and/or that you will need to defend your choice later – you’re more likely to behave according to your gender norm. Interestingly, men working with women tend to adopt more of the female gender norms.

Nikolova and Lamberton focus exclusively on consumer choice but I wonder if the same dynamic doesn’t apply in many other decision-making situations as well. Men may be willing to compromise but they don’t want to be seen as compromisers. If you need to compromise to get something done, it helps to add a woman into the mix.

Indeed, I was struck by the fact that the same day I discovered the Nikolova-Lamberton article, I also read about Tim Huelskamp, a Republican congressman from western Kansas. According to the New York Times, Huelskamp is a “hardline conservative member of the Freedom Caucus” who “quickly earned a reputation for frustrating Republican leaders…” after he was elected in 2010. Yesterday, a more moderate challenger defeated Huelskamp in the Republican primary. As one voter noted, ““I don’t mind [Huelskamp’s] independent voice, but you’ve got to figure out how to work with people.” Perhaps the good people of Kansas should elect a woman to replace him.

Jevons Paradox and The Future of Employment

My new teaching assistant.

My new teaching assistant.

Four years ago, I wrote a somewhat pessimistic article about Jevons paradox. A 19th-century British economist, William Jevons, noted that as energy-efficient innovations are developed and deployed, energy consumption goes up rather than down. The reason: as energy grows cheaper, we use more of it. We find more and more places to apply energy-consuming devices.

Three years ago, I wrote a somewhat pessimistic article about the future of employment. I argued that smart machines would either: 1) augment knowledge workers, making them much more productive, or; 2) replace knowledge workers altogether. Either way, we would need far fewer knowledge workers.

What if you combine these two rather pessimistic ideas? Oddly enough, the result is a rather optimistic idea.

Here’s an example drawn a recent issue of The Economist. The process of discovery is often invoked in legal disputes between companies or between companies and government agencies. Each side has the right to inspect the other side’s documents, including e-mails, correspondence, web content, and so on. In complex cases, each side may need to inspect massive numbers of documents to decide which documents are germane and which are not. The actual inspecting and sorting has traditionally been done by highly trained paralegals – lots of them.

As you can imagine, the process is time-consuming and error-prone. It’s also fairly easy to automate through deep learning. Artificial neural networks (ANNs) can study the examples of which documents are germane and which are not and learn how to distinguish between the two. Just turn suitably trained ANNs loose on boxes and boxes of documents and you’ll have them sorted in no time, with fewer errors than humans would make.

In other words, artificial neural networks can do a better job than humans at lower cost and in less time. So this should be bad news for paralegal employment, right? The number of paralegals must be plummeting, correct? Actually no. The Economist tells us that paralegal employment has actually risen since ANNs were first deployed for discovery processes.

Why would that be? Jevons paradox. The use of ANNs has dramatically lowered the obstacles to using the discovery process. Hence, the discovery process is used in many more situations. Each discovery process uses fewer paralegals but there are many more discovery processes. The net effect is greater – not lesser – demand for paralegals.

I think of this as good news. As the cost of a useful process drops, the process itself – spam filtering, document editing, image identification, quality control, etc. – can be deployed to many more activities. That’s useful in and of itself. It also drives employment. As costs drops, demand rises. We deploy the process more widely. Each human is more productive but more humans are ultimately required because the process is far more widespread.

As a teacher, this concept makes me rather optimistic. Artificial intelligence can augment my skills, make me more productive, and help me reach more students. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll need fewer teachers. Rather, it means that we can educate many, many more students. That’s a good thing – for both students and teachers.

Corporate Culture: Counting The Uncountable

Stand by me.

You can’t measure love.

I was in a meeting not long ago with a client whose organization is undergoing a significant transformation. We were discussing what needed to change and how we might promote the appropriate change efforts. A senior executive spoke up to say, “Well, you get what you measure.” Nobody challenged the assumption behind the thought and we began to focus on how to measure change in the organization.

I had, of course, heard similar statements many times before. Business schools emphasize measurement as a key ingredient of management. As a leader, you point the way, establish some key measurements, and then harvest the results. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

But think about the things that we don’t bother to measure – or that we don’t know how to measure. These include love, respect, hope, initiative, creativity, open-mindedness, ability to resolve conflicts, receptiveness to new ideas, focus, drive, and resilience. Do we really not care about these things?

We tell managers that the most important thing they can do is build a positive, engaging organizational culture. (See here and here). We also tell them they can only get what they measure. Yet many of the components of culture are simply not measureable. I have yet to hear a manager say, “In the third quarter, we increased corporate resilience by 3.2% compared with the same quarter in the previous year.”

So, how do we help managers build a positive culture even when they can’t measure it? Here are some thoughts:

  • The answer is not a number on a piece of paper. It’s OK to look at numbers but we need to remember that a number is an abstraction of a measurement that is an abstraction of reality. Looking only at numbers is like driving your car by looking only at the speedometer.
  • Trust is an unrecognized but important ingredient. We focus on measurement partially because we don’t trust our eyes, and ears, and subordinates. A measurement is supposed to give us an “objective” view of the organization. But a measurement is only as objective as the person taking the measurement – which is to say, not very. If we can create a culture built on trust, we can learn more about our organization than a measurement will ever tell us. (In this regard, it’s useful to review Edwards Deming’s 14 points of management and his red bead experiment).
  • Learning to observe is more important than learning to measure. We forget that measurement is just one form of observation. Management by walking around still works. Taking groups of employees out to dinner will teach you more than a spreadsheet will. Practice being naïve – ask questions that a rookie would ask. You may think you don’t need to ask certain questions because you already know the answer. But you’re probably wrong.
  • A good conversation is more important than a staff meeting. Staff meetings can be useful but they’re also very structured. You get the information that the structure permits. A good conversation is much more open-ended. You can wander about until you touch on the really important issues.
  • Questions are more important than answers. A number from a measurement purports to give us an answer. But it only answers the question you asked – and the answer may not be accurate. Learn how to ask probing questions that get rich and unexpected answers. Tip: a good course on critical thinking will help.

I think we obsess about measurement because we have a bad case of physics envy. We want our organization to behave like a physics experiment. If we apply Force X, we get Result Y. It doesn’t work that way and never will. Time to get over the measurement mania.

Is Critical Thinking The Ultimate Job Skill?

Interesting syllogism. But the premise is unsound. That's why I get the big bucks.

Interesting syllogism. But the premise is unsound. That’s why I get the big bucks.

When I went off to college, my mother told me, “Now remember … you’re going to college to learn how to think. Don’t miss that lesson.”

I wonder what she would say if she were sending me off to college today. It might be more along the lines of, “Now remember … you’re going to college to get a good job. Don’t blow it.”

We can only judge programs and processes based on their goals. If the goal of government is to provide good services at a reasonable cost, we might give it a fairly low grade. However, if the goal of government is to increase employment, then we might evaluate it more positively. The same is true of higher education. So what is the goal of higher education? Is it to teach students how to think? Or is it to provide them skills to get a job?

I would argue that the goal of higher education – indeed of any education – is to improve the students’ ability to think. Good thinking can certainly help you get a job. In fact, it may be the ultimate job skill. But good thinking can take you much farther than a good job. Here’s my thinking on the issue:

1) Thinking is foundational — the essence of running a business (or a government) is to make decisions about the future. To make effective decisions, we need to understand how we think, how our thinking can be biased, and how to evaluate evidence and arguments. If we know everything about finance, for instance, but don’t know how to think effectively, we will make decisions based on faulty evidence, weak arguments, and unconscious biases. By chance, we might still make some good decisions. But we should remember Louis Pasteur’s thought, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

2) The future is unknowable — our niece, Amelia, will graduate from college next May. If she works until she’s 65, she’ll retire in the year 2060. What skills will employers need in 2060? Who knows? As I reflect on my own education, the content I learned in college is largely useless today. The processes I learned, however, are still very relevant. Thinking is the ultimate process. Amelia will still need to think effectively in 2060.

3) Thinking promotes freedom – if we can’t think for ourselves, we will forever be buffeted by other people’s agendas, desires, ambitions, and rhetorical excesses. Critical thinking allows us to assess ideas and social movements and make effective decisions on our own. We can frame our thinking as we wish and not allow others to create frames for us. We can identify the truth rather than relying on others to tell us what is true. Critical thinking, allows us to take control of our own destiny, which is the essence of freedom. I don’t know of any other discipline that can make the same claim.

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.

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