Influential uncertainty

Demonstrate uncertainty and structure brainstorming

Two pieces of insight struck me this week:

  • a fresh take on sometimes being open about your uncertainty
  • make brainsteering, not brainstorming sessions

Dare to be uncertain

A podcast by Harvard Business Review this week puzzled me: Experts are more persuasive when they’re less certain. Zakary Tormala, a Stanford professor in marketing, explained how his team had researched the power of experts expressing uncertainty in certain contexts. It was an eyeopening experience.

Tormala claims that experts can engage their listeners by expressing uncertainty rather than the ‘I know it all’ attitude. The research had demonstrated that people being exposed to experts opening up for pondering and hesitation actually paid more attention, became more engaged and trusted the expert more. Why? Because they were not expecting an expert to do so. They were surprised, the different attitude represented a fresh contrast to conventional behaviour.

Brainsteering is focused brainstorming, not ranting

I must confess that I have initiated my share of brainstorming sessions that did not materialise into more than endless post-it notes on a wall or a flip chart ending up in the bin afterwards. Apologies.

Therefore I was delighted to come across McKinsey Quarterly’s post on brainsteering: Seven steps to better brainstorming. The main point in the article is that simply by posing more focused questions a huge improvement in the output quality is likely to happen.

Instead of cheering a team into brainstorming by enthusiastically claiming ‘anything goes!’ or ‘the more questions, the better!’, rather make it easy: Strip it down to a few sharp and well articulated questions. Then make small teams work on one question (yep, that is one as in ‘1’) for 30 minutes. That’ll get some real and valuable output from a team’s work on a question.

For a more detailed how-to-do-it description, follow the steps in the article linked above.

Photo: Cop Call / Originally uploaded by antonkawasaki

Influential uncertainty

Great tool for challenging status quo

Volkswagen demonstrates how to think outside the box

An acquaintance of mine was asked to challenge the management of a classical orchestra on how they could attract new audience. That challenge made me think of Volkswagen’s initiaive ‘The Fun Theory’. The company has produced a fresh and eye opening experiment on how to make people change behaviour.

My experience is that people stuck in a corner normally will not appreciate a quick solution to their problem. They want help to think out of the box. Since they are often better equiped to tackle their issues than their helpers are, providing a hand in order to change focus can free up lots of great perspectives.

The woman gave her speech, showed the Volkswagen video and asked the listeners to reflect upon how they could apply the wisdom to their own problem. It worked.

Great tool for challenging status quo

Embed collaborative culture: recruit t-shaped people

Recruit T-shaped people in to order create a collaborative, organisational culture.

Morten Hansen, a lecturer at INSEAD business school in France, has written a wonderful book on how to transform collaboration as a buzzword into real, corporate value. He claims loads of interesting things in his recent book ‘Collaboration: how leaders avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results’ (2009). In his book he offers a couple of really interesting suggestions on how to ensure collaborative culture is embedded in a corporate culture:1.

1. Recruit T-shaped people

When searching for colleagues or leaders for your organisation, look for people who have demonstrated asking other people for help to solve a problem. He mentions Roy’s Restaurants in California and Hawaii where the interviewer may ask the candidate to describe ‘what obstacles have you faced in a previous job that prevente you from doing a quality job? How di you overcome these obstacles?’ In many companies the interviewer would be satisfied with a response showing that the candidate managed to take care of the situation and solve it all by herself. However, for Roy’s Restaurants, that kind of answer would likely indicate that this person possibly is someone who do not ask for assistance when in trouble and communicated the situation to colleagues. Asking for help indicates a collaborative orientation, Roy’s Restaurants would claim.

2. Give the assignment centre a twist

Hansen brings up another example on how to recruit t-shaped people. The example is from Southwestern Airlines, a hugely successful airline company in the U.S. In this company the interviewer in an assignment centre context would ask applicants to spend a some minutes preparing a statement about themeselves that they are supposed to present in front of the group. Job applicants may think that they are being tested for their oral and communication skills. However, what they are really being tested on is their listening skills. Is the applicant listening actively and supporting the others when they are making their statements? Od to they mostly look into their papers, concentrating on their own statement? In case the candidate doesn’t manage to listen provide the other with attention and feedback, this would indicate low degree of collaborative orientation.



Embed collaborative culture: recruit t-shaped people

Susan Boyle and talent management

‘Talent managent’ means customising ones leadership style to individual employees

Harvard Business Online’s blogger Peter Bregman suggests that the sudden stardom of Susan Boyle, recently rocketing to the sky in the UK television programme “Britain’s got Talent”, can teach us a lot about how companies can improve their talent management.

Bregman writes:

By recognizing and encouraging the particular gifts of their employees, great managers increase the chance that those employees will be willing to stand there, exposed and authentic, while their audience rolls their eyes and sneers, expecting failure.

The scepticism among the programme’s hosts and audience towards the 47 year old, complete unknown singer is vividly displayed in the YouTube video above. This is all predictable, of course. It’s yet another contemporary sample of storyteller H.C. Andersen’s classic tale of The Ugly Duckling.

Manage B players well

What Ms Boyle adds to this storytelling tradition is that she illustrates the importance of leaders managing their B players well. B players make up the majority of nearly any company’s core of workers. They keep the ship afloat amid crisis. They are loyal. They’ll go through fire and water to keep the company afloat.

A players will always make their way to the surface when things get rough. Manage B players well and they will rise and shine stronger than ever.

Encourage and provide feedback

So, dear reader, make your way into the organisation you work for and hunt for the Susan Boyles of your company. They’re all around you. If you’re a colleague: encourage them to grow their talent. If you’re their boss: encourage as well as provide them with specific feedback.

Read my previous posts on managing B players and an inspiring example on how to provide specific feedback.

Susan Boyle and talent management

New experience: downsizing

It is hard to leave a company you adore. Luckily, change creates space for development.

Getting it right is not always easy
Getting it right is not always easy

A week ago myself and 24 of my colleagues at the head quarter of Schibsted received the message from our leaders:

Sorry, we’ll have to cut 1 out of 4 full time employees at the Schibsted Media Group’s head office. You’re one of our people who we are offering a severance package.

Of course, getting that message is pretty rough. I entered into my job with head and toes and have tried to faciliate good arenas for executive and corporate learning. However, when company incomes shrink and economic prospects are gloomy, it is comprehensible that our executives will need to make some tough decisions. They’ve already downsized in other parts of our media group (Spain, France, Norway, Sweden, etc), so it’s about time the head office started counting its heads and making some cuts.

Involve your employees, even though it’s brutal

There is at least one really valuable lesson to be learnt from the downsizing process I have just been a part of: involve your employees also when times are rough.

More than a month ago my boss asked me and my colleagues who are in charge of leadership development activities across the media group to suggest ways to cut costs in our activities. We were asked to present a few alternative scenarios. The bigger the cuts, the better. So we did. Suddenly I realised the value of involvement. The process of actually going into depth of what the consequences would be if we cut a lot vs a little of our costs made a lot of sense to me.

It is actually possible to make people identify themselves with rough consequences if they themselves are invited to suggest and design them. Our boss listened to us and took parts of our scenarios into account when she moved forward with the process of downsizing.

How come this feels okay in the end, even though I will leave my job due to the process? I think this process confirms the basic human need of being listened to and to be confirmed. We were listened to and thus we were much more open to buy the message from our executives that our functions will need to take a break right now due to the financial situation the media industry is going through.

Change triggers opportunities

Sudden changes also makes one’s mind go hunt for opportunities. I will stay in my position for a few most likely until over the summer in order to complete my activities. I will start looking for opportunities. At the same time this moment is also a perfect timing for rediscovering my ideas and passions in my professional life. What are they? Are they the same as what I am currently doing? Are they something different?

I think a lot of people, not only those of us who are being downsized, may find it thrilling and encouraging to go hunt for ones real professional self.

New experience: downsizing

Manage your B players well

Talent management is more than managing high potentials

During the last few years ‘talent management’ has become a buzz word that any leader or HR professional would claim ownership to. However, it is crucial not only to cling to an understanding of talent management as if it is about recruiting, developing and retaining the brighest crowd.

The heart and soul of a company tends to be the people in the middle – the staff that deliver and deal with all sorts of challenges every day. They are normally not regarded as shooting stars within the company, rather as steady goers, people who keeps the ship floating. One way of labelling this group is ‘B players’. That is what Harvard Business Review and a couple of other management writers do (se sources at the bottom of this post).

High potentials are crucial for any company having big ambitions. Nevertheless, a company putting all its money on developing high potentials may quickly slide into a situation where ‘the regular crowd’ will despise the stars and engagement levels will slide downwards. Guess which employee segment that effects the company as a whole?

Now as the credit crunch has seriously hit anyone depending on the markets, it is time to remind CEOs and HR people to keep in mind this segment of the company.

Check out my bookmarks on B players for more insight on this topic.

Manage your B players well

Creativity at Pixar

What makes Pixar a creative company? Here are a three suggestions to what provides the company with its corporate culture.

In the September 2008 edition of Harvard Business Review Pixar’s CEO Ed Catmull wrote a piece on how his company constantly is reinventing itself. How is that possible and what does he do?

Catmull claims that ‘talent is not equally spread among all people’. Therefore Pixar has three operating principles for constantly reinventing their corporate culture and I’ve seized the opportunity to associate on my own around his headlines:

1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone

First, I believe it is crucial for leaders to constantly demonstrate the importance of having freedom to communicate with anyone within an organisation.  Most organisations are by default separated in silos. People act out work within these silos. Naturally, this is because it may be hard keeping constantly in touch with everyone across an organisation. Thus, silos establish themselves as social patterns guiding the flow of (or lack of) knowledge between the silos.

Brilliant people challenges the habit of silos. They move freely as they like and ask anyone they believe may add value to their work independently of their position.

2. It must be safe for eveyone to offer ideas

Sharing ideas and inviting people to give feedback on your ideas can be a rush – and it can end up being uncomfortable. Any leader should to as much as possible to enable co-workers a climate of well functioning feedback.

Sharing ideas can make people proud and grow. However, it will require leaders willing to display vulnerability, listen actively, acting out the ability to change and admit mistakes and wrongdoings. Only then a climate for sharing ideas will occur. Why? Well, growing up turn us into adults not being used to freely tossing arround ideas and reflections without backing them with reasoning. At least, compared to children, we tend to be more restric about sharing without the fear of being judged by our peers. This point is well illustrated by Tim Brown in one of my previous posts on design thinking.

3. We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community

Ed Catmull works in a sector where innovation takes place in close collaboration with the technological forefront within animation techniques. Thus linking up with academics may serve useful. Other sectors may find this point of less relevance. Nevertheless, I’d translate Catmull’s claim into a more general statement about ‘active bumping into people you wouldn’t necessary think would serve useful to you’.

My point is: I believe spending time with people who are different from oneself professionally will always be useful and intellectually stimulating. Silos occur and smart thinking slows down because we stick to our cubicles for too much time in a row.

So, what sums it up:

  • leave your silo: discover people adding value to your projects
  • show courage: share ideas without fearing judgement from peers
  • talk to everyone: people you never thought would challenge you will turn out brilliant
Creativity at Pixar