Roger Martin is Wrong

I know what you're thinking...who the hell is this guy telling us the great Roger Martin is wrong!? And you would be right. But consider the following before you dismiss me out of hand.

In another excellent HBR blog post concerning the shortcomings of Adaptive Strategy, Roger makes the statement that, "There is really no actual evidence that ours is a more VUCA world than previous ones." You'll no doubt recall that VUCA is a favourite buzzword/acronym being used these days describing an operating environment for business that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

For the record, I'm a big fan of Roger's, and I love his recent addition to strategy literature (along with A.G. Lafley) entitled, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works. And I don't disagree with the main assertion of his post that Adaptive Planning is a cop-out. But evidence is something we take seriously here. And in this case, I think there is decent evidence that we do live and work in a more VUCA world than previous ones.

While I believe there are several ways to go about proving this, I’m going to stick to a few areas we know a little something about rather than straying too far into more abstract economic factors like the power of multinational corporations, the near-frictionless movement of capital, the ability of emerging economies to leapfrog others with newer technologies, or the severity of economic impacts due to global warming.

We’ll focus instead on factors that have changed forever in our work lives, or are at historical levels, which represent never-before-seen conditions. We will not tackle the “why” of each of these conditions in this post. That’s a serial-post venture.



Work Has Changed

Our economies are driven more now by information work than by physical work. This has a number of downstream effects on both macro or business environment-level conditions as well as internal organizational dynamics. Again, we won’t discuss these here, but the type of work most of us now do is not the same as in previous eras.


Mobilizing Minds: Creating Wealth From Talent in the 21st Century Organization, Lowell Bryan & Claudia Joyce

Mobilizing Minds: Creating Wealth From Talent in the 21st Century Organization, Lowell Bryan & Claudia Joyce


Interaction Costs Are Plummeting

I won't bore you with the history behind Interaction Costs except to say that Ronald Coase received a Nobel Prize for his work in the area. His theories included the idea that a firm will continue to expand until the cost of doing business with external parties is cheaper than it would be having the work done in-house. Explained another way, you won't hire people to do a job as an employee if you can get the service cheaper from a sub-contractor or outside service provider. And when that happens, your firm stops adding people.

So, as the composition of our work becomes driven more by information, and the costs of processing and transacting continue to drop, the pressures on businesses to synchronize their size with the market realities continues to intensify.

Mobilizing Minds: Creating Wealth From Talent in the 21st Century Organization, Lowell Bryan & Claudia Joyce

Mobilizing Minds: Creating Wealth From Talent in the 21st Century Organization, Lowell Bryan & Claudia Joyce


People Are Overwhelmed

I think this is something we all feel intuitively. Given the move to information-driven work, the dropping interaction costs and the skyrocketing connectivity of the worldwide population means things are just getting more and more frenetic at work.



Market Leadership is Shorter-lived

Any company executive worth their salary understands the growing science behind market disruption. We’ve seen it repeated time and time again from the largest industries like automobiles to retail store niches.

Each of these factors contributes to decreasing barriers to entry in markets and the ability of competition to emerge from anywhere.



People Being Displaced in Market Disruptions

One factor driving the massive increase in long-term unemployment is the rapid change in employment opportunities now available. The move from Physical to Information work and rapidly shifting market boundaries has left many people on the sidelines with skills that do not match current market opportunities. Whatever the full reasons behind the situation, we’ve never seen long-term unemployment like this.


More VUCA or Not?

If I were to argue against myself I could say that these things indeed are different, but in totality the amount of VUCA is not markedly different than in previous times. Rather, it's just the underlying causes of VUCA are different but the aggregate total amount of VUCA is the same.

Or, are we connecting random bits of data which don’t sum up to a more VUCA world than previous ones?

What do you think? We’d love to hear your view.


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Holacracy vs. Boring Old Ideas


If you're a follower of innovative leadership or management practices, you'll no doubt have seen some of the breathless statements about Zappos' planned (or impending) move to Holacracy. What's a Holacracy? I won't spend your precious time recounting what others have covered except to say it is being hailed in the press as an innovation in management that aims to get rid of managers and hierarchy.

Let me address that last sentence I just wrote. Firstly, the press - in particular the tech press - lives off the "new" and "innovative" but has collective amnesia when the same things are "discovered" over and over again. Secondly, the press doesn't have it quite right, as usual. Holacracy doesn't really get rid of hierarchy, as it is being reported, it just distributes it. These aren't really new ideas at all. The packaging is good though.

This quest for newness extends from the press into companies where jumping from fad to fad does nothing but demoralize, disinterest and frustrate people who have to go through it. In truth, there is very little that is new in the management and leadership realm that isn't known. The problem is, people don't publish their sources of where the ideas actually come from because...well, I'll refrain from speculating on that.

Stanford's James March's quote is particularly applicable in this case:

"Most claims of originality are testimony to ignorance and most claims of magic are testimony to hubris."

I love the fact that Zappos is being experimental as an organization. And I'm impressed that they are making a bold move to further empower their people to be freed from constraints so they can perform to their potential. I would be lying if I said I wasn't a skeptic, however.

For those intrepid souls willing to investigate, there are many well-known, longstanding management practices and approaches that create the conditions for high performance. Most organizations will disregard these for the "flavour of the month," and that can be costly to everyone.

Give me the boring old ideas that have been proven to work. 


P.S. Have a look at Bob Sutton's post at LinkedIn for further discussion and enlightenment.

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Do these jeans make me look fat? – The honesty dilemma

Truth vs Honesty

Have you ever been asked the question, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” If you’re being truthful you could easily answer “No, those jeans don’t make you look fat.” (After all it isn’t the fault of the jeans but more likely the fault of one too many cookies piling up of the posterior of the wearer that is making the questioner look fat.)

If you are being honest though you might say “No, you look fat whether or not you are wearing the jeans.” (Of course I wouldn’t want to be around when you actually say this.)

This is the difference between truth and honesty. You can be truthful without being honest.

As a leader, the question is, should you be truthful or honest. I really don’t have an answer to this question.

All I know is that this week, I was repeatedly “truthed” by people who could have been honest. It would have been more difficult for them to be honest but I would have been much happier with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth or in other words, brutal honesty.

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Clarity Begins With What You Don't Notice


Meta-cognition. Thinking about thinking. In today's harried, data-soaked world, we rarely get time to think about how we think. The holidays are a good time for that.

If we don’t notice what we don’t notice, we’re much more likely to fall prey to poor decision-making and groupthink. I’ve written about decision-making before, so let’s look at groupthink.

Groupthink is an interesting phenomenon. What is it exactly? I'll rely on Daniel Goleman's description in his latest (excellent) book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. When speaking of the financial meltdown and the subprime derivatives scandal:

"Of course, seemingly very smart people did invest in those derivatives, ignoring the signals that they were not worth the risk, and emphasizing whatever might support their decision. When this tendency to ignore evidence to the contrary spreads into a shared self-deception, it becomes groupthink. The unstated need to protect a treasured opinion (by discounting crucial disconfirming data) drives shared blind spots that lead to bad decisions."

Daniel Kahneman also writes about groupthink in Thinking Fast and Slow and in particular how people so easily dismiss disconfirming data and continue on as they always have. Groupthink begins with the unstated assumption that we know everything we need to know.

In Kahneman’s book, he recounts research he conducted when looking at a financial advisory company for high net worth individuals. He was granted access to 8 years of investment results for 25 investment advisors. His conclusion was that none of the advisors was consistently any better than the others at managing the clients’ money. The results were no better than chance.

Yet, when bonus time came around, the executives were “rewarding luck as if it were skill.” When told of the results of Kahneman’s research, it was quickly disregarded. According to Kahneman, “facts that challenge such basic assumptions - and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem - are simply not absorbed.”

The research on the effectiveness of traditional management practices aren’t any different than those of the financial advisors above. 

And not surprisingly, the evidence is simply not absorbed.

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What Kind of a Leader is Santa Claus?


With all of the debate about leadership these days, I thought it would be useful to examine the leadership capabilities of Santa Claus. After all, he is universally recognized as  a doer of good deeds but have we ever turned a critical eye to what makes him effective as a leader?


In keeping with my new three part leadership classification system, I’ll turn first to his qualities as a visionary. In this area there are mixed reviews. He is universally acknowledged as promulgating a cogent and inspiring vision for children under the age of eight. However for the rest of the population, he just doesn’t cut it. What kind of visionary only appeals to those under eight and why does his vision not work for those of us who are past our prime? As a visionary, he is a bit of a failure for his inability to connect with those over eight.


As to his ability to make strong emotional connections, I think we must give him good marks. After all, why would we put up with all of that terrible Christmas music year after year? Even when his vision fades for those of us old enough to know better, he maintains a strong emotional force field that fuels the economy every year.


Yes, I know that there are those of you that say that Management isn’t Leadership but this is my blog so I’ll include it if I want to. As to management capabilities, he is a bit of a bust. Who among us hasn’t been disappointed at not getting that perfect gift we wanted so much? And as for being able to contain costs, this becomes an annual struggle that is usually exceeded. As for project management though, the guy is a master. All those presents delivered on time every year. Don’t we wish that Air Canada was half as good?


So there you have it, another profile of a flawed character, trying so hard to be a good leader but missing in critical dimensions, just like the rest of us.

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Management versus Leadership

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I've struggled for a long time with coming up with a good definition of management versus leadership. It seems that people use the two words interchangeably. Others seem to have strong opinions about what each is. I've heard a number of CEOs say that they need better managers and not better leaders.

In grappling with a way to distinguish between the two I've also been trying to find a way to describe what I do. I think I started out trying to help people improve their leadership capabilities but I'm now convinced that what I do is more oriented around improving management skills. the key is deciding how you define these two things.

So here it goes (until I come up with another definition.)

Management is a bunch of processes that are deployed to run an organization. These processes are about analyzing, planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling. This is how you clarify jobs, measure performance, problem solve, and reward people. This is the logical side of business.

Leadership on the other hand is about motivating and inspiring people. It is about making an emotional connection with an individual and thus is the emotional side of organizations.

There are a few disciplines that cross the two boundaries, setting a vision and communicating being two that come to mind immediately. These disciplines have both a logical, procedural component and an emotional one.

So I"m coming full circle in my thinking, having started with focussing on leadership and now thinking maybe that's the wrong focus. After all, it's hard to teach leadership behaviours to people but relatively easy to teach management processes. And from what I see, there is as much wrong with management as there is with leadership.

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What's a Person-Hour Worth?


As a leader, how do you value the contributions of your people? How do you value an hour of their time? For that matter, how do you value an hour of your own time?

If you're anything like most enterprise leaders that we've met, you guard your time very jealously. Do you do the same for your people?

“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of focusing on knowledge workers’ productivity. The critical feature of a knowledge workforce is that its workers are not labour, they are capital. And what is decisive in the performance of capital is not what capital costs. It is not how much capital is being invested – or else the Soviet Union would have easily been the world’s foremost economy. What’s critical is the productivity of capital.”  Peter Drucker.

If we were to look at the Opportunity Cost of an hour's time, maybe we'd act a little differently? If you compared an hour at work with what you could be doing with that hour instead, like being with family or friends? Time is something we don't get back, regardless of where we sit in the organization. If we are going to value the contributions of our employees properly, we need to respect the Opportunity Cost of requiring their time to do wasteful or ineffective things. 

Jeffery Pfeffer, noted Stanford professor, scholar and author states,

“There’s a disturbing disconnect in organizational management. On one hand, research, experience and common sense all increasingly point to a direct relationship between a company’s financial success and its commitment to management practices that treat people as assets. Yet even in the face of this mounting evidence, trends in management are actually moving away from these very principles.”

We should get a little pissed that we're taking something that can't be given back when we lead or manage in a way that is wasteful or ineffective. Just as we would if it were happening to us.

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Wishing won't make it happen


Getting things done in organizations can be difficult. There seem to be a million reasons why people don't deliver. Among our favourites are the promises made during or after meetings like, "I'll get that done prior to our next meeting" or, "I'll get to that this week." And then the vow is quickly forgotten and not delivered. Sometimes the same vow is made over and over and continues to go unfulfilled!

Research lead by Peter Gollwitzer shows that vowing to do something is often useless. What works is making concrete and vivid plans that include answers to the following: "What is the problem you have to confront?" "When will you follow through on your plan?" "Where will you do it?" and "How will you do it?"

Further research conducted by Dr. Gail Matthews provides empirical evidence that writing goals down, making concrete action plans, and sharing them with others generates the highest levels of accomplishment.

Based on our own research, we would go even further to suggest that adding an specific, externally verifiable metric which accurately gauges success (or lack thereof) will also deliver higher levels of accomplishment, or at the very least drives learning.

Otherwise, you're more likely to fall into the human tendency to rationalize any outcome as more or less what you expected.

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Avoiding Failure: Two Areas to Mind


I believe the quote by Churchill goes something like, "success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." Some people can't do that.  Turns out it's a mindset thing.

Carol S. Dweck, the Stanford psychologist, researcher and author of Mindset, The New Psychology of Success is a favourite of ours. Her work is excellent and incredibly important.

Are you in a fixed-mindset or growth-mindset workplace? Do you feel people are just judging you or are they helping you to develop? Maybe you could try making it a more growth-mindset place, starting with yourself. Are their ways you could be less defensive about your mistakes? Could you profit more from the feedback you get? Are there ways you can create more learning experiences for yourself?

In our work helping people to implement Evidence-based management, an understanding of mindset's is vitally important because putting effective practices in place in an organization can be challenging if people don't understand their own mindset. Do they feel metrics are just set up to judge them? Or, are they looking at them as an opportunity to learn and grow while helping the organization?

Matthew Lieberman, one of the founding fathers of a field called social neuroscience, brings another apparently "soft" characteristic to light in in his new book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

As explained by David Rock in his Fortune article, people's drive to be rational agents is only half the story. We also have a drive to be social. "We have hired and promoted generations of managers with robust analytical skills and poor social skills, and we don't seem to think that matters."

"A lack of social skills is behind some of the biggest challenges in organizations. Starting from the top, if leaders are not good at understanding others, they are likely to develop a strategy and expect everyone to get on board, without stopping to imagine how others may feel about that plan. In fact, just 30% of change initiatives succeed, according to 15 years of data from McKinsey & Co."

While good evidence tells us that using metrics effectively throughout the organization to clarify and focus efforts is critical for high performance, it can't deliver the optimum results unless we all understand the implications of personal mindsets and our need to factor in human needs as well as the numbers. As usual it's simple, it just isn't easy.

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Getting Good at Office Politics


I figured I should follow up last week's posts about Office Politics with something about how to play the game. But that's where I got stumped. I never really figured out how to play office politics so was having trouble figuring out how to advise my loyal readers on what to do.

As you might imagine I turned to Google to give me some good advice. Unfortunately I got a lot of smarmy, socially correct, well-meaning posts on the topic. OMG, people do take themselves so seriously. Well that wouldn't work so I performed a multi-variant analysis using chi-squared techniques on behavior patterns of successful office politicians.

That's when it hit me. I thought back to all the people I knew who were good at office politics. The one thing they had in common was that they were all giant suck-ups. Now in case you are unclear of what a suck-up is, please check out some marvelous definitions in the Urban Dictionary. (One great thing about the term is that is can be used as both a verb and a noun.)

I thought back to famous suck-ups I have known who made chummy with the boss, were always in her office, sought her out for special advice and overall, talked a very good game without ever producing anything. These were the people who won in office politics.

The people who lost were the quiet ones who just did their job, didn't draw attention to themselves, didn't seek special favor and who were just all-round competent. In the end if you're one of these people, you know who you are because the suck-ups really piss you off.

So if you want to get better at office politics, time to change your behavior and start sucking up.

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