Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Creative Problem Solving: Overcoming Fixation

Fixation characterizes many people's problem-solving efforts. We become stuck on a particular solution or solution set, and we fail to consider a wider range of alternatives. A new study by Jackson Lu, Modupe Akinola, and Malia Mason examines whether switching tasks can help overcome the fixation problem, and thereby enhance creative problem-solving efforts. The scholars began their work by reviewing the literature: 

An emerging body of research demonstrates that creative performance on both divergent and convergent thinking tasks can be improved if the effects of fixation are mitigated by setting a task aside, such as through breaks, distractions, or interruptions (Jett & George, 2003). Breaks are purported to free individuals from their fixated mindset by ‘‘reducing the ‘recency’ value of inappropriate strategies” (Ochse, 1990, p. 198). For example, brief breaks during brainstorming sessions can increase the number and variety of ideas generated (Kohn & Smith, 2011; Paulus & Brown, 2003). Sim- ilarly, performance on convergent thinking tasks (e.g., the RAT) improves as the break time between attempts is increased because cognitive fixation ‘‘wears off” over time (Smith & Blankenship, 1991).

The scholars then developed a set of experiments to examine the impact of "task switching" - i.e. setting aside a particular task to perform some other work. They found that, "Participants who continually alternated back and forth between two creativity tasks outperformed both participants who switched between the tasks at their discretion and participants who attempted one task for the first half of the allotted time before switching to the other task for the second half." 

Note that the study does not justify rampant multi-tasking on the part of employees. Creative problem-solving still involves a willingness to focus on a particular problem intensely for a period of time. However, the ability to step away from time to time can be very effective. Note, though, that the task switching worked best when it wasn't left to the discretion of the research subjects. That's an interesting finding. It means that team leaders may want to take responsibility for thinking carefully about to either schedule some task switching into creative work, or intervening when they feel appropriate to give people a break from their focus on a particular problem.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Hierarchy is Not Necessarily Evil

The conventional wisdom is clear: hierarchical organizational structures stifle innovation.  Is that actually true?  Bret Sanner and J. Stuart Bunderson have written a brief article for Sloan Management Review titled, "The Truth about Hierarchy."  They summarize the main conclusion as follows: 

Specifically, we found that hierarchies help teams generate, identify, and select new ideas by performing three critical functions (and then getting out of the way): bounding solutions, converging ideas, and structuring processes.
  • Bounding solutions:  Constraints actually can be conducive to innovation.  Hierarchies can help establish boundaries and constraints that will be helpful as people generate possible solutions to a problem.
  • Convergence of ideas:  Hierarchies can help teams winnow the ideas down after an extensive brainstorming process.  They can help teams by establishing evaluation and selection criteria, for instance.  Alternatively, they might step in to help a team come with up techniques for narrowing down a list of alternative solutions.  
  • Structuring processes:  Hierarchical structures can help establish ground rules for participation and engagement in a problem-solving process.   Hierarchy also helps insure that people have well-defined roles.   Role clarity can be very important in a group, particularly when its tackling complex problems.  
The authors did not cite the recent research of Stanford's Melissa Valentine, but that would have buttressed their arguments.   Valentine explained her research in a recent podcast with Bob Sutton (Friction podcast).   Valentine argues that some structuring processes and mechanisms can help teams be more effective.  She describes her research in chaotic health care situations such as emergency room care.  It's a great interview.  Check it out! 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Do Materialistic CEOs Take More Risk?

Professors Robert Bushman, Robert Davidson, Aiyesha Dey, and Abbie Smith have written a fascinating paper titled, “Bank CEO Materialism: Risk Controls, Culture and Tail Risk.” They actually measured how materialistic bank CEOs were, and they examined the impact that the CEO's personal value system might have on the risk culture of the banks that they led. 

Their sample included 284 firms and 445 CEOs during the 1992-2013 time period.   They examined personal ownership of luxury goods as a proxy for the "materialistic" nature of a bank CEO.    They labeled CEOs as materialistic if they owned an automobile that cost more than $75K, a boat longer than 25 feet, or a home worth more than twice the median price of homes near their company's headquarters.  They also ran their analysis using higher cut-offs for each of these luxury goods (for example, they raised the purchase price of cars to $110,000).   Then, the researchers also examined the banks' risk management cultures.  They did so by collecting data on the risk management index of each bank.  This index draws on data from reports that the banks file with the Federal Reserve each year, and it strives to evaluate the "strength and independence of the risk management function" at each institution.  

What did they find?  The scholars report, "Using an index reflecting the strength of risk management functions (RMI), we find that RMI is significantly lower for banks with materialistic CEOs, and that RMI significantly decreases after a materialistic CEO succeeds a non-materialistic one and increases after a non-materialistic CEO replaces a materialistic CEO."  

Finally, the scholars report an increase in the number of materialistic CEOs over the years.  I find the study very interesting, both because of the findings and the great care that the scholars took to try to measure key variables.  We all might believe intuitively that value systems matter, but this study actually shows a relationship between a leader's values and the behavior of the organization that he or she leads.  Naturally, these scholars are not saying that buying a big house or a large boat is inherently bad.   However, they are suggesting that we should pay attention to actions and decisions that may reveal a leader's value system.   Their personal purchasing decisions are one piece of a larger picture, and we should pay attention to all the cues available to us.  In the end, it doesn't mean we should reject a leader who may display signs of being materialistic...but we should be a bit more vigilant about the impact that the leader may have on the organization's culture.  

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Fewer Experts, More Innovation?

Riitta Katila, Sruthi Thatchenkery, Michael Christensen, and Stefanos Zenios have conducted some fascinating new research about the role of experts during the innovation process.  They studied over 200 surgical instrument ventures.  The scholars examined the role that physicians played during the growth and development of these new ventures.  Here's what they concluded:

To be sure, entrepreneurs in highly specialized and technical industries need the knowledge that only users (doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like) can provide. Doctors understand what other doctors will value in a new product; lawyers know what other lawyers need. But you can have too much of a good thing — including input from such experts. In fact, my colleagues and I have found that innovation thrives when expert users make up about 40% of an invention team. Any less and the company will lose sight of what its customers need; any more and the group will tend to converge on old ideas.

The researchers found that having a doctor serve as CEO of the new venture served as a key impediment to innovation.  Why is the presence of many experts a liability for these ventures?  Remember that experts provide important knowledge about the use of products, the problems with existing products, and the opportunities for improvement.  However, experts also are very entrenched in the existing ways of working.  They often cling to conventional wisdom and find it difficult to shake loose from certain long-held assumptions and beliefs.   Katila explains the particular liabilities that emerge when a doctor serves as CEO:

Why do firms led by doctors tend to lag behind in innovation? In part, we think it’s because expert users have spent lots of time getting comfortable with existing tools and methods. As a result, they’re invested in their field’s status quo and may have trouble seeing the value in a novel idea. We found that although expert users excelled at refining existing products, they couldn’t always recognize a potential breakthrough innovation when they saw one. As one physician CEO we interviewed for our study confessed, “If you show me a prototype, I can say, ‘Well, you could do this better.’ … I know very well how to help a company optimize its product … but I don’t know how to invent something that was never invented before.”

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

All-New Version of the Everest Leadership and Team Simulation!

I'm pleased to announce the release today of an all-new version of the Everest Leadership and Team Simulation.  This version (V3) provides an updated user experience, as well as all-new scenarios on the mountain.  Instructors can continue to use the original scenarios, or they can choose new situations and problems that students must address and solve.  For those not familiar with this simulation, it provides a highly engaging and interactive experience for students and executive education participants.  The simulation aims to teach important concepts about team dynamics, decision-making, and group learning.  I'm grateful to have collaborated once again with co-author Amy Edmondson and the incredible teams at Forio and Harvard Business Publishing.  I hope instructors will learn more about this new version and let us know if they have any questions!  The link above provides a description of the simulation as well as a preview of the experience.  

Apple's Jony Ive on Team Trust & Listening

Fast Company published some excerpts this week from Rick Tetzeli's interview of Apple design chief Jony Ive.   I especially loved Ive's comments on building trust within his design team, and how that helped them overcome the common problem of self-censorship.  Here's the excerpt:

In 30 years time, we’ll look back at, with such fondness, the way we worked, not necessarily what we did. I think the advantage is we have so much trust as a team that we don’t censor our ideas because we are nervous and scared that they will sound absurd . . . Very often it seems to be you listen to the biggest, loudest voice. A lot of this process is about listening, I think. What we’ve found is very often the very best ideas come from the quietest voice. And if you’re not listening, you’re going to miss that.

And also when you have trust, it’s not a competition. We don’t have to deal with the bizarre game of all of the problems involved with a thrusty sort of ego. Our interest isn’t some leaf table with points. What we’re interested in as a team is, we’re genuinely, genuinely trying to figure out how we can make the very best product possible. And of course, there are many occasions where we don’t get there. But that’s our sincere hope.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Creating a Culture of Accountability

How can I hold people accountable without creating a culture of finger pointing, blame avoidance, and excuse making?   Leadership coach and consultant Peter Bregman argues that leaders must achieve clarity on five dimensions if they wish to build a culture of accountability in their organizations. 
  1. Expectations - make sure your people know the objectives and outcomes that you expect them to achieve by a particular date. 
  2. Capabilities - make sure the people have the skills and capabilities to achieve those goals, and if they don't, put in place a plan to develop their capabilities accordingly. 
  3. Measurement - inform people of the metrics that will be used to evaluate performance 
  4. Feedback - put in place a mechanism for providing feedback on a regular basis 
  5. Consequences - insure that everyone understands the consequences of failing to fulfill key obligations 

Monday, December 04, 2017

Think Like a Traveler

IDEO's Tom and Dave Kelley wrote a wonderful book together a few years ago titled, "Creative Confidence."   In the book, they offer tons of ideas on how to spark creativity in your organization, based mostly on their work developing design thinking as a process and set of tools for creating breakthrough innovations.  One of my favorite passages has to do with encouraging people to "think like a traveler."  Here is an excerpt:

Ever travel to a foreign city?  We've all heard that, "Travel broadens the mind."  But beneath this cliche lies a deep truth.  Things stand out becuase they're different, so we notice every detail, from street signs to mailboxes to how you pay at a restaurant.  We learn a lot when we travel not becuase we are any smarter on the road, but because we pay such close attention.  On a trip, we become our own version of Sherlock Holmes, intensely observing the environment around us.  We are continuously trying to figure out a world that is foreign and new. Too often, we go through day-to-day life on cruise control, oblivious to huge swaths of our surroundings.  To notice friction points - and therefore opportunities to do things better - it helps to see the world with fresh eyes.

Psychologists distinguish between two ways of perceiving the world around us and processing information - top down vs. bottom up processing.  In top down processing, we draw on our past experiences and "fill in the blanks" when we encounter a particular place or situation.   We don't have to notice every detail, because a few signs prove sufficient to let us know what we are seeing.  We walk into a library, and we know quickly based on a few visual cues that we are in a library.  We don't need to attend to all the details.   In bottom up processing, we start by perceiving all the little details, and we put the pieces of the puzzle together gradually.   In day-to-day life, as the Kelleys explain, we are on cruise control, using top down processing to capture the essence of a situation quickly and fill in the blanks to paint the picture in our mind.   When we travel, we engage in bottom up processing, because we can't rely on past experience to help us.   As such, we notice lots of little things.  Noticing the little opportunities for improvement and innovation can be crucial in the creative process.  Thus, thinking like a traveler is essential to creativity.