Thursday, February 22, 2018

Success Theater at GE: Ambitious Targets and Hiding Bad News

Thomas Gryta, Joann Lublin, and David Benoit have written a lengthy feature article in the Wall Street Journal today about GE's struggles. The authors describe a "confidence culture" where senior executives set very ambitious targets and exuded relentless optimism about achieving those goals. Moreover, people found it difficult to push back and suggest that these objectives might not be achievable. Jeffrey Immelt seemed to downplay clear signals that the goals could not be achieved, perhaps selectively looking for information that would confirm his preexisting beliefs about what they could achieve as an organization. Gryta, Lublin, and Benoit write:

GE’s precipitous fall, following years of treading water while the overall economy grew, was exacerbated, some insiders say, by what they call “success theater.” Mr. Immelt and his top deputies projected an optimism about GE’s business and its future that didn’t always match the reality of its operations or its markets, according to more than a dozen current and former executives, investors and people close to the company.... Mr. Immelt didn’t like hearing bad news, said several executives who worked with him, and didn’t like delivering bad news, either. He wanted people to make their sales and financial targets and thought he could make the numbers, too, they said.

The article raises an important question for all leaders: How do you know if you have set overly ambitious goals for the organization and put harmful pressure on your people? How might we rethink what it means to stretch the organization? Here are my thoughts. It can be very productive to set a long term goal (3 years or more) of creating a breakthrough new product or entering a whole new market. Framing that goal in a way that provides meaning to people's work is important when setting that long term goal. Ask yourself: What is our purpose here? How are we trying to make our customers' lives better? Stretching your people in this way can be very inspiring. Setting over-the-top ambitious short term financial targets, on the other hand, can be dangerous. It can even lead to unethical or illegal behavior, as people feel pressured to deliver and to hide bad news. It also doesn't inspire people if you simply aim to achieve higher ROI or market share. Think about goals about which your people will feel passionate and inspired. 

Moreover, co-creating highly ambitious goals can be much more productive than establishing them in a top-down manner. What do your people want to achieve? What bold moves would they like to pursue? What do they care passionately about, and what do customers care deeply about as well? Finally, You have to create a healthy feedback loop. How are things really going? Where are we finding it difficult to meet our objectives? Being honest doesn't mean walking away from stretch goals. It does mean understanding how things are transpiring differently than you had hoped, and adjusting your plans accordingly. Work together with your people to figure out how to surmount obstacles, rather than simply telling them to charge up that hill again. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Stop the Reorganizations!

Many chief executives initiate a substantial reorganization during the early stages of their tenure.  for some companies, reorganiations become a seemingly annual event.   No one has any idea what the updated organization chart looks like, because it is changing so often.    Does all this reorganization add value? Probably not. One recent McKinsey and Company study concluded that only 16% of restructurings could be characterized as an “unqualified success.” Similarly, Bain and Company found that most reorganizations do not generate improved results.  Why do leaders enjoy redrawing the boxes and lines on the organiation chart so often?  Frankly, it's easy to do.  Taking other types of actions to enhance performance can be much more challenging and time consuming.   Too often, leaders choose the easy path, despite the proven lack of efficacy.   Somehow they think that their firm will be different.  

Confusion and ambiguity hamper productivity in these organizations that are constantly changing reporting relationships.   Moroever, people become frustrated by the disruptions to work processes and routines.  Wharton’s Peter Cappelli compares serial reorganizing to prescribing antibiotics very frequently for minor infections. You might alleviate the pain at that moment, but harm the patient over time. Cappelli notes, “The constant churning caused by these reorganizations generates costs and develops long-term cynicism about why they are done and what they mean.”

Monday, February 19, 2018

Secrets to Success for Norway's Ski Team

Bill Pennington has written an interesting article about the Norwegian ski team in today's New York Times.  I first heard about this ski team's interesting dynamics during a feature on NBC's Olympic broadcast a few days ago.  The Norwegian ski team has amassed many medals and championships over the years, including a strong performance at this winter's Olympics in South Korea.   Naturally, many factors might account for their success.  Interestingly, though, the Norwegian skiers contend that team dynamics plays an important role, despite the fact that the sport is highly individualistic.   Team members explain that they abide by five basic ground rules:

1.  No jerks allowed - You have to subvert your ego and abide by the golden rule - treat others the way that you would like to be treated.  

2.  No class structure - Aleksander Kilde explains that there is no pecking order on the team.  They treat each other as equals, whether someone is a champion or a rookie.  

3.  The social quality of the team is of primary importance - you must act in ways that preserve the collaborative environment within the team.  People share knowledge and best practices with one another, rather than hording information and keeping secrets.   They try to help each other achieve their personal best. 

4.  Talk to each other, not about each other - Don't go behind other's backs with complaints. Have honest conversations directly with one another.  

5.  Friday night is taco night - They step away from their busy schedules to share a meal together every Friday night.  

Clearly, the five rules do not explain all of the Norwegian team's success.  However, they do offer a good template for how to begin building a better team, even if you are far from an alpine ski course.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Strong Airline Profitability? Is it Really About Fees?

Source: Dallas News
For decades, the airline industry has been characterized by abysmal profits. The list of airline bankruptcies is seemingly endless. However, the Wall Street Journal reports this week that U.S. airline industry profitability is very strong at the moment - "healthier than ever" according to the headline.  The newspaper credits the litany of fees charged by airlines for the strong income numbers:  

Profit per passenger at the seven largest U.S. airlines averaged $19.65 over the past four years—record-setting profitable years for airlines. In 2017, it stood at $17.75, based on airline earnings reports. In truth, airlines now cover their costs with tickets and get their profits from baggage fees, seat fees, reservation-change fees and just about all the other nickel-and-diming that aggravates customers. You might also call those extra 12 to 15 passengers now crammed onto each flight “Andrew Jackson” for the profit they bring... U.S. airlines were on pace to take in more than $4 billion in baggage fees and $3 billion in reservation-change and cancellation penalties in 2017, according to Transportation Department data. (The full year hasn’t been tallied yet.) Most of that drops straight to the bottom line. The two categories add up to about more than half of the net profits airlines posted last year.

A couple of sentences toward the end of the article identify the airline with the highest profit margins in the industry.   Accoridng to the Wall Street Journal, Southwest tops the industry with a 16.5% net profit margin, nearly double the average margin in  the industry (9%).   Actually, the newspaper does not account for a one-time tax benefit of roughly 6%.  After adjusting for that figure, Southwest's advantage over the rest of the industry is much narrower.   Still, Southwest generated strong profits, as it has in the past.  The article does not delve into the reasons for that profitability.  Southwest Airlines does not charge baggage fees, unlike nearly all of its rivals.   Southwest also does not administer ticket change fees, unlike nearly all of its rivals.   How then does it generate strong  margins in the industry?  That's the question that the newspaper should explore.   

In weaker economic times, the other airlines may find it much more difficult to continue to generate strong consumer demand while charging so many fees.  A more sustainable competitive advantage comes from a distinctive strategy and organization, as Southwest has developed over many years.   Many scholars have studied this question over the years.  Perhaps it's old news to the Wall Street Journal, but that old news offers much more enduring lessons for managers than the story of how piling on fees has juiced profits recently for some players. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Nordstrom Unlocks Its Changing Rooms

Source: NY Times
Luxury retailer Nordstrom continues to innovate in hopes of surviving and thriving in the embattled department store business. The Wall Street Journal reports today on many of the experiments that the firm is conducting. For example, Nordstrom chose to stop locking its fitting rooms recently. The WSJ reports on the change:

In November, the company unlocked the fitting rooms in its department stores. Many retailers keep them locked to discourage shoplifting, but the practice annoys customers. Although theft has increased slightly since Nordstrom made the change, executives say, the retailer is sticking with the new policy.  “Analysts don’t like it,” Jamie Nordstrom said. “But I’m thinking about the next 50 years, not the next quarter.”

I've always found these types of moves interesting.  Typically, managers conduct cost-benefit analysis when they make key decisions.  However, in certain cases, the costs can be quantified rather easily, but the benefits are not as well-defined.  Many managers would not go through with this decision because the cost-benefit analysis does not justify it.  Here, the costs of increased theft can be measured precisely.   The benefits from increased customer satisfaction may be much more difficult to evaluate and quantify.  Still, Nordstrom knows that its loyal customers do not appreciate the locks on the changing room doors.  Will this small change enhance customer loyalty?  Will people be more likely to try on multiple outfits now?  Might it increase the size of the average transaction per store visit?  Some of these things can be measured with time and some creativity.  In certain cases, though, managers simply have to side with the customer, recognizing that it may not pay immediate dividends.  In the long run, Nordstrom won't win against online competition through better assortment or lower prices.  They have to create a superior in-store experience.  This small step appears to be moving in the right direction on that front.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Advisers and Uncertain Advice

Celia Gaertig and Joseph Simmons have published a paper titled, "Do People Inherently Dislike Uncertain Advice?"   The authors focus on the longstanding research finding that individuals prefer confident to uncertain advisors.   Individuals generally don't want take advice from someone who does not appear self-assured.  Gaertig and Simmons extend this research by examining the question:  Do people exhibit an aversion to uncertain advice itself?

The scholars studied advice evaluation in a series of studies focused on issues such as sports predictions, finance, and weather.  Their findings proved remarkably consistent.   Indeed, people evaluate confident advisers more favorably than those who appear uncertain and hesitant.  However, people do not necessarily dislike uncertain advice.   Here is an excerpt from their paper: 

In eleven studies, we found that people do not inherently dislike uncertain advice. We observed this in studies of sports, weather, and stocks. We observed this in studies that operationalized uncertain advice as imprecision, as statements of numerical probability, and as statements of non-numerical uncertainty. And we observed this in studies in which people directly evaluated the advice and in studies that asked people to choose between an advisor who provided certain advice versus one who provided uncertain advice.  

This paper gives me comfort.  It shows that people are quite capable of sifting through advice, and recognizing the merits of advice couched in the form of probabilities.  We do not expect complete certainty.  That's a good thing, as I believe we should be skeptical of advice and predictions that seem to express absolute certainty.    We just might be more rational than some people think!  

Monday, February 12, 2018

Communicate Goals, Then Test for Understanding & Learn from Your Audience

Leaders often assume that people at all levels understand the organization's goals and objectives.   Is that presumption correct?  In too many cases, it is not.  What happens?   First, leaders do not recognize that they must communicate those goals repeatedly - in different ways, through different channels, and using different media.   It is not sufficient to address goals once or twice at the outset of the year. You have to beat that drum reepeatedly.  However, you also must make a compelling case for why front-line employees should care about those goals and objectives.  Ask yourself: So what?  How can you answer that question for the workers at all levels.  Why should they care?   

Even more importantly, though, leaders have to test for understanding.  A leader has to put his or her finger on the pulse of the organization, so as to determine whether people heard and comprehended the message.   How do you put your finger on the pulse of your firm?  Certainly, managing by walking around helps.  Meeting people informally, perhaps in small group lunches in the cafeteria, can be useful as well.   Finding ways to solicit and address employee questions is crucial.   Asking them to play back what they have heard from their managers is a useful technique.  Listen carefullyas they speak to you.  Don't put words in their mouths.   Ask them to be as specific as possible about the sources of their confusion.  

If they didn't understand the goals or misintrepreted them, don't blame the audience!  It's not their fault for misunderstanding your message.  You have to learn from them, and you must clarify and modify the communication accordingly.   Ask for their help!  Often, the audience can help you craft a more compelling and easy-to-understand message.  

TEDx Bryant 2018

I enjoyed speaking at the inaugural TEDx Bryant event on Saturday, February 10th.  I look forward to sharing the video via YouTube as soon as it is posted.  My talk addressed the topic, "Does the Devil's Advocate Kill Creativity?"