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Wally Bock


Evidence-Based Management: What Else Is There?

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, in a recent article in the New York Times (Check out the “uncut” version.}, argue for “evidence-based-management”. They write…

…the growing pile of studies on the human and financial costs of employee disengagement, management distrust, poor group dynamics, faulty incentive schemes and other preventable damage suggests a need for an evidence-based management movement.

I admire these two Stanford University thought-leaders, but my immediate reaction to their thesis is, “Duh!” What have companies been doing for the past hundred years of modern management…managing by the-seat-of-their-pants? I suppose the answer is, “Yes.” However, I don’t think it’s a conscious choice or because they didn’t listen during their MBA classes. If you ask corporate leaders if they use research to make their decisions, I’m sure most, if not all, would say, “Of course I do.” They already believe that they practice evidence-based management.

However, they, like most human beings, have a “confirmation bias”. They tend to look for data that confirms what they already believe to be true and disregard the rest. A good example of this was surfaced at the International Monetary Fund. The Independent Evaluation Office of the IMF studied events and actions leading up to their failure to anticipate the 2008 world financial crisis and concluded that the IMF was operating on a strong confirmation bias during this period. The authors of the study write:

The IMF’s ability to correctly identify the mounting risks was hindered by a high degree of groupthink, intellectual capture, a general mindset that a major financial crisis in large advanced economies was unlikely, and inadequate analytical approaches. Weak internal governance, lack  of  incentives  to  work  across units and raise contrarian views, and a review process that did not “connect the dots” or ensure follow-up also played an important role, while political constraints may have also had some impact.

Another problem with the way managers use evidence is when they attribute a causal relationship to factors that occur close in time. I have written previously about what Chabris and Simons call the “illusion of cause”. I wrote:

Within companies the “illusion of cause” occurs, for example, when executives attribute Correlation business success or failure to their leadership, or to a new marketing program, or to a reorganized sales department, or to innovative products, or to a change in the economy. These events might be highly correlated but they are not necessarily the cause of business success or failure.

The problem is not that managers choose to ingnore the evidence; it’s that they, like most human beings, suffer from “confirmation bias” and the “illusion of cause.” The challenge is to help managers become aware of their bias and how to overcome these ways of thinking. If you can get past your biases and you want to understand and apply evidence more effectively, Wally Bock offers some good suggestions in his blog.



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Mirror, Mirror On The Wall; I Don’t See Myself At All.

As leaders, we tend to overestimate our abilities and underestimate the amount of help we need in order to improve. It’s like looking in a mirror and not seeing yourself the way others see you. Wally Bock, in his post about a Development Dimensions International (DDI) study of front-line leaders, draws three major implications:

You can't trust your mirror. No more excuses. After reading this post you can't fall back on the "nobody ever told me I overestimated my abilities" excuse.

You must commit to the rigorous and discomforting process of getting the true picture of who you are and how you're doing. Seeking feedback must become a habit. Hearing the feedback and acting on it, hard as it is, must be part of your plan. You can get some help from Mary Jo Asmus' excellent post, "The Value of Knowing Exactly Who You Are."

You must commit to the difficult habit of getting better. As you grow and develop, that target will move as Marshall Goldsmith wrote in What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

The process for “getting a true picture of who you are” and for “getting better” is best facilitated by a coach. Bill Ryan, consultant to foundations and nonprofit organizations and research fellow at the Harvard University Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, in an interview with Ruth McCambridge, Editor-in-Chief of The Nonprofit Quarterly, describes coaching as helping an executive answer this question: “If my organization wants to get to Point X, what do I, as a leader, need to do to build on my strengths and manage my weaknesses to help it get there?” If a leader doesn’t want to ask this question or won’t act on the answer, that person is not a good candidate for coaching. If a leader is willing to learn and to change behavior, then that person will likely benefit from coaching. For video examples of how coaching can help leaders change their behavior see the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund site

Other modes of learning and change could also be beneficial to executives having a more realistic understanding of themselves. Carol Kauffman and Diane Coutu draw distinctions among consulting, coaching, and therapy. Based on a survey of coaches, Kauffman and Coutu created the following model to show the differences and commonalities.  

 1802_p26_Coaching-Consulting and Therapy

I think the researchers should have included "counseling" in this model. Professional counselors help people deal with normal life development, such as career, family, and avocation, with the intent that people learn how to successfully manage these common life challenges.  I would put “counseling” between coaching and therapy in the model. It overlaps with coaching in that counselors are “paid to ask the right questions” and counseling “tackles difficult issues at work and at home…focuses on individual behavioral change…explores subjective experience.” Counseling differs from therapy in that it tends to focus on the present, is short-term, and deals with normal life development problems.

Coaching differs from consulting, counseling, and therapy in that the focus is on each executive’s success in the work setting. Coaching is similar to these other professions (consulting, counseling, and therapy) in that they all rely heavily on skillful listening to clients (executive) and reflecting back what is heard and what is meant so that clients can achieve deeper self-understanding and learning. Then when they look in the mirror, they should see themselves, warts and all. 


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What to See in a CEO

How do you hire a great leader? Adam Bryant provides some insightful answers to this question in an article adapted from his new book titled, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed.

Wally Bock writes this about Bryant's book:

Adam Bryant's Corner Office interviews are must-reads for me, so I'm excited about his new book. TheCornerOffice I'm also excited about this article because it distills Bryant's key learning from those interviews. What I like about the interviews and the lessons Bryant draws from them is that they come from CEOs who are not celebrated media darlings which gives them a freshness that you won't find in the standard business book or your typical hagiographic CEO biography. 

After interviewing over 70 CEOs, from Alan Mulally of Ford Motor to Steve Hannah of The Onion to Judith Jamison of the Alvin Ailey dance company, for his New York Times column, Bryant distills the overarching lessons from what they said about the qualities they look for when hiring leaders for their organizations. He describes these traits in this way…

The good news: these traits are not genetic. It’s not as if you have to be tall or left-handed. These qualities are developed through attitude, habit and discipline — factors that are within your control. They will make you stand out. They will make you a better employee, manager and leader. They will lift the trajectory of your career and speed your progress.

The five traits are:

Passionate curiosity - always asking questions that get people to think reflectively about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they can do it better

Battle-hardened confidence - using the experience of failure and perseverance to achieve success and to learn from both failure and success

Team smarts – knowing how to build teams and help them be effective; being aware of group dynamics and facilitating productive interaction among group members

A simple mind-set – making complex ideas simple so that everyone can quickly understand the main points and how the ideas affect what they are doing

Fearlessness – willingness to take reasonable risks and learn from those experiences

Any search for exceptional leaders should consider these traits. Do candidates exhibit these traits in their behavior? Can they describe how these traits are a part of who they are as leaders? Can they explain to what extent they are strong or weak in each of these areas? What I like most about these traits, other than that they were generated from the practical experience of successful leaders, is that they are not about how much someone knows. Rather, they are about the ability to listen and communicate with the people around them in a way that makes everyone successful.




Hierarchical Leadership vs. Networked Leadership

The Egyptian people have much work to do to create a democratic state and there is no certainty yet that they will achieve this dream. However, the one thing that is certain is that the way people choose to form and manage large organizations has changed forever.  We are witnessing a preference for networks as opposed to hierarchies. Leaders of complex organizations should be paying attention to what is happening in Egypt and all over the Middle East, for that matter.  

Leading a networked organization is very different from leading a hierarchical organization. Harold Jarche, in his blog, talks about the differences between a hierarchy and a networked organization and how that affects leadership. He writes:

It takes different leadership to increase collaboration and support social learning in the workplace. Leadership is the key, not technology. Most of our leadership practices come from a command and control military legacy that have been adopted by the business world for the past century. But hierarchies don’t help us manage in networks, whether they be social, value or organizational networks.

Egypt’s leaders learned this lesson when they tried to gain control of protestors prior to President Mubarak stepping down. The old guard seemed to believe that a nation state will plunge into chaos unless it has an iron-fisted ruler at the helm. 

And the media reinforce this way of thinking by asking the wrong questions. Wally Bock, in his blog, cites the situation in Egypt as an example. He writes

There's an interesting illustration of this principle playing out in the coverage of events in Egypt these days. Older commentators may wonder "Who's controlling the crowds?" but younger commentators ask, "How are the crowds organizing?"

Internet-age youth have shown to the world that they can organize themselves using email and social media. Governments as well as businesses and nonprofits should heed this lesson. Technology and the proclivities of the new generation of young adults are transforming organizations in ways that demand new kinds of leadership.




Does Your Organization Suffer From ADD?

Organizations, as well as children, can have ADD (attention deficit disorder)? Do your managers Conference room image have trouble keeping their attention focused on new performance-improvement initiatives? Do they get excited about new management models and new (or reconstituted) management/leadership theories but lack the persistence to follow through on implementation. Many executives, because either they are desperate to achieve performance goals or they are afraid they will miss out on the latest management trend, will flit from one new program to another. Wally Bock aptly describes this phenomenon in reference to a client who worked in an ADD organization.

He worked for a large company for seven years. In that time, the company had at least one management fad per year. They found their cheese, learned about some fish market, discovered their strengths, and tried to master the carrot principle. When they found that they couldn't balance their scorecards, they aspired to develop into Level 5 Leaders. They only got to level 1 before they moved on to something else.

Each “fad” could be helpful to managers in this company, but by not following through on one method and giving it a chance to take hold and improve the management practices of the organization, two detrimental things happen. First, the company wastes time, energy, and money on activities that do not help the organization achieve its goals. Second, the company creates a culture in which employees don’t want to commit themselves to new initiatives because they assume management will move on to something else within a short time. Managers might go through the motions of attending training events, or company-wide meetings, or becoming familiar with a new method. However, if they are not committed to change, they will not support implementation. They will not talk about the new approach with the people they supervise, they will not provide resources for the initiative, they will not make time available for teams to work on related projects, and, worse, they might intentionally sabotage efforts to change anything.

Then the management method gets blamed for a lack of results.

  • “We tried lean six sigma but our quality ratings didn’t improve.”
  • “We gave all of our managers 360 feedback and they still don’t talk to each other.”
  • “We sent everyone to three days of emotional intelligence training and it seemed like things improved for awhile but now it’s back to where we were before.”

Usually the problem is not the method; it’s the way the method is implemented. If managers don’t see how the method will help them achieve important business goals, if managers don’t have clear expectations for learning and success, if managers aren’t being supported by their bosses, if managers don’t have any immediate opportunities to apply the new method, and if managers aren’t held accountable and rewarded for applying the method, then the company can’t expect to reap any significant benefits. Like a diet, it doesn’t matter which one you choose. It could be Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Zone, or Biggest Loser. You won’t be successful unless your goal is clear, you have support from others, you are persistent, and you get feedback on your progress.




Just-In-Time Learning

Facts and figures everywhere…not a drop to drink (my apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge).  We are inundated with information and advice about what leaders should and should not do. Books and blogs are full of ideas. The problem is in having easy access to the best of this information when and where we need it.

Mobile tools have promise in this regard. In their simplest form, mobile phones and PDAs of various types provide ready access to the Web. Wally Bock identifies some Web sites that are rich resources of information. Clark Quinn writes about mobile learning and also formal social learning and informal social learning as formats that open up tremendous possibilities for providing information where it is needed. He argues that integrating these technologies will do things for us that our brains can’t do. It’s not only about accessing information; it’s also about processing that information in creative and useful ways.

RealTime Performance has a product called Inspire which is an example of making information useful to10x10 leaders. Inspire is “…a web-based tool that empowers employees to take ownership of their leadership development by enabling them to build, drive and track their own leadership development plan.” From that tool, RealTime Performance has created something that they call Inspire 10X10 which is 10 tips matched with 10 resources on topics that are most important to managers and leaders in organizations today. 

RealTime Performance has done the work of taking mountains of information on leadership/management skills and synthesized it down to short, useable suggestions and then paired those suggestions with books, videos, and other materials that a manager can use to delve into in more depth. You can download a free example of Inspire 10X10, the one on Building and Developing Talent.  

However, even with a tool like Inspire, to really learn, that is, to really internalize these tips and make them part of the way we work, most of us need help from others. We need to understand in conversation with others how managing in this way will help us be successful, we need opportunities to practice these skills, and we need feedback on how we are doing. This is where a boss, supervisor, or coach comes in. They can provide a relationship that facilitates and reinforces learning. Knowing what to do is only part of learning; we also need others to help us with goal-setting, practice, and feedback.