September 29, 2013


The 8020Info Water Cooler

Highlights from the latest information for managers, leaders and entrepreneurs

1. Three Common Reasons People Flounder

Productivity guru David Allen has found three common reasons we struggle when we try to cope with our personal workflow. On his blog, he explains them with examples from a senior executive:

  • Consistency: She had some phone call reminders on pieces of paper, some in her head, and still others on sticky notes stuck to the phone. “Keeping the same kind of reminders about the same kinds of to-do’s in different media in different places is hugely inefficient and confusing. Information or reminder triggers of a specific type must be kept in the same place, the same way, all the time,” he insists.
  • Currency: You will run into trouble if the system you have developed for keeping track of things is not current. Unless it’s up-to-date, with all tasks accounted for, the system will be untrustworthy. You’ll look at a task list and some part of you will sense it’s not complete — and you’ll still be carrying things around in your head rather than giving your brain a break.
  • Contextually available: The executive had been trying to organize action reminders by projects or tasks, which seems sensible, but Allen says it’s more important that the reminder be placed where it will be seen, so it gets done. If you’re on the phone, that’s when you will look for items that need to be done by phone, or for emails when at your computer, or for errands when you’re in the car.

2. How To Handle Project Failure

Not all projects succeed. And to be more effective, it’s important you handle project failure in a positive fashion. On his Leadership Freak blog, trainer Dan Rockwell recommends:

  • Don’t sooth discomfort by minimizing the failure. You don’t want to overreact, but you also want it to sting a bit.
  • Accept responsibility rather than blaming others or otherwise pointing fingers. Indeed, get everyone involved by making the failure personal. Ask, “How did we let each other down?”
  • Don’t assume you know the reasons for the failure. Probe.
  • Pick the scab. Dig into issues optimistically and respectfully, trying to improve next time rather than putting somebody down.
  • When you evaluate, separate planning from execution, examining both elements.
  • Consider timelines. Did the project drag on too long? Often, Rockwell says, short timelines are best.
  • Seek feedback from constituents outside the room— they may have a useful perspective.
  • Don’t exaggerate the failure, making it seem all-encompassing. One failure doesn’t mean everything else will fail. Also, don’t identify the failure with your personal sense of who you are.
  • At the same time, don’t assume working harder next time will make everything better. Figure out what to do differently in future.
  • Explain, specifically, how you’ll be better next time.
  • Remember what worked well, and why.
  • Put it to bed. Move on.

3. Marketing Is About Costumes

If you look through fashion magazines, entrepreneur Seth Godin says on his blog, you’ll quickly realize that fashion is the act of making a costume. The clothing isn’t about warmth, modesty, having a pocket to keep a key handy, or other such functional attributes. It’s a costume, designed for effect.

That may seem distant from your workplace, but he argues it isn’t.

Costumes, he explains, are an artifice designed to remind us of something else. So packaging is a costume. The experience of entering a retail store or government department is a costume. Typography is a costume. The design of your web site is a costume.

“There are very few ways to make something perfectly functional. There are a billion ways to invent a costume. Most marketing, then, is costume work, not the search for the most efficient function. Your form can follow your function, sure, but without a costume, it’s naked,” he concludes.

4. Three Rules For Executive Teams

When consultant Les McKeown works with executive teams suffering from gridlock as they seek consensus on big decisions, he urges them to make an overt agreement — that consensus does not mean everyone must be in agreement, but that everyone will accept and support the majority decision.

On Inc.com, he also lays out three steps: First they will discuss and debate issues powerfully, honestly and openly. When it’s time to make a decision, the majority will prevail. When that decision is taken, everyone will accept cabinet responsibility for it, as government ministers do. Unless you believe the decision to be illegal or unethical in the extreme, you have a responsibility to help support and implement it.

5. Zingers

  • Pitch your early drafts:  The key to effective knowledge management is to throw away documents, argues blogger J.D. Meir. You can get too attached to what you have written in early drafts, and then won’t learn and evolve. So start over, throwing away the document but not the learning. Besides, he says, it often takes longer to reshape a document than start over. (Source: J.D. Meier’s Blog)
  • Revealing questions:  In interviewing candidates for leadership positions, here are some helpful questions, from Sharon Armstrong, author of The Essential HR Handbook: What is the toughest group from which you’ve had to get co-operation? Can you describe a situation in which you have had to change your leadership style to achieve the goal? What have you done to foster a wide number of views in your work environment? (Source: Eric Jacobson on Management and Leadership)
  • Be “low maintenance”:  There are costs to working with everyone, says entrepreneur Rajesh Setty. It’s in your interest to keep the costs of working with you very low — making it attractive for others to work with you. (Source: RajeshSetty.com)
  • Usability for seniors pays off:  If you redesigned your website to give seniors a user experience of the same quality that younger users enjoy, you could expect to get 35% more business from them, says usability guru Jakob Nelson. That includes using different colours to clearly differentiate between visited and unvisited links (as seniors are more likely to forget what they have visited), better search tools and forms on your site, and tasks on your website adapted to their needs. (Source: Nielsen Norman Group)
  • Your last task:  Don’t spend the last few minutes of your day trying to squeeze in one more task. Usually it will take more time than you expect and you’ll stay late. Instead, take time to plan your strategy for tomorrow. (Source: The Organized Executive’s Blog)

6. Q&A with 8020Info:  Be a Specialist or Generalist?

Question:  My daughter has just entered university and is worried about whether she should become a specialist in some field or be a generalist. What do you advise?

8020Info Associate Harvey Schachter replies:

My personal bias is to be a generalist, but the world seems to push me towards being a specialist. Clients reach out for specialists. And although I used to figure the pool of opportunities available to a generalist would be bigger than the pool for a specialist, I’ve found the opposite seems to be true.

When I’m buying, I prefer a specialist, as you do probably. I’m more inclined to hire a plumber than a general handyperson for my plumbing, price or existing relationship aside. My father, when I was young, told me if I want to have a steak to go to a steak house. I stay away from restaurants advertising Canadian, Chinese and Italian food, suspecting they don’t do any of those cuisines well.

That’s unscientific. But a recent study by Keith Murnighan, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, and his then-doctoral student, Long Wang, adds a dose of science.  Since Wang is a basketball fan, they decided to look into a certain class of specialist on the court – three-point dazzlers, who excel at shooting successfully from long distances.

They found in one study that, on average, specialists’ salaries were linked not to their three-point shooting, but to their two-point shooting, from closer in. That’s even though three-point shooting had a bigger impact on their team’s performance.

The researchers also asked fans to imagine that they were the manager of an NBA team in need of a good three-point shooter. But those fans tended to recruit and compensate generalists, whose two-point and three-point shooting were both above average, over a specialist with exceptional three-point shooting but whose overall scoring was below average.

“Because the instructions emphasized that the team needed a three-point shooter, favoring the generalist was evidence of a generalist bias,” the researchers declared.

In yet another study, they looked at ads on the Monster and CareerBuilder sites, to see how many recruiters were looking for true specialists. Even positions calling for specialists asked applicants to have skill sets in two distinct domains about 36% of the time.

“Moreover, larger organizations — those organizations best poised to take advantage of specialists’ unique skill sets — were more likely to demand multiple skill sets from their specialists than smaller organizations,” Kellogg Insight reports.

I have some concerns about how far the basketball results can be taken as a proxy for all careers. And certainly there is a lot of pressure these days to be a specialist, even though as one goes up the career ladder in many organizations, you rise above the specialty and need to be a generalist, particularly in senior management.

I suspect for a first job for your daughter, being a specialist could be better. But afterwards, it’s less certain — especially if she’s a three-point specialist.

7. News From Our Water Cooler:  Research Interpretation Traps

This week we were delighted to hear from a former client and old friend now working in Alberta. Our call touched on how people often have difficulty in choosing research techniques and sample sizes, which prompts us to share a few further thoughts here on common errors of research interpretation:

  • Confirmation bias: This well-known error reflects the tendency of people to remember information selectively or interpret the evidence in a way that confirms their prior beliefs or hypotheses. They ignore evidence to the contrary.
  • Assumed continuity: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, makes a great point about using the past to predict the future. A turkey may live happily for a 1,000 days, one day much like another — until the week before Thanksgiving, when that happy trend may be dramatically disrupted!
  • Using “out of sample” data:  Don’t rely on data drawn from a sample outside your target population. For example, don’t draw conclusions about female clients based on the behaviour of males.  Be careful about predicting drunk driving outcomes if your data set uses the records of sober drivers.
  • Confusing convenience sampling with a random poll:  This is one of the most common mistakes we encounter. Being able to generalize from a polling result will depend on the sample being balanced and representative of the overall target population, typically achieved through random sampling. Your sample may be biased if your data comes only from those who were easy to contact (a convenience sample) or respondents motivated to give feedback because they were either fawning fans or grumps anxious to complain.
  • Survivorship bias:  Look at results for the whole sample, not just those who “made it”. Most start-ups, for example, don’t actually get launched. Or they fail in the first three years. Most of those that survive usually grow to no more than 10 employees. To estimate how things will go for a start-up, you need to look at the whole field, not just the success stories.

8020Info helps teams develop and implement their strategic plans, research and marketing communications more effectively. We would be pleased to discuss your needs and welcome enquiries at (613) 542-8020, or by email at watercooler@8020info.com

8. Closing Thought

“I do a lot by gut feeling and a lot by personal experience… if I relied on accountants to make decisions, I most certainly would have never gone into the airline business. I most certainly would not have gone into the space business, and I certainly wouldn’t have gone into most of the businesses I’m in. So, in hindsight, it seems to have worked pretty well to my advantage.”

— Richard Branson