August 17, 2014


The 8020Info Water Cooler

Highlights from the latest information for managers, leaders and entrepreneurs

1. In Praise Of Hierarchy

“Hierarchy has a bad name these days. In an era when collaboration is prized, many organizations figure abandoning hierarchy is a smart move. But on LinkedIn, Stanford University Professor Bob Sutton, who was raised to believe hierarchy was a bad thing, now concedes that it is more than just good – it’s essential.

While he still feels ambivalent about that conclusion, he says the evidence is overwhelming.

Although hierarchy takes many forms, research shows that it is impossible to find groups or organizations where all members have roughly equal status and power. “Whether researchers study people, dogs, or baboons, hierarchies are evident after just minutes of observation. And when strangers meet for the first time, a hierarchy of leaders and followers begins to emerge immediately,” he observes.

Organizations celebrated for their lack of hierarchy will downplay and reduce status differences, but they always have a pecking order, with some people holding greater formal and informal power than others.

Research shows that when the informal pecking order isn’t clear, members of the group become less committed, productive and effective. Competition for status will emerge — in a dysfunctional way. When Google tried to eliminate layers of management (as CEO Larry Page longed for its frictionless days as a small company), the result was frustration and confusion. Less isn’t always better.

So don’t try to rid your organization of hierarchy, assuming flatter is better. Instead, he advises, build the best hierarchy you can.

2. Probing Questions To Ask Each Day

It’s easy to operate from day-to-day as if on autopilot, trying to keep up with the many demands of your job. But Inc.com columnist Kevin Daum offers some probing questions you should ask yourself each day, including:

  • What more should I do? It may seem ludicrous to ponder what else you can do when your day is already overflowing. But there may be other places where your skills and talent can help to accomplish something important. Choices matter, and maybe better choices are possible in your task allocation.
  • What can I let go? Continuing with that theme, it’s important to make sure the tasks on your plate are the right ones for you to handle rather than someone else. Any time you can remove a task from your list, handing it off to a colleague, you free up time and energy to tackle something that may be more productive.
  • How can I be more efficient? It helps to step back and figure out shorter, more efficient ways to complete your tasks. “Much of my creative energy is used on this question. I have no sacred cows when it comes to process,” he writes.
  • Who should I thank today? You are not an island; your success depends on others. But when you’re busy, it’s easy to forget to show appreciation. Make sure you are giving proper acknowledgement every day to colleagues, inside and outside your organization.

3. Don’t Let Your Audience Just Sit There

People don’t like to be passive, particularly in an era when our attention spans have shortened. So consultant Nick Morgan suggests on his Public Words blog that, when making a sales pitch or other presentation, you should see your goal as turning passive listeners into active audiences.

You can do that by inviting them to tell stories or asking them to brainstorm. Or get them competing. “Competition is always fun, when it’s to the point and about the day, the topic, and the speech.  Don’t make the prizes too big, or you’ll get resentment among those who don’t win,” he notes.

Get them designing something, or creating a plan. If you break them into groups, make sure you have them report back to the larger assembly, since it validates their work.

Advise the audience to pay attention as you want them to teach others what they have learned. That will turn them from passive to active listeners.

Overall message: Put them to work. Don’t let them just sit there.

4. The Best Policy: Don’t Write Policies

Trainer Dan Rockwell believes policies hamper leadership and hinder organizations. Excessive policies create busy work, make weak leaders feel powerful, and drain energy from individuals who actually do the work.

If you must have policies, he writes on his Leadership Freak blog, don’t write them for exceptions – instead deal with each exception that arises on a case-by-case basis.

Instead, write policies to deal with negative patterns of behaviour and describe what you want more than what you don’t want. Establish high standards with those policies, rather than just describing minimum standards of behaviour, which will only condone mediocrity. Finally, if you frequently have to make exceptions to policies, rewrite them.

5. Zingers

  • Get To The Point:  Next time you need to have a conversation you’re dreading, lead with the part that makes you anxious. Consultant Peter Bregman says we tend to overestimate how difficult it is for the other person to hear what we have to say. Rather than pussy-footing around, increasing angst for you and perhaps the other party, be direct and upfront, without being callous or harsh. (Source: Harvard Business Review Blogs)
  • Answer Their Questions:  Usability tests of non-profit and charity web sites find that people have high expectations – and some sites fail to meet them by not addressing questions in the potential donor’s mind. To increase donations, make sure you clearly explain what the organization does and prominently disclose how donations are used, rather than forcing them to search for it. (Source: Nielsen Norman Group)
  • Use Prevention Focus:  If you’re selling to successful businesses, entrepreneur Seth Godin says, keep in mind the mantra that prevails in such enterprises: “Don’t blow it.” Make sure your marketing story is built around that theme. (Source: Seth’s Blog)
  • Risking For Right Reasons:  Consultant Art Petty says you should make mistakes for the right reasons – growth and learning. Taking a chance on people with the right character and values and ample passion is always the correct path, even if occasionally you will make a slip-up. (Source: Management Excellence)
  • Get Out And Chat:  Are you the Wizard of Oz? Dorothy and her gang were petrified by the idea of meeting the Wizard, and executive coach Scott Eblin says the Oz Syndrome plays out in many organizations where knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or not, senior leaders have created an aura around themselves that frightens others from making an approach. Get out of your office to break down barriers and talk to people like they’re human beings rather than units of production. (Source: The Eblin Group)

6. Q&A with 8020Info:  Suggestions for Vacation Reading

Question:  Any books to recommend when I have time to read on my vacation?

8020Info Associate Harvey Schachter responds:

In summer, we often want quick and easy in style and in content. For that, try Low-Hanging Fruit: 77 Eye-Opening Ways To Improve Productivity And Profits by consultants Jeremy Eden and Terri Long. Each chapter is short – from one to six pages – which, in itself, illustrates how to apply a quick-and-easy strategy for improving your organization without getting into complex projects.

If you want something deeper, try Left Brain/Right Brain: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions by Phil Rosenzweig, a professor at the IMD business school in Switzerland. He argues that important decisions require a deliberate, analytical approach (left brain) combined with a willingness to take risks and push boundaries (having “the right stuff”, like the astronauts in Tom Wolfe’s best seller).

Six Simple Rules by the Boston Consulting Company’s Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman has an alluring if deceptive title. Their approach is based on a simple concept, the need for both autonomy and co-operation in the workplace. But the six rules to get there – nudging autonomous people to co-operate – can be counter-intuitive and won’t be easy to apply. So not simple. But it’s a good summer read by encouraging you to reflect.

If you struggle with accepting feedback, Thanks For The Feedback by consultants Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen will tell you everything you need to know (and much, much more) about improving your receptivity. Hopefully you’ll come away from the book with some clear ways to improve, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the research and tips about the various situations that can be encountered.

Brief by consultant Joseph McCormack makes the point that people speak at about 150 words per minute yet we have the mental capacity to consume about 750 words a minute – so five times what can be spoken. While you are speaking, the targeted recipient of the message therefore has extra mental bandwidth to play with other thoughts. To head off those distractions, you must be brief and to the point – and he has lots of helpful tools for improving your writing and speaking.

And if you want to play with big ideas, here are three books I’ve read that fit the bill:

  • A Bigger Prize by former CEO Margaret Heffernan is a treatise on the dangers of competition, in everything from education to business, which will probably have you fuming or cheering, depending on your starting point, but will provide you with a ton of information you probably didn’t know.
  • Wildcat Currency by Indiana University Professor Edward Castronova looks at the many new forms of money emerging in everything from frequent flyer points to currency in online games, and shows how these virtual currencies aren’t as different as we might think from what we treasure as real money, leading to implications for central banks and governments. Again, a ton of information you probably didn’t know.
  • Finally, broadcaster Linda Nazareth looks at the trends shaping our world in Economorphics.

Those selections may not be as drama-filled as the hot summer reads from best-selling authors Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, Deborah Harkness and Stuart Woods, but they may provide the contemplation or inspiration you’re seeking.

7. News From Our Water Cooler:  Using Checklists

In the quest to make full and best use of expertise in complex situations, and avoid common errors, it can be worthwhile to revisit an old tool: checklists.

Checklist routines can help get the “dumb stuff” out of the way and free our minds to focus on the more difficult points of a challenging situation. They can facilitate team communications and a culture of disciplined teamwork. The use of checklists can also help us function as more systematic decision-makers.

An insightful guide for professionals and experts is The Checklist Manifesto by surgeon and author Atul Gawande. You may benefit from two types:

  • Do-Confirm checklists help ensure you don’t miss anything. (Team members perform tasks from memory and experience, often separately, and then pause to review the checklist and confirm that all key tasks have been completed.)
  • Read-Do checklists guide team members as they work through steps, like a recipe, for any given situation.

With both types, there must be a clear pause point (which may be at the end of the Do-Confirm process or, with Read-Do, when the process is first triggered).

Checklists don’t have to spell out everything. It is recommended that they be short and easy to read – just five to nine clear, critically important points that can be presented on a single page and read in 90 seconds: Longer lists get skipped or ignored in practice. Develop them with those who really understand the job and are familiar with the most common mistakes; then test your checklist in actual use, adapting it as you go to clear out tedious detail or confusing language.

As checklists spread from airline pilots and surgeons to professionals in other fields, you can apply them in your discipline to achieve significant performance improvement when it really counts — in important, complex situations.

8. Closing Thought

“Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

— Will Rogers