Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reading 'Steve Jobs'

I wasn’t going to post about Steve Jobs, but one of the things I did over the Thanksgiving holiday was to read SJ’s biography written by Walter Isaacson.  I doubted it could maintain my interest for very long – especially as I was reading it as an e-book which is not my preferred way, and because I never really liked the Job's persona – but it did. It was a compelling read.  Jobs was a complex person who could drive people to fury and despair while also being wonderfully energizing and inspirational. The lives of complex people always make for good reading –at least for me - because they take you onto the battlefield where internal, interpersonal, and external forces engage in a dramatic fight for dominance. 

There is no doubt that Jobs was an arrogant, highly-charged, controlling, and narcissistic perfectionist who could be abusive, even cruel.  According to Isaacson, “The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary.  It hindered him more than it helped him,” although he did get people to do things they never dreamed possible.  Through the force of his will and playing by his own rules (what others called his ‘reality distortion field’) he would make things happen – not by his own ability to invent, but by the attractiveness of his vision,  and his mastery “at putting together ideas, art, and technology in ways that invented the future.”  Here are a few of my takeaways from the book:

Collaboration:  Job’s didn’t organize Apple into semi-autonomous divisions – a mistake made by companies like Sony, AOL, and Time-Warner.  Instead, he closely controlled his teams and “pushed them to work as one cohesive and flexible company" with one profit-and-loss bottom line for them all. He was most fond of face-to-face meetings where ideas could be tossed around, but he was always in ultimate control. His product launches were well known for their presentations, but in everyday meetings, he hated Powerpoint slides.  His argument was that if you needed slides in a meeting, you didn’t know what you were talking about.   

Perfectionism:  SJs adoptive father had taught him the importance of craftsmanship; to drive for perfection even with the look of parts unseen by users e.g., the circuit board.  Jobs not only brought a powerful and engaging vision to the company, but also an obsessive eye for detail. One of his early mentors, Mark Makkula, had persuaded him that people do judge a book by its cover and so he gave a laser-sharp focus to the user experience.  Colors, materials, shapes, and textures needed to convey creativity and professionalism. He might become best known for his contributions to product design.     
Product: Jobs was a product man.  He said many times that he wasn’t interested in profit and wealth per se (although he could be somewhat contradictory on that score).  Profits were good because they enabled you to develop more outstanding products.  He accused John Scully (who was recruited by Jobs in 1983 to be CEO) of putting profit before product.  Macintosh lost to Microsoft,” he said “because Scully insisted on milking all the profits he could get rather than improving the product and making it affordable.” 

Intuition: “I never rely on market research,” said Jobs.  What was important was an intimate connection with the feelings of the customer.  His talent was for imaginative leaps rather than  extensive information gathering and mental processing.  He didn’t believe in giving customers what they wanted.  What resonated with him was Henry Ford’s view that if had asked customer’s what kind of car they wanted they would have said a faster horse.

Simplicity: He had been a student of Zen Buddhism, and he loved the Zen gardens in Kyoto.  Zen minimalism led him to aggressively cut out anything from a product that was non-essential, even though this could be extremely challenging for Apple engineers.  But the simplicity he was after came from understanding and conquering the complexities, not ignoring them.  Simplicity is very hard work.

Breadth: Jobs wasn’t narrow in his interests. Religion, art, music, design and technology all played a part in shaping his vision. He said, “I like living at the intersection of humanities and technology.“

Focus: When he returned to Apple – 10 years after being pushed out – Jobs cut 70% of Apple products.  In one meeting he drew a box on a whiteboard and divided it into four quadrants.  He labeled the two columns Consumer and Pro, and the two rows Desktop and Portable.   He wanted one great product in each quadrant, nothing more.

Continuous Innovation:  Jobs was not a person to stand still. He admired artists like Bob Dylan and Picasso who were always re-inventing themselves.  One of his rules was never be afraid to cannibalize yourself. Tim Cook (current Apple CEO) said, “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will . . . So even though an iPhone might cannibalize sales of an iPod, or an iPad might cannibalize sales of a laptop, that did not deter him.”

Integration & Unity: Jobs wanted a tightly packaged of hardware and software.  Rather than creating an open system, he decided on a closed system that would provide a seamless and simple user experience.  It was a risk, but it paid off:

“Even with a small market share, Apple was able to maintain a huge profit margin while other computer makers were commoditized. In 2010, for example, Apple had just 7% of the revenue in the personal computer market, but it grabbed 35% of the operating profit.

More significantly, in the early 2000s Job’s insistence on end-to-end integration gave Apple an advantage in developing a digital hub strategy, which allowed your desktop computer to link seamlessly with a variety of portable devices.”

Today, when it seems that a decision can’t be made without a metric, I admire Steve Jobs for his imagination, courage and tenacity.  In other words, his daring leadership.

Monday, November 14, 2011

With whom am I working, please? Person or process?

Many commentators talk about the shocking levels of worker disengagement.  According to the results of one Gallup survey published earlier this year only about 27 percent of workers worldwide are satisfied with their jobs.

There are, of course, many factors contributing to this phenomenon, but I want to highlight something that has been on my mind for some time.  I am concerned that our work cultures (and our wider cultures, for that matter) have become technique and process-obsessed. When I go to a restaurant, I am very aware that I am being absorbed into a well crafted process for greeting, sitting, and serving me.  When a salesperson calls me, I can hear the clanking of the process he or she is following, and the techniques most likely to be employed to get me to ‘Yes’.   I am fully aware of the value business processes bring to efficient operations, but when technique and process become all-pervasive in our interactions with one another we’re in trouble.
Let me back up. By process, I mean a sequence of steps/procedures taken to achieve a defined result.  By technique, I mean a specific method, routine or skill for accomplishing a task.  Technique and process are closely interlinked – a technique can be part of a process or a technique can be made up of processes. From now on, I’ll talk about processes and techniques as PTs.

The problem with PTs in our interactions is how reductive and alienating they can be. PTs are all about ‘ends and means’ so that in a PT pervasive culture we can easily feel that we are being manipulated as a means to someone else’s end. You don’t interact with me as a person, but as a means to your end.  I only become of value if I help you meet your goal. I seek to be known as an individual and relate to you; you seek to apply calculated, routine, and predictable procedures – devoid of context - that you think will lead to your desired outcome.  

In a PT world, understanding of complexity is a distant second to application of pre-programmed thinking and actions. These types of interactions are, of course, alienating and dehumanizing, and unfortunately management has become synonymous with PTs.  To try and escape engaging with real people, we have only succeeded in destroying emotional engagement and breeding cynicism.

In managing complexity and getting the very best from our people, we are increasingly dependent on collaborative relationships.  Process and technique will always be important to getting work done, but let’s take a more sophisticated and mindful view about where they add value and where they undermine its creation.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Get the Collaboration Passion!

John Abele co-founded Boston Scientific in 1979.  When I was thinking about passion for collaboration, he was the guy who came to mind. This video is of a talk he gave to TEDMED back in 2009. A wonderful way to spend 18 minutes. If you've seen it before, watch it again!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Culture of Appreciation: From' What' to 'Why' Questions

I recently picked up a report called Organizing Work for Innovation and Growth: Experiences and Efforts in Ten Companies. It was published by VINNOVA (the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems) in October 2009. The focus question for the report is: How do companies work in practice to create organizational conditions that promote innovation, competitiveness, and growth? 

One of the chapters is called Creating cultures of appreciation: Organizational innovation through employee well-being by Tony Ghaye and Ewa Gunnarsson.  One of the key messages in the chapter is that to create a culture of innovation we need to ask appreciative (positive) questions. In the view of the authors, we shouldn’t be surprised if questions beginning with ‘Why’ tend to lead to deficit-based (fault-finding) conversations, and by changing the conversations we can change the actions.  ‘Why’ questions tend to be associated with critical thinking which can be detrimental to innovation. ‘What’ questions tend to be more appreciative (and reflective) in nature. Both critical and appreciative questions are needed, of course, but the weight has tended to be on the critical side.

Ghaye and Gunnarsson give 8 examples of the kinds of questions that can promote a culture of appreciation:

1.       What is giving you most joy and satisfaction in your work right now?

2.       What were you doing recently, in managing your time that enabled you to use your strengths?

3.       What actions were you taking when you were successful at prioritizing those things that you are really good at doing?

4.       What was happening when you found yourself thinking, that really worked well?

5.       What did someone say, or do, to make you feel that your professional experience was greatly appreciated?

6.       What did you do that prompted a colleague to say, ’thank you. It’s nice to be respected’?

7.       What were you doing that prompted a colleague to say, ‘It’s great working here. It’s nice to be valued’?

8.       What did you do that enabled a colleague to say, ‘That’s different. I hadn’t thought of that.’

The questions we ask are instrumental in focusing our attention onto assets or deficits

These particular questions are mostly geared to individual appreciation and reflection, but their true value would emerge when they promote appreciation and reflection in a team.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Will Digital Natives Be Technologically Literate?

Yesterday, a headline on one of my iGoogle pages caught my attention: Main Street to Silicon Valley: We don’t even understand PDFs. The post was written by Jessica Stillman on, November 2, 2011. 

The post highlights the results of a poll commissioned by the software firm Nitro coinciding with release of their latest Pro PDF reader. It found that 45.7 percent of a representative sample of Americans are either only somewhat familiar with PDfs or are not familiar with them at all.  According to Nitro, this means, “Don’t assume, train.”  Nitro was shocked by the result, and so was I.  Are we as technologically sophisticated as we like to think?
We all live in information bubbles, and in this very complex and pay-attention-to-me world we only have the capacity to live our lives in a relatively small number of bubbles without being overwhelmed.  Through my work in virtual teaming and collaboration, one of the core information bubbles that forms part of my reality is the technology information bubble, but that is not the case for everyone.  Unfortunately, many of us assume that everyone else shares our bubbles (especially if we are passionate about them, as most tech-enthusiasts are).

This got me thinking about the question: Would greater knowledge about PDFs have made the 45.7 percent more technologically literate? And, what is technological literacy, anyway?

One of the assumptions I encounter a lot is that when the new generation enters the corporate arena there will be few - if any - issues with using the latest and greatest technologies to get work done   (technology use for digital natives is as natural as breathing air).  You just have to look around you to see youngsters everywhere texting and social networking.  My four year old grandchild – who can’t read yet – has no problem downloading TV shows to my iPad.  And so, the evidence supporting technological literacy is right before our eyes; or is it?

It seems to me that being skilled in the functionalities of new technologies (e.g., texting or instant messaging, downloading or sharing) or understanding what a PDF is doesn’t actually mean that much.  The critical question is: Does this this person have the competencies to employ the power of appropriate technologies – independently and with others – to create, access, analyze, process and communicate information and ideas – for improved problem-solving, decision making, and innovating?  

If we just think of technological literacy in terms of skill in the use of tools and functionalities or understanding of technological lingo we’re missing the bigger picture and potential.  Given my view of technological literacy, I’m not convinced digital natives will be as far along as some people might think.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Distortions: The Gift of Skeptical Colleagues

Those of us who spend time thinking about and enabling collaboration talk a lot about the importance of trust.  Trust really is very important, but what I want to do here is to highlight the importance of distrust or, at least, skepticism in successful collaboration.

In any collaboration, people make judgments and take decisions, but to what extent are we aware of the potential errors of judgment and choice our minds can put in our way?  Recently, I wrote a post on cognitive biases, and I want to continue that theme here.

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow - which I recommend to anyone – and the core message is that we are not as rational as we like to think we are – even when we have all the information we need, and the logic is simple, we can still be very wrong.  Let me begin by describing a core model in the book.

Kahneman divides cognition into two parts: System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is the fast, intuitive, effortless part of the mind often running on simple heuristics (rules of thumb); it runs on automatic pilot – we have no sense of voluntary control.  System 2 by contrast is slow, controlled, and more deliberative. On seeing a face, we don’t need to expend a lot of mental energy in determining that it is an angry face (System 1).  If we are asked what is 17 x 24, System 2 is called upon; we need to expend mental energy and follow rules and procedures for calculating the answer.  While System 1 can be very useful in situations requiring swift judgment and decision making (it is right a good deal of the time and often gets its way despite System 2) it is prone to mental traps, what Kahn calls cognitive illusions. Let me describe a few of these illusions:
Affect heuristic: Making judgments and decisions guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking - expert, professional intuitions do not all arise from true expertise.

Anchoring: When people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity – before estimating that quantity – the estimates stay close to the number considered, e.g., when asked was Gandhi more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than if the anchoring question referred to death at 35.

Availability illusion: People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they retrieved from memory (often put there by the media)
Focusing illusion: Any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation.

Framing: Participants asked to imagine that they have been given $50 behave differently depending on whether they told they can ‘keep’ $20 or must ‘lose’ $30 even though the outcome is the same. We dislike losses much more than we like gains of equivalent size. Losses loom larger than gains.
Priming effect: Exposure to a word causes immediate and measurable changes in the ease with which many related words can be evoked. If you have recently heard the word EAT you are more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP. If you heard WASH you are more likely to complete it as SOAP.

Substitution: When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one, usually without noticing the substitution, i.e., we often revert to using a simplifying heuristic to try and solve a complex problem.

What you see is all there is: Making predictions based on what can be a momentary coincidence of random events; the exaggerated expectation of consistency is a common error. We are prone to think the world is more coherent and predictable than it is, and downplay chance. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence.
There are many, many more.  What are some lessons for us?

We are not as rational as we think we are. The mind is a system for jumping to conclusions, and we are prone to be far more confident in our conclusions than we should be.  We need cognitive diversity in our collaborations; people who can challenge the coherent stories we make up about how the world works.  We need people who can sometimes disrupt our automatic pilot heuristics in System 1, and lead us into the more deliberate, effortful world of System 2.  Basically, we need each other to help recognize and manage our illusions – to be skeptical when we feel most confident.