Archive for March, 2012

Grow Taller and Bolder

March 26, 2012

In a study of 20,000 people, German scientists found a correlation between height and backbone. When it comes to risk, taller people are bolder.

Every day we encourage people to “stand tall” regardless of their vertical measure. Risks are a normal part of work and life. The tough question is: what risk and when. Inevitably, the associated fears and transition are part of leading change.

Very Tall

In 2011, plenty of CEOs and senior managers took risks and will ride out the implications. For example:

  • Microsoft spent $8B to buy Skype
  • Kraft split in two
  • AOL  bet $315M to acquire the Huffington Post
  • Walmart raised prices and added “mini-stores”

In the nonprofit sector, well managed organizations take risks and cite specific results. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) is one example. They have 12 goal-level indicators against a five year strategy. By noting them publicly, the staff and governance take considerable risk, provide transparency and display accountability. Not long ago, United Way of America publicly named specific social benefit targets with a deadline, e.g., fewer high school drop outs. 

Risk & Perspective

Risk is relative. So, a financial adviser has some, but it’s different than a construction worker, soldier or commercial fisherman. Everyone can name a job that they think is riskier than their own. This is good because it provides perspective.

David Ropeik is a Harvard instructor and author of How Risky Is It, Really? He writes about the brain and risk assessment. According to Ropeik just 22 milliseconds after you have “registered” trouble your cortex starts reasoning through the situation. Then, other regions of the brain send signals that begin determining solutions. Activity in emotional centers means a greater willingness for risk, while activity in cognitive reasoning yields more conservative decisions. This is good evidence for employing far more than an emotional response when facing an important decision.  

Inaction Has Cost

When tackling risk, cite your challenge and its remedy. Then, list your upside gains and the potential losses. It is important to be concrete and clear. It’s even better to discuss your thinking with others to check for blind spots and bias. Be sure to profile the opportunity cost – it’s the “price” of inaction.

While some choices have incremental influence, others can reset your organization’s entire trajectory.Although people didn’t buy much during the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1933, refrigerator sales went up 30%. Refrigerators were a highly innovative product. The industry was willing to hire people, invest in research, development and marketing. This savvy (and risky) move was a game-changer.

How tall are you?

No matter your height you do have a backbone. Remember, not taking action can be very risky. Nothing ventured is almost always nothing gained.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

Tackling Persistent Myths

March 17, 2012

Our minds create associations very quickly. Great communicators, especially marketers, exploit this to anchor or promote an idea that may or may not be true.

So, beer and car commercials make heavy use of culturally attractive females to help male viewers link “hot” women with cold drinks or costly cars. The sequence in these promotions goes like this: if you buy this beer or car, then you will attract more, better women.

Common Pairs

In our workplace and communities other myths are in play. They can be obstacles for progress. Sometimes it is a matter of intentional marketing and other times it is the big leap to a faulty conclusion. I’ve listed several common myth combinations here:

Access   = Use

Spoken   = Understood

Information = Answers

Busy = Results

Taught = Learned

Bigger = Better

Articulate = Capable

Logical = Practical

Proven = Strategic 

Untangling Myths

Are any of these myths evident in your workplace?

In the list of above, the first and last pairs are ones we hear frequently. However, access use and proven strategic. For example:

When you purchase an office suite of software you get a bundle of programs – many that are never (or rarely) used. At the new year start, when we resolve to get “fit,” we join a gym. But this doesn’t guarantee participation in classes and use of the pool or equipment. In both cases, after access, there are many steps that must happen before use occurs. There is a mental leap from access to use.

Consider the “proven equals strategic” myth. We know a second language is a good idea for children. In fact, second language acquisition is proven to have influence in other cognitive achievements.  However, it may not be the most strategic choice in the context of child well being. Perhaps immunizations, nutritional support or preschool are inaccessible, more valuable and thus more strategic. The point: anything effective isn’t always the best action.

 Obstacles and Progress

Intentionally and unintentionally we pair up concepts that seem to be useful – but are not necessarily true. It’s vital we’re on guard for these pairings. They need to be challenged for validity. Unless your organization (or town) is perfect – myths exist.  Myths can be part of culture which props up the status quo. They can also generate limiting beliefs that get in the way of results.

Dig  a little deeper when you hear (or think) simple, glib associations. To create change we all need to be myth-busters.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

Quality Cognition: Fast and Slow

March 5, 2012

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $1.7 billion in the creation of small schools in recent years. Intuitively, it’s easy to make the case why a small school can provide superior education. You could conclude lower staff-to-student ratios with personal attention and encouragement are a better alternative to the context of a large school.

The foregoing might describe a logical relationship but it’s not accurate.

In fact, according to studies, large schools tend to produce better results. When a variety of curriculum options are available, especially in higher grades, large schools yield greater student success. Some important details were overlooked in the initial conclusion of “small is better.” In planning work, a survey of more than 1600 schools was used. The survey sample had an over representation of small schools. Both a pattern and logic contributed to a preliminary error.

Pursue Good Questions

Had questions been asked about the characteristics of the worst schools – it may have been discovered that those, too, were small. Ultimately statisticians demonstrated that small schools are more variable in student success. In effect, student achievement in small schools can be both very good and very bad. Regardless, the variability and scale in small schools may be a far better context for improvement. (We’ve had the privilege of experience with the Gates Foundation. No doubt: their small school funding has had substantial social benefit.)

 Fast and Slow

Humans think in both fast and slow modes. Daniel Kahneman refers to these modes as System 1 and 2. The thoughtful, careful analysis you used to review the Gates story, cited in  Kahneman’s book, uses System  2. Through precise and deliberate effort you considered the descriptive narrative.

In contrast, System 1 is nearly instant. For example, it helps you quickly respond to a loud noise or simple, verbal sentence. It is most simply understood as a reaction. Often, this is based on impulse. We all need to make quality decisions and plans – whether instantly or over time.

Patterns, Chance and Humility

Because humans are predisposed to causal thinking, we look for patterns and associated explanations first. We can easily make mistakes. Our mind prefers perceptions of an ordered, coherent world. But, these can be cognitive illusions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman urges us to recognize “many facts are due to chance.” The definition of chance is humbling because it means random events cannot be explained. It’s important to look for patterns and cause while we also acknowledge chance.

Deliberate Quality

The implications of this reality has influence on the potential for our effectiveness. It may be important to: listen better, do enough diligent discovery, understand key factors, and explore alternative hypotheses. It is essential that we review data more carefully for validity and reliability.

Fast and slow thinking are both important to our complex work environments. Consider meta-cognition a quality check. Think about your own thinking and that of others. Be careful enough you sidestep either a foregone or logical conclusion which may be wrong.

 –Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com


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