The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded Edition: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels
Michael D. Watkins
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)
How and why the first 90 days in a new leadership position can sometimes seem like 90 minutes
This is a revised and updated edition of a book I read when it was published in 2003. Although much has (and hasn’t) happened in the business world since then, Michael Watkins’ insights are (if anything) even more relevant and more valuable now than they were then because the actions taken by those in a new role, especially one with more challenging leadership responsibilities, will largely determine whether they succeed or fail. “When leaders derail,” Watkins notes, “their problems can almost always be traced to vicious cycles that developed in the first few months on the job.” Ninety percent of those whom Watkins interviewed agreed that “transitions into new roles are the most challenging times in the professional lives of leaders.” They could be internal promotions, reassignments and/or relocations, or a new hire. These and other transitions are thoroughly discussed in the book.
These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of Watkins’ coverage.
o Avoiding Transition Traps (Pages 5-6)
o Understanding the Fundamental Principles (9-12)
o Getting promoted (21-24)
o Table 1-1, “Onboarding checklists” (34)
o Identifying the Best Sources of Insight (54-57)
o Table 2-1, “Structured methods for learning” (61-62)
o “Emotional Expensiveness” (63-64)
o Planning for Five [Transition-Specific] Conversations (90-93)
o Planning the Expectations Conversation (98-100)
o Adopting Basic Principles (121-122)
o Avoiding Common Alignment Traps (141-143)
o Getting Started (146-148)
o Avoiding Common Team-Building Traps (167-170)
o Building Support for Early-Win Objectives (202-220)
o Understanding the Three Pillars of Self-Management (227-237)
o Table 10-1, “Reasons for transition failures” (245)
The information, insights, and counsel he provides in this book reveal what he has learned thus far about what he characterizes as “The Vicious Cycle of Transitions” and “The Virtuous Cycle of Transitions.” The former involves sticking with what you know, falling prey to the “action imperative,” setting unrealistic expectations, attempting to do too much, coming in with “the” answer, engaging in the wrong kind of learning, and neglecting horizontal relationships. (Please check out Figure 1-2 on Page 7.)
With regard to the latter cycle, the “virtuous” one, can enable anyone involved in a transition to create momentum and establish an upward spiral of increasing effectiveness. (Please check out Figure 1-3 on Page 8.) To repeat, this updated and expanded edition develops in greater depth and wider scope the core concepts introduced in the first edition. The objective in 2003 remains the same now: “get up to speed faster and smarter.”
Michael Watkins can help each reader to do that; better yet, he can each reader, especially those with supervisory responsibilities, to help others to do that. That achievement is indeed an admirable objective. However, we are well-advised to recall Thomas Edison’s observation, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Amy Jen Su, managing partner and co-founder of Isis Associates, is an executive coach and speaker on issues of leadership presence and executive endurance that make a difference to a leader’s performance success. She has a proven track record helping senior leaders more clearly articulate vision, socialize their message, and build key follower-ship as well as consider the organizational capabilities and structures necessary for delivering on the vision. She has served on the faculty and senior coaching teams for formal leadership development programs across a variety of industries including biotechnology, private equity, management consulting, financial services, and public service institutions.
Her previous business experience includes working as a management consultant for Booz Allen & Hamilton where she advised senior executives of large consumer products companies on marketing and growth strategies. She was also a strategic planner for Taco Bell Corp when it was part of PepsiCo, instrumental in helping to launch Taco Bell into non-traditional points of distribution. Amy holds a MBA from Harvard Business School and BA in Psychology from Stanford University, graduating from both with honors and distinctions. Her additional background and certifications in integral coaching, yoga, and the Eastern philosophies provide for a unique high impact, whole-person approach.
Muriel Maignan Wilkins, managing partner and co-founder of Isis Associates, is an executive coach and leadership consultant with a strong track record of helping senior leaders and teams take their effectiveness to the next level. Muriel is adept at working with senior executives develop in the critical career accelerator areas of executive presence, role transitions, and relationship management. She has in-depth experience designing and leading customized leadership development programs, group coaching, leadership assessments and leadership team alignment efforts. She has served senior level clients across a number of industries including management consulting, private equity, biotech, financial services, retail and non-profits.
Before cofounding Isis Associates, Muriel’s executive management experience includes holding P&L responsibility as a Director at U.S. News & World Report, leading consulting engagements as a Manager for the strategy practice of Accenture, and being a strategic planner at Prudential. Muriel was recognized by the Washington Business Journal as one of metro-DC area’s “Top Minority Business Leaders” and is a frequent speaker on leadership communications issues. Muriel holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a marketing degree from Georgetown University, and a leadership coaching certification from Georgetown University. Her nearly twenty years living in North Africa, Europe and the Caribbean give her an invaluable perspective which she brings to her work.
They are the co-authors of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, published by Harvard Business Review Press (April 2013).
Here is an excerpt from my interview of them. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Su: The turning point came, when I was a management consultant, sitting in a team room one evening at 3 am cranking through a spreadsheet analysis on how to drive more margin out of a consumer goods product. And, I remember feeling angry and disappointed as this came after having received a performance review that said while I was a great team player and always got the job done, I should be aware of my presence and influence style especially around senior level folks who perceived me to be young looking.
As I pulled that all-nighter, there was this moment where I realized that hard work alone and technical capability were not enough and that perhaps I wasn’t in a line of work that was allowing me to bring my fullest value and distinction to the table. Fortunately, an accident, took me out of the workforce for a year during which time the vision and courage to become a coach came together as there was time to reflect on who I was authentically and how might I best impact others around me. The journey continues every day as I ask myself regularly – am I leading and living an authentic life? Am I impacting others positively?
Wilkins: For the first half of my career, I was successfully rising fast as a marketing and strategy executive. And then two things happened: (1) I realized that as an executive I desperately needed leadership development support that really applied to my day-to-day business challenges but I couldn’t quite find it anywhere, and (2) I realized that I had an entrepreneurial itch that had been there a long time and kept getting stronger and stronger. I suddenly became keenly aware that the only thing I had to lose was time. And so I left my corporate job, changed career course to focus on leadership development and started Isis Associates with Amy Su. I haven’t looked back since.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Own the Room. When and why did you decide to write it?
Wilkins: When we first began our executive coaching firm, we found that the answer to so many of our clients’ developmental needs was to work on their presence. Not because they didn’t have it – in fact, many of them had strong presence. But they had not figured out how to take what they had mastered in a previous role and adapt it to the next level of responsibility. In addition, our own personal experiences played into writing this book. We had both received strong feedback about our presence early in our careers. Muriel that she was too assertive and needed to “tone it down.” Amy that she came off as too deferential and needed to “toughen up.” But it was feedback we didn’t know what to do with at the time. We’ve had our own journey in finding our respective Signature Voices and continue to shape it and adapt it as we grow as individuals and leaders. After years of working with thousands of leaders shape their leadership presence, we recognized that many others could also benefit from the same approach and strategies that we offer in the book.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Su: We were finalizing the manuscript for the book when the Summer Olympics were on and not only were they fun to watch but there was interest given that throughout the book, we describe building presence as analogous to the conditioning of an athlete. There was one evening the gymnasts were on and we watched how when they stepped out onto the mat or bars, something happened, they were 100% present. This was the ultimate in presence.
They had spent years of their life conditioning and practicing everyday and when it was game time – they just went out and did their thing— instinct, confidence, and years of conditioning took over. This influenced how we ended the book to pull through the athletic analogy fully that like athletes we train and condition our mindsets, communications skills, and energy for presence but that once we step into that meeting room or conversation, it’s just about bringing our best and being present to ourselves and others in real time.
Wilkins: Maybe not a revelation but certainly a very strong reminder that came to the forefront as we wrote the book is how much attaining and maintaining your presence, your signature voice, is a lifelong journey. Writing a book with someone else, even someone that you know, respect and trust as well as I do Amy, can be an awesome experience as well as quite a challenging one. At times, it felt as though we were the protagonists as we struggled with making sure our individual voices were heard in the book while still honoring and respecting what we each brought to the table. We often found ourselves applying the exact frameworks we were writing about to ourselves! The experience made us that much stronger as a team and partnership. And it certainly enabled us to empathize and relate even more with our clients and all those individuals who would be reading the book one day.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Amy and Muriel cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:
Isis Associates home page
Amy’s Amazon page
Muriel’s Amazon page
Their HBR blog
How to combine two traditional models “within a powerful system that consistently and efficiently produces new ideas”
By nature, books about innovation should contribute something new and/or something better to our understanding of what innovation is and isn’t while also explaining how to develop a mindset and skills that will enable us to (yes) contribute something new and/or something better. Josh Lerner makes such a contribution as he explain how to combine the best features of two traditional models – the corporate research laboratory and the venture-backed start-up — for innovation “within a powerful system that consistently and efficiently produces new ideas.” What he proposes is a “hybrid” model that ensures that the powerful motivations and focused goals associated with venture capital will be preserved, “while the limitations that circumscribe the effectiveness of this intermediary can be overcome. The path that led us to this hybrid is firmly laid out by economics.” More specifically, the power of appropriate rewards throughout the innovation process.
These are among the dozens of passages I found to be of greatest interest and value, also listed to suggest the range of subjects covered during the course of the book’s narrative:
o The Real Beginning (Pages 23-27)
o Away from the Center (39-43)
o The Appearance of Incentives (48-53)
o Milestone 3: Going Global (73-78)
o The Boom-Bust Venture Cycle (93-100)
o The Case for Corporate Venturing and What Can Go Wrong (110-125)
o A short list of potential steps than can improve the health of entrepreneurial firms (143-150)
o Lessons for Venture Capital (158-168)
As I worked my way through Lerner’s lively and eloquent narrative, I was again reminded of Jack Welch’s remarks years ago at a time when GE’s then chairman and CEO, and Jack Welch, explained why he admired small companies: “For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they can only do the important things. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”
Welch could well have been describing the “hybrid” business model that Lerner proposes in this book. Indeed, Welch was preoccupied (obsessed?) with making certain that GE combined the best features of a large corporation with those of what he called a “small” company, one driven by a entrepreneurial spirit at all levels and in all areas.
Lerner concludes with an acknowledgement that new organizational models continue to be developed, with a few succeeding, others failing. “The corporate innovation model is changing as well, but more slowly. Embracing a rigorous trial and error concerning the ways in which innovation is pursued is likely to yield substantial benefits, both to the corporate experimenter and to society as a whole.” With rare exception, the best business books are research-driven and that is certainly true of Lerner’s book, as his heavily annotated “Notes” (on Pages 179-195) clearly indicate. The concept of a “hybrid” innovation model has obviously evolved and will continue to do so.
However, that said, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that Josh Lerner provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how to master the economics of creative organization, developing core competencies that would be of substantial benefit to their professional development as well as to the success of their organization.
To read my interview of Lerner, please click here.
Learn why bad decisions happen to good managers — and how to make better ones
This is one in a series of volumes that anthologizes what the editors of the Harvard Business Review consider to be the “must reads” in a given business subject area, in this instance making smart decisions. I have no quarrel with any of their selections, each of which is eminently deserving of inclusion. Were all of these article purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be at least $60 and the value of any one of them exceeds that. Given the fact that Amazon now sells this one for only $15.11, that’s quite a bargain. The same is true of volumes in other series such as “Harvard Business Review on….” and “Harvard Business Essentials.” I also think there is great benefit derived from the convenience of having a variety of perspectives and insights gathered in a single volume.
In all of the volumes in the “10 Must Read” series that I have read thus far, the authors and HBR editors make skillful use of several reader-friendly devices that include “Idea in Brief” and “Idea in Action” sections, checklists with and without bullet points, boxed mini-commentaries (some of which are “guest” contributions from other sources, and graphic charts and diagrams that consolidate especially valuable information. These and other devices facilitate, indeed accelerate frequent review later of key points later.
Here are three brief passages that are representative of the quality of the articles from which they are excerpted as well as the quality of the other seven articles in this volume.
From “Before You Make That Big Decision…,” Daniel Kahnerman, Dan Lovallo, and Olivier Sibony: “The real challenge for executives who want to implement decision quality control is not time or cost. It is the need to build awareness that even highly experienced, superbly competent, and well-intentioned managers are fallible. Organizations need to realize that a disciplined decision-making process, not individual genius, is the key to a sound strategy. And they will have to create a culture of open debate in which such processes can flourish.”
From “Conquering a Culture of Indecision,” Ram Charan: “The setting in which h dialogue occurs is as important as the dialogue itself. The social operating mechanisms of decisive corporate cultures feature behaviors marked by four characteristics: openness, candor, informality, and closure. Openness means that the outcome is not predetermined. There’s an honest search for options, alternatives, and new discoveries. Questions like `What are we missing?’ draw people in and signal the discussion leader’s willingness to hear all sides. Leaders create an atmosphere of safety that permits discussion, group learning, and trust.”
From “Make Better Decisions,” Thomas H. Davenport: “Focusing on decisions doesn’t necessarily require a strict focus on the mental processes of managers. (Though, admittedly, the black box deserves some unpacking.) It can mean examining the accessible components of decision-making – which decisions need to be made, what information is supplied, key roles in the process, and so forth. Smart organizations make multifaceted interventions – addressing technology, information, organizational structure, methods, and personnel. They can improve decision making in four steps.” Davenport discusses step in process, then observes: “An organization that has adopted these four steps should also assess the quality of decisions after the fact. The assessment should address not only actual business results – which can involve both politics and luck – but also the decision-making process and whatever information the manager(s) relied on”
If you read nothing else on how to make smart decisions, read these ten classic articles from Harvard Business Review.
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Oscar Wilde
In their Introduction, Any Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins reject three common but remarkably durable myths about developing a leadership presence:
Myth #1: You Are Who You Are. “This is probably the most pernicious myth out there: presence is something you either have or don’t.” In fact, [begin italics] anyone [end italics] can develop leadership presence.
Myth #2: One Size Fits All. “This myth is the opposite of the first, but just as pernicious. Instead of resigning themselves to be who they are and giving up on the prospect of change, leaders try to alter their presence to emulate someone else.” In fact, as Wilde suggests, each person should develop a leadership presence that is [begin italics] uniquely theirs [end italics].
Myth #3: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It. In fact, “an effective presence is dynamic…Being conscious of who you are and where you are in your career and in your organization’s pipeline is paramount to ensuring you adapt your presence accordingly.” This is how Marshall Goldsmith would explain it: “What got you here won’t get you there.” Continuous improvement and, especially nourishment of leadership presence, is imperative.
With regard to developing a Signature Voice, it is important to keep in mind that more than 80% of the impact of each “message” we send to others is non-verbal. That is, the power of a Signature Voice will be determined by tone and body language.
These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of the material that Su and Wilkins examine:
o A New Way of Diagnosing Presence (Pages 20-24)
o How ACE [Assumptions, communication strategies, and energy] Works (44-48)
o Why Assumptions Matter, and, Confidence: Action Steps (57-70)
o Perspective: Action Steps (74-78)
o Clarity: What Your Values Are, and, Clarity Action Steps (78-84)
o Why Communication Matters (92-94)
o Framing: Action Steps (99-103)
o Advocacy: Action Steps (106-109)
o Listening and Engaging: Action Steps (113-117)
o Why Energy Matters (125-128)
o Body Language: Action Steps (130-133)
o Tone: Action Steps (138-143)
o Being Visible: Action Steps (145-146)
o Signature Voice Is a Journey (155-156)
o Lead with Purpose (165-169)
o The Role You Play: Manager as Coach (174-182)
It is noteworthy that several of the key passages focus on “action steps”: initiatives to apply what is learned from the given material. Indeed, both Su and Wilkins seem to possess an insatiable curiosity to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why so they can then share what they have learned with as many other people as they can. That is why they include several “Drills” (e.g. “Identify Key Influencers,” Pages 148-149) throughout their narrative. These are self-diagnostic exercises that enable their reader to interact with the material, to become actively engaged in the aforementioned “journey” develop a signature voice. Su and Wilkins also include “What to Remember” sections and reviews of key points as well as dozens of “Figures” (e.g. 3-1, “Assumptions you are likely to make,” Page 81) and “Tables” (e.g. 6-1, “Trigger Events and Backsliding,” Page 159), and several especially interesting vignettes that feature real people, in real-world situations, who are coping with many of the same circumstances and issues that the reader will also encounter.
Before concluding this book, Su and Wilkins add to the narrative three remarkably valuable “toolkits” (in an Appendix) whose contents are based on three strategic objectives: building overall presence, preparing for an especially important meeting or event, and facing a significant leadership struggle or challenge. Just as “no one size fits all” (i.e. Myth #2), no action plan is appropriate for all leadership situations. My guess is that most readers will need at least two and perhaps all three within a year after absorbing and digesting the wealth of information, insights, and counsel that Sun and Wilkins provide.
No brief commentary such as mine possibly do full justice to the quality and value of that material. However, I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of the book. Also, I hope that those who read my commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not to obtain and read it. In that event, I hope what it offers will help them to locate their own Signature Voice and then nourish it as their leadership journey continues, one during which (I hope) they will help others entrusted to their care to find their own.
Leigh Thompson is the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She directs the highly successful Kellogg executive course, Leading High Impact Teams, and the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center. She also co-directs the Negotiation Strategies for Managers course. Thompson has published more than 100 research articles and has authored nine books, including The Truth About Negotiations, Making the Team, and The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator. Her latest book, Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, was published by Harvard Business Review Press (January 2013).
Here is an excerpt from my interview of her. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing Creative Conspiracy, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Thompson: As strange as it sounds my husband, Robert Weeks, helped me discover some strengths I didn’t know I had. His passion for cycling led me to get on a bike so we would have something to do together. What I learned is that I actually have a lot of strength and talent in that area. From casual riding for fun, I started rigorous training to become a bike racer. That experience taught me the importance of having a goal and of being coachable. It also taught me about failure and success. I don’t think I would have written the Creative Conspiracy without his presence in my life.
Morris: Who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Thompson: Two dissertation advisors: Reid Hastie (now at the University of Chicago) taught me to be extremely rigorous and mission-focused in my research. Max Bazerman (now at Harvard Business School) – introduced me to negotiation research. I had started my dissertation topic on a boring subject and changed it when I met Max. If I’m not passionate about something, it is hard for me to focus on it.
Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course that you continue to follow? Please explain.
Thompson: When I was pursuing my PhD I thought I would spend the rest of my life as a researcher in an academic institution. However, I was lonely simply doing research for research sake. I found my true home in a business school. On the very first day while teaching MBA students and executives, I decided that I never wanted to do any research unless I could bring it into the classroom and have executives find it valuable.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Thompson: I think some people know exactly what they want to do from the time they are 10 years old. I always felt like a fraud because I don’t think I figured out what I wanted to do until I was about 35 years old. In college, I was a theater major for about a year and a half, then I changed majors and earned a major in communication studies and a minor in psychology. After that I became a marriage counselor and therapist, then I became a social psychologist, and finally when I was about 35 it all came together. But when I look back, having training on the stage helps me in the classroom, having performed marriage counseling helps me works with people and understand interpersonal dynamics, and being a researcher helps me too. All these false starts have shaped what I’m most passionate about doing now.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Creative Conspiracy. When and why did you decide to write it?
Thompson: When I was in the classroom and working with companies, I realized that they often operated under well-intentioned, but largely faulty assumptions. In fact, the scientific evidence on creativity is not well known by companies. So, a lot of what companies were doing was completely contrary to a lot of the research studies. I didn’t feel comfortable asking my students and clients to go and read 250 management science and psychological science articles, so I wanted to put all of this research together in an easy to read format. My goal was to collect all this information and build a framework that was actionable.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Thompson: The key conversation stopper in all of my lectures and teaching on creativity is that teams are distinctively less creative than individuals. Another head-snapping revelation is that focusing on quantity is a much better key to creative success than focusing on quality. Just by stating these two facts, I can almost cause a revolt. In Chapter 2, I provide a quiz where people can access whether they are operating under myth or actual fact. And the rest of the book provides a step-by-step guide on what leaders can do to be more creative.
Morris: Many (if not most) people assign negative connotations to the word “conspiracy.” How do you define the word and, in your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a conspiracy that is creative?
Thompson: A creative conspiracy is below radar behavior and stage setting by teams in order to think about new possibilities and question assumptions. Conspiracy can have a negative connotation, and I wanted to come up with a title that would signal the fact that sometimes creative stage setting is at odds with traditional organizational expectations In certain sections of the book I discuss creative deviance, where teams actually defy what superiors and managers are asking them to do all in the name of questioning assumptions and coming up with new breakthroughs.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
For more information about Leigh Thompson’s teaching and research, please visit www.leighthompson.com.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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You have an idea for a daring, innovative project that could have a significant impact on your business. However, you suspect that your idea will meet with internal resistance: The innovation would upend the status quo, and chances are good that other parts of the organization will try to stop it. What’s your next step?
The conventional answer is simple: Get a mandate from the top. As many innovation experts rightly point out, only the most incremental ideas pass through the corporate-approvals gantlet unscathed. The more unusual your idea, the greater the risk that it will fall victim to turf wars, myopic incentive systems, or simple resistance to change. For this reason, innovators are often counseled to go straight to the top, secure backing, and build a corporate sense of urgency around their ideas.
The “top first” strategy, however, carries its own risks. CEOs of large organizations are constantly barraged with proposals for new, untested projects, and typically, the ideas get a five-minute perusal followed by a “no.” And even if your idea does win support from the C-suite, early exposure is a double-edged sword: It buys you legitimacy and resources, but it also thrusts you squarely into the corporate spotlight—and that can be a dangerous place for young, unproven ideas. Our experience working with innovative managers has revealed an alternative approach: innovating under the radar.
Consider the story of pfizerWorks. Jordan Cohen, then a human resources manager in Pfizer’s New York office, created the productivity initiative to allow employees to outsource “grunt work” and other routine parts of their jobs, giving them more time to focus on important tasks and allowing Pfizer to make better use of its highly skilled (and highly paid) employees. PfizerWorks, launched in 2008, quickly became an acknowledged success story, and Cohen was featured in BusinessWeek, Fast Company, and other publications. In a 2011 internal survey, the users of pfizerWorks rated it as the company’s most popular service offering, even though they had to pay for it out of their own budgets.
But Cohen didn’t bring his idea to fruition by going straight to the top. To the contrary, he stayed under the radar for more than a year, developing the service, accumulating evidence, and gaining allies. When he finally pitched it to Pfizer’s top executives, he was able to show them much more than an idea: He presented existing users who were passionate about the project, outlined a proven business case, and pointed to the backing of several senior managers. Pfizer’s decision to support the project came quickly, and Cohen received not just a budget for it but a new job as the head of pfizerWorks.
Innovating under the radar carries its own set of challenges, to be sure, but going into stealth mode can often yield better results than trying to get the CEO on board from day one. In our experience, stealth innovation involves four critical challenges. First, you need to marshal allies who can help you operate off the grid and make sure that you don’t lose perspective as you do so. Second, you need to build proof of concept so that when you’re ready to make your case to the higher-ups, you have hard evidence to support you. Third, you must obtain access to funds and other resources to keep your project afloat. And finally, you need a good cover story so that you can work on the project without attracting unwanted attention or scrutiny. If you address these challenges effectively, you can sidestep corporate obstacles and give your idea the best possible chance for success.
Why Early Exposure Can Kill
The conventional overt approach to innovation is more risky than it may seem. Consider a company we’ll call RedTec Media, whose European division came up with an idea for a potentially game-changing consumer product aimed at the luxury market. Excited about the idea’s potential, the European team presented it to leaders at corporate headquarters. The response was much less enthusiastic than the team had expected. While the executives didn’t kill the idea outright, they questioned the project’s technical feasibility and expressed strong doubts about whether there was a market for it.
The European team members, recognizing that their enthusiasm was not contagious, set out to make a better case for the idea. So over the next few months, they built a working prototype and tested it with consumers, with great success. They also asked key retailers whether they thought the product would sell. The response was overwhelming; several of them asked, “Can I get this now?” Even better, the price the retailers suggested was higher than the team had hoped.
The team members made sure that their testing was rigorous and reliable, and carefully documented their findings. Consumers’ reactions, for instance, were not only recorded on paper but also filmed and compiled in a short video that demonstrated their support for the product.
But none of the new evidence seemed to change the minds of the top managers. After a long silence, the team received the news that headquarters had decided to kill the project. “To be fair, there were legitimate reasons to oppose the project,” one team member told us. “But we also got the feeling that the leadership made an early judgment call based on their gut feelings about the first presentation, and then pretty much stuck by that call irrespective of all the evidence we sent them subsequently.”
The phenomenon is not unusual. As research by the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and others has demonstrated, people suffer from what is called confirmation bias: Once you’ve made a decision, however uninformed, you tend to look for more evidence supporting it, and ignore or discredit evidence that points in other directions. This effect is exacerbated if the judgment call is made in public or in front of colleagues or a boss. That’s because in corporate life, as elsewhere, it’s often considered preferable to be wrong than to be a flip-flopper. Just look at any political campaign and see what happens to candidates who change their stance on an issue, no matter how legitimate the reasons. As an innovator, you often get only one shot at pitching an idea to people at the top—and their default reaction is frequently “no.” You don’t want to waste your shot too early in the process, before you’ve built sufficient evidence for your idea.
A premature judgment call is just one of the dangers that come with early exposure. Ideas can be held hostage in political power plays; they can be forced Procrustes-style to follow corporate procedures that prevent rapid iteration; they can be appropriated and distorted by other stakeholders with legitimate but differing goals; and perhaps most frequently, they can face crushing pressure for short-term results that either kills them or warps them beyond recognition. In The Little Black Book of Innovation, Scott Anthony shares Clayton Christensen’s concept of the “ticking clock,” a deadline for creating results that all innovators face. “You never know quite how fast the clock is ticking,” Anthony writes, “or when the alarm is set, but you can be darn sure that at some point, it will ring….If that moment comes and all you have is potential, you’d better start polishing your résumé.”
This is where stealth innovation comes into the picture. While aiming to deliver some quick wins is excellent advice, and if at all possible, you should follow it, the nature of your idea may be such that doing so is simply not possible. By starting your project in stealth mode, you can postpone the moment that the clock starts ticking for your idea. Let’s now look in detail at the four challenges of stealth innovation and how to overcome them.
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Paddy Miller is a professor at IESE Business School. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is a partner at the Innovation Architects. They are the co-authors of Innovation as Usual: How to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas to Life (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), from which this article is adapted.
How and why the healthiest organizations are those in which pursuit of improvement is constant, tenacious, and collaborative.
Whatever the given circumstances may be, every improvement begins with an idea and there must be continuous improvement of the process by which those ideas are generated. Also, it is imperative to establish and then sustain a workplace environment within which that process is most likely to flourish. Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg understand all that, of course, and wrote this book to explain how and why the healthiest organizations are those in which pursuit of improvement is constant, tenacious, and collaborative. In those organizations, “every single day, people face [and seize] the opportunity to try something new, to do something different from how they did it yesterday.”
In the first chapter, they cite this passage from an HBR article, “The Psychology of Change Management” (June 2003), co-authored by Emily Lawson and Colin Price: “Success depends on persuading hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals to change the way they work, a transformation people will accept only if they can be persuaded to think differently about their jobs. In effect, CEOs must alter the mind-sets of their employees – no easy task.”
We know that most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations and, more often than not, the greatest resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” By nature, innovation – incremental and especially disruptive innovation – requires change. How to create a workplace culture within which innovative thinking and what it produces are most likely to thrive? These are the core behaviors that Miller and Wedell-Wedellsborg recommend: Focus on ideas that matter [really matter] to the business, adopt an open business model that enables people connect to the outside world to find original ideas, tweak and challenge but do nit suppress new ideas, select the best ideas and discard all others, and “stealthstorm” past the politics of innovation. With regard to stealthstorming, it means “to pursue innovation in a manner that is compatible with the existing cultural and political realities of the organization.”
These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of their coverage.
o The Leader as an Architect of Ideas (Pages 4-7)
o The 5+1 Behaviors of Innovation as Usual (12-23)
o Failure to Focus: A Widespread Barrier (39-42)
o Three Ways to Help People Focus (45-54)
o Three Ways to Connect People to the Outside (62-80)
o Two Ways to Help People Make Their Ideas Better (85-108)
o Make Sure Your Testing Is Real (107-108)
o Four Ways to Improve Idea Selection (115-131)
o Stealthstorming: Five Aspects of Corporate Creativity (136-151)
o Two Ways to Foster Persistence (154-171)
As the titles of these and other sections within the narrative correctly suggest, Miller and Wedell-Wedellsborg are world-class empiricists and diehard pragmatists. They are driven by an insatiable curiosity to understand what works, what does, and why, then share what they learn with as many other people as possible. The information, insights, and recommendations in their book provide abundant evidence of that.
In the Epilogue, they provide their final suggestions (make a simple plan now, find a partner, and set up the first meeting before you put down this book), then add: “Most of all, keep it simple. Don’t try to involve three or four people. Start with one or, at most two. Including more than a few people creates a need for formally scheduling meetings, which will kill your momentum.” All of the Fortune 500 companies (oak trees) were once start-ups (acorns) that began with one or two people…and an idea. For them, innovation was their only hope. What was true then remains true now. The best is yet to come and always will be.
I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the material that Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg provide in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how to establish and then sustain a pursuit of improvement that is constant, tenacious, and collaborative, at all levels and in all areas of operation.
Most teams self-destruct. Don’t let that happen to yours.
This is one in a series of anthologies of individual articles that the editors of Harvard Business Review consider to be the “must reads” in a given business subject area, in this instance teamwork. I have no quarrel with any of their ten selections, each of which is eminently deserving of inclusion. Were all of these article purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be $60 and the value of any one of them exceeds that. Given the fact that Amazon now sells this one for only $13.53, that’s quite a bargain. The same is true of volumes in other series such as “Harvard Business Review on….” and “Harvard Business Essentials.” I also think there is great benefit derived from the convenience of having a variety of perspectives and insights gathered in a single volume
In all of the volumes in the “10 Must Read” series that I have read thus far, the authors and HBR editors make skillful use of several reader-friendly devices that include “Idea in Brief” and “Idea in Action” sections, checklists with and without bullet points, boxed mini-commentaries (some of which are “guest” contributions from other sources, and graphic charts and diagrams that consolidate especially valuable information. These and other devices facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review later of key points.
Those who read this volume will gain valuable information, insights, and counsel that will help them to boost team performance through mutual accountability, motivate large and diverse groups to tackle complex projects, increase their teams emotional intelligence, prevent or resolve decision gridlock, extract collaborative results from a group of superstars, and disagree constructively with colleagues at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise.
Here are three brief passages that are representative of the quality of the articles from which they are excerpted as well as of the quality of the other seven articles in this volume.
From “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” Alex (“Sandy”) Pentland: “With remarkable consistency, the data showed that the most important predictor of a team’s success was its communication patterns. Those patterns were as significant as all other factors – intelligence, personality, talent – combined. In fact, the researchers could tell which teams would outperform simply by looking at the data on their communication, without even meeting the members.”
From “The Discipline of Teams,” co-authored by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith: “A team’s essential discipline comprises five characteristics:
1. A meaningful common purpose that members of the team have helped shape.
2. Specific performance goals that flow directly from the common purpose.
3. A mix of complementary skills between and among members.
4. A strong commitment to how the work gets done.
5. Mutual accountability.
“Once the essential discipline has been established, a team is free to concentrate on the critical challenges it faces.”
From “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight,” co-authored by Kathleen Eisenhardt, Jean Kahwajy, and L.J. Bourgeois III: “How can managers encourage the kind of substantive [principled] debate over issues that leads to better decision making? We found five approaches that help generate constructive disagreement within a team:
1. Assemble a heterogeneous team, including diverse ages, genders, functional backgrounds, and industry experience.
2. Meet together as a team regularly and often.
3. Encourage team members to assume roles beyond their obvious product, geographic, or functional responsibilities.
4. Apply multiple mind-sets to an issue.
5 Actively manage conflict by mitigating interpersonal conflict.
If you read nothing else on building better teams, read these ten classic articles from Harvard Business Review.