How and why your brain can help you to become the best person you can be
Note: I recently re-read this book, first published in 2010, and value what it offers even more now than I did then.
Opinions vary as to how much (on average) people use of their brain’s capacities but there seems to be almost unanimous agreement among neuroscientists that it is possible to increase those capacities through a combination of mental and physical exercises, nutrition, and an increasing understanding of what the brain is, does, and can do. Hence the great value of this book. With Liz Neporent, Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske identify and then rigorously examine eight strategies that great minds use to achieve success (however defined) and what those with less-than-great minds can learn from them.
As they explain in the Introduction, “Our definition of Winners encompasses the usual conception: people who meet with extraordinary success in the particular aspects of life they value most…The kind of Winners we are talking about revel in the journey toward their goals almost as much as the destination itself, and they strive for the type of success that helps make the world a better place.” This is precisely what Teresa Amabile had in mind years ago when offering career advice during a commencement address at Stanford: “Do what you love and love what you do because what you love is what you’ll do best.” Brown and Fenske include dozens of such Winners in this book, telling their stories that (whether they realize it or not) “illuminate the science and the theories” on which the eight strategies are based.
These are among the passages that caught my eye:
o On how and why a Winner’s Brain operates differently than the average brain
o Five essential elements of success
o “The Winner’s Profile Quiz”
o Five BrainPowser Tools
o The Eight Win Factors
o How and why thinking about yourself can help you to become a Winner
o How to cultivate the drive to win
o How to make emotions work in your favor
o The role of ”remembering: when developing a Winner’s Brain
o How to ”bounce back” into success
0 How to reshape your brain to achieve greater success
o How to maintain, protect, and enhance your Winner’s Brain
Brown and Fenske selected a diversified group of Winners who generously share, as indicated earlier, personal stories that (whether they realize it or not) “illuminate the science and the theories” on which the eight strategies are based. Their diversity demonstrates that Winners can be found at all levels and in all areas of society. Of even greater significance, this diversity offers a reassurance that Winners [begin italics] can be developed [end italics] at all levels and in all areas of society.
Long ago, Oscar Wilde observed, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske agree, extending that insight to suggest, “And here’s how you can become the best person you can be.” In other words, a Winner.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Scott Witthoft and Scott Doorley for the Harvard Business Review blog. 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.
* * *
Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” The places we work and the ways we think are inextricably linked: a few changes to one inform the other. It’s possible to shape an environment to encourage creativity and collaboration. And changes to a workplace need not be complicated: simple changes are often the most effective, if only because they will actually be implemented. If your office space is dampening creativity and your company’s facilities department isn’t a resource, there is hope. Here are [two of] five tactics you can use to improve a less-than-ideal work environment.
1. Begin with your own mindset. Reframe what you can’t do into what you can do. This is a cunning approach to making the most impact with the fewest resources: it is guerrilla warfare. You need to take small immediate steps toward change, instead of retreating from seemingly insurmountable infrastructure.
2. Focus on a few basic variables. Posture, orientation (of people relative to each other), and ambience (the intangibles of a room, like lighting) are easy to tweak in any environment. For example, we’ve noticed time and time again that an upright posture encourages people to stay alert and engaged in problem solving, while a comfortable, “lean-back” posture often turns people into passive critics. Critique is important at times, but it can get in the way of idea generation. At the d.school we use tall stools gathered in small circles for many work sessions. The stools aren’t selected for comfort; they’re tall and upright to keep students alert and prompt them to get up and move about.
Ambience has huge impact while often receiving little attention, or credit. Be aware of how a room feels, and act like a good host. Simply adding multiple sources of warm light (e.g. floor lamps) and opening some windows can change the tone of a meeting space — and of the meeting itself — from institutional and routine to refreshing and special. If your culture can bear it, add in a little music as people enter to perk people up.
* * *
The bottom line: take small actions. Be opportunistic, make easy changes, and invite others to work with you.
[Editor's note: For more insights on designing spaces for creative collaboration, listen to this interview with Scott and Scott.]
* * *
To read the complete article, please click here.
Scott Witthoft and Scott Doorley are co-directors of the Environments Collaborative at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school) at Stanford University and the authors of Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration. To check out more blog posts by Scott Witthoft and Scott Doorley, please click here.
If you don’t know the right questions to ask and how/when to ask them, you’ll never find the right answers.
I do not know of another business thinker, indeed another person, who asks better questions than Andrew Sobel does and that is a talent he has developed over several decades. Each of his three previously published books was written in direct response to an especially serious business question and his latest book is no exception: How to build relationships, win new business, and influence others? Sobel and co-author Jerold Panas offer and discuss 337 “essential” questions that can obtain information that will help to achieve these three separate but interdependent objectives.
How so “interdependent”? If an organization does not build and constantly strengthen relationships with everyone involved in the given enterprise, it will lose its most valuable employees, clients, and allies and, for the same reasons, fail to replace them. True, this company “influences others” but in all he wrong ways.
Sobel and Panas organize their material within 35 chapters that contain a total of 42 questions (five in Chapter 35) within a narrative significantly enhanced by anecdotes that illustrate the power of questions that can either strengthen or weaken a relationship, increase or reduce the chances of achieving a desired objective. Then 293 additional “Power” questions are provided in the final section, “Not Just for Sunday.”
I really appreciate how cleverly Sobel and Panas frame their material in a reader-friendly fashion. For example, they pose a question and then suggest how and when to use that question most effectively. One of my personal favorites is “Is this the best you can do?” apparently one that many others such as Steve Jobs and Henry Kissinger have frequently posed. Sobel and Panas note that use of this question should be reserved for occasions “when it is especially desirable for someone to do their very best and push themselves to their strained and stretched limits.” I agree. They then suggest when specifically to use the question and alternative versions of the question, and alternative versions of it. This is a clever format repeated throughout the book. Here are three other “Power Questions” that caught my eye:
“What did you learn from that?” (Chapter 16)
Comment: Every setback (don’t call it a failure) should be a valuable learning opportunity.
“Can we start over?” (Chapter 8)
Comment: What isn’t working, what isn’t happening, will often reveal what will. The Lakota suggest never feeding a dead horse.
“What do you wish you could do more of?” (Chapter 25)
Comment: The best career advice I ever encountered was offered by Teresa Amabile during a commencement address at Stanford. In effect, do what you love (and are passionate about) because you will then be doing what you do best. People do not necessarily have to change a position to do what they do best and love most.
Some of the power questions work best in a career situation, others in a personal situation, and still others in both. Think of the 337 questions that Sobel and Panas pose and discuss as a base, a foundation, on which to build skills first exemplified by Socrates (c. 469 BC – 399 BC).
To those who are about to read this brilliant book, I presume to suggest they keep this question in mind: In which situations will asking the right questions be most important to me? For some people, this may well be the most valuable book on building healthy relationships that they will ever read…but only IF they continuously apply effectively what they have learned.
Jim Collins is a student and teacher of enduring great companies — how they grow, how they attain superior performance, and how good companies can become great companies. Having invested nearly a quarter of a century of research into the topic, Jim has authored or co-authored six books that have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. They include Built to Last, Good to Great, and How the Mighty Fall. His most recent book is Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, co-authored with Morten Hansen. Based on nine years of research, it answers the question: Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? Great by Choice distinguishes itself from Jim’s prior books by its focus not just on performance, but also on the type of unstable environments faced by leaders today. Driven by a relentless curiosity, Jim began his research and teaching career on the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992. In 1995, he founded a management laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, where he now conducts research and consults with executives from the corporate and social sectors. He holds degrees in business administration and mathematical sciences from Stanford University, and honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Colorado and the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.
Morten T. Hansen is a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley (School of Information) and at INSEAD, France. Formerly a professor at the Harvard Business School, he holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, where he was a Fulbright scholar and received the Jaedicke award for outstanding academic performance. His award-winning research has been published in leading academic journals, and he is the winner of the Administrative Science Quarterly award for having made exceptional contributions to the field of organization studies. Hansen has published several best-selling articles in the Harvard Business Review and is the author of the management book, Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. A native of Norway and a former silver medalist in the Norwegian junior track and field championship, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters, and enjoys running, hiking and traveling.
Here is an excerpt. To read the complete interview, please click here.
* * *
Morris: When and why did you two decide to write Great by Choice and how was the division of labor determined?
Hansen: Around 2001, during the time of the dot.com boom and bust and 9/11, the world turned unstable and uncertain. People, including our students, kept asking us, how do you manage in unstable times? How do you prevail? How do you become great in a world out of control? Finally, this topic grabbed us so completely that we both decided that we had to pursue it.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while you and your associates conducted the research over a period of nine years, 2002-2011?
Hansen: During this period, we experienced a recession (2001-02), a huge boom (2003-07), the great recession (2008-10) and the great uncertainty (2010-probably forever). These shifting circumstances just reinforced to us that we don’t live in stable times. In fact, we came to the conclusion that the past 50 years have been an abnormal period of stability and that what we will be experiencing going forward is a permanent state of instability, uncertainty, disruption, and even chaos.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned?
Collins: We started the project with the idea that it would just be an article. But the question and findings proved so fascinating, that we decided to shift gears into a full-blown multi-year research effort that could be a book.
Morris: To what extent does it differ significantly from those earlier works?
Collins: First, there are some important similarities across the four studies. They all use the historical matched-pair research method. They all proceed with a “let the data speak” approach, following the evidence rather than our own preconceptions. They all have powerful conceptual frameworks. They all use vivid stories as a pedagogical method for teaching the concepts.
There are three main differences between this study and the others. First, is the question itself: why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others don’t? Unlike any of the prior books, we deliberately selected on the severity and instability of the environment, not just on performance. Second, this study deliberately examined small, vulnerable enterprises that rose to greatness, giving us insight into entrepreneurial leadership that we did not have in the prior works. And finally—although we did not plan this—it has some of the most directly useful ideas that apply not just to building companies, but also to navigating a life in an uncertain and chaotic world.
* * *
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Jim and Morten cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:
“I believe that any problem can be solved with a picture. And that anybody can draw it.”
Dan Roam is the author of two international bestsellers, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures and Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures, both published by Portfolio Trade, a Penguin imprint. The former was selected as Business Week and Fast Company’s best innovation book of the year, and was Amazon’s #5 selling business book of 2008. The Back of the Napkin has been published in 25 languages and is a bestseller in Japan, South Korea, and China. Portfolio also published his latest book, Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work (November, 2011) Roam has helped leaders at Microsoft, eBay, Google, Wal-Mart, Boeing, Lucas Fims, Gap, Kraft, Stanford University, The MIT Sloan School of Management, the US Navy, and the United States Senate solve complex problems through visual thinking. Dan and his whiteboard have appeared on CBS, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, Fox News, and NPR. His visual explanation of American health care was selected by BusinessWeek as “The World’s Best Presentation of 2009″. This inspired the White House Office of Communications to invite him in for a discussion on visual problem solving.
Here is an excerpt from my second interview of Dan. To read the complete interview, please click here.
Morris: Before discussing Blah Blah Blah, a few general questions. First, for those who have not as yet read one or both of the “napkin” books, please explain why using relatively simple drawings can have great impact when we attempt to answer a question, solve a problem, persuade others to agree, or to express the essence of an important concept.
Roam: When we see an idea clearly illustrated right in front of us, much more of our mind lights up than if we were just talking about it. With simple and clear pictures, we see more, understand more, and share more than words alone ever could. As humans, we are essentially walking, talking “vision” machines. Three-quarters of all the sensory neurons in our brain are dedicated to processing vision, and in the first four months after we’re born almost all brain development in takes place in those areas that process vision and movement.
From the time we are infants, we know how important sight is to understanding the world around us and guiding us safely through it. What is a shame is how quickly we forget that once we enter school. We spend years perfecting the tools of spoken but we don’t spend two days learning to understand how we SEE. The essential point is this: if we really want someone to understand what we’re talking about, we should actually talk less – and draw more.
Morris: The hieroglyphics on cave walls pre-date the earliest attempts at a verbal language. So the insights you share in the two Napkin books have been common knowledge for at least several million years?
Roam: The oldest drawings ever found are located deep in the Chauvet Cave in south-central France. These paintings of horses, bison, and bulls date back 32,000 years. In the entire sweep of recorded human history, these beautiful images represent the beginning of the “whoosh.” We don’t know anything about the early humans that created these images, but we do know they could draw extremely well. These are the earliest markings ever made by humanity, and they are sketched more wonderfully than most of us could do today.
Morris: Relatively simple drawings can be a great resource for brain storming sessions because almost anyone can draw without possessing highly-developed drawing skills. However, what Tom Kelley characterizes as “ideation” [begin italics] does [end italics] require them. Don’t people have to have something worth communicating, first?
Roam: We all have ideas we believe are worth communicating, and we have them all the time – which is precisely why so many of us talk so much. Those ideas may not be fully developed, we may be uncertain of them, and they may be complex or controversial, but we typically have no shortage of them. And that is why drawing them out – even in the most crude circles-boxes-and-arrows manner – is such a great idea. Drawing out our thoughts forces us to clarify them, look at them from multiple perspectives, and think them through in a vibrant way.
Morris: Since the publication of the two Napkin books, presumably you have received a blizzard of feedback from those who read one or both of them. Of all that you have learned from what your readers have shared, what do you consider to be most valuable? Why?
Roam: I have received thousands of comments from readers over the past three years. The most frequent involve a reader sharing a moment of pictorial discovery, either in a meeting that was saved when someone went up to the whiteboard and drew the idea that clarified everything, or when they completed a difficult sale by drawing out the solution for all to see. Without a doubt, I have learned the most from readers who had never drawn and, thanks to my books, decided to give it a try. The sense of discovery and enthusiasm that permeates these notes illuminates visual possibilities that I had never considered myself. I always knew pictures made things clearer to me; it is electrifying to see how common that is even among people who never considered themselves “visual.”
Morris: From which sources did you learn the most about what the mind is and does, in general, and what the verbal and visual minds do, in particular?
Roam: I have read, studied, participated in, and discussed with experts three different approaches to understanding the mind. First, I took an academic approach to understanding the mind: in university I studied biology and I was fascinated with the evolutionary development of the human brain, and more recently I consulted with vision scientists and neurobiologists at leading universities. Second, I took an applied approach: I studied meditation for four weeks in a Thai monastery (including spending one week in silent isolation), I participated in cognitive behavioral therapy sessions to see how my mind reacted to various situations and I participated in extensive psychodynamic therapy sessions to try to see why. Third, I took an intuitive approach: I simply monitored myself in hundreds of business meetings and noted when I and other people seemed to be understanding each other and when we did not – and then noted what we were talking about and how we approached it.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “vivid thinking”
Roam: “Vivid Thinking” is a mnemonic. Vi-V-id stands for Visual-Verbal-Interdependent thinking. It is a simple idea that says we haven’t really thought through an idea until we have both talked about it and looked at it, and that we can’t really explain an idea until we can both write about it and draw it. Vivid thinking does not accept that an either/or verbal-vs-visual approach ever fully illuminates an idea; on the contrary Vivid Thinking demands that we must exercise both our verbal and visual minds in concert if we really wish to understand an idea. Talk + look; write +draw = Vivid.
Morris: By what process can vivid thinking be strengthened?
Roam: Like anything we do, Vivid Thinking becomes strengthened through practice. For all its successes, our educational system has in fact allowed us to become lazy thinkers. By relying almost entirely on our verbal mind, we have taught ourselves to shut our visual mind down and to denigrate its importance. My goal in “Blah-Blah-Blah” is to introduce a set of simple tools and rules that reawaken our visual mind and kick it back into gear.
* * *
Here is an excerpt from my second interview of Dan. To read the complete interview, please click here.
He cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
I also urge you to check out these videos:
Teresa Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration and a Director of Research at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Originally educated as a chemist, Teresa received her doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. She studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance. Teresa’s research encompasses creativity, productivity, innovation, and inner work life – the confluence of emotions, perceptions, and motivation that people experience as they react to events at work.
Teresa gave an 18-minute TEDx talk on Sept. 13. The video of the talk is now up on the TEDx Atlanta site. During this talk, she shares a passionate message about improving everyday work life – and lifting performance – in organizations everywhere. If you have any feedback for her, she’d love to hear it. To contact here, please click here.
To watch the video, please click here.
In his own words….
I’ve had a long career as a journalist and author. Lately, I’ve added a new hat: I’ve joined VSA Partners as its Editorial Director. The plan is to marry business to big-think journalism in a way that hopefully helps both prosper. The first example of that is the book commissioned by IBM and co-authored by me, Steve Hamm and Jeff O’Brien — Making the World Work Better.
My latest book, co-authored with Vivek Ranadivé, is The Two-Second Advantage: How We Succeed by Anticipating the Future…Just Enough (September, 2011).
Last year, I had another book out: Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t. The hardcover was published in the fall of 2009 by Broadway Books; the paperback, in August 2010.
I contribute occasionally to Fortune, The Atlantic, Fast Company and other magazines. I had been a contributing editor at the ill-fated Condé Nast Portfolio, joining the magazine prior to its launch in 2007 and hanging on until its demise in April 2009.
Before all this, I worked at USA Today for 22 years, much of it as the newspaper’s technology columnist. The job gave me the privilege of interviewing most of the biggest names in the industry. Here and there, I end up on television and radio. I’ve appeared on PBS, NPR, CNBC, and other media outlets, and I’ve frequently been a keynote speaker and on-stage interviewer at events and conferences.
On the music side, in 2008 I worked with a group of terrific Bay Area musicians and recorded a CD of songs of wry commentary about business and technology. It’s called “Privacy,” by Kevin Maney & His Briefs. You can actually buy it on iTunes. I’ve also played in a DC-area band, Not Dead Yet, which at the moment is dormant, if not actually dead. My shining moment was getting my song “Found It On Google” played on Mitch Albom’s radio show.
I graduated from Rutgers University, grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., and now live outside Washington, DC, while spending a lot of time in New York.
[Here is an excerpt from my second interview of Kevin. To read the complete interview, please click here.]
* * *
Morris: Before discussing The Two-Second Advantage, a few general questions. First, of all the people with whom you have been closely associated, which has had the greatest influence on your personal development? How so?
Maney: Over the very long run, I guess it’s been my brothers. I’m the oldest of three, and the next one is Dave, and then Scott. (I also have a stepbrother, Mark.) Dave, Scott and I have always been close, but it’s more than that. I think our opinions of each other carry great weight, and that’s pushed each of us to be better people, be more ambitious, be wittier, raise better kids, and whole lot of other things like that. And it’s a supportive competitiveness. We’ve always boosted each other, and at times even done business together. Right now, I’m working at a firm, VSA Partners, that Scott introduced me to, and playing a role in Dave’s start-up, Economaney. Fortunately for me, I’m the least smart and savvy of the three of us, so I think I get to learn more from them than they do from me.
Morris: On your professional development?
Maney: There are two people. When I was 25, Hal Ritter just became editor of USA Today’s Money section, and he hired me. I think I was his first hire. I’d say we had a respectful but sometimes contentious relationship. He could be a hard guy to work for — demanding and harsh. But he was also maybe the smartest editor I ever worked for. He knew his audience and drove us to write for it with clear, lean prose. He taught me to have standards and never settle for less, and to have the discipline to always think of the reader. I worked for Hal for the first decade of my career. Whatever kind of writer I am today, it’s because of those 10 years. Hal is now an editor at the Associated Press. We nominally keep in touch.
The other important person is Jim Collins. While Hal taught me to pay attention to the details, Jim played a significant role in helping me think big and broadly. The two of us met well before Jim got famous for his books Built to Last and Good to Great. I was working on a story for USA Today, and talked to a publicist at Stanford, where Jim was a professor at the time, about it. The publicist told me that I should talk to Jim — that Jim was working on a book about a similar topic. That book ended up being Built to Last, but it was then a half-finished manuscript. Jim and I talked and hit it off. He sent me the manuscript, and I thought it was one of the most important business documents I’d ever read. When Built to Last was finally published, I jumped on it and wrote a cover story for USA Today, which in turn was the spark that sent the book up the bestseller list.
Anyway, Jim and I became friends, and I can’t tell you the number of big, analyze-the-universe conversations he and I have had. I love the way he makes me think. His ideas about corporations had a huge impact on the way I analyzed Thomas Watson in The Maverick and His Machine. I wouldn’t be the same kind of author if not for Jim’s friendship.
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.
Maney: I knew I wanted to be a writer from as far back as I can remember. That was my talent. Lord knows it wasn’t math. If there was an epiphany, it came when I went to Rutgers and got involved in the journalism program. I reluctantly signed up for a journalism major, thinking I needed a fall-back way to make money should my career as a novelist fail to take off. As I started to try on journalism, including doing internships and working at the campus paper, I found I actually liked it. So I started to want to be a journalist.
And then there was another epiphany when I discovered the great old New York Times columnist Russell Baker. I realized there could be a way to be a newspaper journalist and write funny yarns in a column. Then I wanted to be Russell Baker. I kind of half achieved it — writing a column for USA Today that often involved funny yarns about technology.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have since achieved thus far?
Maney: Well, with all due respect to Rutgers, I’m not sure the value of my time there was in what I learned academically. It was more about the fact that Rutgers introduced me to journalism and diverted my path into newspapers.
Morris: You are a serious musician. To what extent has your significant involvement with music proven to be highly valuable in ways and to any extent you had not anticipated? Please explain.
Maney: I’m not sure how much the word serious applies! I write songs like “Wouldn’t Want to Be Bill Gates” and “Little Tattoo and All Over Tan.” But I certainly have pursued music in general and songwriting in particular.
What’s it done for me? I think it’s become part of my personal brand — in a field where having a personal brand is an asset. It’s helped me stand out a bit in the minds of a lot of people in the tech industry. I’m that tech writer who gets on stage and plays funny tech songs. I wouldn’t want that to be all I’m known for, but it’s a bit of a differentiator.
Morris: In your opinion, what will be the single greatest challenge that business leaders (especially CEOs) will face during the 3-5 years?
Maney: This gets a bit into what I’m doing with my brother Dave. He and I and other people we’re working with believe that the disruptions and difficulties in the economy the past few years aren’t just a bump in the road — they’re part of a massive change in very big forces, brought on by the Internet, globalization, and the flood of data. It’s changing the very nature of what a company is, the nature of what a job is, the value that proximity has or doesn’t have. Economaney is kind of a new age think tank for tossing these ideas around and trying to make sense of them. All in all, the next three to five years are going to be among the most challenging in history to be a CEO in America — or for that matter, President of the country.
* * *
To read the complete interview, please click here.
Kevin Maney cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jeffrey Pfeffer for the Harvard Business Review blog. 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.
* * *
It’s never easy to decide to stop pursuing a strategy. Americans got a reminder of that in President Obama’s speech recently on Afghanistan; it was dispiriting to hear him describe the extended timetable required to remove even just the incremental troops who went in as the surge. But at least Obama did manage to make a decision to scale back. Many leaders faced with a strategy that isn’t working don’t get that far.
Even when things clearly aren’t going right, strong psychological tendencies keep the average leader from admitting it and correcting course. A pathbreaking study by Barry Staw in the 1970s helped to clarify why. In it, MBAs were asked to choose the best R&D investment strategy for a case company; then, they were shown how that strategy played out (disappointingly). In the next round they were asked what to do next: Should they switch R&D projects in midstream, or pour more money into the original strategy? Staw found that the answer differed substantially based on who made the choice in the second round. When the same person responsible for the disappointing first strategy was given the power to decide the next move, it was much more likely that they would choose to stay the course. They were predisposed to escalate the commitment because to do otherwise would be to admit a mistake. (Interestingly, Staw’s paper makes direct reference to the war in Vietnam as a situation where logic might fall prey to face-saving.)
None of us likes to admit to bad decisions, but imagine how much harder that is for someone who has been chosen to lead a large organization precisely because he or she is thought to have the power to see the future more clearly and chart a wise course. The faith of others not only creates pressure, it also infects the leader with the impression that he or she really is powerful enough to make things work out. For proof of how far this self-confidence can go, look to Ellen Langer’s research on the “illusion of control.”
She showed that people have such an inflated sense of the control they personally exercise over their circumstances that they are willing to bet more on gambles when it is their own hand that rolls the dice or pulls a card from a deck. Among leaders, whose beliefs in their powers to intervene effectively have had plenty of reinforcement, that tendency is surely amplified.
And here’s one last piece of research I can’t resist citing in a discussion of why leaders are so likely to double-down on bad bets. Leslie Perlow did a fascinating study of engineers doing software development and observed them frequently using their time in ways that could only make it more difficult to meet their aggressive deadline. Her perceptive interpretation of this behavior was that, while an action that prevents problems goes mostly unnoticed, pulling a flailing project from the fire garners plenty of attention and rewards. Since leaders — like doctors — earn reputations for being great by resolving crises, they may have the same incentive to create the need for heroics.
With all these psychological tendencies acting on a leader’s judgment, it’s a wonder anyone ever manages to pull the plug on an effort that is consuming resources but going nowhere. Only the best leaders can hold fast to the truth that their job is to set strategy and ensure effective execution of it — and that at least half of that job is deciding what not to do. They know they must be disciplined in thinking about what products not to pursue and bring to market, what geographies not to enter, what activities not to focus on at the moment.
Gary Loveman, CEO of Harrah’s Entertainment, is someone who gets this. Visiting Stanford one day, he told my class that when he entered the company as COO he reduced most executives’ job scope, because he believes that people don’t do very well processing complex agendas and that success mostly comes from effort focused on the most critical and achievable objectives. Scale this up and you have the notion of comparative advantage, which suggests that companies, regions, and even nations should prune their activities and focus on areas of relative strength.
* * *
Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979. His latest book is Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.