“All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this negative trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastination does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things such as gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it…The procrastinator can be motivated to difficult, timely, and important tasks, however, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.
“Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. In your mind, or perhaps written down somewhere, you have a list if things you want to accomplish, ordered by importance. You might even call this your priority list. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower on the list. Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure the procrastinator be comes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”
One of these days, I may give some serious thought to these observations….
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John Perry is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University. His essay “Structured Procrastination” won a 2011 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature and he was then able to complete the book by putting off grading papers and evaluating dissertation topics.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jonathan Schlefer 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.
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One of the best-kept secrets in economics is that there is no case for the invisible hand. After more than a century trying to prove the opposite, economic theorists investigating the matter finally concluded in the 1970s that there is no reason to believe markets are led, as if by an invisible hand, to an optimal equilibrium — or any equilibrium at all. But the message never got through to their supposedly practical colleagues who so eagerly push advice about almost anything. Most never even heard what the theorists said, or else resolutely ignored it.
Of course, the dynamic but turbulent history of capitalism belies any invisible hand. The financial crisis that erupted in 2008 and the debt crises threatening Europe are just the latest evidence. Having lived in Mexico in the wake of its 1994 crisis and studied its politics, I just saw the absence of any invisible hand as a practical fact. What shocked me, when I later delved into economic theory, was to discover that, at least on this matter, theory supports practical evidence.
Adam Smith suggested the invisible hand in an otherwise obscure passage in his Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. He mentioned it only once in the book, while he repeatedly noted situations where “natural liberty” does not work. Let banks charge much more than 5% interest, and they will lend to “prodigals and projectors,” precipitating bubbles and crashes. Let “people of the same trade” meet, and their conversation turns to “some contrivance to raise prices.” Let market competition continue to drive the division of labor, and it produces workers as “stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
In the 1870s, academic economists began seriously trying to build “general equilibrium” models to prove the existence of the invisible hand. They hoped to show that market trading among individuals, pursuing self-interest, and firms, maximizing profit, would lead an economy to a stable and optimal equilibrium.
Leon Walras, of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, thought he had succeeded in 1874 with his Elements of Pure Economics, but economists concluded that he had fallen far short. Finally, in 1954, Kenneth Arrow, at Stanford, and Gerard Debreu, at the Cowles Commission at Yale, developed the canonical “general-equilibrium” model, for which they later won the Nobel Prize. Making assumptions to characterize competitive markets, they proved that there exists some set of prices that would balance supply and demand for all goods. However, no one ever showed that some invisible hand would actually move markets toward that level. It is just a situation that might balance supply and demand if by happenstance it occurred.
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To read the complete post, please click here.
Jonathan Schlefer is author of The Assumptions Economists Make (Belknap/Harvard, 2012). The former editor of Technology Review, he holds a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and is currently a research associate at Harvard Business School.
To read more more blog posts by Jonathan Schlefer, please click here.
Morten Hansen is a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and at INSEAD, France. He was previously a professor at Harvard Business School for a number of years. Prior to joining Harvard University, Hansen obtained his Ph.D. from the business school at Stanford University. In addition to his academic career, Hansen was a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in the London, Stockholm and San Francisco offices. He was part of the research teams for the international best-selling books Built to Last and Good to Great. Hansen’s research on collaboration has won several prestigious awards, including the best article awards from Sloan Management Review and Administrative Science Quarterly, the leading academic journal in the field. Several of his Harvard Business Review articles have been bestsellers for a number of years. He regularly consults with companies on collaboration and gives keynotes at leadership conferences. His new management book is Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results (Harvard Business School Press, 2009) and, more recently, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, co-authored with Jim Collins (HarperBusiness, 2011). A native of Norway, Hansen holds a Master’s degree in finance from London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in Business Administration from Stanford University where he was a Fulbright scholar.
To watch an interview of Morten during which he shares his thoughts about “How Great Leaders Make Their Own Luck” please click here.
To read my interview of Morten and Jim Collins, please click here.
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.
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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.
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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.]
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.