High-impact organization and executive leadership development

High-impact organization and executive leadership development

High-impact organization and executive leadership development

High-impact organization and executive leadership development

High-impact organization and executive leadership development

High-impact organization and executive leadership development


I1: The Innovator’s Personality

My favorite feel-good book of the last decade is Harold Evans’ They Made America (http://www.amazon.com/They-Made-America-Centuries-Innovators/dp/0316277665

Unlike the many soul-sucking, self-help books on innovation, this one is a coffee table book, filled with vivid stories and photos of American invention over the last century jumping off the page.  It is a stirring account of audacity, the bold and sometimes arrogant disregard of natural restraints in service of some vision or problem to be solved.   Flip the pages, while listening to America the Beautiful and watching Clint Eastwood’s Half-Time in America spot, and you will have thoughts of building transcontinental railroads (or maybe even high-speed rail-lines in California?)   

Building the Union Pacific, Citadel Rock

Building the Union Pacific, Citadel Rock

Reading the stories and peering at these images, I wondered what we really know about who “They” are – the characters in these stories – and what conditions enabled them to do what they did.  So I am setting out in this series of posts to compile the latest social science theory and research on innovation.   The first posts will address what we know about the individual characteristics associated with productive invention.  In later posts, I will explore the questions of culture and social structures most conducive to creativity.  Thoughout, I hope to draw out some practical implications for those of us trying to do things differently and  helping our teams be more innovative.
The Innovator’s Personality 
The most innovative scientists and engineers have a handful of personality traits in common.  In a recent research report in the Journal of Applied Psychology,  (http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/apl/97/1/225/) Robert Keller from the University of Houston, found that the scientists with the strongest track records of publications, patents and performance over a span of 1 to 5 years possess the following characteristics:
1.  High self esteem:  The most productive scientists and engineers demonstrated the highest perceived self-value and self-worth.
2.  High internal locus of control (LOC):  An individual’s locus of control measures the extent to which they believe they control (internals) or external factors (externals) control important outcomes in their lives.  Keller found that an internal locus of control predicted 5-years-later patents and publications
3.  Innovative orientation:  While sometimes referred to as a cognitive style, this attribute measures a person’s ability to do things differently, to transcend social conventions and avoid conforming.  It is measured by self-report items like, “I would sooner create than improve” and not surprisingly, strongly predicts innovative performance.  Keller also found that task complexity moderates this relationship, such that those with the highest innovative orientation are particularly more successful given nonroutine, unanalyzable tasks (characterized by many exceptions, unexpected events or lacking a set of analytical procedures to solve the problem) when compared with routine tasks.
Selecting for Innovative Personalities
Recruiting scientists and engineers with these personality traits is simply a matter of using a standardized psychological test in your hiring process and/or specifically probing for these traits in your interviews.  If you need people to solve particularly complex tasks, with many alternatives, knowledge bases and angles of attack, focus specifically on innovative orientation and consider question such as the Adaptation-Innovation Inventory (KAI, Kirton, 1976).   
While we all focus heavily on cognitive capacity and strive to hire the smartest scientists and engineers, this research tells us that personality traits predict innovation productivity as much if not more than IQ.  So, in addition to peppering candidates with clever problems to solve, be sure to ask them about their inner lives – how they see themselves, the reasons for their successes and failures and their ability to buck convention.   People with these traits made America and they will drive more innovation for your team.

PsyCap and Gamification

A new concept is gaining momentum in the world of work psychology:  positive psychological capital or PsyCap for short.  It describes a constellation of other, more established psychological constructs such as efficacy, hope, optimism and resilience. Together, these have been shown to produce some pretty powerful results for organizations:  higher job satisfaction, reduced absences and higher levels of individual performance (see Peterson’s recent study in Personnel Psychology http://bit.ly/oJ9pnw.)   

So how does your organization get more PsyCap?  Some in the field believe PsyCap resembles a stable trait, and as such, people either have it or they don’t.  If that’s true,  you could use personality tests and structured interviews to  hire people who are naturally more optimistic and resilient.  I usually test for this in my interviews by probing how people handle challenging situations, disappointments in their careers and failure.  (Yeah, my interviews are bummers!)

Others think PsyCap is more “state-like” and thus relatively malleable and open for development.  Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, first wrote about this in his wonderful book, Learned Optimism.  He found that just as we can learn “helplessness” from our environment, we can also learn how to think more optimistically.  Through his wonderful work and efforts, many companies are now using training programs to 1) increase efficacy by training people in techniques of role modeling, vicarious learning and positive feedback techniques, 2) increase optimism through teaching employees how to deal with setbacks and create contingency plans and 3) increase hope by teaching staff how to set goals and manage projects. 

But there seems to be a third way you can increase your organization’s psychological capital – and that’s through engineering the work  environment so that employees naturally experience it.  To understand this path, we can learn a few things from the multi-player online game world and from those preaching the “gamification” of the world.   In her book, Reality is Broken:  Why games make us better and how they can change the world, Jane McGonigal suggests that games motivate us more than real life because they: 

  • have clear rules
  • provide challenges that aren’t boring
  • customize those challenges to our strengths
  • let us choose missions and control our work flow
  • make us feel powerful
  • offer some guarantee of productivity
  • make failure entertaining

Could we organize our companies to resemble multi-player games and thus increase PsyCap?  I think so and I think some of the best organizations and leaders already structure work according to these principles.  It reminds me of a study I read about a few years ago in which the researcher asked subjects to write essays on the best day they had at work.  When he read their submissions, he found that people consistently described their best days at work as those when they were able to actually accomplish some goal or task - to simply advance a task to completion.  What efficacy, optimism and hope would result from playing a game like that!

Playing in Traffic

The story of  the Denver Barnes Dance caught my attention this week. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704547804576261030416490722.html

In the 1960’s, a young traffic engineer named Henry Barnes tried to make the streets of Denver safer for pedestrians.  He instituted a new crosswalk system “trusting those on foot to get to their destination without the confining guidance of crosswalks.”  He opened the whole intersection to pedestrians, stopping traffic in all directions and letting pedestrians cross any way they wanted – even diagonally – to help prevent drivers making reight-hand turns from hitting them.

His intent was to make crossing safer, but the system was so amusing to pedestrians that they would often stop in the middle of the intersection, do a jig, sip on their coffee or simply have a chat with a friend.  I’ve experienced the strange sensation myself when in the middle of a Barnes intersection – surrounded on all wings by noisy traffic, smack dab in the center of the intersection – and pulling out my cell phone to take a picture.  It’s almost as if on some primal level, the moment of freedom and of being where I don’t belong, challenges the senses and provokes a fresh mindedness.

20110406_121505_cd06barnes_dance_200Organization Design

I have noticed the same thing in organizations, when people are given sufficient freedom and released form the conventions of strict roles and rules. Loose structures permit people to take risks, experiment and fail. Yet they vest authority in the individual. Google’s mantra of Do No Evil http://www.google.com/corporate/tenthings.html and Netflix’ Culture of Freedom and Responsibility http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664 are prime examples. Sure you can dance in the middle of the street, but you will pay the consequences if you are still there when the music stops. 

I have also seen this same phenomenon in workplace design. Take people out of their cube farms and watch how spontaneous interactions and informal networking increase. My own research on companies who adopt open office plans suggests that employee social networks become more dense as a result. More impromptu conversations and texting occur when the physical walls come down. And these brief, context-setting interactions produce higher levels of trust and performance in new groups and in those facing complex or ambiguous problems.

Back at the Dance

Yet too much freedom can be costly and organization designers, like traffic engineers, need to make trade-offs.  Organization designers need to balance innovation and efficiency, distributed and centralized authority – just as traffic engineers need to balance safety and efficiency, pedestrians and automobiles.  And that returns us to the dance in Denver.  The design that made the streets safer and delighted pedestrians made cars and mass transit wait longer.  The pedestrian-friendly intersections were not traffic-friendly.  So in a time of rising gas prices and increased mass transit usage, the dance is coming to an end this week.  Crews are covering the walk signs that gave pedestrians the right to cross diagonally and reprogramming the traffic signals.

But let’s hope that there are at least a few dancing fools in Denver, and in our organizations, who despite the lane markers, insist on playing in traffic.

The Berserk Warrior

the-hurt-locker-picInspiration is for amateurs.  The rest of us just show up and get to work.

Chuck Close talking about the creative process to Charlie Rose, October 28, 2010


I have long believed that leading means capturing the hearts and minds of others.   Capturing minds is the stuff of visionary leadership – painting a compelling picture of the future that engages people, focusing on a mission that calls people to use their skills in service of something larger than themselves, keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize.  Capturing hearts is something else, more like charismatic leadership – arousing the passions and motivations of followers, through a sort of emotional contagion.    

I have emphasized the former, more cognitive approach of visionary leadership in my work, advising leaders to articulate a long-range plan for success and invite each employee to support it.  This approach assumes inspiration (and faith) occur when people understand the goal and are willing to endure any short-term hardships because they are focused on the bigger picture. 

Recently, however, I have been intrigued by charismatic leadership, especially as the world becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what the military has coined “VUCA”).   Hearts seem to need more tending these days.  As a client of mine recently told me, “Forget about long-term incentives and hope for the future.  I need something that will get people out of bed and get them excited about coming to work tomorrow.” 

What kind of leader does that? Research by Amir Erez and colleagues from the University of Florida (Erez, et al, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2008) found that  highly charismatic leaders, as measured by levels of excitement, enthusiasm and general arousal levels, produce happier, less negative, more engaged and committed employees than non-charismatic leaders.   The type of leadership they studied is what  Max Weber originally defined as charismatic authority - an “emotional form of communal relationship” in which emotional expression is unmitigated by cognitive mechanisms.  It is the type of charisma exemplified by “the berserk warrior”- the leader who puts it all on the line and who creates “a frenzied commitment to the battle among his comrades [not through] a message to those who he inspires…but due solely to his overtly expressed extreme excitement.”  (Greenfield, Reflections on Two Charismas, 1985)

Think of Jeremy Renner’s character, Sergeant First Class William James, in the Hurt Locker.  At the beginning of the movie, you think he is just crazy, addicted to the adrenaline of war and undoubtedly out of his mind.  But as the story develops, you gain respect for his addiction to his job and to “being a consummate professional who has honed his craft to high-wire precision.”  You see how he motivates and bonds with his team through his total willingness to commit himself, take risks and pay the personal consequences.  He doesn’t seem to possess any ultimate vision nor has any pretenses about the larger purpose of his work.  Yet he motivates his team through sheer commitment and dedication to the work itself. 

Maybe this is the kind of leadership we need in a VUCA world, when it’s difficult to know what to build next or what business strategy will win?  Maybe we need more berserk warriors in our companies who believe what they are doing is right and who back up their belief with the unmitigated courage to act on it?

Small is Beautiful – Organizing for Innovation

There was interesting news out of the annual meeting of the International Astronomical Union in  Rio De Janeiro this month.   No, not the discovery of a new exoplanet or red complex galaxies, but rather a growing concern that “managerialism” may kill the golden age of astronomical discovery.(http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14209662)  As telescopes become bigger and more expensive, management techniques have been introduced to more smoothly run large projects - and threaten the individual flair that has been the source of discovery for the past two centuries.  Robert Williams, the new president of the IAU and responsible for the discovery of the Hubble Deep Field was quoted as saying “High-risk, high-reward projects require hard decisions that are best made by individuals, not committees.” 

As if on cue, enter Norm Augustine, the former chair of Lockheed Martin, who reported Friday on the recommendations of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee.  (This is the “committee” tasked by the current administration to evaluate the future of manned space flight.)  After 90 days and “reviewing 3000 options”,  they narrowed it down to 16 options and then 4 options with the basic conclusion that human missions to the moon by 2020 are unrealistic or “not executable.”   What a beautiful management process – and what a disappointing result!

So what’s the lesson?   Maybe EF Schumacher got it right in 1973 when he made the argument for human-scaled, decentralized technology, that is “cheap enough so that [it is] accessible to virtually everyone; suitable for small-scale application; and compatible with man’s need for creativity.”  While we might need the 25-metre giant Magellan Telescope, we also need a human organization of backyard scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who refuse to be “mere machine minders.”  And we need new management processes that support and integrate the loose federation of discoverers without squashing them.   (The VC model here in Silicon Valley probably comes closest to what this  process looks like – giving those backyard scientists a sandbox of capital, networks and expertise to play with, investing in a lot of small-scale experiments and expecting a hit-rate not much greater than 20%.)  And if this is the architecture for innovation, social scientists could do more to identify the human processes that actually support and integrate loose federations of small-scale innovators.  Can we develop something more inspired than a “committee” as a human tool for collaboration?  This could be the most valuable discovery of this century!

100 Billion Specks of Gray Jelly

Those of us engaged in organizational research are humble creatures.  We live in a world of probabilities, where achieving significant correlations of .4 or .5 delight us – where if we explain 25% of the variance, we’ve achieved something and where we try to do better than random prediction.  We ask people their observations (”To what extent does this leader exhibit empathy?”), their attitudes (”Indicate the extent to which you agree that the company reacts quickly to market opportunities.”) and their intentions (”I would recommend this company as an employer.”)  And we hope to see some pattern in their responses that might help the company’s leaders make better decisions or help us more deeply understand the complexities of how people behave when they work together.

The quixotic nature of our task was recently brought home to me when I heard an interview with V.S. Ramachandran, a neurologist at UC San Diego and head of their Center for Brain and Cognition. ( http://cbc.ucsd.edu/ramabio.html)  

He pointed out that the average brain has 100 billion nerve cells, each with anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other nerve cells.  Those contacts can be inhibitory or excitory and can result in the “possible number of brain states exceed[ing] the number of particles in the universe.”  And he and his neuroscientist colleagues are just beginning to map the brain’s functioning to better understand how the mind operates and to solve basic  brain disease problems.

I don’t think I am jumping the gun to wonder when this research will help those of us engaged in more quotidien pursuits of increasing group performance and building better organizations.  Already the market researchers are grabbing hold of the new tools of cognitive science to unearth customer desires.  Gerald Zaltman’s book “How Customers Think” (http://www.amazon.com/How-Customers-Think-Essential-Insights/dp/1578518261) tells about research at the “Mind of the Market Laboratory” at Harvard Business School.  And other fields of psychology are not far behind.  Shelley Taylor, the director of  UCLA’s Social Neuroscience Lab   (http://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu/index.htm), is doing creative and useful research  using neuroimaging to understand how social relationships protect us against stress.

So is organizational neuroscience next?  Will we see employee brain imaging instead of employee surveys?  Will we need to turn in our focus group recording devices for MRI equipment?  Or will we continue to poke about with questionnaires and hope employees know what they want and what they think?  In either case, however rapidly we adopt and learn from neurological research, I will marvel at the complexity of bringing together hundreds and even thousands of these masses of gray jelly, giving them goals to accomplish and tasks to perform and organizing them in functions to produce services and products and concepts.  That we can predict anything about such a system is truly remarkable.

The Power to Change

I found a comment from George Schultz (recent interview with Charlie Rose – see video) particularly interesting:

Sometimes change happens simply because the leader thinks it can happen.

He was referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago and the impact of Reagan’s optimism and Gorbachev’s open-mindedness.  I often wonder if optimism is a vastly underrated leadership competency – or put another way, whether optimism – sometimes even unrealistic optimism – isn’t absolutely essential to running any organization.

Charlie rose Interview with Mikhail Gorbachev and George Schultz

Do CEOs matter?

The challenge to all of us who work with executives is that maybe they don’t matter so much.  Studies show the effect of CEOs on firm performance to range from 4.5-12.8%.  It’s as Napoleon said, “Luck is the most essential ingredient of good generalship.”

Read more:  http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200906/steve-jobs

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