The Wobegon Effect

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One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.
– Bertrand Russell

Skiing this past weekend, I thought I might learn something by watching myself ski. I stopped in the middle of the trail and asked my friend to take a short video of myself. Ack. It was helpful, but painful to watch. There’s a reason we don’t like to listen to our own voice recorded, or watch video of ourselves. We’re much better in our minds.

It’s an odd thing that the more inept we are at something, the better we think we are. And inversely the better we are, the more likely we are to undervalue our skills.

  • In a study of self-assessment in classrooms, students performing in the bottom 25% described themselves as performing above the 60th percentile
  • 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their academic performance as above the median
  • In 1976, the College Board did a survey and discovered in ratings of leadership ability, 70% of the students put themselves above the median
  • The same study asked participants to rate themselves in their ability to get along with others, an indication of their emotional fluency – 85% put themselves above the median, and 25% of students rated themselves in the top 1%
  • A 1981 study of american drivers found that 93% rated themselves among the top half of skilled drivers on the road.

All statistical impossibilities. Another unfortunate truth is that the less competent we are at problem solving, gaining particular skills, or storing knowledge, the more we overestimate our abilities. Some researchers think it’s because we don’t know what we don’t know.

I had an interview with Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, one of the largest in the country, who emphasized the value of humility in developing oneself. As he described, the key is not to think of humility as a self-deprecating exercise. Humility is not another way to say, “I suck.” It’s a way to identify, with honesty, those beliefs and behaviors which are inhibiting our own growth and those around us. As he described, start with an honest sense of humility, and a willingness to ask hard questions:

Often we are so afraid of appearing like we don’t know it all, we end up not knowing it all. I’d rather admit I don’t know it and learn it than to pretend that I know it all… Asking questions is a mark of humility because you can learn from anybody if you know the right questions.
– Rick Warren

Blue Monkey 22

coyote2As a family we ski quite a bit in the winter. We’re about two hours from Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine and the kids love it. A couple years ago, I would regularly launch off a series of ski jumps in the terrain park. It’s exhilarating. Drop down to approach the ramp, race up to the lip of the jump and sail high to a smooth landing on the downhill other side. Fifteen feet? Twenty? I probably exaggerate but it feels really far. If you get the speed right it’s smooth, easy and fun. I could do it all day. What a blast.

As a big treat, I attached a ski trip to a business obligation in Denver and took our boys Charlie (10) and WIll (8) out to Breckenridge, CO to see the big sky, ski the big mountains. We met some good friends living there and headed up to Summit County for a few days. On the first day of skiing, I was riding up the chairlift with my friend Greg, and as the lift was passing over the terrain park below, which included a series of substantial jumps, Greg remarked, “I’ve always thought that looks fun but I’m not sure I want to try it.”

What a setup. Of course I say, “Oh, it’s no problem. Just get the speed right and it’s easy. I’ll show you. I do it all the time.” I spend the rest of the chairlift ride talking about how the key is to commit to it. Own it.

We skied down to the jump and I positioned myself to attack it. Maybe it was oxygen deprivation at altitude or a function of being forty, but in that moment I recall being supremely confident. This was a piece of cake. I dropped in, gained speed, and sailed smoothly off the jump.

Too fast. I hit that way too hot. I soared far over the easy downhill landing zone, arms pinwheeling like Wile E Coyote stationary above open air. I hit hard. I still remember the fall, but the next few seconds are blurry. Evidently after fifteen seconds or so, I wobbled to my feet and turned to see Greg had skied down next to me. Eyes big, he gestured and said “Sit down!”

I sat down and a blink later a Patroller was in front of me looking at me closely, and asking, “Where are you from? What day of the week is it? What did you have for breakfast?” Stunned, I turned and looked blankly at Greg, “I have no idea what I had for breakfast.”

Next the Patroller says, “I want you to remember these three things, OK? Blue. Monkey. 22. Got it?”

And I’m thinking, “No way, he’s doing that thing to me!” I have friends who are EMTs, ski patrollers, field trauma experts, and I knew he was performing a concussion assessment on me. There is no way I’m going to blow this. Blue. Monkey. 22. Oh, I got this dialed.

He asked me a series of questions about my kid’s names, who the President was, and so on, and when he came back to the three things I definitely nailed it. But still he said, “We’re going to put you on the sled, give you some oxygen, and take you down.” At eleven thousand feet, I remember the oxygen felt really good.

We went down to the patrol hut, Greg and the kids following. I got another look over, and some advice on how to behave. I suddenly felt pretty far from home, and when my son quietly teared up I felt embarrassed at being such a fool. Another Patroller came in and, after hearing my story, peered at me sagely and said, “The terrain park is a young man’s game.”

Blue Monkey 22 became code for “Do you really think you should do that? Maybe think it through first.” Lesson is: what works on the home court doesn’t always translate on the road. Or: with home in the rear view mirror, objects are closer than they appear.

It’s just another reason I stay off the jumps these days.

Start with Shared Values

If you work in a big company, with people around the world operating in different cultures, on different projects, with different skillsets and different world views, how can you create shared conviction and vision?

Don Vanthournout is the Chief Learning Officer of Accenture, a premier global management-services and advisory organization with more than 259,000 associates in almost fifty different countries around the world. Accenture is perhaps not unlike other multinational companies except that it has no clear headquarters. Accenture’s CEOs over the past few years have been based in Paris, Boston, Palo Alto, and Dallas. Its executives operate globally, and its associates are expected to adopt a nimble and global world view. They’re supposed to remain effective and adhere to the Accenture philosophy regardless of where they work. How can such a globally dispersed workforce, with no clear headquarters and a CEO with no nationalistic identity, have a strongly held, shared vision?

In October, 2011, I had an interview with Don Vanthournout. In that conversation, he explained that the company starts with a simple and clear set of values as its behavioral principles. Accenture ingrains these values in all associates, so regardless of where they are working in the world, the associates’ values and behavior are guided by them. As he put it,

we build core skills into our people on how we want them to collaborate and communicate with each other, how we want them to manage projects, but we’re never going to be able to guess every situation that might confront them. And so the why of why you spend so much time focusing on the value side of things is so that we can develop people who, when they’re thrown in that situation that they might not have been prepared explicitly for from a content standpoint, will from a contextual standpoint know how to operate in alignment with what Accenture values.

Next, according to Vanthouronout, Accenture operates under a principle of facilitating job mobility and growth. As the Chief Learning Officer, Vanthouronout knows people participate at their highest level of engagement and collaboration when they are doing work they love. When a position becomes tedious, he says, it’s time to look for growth opportunities. Accenture recognizes the need for constant development, and creates opportunities for them to fill that need. Vanthouronout’s recommendation is to start local—ask friends and colleagues for advice in developing oneself. He has found that the strongest professional developers trust the insight of their colleagues and take action to gain new and diverse skills.

When it comes to aspiration, those around us will understand and help place us in developing positions only if we voice our opinions and ideas about our own best career trajectory. Accenture has worked to build a culture in which managers are expected to identify and listen closely to the development aspirations of associates, with the recognition that those best placed will ultimately perform at their highest level and realize their greatest confidence.

What it really takes

Imagine a race in which you don’t know what you will have to do, where or how long the course is, or even when it will end. Imagine that once you sign up for this race, you are immediately told, repeatedly, to quit before you even start. You are warned you might die, and even if you don’t, you don’t have what it takes anyway to finish so you shouldn’t even bother showing up.

During the course of the “race” which has no finish line, you may be asked to dig up a tree stump with your bare hands and then drag it 10 miles to the top of a mountain, where you will be greeted by someone who asks you to memorize passages of the bible. You then drag the tree stump back down the mountain 6 miles somewhere else and recite the lines. If you get it wrong you hike six miles back to memorize it until you get it right. After 36 hours of no sleep, you may be asked to count out exactly 5000 pennies, only to have them thrown in an icy pond. Your next task is to retrieve them.

During the race you are constantly berated by race organizers who tell you to quit. And you have no idea where the finish line is until they tell you it’s over. It’s called The Spartan Death Race (www.youmaydie.com). The 2012 version lasted three days. Less than 15% finished. Intelligence may be the least of the discerning factors in finishing. Grit may be the biggest.

Why do some people accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? This was the question Angela Duckworth and her colleagues posed when embarking on a study in 2004 to measure people’s level of “grit.” Surveying the available research regarding traits beyond intelligence that contribute to success, Duckworth and her colleagues found it lacking in the specific area regarding the influence of possessing this quality, which they defined as follows:

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.

Basically, Duckworth identified grit as the combination of two distinct characteristics: consistency of task, and perseverance through adversity.

The researchers initiated their own study to develop something they call the “Grit Scale.” After generating a series of questions intended to measure “grittiness,” (for example, “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,” “I finish whatever I begin”), the researchers set up a questionnaire on their website, www.authentichappiness.com. Their results reveal higher levels of grit correlate with higher levels of education. The results also showed that grit tends to increase with age. Those individuals with high levels of grit also tend to have fewer career changes. Yet more surprisingly, those identified as possessing high levels of grit often had high grades in school yet scored more poorly on Standard Achievement Tests, suggesting that, despite lower scholastic aptitude, their perseverance and tenacity yielded stronger overall academic results.

The study gets even more interesting when the researchers decided to apply their Grit Scale to the 2004 incoming class of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Just getting into West Point is famously difficult. Entrance requires a nomination from a member of Congress or from the Department of Army. Once accepted, each entering cadet is evaluated on the Whole Candidate Score, which takes into consideration school grade-point average, Scholastic Aptitude Test results, physical fitness, class rank, and evidence of demonstrated leadership ability.

This comprehensive evaluation process for those applying to the academy is necessary to help the academy predict not only the graduation rate, but also the likelihood that entering freshman will finish an arduous summer entrance session known as “Beast Barracks,” or more simply “Beast.” Nearly 100 percent of the freshman cadets also took the Grit Scale test in 2004, and its results proved to be a better predictor of whether or not a cadet would survive Beast Barracks than the military’s own sophisticated and complexly designed evaluation tests.

It is grit—perserverence and passion for long-term goals, plus a willingness to remain tenacious in the face of adversity—that leads to deep expertise and mastery necessary to propel innovation

Adequate Performance Gets a Generous Severance Package

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“There is no policy requiring clothing, but no one comes to work naked.
Lesson: You don’t need policies for everything”

Be the market surprise instead of being surprised by the market. Increase the density of talent in your organization faster than the complexity increases around you. In the same way you can’t control the forces that affect your company, to attract the best and the brightest you may not want to try to control your top talent either. Certainly companies should support them, grow them, challenge them, and reward them. But increasingly companies are finding deeper talent and bigger results by relinquishing control over them.

This trend in giving employees autonomy puts the focus on results rather than on punching a time clock. Netflix has recognized that as a business which never sleeps, they in fact have no standard working hours for the company, and therefore should extend that analogy to respect the discretionary decision-making of their employees. So Netflix treats them like adults. As a slide presentation on their website describes, Netflix pays above-average in the industry, provides generous benefits and works to “attract and retain stunning colleagues.” How and when you get your work done is up to you, but they expect results.

“Adequate performance gets a generous severance package” reads their website. Clearly they create an environment intended to gain the best and brightest people but as they advertise, they function more like a high performance professional sports team, not like a family which forgives every fault. Managers have a test they perform when evaluating performance. They ask themselves this question, “Which of my people, if they told me they were leaving, would I work hard to keep at Netflix?” If someone doesn’t satisfy that question, they are offered the generous severance package to open up that position for a star performer.

To punctuate their focus on results, not hours, their presentation goes on to say, “Sustained A-level performance with minimal effort, is rewarded with greater responsibility, and great pay.” By focusing on results rather than mere presence or compliance, employees are more likely to feel accountable and less likely to waste the company’s time or money.

Balancing Global Vision with Local Relevance

At the moment, Andrew Deonarine is a third year medical resident at University of British Columbia (UBC)  He has developed a passion for improving literacy in developing economies.  A few years ago after a trip to India he was inspired by the One Laptop Per Child initiative to improve literacy around the world.  And he wondered if there wasn’t an even easier and more ubiquitous platform for delivering literacy learning.

He is also a programmer and technology tinkerer.  With a curious mind, he developed a big idea to use simple cellphones to be a platform for distributing literacy learning through PhoneCasting – a push technology in which anyone can author a brief engaging learning script and push-cast it out to deliver simple reading and math literacy to potentially millions of people.  He calls it EduCell.

Inventive yes.  But how does anyone know about it?  They didn’t.  Until, he learns about an InnoCentive challenge.  He applies and his EduCell proposal wins.  He is in talks with Nokia to develop and deliver EduCell universally.  Through the innovation crowd-sourcing visibility of Innocentive, Andrew is changing the world.  From Ontario.

This is a wonderful story, and indicative of how fast innovation can move in this frictionless economy.  How important is speed to market?  Last year Jim Barksdale, formerly of Netscape, spent 300 million to dig a gopher hole from the Chicago Mercantile exchange 825 miles to the New York Stock Exchange to lay direct-line fiber optic cable.  Why?  To gain 3 milliseconds in speed of trading information.

Competition is emerging from everyone, everywhere, and for everything – and one thing is clear:  Our most powerful competitive advantage is in the hearts and minds of all the people throughout our global organizations, and we must unlock these capacities.  Gone are the days when we could just buy diligence and expertise, and ask people to execute on the strategic bets of a very few in the corner offices.  Now, only by tapping into those discretionary qualities of initiative, creativity and passion – that cannot be bought at any price – can we build the competitive value of the future.

Bruce Churchill, president for DirectTV Latin America, said the key to the 300% market growth was to remove the corporate directives from NYC and Miami that decided how and when and where their services were deployed in Latin America, and instead give autonomy and discretionary decision-making authority to the local operators.  Who knows better than the people who live in Bogotá, Rio, and Caracas, the culturally relevant TV programming to provide, how to price it, the marketing that would make it stick in each locality.

Michael Byrne, president of Linfox, the biggest shipping and logistics operator in Australia said the key to their remarkable growth in India, Thailand, Vietnam, China and throughout southeast asia over the past ten years has been specifically because tap into the talents and give localized control over operations.  With over 2400 employees in India, and as of my conversation with him last year, Linfox had exactly one Aussie ex-pat working there – and he’s not the boss either.  By first providing a clear and singular vision of commitment to safety, excellence, product integrity and quality, Linfox provides the shared vision and values that provide the bedrock of the company, and then gives trust and operating control to the local markets for culturally nuanced execution.

Those organizations that learn to balance global unified vision with local relevance are those that will thrive in the new creative age.

You Make Your Own Luck

Friday afternoon I stopped by our local convenience store to gas up. When I went inside, I was surprised to find a sizeable line of people to buy megabucks lottery tickets. I knew about the lottery since it was plastered everywhere but had yet to encounter the fever pitch first hand. The drawing for 650M was in a few short hours. Showing the same wildly irrational hope, I bought a few tickets.

We don’t have much control over whether we win the lottery, but it turns out, we have control over what we perceive as “luck,” and we have a great deal of control over our own happiness by how we interpret events and situations. When events occur we choose whether we believe they happened to us, or we caused them to happen. Bronze medal winners consistently self-describe themselves as happier with the result than Silver medal winners. Because they are not celebrating the facts, but interpreting counter-facts. They are answering the what-if question, and Bronze medal winners are celebrating that they are on the podium, while Silver medal winners are disappointed they lost.

Here’s another example of how we look at the world. In Daniel Kahneman’s book, he describes a bank survey in which they asked two separate questions:

  • How much would you pay for $100,000 life insurance that will pay in the event of death for any reason?
  • How much would you pay for $100,000 life insurance that pays in the event of death by terrorist attack incident?

Survey respondents said they would pay much higher rates for the second type of life insurance. This is deeply irrational but speaks directly to how negative emotions and ideas have the ability to cause us to overvalue or over emphasize their likelihood because of our emotional response to the idea.

In Richard Wiseman’s book The Luck Factor, he describes luck in terms of choice. In his research working with over 400 individuals he found some key attributes of those who describe themselves as “lucky.” These are the four big points in the book:
They consistently have chance encounters that lead to interesting new possibilities and opportunities
Lucky people harness the power of curiosity well. They are creative and curious, and everyone can learn to be too. Wiseman has a fun game you can play in which you write down six activities or experiences you have not tried but would be willing. Write them down and then roll a die and go do it.

They make good decisions without consciously knowing why or how they did
Those who describe themselves as lucky make better gut decisions. Which seems impossible to control, yet Wiseman discovered this is a learned trait since he found that those lucky decision-makers actually spent more time reflecting and meditating on the decision once considered, and spent more time envisioning hypothetical circumstances they might have to decide on. So when the situation arose, those lucky were better prepared to make a decision in the moment.

Their dreams and ambitions have a knack of coming true
Lucky people expect the best outcomes, despite any negative past experiences, whereas unlucky people allowed past negative events to dictate future expectations. The lucky people also described their expectations of upcoming interactions with other people as generally positive.

They regularly turn their bad fortune into good luck or opportunity
Wiseman describes two primary ways people turn bad luck into good. Basically they interpret the bad as “could have been much worse.” And when they reflect, they spend a greater amount of time visualizing and selectively remembering the positive. Other words, the bad wasn’t all that bad, and the good was pretty great.

The #1 Motivator in the World

I know. That title is a big call. Not to worry, we have Teresa Amabile, author of The Progress Principle, to back us up. I was fascinated and enthralled by her work and book when it came out early in the fall 0f 2011, and just one week before meeting her to collaborate on an event, I made the following mistake: I was conducting a workshop with 86 senior executives and asked them Teresa’s question in a quiz-format:
Rank-order the following employee motivation factors:

  • Recognition
  • Incentives
  • Clear goals
  • Progress in the work
  • Interpersonal support
  • Most people in the room chose Recognition, then Interpersonal Support, then Clear Goals, then Incentives and Progress last. Seven people chose Progress. Less than 10%. Perfect right? Since this is my opportunity to share Teresa’s work and illuminate the truth that the #1 motivator is a sense of progress. More specifically “progress in meaningful work.”

    This was supposed to be the moment of ah-ha, the moment of illuminating insight, but instead there were a lot of frowns, and after a beat one executive raised her hand to say, “But without Clear Goals, progress is meaningless. Clear Goals must be the most important.” I couldn’t stop myself and said, “Yes, you are speaking from the perspective of the team leader. You know and understand there must be clear, actionable goals in order to make progress. But the question was ‘What is the most powerful motivator of the members of the team?”

    Teresa and her colleague Steven Kramer analyzed 12,000 diary entries from 238 employees in 7 companies to come to the qualified conclusion that the most valuable work motivator is indeed, a sense of progress (in meaningful work). And even though I knew from her research that only 5% of leaders surveyed understood that, still I persisted in pressing the point.

    When I met with Teresa, she said she didn’t present her findings in such a “gotcha” format because of that very reason. And her goal was to spread this important message until the needle pushed way past 50%, and then perhaps she would try it in a quiz-format.

    Two take-aways:
    1. The #1 motivator for contributors is progress (in meaningful work)
    2. Never ever make your audience feel stupid

    When sharing insight with anyone – either personally one on one or in a large group – allow people to feel like they have come to the insightful conclusion on their own, and build their own insights to apply to their work. Make people feel stronger, smarter, better-equipped to propel their team and drive innovation.

    The Velocity of Learning

    You don’t often think of learning as having a speed, a velocity, but it does. The classic notion of practice involves putting in the hours, doing the time, right? But there is a striking difference in the quality of practice that leads to accelerated learning. And it isn’t about watching the clock, it’s more about purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is found right on the edges of your ability, at the intersection of challenge and ability when you are successful perhaps 50-75% of the time. Not so much easy success that gains overconfidence and loss of challenge, and not so much difficulty that it creates a sense of stress and anxiety.

    But the only why to find that sweet spot is to try, to get in action. Particularly when trying to acquire new skills or new behaviors the aim shouldn’t necessarily be to stop a trait or practice, but instead think about starting new behaviors and habits. Dan Coyle told a marvelous story about visiting the Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, CA where they focus on building new habits toward developing what they call “social fitness.” The folks that come to the shyness clinic often have arrived at a point where their social anxieties and shyness have become a real hindrance and barrier to connection. The clinicians and psychologists there believe that much like developing physical fitness, or leadership or creative capacities, so too can people develop social fitness.

    A simple exercise might involve asking participants to approach two people per day in a public place and simply ask them the time of day. And then graduate to asking a store manager where the restroom is, for example. For a final exam a participant was asked to go to a supermarket and intentionally drop a whole watermelon on the floor and work with the market employees to deal with the mess and apologize for the accident. Such a scene would be an appalling thought to someone suffering from acute shyness. But over time, with incremental social practice and repetitive purposeful practice and interactions, the participants could build the social and emotional capacities to envision such an incident, and effectively deal with it in a public social setting.

    And remember the practice needs to be in context, under real conditions, with a little stress, a little challenge such that you are on the edges of your ability. For example, instead of asking the soccer team players to shoot twenty penalty kicks at the end of practice, instead stop the scrimmage in the middle of practice and have a player shoot just two, under pressure, in the middle of the game.

    Gratitude = Meaning = Performance = Happiness

    The results were clear: Higher levels of optimism, increased life satisfaction, and decreased negative feelings were all associated with students’ expressions of gratitude. By the follow-up three weeks later, students who had been instructed to count their blessings showed more gratitude toward people who had helped them, which led to more gratitude in general.
    – Jeffrey Froh, Professor, Hofstra University

    I have three kids, currently with a combined age of twenty-one. The other day I was musing on how to teach gratitude to them and posed this question to my five year old at the kitchen table: “Annie, would you name three things you are grateful for?”
    “What’s grateful?”
    “Thankful. What are three things you are thankful for?”
    She thought for a moment and said, “Santa Claus!” Cute. She also said painting with her grandmother and playing with our dog. A good start. Gratitude, just like creativity, can be learned. The importance and power of engaging ourselves in our work, connecting with the people and world around us, and deviating from convention to create new value, defines our potential in this creative age.

    Jeffrey Froh, Hofstra University, did this cool study in which he and his colleagues, tracked 221 students and divided them into three groups, asking each group to think about 1. things they were grateful for and liked about school, 2. things they found to be a hassle and not fun, and 3. a control group they asked nothing of.

    Pretty simply, they asked group one to spend just a few minutes each day identifying up to five things they were grateful for, and measured their school performance and engagement from both their perspective and the perspective of their teachers. Essentially, they found these students to be happier (by their own account), and more engaged in their work (by the teachers account), and…wait for it, they got better grades. Not only that, the effect lasted beyond the duration of the study itself. Finally consider the effect of extrinsic rewards in this study:

    “Evidence from research with adolescents indicates that gratitude is incompatible with the pursuit of materialistic or extrinsic goals and that it positively predicts academic achievement, mental health and well-being—outcomes that are negatively predicted by materialism.”