Thursday, July 19, 2018

Bits and Blocks – AI of a Different Sort

The AI here is Adopting Incrementalism. We continue to talk about “moonshot” projects and “complete and total” geopolitical victories. Don’t get me wrong. We need big ideas and bold moves. Some situations require a black-or-white, all-or-nothing outcome. But most advances come in smaller bits and blocks, each building on the last.

Freakonomics Radio rebroadcasted In Praise of Incrementalism the other week. It was first out in 2016 and worth a listen. Ed Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard, had a couple of memorable lines:

“…once we start thinking that there’s a silver bullet, … we lose the fact that we need to be working day by day, over decades, to affect change.”

“The more that you just think that the right answer… will magically fix anything, the less that you actually pay attention to what really matters, which is the nit and grit of everyday decision-making, of everyday governance.”

This prompted me to review a few thoughts of my own on this subject going back to 2011. It started with a general revulsion of mutual exclusivity. We don’t need a divide between big ideas and incremental steps; we need vision and execution, large goals and little objectives, and short-range and long-term views.

Public relations and advertising agencies never receive RFPs for little ideas. Boards of Directors don’t select CEOs for their promises of small improvements. Politicians don’t get elected on a platform of incremental steps. We’re conditioned to expect the big idea, to go big or go home, to swing for a home run, to throw the Hail Mary for a touchdown. But that’s not the way to solve most large and complex problems.

It’s worth remembering our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many in the Continental Congress wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted it remain. There would be no United States of America unless they could agree. So, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787 were compromises. They were steps. We had to wait and fight nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

This applies beyond our politics and social ills. In the world of medicine, for example, Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D. and Chair of Medical Oncology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center said, "One advance leads to another. Although the advance might be incremental, it's a step beyond. If we are only interested in revolutionary therapies, patients will miss out on the improvements in care that smaller advances offer.”

This holds for the humanities, too. Friedrich Nietzsche said, "Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration... shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects... All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering."

Some may feel incrementalism is akin to settling – a poor compromise.  Well, we’ve all heard Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” And legend can teach us, too. When order was collapsing in Camelot, King Arthur (according to T.H. White) said, “Merlyn approved of the Round Table. Evidently, it was a good thing at the time. It must have been a step. Now we must think of making the next one.”

Small strides can sometimes add up to a completed marathon. We should embrace and celebrate the completion of each step along the way.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Don’t Hold That Thought

OK, yes, you can hold onto a thought. But don’t hold off on thinking.

We should care that people do not spend enough time thinking. We tend to focus on the actions, the tactics, before thinking about the strategies and objectives they’re supposed to support. What passes for thinking is often unfocused busywork, a churning of un-prioritized activities.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of one of the best pieces of advice he ever received about strategic thinking; it was from former President Bill Clinton. The president said, “Scheduling.” In a Stanford Graduate School of Business seminar a few years ago, Mr. Blair talked about how he both used and passed along this tidbit. “Where’s your thinking time? Where am I going? What am I trying to do? You have to create the space to be thinking strategically all the time,” he said.

It’s another example of how process and creativity are not mutually exclusive. As a fan of the Arthurian legends, I was taken aback by a comment made in The Once and Future King about the king’s style of thinking toward the end of his life: “The old man had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one.” Again, it was a poor characterization and sets up a false choice. We need both varieties. A dutiful thinker is one who is habitually observing, searching for solutions, and attempting to anticipate the future.

The creative spark is precious but dutiful thinking, steady and stepwise – hand-in-hand with research and analysis – is a virtue of its own. Sometimes we can get to the goal line in one play. More often, though, progress is made in important, incremental steps that ultimately add up to the win.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed the interplay of thinking behaviors in 1878. "Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration... shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects... All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering."

There are many ways to think and in any number of combinations, including:

And now we can add “unsafe thinking” to the list. In a new book by the same name, Jonah Sachs places the “unsafe” label on what is actually an amalgamation of vision, bold moves, measured risks and follow-through. I don’t think Sachs is lobbying for ideas that are literally unsafe. Unsafe is clever and attention getting in the same way the profiles in the book showcase inspired, double take moments created by smart thinkers.

Smart thinkers and good leaders also ask probing questions and seek a variety of inputs. But some, especially in the public relations, marketing and advertising realms, seek seclusion so they can develop “the big idea” on their own. Then, they present their campaigns as a fait accompli like Athena bursting out of Zeus’s head fully armored and ready for battle.

While there is a clear need for individual thought, creativity is no one’s personal domain. You want and need exceptional thinkers but they must know how to leverage a team. Beyond using other minds to reality check, pressure test and sharpen concepts, we should be accessing ideas from across the organization. If not, we risk wasting, alienating and demoralizing a most precious resource.

I invite you to follow me here and on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles (in a Crisis)

Crises place unique pressures on leadership and management because, by definition, their courses are unpredictable. Yet, many crises have been well studied and a list of core communication principles has been established.

Of course, we should expect mistakes to be made. Too few scenarios are contemplated and too little rehearsal is conducted. And we will continue to see examples of absent, late or tone-deaf responses because of miscalculation, flawed judgment or bad advice.

So, it’s a little difficult to understand what motivated Binghamton University president Harvey G. Stenger to say the tragic murders of two students were “definitely the hardest thing that I’ve been through since I’ve been here.” Could The New York Times have taken him out of context? Was he misquoted? I like to give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible but this does not seem like one of those cases.

This self-centered comment was reminiscent of former BP chief Tony Hayward infamous “I want my life back” statement during the throws of the Deep Water Horizon oil well disaster. The public was astounded and appalled by the lack of empathy.

There were other “Crisis 101” failures at Binghamton, including delays in sending out information and updates. And after one of the murder suspects was arrested, President Stenger was quoted in the Times saying, “You kind of learn on the fly on these things.” This might have been another true statement but not a wise one. He should have stuck with the second half of the statement when he added, “We want to make sure that if anything could have been done better, especially in the communication with our community, that we learn from that.”

In all the crisis manuals and case studies I’ve seen, this gets the least – if any – attention: Know the difference between openness and honesty. You should be honest always but the degree of openness is variable (based on confidentiality, security interests, etc.). Sure, crises are hard on leaders and there is a certain “seat of the pants” aspect to managing them. But keep those thoughts to yourself. Leaders must find a ways to show their concern, their compassion and their control of the response effort without seeking sympathy.

Crisis leaders create problems when they place themselves at the center of the response instead of those affected. They might honestly express their feelings but there are times when such openness is counterproductive.

I invite you to follow me here and on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Toxic Team Treatment

Many of us work and communicate in team settings, at least some of the time. And we know what happens when one or more team members are unhelpful, unresponsive or unethical. The dysfunction and frustration can lead to resentment, anger or worse, all of which can be vented on social media outlets. And there’s the potential damage to trust, reputation, productivity, recruitment, etc. So, what to do?

Writing about toxic coworkers in the Harvard Business Review, Abby Curnow-Chavez says, “…the single most important factor in team success or failure is the quality of relationships on the team.” Her four steps to address this are:

1.     Have an honest, candid conversation with the person. 

2.     Raise your own game and don’t stoop to their level.

3.     Talk with your boss. 

4.     Take care of yourself and don’t let the toxic behavior damage your emotional and physical health.

Good advice but let’s explore the relationship aspect a bit more. Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel had it right when he said, “Getting good players is one thing. The harder part is getting them to play together.”

Minimizing negative behaviors and interactions starts with a well-articulated organizational culture. I say minimize because, let’s face it, we’re human. Thinking we can have a perfectly harmonious organization is like believing in the tooth fairy.

We don’t always get to choose our teams. Some members are there by default or because of a special skill. Some people simply won’t do the work and find ways to take a free ride. A dictator can take over the team and, before you know it, this person is delegating without any consultation. Others will perform the work if assigned but they simply will not communicate.

But having a set of operating principles and setting expectations are not enough; the consequences for bad behavior must be clear. There are few things more destructive in the workplace when passive, aggressive or passive aggressive behaviors are tolerated.

I believe there is tolerance because 1) there is usually little fear of being penalized and 2) people want to avoid confrontations and be liked. Waiting and hoping things will improve will not make it so.

We know it’s hard for most people to articulate their feelings, especially around sensitive issues. Few go looking for a confrontation but it’s a critical part of working in teams, and supervising and leading others. Having the courage to take some action is not the same as “making waves.” Making waves connotes stirring up trouble and creating new problems. This is about airing and addressing the issues by asking questions, and seeking clarifications while showing respect for different views.

Working remotely in virtual teams tends to exacerbate any unsteady team dynamics. There are many advantages to accessing talent across geographies but it helps to have at least occasional face-to-face contact. In person interactions allow us to observe all the nuances and evaluate the visual cues. With these additional inputs, we’re able to assemble a more accurate picture of the particular circumstance and how to address it. James Surowiecki noted in The Wisdom of Teams that “A successful face-to-face group is more than just collectively intelligent. It makes everyone work harder, think smarter, and reach better conclusions than they would have on their own.”

I invite you to follow me here and on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A Sorry State: Tips for Crafting Effective Apologies

Books and songs are written about apologies. We see them on TV and online, and read them in newspapers and magazines. So we should be pretty good at making them. But we're not.

More has been written about apologies in the last several months than in the last few years, fueled by an overdue societal reckoning of pervasive sexual misconduct.
Last October, film producer Harvey Weinstein — whose decades-long sexual abuse of women caused a chain reaction that is still expanding after The New York Times broke the story — issued a tone-deaf, rambling apology that USA TODAY called the worst ever.

While he did express remorse (“I so respect all women and regret what happened”), Weinstein’s statement suggested a continuing narcissism. “My journey now will be to learn about myself and conquer my demons,” he wrote.

Weinstein’s attempt at an apology was awful, but I’ve seen other doozies, including one from Food Network personality Paula Deen in 2013. After admitting to using a racial slur, Deen appeared on the Today show and declared, “I is what I is. And I’m not changing.”

And then there was Mel Gibson. After a drunken, misogynistic and anti-Semitic rant during a traffic stop in 2006, the actor apologized for the “vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law-enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge.” Gibson later added that he wanted to “discern the appropriate path for healing.”

In 2012, 50 years after its sedative thalidomide was found to have caused birth defects, the German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal offered a public apology that spurred outrage among the affected community and beyond. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us,” CEO Harald Stock said.

Certainties in the midst of confusion
Bad apologies make news of their own and can impose measurable costs on companies. In the Weinstein case and many others, what should have been a step toward healing only made the wound deeper. Good apologies, on the other hand, de-escalate a bad situation and minimize its news value.

It’s unclear why we haven’t seen improvement in how apologies are worded. Impulsiveness, narcissism, lack of empathy and bad advice likely number among the causes. But there are ways to develop and deliver an effective, meaningful apology.
Apology is a form of communication that can be studied, refined and measured.

Applying the principles of issues and crisis communication will improve apologies. Indeed, how you say “I’m sorry” may matter more than the transgression itself.  
Responses can determine the scope of the damage and how long it lasts. A perception of indifference or a slow, insensitive response overwhelms any good intention.

How to apologize
Before apologizing, assess the situation.  Speed matters, but it’s important to think clearly before responding. Taking time for this step has become more significant today, amid claims that a politically correct culture over-apologizes for everything. While I disagree with Hollywood legend John Wayne’s advice to “Never apologize, mister; it’s a sign of weakness,” apologies can make a mountain out of a mole hill or legitimize an adversary.

Far more often than not, though, a good apology is an appropriate step toward repairing relationships and reputations. In addition to being the right thing to do, apologizing helps you secure the moral high ground and mitigate problems that would spiral otherwise.
Harvey Weinstein aside, other examples of ill-conceived and ill-timed apologies demonstrate how people sometimes undermine themselves when trying to say they’re sorry. In December, celebrity chef Mario Batali issued what appeared to be a sincere apology after several women accused him of sexual misconduct.

But then he posted a shorter, oddly conceived version online. Batali asked his fans, family, friends and team — not his victims — for forgiveness. He then ended his statement with a breakfast suggestion, as if a cinnamon-roll recipe would somehow cure the pain he inflicted or cast an amnestic spell. Talk about poor taste!

After admitting late last year that it was deliberately slowing down its older iPhone models, Apple issued an apology that made news partly because it was such a rare event for the popular tech giant.  The company said it took action because the older batteries couldn’t keep up with newer power demands, and offered to let customers swap their batteries for a discount. But critics accused Apple of compelling existing customers to buy newer phones, spurring class-action lawsuits and calls for congressional investigations.

Apologies shouldn’t be hedged, forced or require decoding. Other disasters-in-waiting include:

·      The “If I offended you” apology (what actor/comedian Harry Shearer calls the “Ifpology”)
·      The “Yes, but not all of it is true” apology
·      The “I don’t remember,” or, “I have a different memory of the incident but I’m still sorry” apology
·      The “Actually, I was the victim” apology
·      The “It wasn’t the real me,” or, “I was under the influence” apology
·      The “I was taken out of context” apology
·      The “Sorry I wasn’t politically correct” apology

Such deflections only shift the blame. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

Six A’s of apologies
When your audience is large and diverse, be prepared to give a wide range of responses while sticking to a core message. Effective apologies should follow the 6 A’s model introduced in the spring 2015 issue of The Strategist:

Acknowledge what has happened. Without accepting responsibility, there’s no foundation on which to build a relationship.

Be Authentic in expressing regret. For the audience to feel it, remorse must be heartfelt and real.

Use Appropriate tone and language. The mood, tenor and words must fit both the person apologizing and the intended audience.

Choose an Acceptable venue. Location determines who and how many will receive the message, and helps set the tone of the apology.

Act in the right timeframe. Delaying or hesitating can make suspicions mount and mean missing the opportunity to correct the situation.

Announce next steps. Explaining why the offense won’t be repeated helps rebuild trust and reputation.

Another set of elements that I call “forgiveness factors” influence an apology’s success or failure. Supplementing the 6A’s are the 4R’s:

Ruthlessness. While the severity of the offense often matters less than the response, some offenses cross a line beyond which recovery is possible.

Reversibility. Your chance of regaining trust is greater when the situation can be fixed quickly and to the victim’s satisfaction.

Reputation. Past behavior shows the potential for future success.

Relationship. The longer and stronger a relationship is, the more benefit of the doubt you’ll receive.

Apologies can make or break a relationship, career or business. A thoughtful, considered approach is the place to start

This article also appears in the April issue of Strategies and Tactics.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.