Saturday, November 5, 2011

Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By

Myth #1: Multitasking is critical in a world of infinite demand.

This myth is based on the assumption that human beings are capable of doing two cognitive tasks at the same time. We're not. Instead, we learn to move rapidly between tasks. When we're doing one, we're actually not even aware of the other.

If you're on a conference call, for example, and you turn your attention to an incoming email, you're missing what's happening on the call as long as you're checking your email. Equally important, you're incurring something called "switching time." That's the time it takes to shift from one cognitive activity to another.

On average, according to researcher David Meyer, switching time increases the amount of time it takes to finish the primary task you were working on by an average of 25 percent. In short, juggling activities is incredibly inefficient.

Difficult as it is to focus in the face of the endless distractions we all now face, it's far and away the most effective way to get work done. The worst thing you can do as a boss is to insist that your people constantly check their email.

Myth #2: A little bit of anxiety helps us perform better.

Think for a moment about how you feel when you're performing at your best. What adjectives come to mind? Almost invariably they're positive ones. Anxiety may be a source of energy, and even motivation, but it comes with significant costs.

The more anxious we feel, the less clearly and imaginatively we think, and the more reactive and impulsive we become. That's not good for you, and it also has huge implications if you're in a supervisory role.

As a boss, your energy has a disproportionate impact on those you lead, by virtue of your authority. Put bluntly, any time your behavior increases someone's anxiety — or prompts any negative emotions, for that matter — they're less likely to perform effectively.

The more positive your energy is, the more positive their energy is likely to be, and the better the likely outcome.

Myth #3: Creativity is genetically inherited, and it's impossible to teach.

In a global economy characterized by unprecedented competitiveness and constant change, nearly every CEO hungers for ways to drive more innovation. Unfortunately, most CEOs don't think of themselves as creative, and they share with the rest of us a deeply ingrained belief that creativity is mostly inborn and magical.

Ironically, researchers have developed a surprising degree of consensus about the stages of creativity and how to approach them. Our educational system and most company cultures favor reward the rational, analytic, deductive left hemisphere thinking. We pay scant attention to intentionally cultivating the more visual, intuitive, big picture capacities of the right hemisphere.

As it turns out, the creative process moves back and forth between left and right hemisphere dominance. Creativity is actually about using the whole brain more flexibly. This process unfolds in a far more systematic — and teachable — way than we ordinarily imagine. People can quickly learn to access the hemisphere of the brain that serves them best at each stage of the creative process — and to generate truly original ideas.

Myth #4: The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours.

No single myth is more destructive to employers and employees than this one. The reason is that we're not designed to operate like computers — at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.

Instead, human beings are designed to pulse intermittently between spending and renewing energy. Great performers — and enlightened leaders — recognize that it's not the number of hours people work that determines the value they create, but rather the energy they bring to whatever hours they work.

Rather than systematically burning down our reservoir of energy as the day wears on, as most of us do, intermittent renewal makes it possible to keep our energy steady all day long. Strategically alternating periods of intense focus with intermittent renewal, at least every 90 minutes, makes it possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably.

Want to test the assumption? Choose the most challenging task on your agenda before you go to sleep each night over the next week. Set aside 60 to 90 minutes at the start of the following day to focus on the activity you've chosen.

Choose a designated start and stop time, and do your best to allow no interruptions. (It helps to turn off your email.) Succeed and it will almost surely be your most productive period of the day. When you're done, reward yourself by taking a true renewal break.

Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything.


Tip Of The Day: Tasks Or People?

When you're a boss, you have to think about both tasks (what needs to be done) and people (their development, life outside of work, etc.). Most of us have a tendency to think about one more than the other. Which is it for you? Tasks or people?

Whichever it is, you still have to think about the other one. And you'll probably have to set up special reminders and build specific habits to do it well.

Thanks to Wally Bock's Three Star Leadership Blog 

The 24 Key Management Competencies

Very early in my management career (1976-1993) I worked for a company called Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). In 1979 I went into the management development program and obtained my first management position in 1980.

One thing DEC invested heavily in was a formal management development program. At each level of of management there was a defined set of competencies that you were assessed against, developed toward and ultimately evaluated upon.

In addition, to obtain a management position you had to pass a review board as the final step in your development process. Anyway I thought I would share a list of the Management Competencies that were outlined as requirements for a VP level position.

I think the list is very applicable to Small Business CEO's and can serve as a basis for evaluation and development. Here is the list:

  1. Customer Focus – is able to think like the customer and how their needs can best be served.
  2. Emphasis on Quality Service – passionately committed to providing fast and high quality support for customer needs.
  3. Diagnosis – casts a keen eye on data and situations to identify and understand discrepancies, patterns, and trends.
  4. Understanding Complexity – appears to 'embrace' and thrive on complexity as an opportunity for systems explanations and integrated solutions.
  5. Systemic Thinking – consitently organizes issues into component, logically connected and explainable parts.
  6. Strategic Influence – orchestrates influence efforts to persuade others and gain buy-in.
  7. Strategic Communication – systematically considers issues of content, medium, audience, impact and timing when shaping communications.
  8. Focus on Results – maintains and articulates a focus on results as a key driver for activity.
  9. Efficient Use of Resources – is consistenly alert to opportunities to achieve efficiencies.
  10. Building the Organizations Capabilities – analyzes, structures and manages the organization and its people to build its capabilities.
  11. Adaptability – is comfortable in a role which fluctuates between tactical and strategic business activity.
  12. Strategic Leadership – sets the strategic agenda and repeatedly conveys it to all levels of the organization through word and action.
  13. Environmental Scanning – regularly scans the business environment to keep up to date on trends, problems and opportunities.
  14. Cross-Functional Perspective – positions oneself as an integration manager in order to overcome functional blinders and barries.
  15. Forward Thinking – consistently thinks and acts with a future orientation — an eye to what the next demans and opportunities are likely to be.
  16. Entrepreneurial Initiative – identifies and aggressively pursues opportunities for improvement and business development.
  17. Collaboration – values and promotes collaboration as a major tool to accomplish business objectives.
  18. Self-Confidence – asserts strong or unpopular views with the confidence derived from a clear understanding of ones own capabilities.
  19. Political Awareness – understands influence factors in organizational life and the extent of one's own power.
  20. Market Orientation – concentrating on maintaining and expanding the customer base.
  21. Concern for Morale – fostering enthusiasm and motivation for others.
  22. Information Management Ability – orchestrating the flow of information in and out of the organization.
  23. Commitment to Employee Development – sharing expertise or providing career help to employees.
  24. High Clarity – establishing priorities, setting expectations, defining accountabilities and delineating time frames.

For about 25 years now I have used this list as my personal development guide, I view my career choice as being an effective leader and manager. I feel that if I develop continously in each of these competencies I can lead and manage across business functions, across industries and different size companies.

Thanks to Amanda Stillwagon / SMB CEO / Small Business Trends LLC


The Challenge Of The Average Employee

Most businesses have a normal distribution of talent — a limited number, say top 10 percent, of high potential, rock star performers, a bottom decile of underperformers, and a thick middle of 80 percent of folks who get the day-to-day stuff done. In well-managed businesses, there are clear feedback mechanisms to ensure that the bottom of the talent pack gets managed out efficiently and objectively. While at GE, Jack Welch popularized the notion that it was good to fire the "bottom 10" of his managers every year. On the other end of the spectrum, the better companies manage the top-end of their talent pool, providing mentors to groom this group of next-generation of leaders and compensating them differentially in recognition of their superior performance.

The challenge lies in productively managing talent's fat middle. What is the right people strategy for the average employee — the stalwart who is performing well enough, but is not necessarily a standout? Here are a few of the challenges with the middle base of talent:

• Almost by definition, they often get lost in the mix, lacking appropriate guidance and management attention. This creates an issue of not understanding who holds real potential to move up the talent curve with the right nurturing, versus those who have limited upward mobility, versus those who should not be at the company.

• They can be a drag on those who truly are the best. While not everyone can be above average, the more mediocre talent you have in a business, the more likely it is to have a negative effect on those who can really make a difference. This creates retention and motivation issues for your higher performers. There will always be a distribution, even if it is a forced curve, of talent potential and capability in a business. But the goal should be to raise the overall average of the entire pool, and avoid letting it get pulled down.

• In a similar vein, average talent can harm a firm's talent recruitment potential since those who are average tend to be more threatened by bringing in better people. The adage of "A's" attracting "A's" and "B's" attracting "C's" holds true.

So what should business builders do to better manage their talent base — especially in this middle area? Two simple ideas can help:

First, the best practice of conducting regular and specific performance feedback is critical. It is equally important to make sure that the person doing the review is capable and respected. Senior people who are responsible for managing the middle pool of talent should also be managed on their own ability to see, sift, cultivate, and retain the very best of that pool. How you grow and mentor organizational talent should be an evaluation criterion for senior managers' performance. Mentees and direct reports feel differently when they know their own managers are being evaluated (with real implications for good or bad performance) on their ability to effectively manage, mentor, and cultivate talent.

Second, at regular intervals of a person's career, there should be not just "performance reviews" but also what I call a "Fit Test Point." Too many times we see someone who can do the job, but if we are truly honest know that in the long-run they will be stuck in the middle of the organization. My sense is that companies spend more time discussing performance than they do "fit." Performance reviews are biased towards looking out for the best interests of a company — as long as someone is doing their job they have a place. A "Fit Test Point" is a tool to carefully consider the best interests of an employee. Is this person in product development really better served finding a position as an industry or market researcher, or is that analyst who can clearly make the next two rungs of the management track better served making a switch in her career now given the opportunity cost of time? We all know situations where instincts and experience alerted us that a job was not the best fit for someone, yet we let the person continue because they filled a short-term need or because we lacked the courage to have the honest "Fit Test" conversation. Consider key inflection points of one's career advancement and have the parallel conversation of performance and fit reviews.

Trying to serve everyone equally does not do anyone a service, but catering only to the top of the talent pool or overemphasizing the middle or bottom also does not work. An explicit strategy for managing each tier of talent needs to be in place. The public education system has shown that if we just settle, accept, and teach to the middle that is a formula for failure. As business leaders we should see how we can realize the full potential of each employee and help those who are not right for the business find other jobs where they can be more productive and happier.

Anthony Tjan is CEO, Managing Partner and Founder of the venture capital firm Cue Ball and vice chairman of the advisory firm Parthenon.

Thanks to Anthony K. Tjan / Blogs HBR Org / Harvard Business School Publishing


Don't Send That Email. Pick Up The Phone!

Around this time last year, I wrote about how we need to get back to allowing conversation to occur without texting, emailing, browsing, Tweeting, Facebooking, or doing whatever else zeros and ones can do these days on smart phones, iPads, notebooks, etc. I am as guilty as the next person of falling for the perception that any response latency is unacceptable. As 2012 fast approaches, this needs to go on top of my New Year's resolution list: focus on the live conversations at hand, rather than parallel conversations on the Blackberry screen.

But the bigger need is just for more live conversations to occur, period. This is especially true when people are trying to resolve a conflict or communicate an important business decision. There is a rising and unproductive trend towards people trying to do digital conflict resolution. The de facto path for issue resolution seems to be increasingly via email. More accurately, email has become a convenient mechanism for issue-avoidance. It is easier, quicker, less stressful, and less confrontational to have critical or challenging issues sent over email versus a live one-on-one with a counterpart.

Like many readers, I have experienced too many unproductive strings of back-and-forth emails or texts that should have stopped in round two, but continue. The problems with trying to resolve sensitive matters over email or text are quite obvious:

1. It is hard to get the EQ (emotional intelligence) right in email. The biggest drawback and danger with email is that the tone and context are easy to misread. In a live conversation, how one says something, with modulations and intonations, is as important as what they are saying. With email it is hard to get the feelings behind the words.

2. Email and text often promote reactive responses, as opposed to progress and action to move forward. Going back to the zero latency expectation in digital communications, it is hard for people to pause and think about what they should say. One of my colleagues suggests not reacting to any incendiary message until you have at least had a night to sleep on it, and always trying to take the higher ground over email. While by definition reactive responses occur in live discourse, they are usually more productive. The irony is that while email, as an asynchronous channel, has the potential to be more thoughtful, it often promotes the opposite tendency to be immediately reactive. Why? Because the bark is almost always bigger than the bite behind remote digital shields.

3. Email prolongs debate. Because of the two reasons above, I have seen too many debates continue well beyond the point of usefulness. Worse, I have experienced situations which start relatively benignly over email, only to escalate because intentions and interests are easily misunderstood online. When I ask people if they have called or asked to meet the counterpart to try and reach a resolution, there is usually a pause, then a sad answer of "no."

Email is one of the greatest productivity contributors of the past two decades, and social communication platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have fundamentally changed and positively enriched the means and reach with which we are able to interact. Yet we have to recognize when such digital channels cannot substitute for a live conversation. Email and social networking modes of communications have created a generation of casually convenient new connections, and even helped us deepen existing relationships, but they can rarely replace the real world. As digital communication accelerates the pace at which people form and broaden relationships, it is also decreasing the rate at which people are willing to resolve issues professionally and directly in-person. The next time you experience an issue over email, ask yourself if it is something that would be better served by a real conversation. Then have the courage to stop emailing and pick up the phone. Or even better: have a meeting.

Anthony Tjan is CEO, Managing Partner and Founder of the venture capital firm Cue Ball and vice chairman of the advisory firm Parthenon.

Thanks to Anthony K. Tjan / Blogs HBR Org / Harvard Business School Publishing

Harvard Business Review

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Harvard Business Review
is a general management magazine published since 1922 by Harvard Business School Publishing, owned by the Harvard Business School. A monthly research-based magazine written for business practitioners, it claims a high ranking business readership among academics, executives, and management consultants. It has been the frequent publishing home for scholars and management thinkers such as Clayton M. Christensen, Peter F. Drucker, Michael E. Porter, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, John Hagel III, Thomas H. Davenport, Gary Hamel, C.K. Prahalad, Vijay Govindarajan, Robert S. Kaplan, Robert H. Schaffer and others. Management and business concepts and terms such as "Balanced scorecard," "Core competence," "Strategic intent," "Reengineering," "Globalization," "Marketing myopia," and "Glass ceiling" were first given prominence in HBR's pages.

Its worldwide English-language circulation is 250,000, and there are 11 licensed editions of the magazine, including two Chinese-language editions, an Italian, a German edition, a Polish edition, a Hungarian edition, a Brazilian (Portuguese-language) edition, and an English-language South Asia edition. The magazine is editorially independent of Harvard Business School. It is not peer reviewed.

History and organization

Harvard Business Review began in 1922 as a shopping magazine of Harvard Business School's faculty and students. In the first issue, Harvard Business School Dean Wallace B. Donham described the aims of the magazine in the article "An Essential Groundwork for a Broad Executive Theory." " The theory of business must develop to such a point that the executive may learn from the experiences of others in the past how to act under the conditions of the present," he wrote. "Otherwise, business will continue to be unsystematic, haphazard, and for many men a pathetic gamble."

Dean Donham and the editors believed that the magazine would serve as a natural complement to the school. In its early years, the magazine focused on macroeconomic trends and developments and published industry-specific articles like "Are Railroad Freight Rate Structures Obsolete?" It also contained a section of student contributions, which was discontinued in 1939.

Harvard Business Review began switching its editorial focus toward general management after World War II, as a growing number of executives became interested in the management techniques pioneered at General Motors and other large companies. Over the next three decades, the magazine continued to refine its focus on general management issues that affect business leaders, billing itself as the "magazine for decision makers." Prominent articles published during this period included "Marketing Myopia," "Barriers and Gateways to Communication," and "How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy."

A notable period in the magazine's history was during the late 1980s, during Theodore Levitt's tenure as editor. Levitt, a professor at HBS, implemented editorial and design changes geared toward making the magazine accessible to a more general business audience, with shorter articles covering a broader range of topics and the introduction of New Yorker-style cartoons.

Originally published by HBS, HBR has since 1993 been published by Harvard Business School Publishing, a non-profit subsidiary of Harvard that also publishes cases, books (through the HBS Press), newsletters, and corporate learning programs and materials. In 2001, the magazine increased its frequency from bimonthly to monthly.

Since 1959, the magazine's annual McKinsey Award has recognized the two most significant HBR articles published each year, as determined by a group of independent judges. Past winners have included the late management guru Peter Drucker, who was honored seven times; Clayton M. Christensen; Theodore Levitt; Michael Porter; Rosabeth Moss Kanter; John Hagel III and C.K. Prahalad.

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