Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Leader's Lens

It was time to run an online survey of the employees at a large technology company. My work with their leadership team had raised some interesting research questions, so one of the vice presidents asked her assistant to help me make it happen. She said to her assistant, who I will refer to here as Amelia, "Please help Bill to get access to everything he needs. We want to get everything arranged pretty quickly."

Amelia is a remarkable assistant - very thorough. But often she is asked to organized social events. So that was the lens through which she understood her boss' request. I was thinking "survey;" she was thinking "social event." 

As we began working on the project, Amelia asked, "when will it take place?"

"As soon as we can set everything up," I responded, adding, "I would like to host it here at Stanford." Although I did not explain this to Amelia, my concern was that if we hosted the survey on the company's servers, I might not be able to analyze the data on my own computer for security reasons.

"Host it at Stanford!" she responded. 

"Sure," I said. "We do this all the time."

She asked, "How many employees will be involved?"

"All of them," I replied.

"ALL OF THEM?" Amelia was dumbfounded.

"Of course!" I said. "We can use our server and--"

"But, Bill," she interrupted, "it makes no sense to host it at Stanford. We host these all the time here at our company. And we can get servers, of course!"

"Servers?" I questioned, "really, Amelia, one server should be more than enough."

"ONE SERVER, for the ENTIRE company?" Exclaimed a flabbergasted Amelia.

"No problem." I said. "These days servers are extremely efficient. And the tasks should not be too intensive."

As the discussion went on, we ultimately realized the misunderstanding and had a good laugh. But this story nicely illustrates the importance of one's "interpretive lens," the assumptions that shape how we understand information. Amelia and I were hearing all the same words, but they meant very different things to each of us because we were looking through different interpretive lenses.

Effective leaders understand the importance of the interpretive lens. I remember at one company, their sales head in Europe went around the approved product and price list, creating a solution for a customer that was not approved by the corporate marketing organization. He won the customer, and in fact was responsible for growing the business considerably through such tactics. The CEO called him back to the firm's silicon valley headquarters; some thought it would be a reprimand. But the CEO brought him into a top leadership meeting to applaud him for being entrepreneurial and customer focused. The manager received a promotion and a raise. This story spread through the company's employees quickly. The CEO's interpretive lens saw the manager as an innovator. Others saw him as a rule breaker. Both interpretations were correct, but the CEO wanted the "innovator" lens to win the day. By making his interpretation clear to everyone, he helped to shape their interpretive lenses. 

Every day at work, alternative lenses compete. Is a failed project shameful, or a healthy sign of experimentation? Is an outspoken employee insubordinate, or is she showing leadership? A great leader shapes the lenses through which her employees interpret what happens.

Look around you at work. Do you like the lens being used to interpret what happens? If not, what does this say about your leadership? 


The sociological research on this topic is reviewed by Robert Benford and David Snow.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Are You Dancing Like a Pigeon?

You know the story:
  • eBay enters China, declaring its intention to dominate the market there the same way it dominated other markets. It fails within four years.
  • Following spectacular success at the strategy, Microsoft decides to pursue "windows everywhere" in the mobile space - only to be rendered irrelevant by the rise of native mobile platforms iOS and Android.
  • Faced with competition from Netflix, Blockbuster decides to double down on their brick-and-mortar stores, building them out.  Quickly they would go from a multi-billion dollar market leader to bankruptcy.
You're probably tired of such lists - failed once-great companies. But notice this: In these cases and so many more, the failure happened because leaders kept doing what had just worked well for them.

Bottom line: We like to keep doing what worked the last time around.

And in this way, we are similar to the dancing pigeons in Skinner's famous experiments. Years ago, Professor Skinner used his "Skinner box" to demonstrate a powerful point: Even the simplest of animals, a pigeon, will see a pattern in randomness. The box featured a mechanism that would randomly feed the pigeon. The bird, thinking that whatever it was doing prior to the feeding was "causing" the food, soon found itself doing a herky-jerky dance.

And so it is that you and I dance like a pigeon, too. We repeat what seemed to work last time, hoping to get the same result. When asked to defend our decisions, we say "this is what worked last time." And at the world's leading business schools, we sit in rapt attention listening to executives tell us what they did that "caused" them to be hugely successful.

"But," you object, "people have big brains and can reason. Of course the pigeon just dances to the tune of a random machine; it is stupid." Well, listen carefully next time you hear a successful leader speak. If they point to "experience," seriously ask yourself how large a sample they have to draw on. If it is a sample of one, as is often the case, then we may be looking at a dancing pigeon. Alternatively, listen for logic. If the leader gives you the logic behind his actions, then we're making progress. But very often executives simply let the "facts speak for themselves." Look what that did for the pigeon.

Doing whatever seemed to work that last time? You may be dancing like a pigeon.


The leading scholar on this problem is Jerker Denrell.