November 14, 2011
Today I want to test your mental muscle with an activity I conduct with my clients.
If you are a college sports fan, you will most likely be familiar with the NCAA basketball playoffs. 65 teams in total compete. The games are organized into brackets like the one illustrated here. Teams compete with the hope of making it into the “sweet sixteen,” the “final four,” and then ultimately being crowned the champion. The tournament is single elimination – that means that after each game, the winner advances to the next round and the loser’s eliminated.
With the NCAA tournament, the two lowest ranking teams compete against each other to get the 64th slot in the bracket.
The question is, “How many games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion?”
The only way most will be able to find the answer is to draw out the full bracket and count the number of games in the chart. As a result, when I ask groups this question, it takes quite some time for everyone to answer correctly.
However, consider this. If I were to phrase the question differently, I can guarantee that you would find the solution instantly.
Instead of asking, “How many games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion?” what if I asked, “How many games need to be played in order to eliminate all of the losers?”
The answer should now be obvious. If you have 65 teams playing, 64 teams must lose. Since the tournament is single elimination, 64 games need to be played to eliminate all of the losers. Therefore 64 games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion.
This simple exercise makes an incredibly important point. The way you phrase a problem will lead you down the path of a particular thought process. This, in turn will lead to a particular solution. How you ask the question will impact the manner in which you innovate.
A company who brainstormed, “How can we more effectively use 360 degree feedback?” completely missed alternative methods for addressing their larger management issue. If they had asked, “In what way might we create powerful leaders?” they would have found very different solutions.
An office supply company that asked the question, “How can we more effectively sell our products to school administrators?” completely missed the fact that the teachers were the real buyers and that that the administrators merely filled out the paperwork. In this case they should have done their homework to understand the real buyer first before looking to find solution.
Or when NASA wanted to “create a zero gravity laundry system” for space travel, they missed out on possible solutions that involved other methods for cleaning clothes or creating a material that does not require cleaning.
Asking the right question – the right way – is the surest way to accelerate your innovation efforts and for finding better solutions. Just as the NCAA tournament example showed, sometimes a very small change can have a significant impact on the way you view the problem.
November 10, 2011
The other day I was asked to speak for a company that had a limited amount of money and could pay me only 15% of my speaking fee.
Today I was asked to speak at a company in exchange for my receiving bicycle in lieu of cash (as you may guess, they manufacture bicycles). The value of the bicycle is less than the cash the other company offered me.
Which gig, if any, did I accept? What do you think?
Interestingly, I immediately turned down the cash offer yet accepted the barter deal.
Does this mean I am crazy?
No, actually, it means I am human.
In a nutshell, when a dollar value is assigned to a task, people weigh the effort against the financial return. But if no dollar amount is specified, we evaluate it differently.
- If I asked you to do me a favor, you might be inclined to do it simply to help me out.
- If I offered you a gift (e.g., a nice dinner) in exchange for your help, the gift may not weight heavily in your decision making process. You would probably still do it to help me out.
- But if I offered you $100 cash, now you would then evaluate if your investment of time is worth that much money.
- Interestingly, if you say, “I’ll give you a gift worth $100,” you now evaluate it the same way as you would cash.
This has interesting implications for a company’s innovation efforts.
If you offer cash rewards, people will determine if their efforts are worth the extra money.
Giving a gift without assigning a value will be a greater motivator. But if you assign a value to the gift (e.g., gift cards), you may reverse the positive impact of giving a gift. Giving “points” that can be accumulated and exchanged for prizes is a nice middle ground that avoids a direct value assignment.
From my experience, the best “extrinsic” motivators are the “priceless” rewards. These are things you can not buy – extra vacation days, a prime parking space, or dinner with the CEO. These can not be assigned a dollar value. And in the case of dinner with the CEO, this also taps into another motivator – status. After the dinner you can taunt your friends, “Guess who I had dinner with last night.”
By recognizing the way people make decisions, you can find more effective – and often less expensive – ways of motivating them.
You now also know more effective and less expensive ways of getting me to help your organization innovate. I wonder what I will be offered next.
June 1, 2011
This article was published on the American Express OPEN Forum. The title you see here on this blog was rejected by them and replaced with “The Art of Decision Making.” I decided to retain the original.
A couple months back, Accenture released the results of a survey of more than 3,400 professionals in 29 countries showing that fewer than half of all respondents are satisfied with their current jobs. I suspect these less than glowing findings are far from surprising.
Reading the results reminded of a conversation that surfaced during a Q&A section of a workshop of mine a while back. One of the attendees asked, “I work in a cubicle in a well-known technology firm and I am unhappy. How do I know if it is me or if it is my job? Do I need to change myself or change my job?”
I queried the audience to get their responses and the answers ranged from, “Stay at your job while you explore other options,” to “If you are really miserable, find another job quickly and quit this job,” to the most outspoken (and comedic) within the group, “Quit your job now! How could you work another day for the evil empire?”
After collecting the various responses, people looked anxiously to me for the “correct” answer.
My perspective was a bit different than the masses. My response was four words: “It doesn’t really matter.”
Very simply put, with the right mindset, any decision is the right decision. If you sincerely believe that the path you are on is the right one, then it is. Quitting your job doesn’t change things. You can switch jobs all you would like, but without the right attitude, it won’t make a bit of difference. Conversely you can alter your attitude and find new opportunities in staying where you are today, without ever changing jobs.
We often fail to make progress in life and in business because we postpone action until we feel as though we have the “right answer.” We painstakingly research all the facts, consider every angle and study each relevant detail. However, this quest for the “right answer” has us sitting on the fence in limbo, often without end.
Instead of answers, perhaps what we need are decisions.
Sadly, many of us suffer from a mild form of “decidophobia“—the fear of making decisions. No, I didn’t make up that work. It was coined by Princeton University philosopher Walter Kaufmann in his 1973 book, Without Guilt and Justice.
It is human nature to avoid putting ourselves into circumstances that we see as being risky, uncomfortable or scary. Therefore, we often decide to not decide. Many relate to decisions as having a “right or wrong” with an associated set of risks and rewards. By postponing decision-making, we mistakenly believe we are avoiding or minimizing the pain and risks of a wrong decision. However, indecision is a no man’s land with no direction, no progress and often more angst.
Without decision, there is no commitment. If you stay in a job yet do not commit to it, there is no way you can be satisfied. You will always be looking elsewhere. If you stay in a relationship but have one foot out the door all of the time, there is no hope for the future.
Should I change my job? Should I stay in my relationship? Should I buy a new house? What should I do with my life? These all seem like pretty big decisions. And for most people, they are.
We think “Oh, it’s so hard to make these big decisions,” when what’s really hard is the indecision.
In life there are no right or wrong decisions. There are only decisions. When we come to a fork in the road, we tend to overanalyze it. We might say, “I have an opportunity to create this new business venture BUT…” These are the considerations that have us stay upon the same path. Or how often do we choose a different path and then rethink our decision.
One of the reasons we worry so much and wonder whether we are on the right track is that we often see decisions as long term, semi-permanent decisions.
March 10, 2010
Brad Kolar is one of the brightest guys I know. He and I worked together in Accenture back in the mid-90′s. He has been a contributor to all of my books. And now he is the co-author of a fascinating book called “The Brain Advantage. ” I had the privilege of receiving a review copy and loved it so much, I provided an endorsement.
“For years, experts have been teaching leaders so-called soft skills. To date, there has only been anecdotal evidence to support their theories. Finally, The Brain Advantage turns these theories into hard science. Anyone with half a brain would buy copies for their entire organization.”
Recently I interviewed Brad for a podcast. What you will hear are 40 minutes of fascinating dialogue about the brain, leadership, and innovation. By better understanding the brain, you can help unleash the full creative potential of your organization.
Stream the interview…
September 8, 2009
Last week I had a fantastic meeting with the CEO of a mid-sized energy company. We had a number of fascinating conversations ranging from Personality Poker, Open Innovation, and alternative energy.
In the meeting, I was drinking my “caffeine in a can” – a diet cola.
The CEO pointed at my soft drink and said that it was one of the worst energy hogs.
He pointed out that years ago, Coke was sold as syrup (in fact, it was originally sold for medicinal purposes). The carbonated water was added at the point of sale (e.g., the pharmacy or soda shop). Less energy was expended in the packaging process. Less material was used for the packaging itself. But more importantly, less energy was used in shipping.
After doing some digging, I found that, according to one website, 500ml of syrup makes the equivalent of 12 liters. That means that a can of cola contains <5% syrup and over 95% carbonated water. According to one study, nearly 300 billion liters of soft drinks are sold a year. Hoovers research shows that only 35% of that is from fountain sales.
Ok, so let’s do some math.
A liter of soft drink weights approximately 1 kilogram. This means that a liter is over 2.1 pounds of water, and .1 pounds of syrup. At 65% bottle/cans (excluding the 35% fountain sales), this is over 400 billion pounds of carbonated water needlessly shipped with the syrup. Let’s not forget the weight of the cans/bottles. To put this in context, this is the weight of 100 million cars. In 2007, 16 million cars, SUVs and trucks were sold in the US. Every car sold in the United States over the past 6 years weighs less than the weight of the excess water shipped EVERY year with bottled soft drinks.
Enough of the math. I could attempt to calculate the average distance the bottles travel and the amount of fuel required for transportation, but I just don’t have the time. And I suspect you get the idea.
What do you do about it?
- Of course advocates are trying to reduce the amount of soft drinks we consume. But so far nothing points to that being a successful strategy.
- Encourage people to buy and use soda machines. There are several companies that provide this type of product. You buy the machine, the syrup and the gas cartridges.
- Another option might be to find a solution similar to Crystal Light “On-the Go.” The challenge is adding carbonation to a powder. While eating Pop Rocks Candy the other day, I realized that there must be a way of addressing this.
Of course there are many more possible solutions. But the solution is not the point of this article.
Innovation is about asking better question. It is about surfacing the hidden assumptions. When looking at issues (environmental, business, or personal), sometimes you need to question everything…even the can of soda in your hand.
P.S. Soft drinks account for the largest percentage of the “liquid refreshment beverage” market. This article did not even include the oft-maligned bottled water industry, which is smaller in size. Do you want to know how far your bottled water traveled to go to you? Check out this article.
P.P.S. I am not suggesting we eliminate soft drinks. My consumption of diet cola – especially first thing in the morning – is one of my guilty pleasures!