Archive | November 2013

A Brit Insulted An Asian Woman In Germany

My friend and I laughed at it in hindsight, but at that moment of the insult, my Asian friend was outraged.  M was an immigrant to the States decades ago.  She became a US citizen, married a European immigrant who’s also a US citizen now.  But this is really beside the point.

On their recent vacation trip to Europe, one afternoon, a British man suddenly and rudely shattered their otherwise relaxing meal in a bucolic German town.  As the sun slanted and many patrons of the café put on their sunglasses, so did M.  Immediately, this British man just cursed her for being an uppity bitch (actually in more colorful accented German than what I write here).  Seconds after his outburst, he left the café, leaving M speechless.  She only recovered in time to swear at his backside.  Her ever calm and collected husband said, “Just let it go.”  No, we feisty Asian women (or any feisty women) do not take such beatings lying down.

Calling this "major" snow is an insult.

Calling this “major” snow is an insult.

Seriously, the cursing man has a right to exercise his freedom of speech, and he has his right to be a jerk as well.  However, while free to, since when are we legitimized to insult anyone we happen to dislike/hate just based on appearances?  I know, I know, racial prejudice is around us still and abundant.

M’s story reminded me of another occasion, a couple of years ago at our capital city, Washington, D.C.

I waited for the bus to the Arboretum located on the outskirts of D.C.  Upon stepping onto the bus, I was slightly taken aback.  I was the only Asian in the full busload of African Americans.  I couldn’t tell what people saw on my face; I couldn’t have known what my facial expression might be.  I asked the driver about my intended bus stop and sat down.  Someone sitting nearby told me that he would point out the stop for me when the time came.  I greatly appreciated it.  As the bus seemed to serve the African American working community, I remained the only Asian.  It was the same on the way back to town.

I found the experience interesting.  Had I acted suspicious of my environment, clutched my backpack closely, or looked vacantly ahead without engaging in any eye contact, kept my face frozen without any expressions, or registered apprehension, I wondered how my fellow citizens might have reacted?  Most likely, they would have ignored me and I might not get any signal or indication to get off at the right stop.  Had I been a white female?  Had I been a white female behaving nervously or suspiciously?

“For every action, there is reaction.”  The cliché is apt for the above stories, indeed invites the corollary “For every reaction, there is further counter-reaction.”  Reactions based on appearances are without forethought.  How many racially charged situations have come about simply because one person/group of people arbitrarily decides what the other’s humanity (or lack of) entails?

I have been living in the States for almost four decades, and have endured my share of discrimination.  There is certainly discrimination in China and Taiwan and elsewhere; maybe not always based on race, nevertheless discrimination.

Now, this is a bit more promising.

Now, this is a bit more promising.

Americans do not have a monopoly on ethnocentricity or discrimination.  What complicates these matters in today’s world is subtlety and uncertainty disguised and covered up by politically correct (PC) expressions.   PC makes conversations difficult and understanding almost impossible.  On the other hand, what my friend, M, encountered was blatant and infuriating, blatancy and fury which could in other settings have lead to violence.  On the fifth hand, how shall we proceed?  I refuse to give up.

For starter, let’s discharge all those prescribed dialogues based on PC (political correctness).  Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal.  I have had people asking me if I would be offended by their uncertainty and confusion over whether I am a Chinese or a Japanese.  Given the historical animosity between Japan and China, many Chinese are testy about such confusion.  To me, how refreshing to be asked!  I usually reply that I cannot tell the difference between a German from a Scott, until they speak.  There are limitless ways in which we can have genuine exchanges about our lack of knowledge; we can actually learn as a result.  Yes?

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for what my adopted home has given me, decades of learning, endless opportunities to explore, and an array of friends from all walks of life who have bestowed upon me their love and wisdom.  Whenever I get impatient, testy, or self-righteous, I conjure up images of my friends and others whom I respect, to teach me and to calm me down.  I don’t always succeed, but I have improved.

happy TG

I wish you all a beautiful Thanksgiving and safe travels.  Till 12/8,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The majority of my posts have been about white-collar professionals.  The retail business sector may not appear to be ‘white-collar’ yet there are similar principles.  Today I reflect on micro-managing and motivation.

I don’t know the statistics on the turnover rate among hourly-wage employees, I assume it’s high but probably uneven across industries and businesses.  For the ones with low(er) turnover rate, management must have done something right, such as exhibiting higher trust in their employees, perhaps offering a little more benefits and meaningful incentives, or just building a better work environment.  For instance, Men’s Warehouse offers commission based on sales associates’ collaboration so that the incentive is on helping each other to increase sales volume.

Having one of these on your shoulder would be very unpleasant.

Having one of these on your shoulder would be very unpleasant.

Recently, an hourly employee made a comment to me, “The owner of this place likes to micro-manage.  Whenever he shows up, our productivity seems lower because what’s the point of finishing up work quickly when he then orders you to do some stupid pointless tasks?”  When left alone, this employee is more than willing to pick up those “stupid pointless” tasks after he finishes his main work.  However, knowing that the owner is going to be in town, and in the store, he may as well take his time to finish his work, to minimize his interactions with the owner.

When managers micro-manage (if they themselves are aware of what they are doing), it’s probably because they assume that the employees are not to be trusted.  Have these managers ever considered the possibility that employees have not had reasons to trust the managers?  Unidirectional “relationship” – if you can even call that – is like one-hand clapping.

Perhaps the rate of “shirkers” is higher among the hourly employees, and perhaps hourly employees do not possess a lot of self-motivation.  However, most people do get excited when they have done a good job; it’s even nicer when their above-average performance is recognized.  So, why do some managers, or dare I say, most of them, assume that people aren’t interested in performing well on the job?  If people don’t take pride in their job, hourly work or otherwise, is it automatically the fault of these people?  Or, is it possible that the work environment, the organizational structure, is so stifling that performing well on the job is meaningless? or maybe even impossible?  Further, if someone works efficiently, that person gets “saddled” with more work without any recognition and compensation.

When my son was put in the “GATE” program (Gifted And Talented Education), it took little time for him to notice, “I thought being smart and talented gets you some freedom to do fun stuff.  Instead, I am doing more problems and homework.  What’s the fun in that?”  What a way to snuff out motivation!

"My name is Micro, and I am managing my sister."

“My name is Micro, and I am managing my sister.”

As I have mentioned in the past, there are always “free riders” who would take advantage of the system or their co-workers.  And as before, I argue that it is better to devote resources to provide incentives for workers to stay productive than to set up obstacles for everyone.  When most people at work feel frustrated and under suspicion, the overall productivity suffers.  And this is true for both retail and professional organizations.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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More Business/Management Myths, Or,

“It’s That Group Thing”… Some Like it; some avoid it, and everyone has issues with it.

Most organizations intend to improve their products and services.  If you are a manager, would you welcome one superb idea, or are you hungry for many more so-so ideas from which to choose?  If you have to choose, would you go for quality or quantity?  Given how much I detest dichotomous, either-or, framing, the answer to the above questions is – of course – “It depends.”

It depends on whether we are dealing with incremental improvement in a process, such as manufacturing operations, or with innovative breakthroughs that might lead to increased brand recognition or dramatic market share increases.  For the former, the organization aims for improved performance based on tweaking here and modifying there.  For the latter, the organization desires the “extremely” good idea that could dramatically change the organization’s market position.

And who better generates innovative ideas than a group of bright individuals, right?  After all, more minds spawn more ideas than individuals working alone.

Not so fast.

Rarely fly solo.

Rarely fly solo.

According to Girotra, K., Terwiesch, C, and Ulrich, K, in their recently published paper in Management Science, “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea,” a conventionally-formatted group, working together in the same space and time, generates less impressive outcomes than a “hybrid” team does.  Individuals in a hybrid team work on ideas alone first before they collaborate on improving the collection of ideas: assessing, selecting, and modifying.  These authors also confirm what others have pointed out over the decades, that brainstorming is not nearly as effective as it was first advocated in the late 50s.  Why?

In a typical group, people deal with not only free riding (see footnote below), but more importantly, the inhibitions they implicitly place on each other (“evaluation apprehension”).  There is always a tendency for groups to move toward a norm, and thereby discourage “wild” ideas. More often than not, group members “build onto” each other’s ideas…a useful technique for incremental improvement, but not so much for innovation.  What’s more, when one person is delivering her idea(s) in a meeting, others have to wait for their turns (“production blocking”).  It is not the most efficient way of spending one’s time.  And I am not even going to discuss the issue of introvert-extrovert, even though this dimension is bound to have impacts on group performance.

In their paper on idea quality, the authors highlight three flaws of previous studies on groups and innovation:

  1. Previous literature on innovative ideas has been focusing on the number of ideas generated by groups, assuming more ideas are likely to lead to better ideas.
  2. The traditional literature defines “quality” of innovative ideas by using average rating.  As the authors point out in their theoretic foundation, innovation is about the best ideas, not the average of ideas.
  3. In addition, often only a couple of research assistants rated the quality of ideas.  This practice makes both the validity and the reliability questionable.

So, the authors of the current paper provided a much more rigorous challenge and realistic scenario for participants on idea generation.  As for rating ideas, they used a “web-based” rating system so that each idea received on average 20 ratings.  They also introduced a “purchase-intent” survey for more realistic assessment.

The authors found that the hybrid team generated three times more ideas than the conventional team and that hybrid team’s best ideas were much better than the conventional team’s.

Granted, this study’s findings need to be replicated and confirmed before we should fully embrace the hybrid team concept.  However, the logic of the paper is sound, and the findings are strong.

Yes, I have biases; I especially like it whenever my suspicion is proven right or my preference is vindicated, as in this case.  Yet, studies like these also frustrate me because they remind me again of the disconnect between what we have known and what we have practiced in management.  For instance, tying CEO’s pay to company performance has not proven effective, yet we still have skyrocketing rises in CEO’s pay.  Brainstorming is not especially effective as conventionally done, yet we keep doing it.  We know that the relationship between teamwork and performance is tenuous at best, yet we still impose teaming as our first course of action.

Working alone most of the time, but does hang out with others occasionally.

Working alone most of the time, but does hang out with others occasionally.

Dan Pink’s talk on motivation, highlighting “autonomy, mastery, & purpose” as the incentives to bring about better productivity and results, might be too dramatic for most managers to embrace immediately.  However, forgoing brainstorming shouldn’t be that difficult.  As my M&M piece indicates, canceling a few meetings will win gratitude and likely bring about higher productivity.  Seriously, is there any danger to experimenting with the “hybrid team” model?  Why not try it and see for yourself?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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“Free ridership” is a problem that will probably persist in perpetuity.  Free riders occupy one end of the “bell curve” in the normal distribution.  A more pertinent question is, how much resources do we want to devote to detecting and monitoring them?  Granted if “free riders” increase over time, it is a problem.  However, we need to assess how many is too many?  Personally, I would much rather see organizations devoting resources to improving the work environment, thereby making the “free riders” problem almost insignificant.

The Marshmallow Problem & The Candle Problem

Being part of a team-building exercise or being tested…both exercises drive me bonkers.  However, a well-designed test/problem, with a convincing structure and valuable conclusions, intrigues me.  When I learned about the Marshmallow Problem, I was immediately reminded of the Candle Problem.  I learned both from TED talks.

In Tom Wuject’s presentation on the Marshmallow Problem (MP), he emphasizes the context of collaboration in solving the MP, and in Dan Pink’s illustration of the Candle Problem (CP) he focuses on the issue of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.  There are similarities in solving these problems, but one particularly important condition in driving the test results may be counterintuitive.  I love counterintuitive phenomena, especially those that resonate with my own predilections.

Did the Indians have a planning meeting before building this fabulous structure?

Did the Indians have a planning meeting before building this fabulous structure?

In the Marshmallow problem, teams of four are presented with:

  • 26 sticks of spaghetti
  • 1 yard of tape
  • 1 yard of string, and
  • 1 marshmallow.  The goal is to build as tall a structure as possible, with the marshmallow sitting on top.

Typical participants go through the motions of: talking about design, jockeying for power in driving the team, devising some plans, and then, as time runs out, assembling the materials and sticking the marshmallow on top.  Most of the structures collapse under the weight of the marshmallow.

Among the professionals who have participated in such a workshop, the worst performers are the recent graduates from business school.  They lied, cheated, stole, and thought excessively highly of themselves. Hey I am just reporting the outcome here.  One of the top performers was…ready? Make a guess?  Yup, my favorite group: children.  In particular, recent graduates from kindergarten.  They did not attempt to seize any power.  They just plunged into the task.

The children usually do not plan first.  They “simply” do.  The doing produces a prototype – already with the marshmallow on top — from which they can make improvements.  This is exactly what is promoted in the Knowing-Doing Gap book (which I summarized earlier).  The best performing group is “architects and engineers;” their structure was on average 39”.  The overall average for all participants was 20”.  We should all feel reassured.  And the next best group that performed pretty well was administrative assistants.  What Mr. Wujec pointed out was that the well-performing groups utilized their specialized & facilitating skills.  I think the kindergartners performed well because they didn’t have preconceived notions of design or social behaviors.

When Wujec introduced a new element (that counterintuitive condition) into this problem, offering $10,000 as an incentive, the result was fascinating.  All groups failed!  This outcome dovetails with the Candle Problem.

In the CP (which is applicable to either individuals or teams), you are presented with the following materials:

  • a box of thumbtacks
  • a candle, and
  • a match book sitting on a table. The goal is to attach the lit candle to the wall without dripping wax onto the table.
A corner of the Getty Center, an architectural feat.

A corner of the Getty Center, an architectural feat.

In general, people take 5-10 minutes to solve this problem.  The canonical solution?  You empty out the tacks, tack the empty box to the wall, place the candle in it, and light it.  The key is the box, and once we let go of the “functional fixedness” of the box as an obligate container of tacks, the solution is obvious.

Now, Mr. Pink gleefully described a twist (that counterintuitive condition) into this experiment:  the researcher told one group to solve the problem as fast as possible and that their time would be established as a norm.  To the other group, the researchers offered a monetary reward.  The group with the offered incentive took 3½ minutes longer.  Longer.  When researchers divided participants into three groups, and offered small, medium and large rewards respectively, guess which group performed the worst?  Yes, the one with the highest incentives.

The candle problem study has been replicated over 40 years, across different cultures.  In fact, tests with variations on the incentive all have lead to poorer performance.

Another twist:  instead of placing a box of thumb tacks on the table with other items, the tacks are taken out of the box.  So, visually, you see four elements present on the table now: loose thumbtacks, empty box, candle, and matchbook.  In such an experiment, external incentives work.  Why?  Because the solution is much easier to derive.  Mr. Pink’s message:  When tasks are mechanical and repetitive, incentives and rewards work.  When even rudimentary cognitive skills are required, monetary rewards inevitably fail to optimally motivate people.  “Rewards narrow our focus,” and when the tasks require us to think broadly or out-of-the-box, narrowing our focus is detrimental. 

I highly recommend viewing these two talks; they’re a great 30-minute investment.

Why does the business world still obsess with awarding monetary incentives?  Yes, most people like money, but businesses need results that bring profits. When people are given autonomy, instead of incentives, to produce results, they inevitably perform better. So, there is a profound disconnect here. Why doesn’t the business world use results-oriented model?  I suspect it has much to do with not being able to let go of the 20th century invention called “management,” which is all about control.  This is part of what this blog has been about.

Have a good week of practicing losing some control.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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