Lessons From Google’s Group Dynamics

I might have given this example before, so please forgive me for repeating it. However, the lesson is worth repeating. Decades ago, someone did this experiment: He assembled a team of top engineers from across the globe, gave them the assignment of assembling the world’s best car, by taking best parts of the best automobiles. The result? The car didn’t even drive.

The same principle applies to team composition. Assigning the best people (by what criteria?) in an organization and putting them in a team almost guarantees a mediocre-performing team at best, or a losing team at worst. How to assemble a good-to-great team has bedeviled many practitioners as well as academics. I think one of the traps is our thinking that if we gather a bunch of talented people, they ought to work things out for the best…forgetting that team dynamics is not static. Ever. Hence, “dynamics.” Even the best-forming team can only hum along on a project for so long before something throws them off. And different projects evoke different emotional responses from members.

Sometimes it's fun to single out one cat for weird composition.

Sometimes it’s fun to single out one cat for weird composition.

It turned out Google also fell into the above erroneous assumption, “building the best teams by combining the best people.” However, being data-driven Google, they plunked down enough resources to learn about team, starting from researching the existing literature, consulting with internal and external experts, to gathering data on hundreds of teams among the 57,000 employees. The project was called “Project Aristotle” (PA).

As skilled in detecting patterns as Google is, the PA team didn’t see patterns emerging from the massive amount of data. It mattered little whether people shared similar values, similar professional backgrounds, or similar interests. The teammates of effective teams might socialize outside work, or they might not. Teams of almost identical make-up (“identical” on paper, in other words, in measurable features) would have very different levels of performance. The group comprising “smart” ones might work more efficiently than others, but the group of “average” employees seemed to know how to make the best out of everyone and create “sum larger than the parts” synergy.

Group dynamics have a way of messing with our heads…and emotions. And emotions play an important role.

When the Project Aristotle team dug deeper into the data, what they first tentatively grasped was that “norm” seemed to be the glue for group, regardless of the group performance. Norm is the unwritten, taken-for-granted rules that naturally emerge as a group coalesces around its identity. Another way of understanding norm is by breaking it, or imagining breaking it. The PA team leader wanted to push further and tried to understand what norms would guide a group toward a more synergistic whole and perform better than others, especially over time. The PA team finally hit the sweet spot of a good-performing team: When everyone in the team had a fairly equal opportunity to speak up, the team thrived. When someone, or a smaller subset of members, dominated the conversations – however brilliant their ideas might be – the group ultimately suffered.

An astute leader who could help the group navigate the conversation flow was a plus. And such leadership role didn’t have to reside with one person only. Situational leadership means that everyone can undertake the leadership role depending on the task at hand. For instance, during the task’s creation stage, someone who’s more comfortable with generating thoughts and ideas can take the lead role, and when the task moves into the execution stage, perhaps another person with better organization skills can step in.

All this hinges on the individual’s ability to “read” others’ emotions, mood, or temperament. This is the essence of emotional intelligence (EI) With little EI, group members might not feel comfortable stepping into the various leadership roles. To divvy up tasks for efficiency is relatively easier than to negotiate different roles without stepping into each others’ domains. Ultimately, though, a group’s manager needs to assume the emotional leader’s responsibility to know if the group is coherent, if it has a common goal, which group members might need more nurturing, and when to leave people alone.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

One of the dramatic examples concerning Google’s search for creating the best team involved a team’s leader revealing his terminal cancer. When the group heard the news in a retreat, the members began to share with each other their own vulnerability. Obviously, everyone’s vulnerability is different. The point is that when a leader shows hers, she’s signaling that she’s willing to take the risk and trust her team. Not everyone is comfortable with such a tactic, but then, that’s how a leader demonstrates leadership qualities.

While Google’s efforts were admirable, most organizations don’t have the resources to expend on essentially experiential learning. On the other hand, experiential learning doesn’t need to be costly. On the fifth hand, not trying, not learning, not opening up would be costly…for individuals as well for organizations.

Enjoy your July 4th weekend. And be safe. I will resume after July 10th. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Scapegoat and Messiah

A friend of mine once said, “My goal is to make my position irrelevant.” She was at the time a semi-reluctant VP in a 15,000-employee organization, and she thought all the functions of her cohort were trite. Further, she has always believed that a good manager would ultimately render his/her position unnecessary. I sympathized with her philosophy, akin to Lao Zi’s Zen teaching, but always teased her that she was born in the wrong era, though I wouldn’t know what the right era would be.


One of my favorite quotes from Lao Zi (perhaps better known as Lao Tzu) regards leadership:

As for the best leaders,

the people do not notice

their existence.

The next best,

the people honor and praise,

the next, the people fear,

and the next,

the people hate…

When the best leader’s

work is done

the people say,

‘We did it ourselves!’”

— from “The Way,” ca. 6th century BC China

Of course, this poses an immediate dilemma for modern management: How do you measure “success?” let alone what constitutes “success?” In Lao Zi’s way, the best leader’s role was rendered unnecessary.

On reflecting this conundrum, I am reminded of another aspect of group dynamics: messiah and scapegoat, both often manifested in the same person who has been regarded as the group’s “leader.”

The more dysfunctional a group is, the more the members hunger for positive leadership. (Ahem, how does “negative leadership” work?) By definition, exemplary leaders are rare, and are even rarer in a dysfunctional group (axiomatically?). So, when a wise leader shows up in a dysfunctional group, he becomes a magnet for advice, approval, attention, counseling, etc. This wise leader assumes a messiah aura whether he wants it or not. The one who wants to bask in such aura – which would automatically compromise his status as “wise” – would easily and quickly get caught up in the dysfunctional gyration and ultimately run the risk of being scapgoated when something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong anyway, but is guaranteed to happen in a group stuck in its pathology. Often members in such a group are either ignorant of their pathological nature, or they don’t know how to correct the wrong even if they are aware of it.

A true “wise” leader – not necessarily in a managerial position — embedded in a dysfunction group would acknowledge immediately, at least to herself, that she alone cannot save the group. With this starting point, while she undoubtedly feels the pressure to respond to all the pleas from her direct reports or colleagues, she would not break herself putting out all the little fires. However, ironically and/or paradoxically, there are times when a leader may have to “sacrifice” himself and take on the scapegoat role, absorbing all the blame. There are times when a group may only need a symbolic figure to assume that repository function. After some catharsis, the group may be able to restart. More often than not, though, what a dysfunctional group really needs is an outsider (yes, consultant) who can help intervene in the pathological process, guide the group to recognize the various traps it has unintentionally set up for everyone (leaders included), and eventually get the group unstuck. In theory, consultants can help tremendously; in reality, the process gets messy without any guaranteed success.


Group process work is never easy, just like personal therapy. It takes time, commitment, and resources, almost always in shortage when a group, or an organization, needs them most.

Sadly, I have not found a way to get even a large-ish organization to take necessary steps to recognize and acknowledge its own ills, let alone to commit time and money to address their “issues.” Instead, there is always the tendency for the whole organization to look for that “savior” to do the impossible, be it a CEO or a top director. And when inevitably the “savior” fails, the vicious cycle perpetuates.

If you recognize these symptoms, and if you have suggestions, please share. My readers would greatly appreciate your help.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Do Geeks Have Three Ears & Eight Fingers?

Geek toy #1

Geek toy #1

Go figure. Right after I mentioned in the last post, before the holiday, that is one of the sites that can generally lift my spirits, I “stumbled upon” an article that impacts me like a particle landing in my eye.

The title of the article is The Unspoken Truth about Managing Geeks, by J. Ello, “currently managing IT for the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University.” In essence, his view is that geeks in IT are logical beings, always pursuing the “right” answers and solutions, not suffering fools easily, willing to share credit (except with fools or managers), sociable in the right context, and more than willing to help if you don’t abuse their beliefs, skills or talents. Managers need to understand these principles to avoid messing things up.

Hmmm… Not surprisingly, managers need to understand a lot about human behaviors and emotions, including those associated with all professional backgrounds of all the people reporting to them. Some do this well and a lot don’t. Nothing much new here. In fact, after finishing the article, I feel as if Ello manages to reinforce the stereotypical images of “geeks,” rather than ameliorating them as he intends.

For instance, “…for IT groups respect is the currency of the realm.” And here I have always thought that respect is the fundamental element in all, all, interpersonal transactions. Further on, he states, “Gaining respect is not a matter of being the boss and has nothing to do with being likeable or sociable.” Isn’t that management 101? However, I take issue with this: “While everyone would like to work for a nice person who is always right; IT pros will prefer a jerk who is always right over a nice person who is always wrong. Wrong creates unnecessary work, impossible situations and major failures. Wrong is evil, and it must be defeated.” Yeah, tell that to other professional scientists at National Labs or R&D centers in big companies. And pray tell, how do people defeat these “evil” managers who seem to get things wrong more than 50% of the time in the eyes of the “geeks?” Even in geekdom, organizational dynamics still operate under the principle of “socially constructed reality.” Technical solutions however logical do not always converge on one ultimate answer.

There is more in the article that rubs me in the wrong way, but I’ll hover around these points for now. First of all, it doesn’t matter whether you have PhD or stopped with high school education; all working groups are subject to thorny group dynamics. Scientist, engineers, and the like may pride themselves upon thinking logically (by the way, is there a standard for logic in the human world? countless times and in countless ways humans have proceeded flawlessly logically from flawed premises, with consequences varying from humorous to horrific), yet they are equipped with the same basic emotions as all other human beings. I hope they experience sadness, happiness, joy, hurt, despair, disappointment, etc, just like the rest of us. Logic alone will not get you out of group and intergroup morasses. Perhaps it’s because the IT people think that their “logic” trumps everything that they fall so unwittingly into the typical patterns of group and intergroup dynamics? Mr. Ello suggests that organizations “actively elicit these stereotypical negative behaviors,” and I contend that there is just as strong a possibility that the geeks dig holes for themselves.toy 2

When Mr. Ello uses Dr. House (a fictitious figure of a TV medical drama) as the idol figure for IT people, I just about lost it. Admitting that I have seen only a handful of full episodes of this TV show, that’s been enough for me to understand what Dr. House is about. A brilliant physician with no humility and often with nasty streaks, Dr. House does not represent the kind of personality you want to instill in your children…or, at least, I hope not. So, why do we celebrate a jerk like this – a doctor who’s always convinced he’s right every time, even though in almost every episode he initially inflicts inappropriate treatments on his patients only to stumble upon the right diagnosis and treatment just in the nick of time? (Thank goodness, it’s only a TV drama formula.) And I absolutely reject the notion that we have to choose between being a self-righteous jerk who does eventually get it right vs being a nice person who knows up front that he could be wrong. Dr. House’s medical brilliance would not dim by one molecule if he could be just a little kinder and more considerate.

Now, about geeks and management — and they aren’t mutually exclusive. A possible scenario of the tension between management and geeks is that managers deal with market forces, issues of timing, legal ramifications, etc. that might escape the notice of – or are deemed irrelevant by – the geeks. While it behooves the managers to explain situations clearly to their people, it wouldn’t hurt for their direct reports to occasionally look beyond their own professional horizons. After all, when geeks get involved in their own startup adventures, they succeed in getting and attending to the big pictures. They do have the capacity.

Geek toy #3; it can be pretty too!

Geek toy #3; it can be pretty too!

I have family members in the “geek” categories; I have many friends who are hardcore scientists, and I rarely experience them as the stereotypically narrowly focused geeks whose self-serving logic dominates everything. Okay, there are a few, but then I also have known plenty of non-geeks who are self-centered and ornery. The majority of the scientists, engineers, and computer analysts in my circle are considerate, generous, kind, with wonderful senses of humor, often creative, quite impressive in their grasp of human nature, and above all, beautiful human beings. And from my management education background, I find their gripes about their managers are pretty standard issues that are found in almost all industries. Managing geeks may require a little tweaks here and there – like managing every other groups – the management fundamentals are still the same.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Follow-up On “Reluctant Leaders” And “Followership”

First, a little humor (at someone’s small expense) on how data-driven decisions without context can be colossally stupid. Mr. Ben Bernanke’s recent application for refinancing his D.C. house was turned down. Mr. Bernanke, you recall, was the former chairman of the Federal Reserve. According to the writer of the NYTimes article, the cause probably stemmed from Mr. Bernanke’s employment status, which changed from an 11-year salaried position to commission-based income (which includes $250,000 for a speech and a likely 7 figure book contract). Somewhere out there, a loan officer’s job is probably in jeopardy.


red sunset

Now on to today’s topic.

A few readers have responded to the latest post on “reluctant leadership” with observations, questions, and insights. Their comments and thoughts have furthered my understanding, and here are a few more follow-up points

A “reluctant leader” may have a tougher time establishing her leadership role initially. This difficulty gets amplified if she encounters a few “followers” who secretly, or not so secretly, believe they should be the leaders. She’s likely to face a few passive-aggressive people, whose engagement may sound like “Oh, yes, that sounds like a good idea, but I am currently swamped and cannot undertake any more work.” Or, “You have good credentials. [pause] I think I remember X has written about this topic, you may want to look into that.”

And in some situations, no one wants to lead and no one wants to follow. This really begs the question: What is everyone doing?

Most situations that we are familiar with, or have encountered, are in small to medium groups, like a typical work unit in most organizations. In such an environment, tasks are generally clearly defined, as well as the supervisory and staff roles and expectations. Even if a manager is a reluctant one, he is generally clear about what he needs to do. His staff may be on the fence about his leadership at the beginning, but in the end will settle on undertaking their share of responsibilities.

The leadership-followership dynamics is much thornier in less structured community project teams, or other ad hoc groups. In these types of gatherings, the dynamics are truly fluid; group boundaries are porous (people come and go, and few are really committed); there is little sense of “membership,” and roles and expectations are ambiguous. Further, people involved in most community project teams are there because they are “important” by some yardstick. The initial phase in such a group is marked by an egalitarian spirit, which makes choosing a leader a difficult task. Bypassing “choosing” a leader, the group hopes that eventually a leader would emerge “naturally;” however, this requires that the members be committed in forming their group and planning and executing the work. And group process is never easy. If there is no leader present or emerging, there cannot be any followers to speak of. Once again, why are they there?

Group life is messy. Just look at most family dynamics. Whenever I taught group dynamics, people’s initial response was, “It’s easy. You set goals clearly; you divide up the tasks, and assign everyone a role to fulfill. If we are all goal oriented, we’ll get things done.” In turn, I asked, “How does it work out in your family?” To start with, how do goals and tasks get defined? By groups? by one or two people? Why should the rest go along with one or two people’s decisions? Sometimes, even a seemingly simple project, a noble cause, or even a clearly defined goal can be derailed because people don’t know how to proceed in a group. The forming-storming-norming-performing of group life, while a cliché, catches the need for groups to evolve to cohere (or, to dissolve in some cases). Even truly egalitarian groups do not come about because members will them so. They argue; they negotiate; they make bad decisions; they make good choices; they try and fail; they try and succeed…etc.

Whether in the workplace or in the community, leadership is not limited to people occupying management positions, as I argued in one of my earlier topics, “Managers Are Not Leaders.”  There are different types of leadership roles, and people can undertake them without being appointed. For instance, other than a manager or appointed project leader (a positional leader), a group member can become a thought leader (good at generating ideas), or a performance leader (skilled at advancing process, driving execution, and identifying efficiencies along the way, as the situation calls for). Leadership and followership are not static; there is always give-and-take on both sides. I contend that the “reluctant leaders” understand and accept such dynamics while “command-and-control” type of leaders want things in a “just so” orderly manner.

a shaft of gold


For those who want to know more about (or be reminded of) group/intergroup dynamics, please go to my first entry on this topic here. Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Antagonism, Conflicts, Opposites…fight against them? Or, learn to live with them?

First:  Happy New Year.

Nothing like welcoming a new year by completing the incomplete, and embracing differences as the source of energy.


“I won!”

Shortly before my break, I got into the dynamics of “cross-cultural groups,” based on the study and article by Kenwyn Smith and David Berg.  Not surprisingly, the cross-cultural groups in their study displayed more differences than similarities during their initial interactions.  Smith and Berg remind us that in traditional group dynamics, members rely on similarities to build a coherent group.  In cross-cultural groups, though, differences offer more advantages.  In their study, the group members from various cultures were both excited about exploring those differences, a source of learning, and anxious about what to do with those differences, a source of potential conflicts. The fear of the differences could potentially lead to paralysis, or heavy-handed control or suppression.  Most of us intrinsically want to avoid conflicts and see them as problematic.

Smith and Berg propose to view conflicts as “a source of vitality” for an alternative perspective.  Instead of viewing conflicts in the usual “either-or,” “we-them” dichotomy, they propose to frame the issues of differences in “both and” framework.  This is the premise of their book, “Paradoxes of Group Life,” of which I provided some summary points.  The following lesson is worthwhile being repeated.

The below statement is true.

The above statement is false.”

Viewing them separately, each is true.  Putting them together, they become self-referential and self-contradictory.  “While the content of each statement remains the same, its meaning is changed once it is framed by the other.”

So, when group members experience their differences in such a contradictory manner, their natural tendency is to either duke it out or bury it.  However, if we honor the premise that different members’ attitudes (toward whatever issues are at hand) are all valid, this premise then gives both group and individual members some breathing space.  When people’s views are validated, they are likely to think of different possibilities for the group as a whole, instead of trying to make the others “wrong” or their ideas “impossible.”  In other words, working with diversity, and we gain more ideas; fighting against diversity chokes off possibilities.

Based on their study, described in their paper, Smith and Berg summarize seven paradoxes for the multicultural groups.

  1. “The Paradox of Involvement:  Reframing the confrontation-conciliation dilemma
  2. The Paradox of Identity:  Reframing the individuality-collectivity dilemma
  3. The Paradox of Authority:  Reframing the autocratic-participative dilemma
  4. The Paradox of Democracy:  Reframing the spontaneous-orchestrated dilemma
  5. The Paradox of Boundaries:  Reframing the task-process dilemma
  6. The Paradox of Abundance:  Reframing the quality-quantity dilemma
  7. The paradox of Face:  Reframing the criticism-diplomacy dilemma”

Of course, all of these paradoxes are inter-related.

Ying & Yang: paradox

Ying & Yang: paradox

Let me begin with the issue of involvement.  Groups always want only part of the individuals but individuals always want to give the whole of themselves.  It’s the tension between “being part of” and “apart from” the group.  If we suspend some of our own individualistic tendency and just “go along” with the group for a while, we allow the group to become more coherent over time, which in turn allows members to go off on their own.  This tension between individuals and the group, though, should always be present lest members become too complacent and begin to conform into “groupthink.”

Such dynamics of give-and-take, tension-and-relaxation is also true for the issue of identity.  Most of us carry several “memberships.”  For instance, whenever I get involved in group-work, at any given time, I am a Chinese, an American, a mother, a wife, a daughter, an introvert who can act like an extrovert (and vice versa), with perspectives in arts, social sciences, photography, culinary experience, etc.  Not all of these backgrounds need to come to the surface in my engagement in the group, but only through a process of interacting with others can we all find out what the group really needs from me and me from others in the group.

However, groups usually can’t function in an egalitarian manner at all times.  Issues concerning leadership and authority inevitably bubble up. The authorization process, through group members’ participation, is more pertinent in ad hoc type of groups.  In addition, we typically regard these issues as naturally flowing from the top. However, even in an organization where a manager is implicitly or explicitly invested with authority, a new manager still needs to work out how her authority should be manifested.  A new manager who throws his weight around without understanding his new group is not likely to lead a productive and healthy group in the long run.  No matter how a group comes about and how a leader or a manager arises, members’ participation is essential in the authorization. In typical Smith & Berg language, “The paradoxical perspective on authority in groups affirms that authorizing others to act on one’s behalf is an authorization of oneself, and authorizing self to take actions for others is likewise authorizing the group.”

So, in such spirit, we deal with other paradoxical aspects of group life:  between spontaneous work or orchestrated work, focusing on task or process, the perennial quantity vs. quality, and to confront/criticize or to circumvent/conciliate.   All these choices do not need to end with one side over the other.  Embracing all sides involves a lot of work — the almost constant process through which members negotiate with each other.  It can be tiring and frustrating, but it brings results.  Plenty of organizations and groups favor the either-or and choose one over the other, at the cost of diminished work-product quality and demoralized employees.


Pretty “diversity.”

I thought of a perfect example of living with paradoxes in our everyday life.  Most of us have family issues.  We may not like all our family members, but we still love them.  We may quarrel during Thanksgiving holiday but we still cannot NOT get together every so often.  Granted it is difficult, actually downright impossible, to transfer such spirit to our colleagues, we can still apply the learned principles, however we have derived them.  Personally, my compass has always been grounded in “Appreciative Inquiry,” so I look for the positives in the hope to build something.


While I adhere to the spirit of respecting other cultural values, there are a few I find it impossible to accept, not even after a “fight.”  One such objectionable cultural value, or should we call it a traditional practice, is Chinese foot binding.  While no one would advocate it now, it was practiced for way too long.  Among practices still observed, I will not condone inflicting female genital mutilation nor refusing vaccination.  In other words, when beliefs or practices are in conflict with respect for human rights or scientific facts, I will err in favor of rights and facts.

Let’s build an awesome 2014.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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More Spice In Group Life: Multicultural working groups

I have said it before and I will repeat it as often as my chosen topic calls for it:  Cross-cultural issues, or diversity issues, are very personal, and therefore potentially emotional.  The illustrations in last week’s entry (A Brit Insulted An Asian Woman In Germany) were “minor,” superficially, but the impact was long lasting.  As US working environment grows more multicultural and the world more interconnected, it is fairly common these days to have colleagues from different cultures, be them foreign nationals or of different ethnic origins within the same country.

Working with any group is difficult enough; throw in some cultural spices, and the challenge balloons.  Typically, when trying to grasp group dynamics, to establish some cohesion, or to devise task procedures and assume certain roles in a traditional single cultural group, the initial operating assumption is: “let’s find some common ground.”  Similarities provide a common-sense foundation.  However, in a multicultural working group, we may want to think counter-intuitively:  let the differences serve as the group’s strength.  This according to Kenwyn Smith and David Berg, in their “Cross-Cultural Groups at Work,” 1997, European Management Journal.

It's part of a gnarly tree trunk.

It’s part of a gnarly tree trunk.

Sidebar:  Kenwyn is a friend, and was my professor at Wharton and a member of my dissertation committee.  His research and philosophy have greatly influenced my own research, work, and life.

Think about some typical issues most groups regularly have to face:  authority, decision-making processes, emotional expressions, the inevitable conflicts.  In a single cultural group, members by and large share similar values with which to approach their collaboration.  However, one Asian alone could upset the dynamic, for instance, with her desire to circumvent conflicts.  Adding an eastern European who might insist on his “expert” opinion, and the group life gets more sticky.  Even though Indians, Japanese, and Koreans all are from Asia, their values can be quite different.  In some cultures, one doesn’t ever question a manager’s directive.  In other cultures, people like vivid expressions especially regarding managers’ directives.  Conflicts by themselves are already thorny; different attitudes about facing and handling conflicts add that much more complexity.  Attempt to avoid these cross-cultural differences, and awkwardness and anxiety rise quickly in the group.  Such a multicultural group might be able to function okay, albeit with struggle; it stands a much higher probability of sputtering (and maybe regressing) during crisis.  And crisis appears to be a constant in organization/group life nowadays.

Smith and Berg offer three steps to help multicultural groups starting from the formative stage of group life:  1.  Learning how to learn together, 2.  Discovering members’ unique cultural contributions, and 3.  Exploring group polarities.  And ultimately, the group should learn to embrace paradoxes to release some of the inevitable tension.  The first two steps are fairly straightforward.  But “from polarity to paradox” is, like staring at a Möbius strip, fascinating yet difficult to comprehend.  I’ll save that puzzle for a future entry.

Do we always know immediately how we learn? And how we are prevented from learning?  It’s time to pause and reflect:  think of those times when you learned something important, and how it came about.  And think of the times when you wanted to learn something of value but were prevented, and how that came about.  Here are the lists of conditions for the “learning” and “not-learning” compiled from Smith and Berg’s research:

Conditions for Learning:

  • “Both positive and negative feedback.
  • A context that values openness.
  • No lying.
  • A willingness to be vulnerable.
  • An acceptance that mistakes occur.
  • Open acknowledgement of ‘when I make a mistake.’
  • Active listening to bad news.
  • Time allocated to examine what happened.
  • Open sharing of knowledge, and
  • An atmosphere that encourages and rewards learning.”

Conditions when Thwarted Learning

  • “A climate of blame.
  • No time for reflection with others.
  • Fear.
  • A lack of information
  • An authoritarian management structure.
  • A belief ‘we can outrun this problem.’
  • A focus on individuals rather than their actions.
  • Constant attention to outside knowledge while ignoring local insights.
  • Pandering to inflated egos, and
  • Poor teaching or mentorship.”
Bark of a skinny tree.

Bark of a skinny tree.

This kind of meta-learning, learning about learning, provides room for both individual experiences/stories and opportunities to discover some common learning aspects.

The second step, “discovering members’ unique cultural contributions,” takes people through a slightly different route, big collective events/trends, to find more commonalities.  Group members were asked to identify cultural events in their particular region, during the decades of ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.  For business managers and executives, Smith and Berg had them focus on business and social trends.  Then, the respondents were asked to speculate what the events for future decades might be.

More interestingly, Smith and Berg asked the respondents to face their own ignorance of those decades and struggles in articulating certain events.

When subgroups (based on geographical regions) posted their findings of themes, the whole groups reviewed each other’s lists.  In a sense, this second exercise captured what the first step offered.  The outcomes from the second exercise were:

  • Awareness that what happened in one region often happened in another part of the world a decade later.
  • People were more cognizant that they do not know about other cultures as much as they thought; therefore,
  • People had opportunities to educate each other about their cultural background.
  • This exercise allowed people to learn about differences together.
  • They confirmed the “cliché,” through personal experience, how interdependent the world has become.
  • Cross-cultural differences might be the foundation to build connections.
  • This exercise was but the beginning of something much deeper and more complex.

These points may appear common sense, but living and experiencing these differences do not always jibe with our intellectual theorizing.

Looks like aspen tree trunks...just streaks on a concrete slab.

Looks like aspen tree trunks…but just streaks on a concrete slab.

Next week, I will explore “group polarity and paradox.”

In memory of the wise, generous, and courageous Nelson Mandela, would you please use this week to experience and explore some differences with your colleagues? 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.

If We Must Have Scandals And Dramas…

At least, let’s glean some lessons.

(This is the second time when I thought I had posted an entry sometime ago…I didn’t.  And I didn’t realize it till much later.  Even though today’s entry was written in response to news items, stale by now, the lessons still apply.)

I am struck, yet again, by the cosmic distance between the top management and the rest of the working world.  And as usual, a good portion of this distance is caused by the monstrous ego of the manager/leader.  But ego cannot flourish without the implicit or explicit consent of its audience.

The particular political news item involves the personae in General Petraeus’ story and the particular business news item involves the  exit of Microsoft “general” Sinofsky, chief for developing Windows products.  Mr. Sinofsky resigned only two weeks after the release of the much better reviewed new Windows software, Windows 8.

I really don’t give a toss about the private lives of any leaders, managers, generals, or others for that matter.  The argument that a person’s dubious judgment in aspects of private life reflects upon that person’s conduct of official duties is unproven at best.  However, there do seem to be particular aspects where the lack of judgment is manifested.  What I have taken away from the Petraeus soap opera are:  (1) Leaders, managers, generals, presidents, star athletes…they are just human beings with all the accompanying foibles.  (2)  Corruption is the twin of power.  (3)  Propped up “heroes” fall particularly badly.

The top managers/generals are usually surrounded by support staff that caters to their whims.  People in such an insulated environment, and without meaningfully interacting with lower-ranked people who carry out the actual work, are bound to provide or experience some aberrant outcomes.  As the insulation thickens, the ones who possess power are compelled to want more power…to bolster the insulation.  I delineated, in the earlier entry the functions of these “prison walls” in group dynamics and how they come about.  The walls themselves eventually become the object which one defends, and those outside the walls are to be defended against.

A prickly beauty!

A prickly beauty!

As soon as walls are erected – drawing the boundary — there are “who’s in” and “who’s out” tussles.  Inevitably, there are outsiders who would use any means, usually money, to “get in.”  So, we have the Kellys in the Tampa area who found ways to befriend General Petraeus, General Allen, and their entourages. Why a socialite would be given so much access to military documents is beyond most people’s comprehension.  Why would 4-star generals get involved in Ms. Kelly’s sister’s custody fight?  (Please Google this matter; it’s too sordid and convoluted for me to try to recap here.)  Such petty use of one’s powerful personal connections for personal gain isn’t news.  We’ve all encountered pretentious upstarts, albeit on a much smaller and less consequential scale, in everyday organizations.  There are those mediocre students, employees, and even volunteers who manage to gain access to top level decision-makers, and these minions become drunk with special privileges.

This is part of the reason why a “small” matter of infidelity in the downfall of General Petraeus can so quickly reveal some ugly inner workings of the top levels of military power.  And throughout the unfolding scenario, no one is paying sufficient attention to the impact on the fighting troops on the ground.  Talk about cosmic distance!

The moral for managers and leaders is:  Make sure there are multiple and varied channels by which one interacts with and learns from people in the lower ranks.  I cannot stress this principle enough, and so I will repeat this mantra whenever possible.

By the way, one of the proposals for “correcting” some of the problems uncovered within the top military echelon is…Ethics Training! Really?!  If these adults still need to learn the meaning of a marriage vow, to not waste time on frivolity, to not think themselves infallible (how do you train that?!)…etc., then, how in the world did they reach this high level?  And for heaven’s sake, how does the chief spook fail to understand he can’t use unsecured internet connections for sensitive messages?!  Seriously, people.  Ethics?  Enron’s ethics statement was well written; how did that work out for them?  A year’s worth of coaching on humility is far more pertinent!  This holds true for civilian managers as well.

We use many military metaphors to describe everyday organizations, such as, “strategy,” “subordinate,” “commands from executives,” etc.  Not surprisingly, we also see many organizations’ executives act as if they are generals.  They are impatient with processes needed to achieve results; they don’t really desire challenges from “subordinates;” they surround themselves with an “inner circle” of operatives as gatekeepers.  Here is a paradoxical aspect of ego:  If I regard my ideas to be superior to others, why would I need layers of protection?

The story associated with the  departure of Microsoft’s Sinofsky, shortly after Windows 8 was released, affirms the case of a maverick growing unchecked into that “asshole of a boss.”  Mr. Sinofsky is often compared with Steven Jobs; both could be caustic and prone to treat colleagues in a disdainful manner.  I’ve written about the balance between welcoming innovative thinkers and tempering egotistic showoffs. I will just pose a question for leaders or mangers who are compared to these oversize figures:  Would you be one ounce less effective if you were to observe basic civility?

Lastly, leaders need followers; heroes need worshipers.  Ours is a society obsessed with hero figures and the myth of rugged individualism.  Such attitudes are partly responsible for our collective tolerance for mavericks however uncivil and rude; we put them on pedestals.  Remember Lance Armstrong, the now-fallen 7-time champion of Tour de France?  We find out, oh horror, that these beings on the pedestal are humans after all!

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Cluessless Is Not Leadership, Nor Sensible!

While not wanting to misuse my soapbox on politics, politics sometimes offers and confirms valuable lessons, like the Petraeus case.  This week I thank Congress, for tying their salary to offering a 2013 budget plan!  The lesson?  The same as it was in the Petraeus case, it’s the quintessential clueless nature and the lack of humility associated with the top group of managers, decision-makers, or those who believe that they are leaders but whose followers are only from a narrow section of the community they profess to lead.  I hope readers who have waded through my lengthy discussion of intergroup dynamics of topmiddlebottom resonated with much of what I wrote.  All groups want to maintain and grow their power – in order to execute their ideas and plans.  But often, the groups with the most power, vis a via other groups, tend to allow “gaining more power” to become the end rather than the means.

How a person behaves, or how a group acts, can best be understood in the context of relationships.  Plainly, we experience and view the same person differently; there are always different nuanced perceptions, depending on the relationships.  This holds true for group and intergroup dynamics.  Further, the impact of group forces on individual members is quite often beyond our awareness and control.  So, while groups may respond and react differently depending on the other groups with which to interact, there are patterns of attitudes and behaviors that can serve as signposts.

One of the “typical” responses with which the top group reacts to criticism or protest is the essentially-empty gesture.  They may mean well; they often think that they are sincere in their attempts.  But, inevitably they come off as “clueless” in the eyes of the other groups of lower ranks in the power structure.  When the top group of people try very hard to ameliorate some problems within the organization, they always offer something that others could not care much about, such as a meaningless apology, forced resignation of someone (often seen as scapegoating) or giving back a token bonus, etc.


Camouflage (Photo credit: Nick Chill Photography)

Congress just offered withholding that which is a meaningless bonus — their salary — until there is a budget plan.  Why do I call this a meaningless bonus?  Their salary is already in the very top of the income distribution for American population; just about ALL of them are multimillionaires; their salary is a relative pittance that probably doesn’t even match the interest derived from their assets.  So, the collective of Congressional representatives do not truly understand how most Americans live and what they care about.  I have to ask:  Why don’t we have representatives that actually represent the population?  Politics aside, my point here is:  The Congressional representatives’ behavior is more about their internal fight for power posturing than what is really important for the big organization, our country.  This pattern is often repeated in the top management group’s behavior; they are more concerned about their power base, their directory, than the whole of the organization.

I might have mentioned this example before, but it’s worth repeating.  Years ago, I was involved in an “Executive Education” program, designed for middle-level managers; a typical class had 50-60 participants.  One module was a learning lab on system dynamics; we did the top-middle-bottom experiential exercise for these participants.  Several times I have observed and facilitated this exercise, in the “Ex Ed,” graduate level course, and undergraduate course.   Inevitably, the participants in the “top” group, people who were mid-level managers in their day jobs, found that some aspects of group dynamics were beyond their control, however intelligent the participants all were.  One time, the players belonging to the “top” group, in the “Ex Ed” program, decided to offer their shoes — some very nicely made with Italian leather — to the lower groups.  Granted that this was in a learning environment, but the point is the same:  The top level offers symbolic item that means little to everyone else.  At another learning exercise, a bottle of wine and a corkscrew were involved; the struggles between the groups were just as fierce…with the top offering meaningless concession.

In the post-exercise debriefing, the instructors always emphasize that the top group needs to listen to what the lower level of workers have to say.  After all, the lower rank of employees has much more direct experience than the top about the environment in which they work.  But listening requires a healthy dose of humility.

How do we teach humility, especially to adults?  Why has this been difficult for business schools curricula?  Personally, I have been wrestling with this question for some time, without clear ideas.  Would you please share with me and the readers how to achieve that goal?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Random Thoughts: On intergroup dynamics, customer service, & bosses

I am essentially done with intergroup dynamics, but have just a couple of “after-thoughts.”  Most of us gravitate toward “middle” position.  People with the most power wouldn’t think they have enough and would still seek more, and people at the bottom of the power rung would and can exert power.  The amount of power is a matter of relativity and so power acquisition and display are on a sliding scale.  However, having said this, as Kenwyn pointed out in his personal conclusion, only the middle would spend the time and energy to study this issue and write about it; the top probably couldn’t care less, and the bottom wouldn’t have the leisure.

water lilly 1, 6x9

My personal journey on power has been seeking the “no-see-em” status.  However, since where I live now is somewhat isolated and my natural social inclination (few but great quality friends), I don’t have nor seek power, and have no other “no-see-em” with whom to have any natural collective power.  As a result, it’s “easy” for me to sit on the fence and observe and write about organizational phenomena.  But this rather amorphous boundary has its own prison-like pressure for me too.

Enough on the intergroup dynamics.

When the economy is bad, all businesses suffer and they need customers more than ever.  You would think that during economic downturns, business should really polish their customer services.  Regardless of the economic conditions, it seems to me that most businesses just don’t get the concept of “customer satisfaction.”  For example, if you were to replace the automated – and annoying – phone recorded choices and actually install one operator to talk to people, in a very helpful manner, I’ll bet that the business that comes your way would more than offset the salary of that operator.  But the “operative” word is helpful.  I accidentally (don’t know why and don’t care now) signed up for “Bill Me Later” with PayPal a couple of months ago when I just wanted a “straightforward” PayPal service.  When I recently tried to pay via the online feature, I encountered confusion…and oh by the way, my friends have verified that I am a fairly intelligent person, quick to understand most social systems.  I called PayPal and got to talk to a customer representative pretty quickly, but in less than a minute, I was totally turned off by her snappy response, “Well, I don’t know why some people don’t get it, and others do.”  As a result, I terminated the account, and paid the bill by snail mail.  When I filled out their survey, one of my responses was, “If you want more customers, you had better know why some people get it and others don’t!”  Should have followed my intuition and never signed up with PayPal in the first place.

water lilly 2, 6x9

While I was working on the intergroup dynamics, I also came across an interesting article about bosses in a Southwest in-flight magazine.  The essential message was that during tough economic times, kind and considerable bosses might not be the right persons to get through the hard times, but tough and mean ones do.  But the tough bosses are only good for a short while before company’s reputation, both internal morale and external PR, suffer.  I can see advantages of toughness, but mean-spirited?  Absolutely not.  I don’t buy the notion that toughness and meanness are in concert with each other, or even correlated.  It’s more likely that during tough economic times, people are more afraid of losing jobs so they have some tolerance for short-tempers, along with tighter budgets, and reduced care and attention.  But bosses who become mean will not last long either (unless they are top executives, whereupon they land other jobs, perhaps with even better pay…difficult to not be cynical at times).  Obverse, being liked shouldn’t be confused with good leadership; a well-respected leader isn’t always the most likable person.  Of course, there can be a strong leader who’s respected and liked.  In short, when we try to box in a person (like prison walls), be he/she in a leadership position or not, we do disservice to all of us.  It’s the system!

nice as a pair

Organizations rely on “relationships, relations among parts and relations among relations” (Kenwyn Smith)

Till May 6th,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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