Tag Archives: leadership

Three Red Lights

“There are three little red lights that sit inside the head of the spectator”, David Williamson said, world leading close-up magician. “When the magician is holding the deck in a strange way, the first light goes off. When the card is put back in a peculiar fashion, the second one goes off. When the third light goes off, the spectator starts thinking of football.”

The three lights inside my head.
The three lights inside my head.

In a ex-DDR lecture hall in the Kulturpalast in Dresden, David Williamson [1] explained the Psychology of Magic from a spectator perspective. Full of energy and slap-stick physical humor, he visualized a very important principle about trust.
When you watch a magic trick, you open a window of trust in which the magician can let you experience something unbelievable in a wonderful way. However, it only works as long as the performer does not rub you off in the wrong way. As soon as there is something inconsistent, you start to get alert and the enjoyment is immediately reduced. The less natural the actions, the less convincing the presentation. Small clues aggregate to strengthen or weaken trust. In management it is the same. And it cuts both ways.

If an engineer in my team is doing something that feels fishy, a red light goes off, somewhere deep inside my head. And it is burning for a long time… If all three lights are on, I lose trust and confidence.
It is also true in the other way. If I as a department manager express something clumsy or insensitive a red light goes on. Three lights and I have lost a big chunk of authority…

I think this is a deeply human reaction. It is not even necessary to have fact-based observations, just indications that something is wrong. Therefore, this mechanism is not “fair” in the legalistic sense of the word. But it is usually correct.
It is captured in the old Dutch saying that “Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback” (“Vertrouwen komt te voet en vertrekt te paard” [2]).

This energy can be both positive and negative – so we should use it in a constructive way to build stronger teams. We must also be aware of the destructive power: I speculate that this is the power of gossip. The indications are enough to change our perception of people around us.
This powerful force can be channeled to help us take care of the group and find out who needs support in difficult situations. We communicate with so much more than words. How we talk, how we say things and how timely we are say more than words. All these signals are unconsciously recorded and build momentum.

People do not see everything you do, they collect clues.
Or as my friend Ruben says, after the football philosopher JC Watts – “Character is what you do when you think that nobody is looking.”
Use the force of positive power to project energy into the people around you – and they will smile back, whether they want it or not.

[1] See more of the excellent magician David Williamson on: http://davidwilliamson.com/

[2] http://nl.wikiquote.org/wiki/Vertrouwen

[image] http://noveltylights.com

Getting to No

In the West, there is a very popular management book about negotiation that is called “Getting to Yes” by Ury, Fisher and Patton, indicating that the most difficult aspect in a discussion or negotiation is to get agreement. In China, the challenge is the opposite. As I learned from my friend Linus [with intense Guangzhou experience], yes can mean many things:

A Yes is a Yes is a No? (picture from http://efc.web.unc.edu/files/2013/04/Yes-No-Blog.jpeg)
A Yes is a Yes is a No? (picture from http://efc.web.unc.edu/files/2013/04/Yes-No-Blog.jpeg)

“Yes, I understand and I agree and I will execute immediately.”
“Yes, I understand but I do not agree”
“Yes, I hear that you are speaking, but I do not understand”
“Yes, I am still alive, but I have no clue what you are talking about”
It is not very often the first one, and unfortunately not the second either.
Therefore, asking yes-no questions are of limited use in China. [footnote: I understand that this is similar all across Asia, but I do not have enough first-hand information about other places. In Japan I had this much less, but I did not spend much time there.]
Quite a few times, I have found myself asking yes-no questions, always getting yes, and scratching my head afterwards with puzzlement and disappointment why it did not work out as we had decided. “Will you finish the report before Friday? – Yes.”

The words “yes” and “no” have no direct synonyms in Chinese. Therefore, the best translation into English of how a Chinese would answer a question from a boss is: “Yes,….”, which means more or less, “Ok, …”. The negatively posed questions are especially tricky, like “Will that not work out?”.

The way to get around this linguistic artifact is to pose a different set of questions, sometimes called open questions: “When will the report be finished?”, “What do you need to finish this on time?”, “Which problems could arise?”, “Why are you convinced that this will work out?” etc. etc.

I have hit my head so many times, that I am getting allergic to “yes”. Whenever I realize that I accidentally placed a yes-no-question in the conversation, I regroup and launch a new question based on what, and I try to forget the first answer. It is not easy, and I still often run into the trap, but it is getting better and better. It goes both ways. I get better at crossing the inter-cultural chasm, and my Chinese engineers find new ways of reaching out in my direction. We try to work with humor and laugh at our misunderstandings, but it is never easy.

The challenge is: Getting to No!

The Lean Startup – Idea and book review

Seldom a bok is really worth reading in one sitting, but this time I was captivated and had enough time on a long flight to dig in cover to cover. Eric Ries tells a compelling story of running startups according to a structured methodology, based on Lean thinking and the philosophy of the Toyota Production System.

As I have experienced lean both in the automotive industry flavor and the software style called agile, I could identify with many of the situations and observations in the case studies in the book. However, this is the first time I see someone applying the principles to the organizationally uncertain environment of a startup. And Ries is very convincing.

In the last years, starting a greenfield R&D operation, I have encountered countless situations where the conventional metrics of success seem counterproductive and odd. In Lean Startup, some of these situations are included as examples of dilemmae facing the entrepreneur. I have felt oddly dissatisfied with our output, since I have had no tools to measure the progress, only admitting to myself that the positive picture of my department is more based on faith than on facts.

Ries also gives me words to formulate how the corporate standardized waterfall model of product development is disfunctional in a quickly changing environment. The obvious Build-Measure-Learn-cycle is now one year, instead of possibly a month or a week. We still operate with the assumption that the customers can explicitly state exactly what they want and that it is our job to make the optimal product matching these requirements. I will come back in another post why this is a flawed starting point.

The book is an easy read, and the key points come across clearly and vividly. The first-hand experience of Ries, and the way he shares his own failures with wit and self-depreciation add to the credibility to the story. The weakest part of the book is when Ries proclaims himself as the philosophical leader of a new industrial thinking revolution, which is probably an exaggeration.

Magnus Enarsson, thank you for pointing this book. It is inspiring and I am convinced that we will develop ways to work smarter!

True North – Book and idea review


Authentic Leadership is the thing. The last few years have seen an explosion in publications claiming the virtues of Authentic Leadership, especially since the publication of True North by Bill George in 2007. I just read this book and it got me to think quite a lot about this.

It is a very well-written book that reads smoothly and gives a very positive picture about honest and hard working Americans who lead their companies to a better future by being open and fair. However, there are a few things in in the background that dissonate.

First of all, authentic leadership is not really a description of a certain leadership style or any observable facts, but it a moralistic value judgement of the person in question. It is also implicitly assumed that it is automatically better for the company to have an authentic leader. Both these concepts are not obvious.

True North is based on interviews with a hundred successful people who are regarded as “authentic”. We get to hear the leaders’ own stories and explanations for their success. The book is written as stories around different topics, with examples from the lives of the people interviewed, with their names included.

Therefore, every leader shares a story he/she wants us to hear, a story where he/she is the hero. We accept and acclaim that the heroes of our time get the power and perks associated with top-positions in the corporate world and the state administration. Therefore, almost all of the leaders interviewed claim that they have fairly struggled against improbable odds and made innumerable sacrifices to get where they are.
The stories all sound like the script of a classic Hollywood movie:
1. Show the hero in a sympathetic scene, e.g. playing football with his son.
2. Show the hero in a difficult situation, e.g. kidnap the son and put the police force to hunt the hero.
3. Let the hero kill all the villains, rescue the son and celebrate with the President. He is now worth a big house and a big car and the most beautiful lady.
All stories follow the same pattern.

True North is written as a handbook, how to “discover” your own authentic leadership, and how to communicate it. There is even a chapter in this book on how to frame your “life story” to fit the hero-pattern. Maybe it works for the people who work for you, if they think of you as a hero, but I am not convinced.

Therefore, I regard this book a collection of inspiring stories, not at all as a guideline for operation. There is a big contrast to e.g. “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, where objective criteria are defined first, and the examples come out. In addition, in “Good to Great”, most of the descriptions of the leaders are done by observers, not by the subjects themselves. I never trust someone who tells me that they have been winning everything against all odds.

Reorganization

The last day before the Christmas holidays, top management presented a reorganization of the company. Two of the three divisions will be merged, and then cut apart in another direction. It is like cutting a cake sideways instead of longways. It is fanfared with all the usual “leveraging strengths” and “stronger focus” and “driving profitability” buzzwords.

The key objective seems to be to serve the key customer industries better, at the expense of the lesser ones. It looks a lot like 80/20 thinking – the fact that 80% of the revenue typically is generated by 20% of the customers. However, 80/20 thinking has one flaw and that is the dynamic aspect – the evolution over time. The top ten customers today are not the top ten customers of ten years ago. Even in a slow business like mechanical components business, the landscape changes fast and a company that will be our key customer in five years is a marginal customer today. One of the thousands. And there is no way knowing which one it is.

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly advantages of the new setup. In some sense, the organization looks a little less complex, at least from the top. I believe in clear mandates and that seems more uniform across the board, which is good.

Many cynics are critical of reorganizations, because it is never really clear that it brings any advantage at all at the workfloor. It is often seen as a useless exercise by managers who want new titles. However, every organizational setup has strong and weak points, and it foces different people to work together, while they still know people in another part of the organization. In that sense, a reorganization is a way to strenghten the informal network, through enforcing new reporting lines and new colleagues, while people still see their old colleagues for coffee and gossip.  Therefore, I think that it is good to stir in the kettle once in a while.

An aside here, and advice for future reorganizing champions: Don’t announce before holidays. Then the worrisome among us will have sleepless nights when they need to reconnect with their family and friends. Do you think they will talk well about your company? Is this the advertisement you need? Do you think it is right to deprive them of their well-deserved time off from a demanding job?
Of course you yourself will see less torment, so you may sleep better after presenting your plans just before a long break…