Thursday, July 31, 2014

Creating Positions Of Power

When people feel empowered they are more productive. It’s an unsurprising conclusion. The Harvard Business Review blog picked up on this theme when commenting on a global study conducted by Gallup of 600,000 employees. Leadership support, recognition, constant communication, and trust were essential to creating a thriving environment where front-line employees felt they had the autonomy to make a real difference in the organization.

Most people equate ‘positions of power’ as meaning there has to be someone beneath them, when it’s really about giving people the power to act on their judgment. It doesn’t matter what position they hold – janitor, barista or finance director. If people feel that they can make calls, they actively look for ways to make improvements that make the entire team, and business, stronger. Same thing occurs in sport.

On the flipside, people lose interest in highly structured environments, where every single decision has to be run past someone further up the chain. The bravest employers and coaches are happy to take the risk that mistakes will be made and learnt from. They then get the benefits of having an engaged team. Micro-managers get to keep control, only to watch on as the exit door keeps swinging open.

Here are some pretty famous examples where creating positions of power has led to winning teams:
  • The All Blacks – All Blacks coaches are big on planning, but even bigger on backing their players to change the game when the moment requires. During the 2011 World Cup final against France the team did exactly that. Instead of kicking deep as instructed, the players, sensing a counterattack threat, decided to back themselves. They maintained their discipline and defended the middle of the park in penalty goal territory. They won by a sole point in a nail-biter game.
  • The Ritz Carlton – The Ritz-Carlton employs the policy that every employee can use their judgment to spend up to $2,000 on the spot to improve the stay of any guest. By empowering every staffer to deliver for every guest, The Ritz-Carlton has ensconced itself as a Lovemark in the highly competitive hotel market.
  • Google – The software gurus have a whole suite of initiatives at their disposal, including flexible work days and creative spaces. Then there’s ‘Googlegeist’, a survey that solicits feedback on hundreds of issues and then enlists volunteer employee teams across the entire company to solve the biggest problems. No surprise they can deliver what they do with half the staff of competitors.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Meet The Shadow

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Chris Lightburn is a Cumbrian whippet and quite possibly the most dominant OCR (obstacle course racing) runner the UK has seen. At 5’7” and 11 stone, they call him The Shadow - no doubt a play on his name combining neatly with his physique! Out of 15 OCR races Chris has won 9 and hit the podium on 5 other occasions. And he’s only 20. Anyone who understands stamina sports knows competitors don’t tend to peak till their late 20s. He’s only getting started.

Chris hit my radar after he approached a friend of mine, Malcolm Thorogood (appropriately named right?), for help achieving his dream. Chris has a dream to be an international star. He’s got a winner’s spirit, knows the sport is taking off and wants to head the pack. Here’s a type who trains the house down because he’s never satisfied with what he’s already achieved. It’s all eyes ahead.

With Malcolm as his agent and mentor, Chris defended the title he has already won – the Total Warrior Super 10 race. It’s a punishing course of obstacles over two days, 10km each. In 2012 Chris beat out 2,500 competitors. Last year it was 6,000. This year, over 10,000 people entered. Everyone wanted to knock off the local lad. My money was on them chasing The Shadow and Chris delivered.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Numbers Or Friends: Who Do You Trust More?

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Cold analysis or subjective recommendation? Computer algorithm or human intuition? I don’t get to wander the aisles of a library, or seek advice from resident experts on what makes for good reading, but I remain unconvinced that an algorithm will ever be my preferred advisor over a recommendation from someone I know, who knows me.

The question being posed today, is would you take an algorithm’s recommendation over an expert, or friend? Algorithms are marketing tools. They’re up-sellers. They judge our interests based on past behavior and suggest similar content. Problem is they have no personal stories or memories to draw on. Their recommendations are somewhat reflective of your own taste. If you’ve been searching for books on travel to Wales, guess what books Amazon will start recommending to you? It won’t tell you to rebook your flight and head off into the sun.

Aside from the fact I think we need to maintain as much human contact as possible in an increasingly digitized world, asking the opinions of others comes with the added benefit of broadening our horizons. Given how heavily monitored our online presence is, with algorithms shaping everything we’re exposed to, including ads, there is a risk that we wind up living in these little bubbles where the only new ideas we’re exposed to are the ones that already fit with our world view. Academics call it confirmation bias.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Plus One

Few creative relationships are as memorable as that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Without the other neither may have become famous, and there would be no Strawberry Fields to Imagine.

McCartney said in an interview earlier this year in The Atlantic that he and John wrote nearly 300 songs together. “I’d go to his house, or he’d go to mine, and we’d sit down for approximately three hours and try and write a song. And I realized we never came away without a song.” He goes on to explain that they nearly had one bad day, but after toying some lyrics for a few hours after a cup of tea they agreed to change the key line from ‘golden ring’ to ‘drive my car’… The rest is history.

While many might wish to consider John and Paul as two individual creatives in the same team, their relationship disputes the myth of the lone genius. And so do the partnerships of Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis. These are relationships that have changed lives, made history and created movements. I don’t doubt there are many real examples that show that individuals in and of themselves are creative powerhouses, but for the most part we have – and need - help.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Crucial Traits of Innovators

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Optimism is often dismissed as false hope. But there is also false hopelessness. That’s the attitude that says we can’t defeat poverty and disease. We absolutely can.

The commencement address at Stanford University is a stage for inspiring keynote speeches - Sandra Day O’Connor (2004), Steve Jobs (2005), Oprah Winfrey (2008) and Michael Bloomberg (2013) to name a few. This year, Bill and Melinda Gates took the podium and used the opportunity to talk about the power of optimism. Those who have followed this blog know that’s a topic I’m particularly passionate about and their speech was truly inspiring.

The Gates spoke of how the innovations that truly matter in this world are powered by empathetic optimism. By people who are determined to improve the lives of others, no matter how impossible it might appear on the surface. They refer to big ticket issues like poverty, malaria and AIDS. In essence, human suffering. They contrast the outlook of pessimists who see only a world of increasing inequality and declining opportunity, with those who believe in the power of the human spirit and mind to innovate and make the world better, and ask: ‘who is right?’

The Gates are driven by the heart-breaking scenarios they’ve seen first-hand, and the feelings of inadequacy and helplessness when confronted with suffering on the ground. They know they don’t have all the answers. Not yet anyway. But they believe in the power of optimism and the abilities of future generations to unleash a new wave of creative thinking. If their speech resonated with just a fraction of the audience and helped shape their future decisions, then the world will be winning.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Emoji Cravings

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The digital world will never capture the intimacy of an in person conversation. Chat, email, text, Skype, whatever your online communication preference is, it has emotional limits. You can never truly gauge someone’s emotional state unless you’re in front of them. The nuances of tone and body language are crucial. Then come the eyes. The glisten of joy, or narrowed brow of fury. Unmistakable. They’re not referred to as the window to the soul for nothing.

We all know the danger of trying to read emotion from a text message. More often it reflects our own mental state than the person we’re corresponding with. The brain is a master at convincing us of what we want to believe vs. reality. So trust the Japanese to invent a solution in the form of the emoji – literally meaning picture character. It’s a digital emotion and they are everywhere. There’s even an emoji parody of Game of Thrones.

The good people at DataLab at FiveThirtyEight have nailed down the top 100 most popular emojis on Twitter. I’m sure you can guess what No.1 is. It’s a heart. People love to love. Secondly, they love to be happy (the joy emoji took the bridesmaid slot). Emojis sum us up so succinctly. We crave emotional expression, especially in a digital world. We want to know what someone is feeling, not just what they’re saying.