Category Archives: Strategy

The One Way to Constructively Defuse an Argument

Constructive conflict is a healthy part of any organization. Deprived of it, we end up with a lack of innovation, status quos are not challenged, necessary questions are avoided, and there is a lethal amount of consensus. The key is how we address this conflict.

One way to face conflict is fast and furious. Like the multi-sequel movie franchise, we can follow Dom Toretto’s philosophy:

I live my life a quarter-mile at a time. Nothing else matters; not the mortgage; not the store; not my team and their bullshit. For those ten seconds or less, I’m free.

When we lead through a “quarter-mile at a time” mindset, we are likely to engage in such practical strategies as seeking compromise, utilizing empathy, avoiding blame, apologizing, and forgiving past actions. However, while these techniques can be effective, they do not work when we are in the midst of a heated argument where we feel emotionally invested. So how can we improve our ability to resolve our interpersonal conflicts?

According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, you are more likely to resolve conflict through superior reasoning strategies when you consider the situation in the long run. By distancing yourself from your current feelings, you are better equipped to unravel negative events and find resolution. Otherwise, according to another study, you are prone to ruminating, recounting, and re-experiencing the negative event indefinitely.

Still not convinced you are better off with a marathon (versus sprint) mentality? A study in Psychological Review found that imagining the future is a natural outlet to thinking more abstractly about an interpersonal conflict. Once we are able to transcend the present moment and put the negative events in context, we are less focused on recounting it and more focused on thinking about the bigger picture. And with enhanced adaptive reasoning strategies, the research reported that participants had a greater influx of positive emotions and insight.

To resolve conflicts, we need to think beyond a “quarter-mile at a time.” How will it pan out tomorrow, next week, and next year? It may not be as harrowing as a fast and furious solution, but the measure of successful leadership is not reliant on how quickly you reach the finish line.

Three Ways to Provide Meaningful Context with Questlove

Ever had a new, ingenious idea that was met with a thud? I’m sure YOU haven’t but you’ve probably seen it happen to others. I was speaking with a CEO recently who had been working on an exciting new direction for her company. She had questions about strategy, but what we really should have been discussing was her communication plan when launching it.

At the company-wide unveiling, she eagerly revealed the plan. There were charts and graphs and every other quantifiable measure to support her idea. And then there was silence—a bleak, soul crushing silence.

It turns out that no one, including her leadership team, had any inkling this was coming. They thought they were attending a quarterly review, not a turn-the-world-upside-down upheaval. Change, in itself, can be scary, but what’s even scarier is when you don’t understand the what’s, why’s, and how’s. What my colleague was missing was context.

Context involves our ability to interrelate something you already know with whatever change we’d like to instill. Questlove, a music aficionado, record producer, and drummer/joint frontman for The Roots, recently discussed this on Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin:

No one has ever had success in music without being contextualized in an artistic community. So, you think you like Stevie Wonder, but no, you associate Stevie Wonder with Smokie [Robinson], The Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Motown family… The only people that had success without a family or contextualization are one-hit wonders… Everyone is associated with a movement. Look at The Police. They were part of that post-punk movement, early new wave movement, Talking Heads. Even if they don’t do it by design, we as consumers think that.

Just as no one has ever had success in music without being contextualized, no leader is successful in business without contextualizing their ideas. With context, the leader sets the tone so they can initiate commitment and support for change. It taps into individuals’ established schemas and mental models so they can create the mental links necessary to apply the new information to their construction of reality. If this seems complicated, these three simple techniques can help you provide context to your team.

Know thy audience. Everything is interpreted through someone’s context. It shapes the meaning in all communication. Thus, when your message is delivered in a context that is not compatible with the audience, miscommunication is inevitable. Maintain an understanding as to what your audience already knows and how they are most receptive to learning.

Squash fears. Change is often associated with fear, and fear is often associated with a lack of understanding. So illustrate how the new plan meshes with the current strategy. Explain what, if anything, it is replacing. Describe how it will reallocate resources, job duties, etc. and how it will affect individual employees.

Provide history. Every new concept has a background, a past. It may involve an update, revision, or enhancement to a current concept; a best practice; or a new industry standard…but it didn’t materialize out of thin air. Plot out the history so others can visualize how the project started and why it is necessary.

Very often we assume others can comprehend these connections without explanation; after all, it is so clear to us. However, as in the case of the aforementioned CEO, she had been thinking about her new direction for almost two years before the launch. That is two years of pondering, brainstorming, and intellectualizing. Two years of making the associations she needed to bridge the gap between her vision and the current state of the company. Two years of contextualizing.

Want to learn from her misstep? Inform your team of the issue at hand through a workable framework. Address their concerns. Give them the background information you already possess so they can visualize the decision making leading up to your resolution. It may not seem like much, but it’s the context they need to associate your new Stevie Wonder with their classic Smokie Robinson.

Weekender: Veronica Roth on Strategically Organizing Your Thoughts

veronica-roth-2Welcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a faction of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just one faction? Because it’s the weekend!

When I take on a new project, my initial reaction is to jump into it…and by “jump” I mean headfirst without examining the depth or temperature of the water. I hear an idea that excites me and it takes all of my willpower to slow down, assess the situation, and develop a plan. It turns out that author Veronica Roth has experienced the same thing.

A few years ago, some friends suggested I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. The premise had me by the end of the first chapter—a post-apocalyptic Chicago where citizens are segregated into one of five factions as defined by personality traits. With the complex plot and growing cast of characters, it can get difficult to keep track of everything going on. Apparently, this is true for both the reader and the author. In a recent interview, Roth said:

I learned a lot from writing the Divergent books, like ‘plan ahead,’ and ‘keep track.’ I loved writing those books, but by the time I got to Allegiant [the third book in the series], I was like, ‘I have set myself up with some very difficult rules because I didn’t think this through.’ I was definitely a little bit more flying by the seat of my pants with the Divergent books. This time [with my new series Carve the Mark], I was like, ‘No, you’re going to think through these planets, how they work, what they look like, what they’re called, how these languages work, all of these things. Figure it out.’

We could discuss the need for a solid implementation plan via project management practices, but knowledge of the project specifics is only a piece of the preparation process. Time must be set aside to organize your thoughts.

Some people organize their thoughts through spreadsheets; others (like myself) plot it out in charts and diagrams. Some start at the beginning; others work backwards. Some involve people from the onset; others wait until they have a skeleton of a plan. The point is to be methodical and purposeful. Think it through, consider consequences, and have the details in order before it’s time to launch.

Optics: The Most Overused (and Over Emphasized) Term in the Presidential Election

clinton-trump-handshake-bannerIt’s a little soon to look back at the 2016 presidential election for a shrewd analysis of lessons learned, but if there has been one prevailing theme, it’s the emphasis on optics. Optics places an increased value on how something looks versus how it actually is. It’s the battle between imagery and substance… and in this election, imagery clearly won.

‘Optics’ is hot, rivaling content.—William Safire

Over the last 18 months, headlines have declared “Media Figures Praise Optics Of Trump’s Mexico Visit” or “Clinton Team Fretted About Foundation Optics.” It’s not bothersome to briefly discuss how something appears; the problem is that the punditry is obsessed with the optics and covers it as if they are actualities. Just during the post-debate chatter, how much airtime was dedicated to Clinton and Trump’s “presence” on the stage versus their talking points?

But it’s more than the news coverage. The campaigns have designated optics as the single most important qualifier to win the election. Why discuss substantive policies and global ideology when you can hurl hollow on-liners to rally your base? Even if they have detailed plans, there is no political upside to discussing them in-depth; it would only give their opponent fodder to tear them down without having to mention to own plans.

dukasis-tankThe focus on optics in politics is not a new phenomenon. Remember when George W. Bush stood in front of the “Mission Accomplished” banner? Or when Michael Dukakis took a picture in that tank? Or when George H.W. Bush looked at watch during a debate? Or the GOP “outrage” when Barack Obama addressed an airline attack while vacationing in his home state of Hawaii? All optics, no actual significance.bush-mission-accomplished

Going back to 1978, Jimmy Carter’s special counselor on inflation was the first to use the term optics when he told business leaders that if they went along with the administration’s anti-inflation measures, they would be invited to the White House as “a nice optical step.” At the time, The Wall Street Journal immediately rebuffed these overtures by writing, “Optics will not cure inflation.” Now, bragging about optics is the norm.

The truth is that we are to blame for optical dominance. Over the last 30 years, cable news has routinely shown loops of candidates’ quippy one-liners and we have rewarded them with higher ratings. It was only a matter of time until politicians took notice and made this the crux of their campaigns. It increased their airtime, which legitimized/propelled their candidacy, without forcing them to create an actual policy.

As business leaders, I hope we learn the right lessons from this campaign cycle. Be aware of your optics, but use them to further your substance. If you want a culture of teamwork, demonstrate public displays of teamwork. If you want a culture of innovation, demonstrate public displays of innovation. This is not the empty optics we see in political campaigns; you are modeling and reinforcing the company’s core values.

Leadership is more then looking like the leader. You are responsible for making decisions that affect the livelihood of others, the quality of products/services you provide, and the communities in which you live. These responsibilities demand (and deserve) an informed, substantive leader. Success predicated on optics is short-lived; choose a more sustainable path.

Candy Corn’s Leadership Lessons

Holidays are often associated with a particular candy. Christmas has candy canes, Valentine’s Day has those little heart candies, Easter has Cadbury Creme Eggs, and Halloween has candy corn. These yellow, orange, and white striped, corn-kernel-shaped treats were popularized in the 1880s. Today, more than 35 million pounds (or 9 billion pieces) of candy corn are produced each year.

There aren’t many products with the staying power to get more popular over the course of 140 years. So when we find them, there’s surely a leadership lesson to be learned. Here are a few:

The recipe has not changed

Candy corn is basically the same as it was since the turn of the century. With the exception of a few minor ingredients, what we are eating today is the same as the cowboys of the Old West, the soldiers of World War I, and our great, great grandparents.

In today’s business climate, “old” is often considered to be a bad thing. We see this whenever a political candidate peddles change or a new leader joins a company tasked with creating an agenda of transformative initiatives. While necessary, there is value in maintaining the core beliefs of the organization. We can taut branding and re-branding efforts, but don’t lose sight that these are ways to package the company, not make widespread modifications to your principles, i.e. your original recipe.

Candy corn is the only candy in the history of America that’s never been advertised. And there’s a reason — all of the candy corn that was ever made was made in 1911.—Lewis Black

Don’t stop rebranding

While it’s important to maintain your core essence, this does not mean you should remain stagnant. At one time, candy corn was sold as “Chicken Feed.” Changing the name to candy corn did not change its quintessence, it only made it more appetizing.

Additionally, remaining true to its tri-color design (which was considered revolutionary for its time) and shape (which was originally intended to entice the agrarian population of the early 1900’s) has led to an expansion of the product. You can now purchase “Reindeer Corn” (red/green) for Christmas, “Cupid Corn” (red/pink) for Valentine’s Day, and “Freedom Corn” (red/white/blue) for July 4th.

Creativity is key

candycorncocktailBesides renovating your product or service to expand your offerings, there are a number of instances where you can repurpose into completely different markets. Did you know you can order a Candy Corn Cordial cocktail made with vodka, orange liqueur, and floating candy corn for garnish? What about a Candy Corn Bagel topped with a marshmallow chocolate chip spread?

Candy corn is a staple for Halloween and the fall season. Whether or not you like it, it’s been around for a long time and has no foreseeable decline. Embrace it’s tri-color leadership lessons. Retain consistency while constantly renovating. Explore innovative ways to grow your base through tweaks and reimagined uses. And always strive to be the candy pumpkin in the bag of candy corn…you know it’s the best.