Tag Archives: Leadership

Persistent Joke #5

Similar to the Twelve Days of Christmas, we are drawing special emphasis to Number 5!

This one comes to us via Henry Mintzberg at McGill University. Karl Moore has a very popular cover version of this joke.

Here is the joke:

A group of soon-to-be freshly minted MBAs are sent on their final program project where they leave the world of case studies and simulations. They are to test their skills on a “live patient” as they analyze a real organization and provide strategic counsel to improve their future competitiveness.

Through a family connection, they start to work on a mid-level professional orchestra.

Sound strategic analysis tells the group that one high-potential strategy for “regional service providers” is to focus on efficiency in delivery, which can create the case flow required to acquire and grow. After careful and thorough analysis, the group reports back with observations and strategic recommendations. Highlights include:

Under the heading Talent Effectiveness:

  • The group seems to be performing mostly on evenings and weekends. Payroll is a major expense for such services and we are concerned that you are paying a premium for work outside of regular business hours.
  • Performances tend to be 2 or 3 hours, several times per month, with summers off. Operations Management thinking around “batch processing” will suggest that grouping performances together can curtail costs for set up and take down.

Under the heading Technology Deployment:

  • Some of the instruments appear very outdated, with one violin being several hundred years old. A comprehensive equipment refresh would take advantage of new materials that require much less maintenance and, in many cases, weigh a great deal less than older instruments.
  • Audio technology to amplify sound could mean that some of the sections that currently employ several people—who, by the way, are often playing EXACTLY the same thing—could be reduced to one player per part.

NOTE: This latter recommendation will allow additional seating for audience members on the stage. (The group attributed this insight to Blue Ocean Strategy.)

Owing to extreme tact, the group was able to access position-level compensation. This had them create a special subheading Immediate Next-level Impact:

The conductor’s remuneration is the highest of the group, although the function of this position during performances seemed to be largely to keep time and cue musicians. The group provided contact information for a classmate developer who would create an app that could both keep time and provide instant messaging cues through small electric shock so as not to provide audio interference.

Needless to say, when leadership of the Orchestra politely rejected ALL of this strategic advice, our group took it as evidence that status quo decision makers often reject “out of the box thinking” only to come to regret that decision later on when they inevitably cease to operate competitively.

Here is the point:

In many workplace interactions, let’s be mindful of three important elements for those participating:

  • Level of understanding of the situation,
  • Level of insight into workable improvement, and
  • Level of confidence to share thoughts.

Misalignment between the last one and the first two creates unfortunate situations where EITHER people speak without knowing what they are talking about OR they do not speak when they really should.

Persistent thought-provoking joke #2

Having shared passengership on an ill-fated cruise, three professionals (a mechanical engineer, a chemist and an economist) find themselves marooned on a desert island with no source of nourishment but cans of tuna. Together, using emergency equipment from a life-raft, they have fashioned a means to capture fresh water from rain and condensation. Having mitigated the risk of dying of thirst, the three now turn their problem-solving skills to avoiding starvation:

Mechanical Engineer: I am going to walk up the beach to see if there are rocks and vines we can use. We may be able to generate enough force to break into those cans.

Chemist: If we can get enough super-salinized water in a receptacle, we may be able to soak the cans and speed up the corrosion that will weaken the cans. I am going to start by digging a hole in the sand.

Economist: I’ll set the table.

Both non-economists in unison: Hey! We can’t eat until we get these cans open!

Economist: Oh, sorry. I should have told you. I am assuming that we have a can opener.

The metaphor here is for the problem: “how do we open these cans of tuna?” and the point of the joke is that we all bring our own tools and orientations to any problem. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” is yet another humourous illustrating of the weight of our own expertise in driving the action we think is best.

Rather than mocking economists for making assumptions, this joke illustrates that we all make assumptions all the time. In dealing with areas that are complex and have a degree of ambiguity (like managing performance in any business), we have to make some assumptions and make some decisions based on less-than-certain data and evidence.

Perhaps, once our two non-economists gently raise awareness to the fact that the stated assumption does not hold, our economist can engage in a more impactful supportive role. Such moments of redirection require a fairly specific context that includes shared focus, mutual trust and assertive communications.

Persistent thought-provoking joke #1

A new beat police officer patrolling the street one night finds a man squatted down at the base of lamppost. He appears to be looking for something. The officer learns that the lost object is indeed car keys and, being a kind soul, joins in the search. After a few minutes, and almost apologetically, the young officer probes to kick off the following dialogue:

Officer: “Where did you last have the keys?”

Man: “I had them when I went into that alley to, ah, take care of something.”

Officer (curious about the “something”, but feeling the next question is almost patronizing): “Then can I ask you why you are searching for them at the base of this lamppost?”

Man: “Well, you see, the light is so much better out here.”

Funny? Relevant? Yes, indeed!

The joke relates to the area of organizational performance in that people will focus on the data/evidence/findings that they have. The metaphorical circle around the base of the lamppost that is reasonably well lit. The statement, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” suggests that we pay attention to what is under the lamppost… or, bring big lights in to illuminate the alley.

The alley is the metaphor for the ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds many business decisions. Even with top-flight (and expensive!) lighting, we are not going to see every nook and cranny. Alley is a misleading metaphor because it has walls and eventually ends. Maybe the joke should reference a recollection of having the keys while in “the abyss.”

Maybe we can wade into the alley/abyss with a flash light and create more well-lit circles to inform the situation. This should be an area of curiosity around what else we could be measuring.

Maybe we simply venture into the alley and see what we bump into. This may indeed uncover some learning about which parts of the abyss are more interesting.

It is much more comfortable to stay by the lamppost, but this limits our ability to assess the situation and, thereby, monitor and judge performance.

The solvable problem with Self Evaluations

I have a vivid memory of a self-evaluation from my undergrad days at McGill. We had to take a writing course, which must have been a cross-cultural exercise for the Faculty of English instructors that ventured into the Business building for these weekly encounters. There was a self-evaluation at the end of it, which, if I recall correctly, included a pre-amble that encouraged reflection on your development over the 12 weeks, as well as your ability compared to your classmates. I think I may have been guilted into responding “B+” and admitting that I could really have done more. I talked to classmates afterwards, some of whom skipped a number of classes. Their responses were “A. Can I give myself an A+?” (Note: A+ was not an option. McGill operated on the U.S. 4-point GPA system.)

This is a very obvious example of the challenges of “self-evaluations.” Self-attribution bias leads us to truly believe that we excel. Self-preservation instincts dampen the guilt of over stating the truth because these results can create positive future options or avoid negative future outcomes. For the undergrad business student, “strong marks = better job opportunities upon graduation” so, go for the A.  In a business context, if staffing cuts are looming, do you really want to have a mediocre self-evaluation in the HR file?! I wonder how many of my fellow graduates, decades into their business careers, have grown to learn that actual strength in writing provides a significant advantage in the workplace.

Necessary perspective

The self-evaluation brings the performer’s perspective into the discussion, which is absolutely crucial and applies to an organizational context. In addition to “perspective,” objectivity is also vital and this is enabled by clear criteria. The healthiest criteria mix features both “what you do” (e.g. somewhat controllable; gets at “how” your get results) and “what you accomplish” (e.g. somewhat more impacted by external factors; focussed on outcomes).

The evaluation becomes less of an assault on the ego if we can validate that someone did “what was expected” even if they did not “achieve expected results.” This demands some time and effort up front to go through the exercise of making logical connections between activity and results. You have to be ready for a reasoned conversation about what drives performance.

“How are we doing?” is a big question

For an organization, the questions about “what results do you want to achieve?” and “what do you think gives the best chance at achieving those results?” are really big questions that bring out some deep-seeded assumptions. A good strategic discussion will expose these and will explore some of the big decisions behind some of our assumptions. This should surface options to move forward rather than a clear best way. Imagine interactions where people say, “We said we are trying to reduce T&E, so we can’t fly everyone down for this meeting,” OR “We said that our focus was growing our business with our top-tier accounts, so we can’t get too anxious because we lost some tier-3 business.”

Like anything, involvement breeds acceptance, so it makes sense to have a senior-team conversation to tease out relevant expected outcomes and relevant expected actions. When you are involved in creating your own report card, the evaluation feels less daunting. This may turn down the volume on the “self-attribution bias” and the “self-preservation instinct.”

All I really need to know I learned in… Business School?

Every once in a while you will see the “Everything important I learned in Kindergarten” claims that list insights like: clean up after yourself, share everything, be nice to others and wash your hands before you eat. I find myself thinking about the responsibility of business schools (especially at the graduate level) to encourage business-ready behaviours in addition to business-ready thinking. A big part of this, in my opinion, is dialling down the teacher-student dynamic whereby the latter is extremely attentive to discerning what the former wants to hear and restricts all commentary accordingly. There is an interesting transition from “what are your expectations for a deliverable?” to “what should I write for the deliverable?” I know managers face the same challenge in dealing with some direct reports.

School can be an exciting and stressful time for students and any instructor has to deal with a wide range of behaviours. As an instructor in an MBA program, I frequently use the litmus test of “would this be tolerated/encouraged in an effective workplace?” to determine my responses to some of the more notable cases. Consistent with this, in my opinion, an effective workplace would not have employees pandering in the aforementioned manner to the “bosses,” although I know that such corporate cultures and managerial styles do exist.

There are two big buckets of behaviours that catch my focus:

  1. Surprise and delight – e.g. Wow! I didn’t even ask you to / tell you to do that.
  2. Jaw dropping – e.g. Wow! Someone has to ask you / tell you to do (not to do) that?

The contents of Bucket #1 often shed a light on areas where I could have been much more clearer with my instructions. As I find myself with dozens of downloaded files with the title “mid term,” the file stands out when it includes the student’s name and other identifying information (e.g. chris_irwin_mid-term_ WED class). People often talk about little things making a big difference, but the impact of that alone is huge. Perhaps those who include it have received guidance in the past (e.g. please include your name and section number in the file name). Perhaps they have been in a similar multiple-file-receiving situation themselves. I can’t help but draw the assumption that this is an example of someone thinking “My professor will get a lot of these. What can I do to make their life a little easier?” (Note: I am fully aware that any future student, having read this,  may engage in that specific practice because they know that is what I want.)

The agonizingly opposing actions (destined for Bucket #2) is the response: “You didn’t tell us we had to…” Understandably, this is most often in response to students losing marks for things… and usually the student is “right” in that I could have told them. (Equating “grades” and “performance evaluations” is a topic for another time.) Invoking my earlier litmus test, should someone at a Masters level of education be expecting to be told everything they need to do? My answer to this is, “No,” but I am sure there are differing responses that are completely reasonable. In some work contexts, it is reasonable to be prescriptive about the tasks involved. I have heard many a manager complain that their team members are too quick to say “just tell me what to do,” rather than be reasonably pro-active… maybe thinking “I do have some questions, but my boss is really busy; can I do anything to make my bosses life easier?”

In addition to analysis tools and skills, in addition to practical conceptual frameworks, I think that business schools have a responsibility to promote behaviours that will lead to success in the workplace (and discourage behaviours that won’t). Idealistic as this may be, if we go back to the litmus test, we are looking for behaviours that align with an “effective workplace.” Whether these behaviours are the cause or the effect of business success is an academic question (that could be kicked around a business school!).

We have a diversity problem? Who says?

Earlier this month, Chris MacDonald wrote about diversity programs and why they fail. The list of reasons includes breeding resentment toward the marginalized group for causing additional work.

Why corporate diversity programs fail, and what to do about it

This very realistic (and wholly unintended) consequence is textbook irony. Those attached to an initiative that goes sideways in this manner will exhaust all credibility in affecting future cultural shifts in their organization. This is the danger when efforts are made to solve a “problem” that has yet to be defined and properly contextualized.

Lots of aspirational words drive efforts to change a culture: innovation, efficiency, collaboration, accountability and, of course, diversity. Each of these aspirational (and metaphorical) sticks has a wrong end that is easily grasped. It is well worth taking a step back to ask some critical questions about the current state before launching your program to increase <<insert aspirational noun>>.

If you think your organization has a diversity problem (or, has an opportunity to improve its diversity), go through the exercise of making the case to someone who says to you: “Problem? What problem?”

Are you…

  • In a knowledge-driven industry? Diversity in approach among your staff will drive better insights.
  • Afraid of not complying to regulations? Get out in front of this one.
  • Embroiled in the war on talent? A focus on diversity might boost your Glassdoor reputation.
  • Seeing well-heeled competitors poach your top-talent? Earn loyalty by doing the right thing.

A word of caution:

“The right thing” is in the eye of the beholder. You may run into leaders who feels that, for example, earning loyalty from our employees does not justify the time, energy, dollars, risk, etc. of the investment in your initiative. Such push back may reveal some pervasive cultural attitudes toward employees. As one of those employees, rather than affect the culture, you may rethink your decision to continue working there.





Learning fast and slow – Educating and Credentialing

Earlier this month the Financial Post magazine did its feature on MBA programs part of which was MBA alumni commenting on how their education contributed to their success. Ellis Jacob (CEO of Cineplex) and Jennifer Reynolds (CEO of Women in Capital Markets) both provided excellent reinforcement of the benefits of getting a grounding in business education. From my perspective as an instructor in an MBA program, this is  heartening reinforcement from the real world.

An additional common theme was a little less comforting to me: both of these leaders talked about the drive to complete the program as quickly as possible. I understand this urgency, and my discomfort is not so much in a student being anxious to get on with their career, but in the temptation to see the gaining of a credential as the secret to success rather than the rigour and thinking skills that one should develop in such a program.

Given their impressive accomplishments, I am convinced that neither of these CEOs think that learning to run a businesses comes in the form of a crash course. Ms. Reynold heads an organization that advocates for women in a sector that is heavily male-dominated for reasons that can’t easily be explained in this day and age. Mr. Jacob has to deal with an entertainment industry that has seen “Silver Screen” experiences shift from IMAX to iPhone. Likely, the most tangible learning from their respective business programs was in understanding fundamental drivers and how to adapt to change. (This means that an MBA circa 1977 or 1998 sets you up to remain current.)

In the Nobel-prize-winning work Think Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shares how ill equipped we are to make reasoned decisions because the part of our brain that houses this competency is lazy and is quick to defer to our automatic but less thoughtful brain. Rushing through an MBA program may feel like speed meditating for quick enlightenment.

The somewhat clichéd description of higher education can be “learning how to think.” From my experience with business education (on both sides of the chalk), the real world is a wonderful, yet unforgiving forum to test your thinking and your credentials. As MBAs become more pervasive in the workplace, my hope is that the “slow learning” at the school of the real world further strengthens the educational grounding and helps this particular credential to improve with experience.

Thirteen Days – The Measure of Success Review

“..You just don’t get it Admiral, do you?.” (Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to Admiral George Madsen)

  • Finding new protocols
  • Negotiating without dealing directly
  • Remembering what is really important


This movie relives the 13 days that transpired in the fall of 1962 when President JFK was dealing with the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. There is a great deal of fascinating political history surrounding this story, but I will over simplify the situation by identifying a few key dynamics of the day:

  1. The newly elected Kennedy administration (not quite 2 years into his first term), did not have full support of Congress and the leadership in the Pentagon. (Some feared too much appeasement.)
  2. Earlier in the administration, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion caused some in the military to feel the need to bolster or repair their image.
  3. The Cold War was in full swing.

This unfolding story is a textbook case study in multi-party negotiations. Kennedy has an inner circle that includes his brother Bobby and long-time friend and advisory, Kenny O’Donnell. Through the political drama that is playing out on international and intra-government levels, they have to calculate what moves to make (and which not to) in order to keep on track and, more importantly, send the correct signals to stakeholders to protect and not sour/strain important relationships.

Spoiler Alert: They avoid starting WWIII (but you knew that).


There are a million different agendas at play in this movie, including those mentioned above that stem from embarrassment and outrage following the very public failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. There is a natural reaction for people want to prove themselves again or create situations to further expose the weaknesses of others. It is safe to say that not everyone wants JFK to succeed in this situation or, to be more nuanced, to be seen to have succeeded.

The one area that absolutely everyone can get behind is “avoid a nuclear war.” This is powerful and comes up again and again, sometimes as a threat (e.g. if you do that, you will force us/them into a war) and sometimes as a shared interest (e.g. none of us wants that to happen, right?).

It is hard to understand “how we are doing” when it comes to global peace, but the metaphoric journey is to advance the political agenda without triggering an international crisis. In the workplace, the downside may be less steep, but this provides a good lesson in dealing with “enemies” who share a common overarching goal of ours.

Set-up – Rules and Constraints:

One of the most interesting exchanges for me was that about the interpretation of the “rules of engagement” when a Soviet warship had breached the “blockade” (which was actually called a “quarantine” because technically a “blockade” is an “act of war”). The historic escalation protocol according to the Navy rules of engagement would have been to hail the ship, then fire blanks across the bow, then fire real artillery to disable the rudder before finally boarding the enemy ship.

JFK’s specific instruction of “no firing” without Presidential consent created some confusion as to whether or not firing a blank was actually “firing.” Conversations over specificity of wording to this level tend to try my patience, but this is a legitimate distinction to draw. The exchange between the Defense Secretary and the highest ranking naval officer is a fascinating look at how overt conflict is part of the fabric in navigating the waters of collaboration. (Pun intended, BTW.)

Set-up – Measures and Metrics:

The “result” that seems to define success in this context is: “have we started a nuclear war yet?” We are often in situations where the only obvious indicators are events or occurrences. This tends to be part of the territory for anyone operating with a “prevention” agenda. Have we been audited? Have we had a bad safety incident? Have key employees quit yet? Have we gone out of business yet?

A level down from that ultimate measure are two overt examples that fit in this area:

  • Were we fired on? In an effort to quell an overly reactive orientation from the military, JFK’s top aide persuades a pilot to hide the fact that they were indeed fired on. Hiding this evidence helps stay true to the “no war” objective while dodging the “retaliate when fired upon” rule that appears to be in place.
  • Have we cut any deals? As the situation intensifies, one creative solution that emerges is to trade the Soviet removal of missiles in Cuba for the US removal of missiles in Turkey. The quid pro quo of this is endearing, but if it were to happen, it can’t be seen to have been a deal, especially under threat.

In Sum:

Although the international diplomacy and threat of mass devastation may not be part of your regular workplace collaborations, there is a lot to be learned here about flexing some of the areas of the system (e.g. assumed “rules” and indicators) to keep focussed on the success that everyone can get behind. “World peace” can rank pretty high on the noble cause scale, but reminding people of a larger agenda can be very effective in enabling creativity and managing unavoidable conflict.

MONEYBALL – The Measure of Success Review

“..the first guy through the wall…it always gets bloody, always.” (John Henry to Billy Beane)

  • How things change
  • Getting people on board
  • Defining performance and changing expectations


This Michael Lewis story lays out what was the beginning of the rise of Sabermetrics: a new way of thinking about baseball. Previously, baseball nerd Bill James had a small cult-like following of people who always knew that mainstream baseball thinking and strategy were flawed. This group was enlightened but their wisdom was contained to the group of believers. The baseball establishment was simply not interested. In the early days of the new millennium, along comes Billy Beaned at GM of the Oakland A’s, whose particular problem makes it impossible to “play the game” as it is dictated.

“The problem we are trying to solve is that there are rich teams and poor teams, then there is 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” (Billy Beane to his Team Scouts)

The story plays out as Beane and his trusty sidekick Pete try to implement their strategy in collaboration with ownership, team scouts, team management and players. This challenge to an existing status quo and persistence in implementation are both fascinating and insightful, bringing real-world lessons to managers and leaders. Here is how the Money Ball story maps to the “collaboration game” framework.


There is a great scene in the movie (quoted above), where Billy Beane lays out the problem for his team of scouts. The expression of this is only partial in this scene where he alludes to the fact that they have to run a shoe-string budget. Earlier in the movie he is very clear to state that rather than just “be competitive” or “not embarrassing” the objective is to win the World Series. Although “winning the World Series” is a point in time accomplishment, the general direction of “be the best” is important here and distinctly different from “be one of the best” or “not be the worst.”

Set-up – Rules and Constraints:

The link between the “be the best” direction and the specific Oakland A’s challenge stems from the small budget. The opportunity here is to create an understanding that “this is a challenge” rather than “this is impossible, why even try?” The former takes on the narrative of the wily underdog taking on the deep-pocketed establishment. Rather than moaning about not having enough money, the group has something to prove to the rest of the baseball world (think KC Royals of 2015).

Set-up – Measures and Metrics:

One measure for a professional sports team is summed up in the movie by the Billy Beane line “[Once you make the playoffs] If you don’t win the last game of the season, nobody gives a shit.” Close doesn’t count for those who want to “be the best.”

Spending within budget could be a constraint attached to a measure. There is at least one negotiation with ownership to release some extra money, so that constraint is apparently a little fluid. Conceivably as long as you can make the case for the necessity of this extra money in pursuit of the “be the best” agenda.

The tangible metric that is most revealing of the new logic is in how to evaluate potential. Enter the on-base-percentage (replacing the “batting average), which accounts for any skill in getting a base-on-balls, in addition to that of getting an actual “hit.” The logic flows as follows: You win games by scoring runs, to score you have to get players on base, so we want players who can get on base. (Sabermetrics had since evolved, and will continue to.)

In Sum:

To me the greatest relevance to the workplace is in the area of change overhauls that come down from the top. The CEO gets and idea in his/her head and tries to role it out through the organization. There are instances to “sell and tell” and there are some constituencies that refuse to buy-in to the new logic… and like any logical construct, the new way of thinking always has its flaws.

The Balancing Act of Collaborating

There is lots of talk about “getting on the same page,” but in most work situations some level of conflict persists and can vary from subtle differences in opinion to diametrically opposed views. We all know that maintaining cordial working relationships is a must, yet too much focus appeasing diminishes our results and too much focus on our agenda carries the risk of losing status as “a team player.”

It can feel a bit like walking a tightrope and constantly balancing between

  • Being self assured, but not belligerent.
  • Being accommodating, but not spineless.
  • Being ambitious, but staying realistic (Picture a “stretch goal” snapping our rope!)

Maintaining forward momentum while maintaining this “balance” is also tricky. There are three large areas of attention that can help:
How am I seeing the situation (and should I look at it differently)?

With reams of data at our disposal, it is very easy to arrive at very different evidence-supported answers to the question “how are we doing?”  Those closest to the situation tend to have a really good read on how things actually work, but once performance measures are imposed, these same people can start to question their gut feelings. Taking time to gather a different perspective on your own may be more effective than simply taking in the perspectives of others. One part confidence; two parts humility.

Who do I have to work with (and how are those existing relationships)?

We have relationships to manage that are up, down and across. Our group of stakeholders will vary in terms of stature they maintain in the organization, but individual differences in style almost guarantees interpersonal challenges amidst the organizational politics. In practice, we have to navigate a complex web to get what we want for us and for others. Efforts are building/rebuilding relationships can make the tightrope seem a little wider (or maybe not so high).

What are the real priorities here (or, at least, what should they be)?

Sticking with the “rope” metaphor (why abandon it now?), what happens when tightropes turn into tug-o-wars? Such situations tend to consume lots of effort, but provide disappointingly little in the form of results. Many of us are not in the position to impose our views on the organization, but we all can exert a degree of influence. Even when things are at cross-purposes, speaking truth to power can be scary. Is asking power for a small clarification any better?