Human Potential & Leadership

Many Employees Have a Mid-Career Crisis. Here’s How Employers Can Help

Harvard Business Review -

HBR Staff

Plenty of media coverage — and companies’ attention — is devoted to employees at the beginning and end of their careers, at least in my experience. Entry-level employees learning the ropes garner more than their share of managers’ time, and those transitioning toward retirement pull executives’ focus by necessity as they work to develop succession plans.

What about the wide swath of employees who are in the middle of their careers?

The “midcareer crisis” is a real phenomenon for many workers; research has shown that career satisfaction bottoms out when people are in the middle of their careers. For many managers, the problem is seeing those employees through to the other side.

Many companies and leaders have failed to develop plans for the employee who has progressed in his career but may not see many opportunities left at his existing company. Feeling overlooked or forgotten can be the nail in the coffin for someone who feels he’s given his best efforts to a company and is now grappling with a deep desire to change roles, locations, or missions.

As Josh Bersin, Deloitte’s principal, human capital, has noted, employees are assets that offer more value to their companies over time. The downside of losing these employees can be devastating to managers and their organizations: Losing the institutional knowledge, honed skill sets, and employee trust and cooperation that have been accrued by mid-career employees is costly — to the tune of 213% of an employee’s salary in one year, in some cases.

Here’s what managers interested in keeping their valuable mid-career employees can do:

Create lateral opportunities for those needing intellectual stimulation. Mid-career professionals who are comfortable with their level of responsibility or are disinterested in taking on managerial work — but who also find themselves bored or in need of stimulation — may need a lateral challenge. Doing something different can often shake the cobwebs off of a career that’s grown stale through repetition.

To make a lateral shift more palatable, companies should offer additional training or skill development, both internal and external, as well as shadowing opportunities and mid-career internships. Most compelling, perhaps, will be first crack at developing new divisions or roles within the company that would benefit from mid-career employees’ existing knowledge, pulling that know-how in fresh directions.

One mid-sized automation company I worked with had been spreading its social media efforts out among employees, adding posting duties to their existing tasks. When I asked executives if they’d noticed variations in the performance of different employees’ posts, they admitted, “We haven’t been tracking performance — we need to use social media, but we don’t really have time to focus on it.” We discussed the importance of tracking any efforts they were investing time in, and I asked whether they had any employees who were ready for a challenge.

A quick brainstorm led them to pinpoint a mid-career manager who had been with the company for nearly a dozen years and had always done high-quality work. Recently, however, she seemed less enthused. They approached her about shifting to social media, emphasizing the need to determine benchmarks for the company’s performance and develop a social media strategy for the brand. A year later, the employee was visibly re-engaged, the company’s Facebook engagement had improved by 1,100%, and the business benefited by having someone familiar with the brand’s voice running its accounts.

Develop an internal mission for those needing a deeper sense of purpose. Launching a partnership with a charity, founding a philanthropic arm of your company, or seeking pro bono work can engage the mid-career professional who’s grappling with a “What’s it all for, anyway?” view. Seeing that daily work is supporting a deeper mission can spur an employee to stick with it, and nearly 90% of companies that offer volunteer opportunities see a correlation between employee participation and increased engagement.

To make this more appealing to those in the middle of their careers, companies should accommodate workers’ schedules to include the work, give them a sense of agency in pinpointing causes or organizations to work with, and leading the work (particularly for those who are not executives or typically in the limelight and may not feel the authority to do so).

Salesforce originated the 1-1-1 model of giving, and it offers an example of a program with options for any interest an employee might have. The company’s volunteer opportunities include an “employee-inspired” donation program, pro bono volunteering, and volunteer time off (VTO) to provide help in other areas. More than 27,000 Salesforce employees have participated in its volunteer opportunities, putting 1.4 million hours of work toward missions near and dear to their hearts.

Encourage mentorship roles. If you’re surrounded by mid-career professionals who have the skills, attitudes, and critical thinking you’d like less seasoned employees to emulate, encourage your experienced employees to take on mentorship or managerial development roles.

To do this, companies should determine which employees fit this description and seem to crave more interaction with others in the organization; establish a structured program for mentoring/succession planning so employees can self-select or be nominated by their bosses; and offer continual training or touchpoints with mentors so they feel supported while they support others.

Remember that many mid-career employees would benefit from mentee roles of their own, too. Mid-career faculty, for example, mentor both students and peer faculty members, resulting in associate professors devoting 10 hours per week to mentoring. Full professors spend only a little less, however, as they mentor associate professors; schools like Johns Hopkins University directly encourage departments to include mid-career faculty in their mentoring programs. Mentoring opportunities — both mentoring and being mentored — are valuable for mid-career employees who have knowledge to impart and knowledge yet to gain.

These endeavors to support tenure-track academics can be replicated by companies. KPMG offers a very structured CPA mentorship program to ensure its newer employees succeed in detail- and compliance-oriented areas. With milestones built into the program — which includes both a regimented four-day boot camp and a more flexible mentoring community — mid-career professionals can see exactly where they need to guide newer employees. The program has a twofold benefit of keeping long-term employees immersed in changes in the industry while instilling successful work habits in entry-level employees taking over work mid-career employees are leaving behind.

Offer physical moves or enable remote work for those needing a change of scenery. Some midlife employees are grappling with a “grass is greener” feeling, seeking warmer weather, more skiing, or closer proximity to family. They are perfectly happy to keep doing the same work, simply in a different location; for these employees, remote work structures can scratch their itch to change their personal life while retaining their professional progress.

A relocation could also involve a new or expanded role for employees. If a a position at another branch or in a burgeoning locale makes sense for a company’s future goals, approaching an experienced employee who still has years left in her career may flame her enthusiasm while solving a problem for the organization.

Because the latter can be trickier, especially for employees with families or community ties, companies should make these moves more palatable to employees by offering moving and other ancillary services to set up cable or internet or help employees find local doctors, vets, and dentists. Making the personal aspects of moving simpler can push employees to take professional leaps, particularly when taking into account the hidden costs of moving; because most businesses don’t have these resources in-house, a cost-effective way to provide these options is through outsourcing.

A midlevel manager I consulted with told me he’d been on the brink of resigning from his company when his boss asked him if he’d be interested in helping the company launch a branch in Atlanta. He was intrigued by the challenge, but the thought of uprooting his family — including two kids in elementary school — was less appealing. When he told his boss he wasn’t sure he could move his family 1,500 miles away, his boss connected him with the company’s partner organizations that help with logistics. The organizations pledged to find a rental in a good school district and find the lowest rates on services the family would need. Within a week, the manager had answers for his family and agreed to make the move. He said the new role was fulfilling enough that he could now see himself staying for several more years.

Workers at the beginning and end of their career are important, but overlooking those in the middle sets companies up to lose valuable knowledge and experience. To get these employees to stick with their employers until they get back to the happy second half of their careers, managers have to make plans for their mid-career employees so both the company and the employees benefit.

How We Made Our Sales Training More Effective by Making It Harder

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Not long ago, my company was the king of ineffective sales training. We’d hire and onboard reps and then train them in a hurried few weeks dedicated to shadowing sales calls, reading call scripts, and learning how to handle objections. As the company grew, however, I found that individual sales approaches were wildly different. Our reps answered questions inconsistently, and prospects underwent entirely divergent experiences. It became increasingly obvious that our haphazard training model would lead to inconsistent rep ramp-up time, continued customer expectation problems, customer churn, and employee turnover.

But last year, we adopted the following four training methods, and since then, we’ve vastly improved our performance: after two months of my team’s updated practice-based model, we increased our new sales by nearly 70%.

1. Include leaders in practice sessions. Salespeople need their leaders to model success for them. Research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology shows that when employees view their leaders as empowering and capable, they work more proactively.

Our team adopted a strict practice regimen. Each sales rep began role-playing calls individually, using an AI tool that simulated a potential customer, and role-playing in a face-to-face group weekly. Newer and lower-performing sales reps began practicing daily.

When we implemented these practices, I jumped into the hot seat first. I acted as the salesperson while my sales team threw curveball objections my way for 45 minutes. If I’m not too good to practice, my salespeople aren’t, either. I still regularly jump into sales call practices to demonstrate this and to bond with the team.

2. Make practice harder than the sale itself. Softball scenarios in which the “prospect” asks only a handful of easy questions are a waste of time. Make practice harder than a real sales call so salespeople are prepared for any conversation. Have reps practice in front of their peers. Don’t help them when they get stuck; wait for them to recover. Don’t let them break out of their roles by feeding them answers. Ask follow-up questions until they find solutions themselves.

With this strategy, practice is essentially a type of exposure therapy. A study by NYU researchers gave participants small shocks while showing them an image of a blue square to create an unconscious fear response to the image. Then, they removed the fear by repeatedly and consistently showing participants the image without giving any shocks.

Similarly, when sales reps practice hard sales calls without the pressure of having a client on the line, they’re working to fight off an automatic negative response to tough questions. When that real sales call comes, they’ll be prepared to handle it without panicking.

3. Practice the entire sales cycle, not just the first call. All sales training programs include practicing initial sales calls, but practicing the calls that follow is less common. Spend time going over the follow-up message, the second sales call, and every call after. Great sales teams excel in all interactions, so practice even seemingly obvious encounters.

The principle at work is “overlearning.” Alaa Ahmed, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, worked with a team to study how overlearning a task affects task performance. By asking participants to repeatedly use a robotic arm to move a cursor on a screen, they found that subjects exerted less effort to successfully complete the task as they practiced. Even if it seems unnecessary to practice daily tasks like sending follow-up emails, the reinforcement makes task completion faster and more successful with less effort.

Uniform practicing across our sales team enabled our calls to become more consistent. Our reps shifted from spending 60-65% of their time talking to spending that proportion of their time listening to prospects instead. This practicing and perspective shift helped reduce customer churn by 70% in just two months.

4. Have the highest performers practice, too. Include even the best reps in practice and coaching efforts. While the most skilled salespeople’s calls are undoubtedly good, a true practice culture means no one should be exempt.

The data agrees: A study published in Performance Improvement Quarterly revealed that, controlling for sales experience and tenure, a coached salesperson displays superior performance, with coaching accounting for 2.9% to 6.2% of the performance difference between employees. We saw the effects of coaching in our work, too, as we’ve seen from our vastly improved sales rate.

Growing a great company means merely good sales calls and simple training won’t cut it. Implement a thorough practice program to help your salespeople hone their skills until they’re sharper than ever.

Author’s note: Thanks to Emily Muhoberac, COO, and TJ Macke, VP of Client Services at Sapper Consulting, for their contributions to this article. 

The beat goes on

Seth Godin's Blog -

That's what makes it the beat.

There are other things that stop. That start. That go faster or slower. 

But don't worry about the beat. We can't change the beat. The beat continues.

When we're watching it, it continues, and when we're distracted, it continues. Beat by beat, day by day, it continues.

Awareness of our forward motion, of the tick and tock as we move from yesterday to tomorrow... it gives us perspective and patience if we let it. Or it can stress us out. Up to us.

Look, there goes another one.

What will you do with the next one?


How the Medical Industry is Improving Life for Japan’s Aging Population - SPONSOR CONTENT FROM THE GOVERNMENT OF JAPAN

Harvard Business Review -

Everyone in Japan knows its citizenry is getting older at a faster rate than that of any other nation. But for outsiders, the most striking insight may be that the Japanese want to face aging well. In fact, by government edict, the goal is to direct policy, health care, and even citizens themselves toward longer, healthier, more enriching lives.

The resulting lessons will be critical to life science companies worldwide as the aging trend prevalent in Japan expands to other nations. These companies are using Japan to deepen their understanding of the business opportunities in health care, medical equipment, and related services resulting from the innate human desire for happiness at any age.

Read More from the Government of Japan

Japan already enjoys the world’s second-biggest market in medical devices. For example, the nation leads the world in MRI machines per capita. By country, Japan had 9.1 percent of the 2014 global medical device market—behind the U.S. and ahead of Germany. Meanwhile, Japan’s market is expected to continue to grow as the nation’s population continues to age and need medical equipment.

Philips, the Dutch electronics and health care corporation, is among the foreign companies attracted to Japan’s market. Philips is teaming with Japanese doctors to join a “hospital to home” solution that emphasizes getting people out of expensive care facilities and back home, where they want to be.

Philips’s range of ventilation, sleep therapy, and monitoring equipment is an ideal part of such a plan, as Danny Risberg, general manager of Philips Healthcare in Japan, disclosed in a recent presentation. Risberg pointed out that Japan’s average hospital stay is three times longer than the average in the U.S. or the Netherlands, so “in-hospital treatment is not sustainable.”

Philips also is part of the trend toward corporate-university collaboration, with relationships with the universities of Nagasaki, Kobe, and Showa. One project is a remote intensive-care patient management program.

The hospital-to-home movement exemplifies Japanese government programs to help its aging populace. This also includes innovative systems for patient-requested care, promotion of self-medication, cloud-based record availability, and remote monitoring of patients in their homes. Japan also promotes new markets for accessible technologies and devices that patients can use to treat themselves without expensive facilities or expert assistance. It’s all part of a health care and medical strategy adopted in 2014 by the government—a policy initiative based on the concept that Japanese society will benefit from advances in both health care and the economic growth needed to support it. The issue is complex, and Japanese and non-Japanese companies are rising to the challenge.

Robotics: Japan realizes it will be short hundreds of thousands of people needed to provide traditional health care as its populace ages and declines in numbers. Part of the solution is to promote women’s participation in the workplace and increase the use of foreign workers—a classic way to fill health care jobs. But “carebots” and other robotic helpers also are being developed, not only for aging patients but also for caregivers themselves. Studies show that as many as 70 percent of health care workers in Japan suffer from back problems because they so often lift or support patients. Robotic aids being developed by companies such as Cyberdyne and Panasonic involve exoskeletons to help caregivers handle patients without strain.

Treatment: The increasing medical needs of an aging populace are creating interest among more and more companies. IBA, a Belgian firm, recently took advantage of Japanese government support to open a subsidiary in Tokyo to promote its radiation therapy systems. And Medtronic, the medical device company, recently earned Japanese regulatory approval for a miniaturized pacemaker. Other companies realize that Japan’s medical devices will need repair and replacement over time, creating another market opportunity. Non-Japanese companies involved in or expanding into the medical device market in Japan include Karl Storz and Siemens of Germany, plus Thermo Fisher Scientific and Intuitive Surgical from the United States. These and other trends are combining with specific law changes that speed regulatory approval in Japan.

Conditional early approval expanded to cover innovative medical devices in July 2017. Now, the Japanese National Diet, Japan’s bicameral legislature, is considering more benefits for the pharmaceutical and medical device industries that match those given to the booming regenerative medicine fields, according to Colin Lee Novick, managing director of the CJ Partners biotech consulting firm in Tokyo. If the Diet acts, Novick adds, “I would say that the red carpet has been rolled out across the board” in life sciences for all of Japan.

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The Best Way to Network in a New Job

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Anyone who hopes to hit the ground running in a new organization must first cultivate allies—a network of people who can provide the information, resources and support needed to succeed. But few onboarding programs offer concrete advice on how to build those all-important connections.

Our research over the past decade shows that replicating the network of an established employee in a strong culture typically takes three to five years. But recently we began to wonder if there was a way to accelerate that process. Could we develop a better blueprint for newcomer networking?

We started by tracking people joining companies with employee bases ranging from a few hundred to more than 40,000 people and pairing their progress in making social connections with monthly attrition data.  The goal was to find newcomers who got connected (and productive) much more quickly than peers starting at the same time and who stayed in the organization through milestones, such as the first nine months and the two- to four-year tenure band, at which flight risk is greatest.

We found a few surprises. First, contrary to popular opinion, “brand-building” across a very broad network was not necessarily better; in fact, it was correlated with departures in years two to four.

Successful newcomers were instead more selective and less superficial in their outreach. They still set up a lot of exploratory meetings, but they used them to ask plenty of questions, offer expertise and assistance where they were able, create mutual wins, and generate energy.  Greg Pryor, head of talent at Workday, which partnered with us on this research, describes the difference as working to pull people into your network rather than pushing your way into theirs.  “We teach our people how to draw people to their ideas and create energy in interactions from day one,” he explains. “When you embrace the approach, you’re much more likely to connect well.”

We also found—again contrary to conventional wisdom—that newcomers do not need a strong tie to a formal mentor or leader in their first nine months. More important for their long-term success was early contact with key opinion leaders—those well connected in the organization’s networks, who were able to confer know-how and legitimacy—as well as to fellow newcomers, with whom they could form affinity groups.

You and Your Team Series Networking

Crucially, effective networkers also shift their strategy as they approach the two- to four-year timeframe. They begin to streamline their interactions with close colleagues, resulting in collaborative demands that are 18-24% lower than their peers, while at the same time reaching across boundaries to connect with new people in different functions or divisions and to those with similar values and passions, even when there is no clear short-term incentive to do so. The result is more opportunities for enterprise-wide innovation and feeling purposeful in their work, which boosts their performance and engagement.

Booz Allen, which brings on more than 100 highly skilled people a week, is another research partner that has used network analysis to re-vamp its onboarding activities to help recent hires build the right connections at the right time. Aside from offering training in pull (versus push) techniques, they are encouraging cohort networks and initiating meetings between new employees and network influencers, rather than the usual-suspect mentors and managers.  “You are not asking people to connect with a lot of other people,” says David Sylvester, head of learning and development at the firm. “Very targeted investments make a big, big difference on people becoming productive more quickly and enjoying their time in the firm.”

What to Do If Your Boss Doesn’t Like Someone You Manage

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At a meeting, a low-level leader thought he was being helpful by pointing out why the CEO’s ideas couldn’t be implemented. The CEO did not find this endearing, and she conveyed that message to the employee’s boss. The manager trapped in the middle turned to me for help: how could he protect his employee – who was good at his job – from a CEO who now saw him as a naysayer?

If you have an employee who consistently delivers what your team needs, but your boss doesn’t like him, it can be tough to figure out what to do. You might consider doing nothing, hoping the conflict blows over. You could feel pressured to get your team member to change, or in the worst case scenario, you might even feel pressured to nudge your employee out of the organization.

It might be tempting, or even seem more fair, to try to protect your employee from negative feedback that you don’t agree with, but if your boss has complained to you about your subordinate’s behavior and hasn’t seen immediate change, the ongoing tension could affect your own relationship with the boss. In a case like this, a mid-level manager I coach found that every weekly meeting with his boss included negative feedback about one particular subordinate’s weaknesses and inadequate performance – not a pleasant experience or a productive use of limited face-to-face time.

So how can you balance the requirements of managing both your subordinate’s performance and your boss’s expectations? You might have the impulse to make a “business case” for your subordinate’s value – but that’s not likely to win the day if you can’t also satisfy your boss’s underlying preferences for style, tone, and demeanor. Instead, here are some approaches I’ve used successfully with clients.

From the outset, it’s important to uncover the source of the friction. Typically, in this situation, you may have been willing to overlook the behaviors or styles that your boss doesn’t like, either because you see the benefit of the trait or because you know it’s not standing in the way of performance or collaboration. One common example is a personality difference. At one of my clients, the senior leader had a strong personal preference for extraverts, and tended to discount the effectiveness of quieter, less grandstanding employees.

To make sure you understand precisely what triggers your boss’s dissatisfaction, ask focused questions to identify concrete behaviors and actions. For example, does “more assertive” mean to speak more definitively or more loudly in meetings, or to be willing to interrupt others? Or is it more physical, like looking more confident and decisive based on posture, gestures, taking up more space? Once you learn what your boss’s turn-offs are, you’ll be able to coach your subordinate in a more explicit and understandable way.

Next, plan to give your subordinate minute and detailed feedback about things you never thought necessary before. Explain the risks of not taking the senior executive’s displeasure seriously. You might need to give personal or stylistic recommendations including details like how early to arrive for a meeting, a particular format for writing email, or even grooming or wardrobing. For example, I suggested to one client that her subordinate wear his “louder” shirts on presentation days. He was overlooked among his peers and was perceived as having less authority. He needed to speak and appear more colorfully to keep the attention of my client’s boss. As petty as some of these things may sound, they’re completely non-trivial if the change gets a positive response.

You might also try to delay the inevitable by reducing the level of interaction between your subordinate and your boss. One of my clients calls this “Don’t Poke the Bear.” This approach can work in the short-term, but it’s usually stressful and draining because you have to do much more work running interference. On the other hand, if it preserves a much-needed skillset or other important relationships it may be worthwhile as an interim tactic. Just keep in mind that the problem is likely to crop up again, and put more work on your shoulders.

It can feel unwarranted and even demeaning to oversee your employee in this way, when you don’t perceive the need yourself. But keep the bigger picture in mind: Perhaps your boss has heard negative feedback about your subordinate from colleagues who haven’t been candid with you. Or your boss could have seen evidence of culturally inappropriate behavior, skill gaps, or attitudinal problems that you haven’t noticed because your subordinate is careful to keep you happy.

If your employee resists making the required changes, consider your alternatives. Their career and peace of mind may benefit more if you to recommend them for another role elsewhere in the firm, or even negotiate a generous exit arrangement. You’re not necessarily doing them any favors by keeping them on a team where the senior leader just can’t stand them.

It’s possible that your boss and your subordinate may never take well to each other. Rather than shrugging off the problem as personal preference, it makes sense to explore the situation more deeply. If you can help your subordinate to improve performance, you’re more likely to preserve a valuable person while maintaining your own productive relationship with your boss.

Why Process Is U.S. Health Care’s Biggest Problem

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A lot of money has been spent on information technology in health care with little to show for it. To understand why we must pay a visit to the hospital.

It only takes 10 minutes of direct observation of a nurse in a hospital to understand care-delivery processes are not standardized and are dependent on individuals, not systems. This lack of reproducibility leads to errors. Since every caregiver does it his or her own way, it’s difficult to improve anything. Stable systems that are reproducible are required to deliver consistently high quality. Industrial companies figured this out 50 years ago. The writings of manufacturing gurus Imai and Shingo provide insight into how quality is built into processes. A process must first be stabilized then standardized before being improved. Because few standardized processes exist in care delivery there are many possibilities for error. That’s why simply making a poor process electronic by implementing an electronic health record (EHR) doesn’t lead to better quality or cost.

When it comes to change, the technology is the easiest part. Most health systems in America have or are implementing the EHR. And the vendor processes for implementation have become very good. The hard part is to get the doctors, nurses, and administrators to agree on what is the best way to deliver the care. Since the doctors control most care decisions, the rest of the provider team follows the doctors’ lead. If the doctor wants to do things a certain way, that’s what is done. The problem is the next doctor wants it his way and so on. Eventually, we end up with a hopeless mess in which no one knows how anything should be done on any given day. And good luck to a new nurse or technician coming into the system who must learn a multitude of work processes and remember the doctor-dependent differences.

Health care technology is very effective when it is used to support a well-designed care process. The design of new standard care processes need to be owned and driven by the people doing the work, not by some outside consulting firm that brings a 100-page playbook as the answer. As the frontline workers create new designs, they need certain systems that can help them deliver the improved care. Examples of these systems include electronic alerts for medication interactions and reminders to ensure all steps in the care process for the pneumonia patient are followed.

Insight Center

There are two types of improvement systems needed to create a well-designed care process. One is a improvement approach that brings members of an existing clinical team members together to improve an existing care process. They use proven improvement methods such as the principles, systems, and tools of the Toyota Production System (TPS). The second is an innovation process aimed at radically redesigning care. It’s associated with TPS and employs design thinking.

In both cases, the initial effort where rapid experimentation occurs might be an ambulatory clinic or an ER. It becomes a place for others in the organization to learn. It is an inch-wide, mile-deep change in practice that incorporates new processes not only for care delivery but also management. It should result in the systems necessary for sustaining improvement over time. As the model line achieves 50% to 80% improvement over baseline performance, the learning should be spread to other parts of the organization. This new way becomes the new best-known way to deliver care.

One example of a radical innovation is the attempt of HealthEast (now part of Fairview Health Services), which serves the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area, to create the clinic of the future. The leaders brought the vendors in their extended supply chain to the table to help in the design process. This included Epic, an EHR company; Herman Miller, an office furniture company; Boldt, a construction company; and HGA, an architectural firm. Together, the team began redesigning the care-delivery model. Each vendor had the opportunity to deeply understand the needs of the HealthEast providers. By the end of the design phase a new process supported by electronic records, architecture, furniture, and building was integrated to create a unique patient experience.

Before HealthEast formed the model clinic, a group of 11 clinicians had over 11 preferred ways for “their” clinic assistant to do just about everything. One key process, screening the patient for health risks such as cancer and hypertension, resulted in over seven places in the EMR for the provider to look for relevant information. Not only is that time-consuming (contributing to physician burnout), but it also greatly increases the chances of missing important information.

The multi-disciplinary team created a single screening process. Now, clinicians have just two places to look in the EMR for information on whether patients have had screens like mammograms and colonoscopies for cancer, staff can remind patients about what screening tests they need, and leaders are able to support the development of standardized clinical processes. The leader’s standard work is to audit the process and monitor the data. If the process stops being followed or the data shows deteriorating results, leaders will know that immediately.

In the first three months after its introduction, the redesigned process reduced provider search time per patient by 23 minutes. The overall screening rate went from 60% compliance to 72% compliance, meaning over 500 more individuals were appropriately screened over baseline. Perhaps more telling are the changes in patient comments. They went from comments such as “I do not feel my medication list was reviewed,” to “My doctor and medical assistant are always timely, thorough, and reassuring.” These results would not have happened unless all parties were working to build a better process.

Technology now exists to support disruptive innovation in health care. It is an important enabler, but the process must precede the technology. For example, Hospital at Home is an innovation that may well cut the cost of care significantly by reducing the need for inpatient beds. It couldn’t happen without the technology, which allows 24-hour monitoring of patients, real-time electronic communication between providers, and complex equipment to be rapidly set up in the patient home. But it still requires a nurse and a doctor.

What that nurse and doctor do and how they do it are still what will determine successful outcomes of care. Building the care process through careful understanding of what each process step delivers is critical. The medical team can then leverage the technology for data and communication and other needs that support the steps in the process.

Again, this requires standardized work. Every nurse and doctor does not get to do it his or her own way. Standards are established about how the work is performed, and those standards are followed by all until a better way is determined collectively by the team. New innovative care models such as Hospital at Home are based on clear and reproducible standards and will obsolete the old ways of the non-standardized care delivered in most hospitals.


It takes more design time to create a care model that builds in quality and efficiency, but without that work upfront, the technology doesn’t matter and, in fact, only increases costs. This thinking is not new. Many industries from aviation to automotive to nuclear power have been applying this concept of “process before technology” for a long time. The safety and quality results in those industries is second to none. It’s about time health care catches up. Our lives may depend on it.

What Kind of Leadership Works Best at Your Company?

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Inventive companies like Amazon and Tesla are constantly churning out new products and services, but there is something else that they, and other distinctive enterprises, are also in the business of producing: their version of leadership. A research project we just completed suggests there might be something important and innovative going on in this department, too. The “challenge-driven” leadership we found in our study of MIT leaders might not be right for every kind of enterprise, but we suspect it will spread to many more in years to come.

The idea that high-performing organizations might have something distinctive going on in their leadership behaviors, and not just their marketplace offerings, is not new. Firms like GE and Procter & Gamble have long been seen as crucibles of managerial talent development, in which certain kinds of leaders tend to be forged. Scholars including Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood and Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have explored the concept of building “leadership brands.” Headhunters dine out on these differences. This means, for one thing, that it’s good to develop some self-knowledge on this point. If an enterprise can figure out what kind of leader reliably emerges from its ranks—and especially if it doesn’t like what it discovers—it can start doing something about it.

If it’s not clear what kind of leadership works best at your company, here’s one strategy for figuring it out. Pay attention to who quits or gets fired — especially new hires — because it can signal what leadership skills matter most. One senior executive did just that at her global firm where creative output counts. She said: “If you’re not interested in being provoked to act creatively, then you’ll have a boring life here. But if you like being provoked and it opens up your creative capacity, then you have an opportunity to react to the provocation. If you don’t react though, sorry, but you’re at the wrong address and I’ve seen many people being at the wrong address here. You either belong here or you don’t and many people leave, voluntarily or involuntarily, after three to six months.”

If you like the kind of leader your organization typically produces, protect that kind of leadership. That was the desire that motivated us to venture into a year-long research project at our own institution, MIT. We had the strong sense that there was something distinctive about the “MIT style of leadership”—some behavioral line that we could trace from the students’ infamous hacks to the alumni’s entrepreneurial ventures. That sense was redoubled when we started interviewing people we saw getting big things done here. To our surprise, they weren’t typically comfortable talking about themselves as leaders. Some even seemed to have a kind of allergic reaction to the word, associating “leadership types” with overly confident climbers, eager to rise in the careers and start delegating the real work. If we were looking at a new version of leadership, this was one with an anti-leadership strain running through it.

As we dug deeper, we discovered the key to those attitudes—and to much else about how teams get work done at MIT. People here don’t follow leaders, they follow problems. The most important work, then, of what we would call the “leader” in a situation is to seize on some intriguing, inspiring, barely-solvable problem, and frame it in a way that draws other smart and skilled people toward it. In this “problem-led” version of leadership, moreover, the person taking charge often changes with the phases of the effort. Through a fluid “stepping up and stepping out” process, team members take on more responsibility when the need for their particular knowledge or skill is greatest. A lot of things turn out to work differently when leadership is challenge-driven — as we saw from the winning MIT Hyperloop Team to the work of the Langer Lab to the community that pulled together to erect the Sean Collier Memorial. Along the way, we also realized that what we had been calling the MIT style of leadership was actually bigger than MIT; we recognized its earmarks in other organizations, too, that are known for taking on big challenges.

Leadership styles, or brands if you prefer the term, are always contextual. Different kinds of leaders are minted in different organizations, and whether they can succeed elsewhere is always a question. And leadership styles have their times as well as their places; perhaps challenge-driven leadership is particularly well-suited to our current moment, with its high levels of ambiguity and opportunity. It seems, too, like a leadership style that becomes more workable where high degrees of connectivity make it easier to assemble ad hoc teams and have them be productive. In other words, it seems like the kind of leadership the twenty-first century—the digital age—has enabled and will increasingly demand.

America’s Loneliest Workers, According to Research

Harvard Business Review -

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A hundred fifty years ago, poet Emily Dickinson described loneliness as “the horror not to be surveyed, but skirted in the dark.” Had she been running a modern company, she might have felt differently. Loneliness should be as important to managers, CFOs, and CEOs as it is to therapists. The last half-decade of research has demonstrated that loneliness threatens not only our physical health and well-being, but also our livelihood.  Research shows that loneliness has the same effect as 15 cigarettes a day in terms of health care outcomes and health care costs. Yet we are often blind to this hidden drain on health and revenue. Lonelier workers perform more poorly, quit more often, and feel less satisfied with their jobs — costing employers upwards of £2.5 billion ($3.5 billion U.S.) in the United Kingdom alone. The U.K. found loneliness to be such an issue, they have appointed a Minister of Loneliness to head up the daunting task of figuring out solutions to what the former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls “the most common pathology”, with nearly 40% of Americans reporting being lonely.

As employers digest the business impact of this epidemic, they’ve become hungry for a more granular understanding of who’s at risk for loneliness, and what they can do to help. Little such data exists, however, leaving them to take their best guess. Thus, we used the lab at BetterUp to collect data on loneliness in the workplace in search of some of the elusive knowledge that can inform an evidence-based corporate approach.

For our survey of 1,624 full-time employees, all participants in a longitudinal study of 4,000 American workers, our goals were two-fold: First, to identify those employees most at risk for feeling lonely at work; and second, to identify key drivers that maximize the benefits of increased social cohesion among employees. Participants provided details on the degrees of loneliness and social support they experienced on a daily basis, both in and out of the workplace.

You and Your Team Series Friendships

Our analysis found distinct groups at both ends of the loneliness spectrum: the who’s who of loneliness, so to speak, as well as their more fortunate counterparts, the “unlonely.” Our data also yielded concrete insights for ways to tackle workplace loneliness that end up helping both your employees — and your company’s bottom line.

Profiles of Loneliness

Workers in our sample reported many of the same troubling side effects of loneliness that others have already observed. Lonelier workers reported lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Feeling a lack of workplace social support was associated with similar negative business outcomes. The economic impact of loneliness is indeed staggering.

Our profile analyses covered a broad range of demographics and work-related variables, trying to spot groups of workers who are particularly at risk for feeling lonely. We used these factors to identify those groups of employees most in danger of becoming “the loneliest worker”.

What doesn’t matter

Some of our hypothesized demographic contributors didn’t seem to matter all that much. For example, loneliness and social support were unrelated to geographic location. Staying in the same job longer also didn’t shield against loneliness, as we observed only a small decrease in loneliness related to tenure. Nor were gender, race, or ethnicity good predictors.

Salary was a slightly better predictor, but only barely: workers making $80,000 a year only showed about a 10% improvement in loneliness and social support over their counterparts making half that much.

Where you work matters

In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science. This is perhaps not surprising, given the known high prevalence of depression among lawyers. At the other end of the spectrum were occupations involving high degrees of social interaction: social work, marketing, and sales.

Respondents who worked in a for-profit industry reported feeling the least lonely and most supported out of all the employment sectors. Government employees were lonelier than for-profit and nonprofit workers, and reported slightly lower levels of social support on the job. This fact might help to explain recent findings on the lowered job satisfaction among federal employees.

Who you are outside of work matters, too

The biggest differentiators on the spectrum of loneliness showed up in specific demographic profiles. The more people you have around in your private life, we found, the better for keeping loneliness at bay. Conversely, respondents who reported being single, separated, or divorced reported higher levels of loneliness and lower social support than those currently in a relationship. (Singles were the loneliest of all.) Childless workers reported higher levels of loneliness than parents, and atheists and agnostics were lonelier than members of religious communities.

The solitude of the ivory tower seems to be a real phenomenon, as well. Graduate degree holders in our sample reported higher levels of loneliness and less workplace support than respondents who had only completed undergraduate or high school degrees. Professional degrees (law and medical degrees) were the loneliest by far, scoring 25% lonelier than bachelor’s degrees, and 20% lonelier than PhDs.

The most troubling finding we encountered concerned sexual orientation. Identifying as anything other than heterosexual was associated with much higher degrees of loneliness, and much lower social support in the workplace. While more attention has been given recently to sexual orientation in inclusivity initiatives, these results suggest there’s still much to be done in this area.

Prosocial nudges

The portrait of loneliness that emerged from this study is sobering. America’s loneliest workers are single and childless. They are well educated, with doctors and lawyers feeling loneliest of all. They are more likely to work for the government. Most personally, America’s loneliest workers are non-heterosexual, and non-religious. These are the employees at greatest risk in this epidemic.

Knowing which populations are most at risk of loneliness, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into knowing what to do about it. Big Potential, for example, explores the critical role that positive social support plays in advancing professional success. Simple adjustments to workers’ daily routines can make a big difference — going for lunch with that new connection, for example, instead of alone. Opening a conversation with a small offering of peer-based praise can be sufficient to forge a lasting social bond. Over time, these prosocial nudges can steer a workplace in the right direction, creating a healthier, more supportive culture.

When workplaces become more supportive, performance and retention improves. Our study found that employees who experienced above average levels of workplace social support were more likely to have received a raise sometime in the past six months. They were also less likely to plan on quitting their job in the next six months. A robust workplace support network is not just a nice-to-have — it’s become a business imperative.

Shared meaning as amplifier

Not all forms of social support, however, are equally impactful. Big Potential emphasizes the value of “leading from every lunch seat.” Leadership entails identifying and sharing meaning no matter what one’s role in an organization. Helping others find the meaning in their own work magnifies the meaning one experiences personally.

Our survey found that this approach translates into demonstrable improvements on key human resources metrics.  While social support was positively associated with raises and lower turnover, employees who reported feeling a sense of shared meaning with coworkers showed even greater gains on both metrics.

What’s more, the shared meaning “boost” grew even stronger in supportive work environments. Workers in our study who reported having both high levels of social support and a strong sense of shared meaning with colleagues saw the likelihood of getting a raise jump up another 30%, and intent to leave fall by an additional 24%. In other words, a sense of shared meaning seems to amplify the positive effects of social support.

How managers and colleagues can help

Within large organizations, close colleagues and managers are best positioned to identify workers suffering from loneliness. The signs may be subtle — social withdrawal, diminished mood — so it’s useful to know the risk factors we’ve outlined here. These specific populations are at particular risk of isolation, dissatisfaction, and turnover.

If a co-worker seems to be suffering from loneliness, what can managers and colleagues do to support them?

Our study suggests that the single most impactful leadership behavior you can undertake to counteract loneliness is to create opportunities for building shared meaning with colleagues. Understand what makes their work meaningful to them, and then connect that to what makes it meaningful for you. On a collaborative project, frame the efforts in terms of their collective advancement of your company’s mission, rather than getting bogged down in individual deliverables as ends unto themselves. Use collective wins as an opportunity to celebrate the entire team. This reinforces social cohesion through a shared sense of accomplishment, and avoids leaving some left out in the cold.

Dickinson concluded her poem by hinting that there are, in fact, two approaches to coping with loneliness: one can either “illuminate” it, or shut it away. After many decades of opting for the latter strategy — politely ignoring this taboo topic — scientists and HR leaders alike have come to see the wisdom in the former. We need more data, not less, guiding our approach to intervention — in order to help our employees and our businesses thrive.

Getting the default settings right

Seth Godin's Blog -

We know that the default settings determine the behavior of the group. Organ donation, 401k allocations, the typeface on our word processor--the way it's set to act if we don't override it is often the way we act. Because often, we decide it's not worth the effort to change the setting today.

Which means that examining your settings now and then is worth the effort:

Don't speak unless asked vs. don't keep quiet with a suggestion.

Look for the downsides vs. look for the upsides.

Do the minimum vs. do the maximum.

Don't ship until perfect vs. ship and learn.

The benefit of the doubt vs. skepticism.

Trusting vs. wary.

Inquiry vs. sarcasm.

Speed up vs. slow down.

Generous vs. selfish.

We all have defaults. Are yours helping you?

[PS it's definitely not too soon to mark the next altMBA on your calendar. It works. That's why every session we've done has been fully enrolled. Check it out if you can.]


Yes, there's a free lunch

Seth Godin's Blog -

In a physical economy in which scarcity is the fundamental driver, eating lunch means someone else gets less.

But in a society where ideas lead to trust and connection and productivity, where working together is better than working apart, where exchange creates value for both sides...

Then the efficient sharing of ideas is its own free lunch. 

All of us are smarter than any of us, so the value to all goes up when you share.


"What does this remind you of?"

Seth Godin's Blog -

That's a much more useful way to get feedback than asking if we like it.

We make first impressions and long-term judgments based on the smallest of clues. We scan before we dive in, we see the surface before we experience the substance.

And while the emotions that are created by your work aren't exactly like something else, they rhyme.

It could be your business model, your haircut or the vibrato on your guitar.

"What does this remind you of" opens the door for useful conversations that you can actually do something about. Yes, be original, but no, it's not helpful to be so original that we have no idea what you're doing.


6 Ways to Counteract Your Smartphone Addiction

Harvard Business Review -

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We are living in an era of technology obsession and smartphone addiction. I hear it all the time: “I  can’t go anywhere without my phone” or “I feel anxious when I’m not able to check email” or “If I’m not on my social feeds, I feel like I’m missing out.”

Not surprisingly, research shows that too much technology use diminishes our mental and physical health, our relationships and more.

Short of going off the grid, how can we build better habits around technology—preserving its benefits while minimizing the negative effects?  Here are a few research-backed strategies I recommend you implement at work and at home.

Use “cc” and “reply all” judiciously. Group emails, while helpful for team collaboration, are an increasingly problematic workplace distraction. After the second or third “reply all”—when most messages could be directed to just one or two people, rather than everyone—these chains to start to feel oppressive, adding extraneous content to our already overflowing inboxes. I encourage anyone initiating a team email to instead think very carefully about who they “cc,” making sure to include only relevant team members. I also recommend avoiding “reply all,” unless your comments are truly meant for—and useful to—all members of the group. The more email you send, after all, the more you will receive.

Recalibrate response time expectations. Not too long ago, people worked from 9am to 5pm, after which they were done for the evening. Today, typical workdays can stretch to nine hours in the office and far into the night, only to start again the moment we wake. When colleagues email, text, or message us in some other way, no matter the time, an immediate response is, in many cases, the unspoken expectation. My suggested middle ground—used in several multinational companies including Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom— is a 7am-to-7pm policy: messages can, of course, be sent at any hour, but no one is required to respond earlier than 7am or later than 7pm. In France, companies with more than 50 employees are now required to do something similar; the country’s “right to disconnect” law, passed in January 2017, mandates that they set aside hours when employees don’t have to be available via email.

You and Your Team Series Building Good Habits

Take regular, restorative breaks. The human brain is  not designed  to work for hours on end. We perform better when we take breaks. For example, in one study of more than 12,000 white-collar employees, those who turned away from work every 90 minutes reported 30% higher level of focus, 50% greater capacity to think creatively and 46% higher level of health compared with peers who took no breaks or just one during the workday. But staring into a smartphone or browsing the internet doesn’t really count. Truly restorative breaks instead involve exercise, conversation or reflection. That means walking outside for some fresh air, talking with someone (about something other than work), or doing a few minutes of mindful meditation. Ten minutes is sufficient, although longer breaks offer even more benefits.

Reclaim friend and family time.  We need to stop letting technology interfere with our most important interpersonal interactions. But it’s hard to ignore your phone when it’s sitting in front of you, with news alerts and text messages constantly popping up. My advice is to designate areas where, in an effort to facilitate better, more meaningful conversation with friends and family, personal devices simply aren’t allowed. Examples include the dinner table, the rec or TV room, in the car, or in restaurants.

Keep technology out of the bedroom. As the day turns to dusk, your brain starts to release melatonin, the accumulation of which eventually helps put you to sleep. But according to research from the National Sleep Foundation and the Mayo Clinic, blue light from smartphones, tablets or laptops slow that process and also release cortisol, which signals your brain to become more alert. The result is less and more restless sleep, which disrupts the synaptic rejuvenation meant to happen at night and reduces your mental acuity. The solution is simple:  Don’t bring your devices to bed!

Over the past decade technology has taken over our lives. While it offers access to information, connection and entertainment, it also has been shown to diminish our brainpower and harm our mental health. These six tactics—which you can implement for yourself or encourage on your team—are simple ways to ensure these ubiquitous devices do less harm than good.

Socially Responsible Business Can Only Succeed If It Becomes a Movement

Harvard Business Review -

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What does it take to cause something big about a community to change — something that no one individually has much power over, even something as big as a prevailing mindset? We know what it takes: a social movement. And social movements aren’t only the domain of community organizers and college students. Business people can set them in motion, too, as we are seeing right now.

Currently gaining force is a movement to focus for-profit enterprises more on the essential work of enriching societies — that is, benefiting not only those humans who are their owners as publicly traded companies but also those who work in them and who stand to benefit from more purpose-driven innovation. Like any social movement, this one has started with many people starting small fires. Look around and you will see them:

  • Individual CEOs and their boards deliberately deciding to take a stand. Note, for example, the spirited defense by Paul Polman of Unilever of his long-term, sustainable business philosophy in the wake of a takeover attempt. Note the far-reaching production changes Jean-Dominique Senard has made at Michelin to empower and engage workers. In China look at the unique organization of entrepreneurial cells Zhang Ruimin has created at Haier, and in France look at Vinci Group’s success, under Xavier Huillard, with a radically decentralized model designed to foster entrepreneurial creativity in its three thousand constituent companies. See also Rick Goings’s commitment at Tupperware Brands to increasing women’s economic empowerment in emerging economies as well as mature ones.
  • Networks and communities spreading new norms and new forms of capitalism. From the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism to the Conscious Capitalism organization, groups are forming with a mission (in the words of the latter) to “inspire, educate and empower companies to elevate humanity through business.” Some are designing new governance forms for enterprises, such as B-corps and cooperatives. Note especially the brave, innovative management reflected in social enterprises such as the Sampark Foundation, where Vineet Nayar, former CEO of HCL Technologies, is on a mission to inspire kids in rural India to learn how to think and invent like frugal innovators.
  • Management thinkers framing the greatest challenges of our time as human ones. Witness the shift that is taking place in the global conversation about artificial intelligence and other advanced digital technologies. Increasingly there is an insistence that these powerful forces must leverage human creativity, not marginalize it. Smart machines can help us find answers more quickly, but cannot frame the questions to address. We must use these technologies to unleash human potential — undoubtedly the most underused resource on the planet — and bring greater purpose, meaning, and values to work.

All these sparks of activity are generating heat and light. But how can the many small flames be fanned into a blazing fire? One key is for all these fire-starters to recognize that they are part of a bigger movement, not just individually acting on their own values but collectively working to change expectations and behaviors. Often this happens when people who would otherwise sit on the sidelines perceive a real threat in not acting, and are galvanized to join the movement.

This is part of why Larry Fink’s open letter to CEOs, sent on the occasion of his investment company BlackRock’s 30th anniversary, has generated such acclaim. In it, he points to the growing threat posed by activist investors who push for short-term share-boosting tactics without regard for firms’ long-term viability. Management teams set themselves up for these assaults, he claims, when they fail to articulate compelling long-term strategies—visions of the future informed by “a sense of purpose.” Purpose, moreover, means for him social purpose. ‘The public expectations of your company have never been greater,” Fink writes. “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

Drucker Forum 2018

This article is one in a series related to the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum, with the theme “Management. The human dimension” taking place on November 29 & 30, 2018 in Vienna, Austria.

Of course, the ideas that corporations must earn their “license to operate” and serve stakeholders that go far beyond shareholders are not new. But, as Judy Samuelsen puts it, “When the head of BlackRock, the largest investor in the world, says that companies must produce not only profits, but contributions to society, it sends a powerful message.” It kindles new interest and fans existing flames.

Management educators and researchers can add their own fuel to the fire, if they will step up to it. Lately our formal institutions of management education have been outstripped by thinkers outside the academy in coming up with new frameworks and methods. Much of the welcome recent innovation in management practice has come from the fringes – new communities and groups developing approaches such as the agile (or Scrum) movement, design thinking, lean-startup methodologies and beyond-budgeting approaches, among others.

But as Harvard’s Clay Christensen has noted, management thinking lacks common language and foundational theories; it badly needs a durable base for researchers and practice to build on and progress forward. This can be the major contribution of universities, along with a broad commitment to teaching management as a liberal art—a way of thinking outlined by Peter Drucker. The core tension for management hasn’t changed since Drucker wrote his first books: to establish a systematic approach for achieving collective performance in organizations without killing the entrepreneurial, creative and community-creating human center. In recent years the balance between the two poles has increasingly tilted towards the technocratic and financial-logic-driven side.

Is it possible for a social movement to achieve a different capitalism, with a human face? No one has all the levers to change organizations and society over night. But collectively we have all we need to do this over time. The great management theorist and storyteller Charles Handy expressed this well in Vienna last fall, at his closing address to the 2017 Global Peter Drucker Forum. He urged managers to be inspired by their enterprises’ power to make a difference. “Let us just spark small fires in the darkness,” he said, “until they spread and the world is alight.”

How to Prepare for a Crisis You Couldn’t Possibly Predict

Harvard Business Review -

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On the morning of May 18, 2012, at precisely 11:05, Nasdaq planned to execute the first trade in in Facebook’s hotly anticipated initial public offering. The opening trade was an auction of sorts—buyers and sellers entered orders, and Nasdaq calculated a price that would cause as many shares as possible to change hands. As the start of trading approached, hundreds of thousands of orders poured in. But when 11:05 arrived, nothing happened.

With billions of dollars poised to change hands and the spotlight on, Nasdaq managers scrambled to diagnose the problem, dialing into an emergency conference call to troubleshoot. After a few minutes, a group of programmers narrowed the problem down to something called the validation check, a safety feature they built into the computer program years earlier. Despite the check’s warning that something was amiss, managers decided to push forward anyway.

When the validation check was removed, trading started, but the workaround caused a series of failures. It turned out the check had initially picked up on something important: a bug that caused the system to ignore orders for more than 20 minutes, an eternity on Wall Street. Traders blamed Nasdaq for hundreds of millions of dollars of losses, and the mistake exposed the exchange to litigation, fines, and reputational costs.

Most of us don’t oversee huge IPOs, but sooner or later, every team faces an unexpected crisis: technology breaks, a competitor makes a disruptive move, a promising project fails, a key employee quits, consumers have a negative reaction to a new product—the list goes on.

Some teams are good at handling the unexpected, but most aren’t. Under stress and time pressure, it’s difficult to stay calm, diagnose a problem, and come up with solutions.

Over the past five years, we have studied dozens of unexpected crises in all sorts of organizations and interviewed a broad swath of people—executives, pilots, NASA engineers, Wall Street traders, accident investigators, doctors, and social scientists—who have discovered valuable lessons about how to prepare for the unexpected. Here are three of those lessons.

1. Learn to stop. When faced with a surprising event, we often want to push through and keep going. But sticking to a plan in the face of surprising new information can be a recipe for disaster. This has played a role in many failures, from the Facebook IPO to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Instead, managers need to foster norms that help people overcome the sense of defeat that comes from halting an ongoing process or giving up on a planned course of action. A young trader on Wall Street, for example, told us that he’d never received as much praise from senior managers as when he stopped an apparently profitable trade after realizing that he didn’t fully understand it. Such feedback helps create norms that, one day, might prevent an unexpected event from turning into a meltdown.

It’s even better if the praise is public. Consider this story shared by researcher Catherine Tinsley and her colleagues:

 “An enlisted seaman on an aircraft carrier discovered during a combat exercise that he’d lost a tool on the deck. He knew that an errant tool could cause a catastrophe if it were sucked into a jet engine… He reported the mistake, the exercise was stopped, and all aircraft aloft were redirected to bases on land, at a significant cost. Rather than being punished for his error, the seaman was commended by his commanding officer in a formal ceremony for his bravery in reporting it.”

This is an incredible response: Celebrate the guy whose mistake forced us to call off the whole exercise and scour every inch of a huge deck to find a lost tool! Would that happen in your organization? Would you celebrate someone who told you to abandon your plan because he’d made an error?

Symbolic gestures like the deck ceremony convey a powerful message: If you see a problem with pushing ahead, then stop. Stopping gives us a chance to notice unexpected threats and figure out what to do before things get out of hand.

2. Do, monitor, diagnose. Sometimes stopping isn’t an option. If we don’t keep going, things will fall apart right away. What can we do then? To answer that question, University of Toronto professor Marlys Christianson painstakingly analyzed video recordings of dozens of emergency department teams that participated in a simulation. The exercise involved a medical manikin hooked up to a computer that simulated the responses of a real patient.

All teams had to manage the same crisis: a boy with a history of asthma was brought into the hospital and, a few minutes later, stopped breathing. Doctors sealed a bag-valve mask over the boy’s face and squeezed the bag to force air into his lungs, but the bag-valve mask didn’t help. Unbeknownst to the teams, the bag was broken; it looked fine, but it supplied no oxygen. By the time most teams figured this out and replaced the bag, it was too late.

But a few teams did solve the problem. “The most striking thing about those teams was a pattern—a cycle—of moving from tasks to monitoring to diagnosis and then back to tasks again,” Christianson told us.

This cycle starts with a task, such as intubating the patient. The next step is monitoring: you check if performing the task had the expected effect. If it didn’t, then you move onto the next step and come up with a new possible diagnosis. And then you go back to tasks because you need to do something—for example, administer medications or replace the bag—to test your new theory.

But many teams failed to complete the cycles. “The teams that didn’t do well often had really long stretches of task talk,” says Christianson. “Or they’d just go task, monitoring, and back to task. So they never figured it out.”

When dealing with a crisis, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by tasks. Too often, we just keep our heads down, focus on the task at hand, and push ahead. Cycling from doing to monitoring to diagnosing—and then back to doing—is more effective, and practicing this cycle can help teams prepare for the unexpected.

3. Know something about everybody else’s job. Some teams, such as film crews and SWAT teams, face surprises all the time. If the layout of a house that a SWAT team enters is different from what the officers expected, they still press on. When the power goes out at a filming location, film crews figure out how to resume shooting as soon as possible. How do they do it?

According to researchers Beth Bechky and Gerardo Okhuysen, one critical factor that enables these teams to handle surprises is that members are familiar with everyone else’s work and understand how their various tasks fit together.

In the film industry, this knowledge comes from how people progress through their careers. Many rookies start as production assistants and work on tasks that cut across different departments, from costumes to lightning and sound. SWAT teams achieve something similar through cross-training. New officers, for example, need to learn how to use a sniper’s rifle and scope even if they aren’t planning to become a sniper. They don’t need to become an expert marksman, but they need to understand what snipers see and how they work.

This is an unusual approach; most organizations emphasize deep specialization in one’s work rather than familiarity with everyone else’s. But cross-training helps teams change their plans on the fly because it allows team members to shift responsibilities and step into each other’s roles. It also means that people know how the jobs of different team members fit into the bigger picture.  This gives teams a better understanding of what kinds of changes to a plan are advisable—or even possible—when a crisis strikes.

Consider Nasdaq’s fiasco in light of these lessons. When the trading program and the validation check didn’t match, Nasdaq managers decided to remove the validation check—the equivalent of driving around the lowered gates of a railroad crossing. Rather than stopping, they pushed forward. Rather than going through cycles of doing, monitoring, and diagnosing, they charged ahead without diagnosis—without understanding why the validation check stopped the trading. And rather than knowing something about everybody else’s job, managers knew very little about the programmers’ work—including how the validation check was implemented. In fact, before that day, the manager who proposed bypassing the validation check had never even heard of the validation check.

There is a better way. Just a few months before the Facebook IPO, the Kansas-based BATS stock exchange faced a similar technical challenge as Nasdaq—managing the real-time failure of an IPO. When they faced a serious technical error, managers at BATS took a step back and cancelled the offering. They monitored the situation, diagnosed the problem, and decided that stopping was the most prudent thing to do. And though the cancelled IPO was embarrassing, BATS wasn’t censured by regulators, nor did it cause hundreds of millions of dollars of losses to investors.

It probably helped that the CEO of the exchange was a technologist who understood the technical aspects of the problem. Though the decision to stop ran counter to the original plan, it prevented the kind of knock-on errors that Nasdaq caused when it charged into the unknown.

Finding New Ideas When You Don’t Have a Broad Network

Harvard Business Review -

juan díaz-faes for hbr

People who study creativity and innovation talk a lot about the value of “recombination” — bringing existing ideas, practices, processes, or technologies together in new ways or applying them in fresh contexts or markets. It’s a model that has led to many popular consumer products, such as leak-proof water bottles that borrow nozzles from shampoo dispensers, and home cholesterol testers that incorporate the inject/eject mechanism from CD players.

Over the last three decades, research has shown that the people most likely to innovate via recombination talk with groups of people that don’t talk to each other. In the language of social networks, these people span diverse clusters, which gives them a “vision advantage,” as the sociologist Ronald Burt is fond of putting it. Their position as “network brokers” allows them to see things that others can’t.

So, if you want to innovate, you should become a network broker, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Changing your network is hard, because it’s not just about who you talk to. It’s about who your friends and coworkers communicate with — and you can’t dictate that, even if you forge new relationships.

But not to worry. Our recent research using survey data on communication networks among software engineers at a large mobile services company shows that people who are firmly ensconced in a single, densely connected community (“non-brokers,” for short) can be as innovative as network brokers if they follow one simple, counterintuitive strategy: narrow their focus.

Though brokers benefit from allocating their attention in a balanced way across all their contacts, scouting for recombination opportunities across communities, non-brokers fare poorly when they take a similar tack. We found that they can be up to four times less likely to innovate when they scan the horizon of their more-constrained networks than when they selectively attend to a few communication partners who can help them see anomalies and inconsistencies among local ideas within their domain.

It doesn’t seem to matter much who non-brokers pay attention to as long as they focus intensely on a few key contacts who talk to each other frequently. When they do that for a sustained period, they begin to hear differences in the way those people present information, approach problems, and think through solutions on the same topics.

Becoming aware of these differences that most others don’t notice — because they aren’t paying close enough attention — can help non-brokers develop novel ideas that build cumulatively on knowledge. We call this way of innovating “interrogation,” since it’s a bit like the work that police detectives do when they question several people, compare their stories, and look for inconsistencies that will lead to breakthroughs.

This is essentially the approach that engineers at SpaceX took to reduce the cost of building its Falcon 1 Rocket. They did not explore ideas, practices, or technologies that they could import from other rocket builders or from other domains. Instead, the team of engineers charged with reducing the build cost focused its attention on other engineers within the company who had differing ideas about how to design components with lower material costs. By comparing those solutions, looking for commonalities or differences across them, and triangulating a new design based on these comparisons, they were able to radically alter the way the rocket was built. As a result, they produced the Falcon 1 for $7 million at a time when the next cheapest rocket on the market was $65 million.

In our study, non-brokers who focused their attention on a small number of contacts were judged by senior managers to be as innovative as brokers. And brokers who gave equal attention to all their communication partners were much more likely to be rated by senior managers as innovative than brokers who focused their attention on a selected few contacts.

So for the purpose of innovation, neither group should change its approach to networking — but both should pay attention to whom they pay attention.

Why You Need an Untouchable Day Every Week

Harvard Business Review -

Hayon Thapaliya/DUCEPT Pascal/ Images

I hate meetings. They sit subconsciously in my brain, taking up space. I prepare for them in my notebooks. I travel to them, and then back again, in the middle of my work days. And what do most meetings usually result in? You guessed it — more meetings.

When I worked as Director of Leadership Development at Walmart, my days were full of meetings. Everybody’s were! And when I quit two years ago to strike out on my own as an author and keynote speaker, I thought my days full of meetings were behind me.

But I was wrong.

I now have research calls and phone interviews; lunches with literary agents and web developers; conference calls about book titles and publishing schedules; and radio interviews and media prep calls. And before every speech I give, there’s always a meeting with the client and meeting planner to clarify goals and logistics for the event.

Meetings never really go away.

But the problem is that I’m now measured almost solely on my creative output. And there’s no time for it! It’s not just me, either. As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier, the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you’re not taking time to put something new and beautiful out into the world, then your value is diminishing fast.

I used to be one of those “wake up at 4 a.m.” or “keep chugging ‘til 4 a.m.” guys who grinds away at work for hours while everybody else sleeps.  It’s how I wrote a thousand blog posts in a thousand days. But I now understand that you can only drive in the express lane for so long before the wheels come off.

You and Your Team Series Meetings

I’m no longer that guy. Now when I get home after work, I soak in time with my wife and two little boys. Nothing is or will ever be as precious to me, and I resist insight from anyone who isn’t making space for loved ones.  I realized that what I needed was a practical way to get more work done without taking more time. And, to be honest, I needed it fast. Why? Because in my first year as a full-time author, I actually started feeling my productivity slipping — even though I had quit my full-time job. It wasn’t just disheartening; it was also embarrassing. “So how’s the new book coming?” “Oh, now that I quit my job? Terribly!”

I finally found a solution that I feel has saved my career, my time, and my sanity. If you’re with me right now, I bet you need this solution too: I call it “Untouchable Days”.

These are days when I am literally 100% unreachable in any way…by anyone.

Untouchable Days have become my secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how I complete my most creative and rewarding work. To share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words.  On these days, I’m 10 times more productive.

How do I carve out Untouchable Days?

I look at my calendar sixteen weeks ahead of time, and for each week, I block out an entire day as UNTOUCHABLE. I put it in all-caps just like that, too. UNTOUCHABLE. I don’t write in all-caps for anything else, but I allow  UNTOUCHABLE days to  just scream out to me.

Why sixteen weeks ahead? The number of weeks isn’t as important as the thinking behind it. For me, that’s after my speaking schedule is locked in — but, importantly, before anything else is. That’s a magic moment in my schedule. It’s the perfect time to plant the Untouchable Day flag before anything else can claim that spot.

On the actual Untouchable Day itself, I picture myself sitting in a bulletproof car surrounded by two-inches of thick impenetrable plastic on all sides. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. Meetings bounce off the windshield. Texts, alerts, and phone calls, too. My cell phone is in Airplane Mode all day. My laptop has Wi-Fi completely disabled. Not a single thing can bother me… and not a single thing does.

But, what about emergencies, you might be wondering?

The short answer is that there really never are any. The long answer is when my wife asked me about emergencies, she didn’t love my rant about how back in the day, nobody had cell phones, and we were all unreachable at times. As a compromise, I told her that when I started scheduling Untouchable Days, I’d open the door of my bulletproof car for an hour at lunchtime. When I did, I came face to face with the whizzing bullets of seventeen text messages, dozens of urgent-sounding emails, and endless robot-generated alerts and feeds — and precisely zero emergencies from my wife. So after a few months, we stopped doing that and instead I just started telling her where I’d be. That gave her peace of mind that if something horrible happened, she could call the place I was working or simply drive over and find me as a last resort.

I’ve now pulled off Untouchable Days for a year.  Nothing horrible has ever happened, and we’ve both grown more comfortable with zero contact throughout the day.

So what do Untouchable Days look like up close?

I think of them as having two components. There is the deep creative work. When you’re in the zone, you’re in a state of flow, and the big project you’re working on is getting accomplished step by step by step. And then there are the nitros — little blasts of fuel you can use to prime your own pump if you hit a wall. These unproductive moments of frustration happen to all of us, and it’s less important to avoid them than to simply have a mental toolkit you can whip out when they happen. What are my tools? Heading to the gym for a workout. Grabbing a pack of almonds. Getting up and simply running down the street, or going on a nature walk. After all, Thoreau said “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” And Hemingway stated “I would walk along the quais when I finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.” What else? A ten-minute meditation. Or switching to a new workspace. Or my wonder drug of precariously turning off Airplane Mode for ten minutes (while staying off of email and text) and leaving voicemails for my parents and close friends, telling them I love them. It works every time, and I get back to work quickly because, let’s be honest, nobody ever answers their phone.

So what happens if the bulletproof car really does get bumped? Say I get an incredible speaking invite or somebody much more important than me only has this one day to get together? Red alert: The Untouchable Day is under threat. What do I do?

I have a simple rule. Untouchable Days may never be deleted, but they can move between the bowling-lane bumpers of the weekends. They can’t jump weeks, though. They are more important than anything else I am doing, so if they need to move from a Wednesday to a Thursday or a Friday, that’s fine — even if I have to move four meetings to make room. The beauty of this approach is that when you plant the Untouchable Day flag on your calendar, it really does feel permanent in your mind. You start feeling the creative high you’ll get from such deep output as soon as you start booking them in.

Before I started using Untouchable Days, I treaded water — I wrote articles, I gave speeches. But something was missing. When I implemented Untouchable Days in 2017, magic happened. I wrote a new 50,000 word memoir, wrote and launched a new 60-minute keynote speech, drafted book proposals for my next three books, and completely planned and began recording my new podcast — all while traveling and giving more speeches than I ever had before.

With a year of Untouchable Days under my belt, do I still go through the exercise of scheduling one Untouchable Day every single week?

The honest answer is no.

Now I schedule two.

Everyone has an accent

Seth Godin's Blog -

The fact that we think the way we speak is normal is the first clue that empathy is quite difficult.

You might also notice how easy it is to notice people who are much worse at driving than you are--but that you almost never recognize someone who's driving better than you are.


Getting in the Ring

Steven Pressfield Online -

[We’re bringing this post back from December 23, 2011. With the launch of Steve’s new site and the launch of The War of Art Mini-Course it seemed time to revisit The War of Art’s backstory, as well as how Steve and Shawn starting working together, and the project that followed.]

At the end of the year 2000, I had it all figured out. I left my job as senior editor at Doubleday to start up a new kind of publishing house called Rugged Land Books. Rugged Land would publish a very small list of titles, twelve original books a year (one per month), and would focus on finding unique ways to find, listen to, and engage readers in the particular genres I knew best.

I loved the motto that my former business partner quoted to me about the meaning of the name and I still do:

“It is better to live in a Rugged Land and rule, than to cultivate rich plains and be a slave to others.” —Herodotus.

The writer I most wanted to publish at Rugged Land was Steven Pressfield.

I’d known Steve for about four years. I acquired Gates of Fire and Tides of War at Doubleday and we’d already been through a lot together. Gates and Tides were bestsellers and the company was very pleased with the critical and commercial successes of both. But I thought that they could have been much bigger sellers if they’d been given more time to catch on. More attention. More commitment. And I wasn’t shy about saying so. While my colleagues (Publisher, Editor in Chief, Business Manager on down) were sympathetic and did what they could to help, the big houses like Doubleday at the time were extremely regimented. The publishing process was firmly established.

Here’s how it worked:

An editor acquired a book. The book was assigned to a publicist and a point person in marketing. Plans were drawn up nine to twelve months before publication to plot how to best launch the book in the trade. The book was presented at a national sales conference. The sales department made their own determinations about which books had the best shot at hitting it big. The priorities on the list were then reevaluated and rejiggered after a consensus between editorial, publicity, marketing, and sales had been reached.

The consensus usually went sales’ way.

Editors and publishers were considered, and perhaps still are and perhaps still rightly so, as unreliable narrators by the sales department.  Editorial had secret agendas—big guaranteed advances on the line or desperate pleas to make an author’s sliding sales track record rebound with verbal bullshit and sizzle. If the publisher didn’t justify the advance she authorized to acquire a book or an editor didn’t save his prize author from becoming superfluous . . .

Sales didn’t have any agenda but to sell the most books possible. That’s how they got paid. So sales reps could be counted on to give it to an editor or publisher straight . . . your favorite book doesn’t stand a chance or we’re gonna make it work. The books that struck the biggest chord with the reps usually got the lion’s share of attention.  Who knew the customer better than the sales rep anyway? Don’t forget that bookstores, not consumers, were the primary customers pre-eBook. If the physical book wasn’t visible in a bookstore, marketing to a consumer didn’t mean diddly to the bottom line. So, publishers ignored the very people who bought their books until they had a saturated distribution—so many books out there that they had to be stacked in corners. And even when they did, they gave it two weeks of consumer awareness promotion to sell through the inventory—at the most.

Steve was a darling of the Doubleday sales reps. In fact, early plans for Gates and Tides were expanded after their respective sales conferences. Steve had it all going for him and it worked. This was a very big deal. An entire genre (historical war epic) had been reinvented by Steve and Doubleday. Copycats from other houses came in and rode the resurgence. To this day, terrific historical war fiction is published year after year. Steve’s work and Doubleday’s commitment to it are the reason.  Attention must be paid to that achievement. Kudos.

But even Steve couldn’t get the system to bend and try something new. No matter how much ruckus I made to try some new marketing or publicity gimmick to target consumers, little came of it. Once the 4 to 6 week sales window for Gates and Tides closed, the case closed, and the energy of the house went to the next “big book.”

What wasn’t broke didn’t get fixed. I understood the system, but didn’t agree with it, so I left the well-oiled machine and tried to create a new one.

But the chances of getting Steve Pressfield’s next book in Rugged Land’s debut 2002 publication catalog were as likely as the Borders Group going into bankruptcy. Steve was committed to publish his next novel with Doubleday and while he would have loved to continue to work with me as his primary editor, the reality was that he couldn’t. He made a large part of his living from Doubleday and Rugged Land was a romantic enterprise…noble but perhaps destined to fail. There was just no way around that.

We grabbed a beer in New York just after I left Doubleday headquarters and Steve let me know how much he appreciated what I was doing.  He wanted to be a part of it but he couldn’t figure out how.

But Steve is that rare kind of person who doesn’t let life’s insurmountable and obvious impossibilities stop him from doing important work. He intuitively knew that what we were capable of together as writer and editor was not even remotely exhausted.

I thought c’est la vie.

We shook hands at the end of that night and Steve flew back to California. Like scores of writers I’d worked with before, I thought the next time I’d see him would be as some boring-ass publishing event. We’d smile, do a bro hug, down a shot of John Jameson and play remember when . . . That was cool. I liked doing that.

The next afternoon—literally—Steve called me and said he had an idea.

He had a bunch of pages in his drawer that he’d been xeroxing for aspiring writer friends. That’s right, not photocopying, Xeroxing. Remember the term Xeroxing? It wasn’t weird back then. Steve estimated that the copies he gave out had saved him hours of time explaining the unromantic, but indispensable blue-collar attitude he found necessary to getting his ass in a chair and confronting a blank piece of paper. He called the wad of manuscript, A Writer’s Life.

He didn’t really know what I could do with it, but he asked me to just look and see if there was anything there. I thought it was nice that Steve had some specious crap he could use to get people to leave him alone, but the last thing I was going to do was publish a book called A Writer’s Life. Who gives a shit, right?

Steve also explained that he’d run the idea by his agent (publishing icon Sterling Lord, Jack Kerouac’s agent and the last gentleman in the business) and that Sterling thought it appropriate to share the pages with the hordes of other editors who’d expressed interest in Steve’s work too. Sterling thought I was a nice enough guy and a good editor, but why put limits on his client’s options? Wise man.

Great! Even if this thing is publishable, there’s no way I’ll be able to compete at the advance level with Doubleday or William Morrow or Random House . . .

I said as much to Steve and he told me that we could figure that out later. He didn’t write these pages to pay his mortgage, he wrote them to help his friends. If they could do something for me and Rugged Land, that would mean a hell of a lot more to him than a better model of car.

I read the pages in about an hour. Then I read them again and sketched out some notes. I had zero experience with these kinds of books (thrillers, military nonfiction, sports nonfiction, and historical fiction were my calling cards and what I would push at Rugged Land). I didn’t even know how to characterize A Writer’s Life. I wasn’t even sure if it was a book . . . but it moved me. It made me believe even more in what I was doing and who I was as a human being.  It was priceless.

I called Steve and gave him my notes, and I shared the notes that others at Rugged Land put together. I told him I wanted to publish the book, but it needed a new title, some sort of beginning, middle and end, and I thought since it was his first nonfiction book we should reach out to a bestselling writer in the arena to write an introduction to it. Plus some sort of unique package that made it look different from anything else in the bookstore.

Steve said, “Tell me what to do next!”

While we waited for the rest of the publishing universe to get back to Sterling, Steve and I worked on the book. As far as I was concerned, we had a handshake agreement that Rugged Land would publish it and I trusted Steve. Even if hundreds of thousands of dollars from one of the big boys were offered to Sterling for A Writer’s Life, I thought Steve would go with me.

But I was worried. Steve ekes out a living just like any other writer. Who was I to hold him over a barrel if the big cash came calling?

It didn’t come to that.

Every other publisher passed on the book. The editors had the same concerns about it that I did.  The book was made up of very short chapters, some just a sentence long.  And each chapter had a definitive title that was as much a part of the content of the book as the body copy. A major design and continuity challenge.

And while the surface focus of the book was about writing, it was also about doing anything creative—from starting a plumbing supply business to running for political office. Too all over the place, too hard to convey in an elevator pitch.

A Writer’s Life could be a page a day calendar or a collection of 4 x 6 index cards, but it most definitely wasn’t a “book.” In the parlance of respectful rejection letters, it just didn’t “fit into our publishing program at this time.”

Sterling called and told me it was mine. We agreed to a pittance advance and I banged out a contract that was fair for Rugged Land and for Steve. Basically, if the book made any money after paying for everything, Steve would get 50% and Rugged Land would get 50%. We’d share it like partners.

Then we got down to the real work on the book. Steve and I thought the three-part structure was a good choice because we both were fans of the three-act story structure. I called some pals in the business and asked them to tell me how self-help publishing worked.

What I found out was that self-help was about 1) Defining problems and 2) Offering solutions. Sounds simple but many a potentially helpful book has been upended by failing to clearly do so. Steve nailed the problem part with his concept “resistance,” and he nailed the solution part with his advice to “turn pro.”  But he also had the cojones (or stupidity) to offer something else—his take on the metaphysics of the creative life.  He had wonderful pieces in A Writer’s Life that had nothing to do with defining or solving problems. They were explorations about the necessity of art in human life.  For these, I suggested we add a third part to the book, something I suggested we call The Higher Realm.

Steve was cool with it.

My reasoning was commercially motivated.  I thought that some people would vehemently disagree with Steve’s ethereal point of view but would still fall in love with the first two parts of the book. So the third part would be dessert for those of us who appreciate Steve’s perspective and a throw away for those didn’t care for the dessert. How many meals have you had where the dessert ruled your opinion?

Together, we rejiggered the pieces so that each section of the book had a beginning, middle and end so that the cumulative effect would build to a catharsis for the reader at the very last page. Like a joke or a movie or a great novel—we were looking at self-help as a story.  We thought it was working.

And then we hit a wall.  We suspected that A Writer’s Life had the potential to inspire a lot of people.  But “a lot of people” aren’t a clearly defined or easily reachable target market.  We needed to identify who would care.

Steve was known at the time in two arenas—golf fiction and historical war fiction. What we needed to do was to somehow attract the people who bought The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and Tides of War to this book. If they didn’t respond to it, then we were in trouble.

We needed something easy to understand, intriguing, and hinting that the book was destined to be a classic. It wasn’t Steve’s attempt to whore himself for a buck. Far from it. It could ruin him if it wasn’t authentic.

For weeks we pulled our hair out searching for a phrase. We focused on what was the common denominator in Steve’s previous work.  As The Legend of Bagger Vance was inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, Gates of Fire inspired by the heroic Spartan stand at Thermopylae and Tides of War inspired by a pivotal figure in the Peloponnesian War (Alcibiades), it was pretty obvious that Steve’s work explored internal and external wars.

War as metaphor was just what we needed to attract Steve’s previous readers. We also liked it because it was on the other side of the spectrum of the traditional touchy feely self-help arena. This book was self-help for Warriors dedicated to art, one form or other. Warriors willing to do whatever it takes to create something meaningful. This wasn’t a book for wimps. It was a throw down.

Once we figured out the war component, our title, The War of Art wasn’t too far behind.  The fact that it echoed Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War, was an added bonus. Then, Steve went back through the book and integrated more martial language into the text. Defining the problem became “defining the enemy.” Solving the problem involved “combatting resistance.” All would lead to examining “the higher realm.”

Now we needed a subtitle to propose an answer to a core “How to” proposition.  That is, it had to tell the potential buyer of the book what they could expect to get out of reading it. How to save money at the grocery store, or how to lose weight, or how to make a tree house . . . And we needed to make the subtitle consistent with the title. Write Your Novel Now! or Build a Business to Last! or Attracting the Angels Among Us! wouldn’t work. Not only were they cheesy, they were non-sequiturs in comparison to the ass kicking title. And they were too tightly focused on specific markets—writing help or business help or Angel believers. We wanted to embrace as many people as possible intent on creating something of their own. They could take what they needed and leave the rest…

We came up with Winning the Inner Creative Battle.

I still love that subtitle, but when we made a deal with Grand Central books (previously Warner Books) to publish the paperback, Steve’s editor there, Emily Griffin, convinced us that focusing the book for the writing market was the way to go for the long backlist haul.

Now the subtitle is Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Promising writers that this book will break their writers’ block was a very good idea. It gave us a very tight focus and a focus that echoes A Writer’s Life. Thank you Emily!

Back to the initial hardcover publication. After we agreed on a subtitle, the task was to find a bestselling writer with a reputation for no bullshit—writing in the same general literary world as The War of Art—willing to put his reputation on the line to support us. Steve and I said the name as the same time, ROBERT MCKEE!

McKee’s classic book, Story, sells tens of thousands of copies (in hardcover!) every year since it’s bestselling initial publication. (Thank you Judith Regan for getting Bob to finally write it.) And his STORY seminar is legend. Here’s a profile of him from The New Yorker: “The Real McKee.”

McKee read The War of Art.  He hated the third section, The Higher Realm. But, as I suspected, he loved the first two parts. Absolutely loved them so much that he agreed to write an introduction to the book. But he wasn’t going to do the usual logrolling 100% bullshit sign off for the entire book. Instead he did the job that we couldn’t do ourselves–he would convince readers who didn’t agree with Steve’s ideas at the end of the book (no one disagrees more with Steve on this than Bob) to buy it for the first two parts. Now we would get McKee devotees to check out the book too. Bob even bought a couple thousand copies himself to sell at this seminars. Our “take what you need and leave the rest” strategy was working.

(Full disclosure, McKee is now one of my clients)

Then we had to come up with a compelling hardcover package. What would the book look like?

I shared The War of Art with a dear friend and a wonderful graphic designer, Timothy Hsu. One of the messages of the book kept coming back to him. It was for artists to take a good hard look in the mirror and get to it, get their Asses in their desk chairs and get to work.

Timothy came up with the idea of strategically placing three mini-mirrors on the cover to represent the three parts of the book. And to make the texture of the entire book a reflective silver mosaic. It was an expensive idea, but one we thought would make the book stand out from the pack at the bookstore. Steve let me run with it. First editions of The War of Art sell for more than $100 apiece today. Steve calls it the “silver bullet edition.”

Rugged Land Books published The War of Art in June 2002 and we pitched the book as a perfect graduation gift to the usual print magazines, industry journals, etc.

It didn’t set the world on fire.

But it sold just enough (about 8,000 hardcover units) to start conversations among artists. Rugged Land and Steve made some money on the sale of the paperback to Grand Central and the book percolated along via word of mouth for years, selling a consistent 10,000 paperbacks a year. Meanwhile, Steve and I kept in touch while he wrote more novels for Doubleday and I published 45 books at Rugged Land.

While Rugged Land had seven New York Times bestsellers, the inertia of the capital intensive, paper driven, bricks and mortar, selling to retailer book publishing model took its toll on me—financially, physically and emotionally. Every arena of my life became Rugged Land driven and after all kinds of turmoil and the painful realization that my dream to become Bennett Cerf was never going to happen. Rugged Land discontinued publishing in 2007.

A bittersweet moment came when I had to sell off the furniture and miscellaneous office supplies by myself. A friend of mine placed a bunch of ads on Craigslist etc. for me and the locusts arrived to pick apart the Rugged Land carcass. People were literally giving me $.50 for an extra carton of garbage bags that I bought for $3.99. The office was across the street from the Hudson River and I was thinking how refreshing a nice dip into its icy depths would be when a woman noticed a copy of copies of The War of Art stacked in a corner. She picked one up and looked at me as if I was Brad Pitt.

“Did you publish this book!” she stammered.

By that time I was incapable of verbal communication, but I nodded in the affirmative.

“It changed my life. Thank you.”

As Bill Murray’s character Carl Spackler said in Caddyshack “I’ll always have that going for me . . . which is nice.”

An agent friend, Richard Abate, emailed me the moment he heard Rugged Land was in trouble. He hired me as a literary agent for a new division he was starting up at the big fancy outfit called the Endeavor Agency. It was a great place to land and I learned how to work the other side of the publishing desk all the while given the opportunity to provide for my family. Nothing is ever as bad as you think it is.

While I was at Endeavor, Steve and I would talk every few months, just to check in as pals, and he told me about putting together The War of Art was increasing in sales every month after he began blogging a weekly column called Writing Wednesdays. How about that?

It didn’t occur to us until four or five months later that The War of Art was a blog book before anyone blogged.  It was 10 years ahead of its time. The format is exactly blog, easy to read, fun and each chapter/post is a self-contained mini-story.

Writing Writing Wednesdays also gave Steve a chance to meet the actual people who read and liked The War of Art. He could talk to those who recommended the book to their friends and they talked back. He could find, listen and engage with them. Annual sales of the book went from 10,000 before Steve’s blog to 15,000 in just one year. He couldn’t add a second floor to his house, but a 50% increase in sales is nothing to roll your eyes at either.

In 2009, the Endeavor Agency and the William Morris Agency merged. I decided not to pursue a position at the new combined agency and started Genre Management Inc. Endeavor allowed all of my clients to come with me and as arrivedercis go, it was pretty painless. I called Steve and told him my plans.

“So you are a completely solo operation now?” he asked.

“Yep, Genre Management Inc. is a laptop, a cellphone and whatever’s left of twenty years of book publishing inside my head.”

“I think we can have a lot of fun working together on the website and who knows what else . . . Do you have room for me as a client?”

He hired me as his literary manager right then and there and pledged 15% of his future book income to me. Even though Sterling Lord was still his agent collecting the same 15%. And he never let on that he’d heard the word on the street was that I had been fired. He really didn’t care.

I did a few editorial passes on The Profession with Steve before it went to Crown for acceptance, and we worked up a bunch of ideas to market the book with Callie and Jeff. Like a lot of Steve and my ideas, they may have been a few years ahead of their time . . .

We started this blog What It Takes a year ago to share our experiences with you. It began as a no-holds-barred look at what it takes to market and sell a book in this transitional era from paper/retailer to electronic/reader as publishing’s driving force.

One wonderful thing that came out of our marketing ideas was The Warrior Ethos. Steve wrote it over the holiday and into January last year. After we edited it, I called our old friend Timothy Hsu to come up with a cover for the book that would seem as if it had been found in an archaeological dig. He commissioned a painting of a Spartan shield and we wrapped it around the front and back covers.

The idea behind it was that if the hero of The Profession, Gent Gentilhomme, had to codify the ethos to which he subscribed, The Warrior Ethos would be that book. We would use The Warrior Ethos to promote The Profession as a way to get readers thinking about Warriors through time.

And as The Warrior Ethos was ours and ours alone, we published it ourselves for fun. Steve personally funded an 18,000 copy special military edition print run of the book for the men and women in the armed services. Callie and Steve found a network of wonderful people—you’d be amazed at the list of people who are devoted to Steve’s work—who ensured that the books would get into the hands of warriors in Afghanistan and Iraq. And we decided to let anyone who couldn’t get a copy read it for free on

We were having a ball. But it was an expensive operation, a sea of red ink. At the very least, I wanted Steve to get the marketing money he spent out of his own pocket for The Professionto come back to him. So, I suggested to Steve that we do a “soft launch” and put The Warrior Ethos up for sale in electronic and paperback editions with online retailers. This way, he could get some of his investment back.

“What does that mean . . . soft launch?” he asked.

“It means I just put it up for sale and we’ll see what happens. I’ll take care of the production, etc., and if we ever make a penny, we can split it 50/50 like the old days.”

“Okay, sounds like fun. Let’s do it…but we have to come up with a name and logo for our company for the book spine don’t we?  We don’t want people to see this book and think it’s a joke or unprofessional, right?”

How can you argue with that?

Steve then put his thinking cap on and he came up the name of a publishing house that we both loved. It refers to a phrase in the very first post that Steve did introducing What It Takes, something about a Black Irish Wildman (“What It Takes“).

I’ll let Steve explain. This from our evolving future website . . .


Black Irish Books is named in honor of our partner, Shawn Coyne. When you think of the Irish, what usually comes to mind is the fair-haired, blue- or green-eyed physical type (think Denis Leary or Meg Ryan). But there’s another brand of Irishman (George Clooney comes to mind), dark-haired, dark-eyed, perhaps a tad unstable, even dangerous. Legend has it that this DNA entered the Irish bloodstream around 1588 via the shipwrecked mariners of the Spanish Armada.

Black Irishmen are famous for being pugnacious and confrontational. Great barroom brawlers. Boxing champs of the early 20th Century (Jim Fitzsimmons, Gene Tunney) were often black Irish. Hence our boxing glove logo. (We originally had a shot glass on a bar with a tear tracking down one side, but we decided that was a tad melodramatic.)

The motto of Black Irish Books (yes, we have one) is “Get in the ring.” The titles we intend to bring out will be steak-and-potatoes types, whose aim is to inspire, encourage and fortify those artists, entrepreneurs and athletes whose ambition is not to stand on the sidelines, waiting for permission from others, but to take their destiny in their own fists–to pursue their heart’s calling and make it work.

Not only did my pal, Steve, honor me by naming our company Black Irish Books, he asked me to tell the community about it.

We have lots of stuff in the works for Black Irish Books—so many projects and dreams we find hard to keep track of them all—but one thing is for sure…we’ll share what we’re up against and what surprises us all the way with you.  Callie and Jeff and Timothy and other friends are throwing in what they got too.

Get in the ring with us…we’re gonna have some fun.

More to come in the New Year!

Why We Don’t Let Coworkers Help Us, Even When We Need It

Harvard Business Review -

Chris Madden/Getty Images

When colleagues display helpful and cooperative “citizenship behaviors,” research has shown, they tend to develop high-quality social connections, which can improve individual and team performance through enhanced coordination, communication, and shared understanding within organizations. But there’s an obstacle to reaping those benefits — social psychologists have also found that people often react negatively to being helped. So we recently conducted a series of studies (forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology) to gain insight into how that dynamic plays out at work.

In a qualitative study, we asked 238 employees in a variety of industries to explain why they would or wouldn’t accept help from a coworker. From their responses, we identified five key reasons people avoid being helped: preferring to be self-reliant and complete their work on their own, wanting to protect their image, not wanting to feel obligated to return the favor, not trusting their coworkers’ motives, and believing that their coworkers are incompetent.

How pervasive are these attitudes? More so than you might think. When we asked more than 500 employees in a separate survey how much they agreed with various reasons for not seeking help, nearly two-thirds indicated that they preferred to finish their work without assistance from colleagues. Over half agreed that this allowed them to be seen as “high potential” employees. Almost 20% said that they normally declined offers of assistance so that they wouldn’t owe their coworkers favors. Nearly 10% said that their coworkers were “out for themselves,” and roughly 8% thought that their coworkers lacked the competence to help finish tasks.

As you can imagine, such views increase the risk of burnout. Some respondents were hesitant to accept help even when they felt they were drowning in work. In a follow-up study, we gave people a hypothetical scenario in which they were working on a task that would be extremely difficult to complete during normal work hours. Employees who held negative views about accepting help were more likely to put in extra hours to complete the task than to accept assistance.

Engagement and work quality can suffer, too. In another study, in which we analyzed 360-degree data, we found that people with negative views about accepting help at work were more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs and to think about quitting. These employees also had lower levels of job performance, were less helpful themselves, were less willing to go the extra mile for their organization, and were less creative. So they weren’t just failing to realize the benefits of helping behaviors; they were incurring a host of negative outcomes, as well.

Even their assumptions about how others perceived them were misguided. We found that people with negative views about accepting help were seen less favorably by their supervisors. In contrast, those who embraced help were more likely to be rated by their boss as exhibiting “positive follower” qualities (meaning they were viewed as hardworking and productive team players).

Taken together, our studies suggest that employees who are unwilling to accept help when they need it may undermine their own performance and the effectiveness of their team or unit. In light of those potential costs, managers should directly address the negative beliefs that people are harboring. For instance, research shows that employees tend to look to their leaders to determine who is trustworthy and who isn’t. So, to build people’s trust in their coworkers’ motives and competence, managers can demonstrate their faith in those employees by giving them challenging assignments, ownership of certain decisions, direct access to sensitive information or valuable stakeholders, and so on. Further, since giving help and receiving it go hand in hand, managers should create an environment where assisting one another is encouraged and recognized. They can do this by calling attention to successful collaborations and explaining how they’ve contributed to the organization’s larger goals and mission. And they should show their own willingness to help and be helped, since employees are more likely to see the merits of citizenship behaviors when they observe their leaders engaging in such behaviors themselves.

Finally, it’s important not to send mixed messages. If employees who go it alone get ahead more quickly than those who give and receive support, people will pick up on that discrepancy — and they’ll go back to looking out for number one, to their detriment and the organization’s.


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