Human Potential & Leadership

Sexual Harassment Is Pervasive in the Restaurant Industry. Here’s What Needs to Change

Harvard Business Review -

Linus-Gelber/Alert the Medium/Getty Images

Scores of recent stories have exposed the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in industries such as Hollywood, tech, politics, and academia. Less attention has been given to lower-paying jobs, such as those in the service and hospitality industry, where the problem runs rampant.

More sexual harassment claims in the U.S. are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other, where as many as 90% of women and 70% of men reportedly experience some form of sexual harassment. While the industry has had its share of high-profile stories (with a number of well-known chefs and TV personalities being accused of inappropriate behavior), even more insidious is the routine harassment of service workers by managers, coworkers, and, importantly, customers.

There are several factors that make restaurant employees particularly susceptible to sexual harassment. First, men make up the majority of management and higher-paying roles in the U.S. restaurant industry. The typical frontline restaurant employee is young, female, and working for a male manager: 71% of restaurant servers nationwide are women, making an average of $15,814 a year. Women, particularly minority women, are often placed in jobs with lower status and are more likely to be hired for lower-paying segments like quick-serve and family-style than for higher-paying segments like fine dining. This difference in power can create an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, ignored, or normalized, because employees do not feel comfortable confronting others about their inappropriate behavior. The industry’s high turnover rate — 70% annually — can also contribute to this culture, as targets of harassment are likely to leave before making any complaints.

Second, restaurant culture still praises the customer as “always right.” Qualitative studies show that service employees face harassment and mistreatment from customers on a daily basis, but often refrain from complaining or reporting these incidents. When they do, management tends to ignore them or change servers instead of confronting the customer. Managers can also be more forgiving of sexual harassment from customers. In an experimental study we conducted with 162 managers from various hotel and lodging departments, we found that managers perceived the same sexually harassing behavior as less negative when it was done by a customer than by an employee.

In addition, because restaurant employees in the U.S. often rely on tips, customers play an integral role in the both the evaluation and pay of restaurant employees — which can both lead customers to sexually harass employees and make employees and managers less likely to speak out against it. For example, one report found that sexual harassment is more common in states that rely on the tip system than in states that have a minimum wage.

Third, the restaurant industry is a “looks” industry, in which women are expected to use their appearance as part of the service experience. Restaurants often have strict grooming and uniform rules, requiring employees to maintain certain “looks.” But a culture that emphasizes and rewards looks can help customers and managers justify sexual harassment toward employees. And our other research shows that women who are perceived to have used their looks to get ahead are seen as more “deserving” of sexual harassment.

What Women Experience

We wanted to hear from women about their experiences, so we conducted a study following 76 female college students working in food and beverage service jobs, mainly restaurants, over a period of three months in 2017. On the first day of every month, the women read a list of 16 sexual harassing behaviors and reported which ones they’d experienced at work. 20 of them reported at least one sexual harassment incident during one of the months; 23 reported an incident during two of the months; and 33 reported an incident during each of the three months. Over the three months, the women reported 226 incidents of sexual harassment; 112 of the incidents involved coworkers, 29 involved a manager, and 85 involved customers.

Of the 16 behaviors listed — all of which are from the legal and psychological definitions of sexual harassment, which do not include violent behavior like rape or assault — the most frequent behaviors selected were when someone at work “told suggestive, sexual stories” (49%), “made offensive remarks” (46%), “made crude sexual remarks” (45%), “made sexist comments” (42%), and “attempted to discuss sex” (33%).

We also found that 2.4% reported being “afraid of poor treatment” for not cooperating, 2.4% reported experiencing “consequences for refusing advances,” and 7.1% reported it was “necessary to cooperate to be well treated” (7.1%).

The frequency of sexual harassment was routine and consistent over time. During the first month, 75% reported an incident, 70% reported one during the second month, and 74% reported one during the third. Follow-up qualitative interviews with 10 participants revealed that harassment was often ignored or taken to be “part of the job,” by both targets of the harassment and the coworkers who witnessed it. Specific examples we heard included a customer telling a server “The food is as good as you” and another saying “Are you on the desert menu? Because you look yummy.”

Despite feeling uncomfortable and threatened, servers saw it as part of the job and rarely complained to their managers. Many mentioned failing to complain or report the harassment because of fear of retaliation. In fact, the more sexual harassment they experienced, the more they reported fear of retaliation.

We also saw that both men and women normalized sexual harassment. For example, Mary, one of the respondents we interviewed, explained that one of her female coworkers often directed sexualized comments to everyone, including their manager, who ignored it instead of reprimanding her.

What Restaurants Can Do to Reduce Sexual Harassment

Failing to protect employees from customer sexual harassment can have negative legal implications for restaurants. For example, in Lockard v. Pizza Hut, the employer (a Pizza Hut franchisee) was found liable for sexual harassment when its manager ignored an employee’s complaints of a customer who sexually harassed her on two occasions. The franchisee ignored Pizza Hut’s corporate policy that managers should first inform the customer to stop sexually harassing their employees and then ask the customer to leave if they persist after the first warning. By ignoring this policy, the franchisee was ordered to pay the employee around $38,000.

There is no question that employers have a legal obligation to protect their employees from customer sexual harassment, but monetary losses from lawsuits are not the only consequences of ignoring sexual harassment. A high-profile sexual harassment claim can have a negative impact on an organization’s reputation (for instance, people called for a boycott of Mario Batali’s restaurants after multiple women made allegations of sexual harassment). And ignoring sexual harassment can damage employee morale: Research shows it increases employee stress, anxiety, burnout, and turnover intentions.

So how can restaurants eliminate the notion that harassment is simply “part of the job”?

First, because employees are more likely to engage in sexual harassment when they perceive that their organization accepts, ignores, or doesn’t care about it, restaurants need to make clear to all employees and managers that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Developing and enforcing anti-sexual harassment policies is a start. But organizations also must establish procedures for employees to follow if they need to file complaints and for managers to follow to address complaints fairly and consistently.

Managers are often responsible for handling sexual harassment complaints, but if they are the perpetrators of sexual harassment, then employees should have a separate mechanism for reporting sexual harassment. For example, personnel websites should include online forms for employees to report sexual harassment to the appropriate human resource department. Restaurants often conduct internal audits of service quality by sending “secret shoppers” in. They should use this model by sending human resource specialists to make site visits and interview employees about any sexual harassment or other inappropriate behaviors.

Second, managers should be required to complete training on sexual harassment. If organizations have the best anti-sexual harassment policies, but managers do not implement them, nothing will change. Managers should be trained to recognize different forms of sexual harassment, understand the legal requirements of maintaining a workplace free from sexual harassment, and learn the proper steps in addressing complaints.

In addition, all employees should take bystander intervention training so that witnesses of harassment know how to identify it and how to help women who experience it. For example, employees are often trained to disrupt harassment by making themselves known to the harasser and asking the target for help with something. By removing the target from the situation, bystanders can stop the harassment, demonstrate their awareness of the issue, and talk to the harasser later about their behavior.

Third, the restaurant industry needs to firmly address customer-based sexual harassment. Restaurant policy should charge managers with protecting their employees from unwanted behavior from customers, and it should mandate training them on how to deal with harassing customers. For example, if a server complains that they are made uncomfortable by a harassing customer, managers could move that employee off that table and be prepared to inform the customer that servers should be respected. If customers do not comply, managers can ask customers to leave and ensure that the server has not lost their tips by assigning them to other tables.

Restaurants can also be more proactive and explicit in communicating that sexual harassment of staff will not be tolerated. Restaurants already have policies for refusing service to unruly customers, such as intoxicated patrons who threaten other customers or employees. They can signal to customers that this includes sexual harassment. They can also post a statement prohibiting sexual harassment of staff on menus, front doors, tables, and other places where they have signs about their right to refuse service.

In light of the #MeToo movement, organizations are under increasing pressure to address and root out behavior that harms their employees. Businesses’ reputations and bottom lines are at stake, as employees can bring unwanted attention and legal action against companies that do not protect them from harassment. It is clear that service workers are particularly susceptible to sexual harassment, and it’s time the restaurant industry steps up to counteract this.

The Future of Human Work Is Imagination, Creativity, and Strategy

Harvard Business Review -

Juj Winn/Getty Images

It seems beyond debate: Technology is going to replace jobs, or, more precisely, the people holding those jobs. Few industries, if any, will be untouched.

Knowledge workers will not escape. Recently, the CEO of Deutsche Bank predicted that half of its 97,000 employees could be replaced by robots. One survey revealed that “39% of jobs in the legal sector could be automated in the next 10 years. Separate research has concluded that accountants have a 95% chance of losing their jobs to automation in the future.”

And for those in manufacturing or production companies, the future may arrive even sooner. That same report mentioned the advent of “robotic bricklayers.” Machine learning algorithms are also predicted to replace people responsible for “optical part sorting, automated quality control, failure detection, and improved productivity and efficiency.” Quite simply, machines are better at the job: The National Institute of Standards predicts that “machine learning can improve production capacity by up to 20%” and reduce raw materials waste by 4%.

Insight Center

It is easy to find reports that predict the loss of between 5 and 10 million jobs by 2020. Recently, space and automotive titan Elon Musk said the machine-over-mankind threat was humanity’s “biggest existential threat.” Perhaps that is too dire a reading of the future, but what is important for corporate leaders right now is to avoid the catastrophic mistake of ignoring how people will be affected. Here are four ways to think about the people left behind after the trucks bring in all the new technology.

The Wizard of Oz Is the Wrong Model

In Oz, the wizard is shown to run the kingdom through some complex machine hidden behind a curtain. Many executives may think themselves the wizard; enthralled by the idea that AI technology will allow them to shed millions of dollars in labor costs, they could come to believe that the best company is the one with the fewest people aside from the CEO.

Yet the CEO and founder of Fetch Robotics, Melonee Wise, cautions against that way of thinking: “For every robot we put in the world, you have to have someone maintaining it or servicing it or taking care of it.” The point of technology, she argues, is to boost productivity, not cut the workforce.

Humans Are Strategic; Machines Are Tactical

McKinsey has been studying what kind of work is most adaptable to automation. Their findings so far seem to conclude that the more technical the work, the more technology can accomplish it. In other words, machines skew toward tactical applications.

On the other hand, work that requires a high degree of imagination, creative analysis, and strategic thinking is harder to automate. As McKinsey put it in a recent report: “The hardest activities to automate with currently available technologies are those that involve managing and developing people (9 percent automation potential) or that apply expertise to decision making, planning, or creative work (18 percent).” Computers are great at optimizing, but not so great at goal-setting. Or even using common sense.

Integrating New Technology Is About Emotions

When technology comes in, and some workers go away, there is a residual fear among those still in place at the company. It’s only natural for them to ask, “Am I next? How many more days will I be employed here?” Venture capitalist Bruce Gibney explains it this way: “Jobs may not seem like ‘existential’ problems, but they are: When people cannot support themselves with work at all — let alone with work they find meaningful — they clamor for sharp changes. Not every revolution is a good revolution, as Europe has discovered several times. Jobs provide both material comfort and psychological gratification, and when these goods disappear, people understandably become very upset.”

The wise corporate leader will realize that post-technology trauma falls along two lines: (1) how to integrate the new technology into the work flow, and (2) how to cope with feelings that the new technology is somehow “the enemy.” Without dealing with both, even the most automated workplace could easily have undercurrents of anxiety, if not anger.

Rethink What Your Workforce Can Do

Technology will replace some work, but it doesn’t have to replace the people who have done that work. Economist James Bessen notes, “The problem is people are losing jobs and we’re not doing a good job of getting them the skills and knowledge they need to work for the new jobs.”

For example, a study in Australia found a silver lining in the automation of bank tellers’ work: “While ATMs took over a lot of the tasks these tellers were doing, it gave existing workers the opportunity to upskill and sell a wider ranges of financial services.”

Moreover, the report found that there is a growing range of new job opportunities in the fields of big data analysis, decision support analysts, remote-control vehicle operators, customer experience experts, personalized preventative health helpers, and online chaperones (“managing online risks such as identify theft, reputational damage, social media bullying and harassment, and internet fraud”). Such jobs may not be in your current industrial domain. But there may be other ways for you to view this moment as the perfect time to rethink the shape and character of your workforce. Such new thinking will generate a whole new human resource development agenda, one quite probably emphasizing those innate human capacities that can provide a renewed strategy for success that is both technological and human.

As Wise, the roboticist, emphasized, the technology itself is just a tool, one that leaders can use how they see fit. We can choose to use AI and other emerging technologies to replace human work, or we can choose to use them to augment it. “Your computer doesn’t unemploy you, your robot doesn’t unemploy you,” she said. “The companies that have those technologies make the social policies and set those social policies that change the workforce.”

Freedom, fairness and equality

Seth Godin's Blog -

Freedom doesn't mean no responsibility. In fact, it requires extra responsibility. Freedom is the ability to make a choice, and responsibility is required once you make that choice.

Fairness isn't a handout. Fairness is the willingness to offer dignity to others. The dignity of being seen and heard, and having a chance to make a contribution.

And equality doesn't mean equal. Equality doesn't guarantee me a starting position on the Knicks. Equality means equality of access, the opportunity to do my best without being disqualified for irrelevant reasons.


Is Your Company’s Data Actually Valuable in the AI Era?

Harvard Business Review -

Carmen Martínez Torrón
/Hayon Thapaliya/Getty Images

AI is coming. That is what we heard throughout 2017 and will likely continue to hear throughout this year. For established businesses that are not Google or Facebook, a natural question to ask is: What have we got that is going to allow us to survive this transition?

In our experience, when business leaders ask this with respect to AI, the answer they are given is “data.” This view is confirmed by the business press. There are hundreds of articles claiming that “data is the new oil” — by which they mean it is a fuel that will drive the AI economy.

If that is the case, then your company can consider itself lucky. You collected all this data, and then it turned out you were sitting on an oil reserve when AI happened to show up. But when you have that sort of luck, it is probably a good idea to ask “Are we really that lucky?”

The “data is oil” analogy does have some truth to it. Like internal combustion engines with oil, AI needs data to run. AI takes in raw data and converts it into something useful for decision making. Want to know the weather tomorrow? Let’s use data on past weather. Want to know yogurt sales next week? Let’s use data on past yogurt sales. AIs are prediction machines driven by data.

Insight Center

But does AI need your data? There is a tendency these days to see all data as potentially valuable for AI, but that isn’t really the case. Yes, data, like oil, is used day-to-day to operate your prediction machine. But the data you are sitting on now is likely not that data. Instead, the data you have now, which your company accumulated over time, is the type of data used to build the prediction machine — not operate it.

The data you have now is training data. You use that data as input to train an algorithm. And you use that algorithm to generate predictions to inform actions.

So, yes, that does mean your data is valuable. But it does not mean your business can survive the storm. Once your data is used to train a prediction machine, it is devalued. It is not useful anymore for that sort of prediction. And there are only so many predictions your data will be useful for. To continue the oil analogy, data can be burned. It is somewhat lost after use. Scientists know this. They spend years collecting data, but once it has produced research findings, it sits unused in a file drawer or on back-up disk. Your business may be sitting on an oil well, but it’s finite. It doesn’t guarantee you more in the AI economy than perhaps a more favorable liquidation value.

Even to the extent that your data could be valuable, your ability to capture that value may be limited. How many other sources of comparable data exist? If you are one of many yogurt vendors, then your database containing the past 10 years of yogurt sales and related data (price, temperature, sales of related products like ice cream) will have less market value than if you are the only owner of that type of data. In other words, just as with oil, the greater the number of other suppliers of your type of data, the less value you can capture from your training data. The value of your training data is further influenced by the value generated through enhanced prediction accuracy. Your training data is more valuable if enhanced prediction accuracy can increase yogurt sales by $100 million rather than only $10 million.

Moreover, the ongoing value of data usually comes from the actions you take in your day-to-day business — the new data you accrue each day. New data allows you to operate your prediction machine after it is trained. It also enables you to improve your prediction machine through learning. While 10 years of data on past yogurt sales is valuable for training an AI model to predict future yogurt sales, the actual predictions used to manage the supply chain require operational data on an ongoing basis. And this is the important point for today’s incumbent companies.

An AI startup that acquires a trove of data on past yogurt sales can train an AI model to predict future sales. It can’t actually use its model to make decisions unless the startup obtains ongoing operational data to learn from. Unlike startups, large enterprises generate operational data every day. That’s an asset. The more operations, the more data. Furthermore, the owner of the operation can actually make use of the prediction. It can use the prediction to enhance its future operation.

In the AI economy, the value of your accumulated data is limited to a one-time benefit from training your AI model. And the value of training data is, like oil or any other input, influenced by the overall supply — it’s less valuable when more people have it. In contrast, the value of your ongoing operational data is not limited to a one-time benefit, but rather provides a perpetual benefit for operating and further enhancing your prediction machine. So, despite all the talk about data being the new oil, your accumulated historical data isn’t the thing. However, it may be the thing that gets you to the thing. Its value for your future business prospects is low. But if you can find ways to generate a new, ongoing data stream that delivers a performance advantage in terms of your AI’s predictive power, that will give you sustainable leverage when AI arrives.

Stop Neglecting Remote Workers

Harvard Business Review -

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When we talk about the importance of building strong relationships with employees, there’s a growing contingent that we often neglect: those who don’t work in the main office. This means not just the 31% of Americans who work remotely four or five days a week but also the people in satellite locations, where workers can easily feel forgotten. I’ve experienced this problem both as a manager and as an employee. For instance, when I ran a startup in San Francisco that was acquired by a company based in Toronto, I went from overseeing on-site and off-site employees to leading an entirely off-site branch of a faraway business. Being a remote employee myself, and having my entire team also fall into that category, forced me to think differently about how to build team culture and keep everyone engaged and motivated.

I traveled to headquarters to meet the team, figure out the culture there, and get a clear sense of who controls what. But even in my time spent at the main office, I couldn’t possibly learn all the dynamics of the company. And we weren’t able to have the entire staff of our newly acquired startup make that kind of a trip. So in addition to overseeing our portion of the operation, I became a conduit, doing my best to build relationships between my staff and the folks at headquarters. But in many ways, they remained strangers, and that took a toll on the business, affecting employee satisfaction and productivity.

Employees want to feel connected to one another. In a recent Globoforce study about the value of work relationships, 87% of respondents said they trust their coworkers and 93% said it’s important to have colleagues think highly of them. These bonds stoke engagement and commitment to the company. Cisco found that face-to-face relationships in particular are a boon to effective collaboration, which improves productivity, efficiency, and innovation.

Since leaving that first startup and founding another, I’ve discovered — through research, advice, and trial and error — that several actions are effective at bridging the divide between employees at headquarters and everyone else. Only about one-half of our small staff works in the main office. As we scale, we plan to use these techniques to keep remote employees feeling as connected and engaged as those of us who see one another every day.

Ensure equal participation in standups. In standup meetings, or huddles, our team gets together to quickly go over key points, ask questions, and share feedback. We do this several days a week, sometimes every day. It can be easy to fall into a pattern of leaving off-site folks out, since standups often have an informal feel and don’t always start at the same time. That’s why you have to be disciplined about including everyone. We make sure our remote employees are equal participants. They join over video to enhance collaboration; they can see us and we can see them, and they participate as though they’re in the room. When people are on the road during these meetings, and can join only by phone, we’re careful to give them equal time and feedback.

Publicly recognize contributions. Too often, the contributions of remote employees go unsung. Leaders may simply know that something was done by a satellite office, rather than by a specific individual. I saw this happen repeatedly when my employees in San Francisco, or one of our off-site employees, did great work and never heard directly from the executives in Toronto. This can contribute to attrition. Gallup found that “employees who do not feel adequately recognized are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year.”

To prevent this, make sure top executives know the names of the individuals responsible for the good work, so they can drop the employees a note congratulating and thanking them. This simple gesture can be very meaningful. Gallup found that while 28% of employees said the most-memorable recognition comes from their manager, nearly as many — 24% — said it comes from a high-level leader or CEO.

You and Your Team Series Remote Work

But a private note from a higher-up is sometimes not enough, because it lacks an audience. At the main office, an executive might happen to walk through a room, see an employee, and praise them in front of colleagues. Or the executive may take time to do so during regular staff meetings, where the on-site employees are in attendance. In the Gallup survey, many workers said the most memorable method of recognition is public acknowledgment. And as an added benefit, it “sends messages to other employees about what success looks like.” So when praising a remote or off-site employee over email, copy others. Even better, use general chat boards (such as Slack), or mention it during a company-wide staff meeting that people throughout the enterprise join by video.

Beware of scapegoating. Remote employees sometimes get blamed for things that aren’t their fault. It can happen when people at the main office want to avoid blame themselves and use those who aren’t in the room as scapegoats — but often they don’t know what went wrong and are simply speculating. Either way, trust suffers. In one survey, 41% of remote workers said their colleagues bad-mouthed them behind their backs, compared with 31% of on-site employees. And 35% of remote employees said colleagues lobbied against them, compared with 26% of on-site workers.

When I learned that members of my remote team in San Francisco were being scapegoated by people at headquarters, I found it very difficult to undo — because word spreads fast in an organization. Now, at my startup, any time someone blames an off-site employee for something going wrong, I instinctively speak up. I say, “Well, let’s check with so-and-so about what happened and what challenges may have come up.” And I try to regularly do post-mortems about things that went wrong, laying out the facts for everyone to know and weigh in on.

Double down when it’s hardest. The times when I’ve failed to reach out adequately to my remote employees have been when I’m putting out a proverbial fire or working under a tight deadline to prepare a new release. When your head’s down and you’re racing to get things done, you can feel that you don’t have time for “secondary things” like communicating with remote employees. But work relationships are never secondary.

In those crunch times, your remote employees may feel even more underappreciated than usual, or unappreciated altogether. Brian de Haaff, CEO of a startup called Aha, has written that this is one of the biggest reasons remote workers feel left out: “An issue arises and action needs to be taken immediately. Company leaders gather the in-office team together and share the plan. Everyone marches ahead, getting busy. But no one tells the remote folks. Either because the team simply forgot or did not want to take the time to reach out.”

Hire for and grow EQ. Finally, fill your business with people who are good at building positive, supportive relationships. This means looking out for candidates with emotional intelligence, which includes relationship management. As a boss, I’ve learned to look for people who demonstrate self-awareness and empathy for others. Some of the questions I ask in interviews are aimed at getting a sense of this. And it’s important to help your employees grow their EQ — through scheduled self-reflection, for example.

There’s no magic tool for making sure your relationships with remote employees are as strong as they can be. Making a good effort requires being equally conscious of them and understanding the challenges they face. It means trying to replicate the experience of having them physically present with you. The more actions you take to show that you consider them full members of your team, the more likely they are to feel and act that way.

Give Your Hero a Hero Speech

Steven Pressfield Online -


Let’s take a break today in this series on Villains and turn to the guy or girl opposite him: the Hero.

We’ve been saying in these posts that the Antagonist needs to be given a great Villain Speech, a moment when he or she gets to try to convince us that greed is good or that we can’t handle the truth.

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and Ernest Borgnine marching to their Hero’s Moment

The hero needs her moment to shine too.

It’s our job as writers, yours and mine, to serve up some juicy, soul-defining, U.S. Prime dialogue for our protagonist to deliver.

Here’s one of my faves from the movie Fury, the Brad Pitt-starrer about a lone American tank driving deep into Nazi Germany in the closing weeks of WWII. The crisis comes when the tank hits a mine and becomes incapacitated just as a battalion of SS infantry is tramping down the road in its direction.

Do our heroes take off into the bushes and live to fight another day? Or do they make a stand, knowing it will cost them their lives?

Brad Pitt as the tank commander makes his own decision. “This is home,” he says, setting a palm on the turret of the tank. The other crewmen (Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Logan Lerman, Shia Labeouf) at first reluctantly, then with mounting spirit, join him. Each takes his last-stand position inside the tank, waiting for the SS, who are now only a couple of hundred yards away.

It’s a classic hero moment, the hour when the ultimate sacrifice is imminent, when ordinary men stand at the threshold of rendering themselves extraordinary.

The director/writer David Ayer gives the critical lines to Shia Laboeuf (who does a fantastic job delivering them) as Boyd “Bible” Swan, the tank’s gunner. Swan speaks quietly, in the steel intimacy of the tank’s interior, to his comrades, each of whom is isolated inside his own skull, awaiting the terminal moments of his life.



There’s a Bible verse I think about sometimes.

Many times. It goes, ‘And I heard the voice of the Lord

saying, Who shall I send, and who will go for us? Then

I said, Here am I. Send me.’


The sacrifice of one’s own life (or happiness or future prospects or whatever) for the good of others is the defining act of the hero.

Have you seen The Wild Bunch? I watch it once a year at least, just to remind myself what great storytelling and filmmaking is all about. The hero speech in that movie (screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah) is two words, delivered by Warren Oates as Lyle Gortch.

Here’s the setting:

The surviving members of the outlaw band known as the Wild Bunch (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates) have seen their companion Angel (Jaime Sanchez) captured and tortured by the evil generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) and been unable to rescue him because of the overwhelming numbers of Mapache’s soldiers.

The Bunch pass the night in a debauch in the village where Mapache and his troops (and Angel, still in captivity) have laid up. Waking in the morning, William Holden, the leader of the Bunch, pays the poor young mother with whom he has passed the night.

Plainly he is thinking about Angel and how he and his companions have failed to deliver him.

Then something changes in Holden’s face.

Plainly he has come to some kind of resolve.

Note: not a word of dialogue has been spoken so far.

Holden crosses to the room in which Warren Oates and Ben Johnson are squabbling over payment with the woman they’ve spent the night with. Holden appears in the doorway. Ben and Warren look up. Warren sees the expression on Holden’s face. He squints, as if thinking to himself, Is Holden thinking what I think he’s thinking?

One more look convinces Warren.

His own expression hardens into the identical resolve.



Why not?


That’s it.

That’s the hero speech.

The three outlaws step outside into the sun, where the final member of the Bunch, Ernest Borgnine, sits in the dust with his back against the adobe wall of the house, whittling a stick.

Again without dialogue, the companions’ eyes meet each other. Borgnine barks a curt laugh, plunges his stick point-first into the dust, and rises eagerly to his feet.

The final scene of course is these four taking on Mapache’s hundreds and giving their lives in the process.

I’ve seen, in e-mails and in the Comments section of this blog, these posts referred to as “tips.”

I hate that.

What I hope these posts constitute are the collective tool kit of a writer. Today’s post is one I use in every book or movie I write, as are all the other posts in this series and all others.

It’s a box I check to help myself find my story.

“Do I have a hero’s speech? Have I given my protagonist a moment, even if it’s silent, when he or she gets to define the action they will take and explain the reasons why?”

If I don’t, alarm bells go off in my head.

“Take care of this, Steve. Figure it out and do it.”

Perfect vs. important

Seth Godin's Blog -

Is there a conflict?

Does holding something back as you polish it make it more likely that you'll create something important?

I don't think so. There's no apparent correlation.

Instead, what we see is that, all things being equal, polished is better than rushed, but the most important factor is whether or not you've actually done the work to make something remarkable/generous/challenging/useful/artful.

More time spent on that is always better than more time polishing.


For Better Customer Service, Offer Options, Not Apologies

Harvard Business Review -

Jagdip Singh, a professor of marketing at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, explains his research team’s new findings about customer satisfaction. He says apologizing is often counterproductive and that offering customers different possible solutions is usually more effective. He discusses what companies can do to help service representatives lead interactions that leave a customer satisfied—whether or not the problem has been solved. Singh’s research is featured in the article “‘Sorry’ Is Not Enough” in the January–February 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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Facebook, BlackRock, and the Case for Purpose-Driven Companies

Harvard Business Review -

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Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his platform needs to change. Community feedback has shown that public content has been “crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other,” according to Zuckerberg. As a result, the company says it will be focusing more on promoting posts from friends rather than from media outlets, thereby leading to more-meaningful social interactions.

While the long-term consequences for users, journalists, media, friendships, Facebook itself, and the future of democracy (see: fake news) are uncertain and hard to judge, there are some lessons we can draw from the announcement.

Corporate Purpose Requires a Credible Commitment

There is a lot of talk about purpose in business. Purpose-driven companies have been shown to outperform their peers over the long term. They can reap benefits because of higher employee productivity and customer loyalty and satisfaction. But purpose-driven companies are also hard to come by. Why is that? Because purpose is costly. At the very least, it requires a credible commitment to that purpose. And credible commitments are those that come at a cost; in the absence of a cost, all companies can claim that they are purpose-driven, and as a result the commitment stops being credible.

The stock market reacted negatively to the announcement Friday, costing Facebook almost 5% of its market capitalization, or about $27 billion. It personally cost Zuckerberg more than $2 billion — hence the credible commitment to Facebook’s purpose to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” The fact that Facebook would undertake such a commitment knowing full well the costs is one more data point suggesting that Facebook could well turn out to be a purpose-driven company, and another lesson for business leaders that building purpose-driven organizations requires more than cheesy statements and “goodwashing” efforts.

Investors Are Paying Attention

The announcement came because of increasing pressure on Facebook to understand and manage its impact on society. Critics argue that the rise of fake news and propaganda on social media is threatening democracy. This is another indication that developments in society represent financially material events for a company’s performance, thereby raising the need for high-quality investor-relevant data that assesses a company’s efforts to mitigate negative impacts and increase its positive impact.

An increasing number of investors are therefore integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data when they make investment decisions. Research has already shown that firms improving their performance in material ESG dimensions subsequently outperform their peers.


Zuckerberg announced that this is a move that could well have short-term financial costs but long-term benefits for the business. The former seems to have outweighed the latter in the market’s reaction to the announcement, with the stock declining 5% same day.

Many business leaders have talked about the phenomenon of short-termism, and research has documented that short-termism holds back good corporate intentions. But the idea that business leaders are at the mercy of a market obsessed with short-term results is dubious. In most cases, business leaders themselves are at fault by failing to properly communicating the long-term benefits of such actions, which, if done well, build trust in leadership. Promising long-term benefits is not enough. Time-bound targets based on metrics and a clear strategic plan could do the trick, though. Unfortunately, most business leaders still do not walk the talk when it comes to being long-term-oriented.

That may change as more investors signal their commitment to long-termism and corporate purpose. If Facebook was last week’s indication that corporate leaders care about more than short-term profits, this week’s comes from BlackRock chair and CEO Larry Fink, who on Tuesday sent a letter to the companies his firm invests in demanding that “every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” In a recent article, I describe this role as a steward of the commons.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to agree, and seems willing to pay a price to demonstrate it.

Why an Activist Hedge Fund Cares Whether Apple’s Devices Are Bad for Kids

Harvard Business Review -

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On January 6, 2017, JANA Partners, a New York–based activist hedge fund, and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) sent a letter to Apple’s board of directors that may change the future of activist investing. Citing a substantial body of expert research, the letter stated, “We believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner.” Overuse of iPhones by children and teenagers, the letter pointed out, has been linked to lack of attention in the classroom, difficulty in empathizing with others, depression, sleep deprivation, and a higher risk of suicide.

Jana and CalSTRS together own $2 billion in Apple stock, so it’s no surprise that the letter received worldwide attention after it was publicized by the Wall Street Journal. What was surprising, however, was the unlikely partnership between JANA and CalSTRS. The term “activist hedge fund” connotes to many a “corporate raider” who creates short-term profits at the expense of other stakeholders and long-term investors. But CalSTRS is one of the world’s leading asset owners on the importance of integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues into investment decisions — investing as a way of maximizing returns while making the world a better place — so why would it be interested in partnering with an activist hedge fund?

The truth is that the worlds of activism and impact investing are converging much more swiftly than most people realize — and this union holds enormous promise for those who wish to see the creation of capital markets that support sustainable economic development. JANA is perhaps most public among activist investors about this shift, having recently announced that it is raising an impact fund to extend its Apple campaign to other companies with the help of an influential advisory board that includes Sister Patricia A. Daly, OPStingTrudie Styler; and myself. But it is reportedly not alone.

How is it that sharp-toothed activists are becoming advocates of long-term sustainable investing? A main explanation is that, as always, they are following the money. The market size for responsible investment is large and growing, with some of the largest asset managers like BlackRock, State Street Global Advisors, and Vanguard responding to demand by opening ESG-themed funds in recent years. According to US SIF, at the end of 2018 there was $8.72 trillion in sustainable and impact investing strategies, representing one out of every five dollars being professionally managed. BlackRock has gone even further. In a letter this week, CEO Larry Fink has announced that corporations “need to contribute to society” as well as be profitable if they want to retain BlackRock’s support as a shareholder — often one of their largest ones.

But it’s also true that many activists are not as short-term as many assume them to be. Despite their reputation as slash-and-burn financial engineers, activists are actually no strangers to seeking returns from genuine, long-term value creation. Empirical research, such as the article “The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism,” by Lucian A. Bebchuk, Alon Brav, and Wei Jiang, shows that in contrast to prevailing beliefs, the long-term effects of activist hedge funds are positive rather than negative. In a study of 2,000 activist hedge fund interventions over the period 1994 to 2007, where performance was tracked for five years after the intervention, they concluded: “We find no evidence that interventions, including the investment-limiting and adversarial interventions that are especially resisted by opponents, are followed in the long term by declines in operating performance. Indeed, we find evidence that such interventions are followed by long-term improvements, rather than declines, in performance.”

Thus, the issue isn’t one of time frames per se. Rather, it’s the dawning recognition of the activist hedge fund community that material environmental and social factors are value-relevant in the time frames in which they are already operating. This is true from both a downside risk and upside opportunity perspective — both of which exist at Apple. JANA and CalSTRS have recommended to Apple that it form an expert committee to oversee research on this issue, help develop new tools and options to control overuse of the iPhone, educate consumers, and report on its progress. JANA is doing this because it thinks the business decision is right for Apple and will create value for its shareholders in the long term. It’s as simple as that.

It’s difficult to describe how excited I feel about the prospect of an activist hedge fund pushing an ESG agenda in such a public way. It’s like Nixon going to China. If the hard-nosed activist hedge fund community thinks ESG is important, what more is there to say to convert skeptical managers, investors, and policy makers? This is a game changer.

Big asset owners, like CalSTRS, have been doing engagement for years because they recognize that in order to earn the long-term returns they need for their beneficiaries, their portfolio companies have to take their material ESG issues into account. What firms like JANA bring to the table is a very sophisticated process for identifying undervalued companies and increasing their value by improving their performance — now across a broader range of dimensions. They also know how to mobilize the broader investment community to support the changes they want to see.

Is this trend going to last? I hope so. What I can say is that JANA is deeply committed to using ESG to create long-term value for its investors. I wouldn’t have signed on to its advisory board if I didn’t believe this to be the case. If at least some of the others are equally serious, we are on the verge of a major paradigm shift in the world of investing. Even today the corporate community is skeptical about how much investors really care about ESG integration and impact. When an activist hedge fund comes knocking on their door, they’ll know that their environmental and social impact is as important as their financial results — because the latter follows from the former.

How Customer Service Can Turn Angry Customers into Loyal Ones

Harvard Business Review -

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Good customer service seems like common sense for businesses. But how valuable is it really?

Until now, this has not been rigorously quantified across different companies. Businesses are understandably reluctant to share their CRM and sales data, and most research in this field has been based on surveys. But as more Americans seek customer service online, social media offers a better platform for analyzing interactions between service reps and customers.

Using data from Twitter (where one of us works), we designed an experiment to study customer service interactions in two industries that generate a significant number of customer service complaints: airlines and wireless carriers. We found that prompt and personal customer service does indeed pay off —  customers remember good and bad customer service experiences, and they’re willing to reward companies that treat them well.

We identified more than 400,000 customer service-related tweets sent to the top five major airlines (American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United) and top four wireless carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon) in the U.S. from March 2015 to April 2016. Our sample of tweets was comprehensive, including complaints, questions, and comments. Since all tweets are public, we could review the entire conversation between the customer and the customer service agent (except direct messages) and code the interaction for attributes such as customer sentiment and tone (e.g., Is the interaction praise or scorn? Is the customer happy or angry?)

We then contacted these customers on Twitter, up to six months after they tweeted at the companies, and invited them to take a brief survey. Without providing a reason for the survey, we asked them to participate in a common market-research exercise called conjoint analysis to see if their customer service experiences affected how they valued the brands.

For example, for customers who had tweeted at airlines, the conjoint asked them to imagine buying a ticket for a two-hour non-stop flight. They had to choose between several combinations or “offers” that varied across dimensions such as airline, seat type, on-time arrival rate, and fare — similar to how customers would shop for fares on sites like Kayak or Expedia. We offered a similar exercise for wireless service customers.

From the conjoint exercise, we could discern what value, in dollar terms, customers attributed to their preferred airline. On Twitter, 1,877 users completed the conjoint exercises – 673 of them had received responses from companies, 375 received no response, and 829 had no customer service interaction and served as our control group for baseline willingness to pay.

We then tested our hypothesis: do customers who had a positive interaction with a brand’s customer service representative value that brand more? Or in management parlance, when a brand provides better customer service, will customers reward that brand with greater loyalty or pay a price premium?

Good Customer Service Matters on All Platforms

Customers who had interacted with a brand’s customer service representative on Twitter were significantly more likely to pay more for the brand, or choose the brand more often from a comparably-priced consideration set, compared to our control group of customers who had no such interaction. On average, across all tweets and regardless of whether the customer used a negative, neutral, or positive tone, we found customers who received any kind of response to their tweet were willing to pay almost $9 more for a ticket on that airline in the future. This extra $9 can be thought of as incremental brand value the airline has gained in the customer’s mind. In other words, all else being equal, a customer would be willing to buy a ticket from the airline even if the airline cost $9 more than its competitors.

We found similar results for wireless carriers. Customers who received any kind of response to their tweet were willing to pay $8 more, on average, for a monthly wireless plan from that carrier in the future, compared to the control group. Unlike airline tickets, wireless plans are monthly and recurring, so an $8 per month higher premium can lead to a significant revenue boost.

We also surveyed customers on their likelihood to recommend the brand to others, so we could derive a Net Promoter Score (NPS), a common measure of customer loyalty. We found that receiving a response improved NPS by 37 points for airlines and 59 points for wireless carriers, consistent with our findings from the conjoint exercise. (This bump is significant considering NPS scores range from -100 to 100.) In addition, these effects held up for at least six months after the interaction, suggesting some permanence to the positive impact of good service.

Respond to Customers, Even If They’re Upset

The connection between good customer service and brand loyalty may seem intuitive. What’s more surprising is that seeking to engage an angry or confrontational customer can also have a positive effect on brands.

Handling angry customers is a daily task for any customer service rep. While most companies do earnestly try to solve customer problems, inevitably there are some problems that cannot ever be fixed — the canceled flight that causes you to miss your sister’s wedding, or the dropped calls during your critical business negotiation. In many cases, there is little a company can do to redress a customer’s specific grievance.

But sometimes customers are just looking for a little empathy. When customers used a negative or even an angry tone in their initial tweet to a brand’s customer service team, we saw that the best approach was to respond to negative comments instead of ignoring them.

In our study, simply receiving a response — any response at all — increased the customer’s willingness to pay later, even in cases where customers were aggrieved. While successfully resolving an issue created more brand value (about $6 for our airline sample), responding without providing a resolution was still worth about $2 in added brand value for airlines.

We found even larger effects for wireless carriers. For customers who received no response, we found no statistically significant change in their willingness to pay. But, customers who got any response to their negative tweet were on average willing to pay $7 per month more for a wireless plan from that company than customers who got no response. For cases where the issue was resolved, they were willing to pay $8 more; if the agent was unable to resolve the issue, they were still willing to pay $6 more.

The lesson for managers is to reply to every customer service comment online, even the proverbial “I’ll never fly your airline again!” A mere acknowledgement of the customer’s problem can defuse initial frustration and put the customer back on the road to loyalty. Instead of the customer seeing the company as the enemy, a sympathetic response can reorient the situation so that the customer now feels that the company is on his or her side.

That being said, don’t ignore your happiest customers. We found the highest increases in willingness to pay actually came when businesses responded to customers who tweeted a positive comment at the company. Receiving a response to a positive comment generated $28 more for a future airline ticket and $12 more per month for wireless plans. Customers who say good things about your business are your advocates and your brand loyalists. You can demonstrate that you value them by acknowledging them and thanking them for their loyalty.

Good Service Happens Fast

As important as it is to respond to every customer issue, it is even more important to respond quickly. We observed that a brand can capture substantially more value by replying right away. When an airline responded to a customer’s tweet in five minutes or less, that customer was willing to pay almost $20 more for a ticket on that airline in future months. Similarly, wireless customers were willing to pay a whopping $17 more per month for a phone plan when they received a reply within five minutes.


Customer service representatives need to move fast to capitalize on these opportunities. For airlines, we found that after 20 minutes had elapsed, customers were only willing to pay $3 more, a decrease of 85% in value compared to customers who received responses in five minutes or less. After an hour, customers were only willing to pay $2 more. We found that the median time airlines took to respond to the tweets in our sample was about 20 minutes, meaning that at least half of all airlines were leaving significant money on the table.

While we were only able to measure the response time for interactions on Twitter, we believe fast responses can generate goodwill in all customer service channels. In our study, a response time of five minutes or less meant the airline ranked in the fastest 20% of response times in our data. We expect to see similar effects, regardless of channel, as long as the company is responding faster than customer expectations. (The average customer expects companies to help them within 5 minutes by phone, within 1 hour by social media, and between 1-24 hours for email.)

These patterns also held even if the customer’s complaint was unresolved, meaning that even a short acknowledgement of the customer’s issue and reassurance that the agent is looking into it can pay off. This is consistent with other psychology research showing that we dislike the uncertainty of making a request to someone and hearing nothing back.

Customers Are People, So Be Personal

Another insight from our research is the value of making a personal connection with a customer requesting support. Personalizing a message by typing a few extra characters can make a huge difference. Customers who received an unsigned response showed no detectable increase in willingness to pay compared to the general population. But, when a customer service agent added their name or initials in their first reply to a customer, we observed that their willingness to pay increased by $14 for a future flight on that airline compared to those who received an unsigned response. Similarly, in the wireless industry, customers were willing to pay $3 more for a monthly plan if the agent signed their name compared to those who received an unsigned response.

When agents sign their name in their tweets or posts, it humanizes them and helps customers feel that the company, or at least someone within the company, is on their side. Customers are also likely to feel more comfortable following up about an issue later if they have the name of the employee who helped them.

As consumers turn to a wider array of channels for help and expect faster responses, it has become more challenging to provide customer service. Bottom-line pressure restricts what companies are able to provide without breaking the bank. Our research shows that customer service that shows empathy can drive a lot of value, and there are some simple best practices to turn aggrieved customers into loyal advocates.

First, surprise customers by responding quickly, so that they feel someone is watching out for them. Even a simple acknowledgement to buy time to diagnose the customer’s issue can drive future revenue. Second, don’t shy away from responding to unhappy customers, even if you can’t immediately resolve their issue. Finally, even small gestures such as having agents sign their names or initials creates immediate value for your business.

How Georgia State University Used an Algorithm to Help Students Navigate the Road to College

Harvard Business Review -

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As AI continues to develop, a major test of its potential will be whether it can replace human judgment in individualized, complex ways. At Georgia State University, we investigated a test case where AI assisted high school students in their transition to college, helping them to navigate the many twists and turns along the way.

From the perspective of an AI system, the college transition provides intriguing challenges and opportunities. A successful system must cope with individual idiosyncrasies and varied needs. For instance, after acceptance into college, students must navigate a host of well-defined but challenging tasks: completing financial aid applications, submitting a final high school transcript, obtaining immunizations, accepting student loans, and paying tuition, among others. Fail to support students on some of these tasks and many of them — particularly those from low-income backgrounds or those who would be the first in their families to attend college — may succumb to summer melt, the phenomenon where students who intend to go to college fail to matriculate. At the same time, providing generic outreach to all students — including those who have already completed these tasks or feel confident that they know what they need to do — risks alienating a subset of students. In addition, outreach to students who are on-track may inadvertently confuse them or lead them to opt out of the support system before they might actually need it.

Previous efforts to address summer melt have included individual counselor outreach or automated text-message outreach. Both strategies allowed students to communicate with advisors one-on-one and significantly improved on-time college enrollment. However, scaling these strategies requires significant staffing of human counselors to address the specific questions and personal needs of each student.

Insight Center

Artificial intelligence (AI) could dramatically change the viability of providing students with outreach and support if it can be tailored to address their personal needs. In collaboration with Georgia State University (GSU), we tested whether “Pounce,” a conversational AI system built by AdmitHub and named for the GSU mascot, could efficiently support would-be college freshmen with their transition to college. Pounce features two key innovations. First, the system integrates university data on students’ progress with required pre-matriculation tasks. Thus, rather than providing generic suggestions, Pounce matches the text-based outreach that students receive to the tasks on which data indicates they need to make progress and therefore may need help. For example, only students who did not complete the FAFSA would receive outreach from Pounce. These students could learn about the importance of applying for financial aid and receive step-by-step guidance through the process if they chose to.  Those with completed FAFSA forms would never be bothered with these messages. In this way, the system provides students with individualized outreach. Second, the Pounce system leverages artificial intelligence to handle an ever-growing set of student issues, challenges, and questions (e.g., When is orientation? Can I have a car on campus?  Where do I find a work-study job?). The system can be accessed by students on their own schedule 24/7.  It can efficiently scale to reach large numbers of students, and it gets smarter over time.

Through an experimental study, we found that students planning to go to GSU who received Pounce outreach completed their required pre-matriculation tasks and enrolled on-time at significantly higher rates than those who received GSU’s standard outreach. Pounce reduced GSU’s summer melt by 21%. These impacts mirror previous summer melt interventions but with far fewer staff.

Beyond the success of this trial at GSU, the work has broader implications for the use of AI within institutions. First, AI can change an organization’s relationship with its employees, clients, or customers from reactive to proactive. Summer melt represents a process that most colleges and universities address reactively.  Their data systems note whenever students have lost track of one of the countless required bureaucratic steps and deadlines: paying bills, registering for classes, applying for financial aid, and on and on. Schools know which students have completed which requirements, but lack knowledge about what fiscal, behavioral, or informational barriers block further progress. An AI system can figure out which students need a simple reminder, further identify who needs detailed instructions, and provide a mechanism for others to reach out with questions.  Thus, a thoughtfully designed AI system can allow an institution to become proactive instead of waiting for problems to arise. For Pounce, or any other AI system designed for human idiosyncrasies, handling this range of needs is essential.

Second, somewhat paradoxically, we found that AI-enabled communication systems can also make students more proactive. As Pounce pinged students with questions and reminders, the outreach primed students to think of and ask other questions that had been on their minds. Thus, the system provided students with a nudge to ask whatever they may have been worrying about and opened a new channel of communication. A key goal for an educational system — and most companies — is encouraging students (or employees) to take proactive steps to solve small challenges before they become big problems.  Thus, a collateral benefit of support from Pounce was that as students were primed about certain tasks, they became more agentic in tackling other important tasks to prepare themselves for college.

Third, institutions that are savvy about using individualized data proactively and who create more proactive constituents can pursue core goals more effectively and efficiently.  When institutions reach out to their employees, clients, and customers to make them better at completing tasks essential to their roles, the improved performance, in turn, can help the institution. Pounce helped GSU students manage a number of distinct tasks more successfully. This support boosted student enrollment (and therefore revenue) for the institution and likely engendered goodwill among students — who we suspect were happier to receive support to hit deadlines than to be assessed penalties for missing them.  By spending less time and effort getting students matriculated at GSU, Pounce freed the institution’s and the students’ resources to enable greater focus on teaching and learning goals.

Combining data integration with artificial intelligence in the form of virtual assistants, such as Pounce, holds promise for sectors like education that rely heavily on communication. Of students who completed high school in 2014, for example, 68% — some two million individuals — transitioned directly to postsecondary education. The matriculation process and its corresponding challenges remain reasonably consistent over time. Thus, artificially intelligent systems such as Pounce have the potential to provide these transitioning students with personalized support to stay on track while not burdening universities with excessive costs or demands for staff time. Rather, this system minimizes the need for staff to respond to common questions, so that they can instead devote their time more fully to those issues that only humans can solve.

Further, AI systems that can be responsive to human changes in wants, needs, and feelings show substantial promise well beyond higher education.  Just about any company with an on-boarding process to orient new employees will face similar tasks in which some employees need assistance while others feel confident that they can manage on their own.  Businesses which have customers or clients with idiosyncratic needs may similarly benefit from AI systems that can tailor outreach and respond to incoming queries.  In such cases, individualized, proactive outreach to support employees or clients is likely to make these constituents more proactive in ensuring that their own needs and questions are addressed.  Thus, the foundation for a proactive feedback loop will be established — a genuinely intelligent move for any institution.

The four elements of entrepreneurship

Seth Godin's Blog -

Are successful entrepreneurs made or born?

We’d need to start with an understanding of what an entrepreneur is. They’re all over the map, which makes the question particularly difficult to navigate.

There’s the 14-year-old girl who hitches a ride to Costco, buys 100 bottles of water for thirty cents each, then sells them at the beach for a dollar a pop. Scale that that every day for a summer and you can pay for college.

Or the 7-time venture-backed software geek who finds a niche, gets some funding, builds it out with a trusted team, sells it for $100 million in stock and then starts again.

Perhaps we’re talking about a non-profit entrepreneur, a woman who builds a useful asset, finds a scalable source of funding and changes the world as she does.

The mistake that’s easy to make is based in language. We say, “she’s an entrepreneur,” when we should be saying, “she’s acting like an entrepreneur.”

Since entrepreneurship is a verb, an action, a posture… then of course, it’s a choice. You might not want to act like one, but if you can model behavior, you can act like one.

And what do people do when they’re acting like entrepreneurs?

1. They make decisions.

2. They invest in activities and assets that aren’t a sure thing.

3. They persuade others to support a mission with a non-guaranteed outcome.

4. This one is the most amorphous, the most difficult to pin down and thus the juiciest: They embrace (instead of run from) the work of doing things that might not work.

As far as I can tell, that’s it. Everything else you can hire.

Buying into an existing business by buying a franchise, to pick one example--there’s very little of any of the four elements of entrepreneurial behavior. Yes, you’re swinging for a bigger win, you’re investing risk capital, you’re going outside the traditional mainstream. But what you’re doing is buying a proven business, not acting like an entrepreneur. The four elements aren't really there. It's a process instead. Nothing wrong with that.

All four of these elements are unnatural to most folks. Particularly if you were good at school, you're not good at this. No right answers, no multiple choice, no findable bounds.

It's easy to get hung up on the "risk taking" part of it, but if you’re acting like an entrepreneur, you don’t feel like you’re taking a huge risk. Risks are what happens at a casino, where you have little control over the outcome. People acting like entrepreneurs, however, feel as though the four most important elements of their work (see above) are well within their control.

If you’re hoping someone can hand you a Dummies guide, giving you the quick steps, the guaranteed method, the way to turn this process into a job--well, you’ve just announced that you don’t feel like acting like an entrepreneur.

But before you walk away from it, give it a try. Entrepreneurial behavior isn't about scale, it's about a desire for a certain kind of journey.


How the Best Restaurants in the World Balance Innovation and Consistency

Harvard Business Review -

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The restaurant industry is notorious for being competitive, risky, and low-margin. This is no less true for the world’s most acclaimed high-end restaurants. Despite being able to charge hundreds of dollars for a meal and being fully booked months in advance, top restaurants often still have a hard time turning a profit. And they face an even greater challenge: maintaining flawless consistency, while simultaneously being innovative and cutting-edge.

While cooking is seen as creative, high-end cooking is mainly about constant, rigorous repetition, in a highly controlled and hierarchical environment. To receive three Michelin stars – the highest rating given by the prestigious Michelin Guide – restaurants must deliver a consistently flawless experience over many visits. This means achieving precise standardization and strong quality control.

For example, at The Fat Duck in the UK (which has had three Michelin stars since 2004, except in 2016 when it closed for refurbishment, and where I worked on the innovation side), cooking temperatures are systematically controlled to 0.1°C, and most recipes are specified with up to 40 steps for a single component on a plate. Each cook is highly trained and selectively recruited, yet he or she will only be tasked with producing a few components, and will practice hundreds of times under direct supervision before achieving the necessary level of craftsmanship. The preparations, produced by small teams or individual cooks, are progressively assembled, with sous-chefs (akin to middle managers) controlling the quality at every step. Before the final dishes are served, the head chef personally tastes a sample from each batch, maintaining control over every single aspect.

However, this kind of rigorous repetition would seem to stymie innovation – by limiting opportunities to learn from mistakes, to quickly prototype, or to search for new ideas – and innovation is another critical dimension for success in the high-end restaurant world. For instance, it’s a main consideration for the similarly influential 50 Best Restaurants of the World list, which occasionally leads it to rewards different restaurants than Michelin. For example, Noma obtained the top spot in the 50 Best for its reinvention of Nordic Cuisine, while it was only granted two Michelin stars; and Paul Bocuse’s restaurant, the oldest restaurant with three Michelin stars (keeping the ranking for over 40 years), has served virtually the same menu for decades and has never made the 50 Best list.

Of course, consistency and creativity aren’t mutually exclusive. A handful of extraordinary restaurants have managed to deliver both the flawless standards of three Michelin stars and the innovation demanded by the 50 Best list – and they’ve managed to leverage this acclaim to achieve growth. In my work studying and consulting with innovative companies, I’ve found that this balance is best achieved through dedicated time and space for research and experimentation, as well as a thorough process for both iterating on and standardizing new inventions.

Let’s consider an example. The first restaurant to achieve both lists was El Bulli in Spain. With only one Michelin star in 1987, the restaurant decided to try something new. Since the business was particularly slow during the winter, its owners, Ferran Adrian and Juli Soler, decided to close shop 2-5 months a year to travel and search for new dish ideas. In 1990 they gained a second Michelin Star, and in 1994, they became the first high-end restaurant to invest in a development team and a lab.

Akin to an R&D facility for a large restaurant chain or fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brand, their lab hosted a small team of chefs, and occasionally other professionals, such as food scientists, designers, or engineers, in a mixed kitchen and office space. Unlike test kitchens of large chains or FMCG products, the team would work in R&D during the winter and then resume restaurant operations during the summer. And instead of concentrating on cost reduction, shelf life, or replicability, they would focus on the creative process and the customer’s experience.

Three years later, El Bulli rose to three Michelin Stars, and when the first edition of the 50 Best guide was released in 2002, they earned the top spot, positioning Spain as one of the main gastronomic destinations in the world. The company grew through consulting for other companies, opening new business lines (e.g. books and cooking gadgets), developing brand partnerships, and opening more restaurants. Though the main restaurant closed in 2011, they subsequently reopened it as the ElBulli Foundation (a sort of think tank), while the other restaurants and business lines are still operating today.

Other restaurants, like the Fat Duck and El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, also set up fully fledged test kitchens before attaining the top ranking in both guides. Like at El Bulli, the chefs working in these labs divide their time between the restaurant operation and R&D projects aimed at improving the customer experience. The projects range from developing new techniques and ingredients to designing final dishes and products. Some labs even partnered with universities to carry out research projects and explore subjects as varied as sensory perception, sustainability, narrative theory, and nostalgia.

For example, a popular dish by The Fat Duck Group called The Meat Fruit (a surprisingly realistic looking “mandarin,” made of delicate mandarin jelly and chicken liver pate) was inspired by a recipe from the 15th century that was researched by historians at Hampton Court. And a seafood dish called Sound of the Sea (enhanced by sea-like sounds coming from an iPod nano hidden inside a seashell) came from collaborations between the lab and an experimental psychology laboratory in Oxford called The Crossmodal Research Laboratory.

Although these efforts were expensive, the labs provided the capacity for numerous projects that generated revenue, like The Fat Duck’s partnership with Waitrose (a UK-based supermarket), and helped attract a wide community of collaborators that led to numerous innovations.

But while a dedicated lab expands a restaurant’s capacity for R&D, innovation more importantly has to be embedded in the DNA of the organization. High-end restaurants that cannot afford a team and space solely devoted to R&D still make innovation a key value alongside consistency. Whether or not they have a lab, all the top spots in both the Michelin and 50 Best list implement processes to encourage creativity and learning beyond the leadership or lab team, as well as processes to generate, prioritize, refine, and standardize ideas.

At The Fat Duck, a conceptual dish is developed each month by one of the restaurant cooks for the whole team to taste, while Italian restaurant Osteria Francescana (ranked #1 in the 50 Best in 2016 and with 3 Michelin Stars since 2012) holds frequent brainstorms and feedback sessions with the head chef and general kitchen staff. This collective culture of creativity multiplies the pool of ideas and softens resistance to new products and processes being adopted. Then after the ideas are collected, restaurants screen and prioritize them for development.

Let’s look at how the Fat Duck Group (their parent company) does this. First, the company’s leadership agrees on the core concept for each of its business units (the restaurants and other commercial lines). Then a team – generally composed of the CEO, the company’s head chef, the head of R&D, and the head of the unit – generates a series of loose ideas that could become products or features of each customer experience. These ideas are then divided and assigned to the R&D team, the restaurant chefs for prototyping and testing, and in the case of consumer electronics (cooking gadgets), jointly to the business partner’s R&D and the internal R&D.

This isn’t strictly top-down. The members of the R&D team also explore pet projects according to loose “areas of interests,” occasionally getting help from other employees. The company’s leaders know what these areas of interest are, but they only see specific projects if the results are promising. While many projects won’t reach a final customer, they are carefully logged on a searchable data base that is frequently used to improve and accelerate assigned projects.

All the projects follow a specific development process, alternating between collective ideation or feedback and focused work by a small team. For restaurant dishes, the development team will quickly prototype and iterate through numerous versions of the dish and its components, either in the lab or if a lab is not available, in the main kitchen during slow hours. The trials can go over for months as numerous variations are tested in a race against seasonal ingredients.

Once the results start to approach a finished product, the team will seek input from senior and junior chefs, as well as sommeliers, waiters, and other staff. After a few cycles of improvement, the project team will hand the recipes to the line cooks to prepare. At this stage, the objective is not to hand down a finished recipe and test the line cook capacity to produce it. Rather, the goal is to test the recipe’s written instructions. Both the line cook and the development team taste the result and, when problems are spotted, work together to improve the recipe until the results are reliable, consistent, and delicious.

The head chef oversees each project from the early stages, and decides when to serve a first taste to regular customers for further feedback. This process reduces cultural clashes between departments, improves the quality of outputs, and bridges the gap between a raw idea and consistently producing a finished product at scale.

The most highly acclaimed restaurants imbed creativity and learning across the organization by creating spaces and processes for both collective input and focused development. They show that a culture of precision and attention to detail can co-exist with constant re-invention, and by leveraging this core competence to achieve prestigious rankings, partnerships, and associated businesses, generate growth.

How to Create Executive Team Norms — and Make Them Stick

Harvard Business Review -

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Have you ever been on an executive team where things just clicked? You had a common goal, communication flowed easily, and everyone was willing to put in the long hours for a final push. Looking back, you wish you could replicate and carry forward that same secret sauce on every team, especially the teams that you struggle with. You know the ones. The groups where everything is harder, where you revisit decisions, move slowly, are confused about the direction, and dread the politics.

While many factors contribute to the best and worst teams, one practice has consistently helped my clients: having an agreed-upon set of group norms and, more importantly, a set of practical steps to follow those norms.

Group norms are a set of agreements about how members will work with each other and how the group will work overall. These agreed-upon behaviors allow the team to increase its collective performance through healthy debate and clarity of purpose and roles.

You and Your Team Series Building Good Habits

Having a set of norms that an executive team consistently follows helps team members be clearer about each other’s intentions, increases trust, saves time, decreases backbiting and politics, and sets a clear operational compass for the rest of the organization. When employees observe their senior executives behaving in intentional, transparent, and consistent ways, they’re inspired to follow them and adopt those norms themselves.

To create your own executive team norms and put them into practice, follow these five steps:

  1. Identify successful norms based on your past experience. Think back to a team where things worked well and then identify one to three norms that contributed to that success. When I ask executives to do this, they often say that a consistent cadence of communication or being fully present in conversations helped things work smoothly.
  2. Break down the norms into behaviors. Once you have an abstract list of norms, turn them into measurable behaviors. For example, one norm might be to encourage equal participation in meetings. As a team, ask yourselves what equal participation in meetings looks like. A behavior then might be that for key issues, you will go around the room and solicit input from everyone, starting with the person who’s spoken the least in that day’s meeting.
  3. Commit to five norms or fewer. Prioritize what you want to tackle first. It’s OK to start with just one norm, but don’t take on more than five at once. Focusing on fewer norms increases your chances of remembering them and practicing them regularly.
  4. Create a recurring plan. Too often executive teams spend time at an offsite coming up with well-crafted norms, only to fail to transfer them to the boardroom on Monday morning. Create a plan with owners and time lines for how you will follow through on each norm.
  5. Create a system of mutual accountability. Discuss how you will hold each other accountable if you don’t practice the norms you’ve agreed to. What will you do if, after repeated check-ins, there’s still no progress? What will you do if all but one of you follows through? What are other scenarios where things can stall or go off the rails, and how will you have the conversation to hold each other accountable? One team, for example, restricted the use of devices during their executive team meetings. If someone got distracted by their phone, they had to throw $5 into the “norm bucket.” At the end of the year, the team went out for drinks and donated the rest of the money to charity. In this case, creating a system to police a new behavior made it more comfortable — and even fun — to call each other out.

To see this process in action, consider the executive team for a services company I’ll call Acme. During a retreat, the team outlined several challenges in how they worked together. One of these challenges was that their weekly executive team meetings had three dominant personalities who took up most of the airtime in discussions. The remaining six team members didn’t say much and were often interrupted when they did speak. Meetings failed to cover all agenda items and frequently ran over time. What’s more, the talkative executives assumed that silence from their peers indicated agreement and were later surprised when decisions weren’t executed smoothly. The quieter executives were frustrated that their more loquacious colleagues didn’t seek out their opinions. Actions took longer to execute and came with significant confusion among the direct reports of the executive team.

To tackle this issue, one of the more talkative executives suggested they adopt a norm that would encourage equal participation, so that everyone could contribute more evenly. Once the norm was identified, the team brainstormed behaviors that would allow them to put it into action. Here’s the list they came up with:

  • One business day before a meeting, the agenda owner provides brief background or possible outcomes, so attendees are clear about what will be discussed and have time to process the agenda items before the meeting.
  • The owner of agenda items and decisions asks each team member if they have input during the meeting, even if just for concurrence. All team members must say something, even if it’s simply “agree.”
  • Every team member is responsible for soliciting input from other attendees during meetings.
  • Partway through a meeting, the meeting owner will directly ask for different points of view.
  • The meeting owner deliberately changes the order of who speaks in each meeting to give different people a chance to voice their opinions first or listen first to other’s points of view.

When I talked with each member of Acme’s executive team nine months after the retreat, they all mentioned that this norm was working well. Not only were they following the behaviors they’d outlined, they were also regularly checking in on progress against this norm. By increasing participation from each member of the team, decisions remained stable from meeting to meeting, people were clear on what others thought about contentious topics, and new ideas were benefiting from diverse and multiple viewpoints.

Consciously agreeing on how you will work together and sticking to that agreement is essential to having a high-performing team — especially at the executive level. Not only will you create a high-functioning team capable of achieving extraordinary results, but you will also model creating such teams for the rest of your organization.

The 5 Things Your AI Unit Needs to Do

Harvard Business Review -

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Not a day goes by without the announcement of the appointment of a new VP of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a Chief Data Scientist, or a Director of AI Research. While the enthusiasm is undeniable, the reality is that AI remains an early-stage technology application. The potential is vast, but how managers cut through the AI hyperbole to use its power to deliver growth?

In our consulting work, we often encounter managers who struggle to convert AI experiments into strategic programs which can then be implemented. Michael Stern (not his real name), for instance, is the Head of Digital for a German Mittelstand office equipment company. Michael is used to starting new projects in emerging areas, but feels unable to fully understand what can AI can do for his business. He started a few experiments using IBM Watson, and these produced some clear, small tactical gains. Now Michael is stuck on how to proceed further. How can he create cross-functional teams where data experts work with product teams? And how will they pick project ideas that produce real ROI? Michael wonders if his firm even knows what new business models can be explored with their existing datasets — let alone which new ones might be made possible by AI.

Insight Center

Michael is not alone.  As more and more companies invest in AI-driven units, many newly appointed managers face these challenges – especially in companies with little or no previous experience with cognitive technologies. Part of the trouble: in many companies, the role of these teams is undefined. Very little research has been done to design the mission and scope of these new units.

At the European Center for Strategic Innovation (ECSI), we examined numerous corporate AI initiatives among large organizations, and identified five key roles that can help AI units to develop the right mission and scope of work to succeed.

1. Scouting AI technology, applications, and partners. This role is about setting up a core team of “AI sensors” in charge of monitoring new trends, identifying disruptive technologies, and networking with innovative players — mainly startups. The automobile-parts supplier Bosch and the tech and engineering powerhouse Siemens are two prime examples of this. With a planned investment of $300 million, Bosch has established three AI corporate centers focused on IoT and other AI-related fields in Germany, India, and Palo Alto. Siemens, similarly, has included AI in the company’s list of innovation fields to be monitored through its network of innovation outposts with offices in California, China, and Germany.

2. Experimenting with AI technology and applications. This role is about understanding through quick, small AI pilots how to develop or adopt cognitive technologies to the company’s business and operational models. Although off-the-shelf AI tools and open-sourced systems are available, they have limited transformational potential compared to customized ones. At Deutsche Telekom, the development of its own AI solutions is an important priority. Instead of buying AI chatbots from vendors, Deutsche Telekom has its own developer teams. With the support of partners, they design, train, and fine-tune AI solutions for the company.

Rather than concentrating efforts on a single big win, AI units and teams should embrace a portfolio approach to their experiments. The power of AI should be tested across functions and business areas. There are three types of experiments that are worth paying particular attention to:

  • Experiments in the driver’s seat are typically conducted by the company’s AI unit or internal developer teams. In the last few years, Deutsche Telekom has tested internally three different AI-backed chatbots and virtual assistants to improve the company’s corporate and private customer services.
  • Experiments with others in the driver’s seat involve joining forces with innovative players such as start-ups, research centers, and universities. In general, such experiments are focused on cutting-edge technologies or applications requiring in-depth expertise and skills that companies do not have. This is a common strategy among large organizations: Mercedes-Benz entered a partnership with the Computer Science and AI Lab of MIT; Associated Press collaborated with Automated Insight, a specialized AI firm; Deutsche Telekom partnered with the German Research Centre for AI, called DFKI.
  • Experiments by learning from others are common among companies interested in pioneering AI technology and applications, but too premature for their industry. Observing others translates into funding ventures or start-ups innovating at the frontier of AI. This is the case at German insurance company Allianz, which funded Europe’s first global AI equity fund to position itself as a “pioneer in AI investments.”

3. Supporting business units in applying AI technology. This role is about building internal capabilities through a specialized network of AI experts who can support business units in the integration and application of AI tools and solutions (from basic data visualization and chatbots to the automation of entire processes like claims management). The success of AI applications lies not in the technology per se, but in the ability of a company to align it with its business and operational models.

The Data and AI Lab is one of the most visible BNP Paribas’ AI efforts. The Lab is responsible for the development of AI tools that can improve the internal processes. At BNP Paribas, the AI team is in charge of accompanying and supporting business units all along the way, from the identification of potential applications to the experimentation and fine-tuning. It’s essential that these labs be tightly integrated into the organization, not in a far-off lab. Constance Chalchat, Head of Change Management at BNP Paribas says, “Data scientist teams need to work in close partnership with both the business and IT.”

4. Getting the entire organization to understand AI. This role is about the ability of the AI team to educate the organization on the opportunity to harness the power of AI. Why? Because AI is ultimately a tool. Organizations need to build solid foundations that enable people to actually use and secure value from AI technology. As passion for AI is rising to the top of large organizations, this applies also to the C-suite and Board. Executives need support to cut through the complexity of AI-driven discussions and find ways to extract value.

Embedding AI in the company’s culture and core skills set can be done at two levels. First, internal communication initiatives can help raising awareness and acceptance of AI technologies, in particular those with a high transformative potential, while creating a common AI language and culture. Second, targeted education efforts allow building basic, standard capabilities of people, who are not AI experts in the organization. AirBnB is a prime example of this. By setting up an internal Data University, AirBnB is teaching employees data science with the goal of making the transition to a more AI-aware organization easier and faster.

5. Attracting and retaining talent. This role is about addressing the AI skills gap. A dedicated AI unit should work in close cooperation with the HR department to identify the right skills and capabilities required, and define strategies for talent retention. Companies are currently adopting different AI talent acquisition strategies. Edouard d’Archimbaud, Head of the BNP Paribas Data and AI Lab is gradually expanding his 25-member team. “We’re recruiting around ten people a year […] we’re very careful and only like to hire the right people,” he explained. Other companies have invested more significantly. This is the case of Airbnb that recently “acqui-hired” a team of seven data engineers from Changecoin, a start-up with deep knowledge of blockchain technology.

The framework in action

Sometimes these newly created AI teams will be investing time and effort in all the five roles. The challenges at other companies can be quite different. Plotting the five roles on spider graphs like the one shown here can help companies figure out where they are currently focused and where they may need to increase or reduce their efforts. They can, for example, compare what they are currently doing with what they should be doing, given their company’s strategic intent and their capability and organizational issues.


Each AI team should design its own spider-graph based on its existing context, goals, and constraints. Companies investing – or planning to invest – in AI units need to think strategically about where to focus their efforts.

Winning the AI revolution isn’t about just the technology and the tools, it is about educating and getting your organization ready for the future.  In the same way as Amazon didn’t invent the technology that has made them a corporate titan, companies in the AI-age need to prepare their organization to be data-first in order to stay competitive in the long run.

Plotting the five roles can help align the company’s strategic intent with the organizational context and constraints.

Justice and dignity, the endless shortage

Seth Godin's Blog -

You will never regret offering dignity to others.

We rarely get into trouble because we overdo our sense of justice and fairness. Not just us, but where we work, the others we influence. Organizations and governments are nothing but people, and every day we get a chance to become better versions of ourselves.

And yet... in the moments when we think no one is looking, when the stakes are high, we often forget. It's worth remembering that justice and dignity aren't only offered on behalf of others.

Offering people the chance to be treated the way we'd like to be treated benefits us too. It goes around.

The false scarcity is this: we believe that shutting out others, keeping them out of our orbit, our country, our competitive space—that this somehow makes things more easier for us.

And this used to be true. When there are 10 jobs for dockworkers, having 30 dockworkers in the hall doesn't make it better for anyone but the bosses.

But today, value isn't created by filling a slot, it's created by connection. By the combinations created by people. By the magic that comes from diversity of opinion, background and motivation. Connection leads to ideas, to solutions, to breakthroughs.

The false scarcity stated as, "I don't have enough, you can't have any," is more truthfully, "together, we can create something better."

We know it's the right thing to do. It's also the smart thing.


Fake wasabi

Seth Godin's Blog -

Most sushi restaurants serve a green substance with every roll. But it's not wasabi, it's a mix of horseradish and some other flavorings. Real wasabi costs too much.

The thing is, if you grew up with this, you're used to it. It's the regular kind.

And that makes it real. Real to us, anyway.

Creatures don't like change, up or down. We like what we like.

The regular kind.


Before you design a chart or infographic

Seth Godin's Blog -

What's it for?

A graph only exists to make a point. Its purpose is not to present all the information. Its purpose is not to be pretty.

Most of all, its purpose is not, "well, they told me I needed to put a graph here."

The purpose of a graph is to get someone to say "a-ha" and to see something the way you do.

Begin there and work backwards.

[Only slightly related: I'll be in Orange County for an evening event on February 15. Details are here. Hope to see you there.]


How Working Parents Can Feel Less Overwhelmed and More in Control

Harvard Business Review -

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Revise budget numbers. Parent/teacher conference Wednesday. Edit the marketing overview document. Finish summer camp applications. Give candidate interview feedback to HR. Grocery run — we’re out of everything. Start drafting quarterly forecast. Call the roofer for the estimate. Organize team strategy session. Schedule kids’ flu shots. Get back to Jayesh and Liu on IT plan. Get Tommy ready for math test tomorrow…

If you’re a working parent, chances are excellent that at any given time, your to-do list looks like the one above — and that it stretches on, and on, and on — an endless, and eternally growing, list of deliverables. Is it any wonder that research shows that most working parents feel stressed, tired, and rushed? Or that when you look ahead, you feel more than a little overwhelmed?

As a responsible person and a hard worker, you know how to dig in and get things done. And since becoming a parent, you’ve tried various strategies to keep the ever-more-intense pace: moving paper to-do lists onto your iPhone, reorganizing your Outlook “Tasks” section, spending more and more time logged into work each evening, cleaning up the endless queue of unread emails, sleeping progressively less each night.

Yet you’re still haunted by the nagging sense of not getting enough done, of falling down in some way, of giving things that really matter short shrift — and feeling as if the wheels may come off the bus very, very soon.

The problem isn’t in your organizational system or work ethic — it’s in how human brains are wired. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, with so much to do and so many demands on you.

But here’s the good news: There are simple and effective techniques for taming the overwhelmedness — things any working parent can do, starting today, to feel more competent, calm, and in control and to start shrinking that task list permanently. Here are four of the most powerful.

Know your end game. Well-run organizations, and good managers within them, have a clear, compelling view of the future. They have a few strategic goals. They set revenue targets annually. They know what results will permit them to say “We succeeded.” With clarity on where they want to go, they have confidence in their decisions and take motivation from what lies ahead.

As a working parent: Do you?

Most of us working parents are focused on simply getting through the day, which — let’s be real — is daunting. Yet that very determination to hunker down and conquer today’s task list makes working parenthood feel even more overwhelming and relentless. Your task list owns you, rather than the other way around. Over 18 years (or more) of working parenthood, constantly feeling “I have a million things to do today” will be pretty disempowering and exhausting.

By identifying the long-term, positive outcome of your working parenthood — by determining a specific picture of future success — you can begin to flip that equation. Knowing that your goal is to “serve as a vice president of this organization, while raising my children to be healthy, financially independent adults” provides a sense of self-determination, confidence, and motivation. You made the decision. The goal is reachable, and you can focus on the tasks that accrue toward it. Even on the busiest or worst of days, you have a fixed point on the horizon you’re moving toward — and you’ll know it when you get there.

To be clear: There is no “working parent magic formula” — the definition of success is, and should be, different for everyone. “To lead this company as CEO, while partnering with my spouse to raise healthy, ethical kids” is just as valid as “to become financially successful enough to cover my kids’ full college tuitions — while never missing family dinners.” But by identifying a goal that is personal, positive, and future-framed and that covers what you want from your career and for your children, you move yourself away from feeling so frantic, and toward being in the psychological driver’s seat.

Invest your time accordingly. Working parents who have a clear view of what they’re working toward are more able to prune their calendars of commitments that don’t align, and to spend time and energy on the things that matter and that provide real satisfaction.

If your goal is “become a partner at this firm, be known as a leader in my local professional community, and raise my kids into well-adjusted adults who remain connected to their religious heritage,” then it’s important to go the extra mile at work, attend industry conferences in your city, and take your kids to Sunday school. But representing your firm at an international conference or attending every single football game isn’t, because they don’t align with your goal.

With your working-parent vision clear, try spending spend 10 minutes each Friday doing a “forward calendar audit”: Look over next week’s Outlook planner or to-do list, identify the items that don’t fit with your goals, and commit to delegating or saying no to 5% of them. By making this a habit, over the course of 2018 you will be able to win back a significant amount of your own time, and increase your sense of satisfaction and control.

Keep a “got it done” list. In the late 1920s, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik described what has since become known as the Zeigarnik Effect, which states that people remember, and fixate on, uncompleted or interrupted tasks significantly more than finished ones. It’s why hearing a few seconds of a song on the radio can leave you humming all day, trying to remember how the song ends, and why many TV shows end each episode inconclusively, so you’ll be left obsessing until you see how the plotline resolves.

Uncompleted tasks torture us: They take up all our mental space and create enormous emotional noise and tension; when we don’t have closure, we get anxious. And for any working parent, with all the open items we have both at home and at work, that’s a lot of anxiety. Your task list is necessary, but regardless of how and in what form you keep it, it won’t help relieve this stress. If anything, it fuels it.

The effective short-circuit is to keep a brief, informal list of completed (rather than undone) items, from both work and home. Write down this year’s finished projects, problems solved, your wins — whatever “win” means for you. Beat our quarterly numbers. Found Sasha a science tutor. Brought in the pharma account. Made it to Diego’s baseball game last week. Then look over this list and remind yourself of how much you’ve done — how much you’ve produced and accomplished, in both spheres.

My clients and coachees report that even a single minute spent doing this helps them feel significantly less frantic and overwhelmed. In the words of one of my clients, “It makes me feel like I’m winning.”

Make a habit of looking at the list, push out some of that constant “to-do” noise with “already done” confidence, and you’ll find yourself calmer and happier.

Schedule a regular power outage. As a working parent, your to-do treadmill will never slow or stop, but you can choose to step off of it, briefly.

Sometime in the next two days, set aside 20 minutes in which you turn off all devices, set aside your task list, and do nothing “productive” at all. Your job is simply to spend time in an activity you enjoy with your family. It could be eating dinner together, dancing the Hokey-Pokey with your toddler, or going on a jog with your teenage son. You’re a high-powered person in a high-powered career, but for these 20 minutes, the power is out.

Even in such a short window of time, you’ll find that your stress will decrease, and your feeling of “having done something positive for my myself and my family” will go up. And even more important, during a crazy day, you’ll regain a sense of agency: You’ve taken an affirmative decision to do this, and made it happen on your own terms.

There’s a reason so many major religions embrace the idea of a Sabbath, and why so many highly successful people make it a habit to take regular vacations: It works. Taking time to withdraw from the world and turn off from work centers us, making us more resilient and more productive. For working parents, finding meaningful flexibility and longer breaks can be hard. But even for the busiest of us, in the most demanding and time-pressed professions, 20 minutes off is doable.

Working parenthood is demanding. It requires one person to do two challenging jobs well, and in an always-on world. As in any “extreme” job, some degree of fatigue, stress, and self-doubt — of general overwhelmedness — is inevitable. But the more you can set your own course, make affirmative decisions aligned to it, have confidence in your performance, and enjoy yourself along the way, the better off you, your career, and your family will be — this year and in the ones to follow.


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