Why don’t businesses experiment more

In a very interesting column in the Harvard Business Review, Dan Ariely writes about why organizations are willing to listen to experts and consultants but not do some experiments themselves and find the best answer:

I think this irrational behavior stems from two sources. One is the nature of experiments themselves. As the people at the consumer goods firm pointed out, experiments require short-term losses for long-term gains. Companies (and people) are notoriously bad at making those trade-offs. Second, there’s the false sense of security that heeding experts provides. When we pay consultants, we get an answer from them and not a list of experiments to conduct. We tend to value answers over questions because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking. Never mind that asking good questions and gathering evidence usually guides us to better answers.

This is a very interesting observation.  I have often wondered why people higher such highly paid consultants.  One point that Dan does not make is an ability to CYA – the consequences of failure are much lesser if someone else (an outside expert) made the decision.  I guess people are recognizing this:

Despite the fact that it goes against how business works, experimentation is making headway at some companies. Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, tells me he’s trying to create a culture of experimentation in which failing is perfectly fine. Whatever happens, he tells his staff, you’re doing right because you’ve created evidence, which is better than anyone’s intuition. He says the organization is buzzing with experiments.

Team recognition (as opposed to individual)

Recognizing teams for their contribution and balancing that with individual recognition has always been rather difficult.  The Corporate Executive Board has a nice list to factors to keep in mind.
  • Recognize team behavior and accomplishments. It’s one thing to recognize a team for achieving a particularly difficult goal. It’s another to hold them up for the way in which they achieved that goal. Whether you are giving the team an award, acknowledging their accomplishment on the intranet or in a newsletter, or simply saying job well done in a meeting, talk about the specific behaviors that enabled them to achieve what they’ve done together.
  • Do team reviews. Teamwork can often fall apart at review time when people are most concerned with their individual performance. Conduct a team review where you bring the team together to talk about their progress. Ask questions, such as: how did we perform as a team? Did we meet our goals? This may be done at the end of a project or at important milestones in a project.  Take this opportunity to recognize the team for the work it has done together.
  • Encourage employees to recognize peers. Recognition from superiors isn’t the only form of recognition that matters, or motivates. Knowing that your team thinks you’re doing a good job is important to keeping people engaged. Encourage team members to recognize each other for a job well done. Allow a few minutes at the beginning or end of team meetings for team member to recognize their fellow team members who have gone above and beyond.

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In an comprehensive article on mentoring (When Mentoring Goes Bad), WSJ provides some really good hints on how mentoring can work and what can go wrong.  Clearly, since the mentor has more experience, they need to decide how to choose the protege and how to guide them.

Questions to Ask Yourself

1. If you are mentoring someone, are you giving them enough of your time and interesting work?

2. Are the personality and work habits of your protégé similar to yours, and if not, are you able to make sure that doesn’t get in the way of working together?

3. Have you and your protégé clearly outlined his or her professional-development goals?

4. If you are being mentored, is the work interesting, and does your mentor give you credit for any projects you complete for him or her?

5. Do you feel like part of a team, and are you treated in an open, respectful manner?

Mentoring in R&D management is quite difficult to begin with.  Quite understandable becasue the disciplines invovled are so diverse and questions so broad.  I have had mixed luck with being mentored.  One of my mentors still helps me move ahead despite the fact that he has moved on to a completely different division of the company.  It has been great to have his counsel.  One of my bosses just wanted to show off and talk about how great he was.  I was asked to start producing results without ever suggesting ways in which I could actually do that.  Any experiences you could share?

Performance reviews cause too much stress

The New York Times has an interesting article on the impact of performance reviews on supervisors and employees alike.

Annual reviews not only create a high level of stress for workers, he argues, but end up making everybody — bosses and subordinates — less effective at their jobs. He says reviews are so subjective — so dependent on the worker’s relationship with the boss — as to be meaningless. He says he has heard from countless workers who say their work life was ruined by an unfair review.

Some people are recommending doing away with review altogether.

“I say, ‘Throw it out,’ because it becomes a very biased, error-prone and abuse-prone system,” said Dr. Namie, the author of “The Bully at Work” (Sourcebooks, 2000). “It should be replaced by daily ongoing contact with managers who know the work and who can become coaches.”

I see the limitations with current system of performance reviews – especially in larger R&D organizations.  Each team member has at least two bosses – a project manager and a functional manager.  The functional manager can compare individual’s performance to their peers, while the project manager can actually understand how well they have performed on a team.  The two managers communicate infrequently at best and many times speak in completely different jargons.  This results in the functional supervisor making somewhat misinformed decisions that she or he is not well prepared to explain.

“Who is the biggest source of stress on the job? It’s your immediate supervisor,” he said. “The pile of evidence coming out shows that if you want to be an effective organization or an effective boss, you’ve got to strike a balance between humanity and performance.”

I think a new system, process and tools are needed to provide continuous feedback in this complex world.