Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 5) Dream impossible dreams

Jan 6, 2011 by

This is the fifth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 4) Demonstrate distrust.

To dream the impossible dream (cue music) is to set lofty goals with absolutely no chance of attaining them. It’s great to set such goals but they must be balanced with reality. Unfortunately teams do sometimes fail because they are living in a fantasy world. One interesting aspect of this is the concept of positive-thinking and books such as Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich that point out the problems of living in a sunny world where it never rains. Maintaining a positive disposition has clear benefits but this alone won’t ensure your success. If you really, really, really believe you can fly and you jump out of a window on the tenth floor and flap your arms…well good luck to you! As I wrote in the recently published article, Diversity Breeds Success, one way to have a balanced view is to ensure a distribution of perspectives across a team. Some folks may dream big while others may be devilish advocates. Their collective viewpoints may be balanced enough to allow the team to both aim high and hit that mark.

Even as an individual you can try to temper a wild fantasy with a dose of reality by self-critiquing but there is always the issue of cognitive biases. For example, confirmation bias which is the tendency to look towards information that confirms our preconceptions. The opposite of this is disconfirmation bias in which we avoid or discount information that contradicts our perspective. That’s why it is usually best to have someone else provide the opposing view.

There is one school of thought that says we should repeatedly reach for the sky and if we fail then try and try again. I touched on this in a previous post about the importance of screwing up. The problem is that there usually a cost for such misses and it needs to be taken into account. One of the benefits of failing should be that we don’t just fail but learn. In other words we might start out dreaming impossible dreams but in time as we learn to apply pragmatism while improving various skills and gaining experience, our aim should get better and we should miss less and hit our targets more often.

A good practice in dog training is to always end a training session on a positive note with something the dog can do and get praised for as opposed to something that they will likely fail at. When leaders repeatedly dream impossible dreams, leading teams repeatedly down the road to failure, people can become disillusioned, frustrated and tired. They may even begin to believe that they are not capable of achieving anything, saying “What’s the point of trying? We clearly suck!” Even if they believe in their own capabilities, they might say “We’re jinxed.” When goals are actually attainable people build confidence. Sometimes leaders need to exit their fantasy world especially when people in the trenches are telling them that a plan simply can’t be achieved. This is why the best strategies are those that are created collaboratively with input from everyone and not just senior management.

Think big but attainable by dreaming nearly-impossible dreams.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 4) Demonstrate distrust

Jan 1, 2011 by

This is the fourth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 3) Exploit efforts to the extreme.

Organizations have lots of rules. These rules are encoded in various processes and procedures, methodologies and ways of working. They are necessary to avoid chaos that can result when people don’t know what they are doing, perhaps because they lack experience or proficiency. Most teams are under constant fire, overworked and stretched to the limit. This is even more true in our current recession where cutbacks have reduced human resources and the people that are left must do even more. In these situations, rules can ensure that the right things get done.

You can relax rules if you have good people. By this I mean that you may be able to drop the enforcement of a rule, make it optional or just forget about it completely. Good people know what to do and if they don’t know what to do they will figure it out. The possibility of relaxing rules is based on trust. When you can trust Joe to post the press releases without checking with his manager or when Ann can take the project plan updates to the XYZ committee instead of the much larger and slower ABC committee, you can reduce friction, increase speed and reduce costs. Of course you don’t want to end up with a Barings on your hands. There are many good reasons for having rules in place. However here’s the thing:

As individuals get better, more experienced and more proficient, and teams get better, leveraging the combined efforts of the individuals, processes needs to change too. When organizations fail to do this they limit the performance of teams. Even worse, they frustrate high-performing individuals who will interpret the continued enforcement of unnecessary rules as micromanagement and a lack of trust in their abilities. In a jazz ensemble, capable musicians need to have the freedom to let loose and express themselves. This begins with music that allows for opportunities to improvise. Even when someone is not actively soloing, they want the same opportunities because there is constant improvisation by all musicians in small jazz group. The pianist may want to reharmonize some of the chord changes or the bassist might feel inclined to change the groove. This freedom is not only an issue in jazz. A great cellist playing entirely from a written part may want to write her own cadenza, change the bowings or introduce new dynamic contrasts that are not written in the music. Such things might be the catalyst for a truly unique performance. An incessant maestro who insists he knows everything may do more harm than good. Sure there are stylistic or other considerations but the point is that when you have good people you don’t box them in. You don’t impose the same set of rules on someone with a lot of experience as you would on a novice. At the very least leaders should be open to the possibilities because they can’t know everything. Unfortunately way too many think that they are the only font of knowledge.

Demonstrate enough distrust towards high performers and you will lose them.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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The importance of screwing up

Dec 15, 2010 by

I screw up all the time. Yes that’s right. Sometimes my mistakes go unnoticed and sometimes, hopefully not too often, they are big screw-ups that affect others.

As we are near the end of 2010, the mind invariably turns to a retrospective of the year. In any aspect of our life, whether it be work, recreation, family, friendships, volunteering, faith, or anything else, we can ask ourselves what went well and what didn’t go well? More specifically, what worked well in order to achieve success, and what led to failure or results that didn’t meet expectations?

I am very interested in the study of screwing up. In the Jazz Process book, I wrote about various aspects of making and recovering from mistakes but there are many books that provide more detailed coverage of the topic. I recently finished reading Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph Hallinan. I was delighted to find that Hallinan begins by covering many of the same things I raised in my book such as the importance of awareness and the need to understand one’s own biases. Hallinan’s book is very well researched. He quotes many fascinating studies that provide ample evidence of the multitude of ways in which we can misstep and misjudge without intention. It’s well worth a read.

I’m now reading another book on the subject, Bozo Sapiens co-authored by Michael Kaplan and his mother, Ellen Kaplan. The Kaplans’s book is not as academic as Hallinan’s work and it focuses more on why making mistakes is a human trait. However it’s just as fascinating and informative as Hallinan’s book and you may find it an easier read.

Understanding why we make mistakes is important to avoid repeating them or even making them in the first place. However it’s also important to understand that to err is human and mistakes don’t always have to be fatal. On the other hand we shouldn’t discount the cost of mistakes in certain situations. Clearly, we want to avoid mistakes that lead to the loss of life. The tolerance for mistakes varies and this is where the notion of quality comes in. Is 99.9 percent good enough? If 100 musicians in a symphony orchestra each play 1000 notes in a performance then 99.9% means they still play 100 bad notes and even just one of those might just ruin an otherwise perfect performance or recording take. The United States Postal Service delivered 667 million pieces of mail each day in 2008. 99.9% means they would have lost 667,000 packages each day.

Yet in many fields, mistakes are more tolerable. It’s great to strive for perfection, but not at the cost of all else. Many software products are released with known defects. Some defects are tolerable because their impact is negligible or can be worked around while others are critically serious. Zero defects is a meaningful target, but it is far more important for a missile guidance system than for a word processor. Mistakes in sports are common, but defeating your opponent is usually more important than simply playing an error-free game. In many fields, including improvised jazz, it’s not so much making mistakes that is the issue but rather how you recover from them. If you listen to the classic Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue, you can hear many “mistakes.” However these are simply incorporated into the performance and the musicians used these unexpected events as jumping-off points to further evolve the music. Every piece but one on the Kind of Blue album was the first take. Even when they had the opportunity, the musicians (or at least Miles) didn’t feel the need to redo the takes despite the “mistakes.”

It’s easy to avoid making mistakes. Simply don’t do anything where you just might possibly screw up. The problem is that the cost of doing nothing or doing only safe things can be greater than the cost of not trying and potentially failing. Many organizations aspire to innovate yet their culture does not permit the possibility of failing. This has the effect of stifling innovation. Google’s culture of innovation accepts mistakes as a normal part of the research and development process. According to Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman and CEO, “The way you say this is: ‘Please fail very quickly—so that you can try again.'” Larry Page, president and co-founder of Products, said to one employee upon hearing from her that she had cost the company several million dollars, “I’m so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.” In the book Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos that she co-authored with Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Professor of Strategy and Organization at Stanford University, Google’s Senior Vice-President of Business Operations, Shona Brown, known as the company’s “Chief Chaos Officer,” wrote: “Mistakes occur because systems at the edge of chaos often slip off the edge. But there is also quick recovery and, like jazz musicians who play the wrong note, there is the chance to turn mistakes into advantages.”

I hope you’ll learn from the mistakes you made in 2010 but I also hope that you’ll leave room to make more (although perhaps different ones) in 2011 in the interest of achieving great things.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 3) Exploit efforts to the extreme

Oct 2, 2010 by

This is the third in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 2) Inhibit individuality.

There are many ways to extract a greater level of performance from a team. The most obvious method, and the one that is all too often employed, is to ask everyone to work harder. More often than not this means that people must work more hours. People who are passionate about their job do not usually mind putting in extra effort. They’ll go the extra mile on their own initiative. They enjoy what they do and derive personal satisfaction from delivering great results. Similarly, they are unhappy if their team doesn’t meet or exceeds its goals. Yet these high performers can become understandably frustrated when they must put in extra effort simply because their team or organization is unable to fix problems that are compromising the team’s ability to operate effectively. In many organizations, these problems are deeply rooted into corporate culture and changing them can be difficult or perhaps even impossible. This inevitably means that organizations with these afflictions will need to call upon people to work beyond their limits time and time again while the problems continue to fester. That’s a sure way to kill productivity and passion and ultimately it’s a great way to lose your best people.

What are these problems? We can easily derive one set of examples by translating the fourteen principles of the Jazz Process into related problems that limit team performance:

Jazz Process Principle Problem Limiting Team Performance
1. Use Just Enough Rules Excessive bureaucracy or conversely, a lack of order leading to chaos
2. Employ Top Talent People who lack the necessary skills or experience to deliver at a level matching that of other team members
3. Put the Team First Individuals who put their own desires and achievements ahead of their team’s goals or simply don’t care about those goals
4. Commit with Passion Team members who lack dedication to the team and its goals and/or lack the desire to achieve success when faced with challenges
5. Build Trust and Respect People who are unwilling to trust and respect others or are unable to demonstrate their effectiveness in order to elicit trust and respect from others
6. Listen for Change Blindness to, fear of, or the inability to detect changing conditions both inside and outside a team or organization, especially the kind of change that can cripple or kill an organization
7. Lead on Demand Rigid command and control structures that place all decision-making in the hands of a small number of individuals
8. Act Transparently Unwillingness to act authentically and share important information in a timely and clear manner
9. Make Contributions Count Individuals who act without considering the effort, value and impact of actions
10. Reduce Friction Problems that slow down or complicate execution or conversely, loss of control over execution
11. Maintain Momentum Inability to establish critical mass and maintain a steady pace of execution
12. Stay Healthy Allowing problems to fester that affect performance and require constant attention
13. Exchange Ideas Failure to consider new ideas or critique from new or external sources
14. Take Measured Risks Setting unrealistic goals or conversely, failing to set goals that will enable an organization to remain competitive

When a team is affected by these kinds of problems, it’s like a race car with broken or worn out parts that is unable to operate at its peak performance level. To compete with the other cars you have to push your vehicle beyond its limits. If you keep doing that, sooner or later something bad will happen and you’ll end up on the side of the road, assuming you’re fortunate enough to avoid crashing and burning. If you lead a team suffering from these or other serious problems, fix them first before constantly demanding that your people compensate with extra effort. You may not be able fix such problems overnight but if you can at least acknowledge and understand the problems and make progress towards fixing them, people will be more inclined to give you their all with the knowledge that the team is on the road to recovery.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 2) Inhibit individuality

Jul 26, 2010 by

This is the second in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 1) Burden with bureaucracy.

One of the most important steps towards maximizing the potential of any team is to treat the team as a group of individuals. An important part of jazz is improvisation, the basis of which is the unique and personal expressions each musician offers. Duke Ellington was arguably the most successful jazz composer ever. Much of what we hear in his recordings was written by Ellington and his composer colleague, Billy Strayhorn. Although the rhythm section often improvised all the detail in their parts, the horn players had to play the notes written by the composers although short sections provided opportunities for improvisation. Despite the dependency on the written parts, the individuality of the musicians came shining through in every piece because Ellington wrote for specific musicians just as William Shakespeare wrote for specific actors. This is evident from Ellington’s original manuscripts which bear the names of each musician, not just generic labels such as “Trumpet 1.” Ellington considered their unique strengths and abilities and wrote parts that featured their greatest talents. The individualism of the musicians, even when channeled through Ellington and Strayhorn’s writing, contributed to the greatness and uniqueness of the compositions.

In sports, teams win because they have great individual players. Especially at the highest levels of athletic performance, individual stars are highly sought after and recruiting is serious business. The best sports teams don’t simply treat each potential team member like any other athlete. They spend a great deal of time, money and other resources continuously identifying and recruiting specific individuals. Sports recruiters are highly respected and they manage huge budgets. The same is rarely true of corporate recruiters.

Individuality is highly prized and sought after in arts and sports and businesses can learn from this. When organizations treat every employee as interchangeable and ignore individuality, they pass up opportunities to capitalize on individual strengths while leaving the team vulnerable to individual weaknesses. Even worse than failing to exploit individuality is ignoring or suppressing it. This can happen when organizations force employees to comply needlessly with the status quo or ignore people who question directions or decisions. Not surprisingly, team members may react negatively with feelings ranging from frustration to defiance to resignation. Individuality can also be suppressed when a team self-selects likeminded people and rids itself of people who don’t think like the rest of the team. Teams that tend toward such single-mindedness at the cost of individual creativity and critical thinking can fall into the dangerous trap of groupthink. Such teams may fail to innovate. Worse still, they may make huge mistakes together.

Of course individual desires and personalities cannot compromise the goals of the team or its ability to execute. It’s important to find a workable balance between strong individuals and team cohesiveness. However the lesson from arts and sports is clear: when individuality is appreciated, encouraged and managed, it can help bring out the best in people and their teams.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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