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Intriguing research: how employees solve problems faster

The following is a guest post from Daniel H Pink.

Daniel H Pink: employees are faster and more creative when solving other people’s problems

Recent research reveals that people are more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of others than for themselves. This has far-reaching practical implications at every level of business.

Recent research reveals that people are more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of others than for themselves. This has far-reaching practical implications at every level of business.

How we approach problems, and how quickly we fashion a solution, yields some surprising lessons about innovation and creativity in business.
Daniel H. Pink


8:15AM BST 22 May 2011

Try to solve the following puzzle:

In a tower is a prisoner who desperately wants to escape. One day he discovers a rope in his cell. Trouble is, the rope is only half the length necessary to allow him to reach the ground safely. Yet he divides the rope in half, ties the two parts together, and escapes to his freedom.

How did the prisoner accomplish this feat?

This isn’t the sort of problem most of us face in our daily professional lives (IMF chiefs and insider traders notwithstanding.) But how we approach it, and how quickly we fashion a solution, yields some surprising lessons about innovation and creativity in business.

In a recent experiment, Evan Polman of New York University and Kyle Emich of Cornell University posed this problem to 137 undergraduate research subjects. They asked half the participants to imagine themselves as the prisoner. They asked the other half to imagine someone else as the prisoner.

This was no isolated result. Polman and Emich found the same phenomenon in two other experiments. In one, they asked participants to draw a picture of an alien that could be the basis of a science fiction story. Half were told they would later write the story themselves; half were told that someone else would write the story. The aliens that people in the second group drew for others turned out to be more creative than those the first group drew for themselves.

Likewise, in a third experiment, the researchers asked participants to come up with three gift ideas – for themselves, for someone close to them, or for someone they scarcely knew. Once again, the more remote the recipient, the more innovative the gift. (Which might explain why many of use are useless in choosing gifts for our spouses and partners.)

Polman and Emich build upon existing psychological research showing that when we think of situations or individuals that are distant – in space, time, or social connection – we think of them in the abstract. But when those things are close – near us physically, about to happen, or standing beside us – we think about them concretely.

Over the years, social scientists have found that abstract thinking leads to greater creativity. That means that if we care about innovation we need to be more abstract and therefore more distant. But in our businesses and our lives, we often do the opposite. We intensify our focus rather than widen our view. We draw closer rather than step back.

That’s a mistake, Polman and Emich suggest. “That decisions for others are more creative than decisions for the self… should prove of considerable interest to negotiators, managers, product designers, marketers and advertisers, among many others,” they write.

Indeed, their findings have practical implications at every level of business. Let me offer five suggestions to stir your thinking:

• Recruit more independent directors.

Begin with corporate governance.
If recent scandals and ethical breaches weren’t sufficient evidence, this body of research underscores the importance of having independent directors on the boards of public companies. Beyond providing watchful eyes on auditing and compensation committees, their
very distance from the quotidian concerns of incumbent managers might make them valuable sparks to corporate creativity.

• Rethink the structure of your firm.

Perhaps loose alliances of distantly connected people – think Wikipedia or a Hollywood film – can produce more creative products and services than fixed rosters of employees in traditional arrangements. And maybe those consultancies, which all of us love to malign, are offering a valuable service after all by providing distance for hire.

• Harness the power of peers.

The day-to-day crush of obligations often lures leaders closer to their challenges rather than giving them the distance that social scientists say can be more valuable. One counterweight is to assemble a small group of peers – all from different industries – and gather periodically to exchange ideas and offer solutions from new perspectives. Many such peer advisory groups in America – among them Inner Circle, CEO Clubs, and the Women Presidents Organisation – already exist and are growing in popularity.

• Find a problem-swapping partner.

If regular meetings aren’t your thing, try finding a friend or colleague with whom you can occasionally swap problems. When you’re stymied, give your problem to him or her. In exchange, when he or she is stuck, they can toss their dilemma to you.

• Disasssociate yourself.

When partners aren’t an option, establish distance yourself. Create some psychological space between you and your project by imagining you’re doing it for someone else or contemplating what advice you’d give to another person in your predicament.

Of course, there are plenty of times when getting the job done calls for concrete thinking and a close focus. But those hammers shouldn’t be the only tools in our toolbox.

And while much of our business world is ill-configured to benefit from Polman and Emich’s insights, the rise of crowd sourcing and ventures such as Innocentive (which allows companies to post problems on a web site for people around the world to solve) suggests that the moment may be right for reconfiguring the broader architecture of problem-solving.

Which leads to one final question: how exactly did the prisoner with the insufficiently long rope manage to escape? The answer: he split the rope lengthwise, tied the two halves together and shimmied to freedom.

Think about that next time you’re imprisoned in a tower. Actually, don’t. Instead, have someone else think about it for you.

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Learn to Say No – 6 Easy Tips (guest post)

A few months ago, I received a business pitch. It was from an acquaintance I was on good terms with, and the pitch was based on something we verbally discussed and agreed on in the past. However, sometime had passed since our last conversation, and things had changed.

I was no longer keen on the opportunity, but didn’t quite know how to put it across to him. I didn’t want to jeopardize our relationship and any potential future working opportunities because of this. So I procrastinated in replying to the mail. I put it into a “reply later” folder and got on to other stuff.

Every few days when I check my folder, it’d be there, and I’d think “Ah I’ll reply this later.  I wondered if he would be angry knowing that I had changed my stance. At times I contemplated not replying at all, but I thought it wouldn’t be appropriate, especially since we knew each other and we had a common friend too.

Finally one day, I decided to get on with it and reply to the mail. I typed out the mail, and crafted it a few words at a time. In it, I apologized for my delayed reply, and at the same time truthfully explained my situation and that I had no plans to take up the opportunity anymore. After reading it through, I clicked “Send” and hoped for the best.

Within 10 minutes of sending the mail, I got a reply, much to my surprise. It was early in the morning (8ish) and I didn’t think that he would be in the office. The reply was very amiable. He said there was no worries at all, and he wished me a great year ahead in the meantime. Just like that. And it was done.

Have you ever had to say no before and feel conflicted about doing so? Many times we make a big deal out of saying “no”, afraid that we will be committing a hideous crime by saying. In our minds, we are scared that the other people will be angry, that we will be loathed on, that we’ll be deemed as making things difficult for others. The thing is, many of these thoughts are self-created, and not real.

Saying no really is a prerogative, and shouldn’t be as difficult as we make it out to be. It’s about learning how to do so. Here are 6 simple tips how you can learn to say no:

1) Realize it’s okay to say no

No matter who you are speaking to and what the situation is, you have the right to say no. The only reason why you feel you don’t have that right is because you choose to relinquish it to others. Rather than think that we can’t say no, it’s about learning how to say it and put it across in a manner that the other party can understand and accept. Even if it’s your boss or someone of higher seniority that you’re dealing with, and you don’t feel that you can say no, realize that it’s your choice to say yes because you’re unwilling to deal with the consequences of saying no. Ultimately everything in life boils down to us and the choices we make.

2) Know your priorities

What are your biggest goals this year? Would you prefer to spend time on these goals or on this new commitment? Knowing your goals reinforces your reasons for saying no. For example since a while back, I decided to stop taking pro-bono speaking/workshop requests, because each commitment takes up considerable time and effort and it just isn’t worth the effort to do them for free anymore. I’ve also decided to say no to local engagements, as these require me to be situated in Singapore, and my plans for the year ahead involve traveling overseas. Knowing my vision and plans has made it much easier to say no.

3) Write everything down first

If you’re not sure how to start, dump out everything on your mind first in the email, without intending to send it out right away. It can be gibberish. It can be thoughts of frustration. Treat it as writing a draft reply. The process of doing this helps sort out your thoughts. After you finish dumping out your thoughts, you’ll find it much easier to craft your actual reply from there. This works for me every time.

4) Keep it simple

There’s no need to over-explain yourself. Simply say no, and give the key reason why. Some people may run into the mistake of writing a lengthy explanation letter/email, and it’s unnecessary. Not only does it bog down the other party with details, it also weakens your position. In my rejection mails, I usually keep them to 3 paragraphs – first paragraph as a greeting, and the second paragraph with my rejection and short explanation why. In the last paragraph, I provide a couple of alternative options he/she can seek out (see tip #5).

5) Provide an alternative

This is not necessary, but if you feel bad about saying no, you can provide an alternative option to cushion out the effect. For example, if the person wants to work on a project with you but you cannot commit to it, you can recommend a few leads to him/her who can do equally good job as you. That way, the person won’t be left hanging and he/she can seek out these options instead. Usually in my rejections, I’ll provide a couple of quick leads/options out of courtesy.

6) Just say no

Sometimes I wonder about how to say no, and in the end I just go with a straightforward “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t take it up” answer. Surprisingly, the other parties take to it very readily like the example above, making me realize that a lot of conflicts I have with saying no are more my own illusions than anything else! As long as you’re earnest, candid and respectful of the other party in the reply, there shouldn’t be any reason why there would be an issue.

How about you?  Is there a request you’re planning to say no to?  How can you apply the tips above to send your message across? Share in the comments area below!

Written on 6/10/2011 by Celestine Chua. Celestine writes at The Personal Excellence Blog, where she shares her best advice on how to achieve personal excellence and live your best life.

Are You Ready for these 10 GenY interview responses?

This is a guest post from Sirona Says blog

Gen y cartoon kid
I have been having a good few gen y conversations with clients recently, and when we got around to discussing their interview processes they had some strange stories. Well, it appears that the gen Y’ers are returning to character (pre-recession) and living up to the type of gen Y traits I have written about before.

This issue got me thinking about interviews, and whether the interview itself will need to change based on responses from the genY and gen Z candidates. Below are some interview responses that may annoy you with their approach, but as the gen Y ‘arrogance’ appears in the work place (and it will I am sure), these could represent the milder interview responses. So here are ten gen Y interview responses to expect some time soon:

  1. I have a short attention span, if I don’t like this job then I will move on to something I do like.
  2. I have 2 other offers on the table so can I have a response now please?
  3. As long I get the job done, I don’t think it matters if a few rules are broken along the way.
  4. Is it possible to get the job without providing a reference, I don’t have any?
  5. Be nice to me, bear in mind when I get the job, I will be your boss.
  6. If a customer has a problem with how I work then they’ll just have to deal with it, I am not their best friend you know.
  7. After I have done my 3 month probation, what will I be promoted to?
  8. The only reason I want this job is that it is near my home, and I can stay in bed longer.
  9. I don’t need to take my headphones off – the volume on my ipod is low so I can hear both the song and you.
  10. I really like the job and the company, but I don’t like you. Can someone else be my boss when I get the job?

[These are real now – No. 9 happened to someone I know last week interviewing for staff in London!!]

I know that some of these types of answers are already appearing in the interviews that a couple of my clients are carrying out – most of their candidates fit the gen Y and gen Z demographic.

So as an interviewer – whether you are an agency or a direct employer – would you adjust your interview style, give them a quick rebuff during the interview or simply walk them straight back out of the door?

>>And of course, remember that they are just as likely to jump straight onto Facebook or Twitter and tell everyone about the interview they had with you and your company!

Now will that change your approach?

Tap into your Team’s Natural Leadership: here’s how

Have you ever watched a highly functioning department accomplish a goal or objective?   The secret ingredient I have noticed is that “natural leadership” is encouraged from every team member or participant.

Within groups, each participant brings a unique combination of skills, talent or style to the discussion.  Great groups take advantage of this uniqueness.

Consider the quiet, shy clerk who is newly hired and brought into a department project.  They bring a fresh viewpoint and, when encouraged to participate, can ask questions or “what if”s that others might not even think of.  Sometimes there is a “social butterfly” of the group who has a talent to draw out ideas and comments from the introspective members of the team.

So how can we tap into employees’ natural leadership?

1) Identify skills and talents of each employee – Have a one-on-one chat with each employee and ask them what their favorite project / role was, or to describe the most memorable job they ever completed.  Then ask them why it was such a positive experience. These conversations will give you clues as to the type of skills they employed and what they will “gravitate” to in terms of motivation.

2) Utilize skill assessment tools to identify or confirm employee capabilities – I use the DISC assessment model, which incorporates both behavioral styles and values based guidelines to tap into employees’ unique skills.  This model can be used to aid in select employees during the hiring process, to reposition employees into new or better-suited roles and to reward employees with career management planning tools.

3) Acknowledge the unique strengths of talents of each team member – set up team building opportunities where team members can be publicly acknowledged for their contributions, skills and talents.  This builds trust and confidence in a group or department.  Where there are personality clashes, facilitators are often helpful to move past negative opinions and set up positive objectives.

4) Create a forum for inclusive discussion – Find ways to creatively explore options.  The 6 Thinking Hats is a great exercise to consider an issue from all angles.  Assign different individuals to each bring one of the 6 approaches to an issue, so they are all encouraged to participate.

5) Appeal to individuals privately to put their best game forward – sometimes groups will experience a stalemate or blockage.  When emotions are elevated or stakes are high, some employees will “dig in” or shut down.   A quiet, private conversation appealing to them to use their natural leadership can often ease the difficulty.   Extremely shy employees may also respond to this approach.

6) Celebrate successes, both big and small – Your department will enjoy positive recognition and be motivated to continue their journey toward even bigger success!

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Low Hanging Fruit Model – Prioritize for Better Business Results

One of the best tools to help you focus and prioritize progress and to clean up problems / procedures in a particular area of your company is the “low hanging fruit” matrix.

Here are 7 easy steps to turnaround complaints into results:

1)  Choose a topic area where you want to resolve an issue or improve processes

Some examples I have used in the past:  customer billing / invoicing, inventory management, logistics flow, contract agreements, business opportunities.    Your topic should be a theme (a complaint or else “we should do this opportunity”) that comes up in conversations regularly by employees.  Your goal is to identify areas which need management attention to deal with issues or opportunities.

2)  Call a meeting with key stakeholders

Make sure the attendee stakeholders include the vocal employees and some of the “complainers”.  Invite employees from a wide range of functional areas, and those who are interested in or accountable for fixing the issue or resolving the problem at hand.

3)  State your “theme” issue, then brainstorm a list of related problems or sub-problems

Set ground rules that all ideas will be accepted without judgement; one brainstormed idea may trigger even better ideas, issues or sub-problems.  Encourage breaking down the issue into smaller components and describing each.

List your brainstormed items on a whiteboard or flipchart.  Group any very strongly related items together into one statement or initiative.

4)  Quantify each resulting item as to High, Medium, Low –  in terms of frequency of occurence, and High, Medium, Low in terms of cost or dollar impact.  When this is done, get the group to agree where each item would be plotted on a grid using one axis for “Dollar Impact” and the other axis for “Ease of Accomplishment” or “Frequency of Occurence”

5)  Prioritize the issues into a ranked list.   Start from the right hand upper corner of your matrix (this is where highest value opportunities and easiest “quick wins” can give your project momentum).  Each quadrant offers different results, from fast and easy “low hanging fruit” to “big wins” which may have a longer term or more difficult implementation.   Make sure your group members agree on the relative positions of each item, and then as a group assign a top-to-bottom ranking.

6)  Build an Action Log, stating WHAT the Issue is, WHO is accountable, WHEN delivery of a solution is expected, and HOW (the “how” may be blank to start with, until assigned employees have met to discuss solutions)

7)  Follow up regularly.  Meet with the team to tweak your list and review progress on completing the Action Log.  By assigning accountable persons to each sub-project and reviewing status results publicly with the rest of the group, your team will be more motivated to stay on track.