Saturday, November 15, 2014

Are your goals aligned with your actual contribution?

Goal setting is tricky business. The right goals motivate, are meaningful, focus attention and effort, and create positive change for the organization. They also allow you to quickly identify where progress is stalled and action is required. Unfortunately, many goals fail to effectively do any of this because they are not set at the right level.

In an attempt to create “line of sight” many leaders set goals too high. They position goals against enterprise-level outcomes such as revenue, quality, customer experience, and profit.  Everyone in the organization should understand how their work contributes to enterprise outcomes. However, very few people directly influence those outcomes. For everyone else there are just too many things that sit between their work and the realization of the final result. For these people “line of sight” should be created with communication and explanation, not goal setting.

So why do leaders set goals too high?  Conventional wisdom suggests that if everyone is pulling for the same enterprise-wide goal, people will optimize their actions accordingly. However, in practice, I often see the opposite happen. Goals that are set too high or too far from someone’s actual responsibilities mask whether that work is actually contributing.  When the enterprise goal is being met individuals congratulate themselves for doing their part. When it’s not being met individuals console themselves by assuming that they did their part and that the problem must lie somewhere else. Neither conclusion is valid. They have no way of knowing how successful their individual work actually was if they are only measuring and tracking the enterprise goal.

Goals should be aligned with the direct contribution that an individual is expected to make. Your sales people contribute to revenue in a very different way than your IT people. They should each have unique goals reflecting that. With unique goals you’ll be able to more quickly find out which efforts are working, which are not working, and which may not even be needed in the first place.

Create line of sight by carefully communicating, explaining, and reinforcing the way that your people’s work fits into the “big picture”. Set goals that allow people to see if the specific work they do is making a positive contribution to your business and to the big picture.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A simple guide for creating random groups in your meetings

The other day I needed to divide my audience into smaller groups several times within the same meeting.  The meeting leader wanted the groups to be different each time.  For the initial split, we simply counted off by the number of groups we wanted.  However, given that people were sitting in roughly the same places throughout the meeting, this technique was only going to work once.

I started using other simple criteria to sort the participants into groups (birth day, birth month, etc). Figuring out the sorting rules is pretty simple.  However, it’s one of those tasks that you really shouldn't spend much time on since it can be easily codified. So, that’s what I did.

The following table provides different ways to randomly divide an audience into subgroups. Each row represents a different sorting criteria.  Each column represents the number of groups that you are trying to create.  The individual cells show the sorting rules. 

In some cases, you’ll see that the criteria don’t appear to be evenly divided. This is done to accommodate differences in their actual distributions in real life. For example, there are a lot fewer people whose first name begins with “X” than “A”.  However, those types of adjustments weren't always necessary (surprisingly birth month, birth day are actually pretty evenly distributed).  These rules are all based on US data.  Some of the criteria, especially those associated with names, could be quite different in other countries.

No model is going to be perfect.  You still may have to do some adjusting on the back end. However, these sorting rules should give you a good head start. And remember, to fully get the benefit of the statistical distributions, your audience needs to be large enough.  The more groups you are creating, the larger that the audience needs to be.   Dividing sixteen people into two groups using the rules for months will probably work well.  However, dividing those same sixteen people into six groups using the rules for months might not.  You need a larger group to offset the random variation that exists.

You may need to click on the image to see the full table. For a PDF version of this table, click here.



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Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author with Avail Advisors LLC.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@avail.advisors.com.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Three reasons to stop presenting so much data

On average, what percent of the content of your presentations is data?  Data include tables, charts, top/bottom lists, scorecards, or metrics.  If you are like many of my clients I'd bet your answer is around 80-90%.  If that's the case, then you've got 70-80% more than you need.  Being data-driven does not mean that you have to fill your presentations with data. In fact, the more data that you provide, the less effective your presentation will be.

There are three simple reasons to stop putting so much data into your presentations:

People can't handle a lot of data
Research in both neuroscience and psychology has overwhelmingly proven that the conscious mind is pretty limited in the amount of data it can process at one time.  When confronted with too much data, the unconscious mind takes over.  For rote situations, this works pretty well.  However, for situations requiring focus and attention, this could be a disaster.  Our unconscious minds have developed tricks to manipulate large amounts of information.  Many of those tricks involve ignoring, combining, or generalizing information based upon your expectations or past experiences.  The result is that often the more data you look at (at one time) the less accurate the picture becomes.

People don't really use data to make decisions
This might seem paradoxical.  The best leaders will tell you that they are data driven, objective, and let the facts guide them.  But, again, research has proven that they aren't.  Actual data play a very small role in a person's decision making.  In one famous study at the University of Michigan, people who had strongly held beliefs based on incorrect data actually strengthened those beliefs once they received the contradicting, correct data.  How often have you provided a sound data-driven argument only to be countered with, "I still don't think that's true"?  Often, the only time people ask for the data is when they disagree with your conclusion.  When was the last time they changed their mind once you showed them the facts?  People make decisions based on a huge variety of things (emotions, biases, misconceptions).  Despite what we may believe (or even tell others) data are often the least influential part of the process.

People don't actually want data
Again, this might seem contradictory.  We've been told that we should be data-driven and people regularly ask to see data.  However, in most cases, they really don't care about the number.  Instead they need the number to figure something out.  A person asking for sales figures may be trying to figure out which regions need attention.  Or, perhaps he or she wants to know if the recent marketing campaign is working.  There are a host of questions that a person might have for which sales figures help provide an answer.  However, the figures themselves aren't the answer.  They are merely an input.  People want the story of their business and the decisions, recommendations, and actions necessary to make that story work out positively.  Don't make them work for it.  That's what you should be providing. 


I'm not suggesting that you stop using data.  Every statement, decision, or recommendation that you make needs to be supported by clear data-driven evidence.  However, using data to make a decision is different from displaying all of that data while making your argument.

Resist the urge to simply dump a lot of data on your audience.  Sure, it may be easier, faster, and less risky to do so.  However, it doesn't really move the conversation forward.  In fact, in many cases it will slow down the discussion as people will get stuck on details and numbers which aren't going to impact the final decision or answer anyway.  Start trying to present a simple, clear "story" of what is happening in the business and what needs to be done to help the business succeed.  Put all of the charts, graphs, and tables in the appendix.  You can draw upon them as needed to answer questions or defend your statements.

Our Rethinking Data workshop can help you become a more effective consumer of data.  We've already helped over 3,500 leaders in over 30 countries across seven different industries.  Large Fortune 500 companies as well as small local businesses have benefited from our new approach to using data.  Let us help you.  Check out the workshop at www.kolarassociates.com/rethinkingdata.

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Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Speaker, and Author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Leadership lessons from Holocaust Survivors

I normally wait until Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to repost this.  However, today I learned that my friend, Cipora Katz passed away.  So, I'm reposting this in her honor.  May her memory be for a blessing.


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Leadership Lessons from Holocaust Survivors
A leader’s job is to create meaning and purpose for those around him or her.  In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl speaks eloquently about the power of such meaning and purpose in a person’s life.  This book should be required reading for all leaders. 
Recently, I was fortunate to hear from a wonderful woman, Cipora Katz.  Cipora is a Holocaust survivor.  She is a woman of tiny stature.  Yet, when she speaks, her spirit fills the room.  Cipora was the fifth Survivor that I’ve had the opportunity to hear speak. 
If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear a Survivor speak, I recommend doing so (and doing so quickly as unfortunately, their numbers are thinning).  These are incredible people who in the course of thirty minutes will provide a lifetime of lessons.  Reading their stories or seeing snippets of a video doesn't capture what makes these people so special.  Watching them in person allows you to see the spark in their eye, hear the conviction in their voice, and feel the burning desire to live that resides in their hearts.
Their stories discuss horrors that many of us couldn’t even imagine yet alone endure.  However, when reflecting on their lives Survivors use words like “fortunate”, or “lucky”.  This must be what Viktor Frankl meant in “Man’s Search For Meaning” when he said that “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.”  Each of these survivors had a burning, insatiable desire to live.  They understood that their life had purpose even if, at the time, they didn’t know what that purpose might be.
There are five lessons that I took from their stories.  Each provides a way to summon the spark within us even when there is darkness around us:
Frame your world your way
The first lesson I learned is that leadership is about how we frame issues.  We cannot always control the things that happen to us.  However, we can control how we frame and react to them.  We can view them as tragedies that disable us or as challenges to which we must step up.  Imagine a ten year old boy being told by his mother that he must run away and fend for himself in order to survive.  Now imagine him actually doing it.  Survivors overcome.
Create your own luck
The second lesson is to create opportunities for yourself.  Every survivor’s story seems to contain a combination of determination and luck.  There is an old adage, “I believe in luck.  The harder I work, the luckier I get.”  Survivors got “lucky” partly because they capitalized on things that others missed, ignored, or didn’t have the courage to try.  In one story, a complete stranger approached a mother and child telling them to run after him when he gave them a signal.  Perhaps a twist of fate placed that opportunity before them.  But, it was their internal spark that moved them to act on that opportunity when others might have been too afraid of the risk.  Survivors constantly sought a way past the next hurdle and didn't let an opportunity slip by.
Live with purpose
Third, create a purpose for yourself and others – Even today you can tell that each survivor lives life with purpose and meaning.  For some that purpose has changed since their experience in the Holocaust.  But, it is unmistakable.   In the past few years the business world has become filled with advice and articles on “employee engagement”.  Yet, after meeting these survivors, I realize that we don’t really understand what engagement is anymore.  We consider a person who is willing to do a good day’s work for a fair day’s pay as engaged.   Go hear a survivor speak.  Listen to what they say and how they say it.  Watch them.  Analyze how they view (or viewed) the world.  You will leave with a new definition and appreciation of engagement. 
Hold fast to what matters, compromise on the rest
The fourth lesson is about mental agility. Survivors knew which of their expectations to compromise on and which to hold fast.  This allowed them to recalibrate what was "normal" in a world that lost all sense of what was right.  By reframing their expectations they were able to create small successes on a daily basis which gave them the extra energy needed to look ahead to the next day.  Just as today, people who held too tightly to standard definitions had difficulty adapting.  But the Survivors didn't compromise on all of their expectations.  They maintained a clear line on the meaning of humanity, life, and purpose.  Lowering some expectations allowed them to adapt and achieve success, while maintaining the important ones drove their sense of purpose and longevity.
Be self-reliant while supporting your community
Finally, the Survivors understood their role in a broader community but also relied first and foremost on themselves.  They created their own opportunities.  They didn't wait for a handout.  Yet, many of the most touching stories were of people who, despite their own starvation, broke the scrap of bread that they found into as many pieces as possible so that all could share.  This reliance on self integrated with contribution to community provided these people with strength, even when they didn't personally have any left.
Not surprisingly, many of the Survivors that I met and heard from achieved great personal or professional success after the Holocaust.  It wasn't easy.  Many restarted their lives with absolutely nothing.  Their will and passion for life combined with the ingenuity, determination, and ability to overcome adversity must have made navigating the "regular" world somewhat trivial.
No workshop or book will ever provide better lessons than what I learned from listening to these extraordinary people.  Of course, I realize that it wasn't knowledge or skill that enabled these people to do what they did.  It took a spark deep inside of each of them.  You can't build or buy that spark.  But, if you are lucky, perhaps you can capture some of the energy from those who have it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Easier is not the same as easy

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day.  My friend works for a Fortune 100 company.  We were discussing some of the major changes and pressures they are facing. 

Like many organizations its size, her company realizes that it must simplify.  However, as is also the case with their similar-sized peers, a lot of their internal (and many of their customer-facing) processes are pretty complicated. Simplifying isn't going to be that simple.

We discussed some of the obvious challenges in simplifying. They’ll face politics, organizational silos, lack of information sharing, and a lot of tangled up interdependencies. Yet, I’m not too worried about those issues.  Lean and other process re-engineering tools are well equipped to handle them.  Changing culture will also take some work. However, they’ve got the tools and focus needed to work through that as well. 

The hidden challenge that might undermine their efforts is the way that their current processes are perceived.  Over time, processes in large organizations tend to become big, ugly, and complex.  Most people recognize that they aren’t efficient. Yet, they become sensitized to them. (For more on sensitization see my prior post Are your employees and customers engaged or just sensitized?).  Those process start feeling normal. 

When a bad process becomes the norm, any improvement seems like a major victory.  Cutting a twenty click ordering process down to ten clicks is a 50% improvement.  However, while your company is celebrating its success, Amazon is rolling out 1-Click Ordering.

Making something easier does not necessarily make it easy.  Instead of focusing on how much you’ve improved, ask yourself how much is left to improve.  That will truly drive you to become more competitive.  More importantly, it will transform your organization into one with which it is truly easy to do business.


Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Aligning Data and Decisions

The other day my wife asked me to send her mother some information.  Her mom wanted to visit our son at college and was trying to figure out a date.  My son’s availability is limited this semester.  He has several trips home and we will be going to visit him for parents’ weekend. 

My wife wanted me to send a list of the dates that my son was not available.  At first glance, this request seemed reasonable enough.  After all, her mother needed to figure out when she could visit.  However, as I thought about it, I realized that this was the wrong information to send. 

While this information would help her mother make the decision, it wasn’t efficient. Her mother couldn’t use this information directly.  Before making the decision, she would have to transform it into the data that she really needed - the dates that my son was available.  Converting a list of unavailable dates to a list of available dates isn’t a hard task.  However it’s unnecessary when I could have provided the right data in the first place.

This is a common mistake that people make with data.  The data that they request or provide falls short of answering the actual question.  As a result, the person using the report has to further transform the data before making their decision.  Whether that process is simple or difficult isn’t really the point.  The point is that it is not efficient or effective.  People’s time is best used interpreting and acting upon data, not converting or relabeling it.

For example, suppose that you are trying to figure out which regions in your business need your attention and resources. A typical scorecard would include a list of regions, their current performance, their goal, and possibly some historic performance data.  That seems reasonable enough.  You certainly can use it to make your decision.  However, it isn’t efficient.  You still have to look at every line of the report (e.g., every region) and convert the performance data into the real information that you want – an assessment of whether that region is doing well or poorly.  Color-coding the report with red, yellow, and green indicators helps a little.  However, it doesn’t prevent you from having to look at each line (it just shortens the amount of time you spend on each line).  Instead, if your decision is where to focus your attention, a better report would simply list the names of the regions that are having problem.  The detailed report can be used later when it’s time to drill down to better understand the problem.

The best data and reports are those that are closely aligned to the decision being made.  Count the number of steps it takes between receiving the report and making the decision.  If that number is greater than zero, rethink the report.  There may be an opportunity to present the data in a more efficient and effective manner.

Kolar Associates can help you rethink your reports to make your actions and decisions stand out.  We’ve helped companies across every major industry refine and focus their reports.  For a detailed look at how we’ve applied decision-based reporting in hospitals, check out our demo at www.kolarassociates.com/decisionreportdemo.



Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Are your employees and customers engaged or just sensitized?

When I was younger, every summer we’d take a boat trip around Lake Michigan.  I can still remember how tedious the first week of the trip felt.  Moving along at 6-10 knots (7-11.5 miles per hour) almost felt like standing still.  By the end of the trip, however, it felt normal.  On days that we’d catch a good breeze and hit 15 knots, it felt like we were speeding along.  After two months on the boat, we headed back for land. Unlike the tedious initial moments in the boat, the first few minutes in the car were terrifying.  Moving along the side streets at 30 miles an hour felt like we were travelling at the speed of light.  Our various reactions to speed throughout the trip were influenced by what psychologists called sensitization.  Sensitization is the way that your brain recalibrates its response to something based on the amount of exposure you have to it.

In a prior entry, I discussed a sensitization experiment conducted by Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis.  In the experiment, the researchers exposed participants to an annoying noise for an extended period of time.  They then had them rate their level of annoyance with the last five seconds of the noise.  They compared those results to people who had only been exposed to the noise for five seconds in total. The people who had been exposed to the noise for a longer period of time rated it as less annoying.  They were sensitized to it.  What once was very annoying no longer seemed as bad.

Those examples made me wonder if our employee and customer satisfaction/engagement surveys are really just providing us with a measure of sensitization.  I’ve certainly seen sensitization occur within a work environment.  When processes, co-workers, or leaders aren’t effective,  people initially express frustration.  However, over time they just start to live with it and accept it.  The same is true of customers.  These days, I’m greatly relieved when I actually receive my order correctly or when a customer service agent solves my problem on the first try. I barely even pay attention to whether they were nice, friendly, courteous, or efficient.  Getting a high mark from me today is much easier than it was five years ago.

Conventional wisdom suggests that if you are working in a tedious environment, your satisfaction and engagement will continue to decrease.  However, studies on individuals who live with chronic pain find that their pain tolerance increases over time.  After a while, they actually feel less pain relative to the way the initial perceived it. 

Perhaps those engagement or satisfaction scores are really just showing that your people or customers are becoming sensitized to the environment that you provide.

In addition to simply looking at customer service or employee/engagement scores, start asking people to provide qualitative explanations of the ratings.  That way you can find out if a “3” from four years ago is the same as a “3” today.

Unfortunately, there appears to be little research (that I could find) on sensitization in employees and customers. So, clearly these thoughts are just speculative based on how sensitization works in other areas. Yet, it's worth considering.

Remember, numbers don’t always tell the full story. It’s important to understand how people calibrate their expectations so that you can better understand their ratings.  Otherwise, you may be celebrating your ability to beat your customers or employees into submission while thinking you are improving their experience.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com

Saturday, June 7, 2014

If a tree falls in the woods, does it really fall? Only if Google’s data say so.

Data are just a proxy for reality, they aren’t reality.  As more and more information is being captured, analyzed, and published, this is an important consideration for leaders.  While “management by walking around” might have been the mantra for the 80s, perhaps “data gathering by walking around” should be the theme for today.

In a prior post I warned leaders about only trusting data that was meticulously measured.  Those people tend to miss out on a lot of what is happening around them.

In that post I shared economist Paul Krugman’s story about the development of maps of Africa between the 15th and 19th century [1].  Krugman explained that 15th century maps, while not always accurate on distances and specific locations, were quite accurate on what actually existed across the African continent.  Yet, by the 18th century while Africa’s coastline had become meticulously and accurately represented, most of the interior of the continent had literally disappeared from the map.  The problem was that map makers of the day wouldn’t include things on their maps that hadn’t met their standards for data collection and documentation.  Since the interior hadn’t been explored as extensively as the coastline, the data weren’t as robust.  While what was shown on the map was extremely accurate, the map as a whole no longer adequately represented Africa. 

Of course, in the 15th and 18th centuries, people didn’t have access to the same technology and data as we do today. We now have much more data and information at our fingertips. Certainly we should have a better sense of what the world looks like. Maybe not. 

In his book Freakonomics [2], Steven Levitt tells an amusing story about how, in 1987, millions of children mysteriously disappeared from the US population.  No, it wasn’t a massive alien abduction.  That was the year that the IRS started requiring people to list their dependents’ social security numbers on their tax forms.  People could no longer cheat when claiming dependents.   As a result, the IRS data reflected about 10% less children in 1988 even though the number of children in the US hadn’t really changed (other than natural changes like births, deaths, and turning eighteen).

In 2014 we have even more data than in 1988.  Surely these problems can’t still persist. Yet, they do.  Yesterday, my brother submitted a correction to Google Maps. He is the owner of a new restaurant in Montauk.  However, when displaying the location of the restaurant, Maps still shows the name, reviews, and other pertinent details about the old restaurant.  Within a few hours of submitting his correction, he received the following response:

“Upon reviewing your suggested change, we have decided not to apply your suggested change to XXXX at this time, as we found the existing details to be more appropriate”

How did Google make this determination?  Certainly within the short “review” timeframe, they didn’t actually go take a look. Had they, they would have discovered that the restaurant was not there.  Yet, it's still there in the virtual world which is apparently where Google looked to find it. Just like the map makers of the 18th century, they are letting data define reality rather than the other way around.  Ironically enough their decision doesn't really help anyone better understand reality.  The original restaurant does still exist, it just moved.  So now people can't find the new restaurant that is currently in that location or old restaurant in its new location.  

Big data has many benefits for organizations and individuals.  However, it becomes dangerous when data about reality trumps what is real.  Have you ever been turned down for credit because of a problem in your credit report that didn’t exist?  How long and how much effort did it take for you to correct that?  It seems that it’s much easier to be misrepresented in a credit report than it is to have a misrepresentation corrected.  I once had to prove that I didn’t default on a loan that I never had.  Shouldn’t the burden of proof been on the people who claimed I had the loan in the first place?  My wife was once turned down for insurance due to a rare medical condition that she didn’t have.  We had to go through a three month review process and submit all of her medical records to prove that she didn’t have the condition.  

The ubiquity of data has created a new problem.   It used to be that you had to prove that the data matched reality.   Now it seems that the burden has shifted to having to prove that the reality is real when it does not match the data. 

Data are not reality. They are an approximation of reality.  Your job is to understand what is actually happening around you.  As more of our world and lives become captured in data, it will be even more important to be diligent, thoughtful, and critical of the data you see. 

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com.


[1] Krugman, Paul, “The Fall and Rise of Development Economics.” Web. 6 June 2014. (http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/dishpan.html)

[2] Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. "What do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common." Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York: William Morrow, 2005. 30. Print.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Don’t forget to seek refuting evidence

“It is hard for us, without being flippant, to even see a scenario within any kind of realm of reason that would see us losing one dollar in any of those transactions.”[1]

--AIG Executive, August, 2007 one year before the financial meltdown of AIG

The first thing to do when you can’t find data that contradict your conclusions is to look harder.

The other day, I received a request to schedule my virtual workshop on Rethinking Data. The workshop is broken into four consecutive modules.  The person making the request asked for the following dates:

Module 1 - July 3
Module 2 - July 17
Module 3 - July 14
Module 4 - July 31

It was clear that she made a typo on the dates since the sessions need to occur in order.  So, what was the mistake?  Can you see it?

It seemed obvious to me that she wanted July 24th for module 3 rather than July 14.  I was wrong. The mistake was on module 2.  She wanted July 7 rather than the 17th. In retrospect it’s clear that the mistake could have been on either date. The fact that I guessed wrong isn't the problem. The problem is that I never even considered module 2 as possibly having the error.  Therefore,  I never even had a chance of guessing right.

I fell victim to confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is our tendency to 1) seek information that supports our beliefs and 2) stop seeking information once our hypothesis is confirmed.  In the date example, I saw an ascending pattern that had one number (July 14) out of place.  Changing it to July 24 made the sequence work and proved that my hypothesis was “correct.” So I stopped looking for alternatives.

Confirmation bias is an interesting problem. It’s almost impossible for you to see it when it is happening to you.  In fact, when it is happening things often appear to be going quite well.  You have a hypothesis (or belief or conclusion) and your data appear to support it.  In many cases you are probably relieved that you found an answer.

The problem with confirmation bias is that it decreases your understanding of your data while increasing your confidence in that  understanding. 

One of the more famous studies of confirmation bias came from Peter Wason [2]  in 1960.  Wason provided people with a sequence of three numbers,

2-4-6

The participants’ job was to figure out the rule that Wason used to create the sequence.  Participants were allowed to test as many additional three digit sequences as they wanted.  He would tell them whether or not each sequence followed the rule.  Surprisingly, despite the fact that most participants came up with sequences that followed the rule, only about 20% correctly guessed it. 

Confirmation bias prevented them from figuring out what turned out to be a very simple rule.  An analysis of the participants’ test sequences revealed two things about their strategies for guessing the rule.  First, most people offered very few test cases before guessing.  In another words, once they discovered just one or two data points that fit what they believed the rule to be, they stopped testing it with data. 

Second, when coming up with their test cases, many people  tended to only offer positive examples – those that supported what they thought the rule to be.  For example, if they thought the rule was “add two” they might try the sequence 8-10-12 or 22-24-28.  If they thought the rule was “even numbers only”, they might try 8-16-28. 

While this seems reasonable on the surface it’s flawed.  You can’t test your hypotheses or conclusions by only using positive cases.  You need to test cases that contradict your hypothesis to see whether it still holds up.  Doing so in this case would have quickly and clearly shown that they were wrong about the rule.  Instead,  they kept getting false positives for why they believed the rule to be. 

People who tested sequences that didn’t fit their hypothesized rule tended to discover the actual rule much more quickly than those who only tested sequences that confirmed their belief.  in case you are wondering,  the rule is that the numbers need to occur in ascending order. 

Here is another of Wason's experiments.  See if you can figure out the answer.

The following four cards have a letter on one side and a number on the other:

A             K             2              7

The rule for labeling the cards is that if there is a vowel on one side of the card, there must be an even number on the other.  Which cards must you turn over to determine if the rule is true?

Do you think you know?  According to Duca Simone [3] there is a very high probability that you missed it.

If confirmation bias got the best of you (as it does around 33% of people), you chose card “A”.  Your logic is that if card “A” has an even number on the back, then the rule is confirmed and you can stop.  But remember, it’s important to check refuting data as well.  So while Card “A” confirms the rule, it is not sufficient given the other cards.

Since you knew I was up to something, you might have looked a bit deeper.  Confirmation bias combined with a simple logic error might have pushed you (and 46% of people) toward cards “A” and “2”.  There are two problems with this.  First, it is still only testing positive cases.  Second, and more importantly (this is where the logic error comes in), the rule doesn’t say that consonants can’t have an even number.  It just states that a vowel must have one.  Therefore, turning over the “2” card doesn’t actually confirm or refute the rule being tested.  The same is true for testing the “K” card.

The correct answer is card “A” and card “7”.  Don’t feel bad if you missed it, Simone states that only about 4% of people get this right. The “7” card is the negative test.  If it has a vowel on the other side then the rule would be broken  You can’t conclusively confirm or refute the rule without testing a positive and a negative case.

Our brains seek data that support our beliefs.  Once we find that data we tend to stop looking.  That gets us in trouble.  When trying to determine if your hypotheses, conclusions, and beliefs are true, don’t just test data that agree with the hypothesis.  Be sure to also consider data that don’t support the hypothesis. 

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com.





[1]Morgenson, Gretchen. "Behind Insurer’s Crisis, Blind Eye to a Web of Risk." The New York Times 27 Sept. 2008, sec. Business Day. New York Times. Web. 3 June 2014. (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/28/business/28melt.html?em&_r=0)
[2] Wason, Peter. "On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task."Quarterly Journal Of Experimental Psychology 12.3 (1960): 129-140. Print.
[3] Simone, Duca. "Rationality and the Wason Selection Task:A logical Account."PSYCHE 15.1 (2009): 109-131. Print.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Leadership lessons from Westlake Fish House

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the grand opening of Westlake Fish House in Montauk, NY (www.westlakefishhouse.com).  What made the event even more special for me was that one of the owners of the restaurant is my brother, Larry Kolar.  

I’ve always known that my brother was a great chef.  And, as many younger brothers will tell you about their older brothers, I also knew that he was a total rock star!  However, what I didn’t know until last week (although I wasn’t surprised to find out) was that he is also a great leader.

Who would have thought that the leadership consultant in our family would be taking leadership lessons from the chef?  After all, he’s never asked my advice on cooking!

The lessons that I learned from my brother came indirectly.  Most came from talking with his customers and employees.  That made them even more powerful as I got to see my brother through the eyes of those he leads and those he serves (which sometimes is hard to differentiate).

My brother does not have an HR department, employee engagement surveys, or an engagement strategy yet his employees were among the most engaged people I’ve ever seen.  This is despite the fact that he has incredibly high expectations and can be very demanding (anyone who has watched a cooking reality show knows how crazy chefs can be). 

People who work for him want to do well.  They want to be successful. But what struck me as most unusual was that they want him to be successful.  How many employees do you know who genuinely have their boss’s back? 

My brother is a leader in the truest sense.  He is not the leader because he is the owner or because his name is in a “leadership” box on an organization chart.  He is a leader because the people with whom he works want to follow him.

Here is what I learned on a cool April evening, in a cozy new restaurant nestled among the docks in Montauk Harbor.

Respect everyone - My brother treats everyone with the upmost respect.  If you watched an interaction between my brother and any of his employees or customers, you wouldn’t be able to tell what role that person played.  Everyone is important to him and he shows it.  More importantly, he cares about each one first as a person, then as an employee or customer.  He treats people fairly and shows genuine concern for their interests even if that means that he occasionally has to forego a bit on his.

Make it fun.  A restaurant can be a very demanding environment with as much (or even more) stress than any corporate environment.  Yet, he keeps the atmosphere upbeat.  He jokes, he laughs, and most importantly he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  This doesn’t stop him from taking his work very seriously.  He is not shy about letting people know when there is an issue with their performance.  He resolves problems swiftly and decisively.  But, once the problem is solved it is solved.  He doesn’t dwell on it or the individual who was involved and gets back to having fun.  His staff translates those cues into the way they interact with customers.  His restaurant is a place where people, both employees and customers, want to be!

Don’t compromise on your expectations – Despite the laid back and fun atmosphere of the restaurant, the expectations are very high.  Everyone knows what my brother expects when it comes to quality, service, and experience.  They also know that sub-par performance is not tolerated.

I think that sometimes leaders shy away from being tough on their people and holding them to high expectations.  They mistakenly believe that doing so will demotivate their people.  However, being tough is not the same as being mean or disrespectful.  You can be clear about your expectations and hold people accountable as long as you do so in a fair, respectful, and supportive manner.  In fact, people will appreciate you for it.  Often the teachers, coaches, and bosses who people remember the most (and say had the greatest impact) were the ones who were "tough".

My brother doesn’t punish people for not meeting his expectations (he doesn’t sweet talk them either!)  Instead, he talks with them and helps them improve.  He cares less about casting blame and more about how to help people meet his expectations.  In doing so, he’s created a workforce that delivers more than they probably thought possible.  He gives them a sense of purpose, mastery, and accomplishment. He shows that a high performing environment can also be a fun and interesting environment. 

Don’t expect more from others than you do from yourself – While expectations on the staff are incredibly high, they pale in comparison to what my brother expects of himself.  For him, there is no “good enough.”  He drives himself harder than he does anyone else.  He would rather self-assess than self-congratulate.  Most importantly, he would never hold anyone accountable to something that he was unable or unwilling to deliver himself.  I find this to be among his most admirable traits.  I’ve seen too many leaders whose expectations of their people far surpass those of themselves.

My brother never took a course or workshop on leadership.  He doesn’t read a lot of articles and journals that talk about how to be a better leader.  He doesn’t need to.  For him, leadership is not a topic or set of principles that are applied in addition to his regular work.  His regular work is leading.  It’s understanding what he wants and how to get there.  Most importantly, it’s about creating an environment where employees and customers want to come along not just for what they get, but because they believe in and care so much about what and who you are.

Westlake Fish House is going to be a shining star in the Montauk restaurant scene.  Its owner is already a shining star in the leadership scene!


Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Leadership Lessons from Holocaust Survivors

Sunday evening, April 27, marks the start of Yom haShoa - Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Here is my annual re-post in memory of the victims and in honor of the survivors.  Leadership begins with respect for all people and a desire to make the world a better place.  Never forget. 
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Leadership Lessons from Holocaust Survivors
A leader’s job is to create meaning and purpose for those around him or her.  In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl speaks eloquently about the power of such meaning and purpose in a person’s life.  This book should be required reading for all leaders. 
Recently, I was fortunate to hear from a wonderful woman, Cipora Katz.  Cipora is a Holocaust survivor.  She is a woman of tiny stature.  Yet, when she speaks, her spirit fills the room.  Cipora was the fifth Survivor that I’ve had the opportunity to hear speak. 
If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear a Survivor speak, I recommend doing so (and doing so quickly as unfortunately, their numbers are thinning).  These are incredible people who in the course of thirty minutes will provide a lifetime of lessons.  Reading their stories or seeing snippets of a video doesn't capture what makes these people so special.  Watching them in person allows you to see the spark in their eye, hear the conviction in their voice, and feel the burning desire to live that resides in their hearts.
Their stories discuss horrors that many of us couldn’t even imagine yet alone endure.  However, when reflecting on their lives Survivors use words like “fortunate”, or “lucky”.  This must be what Viktor Frankl meant in “Man’s Search For Meaning” when he said that “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.”  Each of these survivors had a burning, insatiable desire to live.  They understood that their life had purpose even if, at the time, they didn’t know what that purpose might be.
There are five lessons that I took from their stories.  Each provides a way to summon the spark within us even when there is darkness around us:
Frame your world your way
The first lesson I learned is that leadership is about how we frame issues.  We cannot always control the things that happen to us.  However, we can control how we frame and react to them.  We can view them as tragedies that disable us or as challenges to which we must step up.  Imagine a ten year old boy being told by his mother that he must run away and fend for himself in order to survive.  Now imagine him actually doing it.  Survivors overcome.
Create your own luck
The second lesson is to create opportunities for yourself.  Every survivor’s story seems to contain a combination of determination and luck.  There is an old adage, “I believe in luck.  The harder I work, the luckier I get.”  Survivors got “lucky” partly because they capitalized on things that others missed, ignored, or didn’t have the courage to try.  In one story, a complete stranger approached a mother and child telling them to run after him when he gave them a signal.  Perhaps a twist of fate placed that opportunity before them.  But, it was their internal spark that moved them to act on that opportunity when others might have been too afraid of the risk.  Survivors constantly sought a way past the next hurdle and didn't let an opportunity slip by.
Live with purpose
Third, create a purpose for yourself and others – Even today you can tell that each survivor lives life with purpose and meaning.  For some that purpose has changed since their experience in the Holocaust.  But, it is unmistakable.   In the past few years the business world has become filled with advice and articles on “employee engagement”.  Yet, after meeting these survivors, I realize that we don’t really understand what engagement is anymore.  We consider a person who is willing to do a good day’s work for a fair day’s pay as engaged.   Go hear a survivor speak.  Listen to what they say and how they say it.  Watch them.  Analyze how they view (or viewed) the world.  You will leave with a new definition and appreciation of engagement. 
Hold fast to what matters, compromise on the rest
The fourth lesson is about mental agility. Survivors knew which of their expectations to compromise on and which to hold fast.  This allowed them to recalibrate what was "normal" in a world that lost all sense of what was right.  By reframing their expectations they were able to create small successes on a daily basis which gave them the extra energy needed to look ahead to the next day.  Just as today, people who held too tightly to standard definitions had difficulty adapting.  But the Survivors didn't compromise on all of their expectations.  They maintained a clear line on the meaning of humanity, life, and purpose.  Lowering some expectations allowed them to adapt and achieve success, while maintaining the important ones drove their sense of purpose and longevity.
Be self-reliant while supporting your community
Finally, the Survivors understood their role in a broader community but also relied first and foremost on themselves.  They created their own opportunities.  They didn't wait for a handout.  Yet, many of the most touching stories were of people who, despite their own starvation, broke the scrap of bread that they found into as many pieces as possible so that all could share.  This reliance on self integrated with contribution to community provided these people with strength, even when they didn't personally have any left.
Not surprisingly, many of the Survivors that I met and heard from achieved great personal or professional success after the Holocaust.  It wasn't easy.  Many restarted their lives with absolutely nothing.  Their will and passion for life combined with the ingenuity, determination, and ability to overcome adversity must have made navigating the "regular" world somewhat trivial.
No workshop or book will ever provide better lessons than what I learned from listening to these extraordinary people.  Of course, I realize that it wasn't knowledge or skill that enabled these people to do what they did.  It took a spark deep inside of each of them.  You can't build or buy that spark.  But, if you are lucky, perhaps you can capture some of the energy from those who have it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Trusted advisors don’t interview, they discuss

Achieving trusted advisor status is a primary goal of many leaders. Whether that status is with internal business partners, senior leaders, or customers, leaders don’t want to be seen simply as order takers.  Instead they want to be viewed as a valuable resource in the other person’s decision making process.

Having the wrong type of conversation is one of the biggest mistakes leaders make in trying to become a trusted advisor.  I recently observed a group of business consultants working with a client.  The consultants were trying to help the client improve his people’s performance on a specific issue.  What struck me about the interaction was that it didn’t sound like a conversation.  It sounded like an interview.  The consultants would ask a question, the client would answer. The consultants would then ask the next question on their list or ask for a clarification of the prior answer.  It was mostly a one-way conversation with the client doing most of the heavy lifting.  The process appeared smooth and efficient but it didn’t feel natural. More importantly, it didn’t provide the information or results the consultants needed.  In many cases, the client wasn’t quite sure what to answer.

Often an individual who is facing a problem doesn’t have it fully defined.  Asking good questions can certainly help the person clarify his or her issue.  However, sometimes people simply haven’t thought through the problem well enough to have an answer.

For many people, reacting to an idea or statement is often easier than generating one from scratch.  A good trusted advisor should use a combination of questions, observations, stories, and examples to help facilitate a discussion.  Not only will that help the other person organize and clarify his or her thoughts, it will make the conversation feel much more natural. 

Trusted advisors don’t interview their clients.  Instead they participate in a deep conversation about the client’s business problem.  Listening and understanding should be the primary goal and there is nothing wrong with asking questions.  However, a conversation should be a two-way dialog.  The trusted advisor should be adding to the discussion, not just taking down information from the client.

When you think about the best talk show hosts or interviewers on radio or television, you’ll notice that they don’t actually interview their guests (other than perhaps James Lipton who has mastered the interview).  Most of them carry on a two way conversation.  They use questions during that conversation but they also offer their own insights and observations along the way.  This helps to keep the conversation flowing and often opens up new areas to explore and discuss.  It also makes the interaction more natural and interesting.

If you want to be a trusted advisor, stop interviewing your clients and instead talk with them.  Don’t dominate the conversation – your goal is still to listen and understand. However, help them make sense of their situation by giving them things to think about, compare against, and react.  Not only will that help make the conversation flow, it will help you demonstrate your expertise.  Asking a series of rote questions isn’t particularly hard.  Synthesizing someone’s statements and pulling up a story or example to help clarify those statements demonstrates mastery.

Here are a few tips for shifting from an interview to a discussion:

·         Relate what you are hearing to another client or experience you’ve had
·         Extend what you are hearing by discussing research, articles, or other things that you’ve read on the topic
·         Help the client organize his or her thoughts by providing a model or framework (e.g., “Generally these types of problems fall into one of three categories . . .”)
·         Keep an open mind – you’re not trying to convince your client that your ideas are right, you are just giving him or her something upon which to react
·         Don’t be afraid of being wrong.  It’s ok to be wrong when making sense of what your client is saying.  You are testing your assumptions.  Your client will correct you and will also clarify the issue better for him or herself.  They will also appreciate the fact that you are trying to make sense of the situation. 
People don’t like to be interviewed.  It puts them on the spot, creates risk, and can even be perceived as being confrontational.  People like engaging in conversations.  Our brains work better when reacting and making sense of things in context.  Conversation and dialog provide context, discrete questions remove context.

A trusted advisor's value isn't just based upon helping a client determine the best solution. Sometimes the value is in helping that client better understand his or her problem.  

Try to shift from conducting interviews to engaging in discussions.  In doing so, you’ll learn more, make better recommendations, increase buy-in, and ultimately create a better relationship.


Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Maybe we shouldn’t ease people into change

In the episode “Slap Bet” on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson loses a bet.  As implied by the name, the winner of the slap bet gets to slap the loser across the face.  Barney is given a choice. He can take ten slaps immediately or five random slaps sometime in the future. Barney’s friend Ted urges him to take the ten immediate slaps.  He thinks that Barney would be better off getting it over rather than living with the constant fear of being slapped.  Barney chooses the five slaps. Who made the right call? Barney or Ted?  From the way that many organizations handle change management, it would seem that Barney reflects conventional wisdom.  We often ease people into change believing that it is easier for them to adjust.  Yet, research shows that perhaps Ted is on to something.  Given that change management is an attempt to help people through the pain of a change, this research is worth considering.

In a recent HBR article[1], Giles Story explains that the anticipation of pain may actually be worse than the pain itself.  In Dr. Story’s experiment, participants were given the choice of receiving an immediate strong shock (sensation of an insect sting) or a more mild shock (tingling sensation) after a waiting period.  70% of the participants opted for the more immediate shock, even though it was more painful.  Dr.Story concludes

“We infer from this that dread – the anticipation of negative outcomes – is a powerful force . . . And we think these findings show that dread is so painful that people will pay a significant price, in the form of more physical pain, to avoid it.”

Giles Story isn’t the only one whose research suggests that people might be better off getting the pain out of the way early.  Researchers Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis found a similar result in their research[2] on adaptability. They subjected three groups of participants to loud, unpleasant (and uncomfortable) recordings of vacuum cleaners. 

·         Group 1: five seconds of noise
·         Group 2: forty seconds of noise
·         Group 3: forty seconds of noise, followed by a few seconds of silence and then five more seconds of noise

They then asked the participants to rate their level of annoyance during the last five seconds of their experience.  The people who only listened for five seconds had the highest level of annoyance.  The people who listened for forty seconds were least annoyed. Those who had a break and then returned to the sound had a level of annoyance similar to those who only listened for five seconds.  Breaking up the experience made it worse, not better.

Then, they ran a second experiment to understand people’s beliefs about how they respond to pain. They asked a different group to predict how they thought they would feel in the three situations with the vacuum noises (they did not actually run the experiment with them).  Consistent with conventional wisdom, the people predicted that they would be the most uncomfortable with the longer experience.

Nelson and Meyvis concluded:

“These results indicate that though people want to break up negative experiences, this is not always a wise decision. Whereas listening to the noise for an extended period made the noise less aversive, inserting a break made the noise just as aversive as it had been initially, suggesting that the break disrupted the adaptation process.”

Breaking up negative experiences can actually increase their negative impact. This tends to counter the common assumption that it’s best to dole out the pain in small doses. 

These experiments dealt with physical pain.  However, experiments have shown that social pain (the feeling of being left out) registers in the same part of the brain as physical pain[3].  Therefore, it's easy to see how we'd react similarly during times of change or duress.  I’ve often found that the anticipation of a difficult conversation or unappealing event is often worse than the actual conversation or event.

Conventional wisdom tells us that it’s best to ease people into change.  However, research suggests that people are much more nimble and adaptable than we (or they) may think.  Consider that when planning you next change program.  Sometimes it’s easier to absorb a quick slap in the face than it is to wait for a softer hit later on.

Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com.




[1] Berinato, Scott, and Giles Story. "Anticipating change is worse than feeling it." Harvard Business Review Mar. 2014: 30-31. Print.
[2] Nelson, Leif D. and Meyvis, Tom, Interrupted Consumption: Disrupting Adaptation to Hedonic Experiences (December 2008). Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, pp. 654-664, December 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=946210
[3] Van Hecke, Madeleine L., Lisa P. Callahan, Brad Kolar, and Ken A. Paller. "Chapter 6: Ouch! You Left Me Out." The brain advantage: become a more effective business leader using the latest brain research. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2010. 67-76. Print.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Beware of labels posing as numbers

Quick math test.  What is the percentage increase between “Strongly Agree” and “Agree”?  How much more is “Very often” compared with “Neutral”?  Is “Always” five times better than "Never”?

You can't answer, can you?  You can’t do math on labels.  They aren’t quantities.  We all know that.  Yet, at one time or another, most of us probably have.  That's because sometimes labels look like numbers and that creates confusion.

We often use numbers as short-hand for labels.  This is very common on surveys.  One equals “Strongly disagree”, two equals “Disagree” and so on.  When it comes time to summarize the data, we forget that those “numbers” aren’t really numbers and start running calculations on them.  The answers look real and sound real but they are not real.

The problem is that the distance between points on a non-numeric continuum is not equal.  The difference between agreeing and strongly agreeing with something can be much greater than the difference between being neutral and agreeing.  The difference between never and rarely is not the same as the difference between rarely and sometimes.  Yet, if each of those sets of responses were just one “number” apart, they’d be treated equally in your calculations.  

Anyone who works with employee or customer satisfaction knows that there is almost always a diminishing return.  At some point, increasing your score by even one tenth becomes quite difficult.  Those diminishing returns also don't get reflected in your calculations.

Performing standard calculations on numeric-labels won't completely mislead you.  If more people choose “five” in one instance compared to another and you take an average, the statistics will reflect that increase.

However, you won’t be getting a clear picture.  The change from 1 to 2 is 100%.  However, a person who has switched from being completely dissatisfied to just dissatisfied isn’t really 100% more satisfied.  Depending on where you start, moving 20% of your people from a state of being neutral (3) to being satisfied (4) could result in a change to the average satisfaction score of less than 5%.  That's pretty misleading (although that has as much to do with the limitations of using averages as it does with doing calculations on numeric labels).

The picture is further distorted because in numeric calculations higher numbers carry more weight. Therefore, as you move up a "numeric" scale, each incremental change counts for less since the denominator is increasing.  Going from 1 to 2 is a 100% change but going from 4 to 5 is only a 25% change.  While that makes perfect sense mathematically, it doesn’t make sense when you are dealing with categories.  Moving from four to five is actually much harder than moving from one to two but statistically you’d get less “credit”.

The biggest problem in running calculations on numeric labels is that it creates a false illusion of precision and understanding.  The number 4.24 is very precise. The difference between 4.24 and 4.63 millimeters could be the difference between life and death in a surgical procedure.  However, it's much less clear what 4.24 units of agreement look like as compared to 4.63 units of agreement.  Agreement is a concept not a unit of measure.

This illusion builds upon itself as more calculations are done.  Averages get compared and differences are reported to the hundredths place.  That causes us to believe that we are privy to the most subtle changes that exist in our organizations.  What does a decrease of .17 units of agreement really mean?  It means that there is a little less agreement.  But "a little less" is not very precise.  It's definitely not as precise as .17 implies.

Finally, the illusion is cemented in our minds when the calculations are subject to tests of statistical significance.  The magic "statistically significant" asterisk that is attached to a number creates a false perception of scientific validity and rigor in the analysis. The significance calculations themselves are rigorous. It's the subject matter upon which they are based that is not. You can get useful information from numeric labels but that information is much rougher and more general than your statistics will lead you to believe.

Numeric labels are not numbers.  They should not be treated like numbers.  Instead, work with them the same way that you would with any set of categorical data.  Use frequencies and distributions (that’s actually not a bad idea to do anyway, even with real numeric data).  That will give you a much more accurate understanding of what is happening with your data.

You can’t perform math on a label.  Don’t get confused by labels masquerading as numbers. If you do, you might miss an important part of the picture.


Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at brad.kolar@kolarassociates.com