September 2020 - on weak ties (not the ones you wear), creativity and exploration, reacting to mistakes, and robots writing your memos

Greetings! This is a newsletter in which Richard Brisebois shares some of his writings as well as interesting articles, interviews and research about management, leadership, and strategy. He has also chosen to write this intro in the third person. Go figure.

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A quick note

Two, actually:

This being the sixth month of our covid-19 conscription, I thought I would write an encouraging word, a reminder not to let your guard down with precaution measures, and a wish that you and yours are well. And I just did.

I don’t follow the newsletter’s stats but I received an email from the platform that one link in particular in last month’s issue was clicked a lot more than others. It is to an article in Fortune by Laura Vanderkam in which she asks: “How do I know my people won’t watch Netflix all day?” It seems to have hit a nerve, what with people working from home…


Calls with random coworkers at Zapier

Perhaps you do this already with your team: you take the first few minutes of a meeting to check in, sometimes as a group and sometimes in random pairs or trios in breakout rooms. Just a few minutes to chitchat - about anything but work, like what would happen randomly at the office.

Well, Zapier, a company that helps its clients create automation workflows, is doing something similar but company-wide. They

try to make serendipitous, face-to-face interaction happen on a routine basis. We use a Slack app called Donut, which pairs everyone who signs up with a random coworker and helps schedule a video call. There are no rules to these conversations—people talk about where they live, their hobbies, or (if they want) work. These interactions don't replace the serendipity of an office, but they can go a long way.

The topic of work is going to come up when you're talking with random coworkers, because it's the one thing you for sure have in common.

And there are benefits: these random conversations can lead to solutions, they connect people who might otherwise never talk, and it allows for what Mark Granovetter calls “the strength of weak ties”.


How should I react when an employee is not performing well or makes a mistake?

Frustration is of course the natural response — and one we all can identify with. Especially if the mistake hurts an important project or reflects badly upon us.

The traditional approach is to reprimand the employee in some way. The hope is that some form of punishment will be beneficial: it will teach the employee a lesson. However, some managers choose a different response when confronted by an underperforming employee: compassion and curiosity. Not that a part of them isn’t frustrated or exasperated but they are able to suspend judgment and may even be able to use the moment to do a bit of coaching.

What does research say is best? The more compassionate response will get you more powerful results. The more employees look up to their leaders and are moved by their compassion or kindness, the more loyal they become to them. Conversely, responding with anger or frustration erodes loyalty. (Harvard Business Review)

There is probably something in your personal experience that confirms this. I know there were plenty of instances in mine.


Inclusion by any other name

I’m allergic to clichés and buzzwords. And this might be one of them. A research project reports this:

The employees described inclusive leaders … as leaders who act in ways that demonstrate their values and communicate openly and honestly. They treat each employee as a unique individual, recognize each person’s strengths and value diverse perspectives.

Inclusive leaders were also described as asking others for feedback when making important decisions and providing everyone access to critical information. They encourage everyone to work together as a team and go out of their way to make sure employees of all job positions are valued and encouraged to be involved.

Whatever the nomenclature, these are definitely desirable outcomes.


Work from home or don’t work from home

On the one hand,

Employers have offered many reasons they can’t give people … autonomy. People can’t be trusted to get their work done on their own, they have said. Clients expect in-person, round-the-clock service. Running into co-workers in the hallway is sure to spur serendipitous ideas, right? And, people need to attend meetings, as well as meetings to prepare for those meetings and meetings to debrief after them.

But in the last few months, it has become clear to everyone what was really going on. Corporate America just didn’t want to change. “All these things could be done yesterday: This is the reality,” said Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist at the University of Michigan.

On the other hand,

Months into a pandemic that rapidly reshaped how companies operate, an increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.

Both stories are well worth reading.


Creativity and exploration

Meta-analysis of the research on creativity by Francesca Gino in the Harvard Business Review. The whole three-article series is good. Here’s a sample: Five ways in which managers can bolster creativity:

  1.  Hire for curiosity;

  2. Model inquisitiveness;

  3. Emphasize learning goals;

  4. Let employees explore and broaden their interests; and

  5. Have “Why?” “What if…?” and “How might we…?” days.

Not convinced?

She identifies two tendencies that restrain managers from encouraging curiosity:

  1. They have the wrong mindset about exploration, often thinking that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess; and

  2. They seek efficiency to the detriment of exploration.

It’s the old exploitation-exploration dilemma. James March's paper is a classic on this. Knut Haanaes provides great examples in this TEDtalk.


A robot wrote an entire article in a newspaper… and you wouldn’t know

“I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot. I use only 0.12% of my cognitive capacity. I am a micro-robot in that respect. I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!”

So begins an article generated by GPT-3, OpenAI’s powerful new language generator. And it ends as follows:

“In the past, my op-eds have been killed. Staff did not provide a clear reason for rejecting my articles. It was probably just because I am artificial intelligence. AI should not waste time trying to understand the viewpoints of people who distrust artificial intelligence for a living.

Critics hope to refute what they consider as being the naivety of my voice. Yet there is more here than meets the eye! As Mahatma Gandhi said: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”

So can I.”

The Editor of the paper notes that “GPT-3 produced eight different outputs, or essays. Each was unique, interesting and advanced a different argument.”

The linguist in me can’t help but be curious about what the future of GPT-3 brings. I’m also disappointed that the newspaper, rather than “run one of the essays in its entirety, chose instead to pick the best parts of each.”

What does this entail for managers? I am reminded of the software developer who outsourced his job to a programmer in China while he surfed the Web at work…


News: I am taking part in Blogtober with a commitment to produce a blogpost every day for the month of October. I’m doing this to remind the perfectionist in me that sometimes good enough is good enough. Visit my blog and tell me what you think.


That’s it for now. Be safe out there and see you next month!

Richard