HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2017

hbr.pngThe excellent collection overall has two interesting articles related to automation of knowledge work.  One of the articles emphasizes imperfections of algorithms and another one suggests strategies for humans when AI is able to perform some of their tasks.

(Based on my experience in marketing, marketing automation did not reduce the demand for knowledge workers, but rather expanded the “knowledge” required to be a marketer.  Though companies thought initially that they will need less marketers with the advent of automation, this assumption was incorrect.  The automation allowed more knowledgeable people to achieve better results, but the minimum number of people  and minimum amount of knowledge to realize any ROI on automation actually increased.)

Algorithms Need Managers, Too

The article suggests that however sophisticated, algorithms are literal, require very precise instruction and understanding of their limitations.  The typical example is giving the instruction to an AI to “save the Earth,” which will proceed with an attempt on elimination of humans as the most reasonable method of achieving the objective.

Example: a predictive algorithm was selecting products that can be purchased in China and re-sold in US.  The program worked well until customers started to return the products.  Long-term product satisfaction was not built into the process.

Example: algorithm can predict clicking on an add, but the required result is a sale; optimization on the click will generate more activity, but may not generate revenue.

Example: Netflix predictive algorithm for DVD rentals did not apply to video streaming.

Also remember that correlation still doesn’t mean causation. Suppose that an algorithm predicts that short tweets will get re-tweeted more often than longer ones.  This does not in any way suggests that you should shorten your tweets.  This is a prediction, not advice.  It works as a prediction because there are many other factors that correlate with sort tweets that make them effective.  This is also why it fails as advice: shortening your tweets will not necessarily change those other factors.

Beyond Automation

The article ponders the future of AI replacing some of the knowledge worker’s tasks, and what knowledge workers could do:

  • Step up (strategy)
  • Step aside (area that requires human interaction)
  • Step in (work with algorithms – what might be a default “augmentation” approach)
  • Step narrowly (area within profession that is unlikely to be automated)
  • Step forward (create next generation of AI)


How Indra Nooyi Turned Design Thinking into Strategy (Pepsi)

The article explains very well “design thinking” on easily understandable examples of Pepsi.

Interesting: Pepsi also uses a variation of “reverse innovation” – launching a product in smaller market (outside of its home US market), where cost of failure is acceptable.

Interesting: Pepsi calls healthy products “good for you,” and products that do not fall into this category “fun for you.”


Every morning you’ve got to wake up with a healthy fear that the wold is changing, and a convection that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else.

People Before Strategy

Discussion of people should come before discussion of strategy.  What are employees’ capabilities, what help might they need, and are they the very best?

Interesting… 🙂

Book – The Coaching Habit

Coaching-Habit.pngVery useful book!  The author suggests that we rush into an advice too quickly, don’t have enough time for what, ultimately, is more effective – coaching.  Luckily, there is a coaching method that is reasonably fast and simple (though not easy), and this method is based on asking questions rather than giving answers.  Considering that giving answers is a…  habit; we can form a different habit of asking questions.

Another interesting concept is a difference between coaching for performance and coaching for development.

The book recommends several questions to ask as part of the coaching approach:

  • What’s on your mind?

The question can lead to issues around Projects, People, or Patterns (habitual behaviors of the person who is answering the question).

  • And what else?

This question allows to deepen the understanding of the problem and avoid a temptation to immediately give advice.

  • What’s the real challenge here for you?

This question brings focus to the situation that might be moving to a very general conversation.

  • But what do you really want?

A person might not be able to answer immediately; the question allows to understand “a need behind a want.”

  • What do you want from me?

The question allows understanding the issue better before jumping into the advice. Might use “Out of curiosity…”,   “Just so I know…”, “To help me understand better…”

  • If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

This is “strategic question,” as a decision to devote resources to one initiative need to also reduce resources to other initiatives.

  • What was most useful for you?

A “learning question” – allows reflecting and finding the most useful information from the conversation.

I think at least some of the questions can be used for project conversations as successfully.  No matter the improvement objective, a good question will help understand the situation and perspective of the other person better… and avoid jumping into “advice mode.”

More interesting materials at Coaching Habits Videos

Ted: Margaret Heffernan: Why it’s time to forget the pecking order at work

This is one of remarkable Ted talks that I listened more than twice, and tried to share with everybody.  It points out that the current “way” is ineffective, even it is current, most commonly used, and considered necessary.  And it is ineffective…

What makes some groups more productive and more successful than others? Based on an experiment, high achieving groups in the experiment are not groups that have people with highest IQ, or more people with IQ higher than average. The most successful teams had 3 characteristics:

  • High degree of social sensitivity to each other (empathy test)
  • Successful groups gave roughly equal time to each other (no dominant members)
  • Successful groups had move women 😉  (could be result of higher empathy or diversity)

Culture of helpfulness can be the base for the company’s success.  “Helpfulness routinely outperforms individual intelligence.”

Helpfulness is not a technology issue – it is people knowing each other.  to achieve that, some company ban coffee cups at the desks, because they want people to gather at the coffee machines and talk to each other.

bookOne company synchronized coffee breaks so that people can talk to each other at the same time…  profits went up $15,000,000;  employee satisfaction went up 10%.

Margaret Heffernan also wrote the book on the topic: Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes (TED Books), which is available in printed and audible format.  I am looking forward to enjoying the book sometime soon 🙂

Book – Bringing Out The Best in People

Bringing-out-the-bestThe book describes the power of positive reinforcement as a management technique.

One of the most colorful examples from the book is the uselessness of a “sandwich.”  A criticism “between” two positive messages does not do much beyond confusing the employee and generally sending a negative message.  Better approach is two separate messages, one positive and one negative, separated in time.

sandwitchPositive reinforcement should be frequent and come after the desired behavior.  “Employee of the month” and other types of infrequent phrase are not as effective in reinforcing desired behavior.

Interesting “management by objective” critique

A company promoted one person to the position of the plant manager and the plant improved…  Then the company moved this person to a different plant, and the new plant also improved.  Then, the company brought the person to the larger plant and discovered that there was no improvement and the person himself seemed to be disorganized.  The company asked the book’s author why would it be, have something happened with the person?  The author asked what exactly the person did to improve first two plants, but the company did not know…  Maybe the person did exactly the same with the third plant?  Sometimes improvements happen independently from actions.

Interesting point about team structure

teamTeam structure is not needed for teamwork.  Team is not always better than an individual – if the team has one expert, the team structure could just dilute the work of the expert.  However, teamwork is effective, and required reinforcement of cooperative, rather than competitive behavior.

Book summary from a consulting company blog

Book – Who: The A Method for Hiring

whoVery thoughtful book with excellent examples and an explanation of the hiring process.  The “typical” hiring process (or lack of process) is compared with an “evidence based” process, which produces better result – less hiring mistakes.

The most interesting point from my perspective, is the need for the organization to understand what problem is it trying to solve with the new hire.  I watched many times how people were hired or moved to undefined positions and the consequences for the business.

The book is trying to help managers to solve two errors: hiring people who can not do the desired job, or hiring a person who can do the job, but it is not what the company needs.

resumeExample:  an employee was hired without good understanding of his capabilities, the company “hired a resume, but got a different person.”  A resume is a record of exaggerated successes with all failures removed.

Example: a company hired an additional business development manager, who was very successful in generating new business.  However, the company had a backlog, and needed an operations person to clear our the backlog.  When a good operations person was hired, the issue disappeared.

Example: the author advising to the company on the hiring derision asked to define the job, what resulted in a 20 minutes argument between the hiring manager and other involved parties.  After the argument the company realized that it needs to understand what was needed before proceeding with candidate interviews.

An excellent review of the book and the method described is published by The New Talent Times with additional steps this company made to adjust the method for its business.

Book – Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst

good-boss-bad-bossVery insightful book.  Beside general approach and perspective, the book also has many very specific and useful examples.  The main point of the book is difference that good management can do in employee’s well-being and company’s performance. Swedish study determined that employees who had good managers were healthier in general and had less heart attacks than employees who reported to a “bad boss.”

Harm of competition within the organization:

A group of engineers were responsible for generating innovative ideas.  The meetings were noisy, argumentative, and a number of innovative ideas were routinely generated.  the new manager decided to increase competition among the engineers and introduced an intensive for individuals.  Under the new brainstormrule, the individuals whose ideas were implemented received bonus for their individual contribution.  The atmosphere immediately changed.  The engineers stopped sharing their ideas and bounce them from each other.  Though they never cared before who was the author the idea listed on the board, now all ideas had a name attached to them. The number of ideas generated shrink dramatically.   After one brainstorming session where most of the time were spent on argument of who generated the idea between two engineers and a manager rather than the ideas themselves, the manager removed the individual incentive system.  The engineers were happy to see the change, and gradually, the number of ideas increased to the previous level.

The damage of forced ranking system (rank and yank) could be somewhat reduced if cooperation with others is included into the requirement of good performance.

Managing more knowledgeable employees:

In many situation of modern workplace, a manager has a team of employees who are more knowledgeable than the boos in the areas of their expertise.  (Ha ha – this is my permanent situation 🙂  ).  The manager should learn and delegate, and be very careful with decisions.

Medtronic CEO, who came from a different industry, spent first 9 months on the job learning the products, talking with customers, etc. Even after that period of learning, he deferred the decisions to specialists.  The company grew significantly during the CEO’s tenure.

Employee appreciation:

happy-employeeOne university dean had to deal routinely with faculty members requesting more money and threatening to move to another school.  The dean developed an effective approach to the situation: he would start from explaining how much the faculty member was valued by the school and respected by colleagues before considering the money questions.  In most situations the money was not that important.

Communicating bad news:

Any bad news need to be communicated with understanding and compassion.  One fired executive happily hired an HR management that handled the firing as an HR head of his new company.

Clear communication is necessary – stating that no layoffs are coming in the next 6 months, or even three months, is a significant relief for nervous employees,  as they can relax during that period of time and be more productive.

interruptionThe danger of interruptions:

It takes a knowledge worker 25 minutes to recover from an interruption. Manager’s job is to shield the team from interruptions to allow the team to be more productive and relaxed.

Chapter-by-chapter book review – an excellent source.


Book – Becoming a Better Boss

boss-bookVery insightful book.  The author compares management to dieting – something everybody knows how to do, but not many people are willing or able to invest enough efforts to see any significant result. Good management is against our nature as …  preference for a good diet 🙂

The general insight (as from the “Managing the company of the future” class), is the importance of capitalizing on potential of the employees, and recognizing this potential. an interesting point in the book is tailoring the jobs to particular individuals.  Usually, companies create “generic” jobs that can be filled with a “generic” employee from a specific field of knowledge.  Would tailoring of a job be better?  How to replace the employee in case the employee decides to leave?  But, if the job is truly satisfying, the employee would most likely stay longer…

Interesting perspective on letting go and appreciation of employees: it is an “unnatural” state for people.  When the company is not doing well financially, there is a tendency for its managers to become more involved into day-to-day tasks of their teams…  what is not helping the company.

Interesting point: as the information dissemination becomes easier, the middle manager may not have a “job to do.”  What would this job be?  The coach and the person who help his team to succeed… The author points out that managers on temporary assignments do better job than in permanent roles – as permanent roles have an incentive to “justify” the manager’s position.

Interesting story: a manager of sales team tried to spend more time on individual coaching… instead of attending required meetings.  After several weeks of the effort, the manager’s satisfaction improved, the team’s satisfaction improved, and the results (sales) increased…