Leadership and dogs look very different worlds with few common points. Well, they are certainly different things. Leadership is a very serious thing and training a dog has little to do with leading a person but, is there anything that dogs can teach us about leadership? Do dogs behave at a certain point like humans? The answer is YES. So, what lessons can we learn from dogs about leadership?
1. Give immediate feedback: Dogs can only associate an action and its consequence if one comes immediately after the other (no more than 5 seconds delay). This is the way they learn, through a mechanism called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning also works for humans. It is true that humans can associate more distant cause and effect relationships, but only at a certain point. The more immediate the feedback, the higher effect you’ll get.
- Tip for humans: Dogs don’t mind if they are corrected in public, but people prefer receiving negative feedback in private.
2. Be consistent: You can drive a dog crazy if the same action triggers a very different consequence: “chewing” on their toys is great but “chewing” on your shoes is wrong. It is difficult for them to understand why the same thing (“chewing”) drives such a different behaviors on us. We must help them perceive the small differences that make each situation unique. Humans are more intelligent and capable of seeing “these little things” that can completely change the circumstances, but we need anyway a consistent response to our actions. If receiving feedback is welcome today and makes you mad tomorrow, nobody will know how to work with you.
3. Don’t punish, reward: Dogs can learn using punishment, but learning is more fun, lasts longer and creates less frustration if you use rewards. Punishment must be the very last resource and is acceptable only if the life of the dog is at risk. The same applies to humans.
4. Teaching takes time and patience: A teaching session with a dog needs preparation (environment, tricks), time (patience, calm), a clear definition of success and persistence (repetition with progressive difficulty). People needs pretty much the same things:
- have a clear training goal: define the purpose
- prepare the session: what do you need?
- patience and time: things generally don’t work the first time
- frequent repetition setting the bar higher each time
Our brain works in a way that helps us understand the world quickly. We are good at finding patterns, applying proved solutions and learning from experience. Our brain and the way it thinks is an evolutionary advantage that has made us progress. However, sometimes the way it functions is a problem. Innovation is one of those moments. Let’s see an example:
In this picture we find two very different tasks from our brain’s point of view:
- The left column shows a task our brain LOVES doing: finding a pattern in mispelled words. Past experience and known solutions work great here, piece of cake for our brain.
- The right column shows a task our brain HATES: reading the word’s color instead of reading the written word. Past experience does not work here; even worse, past experience is a wrong solution. Our brain has to do things differently, which is tiring and frustrating. Unfortunately, innovation work must be disruptive and, therefore, looks pretty much like this type of task.
Our brain likes “doing the same things the way we have always done them”. This is called psychological inertia. Innovation needs disruptive thinking, which does not get along well with psychological inertia. This mental inertia prevents us from seeing unconventional solutions and is a great obstacle for breakthrough results. It is a wall between business as usual and innovation.
Experts define 3 main types of mental presumptions:
- Functional fixedness: Tendency to perceive an object as having a specific function, leading to inability to imagine new possibilities (e.g. a brick is used for building houses, but it can’t be used as a flower pot)
- Structural fixedness: Tendency to view objects as a whole. It makes difficult to imagine how the product could be reorganized differently (e.g. a regular bike vs. a folding bike)
- Relational fixedness: Tendency to view relationships and dependencies of a product or situation as static and permanent. One overlooks the possibilities of changing these dependencies to create new configurations (e.g. a rain umbrella used as a beach umbrella)
Combined with “Ideal Final Result” techniques (learn more here), innovation work benefits incredibly if we actively try to overcome the psychological inertia of our development team. The typical process is:
- Discuss the innovation challenge with the team.
- As a team, list the assumptions about the product of service that the team is analyzing (e.g. bricks are for building houses, cars need a park place…). This will create consciousness about our presumptions and prejudices.
- Challenge assumptions: think how can I eliminate the barriers, contradictions and limitations. Choose a “HCI” (how can I) or “WI” (what if) question and think how to eliminate the problem (e.g. how can I use bricks if building a house is not an option? How can I eliminate the need of a park place?)
This mental exercise can be very powerful. It opens our mind making obvious our assumptions and prejudices, and prepares our brain for the fight against standard solutions. Maybe, who knows, you will never look at your product / service in the same way.
Picture from: www.psychologyconcepts.com
Innovation is more important than you think, even if you are a well-established Fortune 500 company. According to Eric Ries (The Lean Startup) “creating an innovation factory, a group of people who create disruptive innovation on a continuous basis, is probably the only sustainable path to long-term growth”.
Clayton Christensen (The innovator’s dilemma) has described 2 types of innovation:
- Sustaining innovation: incremental improvement to existing products and serving existing customers.
- Disruptive innovation: breakthrough new products.
Yes, only disruptive innovation generates new sources of growth. Bad news is that many big companies are great at sustaining innovation but poor performers at disruptive innovation. That’s why 60% of the companies fail jumping into the next generation and disappear after the first technology revolution (learn more here).
Innovation needs a) a management process and b) the correct environment. The innovation management process must focus on learning and is very different from general management techniques, which focus on execution (i. e. doing things on time and on budget). Facilitating and cultivating a learning environment is the responsibility of senior management (learn more here)
If both things are present (correct management processes and a great environment) more ideas are tested, learning cycles are shorter and the probability of innovation increases exponentially. Using Scott Cook’s words, we convert politicians into entrepreneurs:
When you have only one test, you don’t have entrepreneurs, you have politicians, because you have to sell. Out of a hundred good ideas, you have to sell your idea. So you build up a society of politicians and salespeople. When you have five hundred tests you are running, then everybody’s ideas can run. And then you create entrepreneurs who run and learn and can retest and relearn as opposed to a society of politicians.
Scott Cook, Intuit chairman, via The Lean Startup
It is almost impossible to overemphasize the effect of environment in innovation. Yes, some people have that special thing that makes them incredibly creative, but even the most talented team will fail if it is surrounded by risk aversion and fear to failure. The good news is that the opposite is also true, everybody has creative potential if the environment is favorable.
There are 3 main environmental states:
- Unfavorable environment: Only results matter. The motto is “if you fail, you’re fired”.
- Neutral environment: Failure is accepted. The motto is “it’s okay to make mistakes”.
- Favorable environment: Trial and error to maximize learning. The motto is “use all available opportunities to learn”
Experts say that innovation is “the effective implementation of new ideas for simple solutions to address relevant customer needs in order to generate value“. Innovation and Lean are different things, but they like working together. Innovative thinking is a common building block of Lean work. Additionally, lean tools can be used or adapted for creative thinking and innovation. In fact, there are very interesting initiatives going on working in the relationship between Lean and new product design (like Lean Startup by Eric Ries, http://theleanstartup.com/) or generating new business models (like Strategyzer by Alex Osterwalder, Tecnhttps://strategyzer.com/). Some might think that “innovation just happens”: new ideas show up suddenly generated by that limited group of people who are good at inventing new things. Well, there is some truth here (creative thinking is not 100% controllable, some people are more skilled than others) but there are many factors to consider that affect innovation:
- The S-Curve of innovation
- Innovation is not linear
- It is key to understand customer needs
- The importance of the environment
- The importance of execution
- It is all about the process
Innovation means “jumping the S-curve”. In other words, innovation is revolutionary, not evolutionary. New ideas and technology follow a performance/effort curve with an “S” shape. The first step is “experimentation” where a new success pattern emerges (“make it work”). After this, the “learning” phase (“increase efficiency”) shows a very rapid growth in performance and profit, apparently infinite. Suddenly, we reach the “maturity” phase (“minimize cost”) and performance stays constant or even declines . This is the moment to jump. True high-performance companies are able to jump repeatedly the S-curve, because before they reach the top of one “S-Curve” they are already getting ready for the next “S-Curve”. Research shows that 60% of the companies fail doing so and disappear after the first technology revolution.
Innovation follows a development pattern similar to PDCA. It starts understanding your customers needs, feeling their life with tools like interviews, focus groups, or the empathy map. We must always go to the gemba and see customers interact with the product or service we are studying. The process keeps going with the generation of innovative ideas (e.g. using SIT): create prototypes (something physical or not) and experiment with them to learn. These prototypes are often called Minimum Viable Product (MVP), defined by Eric Ries as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort“. Finally, connect with stakeholders to develop a business model (e.g. with a business model canvas) and validate assumptions (e.g. with a validation board). Now that you know more about your ideas, what things work and what things don’t (you will have many of these because approx. 99% of innovative ideas fail) it’s time to refine the prototype and start again if needed.
- The only important thing is the learning process, not the tools. “Learning” means understanding what the customer needs/likes/wants. The tools mentioned before are just suggestions: always use the tools and methods that work best for you. Experiment and learn.
- The process is not linear, so it is perfectly ok to move back and forth as many times as needed as long as you are learning.
- Your customer is the key part here. Understanding the customer and validating the prototype (MVP) is critical. Starting the idea generation phase without having understood the customer needs is a great and common error. Investing money in anything that has not been validated with the customer might be fatal.
It is important to keep in mind certain innovation killers that can make the difference between success and failure
- The environment: it is critical for innovation. Everybody fails the first time. We all need time, support and patience for some trial-and-error until we reach something that works. A place that encourages thinking differently and provides a safe place for testing-failing-learning has the highest probability of success.
- Implementing: Understanding the customer and generating ideas are important, but they are useless without robust implementation. The world is full of great ideas that fail because they are implemented wrong. Pay attention to business models and execute seriously.
- Talent and process: Innovating needs creativity AND a process. It is wrong to think that pure and simple talent is enough to make it work. Yes, talent is critical, but talented people helped by a great process will be unstoppable.
This is a summary of the post, enjoy!
What I like the most about PDCA is that it is practical and simple, what makes it ultimately sophisticated (thanks, Leo). Simple does not equal easy, the proof is that it took the mankind millenniums to develop the scientific method.
Check out this TED video called “build a tower, build a team” (aka “the marshmallow challenge”):
The video shows very important and not so evident ideas about thinking and developing new solutions: The most important are:
- Pure planning does not work well. The “Plan” phase of PDCA is very important, but not the most important (let’s say it is as important as the others). Planning without doing is useless. Planning without being prepared to fail and learn from the things that went wrong is naïve. Many people are trained to find the “single right solution” and then execute it. This is a wrong strategy (by the way, this is how many people think PDCA and DMAIC work. Wrong!)
- The value of prototyping: Prototype + Refine is a great strategy. Build something that works and then make it better, so that the development team gets continuous feedback about what works well and what does not. For this, of course, it is critical to know what is your marshmallow, this is, what is your goal or the critical customer need you want to meet. It is so common to find teams who don’t really know what they are doing…
- The importance of facilitation: The importance of the process! A development team with technical people and process people is a winning team. Diverse teams with different people of difference areas may move slower (not necessarily) but will definitely get further. The importance of people who can facilitate, organize and solve conflict is often underestimated.
- The effect of incentives: “Incentives + High skills” lead to success most of the times but high stakes with a low level of skills might be catastrophic: everybody panics and nothing gets done. Use incentives intelligently.
All these concepts apply to Lean thinking. It is basic to know your goal (your marshmallow), use prototyping (continuous improvement), create a diverse team (respect for people) and use incentives wisely. Keep this in mind and your probabilities of success will be higher.