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Leadership

The Analytics Payoffs

For a lot of years I’ve been sharing a conclusion from decades of observing small group activity. I believe that when 5 or more people work together effectively on a challenge they bring the intellect of at least a genius to the work. It doesn’t matter if the group members are smart or high in an organization or what we believe is well-educated. I watched it for years and then put a measure to it.

Back when we used to have more time during training or planning or decision-making settings I used to administer a short quiz fashioned after the preliminary entrance exams for membership in Mensa, the society of genius-level IQ holders. I would do it as an intellectual warm-up. In order to determine if you could gain entry to Mensa you would need to score at least 7 out of 10 correct answers.

Every group, whether made up of corporate executives or hospital maintenance workers, to which I gave the test scored 7 or higher. Around half would score perfectly.

Today, the use of analytic techniques is proving my point. At the Wharton People Analytics Conference an interview published on Knowledge@Wharton cited Google’s head of HR Laszlo Bock who is an evangelist for the use of analytics in the field. Teams, when put together correctly, are at least geniuses.

The Wharton interview is full of useful bits of information. Make sure an employee being “on-boarded” meets their management on the first day. A person’s success at a company depends heavily on who they work for. A team IQ is often greater than the sum of the parts. A mix of introverts and extroverts along with norms of behavior make the most productive teams. Moneyball got it right and is at least partly responsible for the upsurge in the people analytics.

Surprisingly, the best firm on hiring, according to Wharton experts, is Teach for America. A not-for-profit that has embraced analytics in order to get better teachers in front of kids. But the organization also knows that they don’t know enough yet. That’s a good lesson for those of us who are futurists. Go with the best information you have but always doubt it and find even better ways of making good decisions.

The biggest question about the use of analytics overall? Why more top leaders are not embracing it. Whether it’s a lack of hubris or a fear that it might replace jobs it’s a baffling question but the condition exists. I hope for a change.

320px-DARPA_Big_Data
In almost all of my busiest industry niches there’s buzz about “Big Data.” Mostly buzz. Not much there, there yet. But it’s coming in a big way and the harbinger may be people measurement, especially help in hiring. Another observation I’ve made over the years of managing my own businesses was that a bad key person hiring (manager, salesperson, technician, creative talent) would cost at least 3-4 times their annual compensation. People analytics is proving it now.

While there’s more buzz about marketing analytics than anything else in the media my bet is on human resources as the place where the first major inroads will be for analytics in organizations.


The Drought and Farmer Viewpoints

It’s been almost two decades since I first worked with a bunch of smart farmers who lead their state associations for the corn and soybean commodities. I’ve learned their business, watched them navigate a series of farm legislations, try to wean themselves away from government subsidies, and then prosper as prices came up dramatically over the past five years.

This year I returned to the same gathering for a fresh class of state association leaders. I didn’t know quite what to expect in a severe, brutal drought. I talked with some producers who were not going to harvest much of a crop. A very few lucky farmers located further north in the country or in the relatively moist East are going to do extremely well. But even the unlucky were optimistic as one can only be when you put almost everything in your business on the line every year and throw yourself on the mercy of nature.

If you want to see an example of resilience listen to these men and women as they talk about their ground, the crops, and their plans for the future. Certainly crop insurance plays into the situation. But they firm their jaws, speak frankly about the risks, and when asked about another drought “event” (that’s the term they use) they become gravely contemplative.
“That would take us back to zero,” one farmer told me. Another said, “We could deal with that but we’re probably going to sit back and see how the winter reestablishes our moisture before we even decide to plant next year.” The implications are serious for food supplies, energy prices, global trade.

If the breadbasket of America was to see anything similar to the conditions that have ravaged Texas for almost a decade we might look at food security suddenly becoming a strategic concern. The executive branch might need to step into the farm situation instead of allowing Congress to continue to argue over food stamps for the poor instead of providing a safety net for the people who feed the country.

The Middle East and Us

Almost 3 months into the wave of unrest in the Middle East and we’re staring at events like a deer in headlights. It might be a good time to take stock of how events might play out.

The best case scenario for an American economic recovery, avoidance of inflation, and $6 gasoline?
Moderation. Ghadifi quietly leaves Libya. A compromise between the separatists and the former cabinet and military. Eqypt remains somewhat quiet and their military fulfills promises of Mubarak crony removals and elections.

But those two possibilities are far less than certain. I’d give them less than 40% probability right now. Libya’s important production of light sweet crude oil will come offline for some time. Today I passed my first sign for $5.00 gasoline in San Diego, CA.

The more troubling events could occur in Saudi Arabia. The mere fact that government troops are firing rubber bullets at crowds is chilling. Despite the royal family throwing billions at the less advantaged citizens the groundswell from the educated population could destabilize the largest exporter of oil in the world. Crux facts: there is a huge concentration of the Shia minority around the Saudi’s oil production and shipping locations. Just like Benghazi in Libya, it’s strategic.

So what?

Think
1979.

Oil prices spike to $200 or perhaps beyond.

Oh yeah, you might not have been born then or you are too young to remember. Lines around blocks at gas stations (and there were almost 3 times as many as we have today with a population half the size). Declaration of a national crisis. Rationing. Price controls. Gas cans in auto trunks. Third world stuff.

Then, in the years that followed, runaway inflation coupled with a recession and double-digit interest rates. I was running a business in a market with real resistance to price increases when my operating line of credit went to 22%. It’s one reason I never, ever again want to make payroll for more than 40 people.

Worse, the US government can’t absorb a huge spike in what it pays to service the debt. The dollar will be wiped away as the world’s reserve currency, capital will leave the country, and the 1930’s will repeat and potentially be even more catastrophic.

I’m not saying the scenario is likely. I think it is still less than 30% probable but that probability increases daily to the point where we want to think through implications and actions.

In a recent Twitter post I pointed out a NY Times article on a fellow who’s gone “off the grid” in Texas by living in the desert on solar and wind power and capturing rainfall for water. Funny thing is that it’s both one of the most read and most e-mailed articles on the publication at this writing.

More in the days and weeks ahead. Hope for moderation in the Middle East and some leadership in our country. This could become a perfect catalyst for us to take steps to begin resolving our financial, energy, and world dominance issues.

Not Your Average Feds

I spent an interesting and spirit-raising day with senior executives of the Social Security Administration recently. I delivered learning experiences on “Vigilant Leadership” – sessions on how to look into the future, forecast, prepare flexibly, and take action.

I work with federal agencies from time to time. GSA, NASA, and the National Credit Union Administration are all past clients. Federal agency leadership gets a lot of bad flack in the media, from legislators, and from the general public.

What I saw, heard, and experienced in Baltimore with their top tier of SSA professionals differs from what one sees and hears in the press. These are smart, imaginative, and well-informed managers. They’re some of the best I’ve seen in 25 years of doing this work.

When I’m doing an executive education seminar at least half the session time is interaction about the future. Whether it’s question and answer or small group activity this important part of a learning experience is approached differently by every group with which I work. In the SSA’s case the eagerness to tackle foresight, emerging issues, and inevitable challenges was some of the most keen I’ve ever seen. It was even more encouraging to see it come from these very senior groups that included the number two person in the agency.

The management is pragmatic and realistic. They know they’re administering a system under huge demographic and economic pressures. But they also recognize and are anticipating social change, generational differences in interaction, shifting workplace habits, privacy concerns, and the long term impact of current deficit spending.

I was impressed.

Vigilant Leadership

The single most valuable asset I see in an organization is a habit of foresight coupled with contemplation and tied directly to action.
If I rank the organizations I consult on their effectiveness, those that do all three of these do best overall. They generate more profits, have better looking balance sheets, attract investment, or serve their stakeholders the best.
I like to call it
vigilant leadership.”
What’s involved?
Vigilant leadership engages as many individuals as possible in an organization, and certainly all of the directors and senior management, in a discipline of looking ahead. That means staying abreast of events, being advised of emerging issues, recognizing “weak signals” of shifting environments, having depth of knowledge in areas specific to the organization’s strategy, and focusing particularly on long term thinking about what will affect the organization over a decade-or-longer time frame.
This is extraordinarily difficult for most organizations to achieve. Clients of mine have difficulty with it. I think it’s for several reasons.
One is the lack of a major
commitment to foresight. For example, with some of my financial service clients an environmental scanning piece developed by a national trade organization is distributed to the board in advance of the annual planning retreat. When I ask about what foresight process they’re using that’s the answer I get. A start, but not nearly enough.
Another difficulty is the governance structure and
expectations. I don’t believe organizations ask enough from their directors. Every organization’s director should be expected to be not only up to speed on the industry market as well as geographical or industry or product or service niches. They should be accountable for depth of knowledge in the much broader and higher impact developments in the economy, consumer behavior, emerging competition, and geopolitical forces.
A third barrier is the lack of discipline, time, and process for
contemplation. Retreats are for contemplation. Their very label presupposes getting away to do some thinking. They are for discussion certainly. But most of all they should be an immersion away from one’s typical environment in order to gain perspective and spend time in thought.
I find thought is rare in most retreat settings. There are many reasons. One is the assumption that because the retreat is being held in a nice location with recreation opportunities then one should focus on those. Another is the presence, in too many settings, of spouse and family. Nice, but counterproductive largely. Another is a tendency to crowd agenda. One presentation after another. A need to sign off on strategy. A board meeting with a consent agenda. A race to complete work in order to have fun, socialize, or get to a meal.
Most of all retreats feature way
too much opinion expression and much too little contemplation.
This doesn’t mean that directors and senior management should be shut up in monastic cells to think. But it does mean that there should be time to gather one’s thoughts, form opinion, discuss deeply, and only then to reach consensus on decisions.
Fourth is
stamina. Vigilant leadership is a process, a journey. There is no letup. There is no downtime.
I’m not suggesting that all of an individual’s time away from an organization should be spent in foresight. Nor am I espousing huge amounts of force-fed reading. But I’ve found through the years as I’ve taught anticipatory skills to management, installed foresight systems in organizations, and consulted on strategy that the really good work that makes a successful organization happens in between all the other daily responsibilities in my clients’ lives.
When directors and senior management are introduced to
foresight techniques, integrated into a system that pushes appropriate amounts of information to decision-makers, and encouraged to contemplate on one’s own time, good things happen.
Image: susanvg, via Flickr CC license