Bring Me a Problem (Solution Optional)

April 29, 2009

In what is becoming a consistently provocative column for us, the NY Times recently featured Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson as part of its Saturday Corner Office series. Anderson came across as thoughtful, humble, and hopefully up for the task of saving that airline.  Buried deep in the article, however, was a brief statement that worried me.  It was his variation on the theme of “don’t bring me a problem without a solution,'” or in Anderson’s words:

…don’t bring a Rubik’s cube to the table, unless you have an idea on how you’re going to try to get an answer.

Like many other well-intentioned managers, Anderson is getting this one wrong. Finding problems can be a solo sport, but solving the ones that matter usually requires a team effort.  And if we limit the problems that get exposed to the organization to those the observer can handle alone, then we also seriously limit the organization’s opportunities to improve.

As soon as problems are seen as critical inputs to improvement — critical because they reveal the operational path to better performance — then improvement champions will realize that surfacing problems is among their most important jobs.  And they might end their insidiously damaging habit of requiring problems and solutions to be colocated.  Anderson will have a much better shot at saving Delta if he gets unlimited access to what’s going wrong.

I was interviewed about this topic by the Harvard Management Update – the text of that interview can be found here.


On Authenticity (Or Should Susan Boyle Lose the Frock)

April 25, 2009

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Susan got a makeover. TMZ (TMZ?) is outraged, claiming the transition from “grammy to glammy” has stripped her of her “natural charm.”

The story casts Susan as the innocent object of someone else’s plotting and scheming – the risk that a patronizing Diane Sawyer warned her about on Good Morning America — but this is a women who climbed up on the biggest stage in the world to take her swing. Susan will be fine.

The reaction also speaks to our sometimes tortured relationship with the idea of authenticity. Authenticity is a leadership trait we’ve come to admire, but the pursuit of authenticity can sometimes get in the way of real leadership. When it keeps the leader at the center of the leadership story, when it directs his or her energies towards personal goals, authenticity misses the point that leadership, at its core, isn’t about us. Leadership doesn’t particularly care if we ever find ourselves. Leadership asks that we get over those selves, that we abandon many of our needs and fears and insecurities to advance a larger mission.

That mission may require losing our “natural charm.” We may be more effective by discarding the identities that worked for us in the past. Susan Boyle created a persona that thrived in a small, Scottish village. But her goals have changed radically. She now has a chance to inspire millions with her courage and audacity. If her staying power goes up with a good dye job and a leather jacket, then I’m all for it.


No, Sir, I Have a Results Problem

April 22, 2009

I had the privilege of hearing Gen. David Patraeus interviewed about leadership yesterday at Harvard Kennedy’s School’s Institute of Politics Forum. I expected a politicized discussion about the torture memo, but the crowd was there to find out who this man is and what leadership means in the context of a modern battlefield.

We learned the most from the opening remarks and examples of Maura Sullivan and Seth Moulton, both veterans of the Iraq War now getting joint degrees in business and government. Moulton pushed off his degree for an extra year to serve a fourth tour in Iraq as a Special Assistant to Patraeus. His words were heavy with respect and affection, and they had nothing on the weight of his choices. The crowd got it immediately.

My overwhelming response was that we’re lucky to have the general at the front of the line. He was visibly uncomfortable taking credit for anything, and the leadership themes he stressed were the importance of teams, service and staying connected to reality.

He told the Harvard crowd that they may walk into rooms where they think can do anyone’s job better, but they certainly can’t do everyone’s job better, and so this leadership thing matters. He identified a shift in mental models towards the Iraqi people – a shift towards service and living and working together – as a key reason for the current progress. He talked about how much he learns from direct communications with all levels of his team, and how he made one of the war’s most critical strategic pivots while on a casual run with lower-ranking soldiers.

His most memorable story was about receiving congressional delegations in Iraq that would inevitably pull him aside and tell him that he had a “messaging problem.” “No, sir,” he would say, “I have a results problem. When I get the results, the messaging will take care of itself.”



Tom Brokaw, Heretic or Hero?

April 21, 2009

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Have we moved beyond these cumbersome divisions we call states? In a recent Op-Ed Tom Brokaw proposed that local governments blur their administrative lines and work together to deliver services more efficiently. In discussing North and South Dakota’s 17 colleges and universities, he made the following blasphemous comment:

I know this is heresy, but couldn’t the two states get a bigger bang for their higher education buck if they consolidated their smaller institutions into, say, the Dakota Territory College System, with satellite campuses but a common administration and shared standards?

Jefferson and Madison may be turning in their graves, but Brokaw makes a legitimate case for consolidating costly and overlapping public services. The economics are clearly in favor of pursuing such a system, but politics often get in the way of this kind of progress. As Brokaw points out, parochial interests will be the biggest hurdle to making these changes a reality.

The same dynamics play out in companies. Even when there are known advantages to centralizing activities — even when it makes things cheaper and better — the self-interest of individuals and business units can undermine a centralization campaign. Firms that overcome this tension usually do a few things right. First, they put someone in charge of “shared services” who has the leadership skills to bring a skeptical organization along. Second, they focus on the better as much as the cheaper, on the upside of leveraging learning and best practices across the entire organization.

It’s not only that the Dakotas’ 17 colleges and universities can buy chalk for less when they combine some activities, but also that the Dakota Territory College System can use the knowledge now embedded in each institution to improve the education being offered by all of them. And designed correctly, realizing these “economies of experience” doesn’t have to come at the price of innovation or agility or even customization. Indeed, done correctly, these changes can free up the time and resources for an organization to deliver unprecedented quality to its constituents.


The Triumph of Susan Boyle

April 17, 2009

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One of the assumptions at the center of this project is that there is often someone extraordinary lurking underneath the watered-down, apologetic version of ourselves that we choose to offer the world. A leader’s central task, we believe, is to create the conditions for those extraordinary selves to thrive.   

Imagining that possibility can sometimes take a leap of faith. If you ever find yourself doubting it, join the the 20 million people (and counting) who have watched Susan Boyle’s audition for Britain’s Got Talent, the UK’s version of American Idol.  In a single, transformative moment, Susan stops apologizing. 



iPhoning It In

April 16, 2009

Personal Digital Assistants. Do they still call them that? It sounds like a euphemism for Mommy’s Little Helper, which may be closer to the truth.

My father was a military man, not by choice, but he rose to the occasion. The letters PDA stir memories of stories about the rules against Public Displays of Affection on the West Point campus in the late 1960s. The Army still hasn’t figured out how to police our soldiers’ sexuality, but that’s for another post.

Dad gave me a running start in associating my Blackberry with giving up a certain degree of personal freedom, but even I never paused to consider the true price of obsessively using these incredible tools. And I dismissed anyone who whined about having to “always be available” as not one of us, a member of the productive class.

Then I was deeply provoked by the following paragraph in the NYT’s interview with John Donahoe, the CEO of eBay since 2008:

…I try to only do e-mail first thing in the morning or in the evening, because I find if I check e-mail during the day, I go from being proactive about what I want to get accomplished that day to being reactive, and that’s a bit of a trap. Being reactive is a lot easier than being proactive, and e-mail and the BlackBerry are natural tools to facilitate that.

It’s that “easier” word that got me. My life is easier, but rarely better when I’m strapped to this little machine. In any given moment, quite literally, I can avoid the discomfort of having to focus my thoughts and actions. Instead of determining my destiny, I can let my brain fill up with someone else’s issues or LinkedIn request or cure for erectile dysfunction. Instead of seizing the day, I can submit to being seized.

Yes, John, easier is the word. It doesn’t sound like a big deal until I think of the aggregate number of times that I’ve checked for new messages in the last five years.



Good Government and the Quest for the Palatable Fee

April 13, 2009

A recent NYT article discussed the growing trend among cities to cover revenue shortfalls by charging fees for municipal services.  One fee, in particular — the “cash-for-crash” fee  charged to drivers for the police response to their accidents — is stirring outrage.  Not coincidentally, it also has a limited compliance rate. Only 20% of citizens paid up in the city the article mentioned.

What’s driving these dynamics? And should we care? As the article explains, fees can appeal to our sense of fairness:

Politicians tend to regard fees as more palatable than taxes, and more focused too. If a state needs to finance an infrastructure to oversee fishing, why shouldn’t fishermen foot the bill?

Palatable is exactly the right word here. Fees for new infrastructure may indeed seem reasonable to taxpayers, particularly if it’s a public investment that only a small percentage of citizens will ever use. But fees for services at the core of the contract between citizens and government, fees for things our taxes have been covering for centuries (like police response), are much harder to swallow.

Should cities in crisis waste any time on the search for the palatable fee? A look at IRS compliance rates might give some public servants a reason to pause. The IRS has a very high tax compliance record compared to other countries.  The US is at 85% compliance, for example, while many other countries are in the teens.

This high compliance rate means that the cost of collection is low, and the revenues collected are high. Maintaining high voluntary compliance is essential to making the system work. Voluntary compliance is driven largely by things such as belief in the fairness of the tax system in terms of who pays and how the money is spent.  The perception of corruption, for example, translates into low voluntary compliance rates because citizens don’t trust that their money will be spent on the collective good.

As described by a deputy commissioner of the IRS in a case I wrote several years ago:

When you go down to any country in South or Central America
and you sit down with their commissioner of taxes, they just marvel at our compliance levels, because in their countries they say they can’t even measure, but generally, it’s single digits, 7 or 8%. The rest is enforcement.

The risk of a public revenue strategy that feels unfair is that citizens will eventually stop paying. Even in God-fearing, tax-paying America? I would suggest that the lack of compliance with U.S. cities’ new cash-for-crash fees is a big red flag. When “unpalatable” hits critical mass — as it has in many Latin American economies —  the focus shifts from maintaining high voluntary compliance to investing heavily in enforcement. The economics of the former are far more appealing than the latter. To say nothing of the reelection implications.