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To avoid catastrophic decisions, meeting leaders must do this

One of keys to good group decision making is conflict. A wealth of research shows that on average better decisions are made when they’re preceded by a vigorous debate. The opposite is also true. When we analyze some of the most disastrous decisions in history like the Shuttle Challenger launch and the Bay of Pigs invasion, we see that a lack of sufficient disagreement was one of the main culprits. Therefore when discussing a decision of significant consequence, one of your most critical duties as a meeting leader is to make sure there’s an adequate amount of conflict.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy. In polite organizational culture, conflict is a dirty word. People hesitate to disagree especially when the person with whom they disagree is their boss. And so if they have a dissenting point of view, they keep it to themselves. At least they try to …

While people can easily keep quiet, they can’t as easily stop their true feelings from leaking out into their nonverbal behavior. They might unintentionally squirm in their chair, roll their eyes, sigh, slightly shake their head, etc.

As a meeting leader you have to notice these nonverbal leaks. And when you do, you need to pounce. “Cindy, I get the feeling you have some concerns with this proposal. Care to elaborate?” By putting people on the spot, you make it more likely they’ll voice their true opinions.

Recognizing nonverbal cues is a skill that we can master if we choose, but we don’t have to. Human beings are generally good enough at picking up on cues by way of their intuition. We just need to pay attention. The only thing that really stands in the way is a simple habit: during the meeting we tend to almost always look at the person who is speaking.

If you’re the meeting leader, you also have to look at attendees who aren’t speaking. Watch closely and you’ll notice nonverbal clues that signal potential dissent. As a result, you’ll have all the sparks necessary to produce the kind of conflict that leads to good decisions. And more importantly, prevents catastrophic ones.

How to Instantly Increase your Bargaining Power in any Negotiation

When I was 16 years old I went shopping for my first car. My dad and I went around the neighborhood for hours looking at cars for sale by owner, but nothing I saw grabbed me. That is until I saw it, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, a 1994 hunter green Buick Skylark. I didn’t know much about cars at the time, but I knew I wanted this one.

My dad waited at the curb while I approached the seller on his driveway and asked him, “How much?” He looked at me closely, and then quoted me the price. It was outside my budget. Slightly panicked, I begged him to consider dropping the price. “Sorry. Take it or leave it, ” he said. I remember feeling absolutely powerless, like there was nothing I could do to get him to budge.

So I ran over to my dad and asked him if he could loan me the difference. “Absolutely, not,” he replied. I was devastated. Until he added, “But I think I can help.” My dad asked me a confronting question: “What would you do If you weren’t able to buy that car?” The question infuriated me. I couldn’t understand why he was being so pessimistic. “No, Dad! I have to have that car,” I barked. He replied, “That’s exactly your problem.” I didn’t quite understand what my dad was getting at, but I decided to play along anyway.

He asked me again, “So what would you do if you couldn’t have that car?” As uncomfortable as it was I thought about it, “I mean, I guess I would get one of those other cars that we saw today.” He followed up, “What did you like about the other cars?” I said, “The red Honda one wasn’t so bad I guess, it looked alright and it also had great sound system.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the red Honda really wasn’t that bad. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t nearly as good as that Buick Skylark, but it wasn’t as terrible as I initially feared. He asked me, “Could you see yourself driving that car if you had to?” I said, “Yeah, I guess if I had to, I could.” He looked at me skeptically for a second. He could see I wasn’t pretending, that I was being genuine. That’s when told me, “Go” as he nudged me in the direction of the seller.

As I walked back, I had a completely different posture. I was confident. I no longer felt powerless, I felt powerful. This time when I asked the seller to bring down the price, I didn’t beg, I asked calmly. The seller noticed the difference. He could tell that I was genuinely willing to walk away. And that’s when he agreed to lower the asking price by 20%. I bought the car on the spot. As excited as I was to have it, I was even more thrilled with my negotiating prowess that day. It wasn’t until years later I fully understood how my Dad had helped me increase my bargaining power so quickly.

The Surprising Power of Pessimism

In their landmark book, Getting to Yes, William Ury and Roger Fischer taught us that our bargaining power is determined by our BATNA, our best alternative to a negotiated agreement. In other words, your BATNA is the option you’d be left to pursue if either you or the party you’re negotiating with were to walk away from the table. The better that option, the greater your BATNA. It’s a fairly intuitive concept. A man who’s trying to negotiate a raise with his current company knows he’s got an advantage (greater BATNA) if he’s got another job offer from a competing firm to fall back on.

So how do you raise your BATNA? There are two ways. The first is obvious, but not always easy. Go out and find better alternatives. But there’s often a much quicker way: just realize that the alternatives you already have are better than you think.

That’s because as Guy and Heidi Burgess rightly point out, what determines your bargaining power isn’t really BATNA. More accurately it’s EATNA, your estimated alternative to a negotiated agreement. In other words, it’s not how good your options are, it’s how good you think they are. And because human beings often get so emotionally attached to one option, it causes them to distort the perceived value of their alternatives.

Case in point: 16-year-old me. I had alternatives. My dad and I saw several other cars that day that were by no means perfect, but they would’ve been just fine. But when I fell in love with that Skylark, it no longer felt like I had alternatives. In my mind if I didn’t have that car, the world as I knew it would end. Sure that sounds absurd, but we all engage in this kind of ridiculous catastrophizing. Because when we are unwilling to consciously think about a potentially negative scenario, we give our mind license to subconsciously invent a fictitious scenario in our head. And that fictitious scenario is often much worse, despite not having any grounding in fact. So how do we bring the perceived value of our alternatives back in line with reality?  We start thinking negatively.

The precise term for this kind of strategic thinking is defensive pessimism. Instead of denying the worst-case scenario, the one in which we don’t ultimately get what we want in the negotiation, we embrace it as a possibility. We visualize the consequences in as much detail as possible, and mentally rehearse what we’d do to cope. It’s not fun of course, because you’ll be forced to confront the very scenario that is producing anxiety. But in doing so, you’ll realize that although the worst-case scenario might be bad, it’s not likely to be as devastatingly bad as your subconscious automatic thoughts have tricked you into believing. As a result, your BATNA improves.

And now I know why my dad was being so pessimistic. An intuitively shrewd negotiator, he could see how attached I was to that Buick. So he made me visualize what it would be like if I was forced to buy that Honda instead. He knew something that I didn’t: I needed to realize that I didn’t have to have that car, before I would have the power to negotiate for it.

One critical question to ask before jumping into a decision

On May 4, 2010, white smoke began to emanate from a parked SUV in the middle of a crowded Times Square. Fearing a potential catastrophe, the police called the bomb squad.

The bomb squad was remarkably methodical in their approach. One detective operated a robot that broke windows on the Pathfinder. Another detective donned a heavy green protective suit and approached the vehicle to gather more intelligence. Two more detectives helped X-ray the contents. In a magnificent act of teamwork, the bomb squad deliberated, aligned, cautiously removed the material and disassembled the bomb. Crisis averted.

If this approach sounds familiar, it’s because organizations approach most decisions with bomb squad like thinking: slow down, discuss liberally with others, gather as much intelligence as possible, wait for buy-in, avoid mistakes at all costs. It’s a great approach when the stakes are high, but it’s terribly wasteful when they’re not.

In a world where speed matters more than ever, low stakes decisions present an opportunity for a much faster approach, locksmith thinking.

When the locksmith gets the call, he doesn’t assemble a team. He gets in his van and drives, involving as few people as he can get away with. When he arrives at the problem site, he asks for only as much information as necessary to start working. Then, he picks the lock as quickly as he can. The sooner he’s the done, the sooner he can drive off to pick the next lock.

Here’s a critical question to ask before jumping into your next decision: are you diffusing a bomb or picking a lock?

Webinar: The Future of Meetings

This Thursday, August 7th, 10 AM PDT / 1PM EDT, I’m doing a live webinar called The Future of Meetings. Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to help many Fortune 500 organizations change the way they hold meetings, and I’ll be speaking on some of what I’ve learned in the process.

The event is hosted by the wonderful folks at Citrix and moderated by my good friend and bestselling author Michael Parrish DuDell. We already have about 600 people signed up, and if you’re interested in modernizing your meetings, I’d love for you to join too.

You can register by going HERE.

 

 

Fighting meeting bias & hangout with me tomorrow AM

Two things I wanted to share with you:

1. Meetings can be a great way to reach intelligent decisions, if (and it’s a big if) we can use them to counteract our cognitive biases. Unfortunately, meetings often amplify them. McKinsey Quarterly has an excellent article containing suggestions for taking those pesky cognitive biases out of meetings.

2. I’m participating in 24 hour social media-thon, called $10k on 10/1 for Charity Water (organized by the inimitable Mike Bruny). Myself, along with a number of other entrepreneurs are holding Live Google hangout sessions tomorrow in an attempt to raise $10,000 or more for clean water in Orissa, India. My hangout is at 9AM EST and tickets to attend are $45 each. It’s a great cause, and I hope you’ll check it out.

Hiring a consultant to hire a consultant?

Last year, when Parkland Memorial Hospital was faced with hiring a new CEO, the governing board began by holding a meeting. Unfortunately, according to one board member, midway through the session, they couldn’t even agree on what they were deciding. By the end of the session, the only thing they had “decided” was to appoint a subcommittee that would create a list of consulting firms that might advise the board on its search.

It’s even worse than it sounds. As Bill Hethcock explains in the the Dallas Business Journal:

“The consulting firm — when and if one is hired — likely won’t be the same firm that helps the Parkland Board of Managers find candidates to interview for the CEO job, board member Jerry Bryant explained. The board most likely will designate a search firm for that, he said.

“If what we’re saying is we need to hire a consultant to help us hire a consultant, I’m opposed to that,” said board member Eddie Reeves, who is, by the way, a communications consultant.

The indecisiveness on display here is cringeworthy. But although it’s tempting to blame the individuals involved, when you’ve seen scenarios like this in as many organizations as I have, you realize it’s more productive to criticize the process.

When any large problem arises in an organization, the standard protocol is to call a meeting. It’s understandable, in times of uncertainty, as human beings we have an instinctive desire to gather. Unfortunately, when responsibility is ambiguous, like in the case of Parkland, gathering exacerbates the uncertainty, fostering inaction. It’s a classic example of diffusion of responsibility, everyone is responsible, therefore no one is responsible.

This is precisely why the first rule of the Modern Meeting is: only meet to support a decision that’s already been made (or at least proposed). By having a proposed decision be a prerequisite to anyone even stepping foot inside a meeting room, it forces one individual to assume responsibility, define what the decision is, and clarify how that decision should be made. In other words, lead.

Now let me be clear, because this part of the Modern Meeting Standard is often misunderstood, this doesn’t mean the leader has to make this preliminary decision alone. She can (and often should) involve others, she just can’t use a meeting to do it. Go ahead and reach out to others individually via e-mail or phone (remember one-on-one conversations are not meetings). You can even hold a brainstorming session if you want (also not a meeting). These options are more time consuming, but that’s by design, to encourage  only as much intelligence gathering as necessary.

If Parkland’s governing board had done this heavy lifting before the meeting began, they would have had a much better chance of ending with a real decision. It’s simple really, when you start a meeting with a proposed path, instead of from scratch, the bias is for action.

Careful though, the Modern Meeting is never supposed to be a rubber stamping session. It should always include authentic disagreement and vigorous debate about alternative paths, or else the meeting shouldn’t take place. This means that occasionally, particularly in the case of high-stakes decisions, even a Modern Meeting can lead to a stalemate.

But if you ask me, “hiring a consultant to hire a consultant”, like the majority of issues organizations face day in and day out, doesn’t qualify as high-stakes.

My talk at Google


Hi there. Many of you have astutely noticed that I haven’t posted on this blog in some time. That’s because I’ve been working restlessly on a new book. I’m looking forward to sharing the details in the future (might be a while), but for now, here’s a speech I recently delivered at Google’s New York office. In it, I prescribe three keystone habits designed to change your meeting culture for the better.  As I explain in the video, these habits may seem small, but each packs a powerful punch!

If you can’t see the embedded version above, you can watch the video HERE.

When you find yourself on an ad hoc team

Training seminar, volunteer event, reality show competition, plane crash on a desert island…

From time to time, you may find yourself on a short lived ad hoc team, often with people you don’t know very well. When you do, here are four problems you’re likely to encounter:

  1. No clear leader emerges. Without one, decision making is going to be difficult, design by committee is inevitable.
  2. A leader emerges too soon. One premature dominant vision squashes diversity of thought.
  3. The wrong leader emerges. The person who grabs the wheel isn’t necessarily the best driver.
  4. The presumed leader isn’t accepted as such. Who made her boss? some might ask.

Leaders shouldn’t emerge, they should be chosen. Here’s a process.

  1. Isolate. Allow everyone to spend a little time apart. Each person should write down their vision for how to complete the project.
  2. Present. Have everyone come together and let those interested in being the leader, present their visions to the group
  3. Elect. Formally allow people to vote for the leader they believe has the best vision.

With this process not only will you have a formal democratically elected leader, but you’ll have the visions of everyone from the group, uncorrupted by groupthink. The leader can use these ideas to adapt his plan.

Of course, it can take guts to propose a process like this. Ironically, it takes a leader.

Direct vs. indirect collaboration

Some of the most wonderful collaborative moments occur indirectly. If you’ve ever been in a desultory conversation with colleagues, when the perfect solution to a collective problem or the perfect arrangement for working together seemed to magically show up, you know what I’m talking about.

The appeal of indirect collaboration is obvious: it’s powerful and seemingly effortless. So it’s no surprise that anytime we need collaboration, we’re quick to engage in a passive egalitarian exchange of ideas, and hope for that collective eureka moment. The key word here: hope.

Just recently a couple of entrepreneurs asked me to a cup of coffee. They were doing work that was complementary to mine and thought if we all put our heads together, we were bound to discover an opportunity to collaborate. So we chatted about our lives, our businesses, our goals, our dreams, and waited for the collaboration to happen. But it didn’t.

And therein lies the problem with indirect collaboration, it’s not available on demand. It happens by way of serendipity and you can’t create serendipity.  The best you can do is foster it.

Steve Jobs understood this. When redesigning the Pixar Studios complex, he famously put all the bathrooms (he decided on just two) in one central space. Sure, it was inconvenient for many, but it ensured people from every corner of the organization would frequently bump into one another, fostering lots of random conversations. The chance that any one of those conversations would lead to collaboration was slim, but enough conversations, and one of them was bound to lead to the next great project.

Clay Hebert understands this too. His new platform, Spindows, allows speed video networking between people in the same organization. Spindows  randomly connects users based on a particular topic or common interest. The beauty of the service is that it allows you to do a lot of sessions in a short amount of time. The more chats, the greater the likelihood of a collaborative breakthrough

Indirect collaboration can be a worthy long term strategy but it requires foresight and patience.

If you want collaboration right now, you’re far better off going with a more direct approach. Direct collaboration doesn’t require serendipity,  just leadership. It involves one person, putting themselves on the line, risking rejection, selling their idea to others. A champion.

Sometimes we forget that this is the way collaboration usually happens. It’s effortful not effortless. It’s often messy, seldom romantic, and can sometimes lead to broken hearts and bruised egos. But it’s much more reliable.

When a mistake isn’t

Every single time I get caught in the rain, I curse myself for not bringing an umbrella. But do I ever learn my lesson? Fortunately, never.

Sometimes things that look like mistakes, aren’t. Instead, they’re the inevitable negative outcomes of a high variance strategy (one that you might have never known you had).

Talk to me on a rainy day, as I stand there soaking wet, and I’ll tell you that not carrying an umbrella was a mistake.

But talk to me now, as I look back in hindsight, and I’ll tell you the truth: it wasn’t. I hate carrying an umbrella, I’ve always found it an incredible nuisance. So long ago, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I must have made a decision to stop. Because although I lose on the few days when it rains, every other day when it doesn’t, and I don’t have to bring that infernal umbrella, I win.

We all have high variance strategies like this that are working just fine. Don’t let things that look like mistakes, like missing the train, buying the wrong pair of jeans, or getting burned by a colleague you trusted, fool you into thinking otherwise. Maybe you don’t need to change your strategy, maybe you just need to realize that you have one.