As a senior professional in financial services — an industry with comparatively few women in the executive ranks — Ive spent a lot of time thinking about why there aren’t more women at the top-most levels of companies. I’ve read the studies and heard the theories that women don’t network well; don’t have the ‘vision thing’; communicate too passively; don’t ask for bigger jobs and the top clients; and have fewer sponsors who are willing to use political capital to advocate for them the way they do for their male colleagues. There’s a lot of agreement and repetition when talking about the problem. It’s when discussing solutions that things get quieter.
As a mother watching her 18-year old college freshman daughter contemplate her summer job options and future career, I want her to be exposed to success stories — not to what women lack or havent done or cant do — because I know these successes exist and we need to share more of them. If young women everywhere went into the workforce steeped not only in the message that ‘you cant have it all’ and inundated not only with data on the lack of senior women, but armed instead with all the accumulated advice and wisdom of experienced women who have thrived in and enjoyed their careers, then they — and the organizations theyre joining — would be much better served.
Here is the advice Ill give my daughter — and all young women like her eagerly anticipating building a career — as she starts to make decisions about her life. These are some truths that I know now, twenty-plus years into my career, but wish someone had told me earlier. And though I didnt always follow these guidelines, my career has been more successful — and I got to where I am today — because of them. Maybe my daughter will embody these early on and be ahead of the game.
Its time for us to change the narrative of why there arent more women at the top. Can we simply whip up a ‘how to’ and change the trends we all see? Likely not — because there is no Secret Formula X for success. We each bring a varying mix of talents, ideas and experience to the equation, as well as differing life circumstances. Thats why we need to start sharing our success stories, instead of focusing on all the reasons why women opt out or dont live up to their potential in the workforce. On this Mothers Day, share your story with someone who needs to hear it.
Not long ago, Teresa Amabile revealed in an HBR blog post that while she had spent much of her career as a research psychologist showing how constraints can undermine creativity, she had discovered that the right sort of constraints can in fact ‘stoke the innovation fire.’
Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer offered the same opinion writing for Businessweek in 2006: ‘Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.’
The idea that boundaries and limits can produce boundless and limitless thinking seems counterintuitive and paradoxical. But if we further examine the mechanisms at work when we face constraints, perhaps we can identify which kinds best promote, rather than diminish, creativity.
A starting point is to acknowledge that although many activities traditionally considered creative, from the arts to design to athletics, all seem to be free-form in nature, in reality they are anything but. Each has its own set of limits that governs the performance.
Take comedy improvisation. It is the audience that sets the initial limits by throwing out suggestions (often surprising and contradictory ones) to the performers. The actors then perform with no further planning, and the skit emerges with help from a new, simple rule: accept without question what is given to you by your fellow performers. Every line you produce must build on one that came before, and you can never second-guess that line.
This is a daunting constraint, because you cannot plan, prepare or in any way rehearse. Your only choice is to remain focused and attuned to everything that is happening on stage, ready to react. But this limit makes for nearly infinite possibility and actually frees the performer to be even more imaginative.
That’s anecdotal evidence that well-designed constraints lead to creative success. But there’s academic research data on this phenomenon too. For example, a study conducted at the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Social Psychology proved that tough obstacles can prompt people to open their minds, look at the ‘big picture,’ and make connections between things that are not obviously connected. This is an ability is called ‘global processing,’ which is the hallmark of creativity.
Participants in the study played a computer maze game. One group played a version that had an obstacle blocking one of the routes, which significantly limited options and made it much harder to discover an escape. A second group had an easier maze with no obstacles. Both groups were then given a standard creativity test containing what psychologists call remote associates puzzles. Three words appeared on the screen (for example, ‘plate,’ ‘shot,’ and ‘broken’) and the subjects were asked to find a fourth word that connected them all.
Those who had played the harder maze game solved 40 percent more of the remote associates puzzles than those whose mazes had not contained obstacles. The constraint had forced members of the former group into a more creative mindset; their imaginations benefited from struggling in the first task. (The answer, by the way, is ‘glass.’)
An intelligent obstacle or constraint is one laden with creative tension, whether stated in the form of a well-defined problem (‘How might we simultaneously decrease both inventory and backorders?’) or a challenging goal (NASA’s 1990s mission to land a rover on Mars in half the time and a tenth the budget of the previous mission). An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the ‘sandbox’ within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore.
The pressing question for managers here is this: Are constraints preventing or propelling your innovation efforts? There is only one right answer.
Just because a new fact or idea seems right, doesnt mean it will spread like wildfire. Evolution, hand washing in hospitals, the inevitability that personal computers were the future of technology — none of these ideas were accepted immediately, even though they seem obvious today. Change takes time. But why?
The short answer is we’re intellectually stubborn. We don’t always weigh all the evidence before we make a decision, and this is especially true if a change of opinion requires a wholesale overhaul of our worldview. Usually, we’re defensive in the face of change, spouting alternative theories and contradictory data. Although this type of resistance can help keep everyone honest, it can also produce very bad effects.
Just take Ignaz Semmelweis — a physician who recommended doctors clean their hands prior to delivering babies — who was ignored and essentially driven mad by his colleagues refusal to accept the truth. But eventually, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the majority will generally accept the new theory, before their recalcitrance becomes too counterproductive.
Shifting from an old view to a new one is never a clean and seamless process. As numerous scientists have experienced, trying to get a new idea accepted is usually a messy process — and a long one. In fact, it could take until the retirement or death of the holdouts and the influx of younger and more open minds for the new idea to become accepted. The physicist Max Planck seems to have summed up the issue with this maxim: ‘New scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’
This seems intuitively obvious. Since science and business are human affairs, we can’t expect the old stalwarts to change their minds when a new idea comes along. We just have to wait for them to die. Seems rational enough.
But here’s the thing: Planck’s Principle turns out to be wrong.
Consider Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Several decades ago, a study (PDF) examined sixty-seven British scientists from Darwin’s time and found that only about three quarters of them had accepted Darwinian evolution ten years after On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859. So evolution was not the rapid change we thought it might have been.
Why? If events had unfolded according to Plank’s principle, then young scientists would have rapidly accepted Darwin’s ideas while older scientists would have resisted them. But it didn’t happen that way. Although it’s true that those who accepted evolution were younger on average than those who still rejected it after ten years, age explained only 5% of the variation of acceptance or rejection of this theory. The younger scientists didn’t necessarily accept it rapidly; they accepted it at a rate similar to the older scientists who accepted it, over the course of a decade.
So it turns out we can’t even rely on common sense for understanding how this factual inertia works. This is encapsulated in the work of Duncan Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. Watts has demonstrated, in numerous studies that explore everything from how certain songs become popular to how marketing works, that we are very good at telling stories to ourselves that sound true (e.g. Plank’s Principle). But when we subject our ‘common sense’ to the rigors of quantitative analysis, it doesn’t always pan out. So while our factual inertia is a big problem, we need to be cautious when we hear good stories about how it actually works.
Clearly, science and business, and others fields of knowledge are not abstract ventures. They’re human affairs, so they’re prone to passions and biases. Scientific discovery, in particular, occurs through hunches and chance recognition of relationships, and is enriched by spirited discussion and debate around the lab. But science is also subject to our baser instincts. Data are hoarded, scientists refuse to collaborate, and grudges can play a role in peer review. There’s a lot at play.
So new ideas take time to be accepted. And how they are accepted is far from common sense. But one thing’s for sure: Don’t write off the old folks. They have a lot to teach us.
There are many situations where nuance, subtlety, and carefully crafted diplomacy in communications are critical. But most of the time, plain directness can go a long way.
Tsun-yan Hsieh, a long-time counselor to corporate leaders and one of my co-authors on the book Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck, once surveyed a group of global CEOs and senior executives about whether they thought their meetings met the intended objectives. Only about 40% of the meetings did. How can this be? The answer lies at least in part in the human tendency to avoid or massage the delivery of difficult or conflict-causing topics. Unfortunately, these are precisely the moments where directness is most needed.
Being self aware about the types of conversations and meetings that demand increased frankness is a starting point for more efficient and effective communications — and, most importantly, mutual respect. Here are some principles to aid in this quest:
1. Know the why. Are you clear on the reason for the conversation or meeting? Have you made that objective immediately and absolutely clear to your meeting counterpart? I vividly remember the first time this lesson struck me in the face. I was meeting with a senior executive from IBM some years ago when I was running an Internet advisory and services firm. Within the first two minutes, just after the requisite pleasantries, he asked: ‘What do you hope to accomplish with this meeting, and how much time do we have?’ I was at first taken aback as I realized I was not clear on my own objectives. I had thought more about how to run the meeting than the ‘why’ of the meeting. When I thought about it, I realized I had simply wanted to use the time to get to know each other in the hopes of discovering possibilities for collaboration. But I could have made it more concrete by saying, for example, that my end goal was to see if there is a partner deal opportunity between our firms. The executives simple question created permission for positive assertiveness. Try asking at the beginning of more of your meetings some variant of the question, ‘What do we hope to accomplish here?’ Another helpful tip is to recognize that almost all meetings fit into one of three buckets — gaining input, informing (e.g. ‘level-setting’), or requesting approval. Always be clear which sort of meeting you’re calling.
2. Don’t sandwich bad news. When you are delivering feedback (which happens in a meeting or conversation that fits in the ‘informing’ bucket), avoid the too-common practice of mixing good news with bad news. This can often send a mixed message. The classic feedback ‘sandwich’ goes like this: good news, followed by bad news, ending with good news. Eating a sandwich with good bread, but bad meat in the middle, isn’t too enjoyable. And while giving someone feedback in a considerate, contextualized, and balanced manner is of course good practice, you need to be very clear and direct on the poor performance part. It is often the most important aspect of a feedback session, and sadly tends to get muddled.
3. Go ahead and ask. My venture-capitalist colleagues and I are accustomed to receiving pitches. But we are surprised by the number of times the ask is not clear or is made as a thinly veiled subterfuge towards a different ask. For example, when an entrepreneur says, ‘I would love for you to just give feedback on our business plan,’ but the real ask is ‘I would love for you to write a check for our business.’ When you have an ask, it is best for all parties that it be clear and transparent. It is much better just to say: ‘I would love to see if you might be interested in investing in our concept, but even if you’re not, I really want your feedback.’ The takeaway: when you have an ask, just ask.
When we avoid conflict or try to skirt directness, it does a disservice to all involved, and often just plain wastes time. Consider the potential outcomes if you avoid directness:
• People leave the meeting thinking it was a good session, but they are not actually aligned, or
• People leave a little foggy as to the purpose and next steps.
Both outcomes lead to confusion, and often passive-aggressiveness ensues. And things often only get worse people then seek resolution through email and texts — such communication methods with have a tendency to spiral in the wrong direction.
Being assertive and direct does not need to mean being cold and hard. The tone you use and the words you choose (e.g. in the ‘investment ask’ example above) matter a lot. But you will likely get more respect from being direct than by overthinking the positioning of a message or meeting.
Diplomacy is a great virtue but so is clarity, and diplomacy without our clarity is just undiplomatic B.S. Have the courage to be direct.