Faculty Column: Fixing Things

Courtesy: Bill Youngdahl
Courtesy: Bill Youngdahl

By Professor Bill Youngdahl

Fixing things is part of my DNA. As a boy, I’d pull appliances apart and put them back together. This orientation landed me in manufacturing engineering and project management positions before migrating to academia. More recently, I’ve been focusing on fixing tough organizational challenges, especially ones that cause unnecessary suffering. Helping leaders shift from hindering to helping behaviors is one of two current projects.

A few years ago I was asked to deliver a webinar on servant leadership, serving others so they can deliver value to internal and external customers. As a warmup exercise, I posted this poll statement. “In our division, projects and initiatives succeed despite, not because of, our leaders.” 60% agreed, 15% disagreed, and 25% abstained.

Motivated by this event, Kannan Ramaswamy and I conducted a broader study to investigate the prevalence of hindering leaders. We surveyed over 250 respondents from a broad cross section of positions, industries and geographies. A majority believed their leaders were hindering rather than helping. We followed up with interviews and continued to test and refine our ideas for over a year.

This winter, our work will be published in Strategy & Business, Booz & Co’s business journal. We agreed to not share our findings until they are published, but I can reveal that it’s easy for leaders to unwittingly become hinderers. Prof. Ramaswamy and I are refining a tool to assess leadership hindrance at an organizational level and a 360-degree developmental assessment tool to help leaders identify and overcome hindering behaviors. It takes tools, not just words, to fix behaviors.

Lacking a voice in decision making and innovation is another example of something that needs to be fixed. For years, people from different organizations and geographies have confided that their ideas get blocked by various inclusion killers. Common inclusion killers include position in the hierarchy, groupthink of an inner circle, language ability, cultural norms, and personality. Think about it. Have you ever felt like leaders or team members failed to acknowledge or weren’t even interested in hearing your ideas? When it happens to us, we start to disengage. Inclusion matters.

Simple sticky-note brainstorming approaches help teams overcome these inclusion killers. By giving everyone time to write their ideas on notes before collaboratively sharing their notes on a wall, leaders can ensure inclusion.  But global teams seldom meet face-to-face. Consider the impact of millions of individuals suffering from inclusion-killing teleconferences each day. This situation requires a simple and effective fix like the one used for face-to-face teams.

With the aim of mirroring face-to-face sticky-note brainstorming, I looked for an online solution with the dual criteria of enabling both private ideation and group collaboration. No solutions (e.g. Stormboard, Mural.ly, and Note.ly) satisfied both criteria, so in February I started a company, 14falcons, and contracted with developers to create Teamput, a cloud-based application for inclusive ideation.  A recent change from US to Ukrainian developers has greatly accelerated some needed refinement. Soon there will be another problem solved — less suffering, better decisions and more diverse ideas entering the innovation cycles of organizations. If this doesn’t sound very professorial, don’t despair. There’s a book in the works.  You can try Teamput at www.teamput.com.

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