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Management When it comes to business, always question what you know to be true

We’re told by our bosses that it’s important to be on our toes against the competition. But probably the most important thing to tussle with is our mind, which distracts, deludes, divides and deters. Habits prevent us from advancing. Mental models – things we know to be true but aren’t – can be killers.

I’m stepping on to dangerous territory, therefore, by starting this excursion into wrong-headed notions with a law – a certainty, proposed by consultant Alberto Savoia, former director of innovation at Google. In his book The Right It, he offers the law of market failure: When new products are brought to market, failure is the rule, not the exception. “Failure is so consistent, persistent, and ubiquitous that it will serve us well to treat it as a law and give it the respect it deserves,” he says, suggesting you assume a 90-per-cent likelihood of failure for any new product idea you have. That still gives you a chance of success – indeed, his book offers suggestions – but, when we start work on a new idea, we can get seduced, enthralled by the possibilities. So it’s worth keeping the law of market failure in mind and not be wrong-headed about the chances of success.

We fret these days about disruption caused by technology. But Harvard University professor Thales Teixeira says that’s wrong. Disruption starts with unhappy customers, not technology, he stresses in Harvard Business Review. So don’t rush to acquire the disruptive technology. Instead, focus on satisfying changing customer needs and wants.

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We used to believe it was vital that people address their weaknesses to advance. Then the strengths movement came along, and now the passion is for enhancing strong points. We should be suspicious of bandwagons, so I like consultant Valerie Nellen’s balanced perspective, which suggests performance is grounded in our default settings. “Like any electronic device or piece of hardware that you buy, people come with factory-installed default settings. These settings render some skills easy to perform and others more difficult,” she writes on the RHR International blog.

For things that come easy, we lean in and do more, viewing others less competent than us as subpar, holding unrealistic expectations for them and not taking sufficient time to teach. As for the skills you find more challenging, Ms. Nellen says that, like any default setting it can be changed, with mindfulness, practice and new habits. “The payoff that comes from understanding and addressing your defaults is that you will increase your flexibility and agility, becoming more effective and more applicable across a wider variety of settings,” she says.

If that conjures up the idea of deliberate practice, as advanced by Florida State University psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson, be warned that has come under scrutiny. Professor Phil Rosenzweig of the International Institute for Management Development says in the magazine strategy+business that deliberate practice is very well suited to some activities but much less to others.

It works when the duration of the activity is short, feedback is immediate and clear, the order of actions is sequential, and performance is absolute, not depending on anyone else, like hitting a golf ball. When duration is longer, feedback is slow or incomplete, tasks are undertaken concurrently and performance is relative – the value of deliberate practice diminishes. So if you run a sales department, you can apply deliberate practice to improve the techniques of door-to-door salespeople whose work involves the four factors needed for improvement – feedback is instantaneous, for example – but not your consultative salespeople working on long time frames for clients considering other alternatives.

You have no doubt heard that if you want to rise at work, it’s wise not to rock the boat. But the Career Five blog counters: “To get ahead in your career you need to stand out. This means working hard, thinking outside the box, voicing your opinion, and taking chances – all things that very likely will rock the boat. … Don’t tip the boat, but a gentle sway never hurt anyone, and in fact it can lead to some pretty amazing things.”

Let’s close with consultants Karin Hurt and David Dye’s reminder that your subordinates should be treated like volunteers: “Everyone you work with chooses what they’ll do and how they’ll do it. Yes, your team is paid and if they choose not to perform at a certain level, they can lose their job – but that’s still their choice.” A sobering thought to remind us that what we assume or even “know” to be true can be misleading or wrong.

Cannonballs

  • Make your meetings optional. Elise Keith, a consultant on improving meetings, says that, if they are optional, it forces you to get clear on their value and share that with others. It will mean smaller, better (and fewer) meetings.
  • Dinesh Paliwal, CEO of Harman International, says he has seen CEOs who can’t clearly explain their strategy to board members. In his company’s board presentations, strategy must be described in one page, with simple messaging – the goal in one line; three key challenges; three key actions; and how success will be measured in a year.
  • Using the word “aggressive” in job descriptions discourages women from applying. The word “collaborative” can attract them. Consultant Tim Sackett urges you to think carefully about the words you choose on job ads.

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