5 'hallelujah!' ideas to renew your leadership

12 May 2017 -


It’s been a vintage year for the CMI Management Book of the Year awards, which surface breakthrough thinking. Here are choice extracts of the past year’s most startling ideas

1. The power of non-comformism

On a cool fall evening in 2008, four students set out to revolutionise an industry. Buried in loans, they had lost and broken eyeglasses and were outraged at how much it cost to replace them.

One of them had been wearing the same damaged pair for five years: he was using a paper clip to bind the frames together. Even after his prescription changed twice, he refused to pay for pricey new lenses.

Luxottica, the 800lb gorilla of the industry, controlled more than 80% of the eyewear market. To make glasses more affordable, the students would need to topple a giant.

Having recently watched Zappos transform footwear by selling shoes online, they wondered if they could do the same with eyewear. When they mentioned their idea to friends, time and again they were blasted with scorching criticism. No-one would ever buy glasses over the internet. People had to try them on first.

“If this was a good idea,” they heard repeatedly, “someone would have done it already.”

None of the students had a background in e-commerce and technology, let alone in retail, fashion or apparel. Despite being told their idea was crazy, they walked away from lucrative job offers to start a company.

They would sell eyeglasses that normally cost $500 in a store for $95 online, donating a pair to someone in the developing world with every purchase.

The business depended on a functioning website. Without one, it would be impossible for customers to view or buy their products.

After scrambling to pull a website together, they finally managed to get it online at 4am on the day before the launch in February 2010. They called the company Warby Parker, combining the names of two characters created by the novelist Jack Kerouac, who inspired them to break free from the shackles of social pressure and embark on their adventure.

The students expected to sell a pair or two of glasses per day. But when GQ called them “the Netflix of eyewear”, they hit their target for the entire first year in less than a month, selling out so fast that they had to put 20,000 customers on a waiting list.

It took them nine months to stock enough inventory to meet the demand.

Fast-forward to 2015, when Fast Company released a list of the world’s most innovative companies. Warby Parker didn’t just make the list – it came in first. The three previous winners were creative giants Google, Nike and Apple.

In the span of five years, the four friends built one of the most fashionable brands on the planet and donated over a million pairs of glasses to people in need. The company cleared more than $100m in annual revenues and was valued at over $1bn.

Years ago, psychologists discovered that there are two routes to achievement: conformity and originality. Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo. Originality is taking the road less travelled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.

The Warby Parker founders had the originality to dream up an unconventional way to sell glasses online, but became originals by taking action to make them easily accessible and affordable.

This is an edited extract from Originals by Adam Grant, overall winner at the 2017 CMI Management Book of the Year awards.

2. The future belongs to superforecasters

With his grey beard, thinning hair and glasses, Doug Lorch doesn’t look like a threat to anyone. He looks like a computer programmer, which he was for IBM. He is retired now.

He lives in a quiet neighbourhood in Santa Barbara with his wife, an artist who paints lovely watercolours. Doug has no special expertise in international affairs, but he has a healthy curiosity about what’s happening.

He reads The New York Times. He can find Kazakhstan on a map.

So he volunteered for the Good Judgment Project (GJP). Once a day, for an hour or so, his dining room table became his forecasting centre, where he opened his laptop, read the news, and tried to anticipate the fate of the world.

In the first year, Doug answered 104 questions like “Will Serbia be officially granted European Union candidacy by 31 December 2011?” and “Will the London Gold Market Fixing price of gold ($ per ounce) exceed $1,850 on 30 September 2011?”

That’s a lot of forecasting, but it understates what Doug did. Over four years, nearly 500 questions were asked of thousands of GJP’s forecasters, generating well over one million judgements about the future.

But, even at the individual level, the number quickly added up.

In year one alone, Doug made roughly 1,000 separate forecasts. And Doug’s accuracy was as impressive as his volume. In year two, Doug joined a superforecaster team and did even better.

He also beat by 40% a prediction market in which traders bought and sold futures contracts on the outcomes of the same questions. He was the only person to beat the extremising algorithm. And Doug not only beat the control group’s “wisdom of the crowd”, he surpassed it by more than 60%.

By any mortal standard, Doug did astonishingly well.

The only way to make Doug look unimpressive would be to compare him to godlike omniscience, which would be like belittling Tiger Woods in his prime for failing to hit holes in one. That made Doug a threat.

This is a man with no applicable experience or education, and no access to classified information. The only payment he received was the $250 Amazon gift certificate that all volunteers got at the end of each season.

Doug was simply a retiree who, rather than collect stamps, or play golf, or build model airplanes, made forecasts, and he was so good at it that there wasn’t a lot of room for an experienced intelligence analyst with a salary, security clearance, and a desk in CIA headquarters to do better.

Every day, the news media deliver forecasts without reporting, or even asking, how good the forecasters who made the forecasts really are. Every day, corporations and governments pay for forecasts that may be prescient or worthless or something in between. And, every day, all of us – leaders of nations, corporate executives, investors and voters – make critical decisions on the basis of forecasts whose quality is unknown.

Someone might ask why the United States spends billions of dollars every year on geopolitical forecasting when it could give Doug a gift certificate and let him do it.

This is an edited extract from Superforecasting: the Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, winner in the Management Futures category at the 2017 CMI Management Book of the Year awards.

3. 10 super-learnings for successful negotiation

1. Nerve – believe in your position, never offend, and always remain calm

Nerve helps us to exercise patience and to remain calm when the pressure is on. Exercising nerve during negotiations involves handling both perceived and real conflict, being able to read the sensitivities around the situation before responding.

Nothing happens by accident in negotiation, so having a clear head that allows you to act as a conscious negotiator is essential to staying in control.

2. Self-discipline – to understand what to do, and to do that which is appropriate

Negotiation requires you to separate your behaviour from your feelings and emotions. Self-discipline allows you to be what you need to be and what the situation demands of you, to be disciplined enough that you present the signals you want the other party to read and fulfil the role requirements at the time to help you perform.

3. Tenacity – the negotiator’s equivalent to stamina

The times you hear the words “no, can’t, won’t” are the occasions where you will have to turn to “how”. Rather than simply concede on the issue, you should examine the rejection from different perspectives to find out what other conditions or circumstances you could introduce as part of maintaining control and managing their expectations.

4. Assertiveness – tell them what you will do, not what you won’t do

The “Complete Skilled Negotiator” comes across as being firm and in control. Not obnoxious or disrespectful but simply able to say what is necessary in a calm, authoritative manner.

This is not about being parental or patronising in your communication style, but simply being confident in your assertions. This can be a fine line to tread.

5. Instinct – trust it; you will be right more often than not

Most people have good instincts, yet under pressure do not always listen to them. They choose instead to accept the case placed before them and conform rather than challenge.

As an effective negotiator you should have the courage of your convictions, challenge anything that does not “feel” right, and always demand clarity before being prepared to progress.

6. Caution – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is

Picture the high levels of mental energy and the work rate taking place inside the heads of two teams of negotiators around the table. Both parties are seeking to create or distribute value in the knowledge that, if they are too hasty, they may miss an implication and, by being seduced on price, they could be entering into an agreement that could carry more risk in the long term.

It is during these critical exchanges when reality checks should take place. This is when patience is needed and time should be taken to calculate what has changed.

7. Curiosity – asking why, because you want and need to know

Gathering information both prior to and during your negotiation is the ultimate way of creating power. Even if you think you understand your market well or have dealt with someone for many years, it’s still possible to assume too much.

8. Numerical reasoning – know what it’s really worth; know what it really costs

Numerical reasoning allows you to consider more easily the “what ifs”. Your ability to engineer different trade-off scenarios by performing quick calculations allows you to expose opportunities that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Although it’s a good idea to prepare some proposals ahead of your meeting (following initial discussions), calculating the counter proposals and providing alternative solutions during the negotiation with similar or even improved outcomes will come more naturally to those with numerical reasoning.

9. Creativity – exploring and building on possibilities

Creative solutions not only help resolve deadlock situations but help us to trade off ideas as part of creating more value. By using a creative approach you can link and package variables (volume, timing, specification, etc) in different ways.

Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, so the creative negotiator is comfortable with degrees of ambiguity as the shape of the deal evolves.

10. Humility – it is people who make agreements and humility that breeds respect

Humility helps you to demonstrate your intention of working with the other party, rather than against them, to create a mutually beneficial relationship. It is your humility that will allow the other party to “win” the argument as they concentrate on the climate and maximising the total value of the deal from their perspective.

These super-learnings were drawn from The Negotiation Book by Steve Gates, winner in the Practical Manager category at the 2017 CMI Management Book of the Year awards.

4. Tactical hiding

Open offices can be great for collaboration, social interaction, building relationships and creating an energising buzz to work in, but they can also be the number-one killer of focused attention.

In the days when we all worked in separate offices, we could close the door as a do-not-disturb signal. Nowadays, with open offices, perhaps we need to be a bit more creative. Think Productive’s chief operating officer has a china cat that she puts on her desk when she needs to have some uninterrupted time to herself.

When the cat is on the desk, it’s her way of saying: “I need to focus right now. Unless it’s an emergency, could you come back later, please?” When the cat is not there, she is happy to be interrupted.

Other people use headphones, traffic-light signals, flag systems, signs or even hiding behind a plant.

The key to making this work is communication. If we expect our colleagues to be mind readers and to know what our signals mean, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

There may be times when you do need to hide away, rather than have a do-not-disturb signal at your desk. This is where tactical hiding can be quite handy.

Physically being out of your office or away from your desk can give you that extra space and, for some people I’ve worked with, it’s the only way to ensure they get to focus their attention on their own agenda, rather than responding to others.

We all need a combination of being available for ourselves and to others. If you are going to disappear for a while, you might want to communicate this so everyone knows what to expect.

Otherwise, if you develop a reputation for being too hard to find, it could backfire on you and you could end up playing an elaborate game of corporate hide-and-seek instead.

This is an edited extract from How To Be Really Productive: Achieving Clarity and Getting Results in a World Where Work Never Ends by Grace Marshall, winner in the Commuter’s Read category at the 2017 CMI Management Book of the Year awards.

5. Birdseye, Uber and how to be a category king

Before the 1920s, there existed no such category as “frozen foods”. Clarence Birdseye – yep, that actually was his name – created it. Like many category creators through the ages, Birdseye was an outsider.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1886, he spent a lot of time on his family’s farm on Long Island and developed a passion for taxidermy (not a hobby many kids have these days). That led him to a job as a naturalist for the US government, which eventually took him to Labrador, in Canada’s north-eastern corner.

Birdseye watched the Inuit people catch fish and toss them on the ice, where the fish flash-froze, retaining their texture and flavour. When Birdseye returned to the US, he experimented by flash-freezing fish between cakes of dry ice, and then realised the process also worked for vegetables.

He started a company – at first called General Seafoods – to make and sell this new category of product.

As he built his company, Birdseye realised he had to design and build the category itself, because, before Birdseye, there was no ecosystem that would get frozen food from a factory to consumers, and no demand for frozen food because consumers didn’t know they might want it.

He developed freezer cars for railroads and sold rail operators on the idea. He developed freezer cases for grocers and convinced them that frozen food would increase sales. He even convinced DuPont to invent cellophane.

Birdseye’s work took a couple of decades to pay off, but it takes time to build and dominate categories – and it took a lot more time then than it does now.

Of course, almost a century later, Birds Eye is still a huge brand in frozen foods. And Clarence Birdseye also has more in common than you might think with the founders of Uber.

Uber is a category king of recent vintage. Not very long ago, we all lived with an age-old problem: in most cities, taxi service sucked. If you walked out to a given street corner, you had no idea if a taxi might happen in a few minutes, or, well, never.

Yet there didn’t seem to be an alternative way to get an instant car ride, so people didn’t seek one out. We had an old, ongoing problem, but we didn’t really know it was a problem that could be solved in a new way.

On a snowy night in Paris in 2008, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp were, separately, already reasonably successful tech entrepreneurs. Having sold both of their companies, they were looking for a company – perhaps something they’d do together – and, while freezing and frustrated in Paris, they talked of solving this taxi problem.

Apple’s iPhone had been introduced less than a year earlier, changing the way we think about mobile technology and services. Why, Kalanick and Camp wondered, couldn’t you pull out your smartphone, push a button, and get picked up by a car? Back home in San Francisco, the pair experienced the problem anew. Hailing a cab in that town was like trying to get a bartender’s attention in a jam-packed nightclub.

So Kalanick and Camp went to work on their idea, and launched their service in the summer of 2010 in San Francisco. Half a year later, investors were lining up to give Uber money.

Benchmark Capital put in $10m. Some famous names such as Jay Z and Jeff Bezos invested. Uber expanded to other cities.

As it grew, Uber at the same time did something extremely important: Uber made all of us aware that we had a taxi problem – and that the problem had a new solution. Uber did this through the way it designed the company and its service. It did this through its messaging to the public. And it did this through confrontation.

Every time the taxi industry tried to stop Uber, the scuffle made people more aware of Uber.

In London, taxi drivers protested against Uber by going on strike. When riders couldn’t get cabs, they signed up for Uber at a rate eight times higher than before the strike. As Uber was developing its service and its company, it was defining this new category of problem and inserting it into our brains.

This is an edited extract from Play Bigger by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead and Kevin Maney, which was shortlisted for the 2017 CMI Management Book of the Year awards.

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