Judy Tan

The Marshmallow Challenge's Implications for Your Company

Have you heard of the Marshmallow Tower Challenge? It was devised by Peter Skillman and Tom Wujec, and has been presented as talk on TED.com (see “Build a Tower, Build a Team”). This challenge has been presented to many groups; what’s important for us, as company leaders, is to understand how different groups of players do and what the implications say for the level of executive team collaboration.

Daniel Coyle, in The Culture Code, describes the challenge as follows;

A 4-person group is asked to build the tallest possible structure using the following items:

  • 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti
  • One yard of transparent tape
  • One yard of string
  • One standard-size marshmallow.

The contest has one rule: The marshmallow had to end up on top.

A large variety of groups have taken the challenge, including CEOs, lawyers, business school students and kindergarteners.  Who did best? In dozens of trials, the kindergarteners built structures that averaged 26 inches high; the towers built by business school students, averaged less than 10 inches. Everyone else was in-between.  CEOs averaged 22 inches and teams of lawyers 15 inches.

The groups took different approaches. For instance, the business students got right to work; talking and thinking strategically, tossing out ideas, generating option, etc. They arrived at a strategy, divided up the tasks and started building. In contrast, the kindergarteners didn’t analyze, strategize, or hone ideas. They stood very close to one another and with little talking and unorganized interactions, they grabbed material from one another and started building. They focused on “trying a bunch of stuff together”.

The authors concluded that it’s not the skills level of the parties that matter, as much as the interaction. “The business school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact they are engaged in… ‘status management’. They are figuring out where they fit in the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s ideas? What are the rules here? Interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behavior is riddled within efficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition. Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another…. (In contrast,) the kindergarteners are not competing for status. They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They move quickly spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes, which guide them towards effective solutions.”

What’s this mean for you? Business students and people like them are likely to be hired by your company, especially in executive positions. They are the role models and implementers for your corporate culture and strategy among their peers and people who report to them. Are they truly forging collaborative teamwork focused on solving the key business challenges that need to be resolved positively in order to achieve the company’s strategy, mission and vision?

What are you doing to improve their “soft-skills or communications, collaboration and teamwork? One solution might be Vistage Inside which was created to meet this need. It has a flexible structure of group development programs, workshops with some of the 1400 expert-speakers, and executive coaching. Also available is access to the 22,000 other Vistage members and an extensive, education opportunities of whitepapers, webinars, etc

Is it time to increase your executive team’s strategic effectiveness and cultural collaboration? Contact Jerry,Cahn@vistagechair.com or 646-290-7664.

There’s No Place in a Performance Culture for “Simple Sabotage”

Do any of these actions by others in your company frustrate you?

  • Insist on doing everything through “channels”. Never permit shortcuts to be taken to expedite decisions.
  • Make “speeches”. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate “points” with long anecdotes.
  • Whenever possible, refer all matters to committees for “further study and consideration”. Attempt to make committees as large as possible, never less than five.
  • Haggle over the precise words of communications, minutes and resolutions.
  • Hold meetings when there is more critical work to be done.
  • Multiple the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, paychecks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

In 1944, at the height of World War II, by William Donovan, the director of the US office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) was looking for a way to help ordinary citizens inside enemy territory who were sympathetic to the allies destabilize their communities and business. They created the “Simple Sabotage Field Manual” In Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan notes it was wide ranging, from ways to damage buildings and infrastructure to interrupt supply lines. At the end was a little section focused on disrupting day-to-day operations – and included the above list of actions (and many more)!

The next time, you see such behaviors, consider whether they are helping the performance culture advance to achieve the company’s goals – or are simply sabotaging speed and agility!

The #1 Attribute of Leadership: Inspiration

For years, as a coach and mentor to CEOs and other executives, I’ve helped them adopt and polish skills on how to be more effective in leading their companies. Recalling that this is the 50th anniversary of the US moon landing (and successful return of the astronauts), I thought about the key role of a leader: to inspire the “team” to focus on the long-term and achieve its goals.

In a world where we’re increasingly becoming self-absorbed and focusing on tactical issues (e.g., social media topics and our political dialogue), Douglas Brinkley’s WSJ article “How JFK Sent the U.S. to the Moon” reminded us of the value of Inspiration as a leadership value. JFK didn’t live to see the moon landing (which took place during the administration of the man he beat for the presidency in 1960 – Richard Nixon). But he was instrumental to making it happen. As Buzz Aldrin reflected, Kennedy had the courage “to reaffirm that the American dream was still possible in the midst of turmoil”

The moonshot was the right goal for the historic moment. In 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, setting of a frantic race to improve the US capability in space. Kennedy made the issue his own during the campaign stating that he would” restore the structure of American science and education” which the Eisenhower administration had not prioritized. Kennedy observed that in Nixon’s kitchen debate with Soviet premier Khrushchev, Nixon said “you may be ahead of us in rocket thrust, but we’re ahead in color TV. Kennedy said “I will take my television in black and white. I want to be ahead of them in rocket thrust.” In his inaugural address he clearly stated the vision for all; to send a man to the moon and bring him back successfully before the end of the decade.

Once he became president, he spoke to Congress about “Urgent National Needs” and tied his New Frontier agenda to a lunar mission: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and turning him safely to Earth.” His sheer enthusiasm played a critical role in getting NASA to match early Soviet successes in sending men into orbit, while keeping the focus on going beyond this catchup approach with a moonshot program costing (in today’s dollars) $180 Billion.

When he was assassinated in 1963, his widow, Mrs. Kennedy reminded Lyndon Johnson how her husband had roused America to a great national purpose. With such support, Lyndon Johnson evoked the martyred Kennedy every time Congress tried to slash the funds. In the 1964 campaign, the GOP candidate, Barry Goldwater, complain that the moonshot was a “stunt” that diverted resources for more useful military and civilian applications of space science. After the election, many Republicans and even Democrats began taking a similar position, proposing to cut the funding. Johnson maintained his commitment to the moonshot and to inspiring the American public to stick with the goal by noting that the US couldn’t afford to be “first in Earth and second in space”. And while the NASAs budget did get cut after 1966, it was still sufficient to successfully get the Apollo 11 team to the moon and back safely. (Support for the space race later declined as Americans shifted their attention three moon-trips was cancelled.)

It was inspiration by leader of the US that mobilized the commitment and enabled it to survive over a decade as others took on the mantle of leadership despite increasing amount of turmoil (e.g., race riots and the Vietnam War).  Since then other presidents have created dreams for the US to visit the moon and other planets, but none with the inspirational commitment of President Kennedy.

As a leader, are you focused on strategy or tactics? Are you focused on long-term goals that will last multiple years or even survive your time in office? Are you sharing your enthusiasm and inspiring the “troops” at every occasion?  That’s the key to success.

Share your experiences of how you inspire your troops to mobilize and achieve your “moonshots”.

Leadership Requires Being a Role Model

Often, people ask me what kinds of CEOs join Vistage. I reply that my members are smart, curious people with lots of integrity. They’re success, and want more success for themselves and their employees. They know they don’t have all the answers and don’t let their egos get in the way of learning from other people – experts and CEOs. And most important, they understand the importance of being a role model for their employees.

Melinda Gates recent WSJ article about her forthcoming book “The Moment of Life”, made me realize there was another dimension: they are role models not just in their companies but in their communities.

In her article “Equality for Women Must Start at Home (Even the Gates Home)”, she reflects on her own experiences with achieving equality once she and Bill started having children. Since it was also an important time for Microsoft – “the peak of his commitment” – a pattern emerged in which he became was working long hours in the office while she became the principle caretaker. Recognizing this pattern was the opposite of what they envision with their the goal of equality at home, and eventually with their foundation, they began making changes.

Therefore she started a conversation with Bill: she noted that if she would be the person who had to sacrifice work each morning to take their daughter to school, they were not pursuing equality. Bill volunteered to assume the driver role a few days of the week. Soon, they noted that more dads were also doing the morning drop-offs. One of the other moms told Ms. Gates, “When we saw Bill driving, we went home and said to our husbands “Bill Gates is driving his child to school; you can too.” The conversation Bill and Melinda had at home, followed by action, and sparked similar conversations and action by others.

The powerful realization that all leaders should have sustanon is that we have to be role models within our companies, if we want to be authentic leaders with impact. And, since such behavior doesn’t stop at the “corporate door” but continues into our communities, being authentic means being a role model in the community where we also will have an impact.

Are you a role model of behaviors in your company? Share some of the ways you use your actions to influence others. Also, share with us how you serve as a role model when you engage in community activities for yourself, your family and others.

Change is Hard: Here are 5 ways to Accomplish It

At the beginning of each year, many of us resolve to make changes to make the new  year better. For instance, we may resolve to lose weight – by exercising and eating more healthy food , and/or increasing sales and profits  – by increasing price/value and reducing costs through more effective use of staff. The problem is we start out with good intentions and then, if we’re not getting immediate reinforcement that our methods are working, we stop. The fitness industry sees this every year: it starts with lots of new clients, and many start dropping out by the end of the first month.

Daniel Lock wrote a blog for Innovation Excellence that identified 5 behaviors that enable us to execute more effectively:

  • Share a compelling story with a clear purpose to create a sense of urgency. Whether you’re supported at home by a network of friends and family, or you’re changing the company in which case you need to engage other leaders/managers, this is a powerful technique. John Kotter first identified the need to create a sense of purpose and urgency in order to make the change the purpose of the story is to clearly state objectives and processes, and engage your supportive players so they can visualize the future state, understand the risks and obstacles, and commit to doing their part to help effective change.
  • Paint a picture of opportunity. You need to spark people’s growth-mindset so they see how they, too, can grow by doing their part. Their support means giving up current daily practices in order to make time to implement the changes they must make in their routines. They need to visualize themselves in their new roles.
  • Discover what is not working. Leaders must fully understand what behaviors he/she, and the support group are engaged in which are counterproductive to the new change. Sleeping late or buying unhealthy food for the household, or  holding long, unproductive meetings which don’t focus on accountability and individuals committing to make changes, are counterproductive activities
  • Determine why it’s not working. Everyone must understand why the current behaviors are causing the problem that you want to change. Awareness by your supportive players is critical, if they are going to change the counterproductive behaviors.
  • Encourage a Participative and collaborative approach. The point is that you are more likely to succeed if you create a culture which encourages people to make all the changes they have to make to help you make your change. Create a culture that recognizes the risks, and encourages people to accept initial failures in making changes, and rewards ongoing learn for what else can be done to develop new personal habits and/or work processes so every player is a part of the success.

Use these insights to effect the changes you want this year. Then learn from the successes to apply the system to effect more changes throughout the year and in the future.

Share with us what your “change” goals are for 2019 are, how you’re creating a sense of purpose and urgency for yourself and your support group, and then let us know in future months how you are succeeding. If things aren’t working out, share the situation with us, so we can be part of your support group committed to helping you win in the battle for change.

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August 2022