Social Influence: Don’t Underestimate its Power

As a social psychologist with a strong interest in behavioral economics, I enjoy learning new ways that people influence one another – so we can use them for good purposes.

Jonah Berger, in Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, identifies several factors that influence people’s decisions based on laboratory and field studies.

Let me share one example. Imagine you’re trying to get people to conserve energy. There are many ways to do so – focusing on their concern for the environment, their desire to save money, an appeal to good citizenship etc.  Studies have tried all these – and in general none have a real impact. However, encouraging people to follow a social norm – showing them on their electric bills that their neighbors are spending less than they are – and giving tem concrete suggestions for how they might also reduce energy consumption has had an impact.

Indeed, Yates and Laskey created a company Opower which sent consumers carefully targeted energy reports. Rather than an appeal, they simply report the difference in consumption patterns of people with their neighbors/ they also note that they can save energy by replacing certain electronics, turning off lights, adjusting light settings, etc.  The program led people to reduce energy consumption about 2%/ That might not seem a lot, but multiplied by the number of people they’ve reached so far it saved 6 trillion watt-hours or enough to take all homes in Alaska and Hawaii off the electric grid for a year. And, it reduced carbon dioxide – the equivalent of taking all cars in Chicago off the road for a year.

There are many other helpful hints in this book. For instance, if your sales (or other) team fell behind their goal, social influence can come to the rescue in certain cases – by unleashing the competitive spirits. If you’re using social influence techniques now, share them with us. If not, after reading the book share which you liked and will be applying!

Is Recruitment Part of Your Innovation Strategy?

Most of the time, people who embrace innovation is focus on the structural and cultural context of the company and how supports a strategy of innovation. For instance, many companies choose to take the team responsible for building a disruptive innovation and locate them elsewhere (It’s often referred to as the “skunk-works” group.)

 But we should go back a step – are we hiring people who embrace innovation? When we interview candidates are we looking for risk takers and entrepreneurs, people who thrive on a diverse set of experiences and interests? Or are we looking for people who are focused on their area of competence, attended top schools in that area and done very well and have some experience in that arena.

As an executive coach and consultant, I increasingly am encouraging executives to ask whether they’re looking for people who could become future leaders or not. If they are seeking the former, they need to investigate the person’s diversity of interests, experience with creativity and respect for innovation.  Standard job competencies like teamwork and collaboration, make them good workers – but may not be indicators of leadership skills which will encourage risk taking,

All too often, executives tell me they are considering merging or acquiring another firm in order to internalize more innovative energies. While inorganic approaches are good, better still is to do so organically. How do you recruit for your innovation strategy? Share some of your best practices.

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Build Staff’s Innovation Skills

We know that innovation is important to our companies and to our economy. How to maximize the opportunity is the challenge. I’ve shared several insights in this blog, and the presentations and webinars that I deliver on how companies can increase staff’s commitment to use their creative energies and be innovative.

Recently, Mike Nolan, Vice Chair of Innovation Solutions for KPMG, noted four effective steps business leaders can use:

  • Champion diversity of thought. Diverse teams are more likely to conceive if creative ideas than teams with similar backgrounds, skills and outlooks. For instance, many companies seeking to improve on their algorithms, sponsor a contest to people – and allow outsiders to join in. Many times, I’ve noticed, that the winners are people who are not part of the sponsoring company and often have different professional backgrounds!
  • Shift the mindset. Thinking creatively doesn’t come naturally to some, so you need to use different techniques to spur them. One of the most successful ways is to incorporate into your culture activities and norms that encourage it, such as “innovation circles” that meet regularly and creating a “stock market of ideas”.
  • Invest your own time. As with everything important in a company, the CEO and other leaders must serve as role-models for two reasons. First, as Nolan notes, leaders can’t tackle innovation on their own. A KPMG US CEO survey found 85% of chief executives don’t believe they have enough time to strategize about responding to disruption with innovation. So clearly they need to encourage others to be active. Second, cultures start at the top. Indeed, one of the most important roles of a chief executive is be a role model and set the tone for the values, activities and norms that should define the company. That’s true for ethics and innovation.
  • Incentivize and reward people meaningfully. To get your employees to commit to thinking creatively and channeling the energies into innovative activities, you need to reinforce such behavior. That means rewarding them for taking the risky, extra behaviors that might lead to the innovation. Unfortunately, as another study reported, most people feel their companies only reward them when their efforts succeeded. Such behavior is counterproductive when it comes to building staff’s motivation and skills for innovation.

Finally, consider offering special events to demonstrate your company’s commitment to innovation. We often hear of technology companies who sponsor hackathons. However, this commitment can be offered virtually anywhere. Ned Johnson, former Chairman of Fidelity Investments created Fidelity Labs almost 20 years ago to focus on innovation. New CEO Abigail Johnson is also “very focused on innovation.” The lab periodically runs hackathons in which employees from around the world assemble for two days to develop new ideas, build prototypes and pitch them to their colleagues and executives.

What steps are you taking to build your staff’s innovation skills? Share with us.

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Work-life Integration

As technology enabled people to communicate and/or engage on work projects outside the office, people started focused on the challenges of work-life balance. Many people came up with ideas, such as time-blocking which allowed people to ensure that there was sacred time at home or on vacation when their time with family and personal projects would not be violated. Some companies created policies to protect the balance.

As technology and the economy progressed, people began working virtually, taking on more than one job/gig and realizing that time blocking isn’t enough. They created work-life integration – the process of creating lifestyles that allow you to choose how to allocate time for work, and personal activities either in isolation or in combination as long as it maximizes your ability to be productive and have a fulfilling life.

As Robert Preziosi, a professor of leadership and human resources, notes in an article called The Work-Life Harried-Go-Round, integration blurs the line between work life and personal life in a way that optimizes performance in both areas. “It’s about finding the right ebb and flow of work responsibilities and personal accountabilities.” You mix together work and life to manage consciously what is most important at that time.

Employers who foster such a culture have learned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It starts with fitting the person to the job, since the person makes the decision of what and how to do it at his/her discretion. Setting arbitrary benchmarks for workers, such as leaving work by 5 Pm or not answering emails at certain times, generally will not meet the integrators’ needs. The key is to enable integrators to use as many flexible tools, such as mobile devices, teleconferencing, collaborative tools, flextime, etc. so they can meet their work and personal demands as needed.

How are you handling work-life integration? Is your company facilitating the process?  What experiences and insights will help others?  Share with us!

The Human Side of Automation

In the short run, the automation of physical and knowledge work advances, many jobs will be redefined to permit and encourage human creativity and innovation. Are we up to the challenge?

Watching IBM’s Watson, Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, Google’s driverless car, automated check-in kiosks and automated passport control processes at airports, and aircrafts’ autopilots guiding the majority of the flight, and you realize the potential of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics to perform tasks once reserved for thinking humans.  In a McKinsey study, the authors recognized that our focus, in the short run shouldn’t be on occupations but on specific activities that are replaceable.  For instance, they estimate that activities consuming more than 20% of a CEO’s working time can be automated using current technologies. These include analyzing reports and date to inform operational decisions, preparing staff assignments and reviewing status reports. As technologies improve, the percentage will grow.

Thus, as we progress, we should increase our focus on core human experience – creativity and sensing emotions – which are more difficult to automate. They estimate that only 4% of work across the US economy requires creativity at a median human level of performance; the comparable number is 29% when it comes to sensing emotion.  While these estimates reflect on the impoverished nature of our work lives, they also suggest the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work, as people reduce their level of routine and repetitive tasks.

One example that is beginning to take place: financial advisors might spend less time analyzing the data underlying clients’ financial situations and spend more time understanding their future needs and develop and explain creative options. Similarly, interior designers could spend less time taking measurements, developing illustrations, ordering materials, etc., and spend more time developing innovative design concepts based on clients’ desires.

Think about your job. How much of it can eventually be replaced by smart machines? What could you that would be more meaningful – to you, the organization and the customers – with that extra time?  If you come to the same conclusion that you can increasingly be freed up for more creative and meaningful activities, maybe it’s time to focus on “humanizing” the workplace!

What are your experiences now?  What do you think the future can bring with it? How do you plan to get “from here to there”?  Share with us.

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