Category: Management and Leadership

Three perspectives on organizational change: more answers from MIT Sloan Professor John Van Maanen

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 9 days ago

John Van Maanen

Over 3,500 registrants signed up for our most recent webinar, Three Perspectives on Organizational Change. During the event, MIT Sloan Professor John Van Maanen discussed innovative approaches to change management and delved into three different perspectives embraced by most organizations: strategic, political, and cultural. In this post, Professor Van Maanen responds to some questions from webinar attendees that were not addressed during the live event.


With the rapid pace of technological advancement, as well as increasing globalization with its accompanying challenges, which lens is the most undervalued or most challenging to get right? Which lenses most commonly contribute to failures for organizations to execute well on change management strategies?

The cultural lens is the most difficult to "get right" in the sense of having a culture that fits the challenges the organization is presently facing. It certainly is the most vexing to both diagnose and alter, in terms of difficulty and time. Change that threatens valued professional or occupational identities is particularly problematic. My sense is that if you can figure out a way to work within and with respect for the various cultures represented in the organization, change is somewhat easier. Culture is not a variable that one tunes up or down. It is a set of deeply embedded habits and ways of looking at the world that works and works well for cultural members. So, there are limits, serious ones, to the extent which cultural change can be directed and hastened.

Can organizations survive if there are competing perspectives between workgroups? E.g., if one department is politically powerful and another is strategically powerful, is it best to lean towards one or the other method?

To some extent this on-going battle for power and control of strategic moves is built into organizational life. It contributes motivation, ambition, innovation, and drama, and works at the individual and group levels. One fights for what one thinks is best for the organization (strategy) and marshals all the evidence one can collect in its support. The loyal opposition does the same. If power--the ability to get things done--is not so imbalanced, things generally work out and adjustments can be made. Tinkering is continual.

Over time, culture usually helps select which groups have power, and those groups select strategic designs that support their position. When the lack of fit with the environment is apparent to all (falling revenues, unmet goals, customer abandonment, etc.), a change movement (from outside or inside or both) typically forms to shift the power balance. If successful, strategic design changes usually follow in its wake. To cling to one lens or the other is a recipe for failure.

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Calling all Boston-area professionals: The Greater Boston Executive Program

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 2 months and 4 days ago

If you're a Boston-area professional seeking to make a big impact on your organization and your career, here is your chance. This spring, MIT Sloan Executive Education offers an eight-week intensive program designed for high-potential professionals interested in enhancing their management skills, leadership capabilities, and ability to manifest change.

The popular Greater Boston Executive Program (GBEP) was developed nearly six decades ago in response to the unique management development needs of Boston-area companies. These firms recognized that continuing education in management principles was essential for developing managers who could assume additional responsibilities in their organizations. They wanted to expose their people to current thinking in management philosophy--without taking them away from work for long periods.

With the help of MIT's then president Howard W. Johnson, the sponsoring Greater Boston companies set up the first session of the Greater Boston Executive Program in Business Management in the spring of 1958. From the beginning, participating companies have contributed to the success of the program by their selection of managers, vice presidents, assistant treasurers, controllers, and senior research personnel to attend.

After a one-year hiatus in 2015, the Greater Boston Executive Program was updated and relaunched as part of the MIT Sloan Executive Education portfolio.

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Sleeping your way to the top

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 2 months and 24 days ago

Contributed by Tara Swart, MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer, neuroscientist, and executive leadership coach.

What makes a good leader?

Senior executives, managers, and business leaders are paid to use their brains. So it is surprising how little emphasis many put on this vital organ.

In a fast-paced world that is constantly changing, the brain's executive functions, such as creative and flexible thinking, task-switching, bias suppression, and emotional regulation, are becoming increasingly important. But our ability to perform well at these outputs will be enhanced only if fed the right inputs. These include nourishing, hydrating, and oxygenating the brain appropriately, simplifying tasks to give the brain mindful time, and resting it.

That final element—rest—is one of the most crucial. We often hear stories about famous leaders such as Margaret Thatcher surviving and even thriving on very little sleep (Thatcher did suffer from dementia in her later life). It is true that an extremely limited number of people (1-2% of the population) have a genetic mutation that reduces the amount of sleep they truly require for optimal functioning to 4-5 hours a night. But for the rest of us, getting seven to nine hours of good, quality sleep every night is vital for staying on top of our game.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep deprivation will negatively impact your cognitive performance. Getting less sleep than the recommended amount can cause an apparent IQ loss of five to eight points the next day, and population norm studies have shown that losing an entire night’s sleep can lead to up to one standard deviation loss on your IQ. In other words, you're effectively operating with the equivalent of a learning disability.

Shorting your sleep can have longer-term effects as well. Our glymphatic system requires 7-8 hours to clean our brains, a process which flushes out protein plaques and beta amyloid tangles that can lead to dementing diseases if allowed to accumulate. Not getting enough sleep, or getting poor quality sleep (which includes sleeping after drinking alcohol) inhibits this process and can therefore increase the risk of developing these types of disease.

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Leading in a world of uncertainty

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 3 months and 22 days ago

Leadership skills for an uncertain world

Digitization, globalization, political turmoil—most executives today feel like they are leading in a world of uncertainty. The imminent threat that does (or should) keep leaders awake at night is disruption. Uber, Airbnb, and before them, Amazon, all disrupted their industries. Who will be disrupting your industry next? How should you lead amidst all this uncertainty? How do you compete—and win—in a world where change is constant?

Deborah Ancona, Professor of Organization Studies at MIT Sloan, discussed this topic in a recent webinar, "Leading in a World of Uncertainty." Ancona covered several skills leaders should be adopting, one of which is referred to as sense-making. As Ancona previously told Forbes, sens-making is to "make sense of the context in which an organization or a team is operating ... how can we map what is going on out there so we can act in this environment that is changing."

One great example of sensemaking, according to Ancona, is a product development team at Bose. They were working on new technology and recognized the market trend towards smaller speakers. However, this trend was counter to Bose's corporate mentality that smaller products did not have the ability to project the audio quality for which Bose is known. But, through sense-making, the team was able to prove there would be market demand for the product. Yes, they had to fight for their cause, and push against an entrenched corporate philosophy, but in the end, they secured the resources to develop a mini speaker. And that mini speaker is now a best-selling product.

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Success isn't comfortable: Lessons in leadership from the Human Capital Institute

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 4 months and 22 days ago

confused executive

There is value in discomfort--business value. If you happened to attend the Human Capital Institute's Learning and Leadership Development Conference held in Boston last month (MIT Sloan Executive Education was a sponsor), you heard more than one session speaker tout the benefits of being squarely outside of one's comfort zone. According to speakers like MIT's own Hal Gregersen, who presented a keynote speech at the conference, business leaders need to get uncomfortable to be successful.

Three ways discomfort drives success

We generally think of people who enjoy uncomfortable situations as thrill seekers--or masochists. Most people don't take pleasure in being nervous, humbled, or overly challenged. We are conditioned to appear as confident and competent in front of our peers as humanly possible. And we avoid tasks that are out of our wheelhouse because, frankly, we don’t want to screw up. However, in the context of leadership development and business success, staying comfortable is actually a dangerous game. And, most importantly, a missed opportunity.

Here are three takeaways from the recent HCI conference that remind us of the value in discomfort.

Executives who learn to stretch their comfort levels and ask tough questions make better leaders and innovators.

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan Executive Education, says it's all too easy for senior leaders to isolate themselves in a "good news cocoon" where everyone says things are fine and no one challenges your ideas or asks tough questions. It's comfy, and it's dangerous. Powerful organizational and industrial forces can keep any senior leader from asking (or hearing) uncomfortable questions, creating a perilous, answer-centric environment rife with blind spots. They lose sight of the big picture of how things really are, ultimately missing opportunities for innovation and increasing the risk of disruption.

"Executives who ask and invite probing questions are much better equipped to manage threats and spot opportunities," said Gregersen in his keynote speech, The Leader's Dilemma: Asking Tough Questions (Before Someone Else Does). Having interviewed hundreds of the world's most innovative CEOs as part of his ongoing leadership research, he finds that those who seek out uncomfortable, risky, and challenging situations in search of a line of inquiry have greater success at leading innovative products and process. By becoming better questioners, leaders unlock new solutions, innovations, and processes, ultimately creating greater business value.

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What's your company's rallying cry?

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 6 months and 1 day ago

get your executive team in synch, like the the U.S. women’s eight

Rowing is, perhaps, the ultimate team sport. Regardless of the number of oarsmen/oarswomen or the size of the boat, the way to win is to row together as a team. A team of weaker individuals rowing as a team will beat out a team of stronger athletes rowing out of synch. Without that commitment to work together, the boat has no "swing."

The world recently saw how a committed rowing team can achieve the nearly unthinkable: the U.S. women's eight, in capturing the Gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, won their 11th straight world and Olympic title. As Time pointed out, "The Cold War-era Soviet Union hockey team won 14 straight world titles from 1963-1976. No other national team run, really, is comparable."

What makes it even more remarkable is that unlike a sports dynasty that may lose one or two key players a year due to trades or retirement, rowing might only keep one or two team members from year to year. This year's US women's team in Rio consisted of two members who rowed and won the Gold medal at the London Olympics, and seven Olympic rookies. (An "eight" consists of eight oarswomen and one coxswain). When other crews threatened to pull away and win the Olympic gold medal in Rio last week, coxswain Katelin Snyder began her rallying cry: "This is the U.S. women’s eight." That simple phrase, chosen at the most critical moment in the push for gold (the boat was in third at the time), may not sound like much to us, but the women were charged by it. She was reminding her team that a legend was on the course. They were there to capture the gold, and their 11th championship.

The team that rows together, wins together

It takes hundreds of hours of training to row in synch, as a team, and experience the elusive swing of a boat. Somedays, practice can feel like eight individuals rowing one clunky boat. The others are magic. Organizations, in their pursuit of business success, can take insipiration from these Olympic efforts. After all, aren't all companies striving to cultivate a winning team that out performs the rest of the field, despite turnover or inherent weaknesses?

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A leadership skill you can't afford not to perfect

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 7 months and 18 days ago

Quick. Name the top three leadership skills that define a good executive. If you didn’t mention negotiation, you’re missing a big one. Knowing how to negotiate is not only one of the most important leadership skills, it’s also one of the most empowering, according to MIT Sloan Professor Jared Curhan.

As executives and leaders, we are called upon to negotiate every day. Sometimes a negotiation is necessary to resolve a critical issue like hiring or firing a team member. Other times, it might be as mundane as deciding who will make the coffee run. Regardless of the scope of the negotiation, knowing how to negotiate is a core leadership skill and one that executives can benefit from honing. Professor Curhan says negotiation is “how we achieve things in the world. Negotiation is a potentially powerful and transformative tool. It’s something all of us do all of the time. And for many, it’s a source of control.”

What defines a successful negotiation experience?

Although we negotiate often, it might not be something we enjoy. In fact, for many people negotiating is difficult and uncomfortable. Professor Curhan explains there are several behaviors that can make the difference between a successful or unsuccessful negotiation. One of the first steps in any negotiation process is to ask the right questions. Curhan says the most important question is “What don’t I know?” or, what is it that I am most worried the other person will ask? Preparing answers to these kinds of questions is a good place to start. Furthermore, Professor Curhan says the preparation for a negotiation “is 90% of the determinant of whether you will be successful in the negotiation.”

Next, says Professor Curhan, it’s important to find some common ground from which you can both begin. If there are areas where you and the other person are in agreement, you’ll be starting from a positive position and also conveying a cooperative attitude. Balance is key. “The challenge is to balance the tension between empathy and assertiveness … there are certain things you want to accomplish, but you also want to maintain the relationship.”

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Could a scandal like Volkswagen's happen to your organization?

Posted by MIT Sloan Executive Education - 8 months and 9 days ago

Volkswagen

Just over seven months ago, MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Otto Scharmer wrote in the Huffington Post about one of the top headline-grabbing stories: Volkswagen's diesel deception scandal. Unfortunately for Volkswagen, the scandal shows no signs of going away any time soon. It was only recently that a federal court in San Francisco announced a settlement where Volkswagon would fix or buy back nearly 500,000 diesel cars in the U.S.

There are still more components to settling the issue. According to the New York Times, "Lawyers in the case are still negotiating the fines that Volkswagen must pay, as well as the compensation that owners will receive." The same article cites Kelley Blue Book as estimating the "cost of buying back all the cars in the U.S. at $7 billion." Then, of course, Volkswagen has to address the same diesel emissions issue in Europe.

One might wonder how a highly respected automobile manufacturer and global brand could intentionally deceive its customers and the public to this extent. According to Scharmer, "The VW disaster is a leadership failure of epic proportion. It's connected to a leadership style and culture that, until now, was the source of incredible pride and success." As Scharmer points out in his Huffington Post article, that culture "prevented leaders from reading and recognizing information that, in a culture of fear and control, no one ever wants to communicate upwards--thereby preventing the company from learning as a system."

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