The Right Way to Solve Complex Business Problems

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Corey Phelps, a strategy professor at McGill University, says great problem solvers are hard to find. Even seasoned professionals at the highest levels of organizations regularly fail to identify the real problem and instead jump to exploring solutions. Phelps identifies the common traps and outlines a research-proven method to solve problems effectively. He’s the coauthor of the book, Cracked it! How to solve big problems and sell solutions like top strategy consultants.

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Time-Tested Tips for Working Productively from Home

Working remotely has a certain cachet, and it's well deserved. Getting your work done from the comfort of home, maybe even in your pajamas? Not ever dealing with rush hour traffic? It sounds like a dream, but truth be told, it's not as easy as it seems.

If you're not careful, working remotely can have adverse effects on both you and your work. Here are some helpful tips to keep your mind and your projects at their best.

Give yourself a schedule

It's a necessity to keep yourself on track. Choose hours during the day where you know you are the most alert and focused.

This may sound like I took away the fun out of the gate, but making your own schedule is a great advantage. It gives you the freedom to work at your own pace and when you feel the most alert, focused, and/or creative.

Using your own personality traits and workflow, you can design a schedule that allows you the kind of day that you want. For example, as a freelance writer, I know that I like to write one entire article, then take a long break before I start the next one so that I don't get bored or distracted. It helps to make a list of tasks that need to be accomplished each day and design your work day based on your task list.

If you need to make adjustments to your schedule, that's the great thing about working on your own time – you can! Just keep your time structured; otherwise, it's easy to slip into laziness or ineffective work.

Choose your workspace wisely

Now that you've created a work schedule, it's time to think about where you're going to get your work tasks completed. Not everyone works the best from home, while others thrive from the comfort of their own home office.  Are you going to be tempted to get housework done instead of actual work? Sleep in late? Go on a Netflix binge? If you think any of these may apply to you, it's time to figure out a solution to better adhere to your schedule.

There are several options available: You can work at a local coffee shop if you don't mind the noise. You can work at the library if you like it to be extra quiet. You can rent out a shared office space, called coworking, if you like the camaraderie that a water cooler brings. Wherever your mental game is your best, that's where you should go to work.

Utilize video chat

If you are working by yourself, it can certainly have its perks – you won't be distracted, and that annoying co-worker you don't get along with is no longer an issue. But 40 hours is a long time to spend by yourself, and once in a while, you're going to miss human connection during the workweek.

Using a free app on a regular basis, whether it's a meeting with co-workers or collaborators or distributors, will keep you in touch with other people while remaining in your own private workspace. And you can use a project management app to collaborate when more than simple chat is required. Bonus: It always makes working with someone much easier and emails that much simpler to understand going forward once you've actually spoken to a co-worker face to face.

Another reason to speak over video chat is that some things are just too difficult to explain over email. If you're working in an office, you can speak in person, but when you're at home, you don't have that simple luxury. If you just need to ask a quick question and need an answer right away, you can always disable the video portion and use the app to send an instant message. It can keep things more casual, and you'll always get a response – no more emails getting lost in the fray.

Just remember that video chatting is not the time you want to be in your pajamas, so you'll want to appear that you're working in a more typical office setting.

Separate your work life and your home life

It's especially difficult to "leave it at the office" when your office is wherever you make it. That's where that pesky schedule comes into play again, but this time, it's to keep yourself from working more.

Separating your personal life from your work life is essential to your mental health. Set a time of day when you're finished working. When it's time to turn off the computer, turn it off and leave it off until the next workday.

Stick to the structure

When you work away from an office, it's not as desirable as some may think it is, but for most of us, it really beats having to report at a specific time to a specific person at a specific place. If you have the discipline that working remotely requires, adhering to these tips will allow you the opportunity to enjoy your workday while accomplishing as much – if not more – than you would in any regular office.

Executives Need to Be Strong, Not Forceful

Walking the line between being strong and being forceful can be a regular challenge for today’s executives.

There are times when business leaders need to draw on both skills to be effective decision makers, but leaning too far toward forcefulness can utterly derail the best-laid plans of any company and have a significant impact to the bottom-line. Forceful leaders tend to be resented, while true leaders inspire their workforce to take action with a positive mindset, even when times are tough. By implementing the tools of positive psychology, being emotionally intelligent and mindfully assertive, a smart business leader can balance between being a steamroller and being rolled over.

A negative, tyrannical work environment full of force can take a tremendous financial and personal toll. Back in 2013, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, professors at Georgetown and Arizona State, conducted a study that showed that a toxic work environment – including incivility, rudeness, micromanagement and forceful leadership – had a significant impact on a business’s bottom line. Nearly half of employees studied decreased their work effort and spent less time at work, and almost 38 percent of the employees intentionally decreased the quality of their work. The study also revealed that some employees even took their frustrations out on customers, and 12 percent eventually left their toxic jobs. All of that translates into big problems for business leaders and for profitability in the long run. Being a forceful leader can have a significant negative impact on your business, your employees and your bottom line.

Being assertive means proactively listening and communicating clearly with employees and other company leaders to give instruction, correction and direction. It does not mean demanding outrageous things. A leader who says, “In order to hit next quarter’s revenue targets, we need to reinvigorate this business and this is how we are going to do it” inspires confidence with clear direction and goal setting. One who demands that employees execute a plan simply because he or she says so tends to engender resistance. An assertive leader leaves no doubt in the minds of employees and inspires people to pull together to achieve sometimes-difficult goals. Today, forceful leaders get resented, while true leaders head the march.

If a business leader takes this lesson to heart and strives to create a positive environment where people can thrive, that environment will translate to great success for the company and individual employees. So, how should business leaders implement this in the workplace? Emphasize strengths over weaknesses, focus on ways to improve the overall well-being of employees and help foster a space that allows for creativity, communication and growth. Taking these steps will ensure that smart leaders avoid the toxicity trap.

But how does a successful leader walk this tightrope between being assertive but not being forceful? Research shows that leveraging the tools of positive psychology can help motivate employees to strive for bigger goals and make a company more successful. Barbara Fredrickson is a psychologist and principal researcher at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research has shown that “people who experience more positive emotions than negative ones are more likely to see the bigger picture, build relationships and thrive in their work and career, whereas people who experience mostly negative emotions are more likely to have a narrower perspective and tend to focus more on problems.” That means that when a skilled leader creates an environment of positivity, employees are more likely to want to work harder and longer and be more dedicated to the company.

Utilizing the tools of positive psychology means that leaders need to work hard to develop their own emotional intelligence, a term that gets thrown around a lot in today’s workplace. The concept of emotional intelligence dates back to the 1950s when psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman published a book arguing that the chances of success in life and work center around the ability to understand and manage emotions as they arise in both ourselves and those around us. Goleman argues that emotional intelligence matters more than IQ in determining our success. To that end, business leaders must have a high emotional quotient (EQ) and strive to constantly improve their emotional intelligence to help foster a positive work environment. Being emotionally intelligent and fostering a positive work environment may seem to advocate for weak leadership and a lack of assertiveness when, in fact, it means just the opposite. By leveraging and nourishing workplace relationships and encouraging open communication, a leader can gain consensus and decisively move things forward. This doesn’t equate to a lack of assertiveness. Rather, it is a new and innovative way to be assertive without being forceful.

The first step in figuring out that balance is, as Socrates would say, to “know thyself.” Business leaders must be aware of how they perform under pressure, how they react to challenges, and how they tend to communicate before they can begin to seek out a balance.

To that end, business leaders must strive to be peacekeepers more than tyrants. Rather than telling employees “my way or the highway,” skilled leaders should approach a challenge with an open mind, a good set of listening skills and high emotional intelligence. When a challenge presents itself, a skilled leader should consider how best to present a reasonable and fair solution rather than demanding something outrageous. This approach demonstrates a model that employees can use in their own conflict resolution and continues to reinforce a positive work environment. It becomes a win-win situation for all parties.

Business leaders must navigate between head and heart to find the right balance of being assertive but not forceful. In today’s competitive corporate environment, there is far too much to lose by being pushy and autocratic – and it’s not just limited to profits and people. The physical and emotional toll that kind of leadership can take is very high. By using the tools of positive psychology, leveraging emotional intelligence and aiming to be a peacekeeper rather than a tyrant, business leaders can be sure that their leadership style is strong but not forceful.

After 10 Years, How Has the Lean Startup Fared?

If you’re already familiar with the concept of the “lean startup,” you may be surprised to realize it’s already 10 years old!

Silicon Valley veteran and blogger Eric Ries coined the phrase in 2008 when he began publishing his experiences and analysis after working with several tech startups throughout the early 2000s. He solidified his concepts in the bestselling book, "The Lean Startup," late in 2011, and thus began a legitimate international movement.

With over a decade of hindsight available, let’s take an objective look at how the lean startup movement has fared, and where we can expect things to go from here.

Where the lean startup shines

One of the best known and most successful proponents of the lean startup model is Dropbox. The ubiquitous cloud storage app grew very quickly in a highly-saturated market, and CEO Drew Houston credits much of that momentum to the application of Eric Ries’ lean startup principles. Houston has since written and spoken extensively on the subject. Reviewing his rundown of how Dropbox effectively went lean outlines the generally-accepted benefits of lean startup concepts:

Minimum viable product (MVP)

The initial private “launch” of Dropbox was really nothing of the sort. At the time, Houston and a few friends had a fleshed-out concept, a barebones prototype mostly coded, and an ambitious development calendar, but little else. With just those assets in hand, Houston began reaching out to potential investors and users with a simple combination of videos and a landing page for collecting email addresses.

The first video – a brief runthrough of the app’s interface and explanation of the problems it solved – was sent to Hacker News and other similar outlets, as well as venture capital firms. As it turned out, this quick-and-dirty video runthrough was sufficient to intrigue Y-Combinator and to spark a buzz online about this “new and improved” cloud storage startup.

A second video, which went viral on Digg.com, resulted in over 75,000 potential users added to the waiting list in just one day.

This illustrates the core lean startup principle of the minimum viable product Dropbox was able to achieve powerful traction, funding and a ton of valuable feedback based off an app that was not even finished yet. Instead, it had a prototype that was sufficient for illustrating its goals, and an ambitious development roadmap that investors and users both could get behind.

Focusing on developing an MVP allows lean startups to go to market, learn and iterate more rapidly than startups that concentrate on developing a polished, completed product first and foremost. And, importantly, this feedback loop lets them quickly answer the most important question for every startup: “Is this a product people are willing to pay for?”

Customer development

Another key tenet of the lean startup methodology is actually borrowed – with all appropriate attribution – from another keen business mind of the early 21st century, Steve Blank, and his theory of customer development.

While there’s far more to the complete concept, the overarching point is that “build it and they will come” almost never works, and entrepreneurs who rely on that idea are fooling themselves. Instead, startups need to approach the development of their customer base or target audience in just as rigorous and disciplined a fashion as they approach product development, quality control, and marketing.

In Dropbox’s case, these principles resonated with Houston, and he recognized early on that he and his co-founders were, themselves, early tech adopters. So, this was a consumer persona they knew well and understood. They were, therefore, able to target other early adopters with laser precision in the way they wrote and distributed those initial videos and many other pieces of content that followed.

The result of this disciplined, targeted development of its customer base was rapid adoption and profitable growth in the neighborhood of 15-20 percent, month-over-month for years.

Thinking creatively

Finally, the lean startup model's focus on constantly experimenting, monitoring and iterating based on results leads to a common outcome: Companies find that many of the traditional marketing and growth strategies they felt compelled to implement because “that’s just how you do it” didn’t work. On the other hand, thinking outside the box and trying something new often resulted in unexpected success.

In Dropbox’s case, as it drew near a full public launch, the company invested heavily in SEO and SEM because that’s what all its competitors were doing. But, keeping a close eye on analytics showed that these strategies were providing a horrible cost of acquisition – over $300 per customer. Selling a $99 product, those figures were unacceptable.

With some creative thinking, however, the company recognized that much of its continued growth was due to satisfied users regularly telling friends about the app. Dropbox decided to encourage this behavior by establishing its now-iconic referral program – invite a friend to Dropbox and you both get 250 megabytes of bonus storage – and the rest, as they say, is history.

What’s the future of lean startups?

While there’s no denying that many companies have seen great success following Eric Ries’ guidelines for lean startups, the methodology has its critics as well. And, by the author’s own admission, it’s not a formula for success in all circumstances or industries.

However, particularly in the United States and industries that support small businesses, even 10 years into the lean startup movement, most of the shine remains. The principles and guidelines simply work in many cases.

So, is it reasonable to expect lean startups to continue to succeed going forward? There’s no reason to think otherwise. The real key, however, is for each entrepreneur to educate themselves on lean principles as one of numerous approaches to startup success. Then, through careful planning and experimentation, decide what’s going to work best for bringing their unique vision to life.

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