Sunday, August 29, 2010

First Impressions of Harvard Business Review

I just finished reading my first issue of Harvard Business Review (September 2010) and came away pleased and with a mixed bag of results, two extremes of which I'll touch upon here.

On the plus side is Robert Schaffer's article titled Mistakes Leaders Keep Making.  Admittedly I'm the poster boy for narcissism so the Walter Mitty-like ability to see my own failures in the article makes it more compelling.  (This is also the reason I can't watch The Office.  Michael's cringe-inducing but well-intentioned antics hit just a little too close to home.)  Based on his 50 years of working with business leaders, Schaffer sees four fundamental mistakes that leaders continue to make, perhaps because they're so fundamental that they aren't explicitly addressed by the volumes of business books and articles published to date.  Without further ado, these fundamental problems are:

  1. Failure to set proper expectations.   You have to set clear goals and deadlines.
  2. Excusing subordinates from the pursuit of overall goals.  You can't let team leaders have too narrow a focus on their own objectives.
  3. Colluding with staff experts and consultants.  You have to make them responsible for outcomes.
  4. Waiting while associates prepare, prepare, prepare.  Endless preparation gives only the illusion of progress.

On the other hand, Dan Ariely's column titled Want People to Save?  Force Them instantly rubbed me the wrong way.  Ariely advocates that the best way to prevent two common failures of retirement planning (deciding to save in the first place and reducing investment risk as one's retirement date approaches) is to borrow a page from the Chilean government and simply deduct money from everyone's paycheck and invest it for them.  As justification, he points out that we already submit to a number of "deeply controlling" regulations and as examples he cites several from the motor vehicle code such wear a seatbelt and no texting while driving.  There's a big difference here.  If you text while driving the accident you cause will impact (pardon the pun) others either by death, injury, or property damage.  If you screw up your retirement plan, it's only you who'll suffer the consequences.  (Yes, I realize there is a cost to society if a large percentage of its citizenry cannot afford to live beyond retirement without government assistance.)  Nor do I wish to argue the analogy - if you motorcycle without a helmet or drive without a seatbelt the life you take will likely be your own.

But as I wrote, overall this issue of HBR was thought provoking.  I look forward to the next one.


Jim said...

I'll be interested in how you like other issues. I subscribed for a couple of years, but was ultimately put off with by the Suzy Wetlaufer debacle. I've read a few of the collected works from the library.

Regarding the first item:

Failure to set proper expectations

What do you see as the more prevalent problem (at other organizations):
1) leaders pronouncing large goals without offering guidance on how to achieve them. For example, proclaiming "we'll increase 2001 sales 50%" without a plan -- or worse, adding several constraints ("... without adding sales capacity, increasing prices or adding new products") becomes anti-productive.

2) leaders who say they don't like something, but are unable to clearly articulate specific improvements they want.

I used to think the first one was worse, until I worked with the Jedi master of #2.

John said...


It seems to me that your #2 is a simple human failing, whether innocent or capricious - a failure of character if you will.

#1 however, is a more direct failure of leadership.

So, which is more prevalent? I don't have a sufficient experience base to answer that. But my gut says #1. Perhaps that's one reason why the article struck a chord with me.