Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

I always enjoy books that challenge conventional thinking. I find it always important to question and wrestle with the way I typically approach problems or other situations. For that reason, I highly recommend reading the book Range by David Epstein.

Epstein takes on the fundamental assumption that going deeper (specialization) is better for problem solving in our increasingly complex world than it is to have many diverse experiences (generalization). According to Epstein, generalists are in the best position to solve problems and innovate in an increasingly complex environment.

He writes that human’s unique strength is in the ability to think broadly, which is a capability that is uniquely human and difficult to teach a machine or algorithm to do effectively. He cites numerous examples from sports to medicine to space travel where the specialists got it wrong and a more general view would have been more beneficial.

There are many implications to leadership in business in the research Epstein compiles in Range.

One lesson is about over-reliance on data, which Epstein illustrates using the Challenger explosion as an example. At the Johnson Space Center a plaque in the mission control room read, “In God We Trust—All Others Bring Data.” Epstein explains how NASA’s culture made it rely on quantitative analysis too much, which he argues helped to bring on the decision to launch the Challenger when the O-rings were vulnerable to failure.

I highly recommend the book and believe that all leaders can benefit from its lessons. Next week I will write about some of the implications of Range’s findings to organizational development.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Generalized knowledge may be advantageous for leaders to develop new ways to solve long standing problems.

Range is available for purchase on Amazon for $28.00 (does not include Prime discount).

Book Review: The Last Word on Power

A mentor of mine once told me that, in his opinion, executives must re-invent themselves every seven years. It was not until recently that I truly understood what that meant.

Originally published in the mid-1990s, The Last Word on Power by Tracy Goss has deep ideas that leaders should consider. In the book, Goss explains a framework she calls, “executive re-invention.”

thelastwordonpowerThe framework is about how leaders can use self-reflection to free themselves from preconceived notions that hold them back. Goss suggests that if leaders are looking to transform the groups they lead, they must first transform themselves.

One of the more powerful ideas in the book is one Goss calls, “The Universal Human Paradigm.” The idea behind this concept is that humans believe that there is a way things “should” or “shouldn’t” be (p.77). In truth, this is a construct. Goss writes that there is really only the way things actually are. In other words, restricting judgment and accepting reality will allow leaders to accept the risk and reinvent themselves and change the world.

Goss describes the process for becoming aware of our own versions of “The Universal Human Paradigm,” and then how to reinvent oneself from that point. To free ourselves from, “The Universal Human Paradigm,” we must, “Die before going into battle.” Among the resources in this chapter is a rather dark story about Buckminster Fuller, a famous 20th century architect, and how he talked himself out of suicide to pursue the life he was too afraid to seek previously. Although this one anecdote may seem depressing, keep reading. In the steps that follow, Goss advice merits reflection and the work of going through the framework point by point.

The concepts in the book remind me a lot of stoic philosophy and how we can excel in life by accepting the world as it is.

The Last Word on Power is a dense and thought-provoking read. As I went through the book, I found myself believing in the concepts, although putting them into practice has been challenging. Like “The Universal Human Paradigm,” communities and organizations are filled with a set of paradigms and mental models that form its culture.

Unlike some of the other frameworks I have read about, this one I feel is particularly hard to implement in an existing culture, unless the change comes from the top leader of the organization. If the President or CEO undergoes a reinvention, then it can open the door for others to reinvent themselves as well. However, without that initial step, implementing the framework could come off as insubordinate, rude, or, at the bare minimum, strange.

The parts that stick with me from the book usually involve individuals going off and doing something they would rather do than work because their transition is so transformative, clear, and obvious. As someone who is engaged and happy in my current role, there are parts of the framework that feel like they either don’t apply or are unrealizable.

Still, the framework has many elements that can work for everyone. Acknowledgement that no matter how much we plan, the chances of achieving a life plan are low and knowing that our work will never feel complete are powerful to grapple with and reconcile.

The Last Word on Power is a worthwhile read. No matter where you are in an organization, exploring and working through the framework will be beneficial. This is also a great book to discuss with a learning partner because of its complexity.

KEY TAKEAWAY: According to the concepts in The Last Word on Power, re-invention starts with the work of inner personal reflection. Once we accept reality as it is, we can start to make changes in our lives to achieve important things for society. I recommend this book to explore the richness of the framework and to strive for implementation.

The Last Word on Power is available for purchase on Amazon for $16.99 (does not include Prime discount)

Book Review: Prescription for Excellence

You may have noticed that health care has been in the news a lot recently. Whether it is the Democratic Party presidential candidates talking about their plans, price transparency, or access to prescription drugs, it is fairly safe to say that the current system is not working for a group of people in our country.

There is so much to fix, including the experience of receiving care. Many patients experience customer service outside of health care and they expect that same level of care, treatment, ease, and convenience.

RxforExcellenceSeveral years ago, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) health system decided to work on fixing the experience of care. Their results were astounding, going from the 30th percentile of U.S. hospitals to the 99th percentile. Dr. David Feinberg, the then CEO of the UCLA hospital system (he has since run the Geisinger Health System and now is the VP of Google Health), was committed to doing better as the UCLA system grew in Southern California.

Using the lessons from other retail leaders who are known for their customer experience, UCLA did some progressive things to enhance and enrich the hospital’s patient experience. The progress is summarized in Joseph Michelli’s book Prescription for Excellence: Leadership Lessons for Creating a World-Class Customer Experience From UCLA Health System.

I appreciate that Dr. Michelli, who has written on companies like Starbucks and the Ritz Carlton, used part of his introduction to the book to acknowledge why it was important for him to write about a health care organization. The demands are high, regulations abound, safety is paramount, and politics are rampant. Delivering excellence in that environment is a unique feat and one that keeps those of us who are part of the business aspect of health care both fired up and very busy.

What I enjoyed about Prescription for Excellence was learning about the leaders from the organization who invested in the patient experience system, called “CICARE” (pronounced See-I-Care). Leaders modeled the behaviors that they asked the staff to model as well, and they were constantly present, speaking to patients to learn more about their care.

What UCLA figured out is that, just like in another industry, the three main elements of hard-wiring a consistently excellent and customized patient experience are: alignment, empowerment, and engagement. CICARE was their system of alignment, they empowered the team to act on it by training them, and engaged them in the work, partly by emphasizing the importance of it.

The following quote in the book sums this idea up nicely, “Relationships-based caste is often about empowerment. Empowerment starts with leaders giving staff members the tools and the trust they need to provide extraordinary service. Those tools include structure service behaviors…When well-selected employees are given resources, trained, and empowered effectively, extraordinary service relationships developing, and customers are empowered to build skills that meet their needs.” (Michelli 64).

Developing systems and allowing people to innovate within those systems are keys to delivering service excellence whether in health care or any other industry.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Excellent service systems are created from aligned, empowered, and engaged team members.

Prescription for Excellence is available for purchase on Amazon for $30 (does not include Prime discount)

Amplify strengths through systematic habits

One of my favorite things about visiting presidential libraries is the fun little nuggets of history that teach profound lessons about leadership and the habits of leaders.

In 2016, I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. I was excited to be there. It was the first presidential library I had visited since going to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston several years beforehand.

My wife and I were dating at the time and we made a several-hour long visit to the library, soaking up the history of the Reagan presidency, the 1980s in the United States, and of course touring Reagan’s Air Force One airplane and Marine One helicopter, which live on permanent exhibit in an all glass hanger in the museum.

While walking through his Air Force One and Marine One were an experience, one exhibit in particular caught my eye. Here is my picture of it:

2016-08-12 10.29.16

The librarians at the Reagan library call this album of index cards the Reagan, “Rosetta Stone”. Although President Reagan was known as, “The Great Communicator,” it turns out that this was not an entirely natural gift. President Reagan’s jobs after acting and before politics required him to make public speeches often. He wrote copious notes about which jokes, anecdotes, and quotes best made his points to an audience. Each note was carefully inscribed on notecard, categorized, and then filed to be pulled at exactly the appropriate time.

Reagan’s speechwriters were often dumbfounded when President Reagan himself would substitute one of their drafted stories in a prepared speech for the perfect anecdote, rehearsed and revised over years of public speaking. This album was so important to President Reagan that the librarians did not find it until 2010, 6 years after his death in a box labeled “RR’s Desk.” The Reagan Library published these notes, with an interesting forward explaining the document, as a book called The Notes. 

For leaders, communication is an imperative. Explaining the mission, vision, and values of an organization, embedding its strategy, and influencing are all rooted in person-to-person communication. President Reagan seemed to have a deep understanding of this and honed this vital skill over many years.

The consistency and discipline it required to develop the album must have been a challenge in its own right. At a time where the only “clouds” were the fluffy white things in the sky, maintaining the album in one place must have been a difficult task.

President Reagan could have relied simply on his experience as an actor and his natural gift of oratory and left it at that. From the numerous clips I’ve seen and heard of his speeches, he had unique talent in this respect. However, perhaps without the sweat equity and organization of The Notes, Reagan would have only been, “The Good Communicator.”

The lesson of The Notes and the “Rosetta Stone” is that to be great, leaders need to develop systematic habits to hone their craft as leaders, communicators, strategists, or coaches. Whether that system is as simple as note cards, or as complex as a coded database, all depends on how it works for the individual leader. Well-designed systematic habits can amplify strengths and round out weaknesses. It’s important for leaders to develop these over time to truly be great.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Systems can be complex or simple. A good systematic habit helps to amplify a leader’s strengths and round out their weaknesses. The Notes provide a neat example of a system one U.S. President used to amplify his gift and strength.

The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom is available for purchase on Amazon for $26.99 (does not include Prime discount)

Who’s “in the box”?

My wife and I have been traveling more than usual over the last couple of weeks. Like clock work, when we are in the airport (usually in line to board the plane), I look at my wife and say, “Uh oh. I am so in the box right now.”

What I am referring to is an anecdote from the book, Leadership and Self-Deception published by the Arbinger Institute. The book discusses how many of us remain “in the box” in our work lives, where we tend to see people more as objects or obstacles rather than as people who have the same hopes, desires, needs, and wants that we do.

By way of example, picture boarding a Southwest Airlines flight. They are known for their unique boarding process where passengers are not assigned seats, but are instead assigned boarding numbers that create a queue for entering the plane and choosing any open seat. When traveling with a companion, most people with early boarding numbers sit one on the aisle and one on the window, hoping the plane is not full, and no one will choose to occupy the middle seat.

Angie’s post as part of “Project Outward” about our conversation about Leadership and Self Deception

However, the people with later boarding numbers are still people. They want to enjoy a flight that they purchased and reach their destination safely and comfortably just like anyone else would. But when we are sitting in our self-selected seat, avoiding eye-contact in hopes that the next passenger walks past us, those other passengers lose their humanity in our eyes and become an obstacle to our wants. When we do that, we are “in the box”

The book goes deeper to unpack this idea in a user friendly, narrative form. It explains how we get into the box and what we can do to get out of it.

Reading this book has made me think deeper about being “in the box.” I am more aware of times when I view people critically rather than trying to see the whole picture. It is a vital concept in patient or customer experience, because sometimes we create systems that put bedside caregivers,”in the box.” In those cases, not only are other people in the organization seen as obstacles, but our patients can be seen as obstacles too. In that environment it is almost impossible for one to display the empathy needed towards a patient in the hospital.

One of the biggest benefits of the book is the use of common language, including the “in the box” phrase. One of this blog’s loyal readers, Angie Bryl, Clinical Director for Dankmeyer Prosthetics and Orthotics, has used Leadership and Self Deception to advance the culture of her organization. Team members at Dankmeyer frequently use the term “in the box” to point out barriers in collaboration between team members. She has found the framework helpful not only at work, but personally too.

I have enjoyed Angie’s Facebook posts called, “Project Outward”, which she writes about people in her life who inspire her or make her think more deeply about a topic. She told me that being focused on being “outside of the box” has helped her be more true to herself, be more generous, and be less inhibited when her initial instinct is to do something nice for another person.

It is for all of those reasons that I recommend we follow Angie’s example and really internalize all of the lessons in Leadership and Self Deception. Angie gifted me a copy of the book and shared her experiences with me. I think it is making me a better person, both at work and in my personal life, and I so appreciate the thoughtful recommendation and gift. I only wish I had read it sooner!

KEY TAKEAWAY: Being “in the box” means seeing people as obstacles rather than as human beings with needs and wants just like us. As leaders, we must take steps to encourage team members to live “out of the box”, especially when interfacing with our patients or customers.

Leadership and Self Deception is available for purchase on Amazon for $16.95 (does not include Prime discount).