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6 Steps to Building a Better Workplace for Black Employees

30 Sep 2019|by Dina Gerdeman

To support black employees, business leaders must challenge biases and help employees be themselves, according to a new book co-edited by Anthony J. Mayo, Laura Morgan Roberts, and David A. Thomas
black employees

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, some saw it as proof that the color of one’s skin could no longer hold people back from achieving important leadership roles in the United States.

Not true, says Harvard Business School senior lecturer Anthony J. Mayo. “Obama’s election created this false illusion of a post-racial society, where many people thought we had transcended issues of race,” he says. “But that was not the case at all.”

It certainly wasn’t the experience for many of the black business executives included in the book Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, co-edited by Mayo, University of Virginia Professor Laura Morgan Roberts, who is a visiting scholar at HBS, and David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College and a former professor at HBS.

“These African American executives never reported feeling, even during the Obama years, that race was no longer relevant or that we had somehow collectively moved beyond race in the workplace,” Roberts says.

The picture that emerges from the essays in Race, Work, and Leadership echo the same message: Race not only still matters in the American workplace, but it remains a powerful barrier that prevents African Americans from ascending to leadership roles.

The data is indeed bleak. While an increasing number of African Americans are earning bachelor’s and graduate degrees, the number of black people in management and senior executive positions remains scarce and stagnant. Today, there are only three black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and not one of them is a woman.

What doesn’t help, the authors say, are recent incidents in the news, including the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 2018 arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks after employees called the police to complain they were trespassing, even though they were just waiting for a business acquaintance.

“Given the racist rhetoric and vitriol in the air right now, racism is more prevalent today than we would have hoped,” says Mayo, the Thomas S. Murphy Senior Lecturer of Business Administration. “We’ve made some progress in the workplace, but we still have such a long way to go. It’s more important than ever to discuss what organizations can do about it.”

The book describes the experiences of African American workers and offers advice to black employees who seek to advance in their careers. It also provides these recommendations for companies that are intent on building diverse workplaces:

1. Encourage employees to talk about race

After two fatal police shootings of black men in 2016, Tim Ryan of PwC asked his staff to gather for a series of conversations about race. Two years later, when one of PwC’s own black employees was shot to death by an off-duty police officer, Ryan emailed his employees with a plea to keep talking.

Yet, the explicit discussion of race is considered taboo at many companies, and, more often than not, business leaders remain silent on the issue. That cloak of silence from the top tends to enfold all employees. Ellis Cose, an author of several books about race and public policy, writes that young black professionals who aspire to advance to senior leadership positions typically adopt the strategy of remaining silent about race and inequality to avoid being labeled “agitators.”

In a 2017 study by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and colleagues, 78 percent of black professionals said they have experienced discrimination or fear that they or their loved ones will, yet 38 percent felt it is never acceptable to speak about their experiences of bias at their companies.


black issues

All that hushing of the topic can make African American workers feel as if companies are not willing to address their concerns that their talent is being undervalued or squandered, which can leave them feeling less engaged with colleagues, less satisfied with their work, and less loyal to their companies, according to the book.

2. Help white colleagues contribute to the race conversation

Black leaders shouldn’t be the only ones talking about race, the authors say. It’s time for their white colleagues to stop pretending racial tensions don’t exist and start initiating conversations at work, even if they worry about feeling uncomfortable or saying the wrong thing.

“We can’t just rely on the small percentage of black executives who reach the top to wave the flag. That’s an unfair burden,” Mayo says. “If real systemic change is going to happen, it has to come from the white majority who often are in positions that give them greater leverage to change the environment. That being said, white employees may worry about their ability to effectively discuss race, but if they approach it with a sense of openness and learning, they can play an important role in advocating change.”

Managers must learn to create safe spaces at work to have these conversations and let employees know it’s OK to talk about incidents in the news, like police shootings of black people, by asking them, “How does that make you feel?”

“When black employees bring their full identities to work, they bring a set of stories and experiences that can be both painful and powerful, yet it can be hard for them to let their guard down and connect,” Mayo says. “So, creating the psychologically safe environment to have these conversations is important, with managers learning how to provide the proper support during these discussions.”

3. Tackle systemic inequality, starting with the corporate culture

Many organizations have created diversity and inclusion programs in an attempt to recruit and retain more minorities, but the initiatives often fall short, the authors say.

The problem: These programs tend to focus on helping black employees fit into the status-quo culture, rather than eliminating systemic inequality within their organizations. Companies should focus on managing injustice, rather than “managing blackness,” Courtney McCluney and Veronica Rabelo write in their chapter of the book.

[Read an excerpt from Race, Work, & Leadership.]

Companies can start by using data analytics to assess whether employees feel included on their teams and are treated fairly within their larger organizations. “These surveys should be broken down by demographic categories, including race and gender, to identify certain populations that have a lower engagement or sense of commitment to the organization,” Roberts suggests.

4. Keep confronting racial bias in hiring

Companies should train managers to root out racial bias from their hiring and recruitment processes. They should also invest in retaining black professionals, in part by reinforcing the message that race will not be a barrier to advancement.

“Some of the most difficult conversations about creating racially diverse organizations are getting sidelined.”

That’s especially important today, since inclusion programs have shifted in recent years toward recognizing more forms of diversity—based on gender and sexual orientation, for instance. Employers need to make sure that discussions about race aren’t getting lost as they work to make other groups feel like they belong.

“It’s good that we’re recognizing more forms of diversity,” Roberts says. “But, it seems like we’re talking more generally about belongingness now, and some of the most difficult conversations about creating racially diverse organizations are getting sidelined. We have to make sure we aren’t erasing race from the conversation.”

5. Support employees so that they can be themselves

Research shows that minorities at work feel pressure to create “facades of conformity,” suppressing some of their personal values, feeling unable to bring their whole selves to work, and believing they should nod in agreement with company values, according to the book.

Mayo says creating opportunities for people to bring their authentic selves to work boosts engagement and helps employees contribute more to the organization.

Creating a support network for workers can go a long way. Research shows that when professionals from diverse backgrounds have solid relationships with their managers and co-workers, they’re more satisfied and committed to their jobs. These relationships can grow through day-to-day work interactions, but also through informal get-togethers.

For instance, employees at one consulting company started a book club that focused on black writers and coordinated visits to African American museums and historical sites. And when American Express was looking to gain a better understanding of its African American customers, company officials tapped black employees for their insight, which helped signal that race is important, the authors say.

6. Be mindful of the “mini me” phenomenon

Managers should also check themselves when they evaluate their employees’ performance and advancement potential, taking a hard look at whether they’re choosing a “mini me” when they hand out a plum assignment or consider promotions, Roberts says.

“A lot of managers will say, ‘This guy has potential because he reminds me of myself when I was younger.’ Some people get a pass, and there’s a lower bar to being given an opportunity, while other people have a higher bar based on their identity,” she says. “So, it’s important to be race conscious when evaluating people’s potential to make sure these decisions aren’t biased.”

Once that potential is identified, managers should coach their workers, provide regular feedback, and champion them, showing them they have their backs as they learn and even make mistakes.

“With an underrepresented group, you need to have managers in your corner who are going to have some skin in the game, put themselves out there, and support you in your career, just as they would support your majority counterparts,” Mayo says. “They’re not just going to throw you into the deep end of the pool and expect you to survive on your own. Instead, they’ll stick with you to provide the support you need to succeed.”

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is senior writer at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. [Image: PeopleImages]


Edward Jones Adds Robotic Process Automation with Lean Six Sigma

By Brooke Holmes

Automation 1.0

Robotic process automation (RPA), commonly referred to as “bots,” is a type of software that can mimic human interactions across multiple systems to bridge gaps in processes that previously had to be handled manually. RPA software applications can be integrated with other advanced technologies such as machine learning or artificial intelligence. But at the most basic level, they act like super-macros following a detailed script to complete standardized tasks that do not require the application of judgment.

Why Combine RPA and Lean Six Sigma?

Replacing manual work with bots removes the possibility of human error, reduces rework and quality checks, while also increasing accuracy. Bots can work much faster than humans and at any hour of the day so long as the underlying systems are operational. The potential to reduce overhead costs and increase process cycle time is vast. Bots also provide enhanced controls for risk avoidance.

Bots can serve as a foot in the door to gain traction for a quality program. Senior level executives get excited by the potential of this relatively affordable technology. By incorporating a thoughtful Lean Six Sigma (LSS) process review into a company’s bot deployment strategy, quality programs will gain additional visibility and leadership support.

Effective Bot Deployment at Edward Jones

Edward Jones is a financial services firm serving more than 7 million clients in the US and Canada. Their operations division began exploring RPA in 2017 and subsequently implemented their first bot into production in November 2018. Since then, they’ve deployed 17 additional bots, yielding 15 full-time employees in capacity savings, which in turn generated more than a million dollars in cost avoidance. While still at an early stage in this journey, the operations division has developed a structured approach using LSS tools to assess process readiness for automation, minimize or remove non-value-added work steps prior to development (abandonment), and redesign the process to fully leverage the benefits of RPA.

LSS Process Review

Using a questionnaire to begin their intake process, business areas submit critical data regarding process volumes, capacity needs, system utilization and risk level. This data feeds into a prioritization matrix that allows them to decide where to focus energy and time. Once a process is identified for RPA, a member of the quality team engages the business area for a LSS process review using familiar tools such as a project charter, stakeholder analysis, SIPOC (suppliers, input, process, outputs, customers) and process maps.

After thoroughly understanding the process’s current state, the practitioner and corresponding business area redesign the process for robotics. Next, they complete an FMEA (failure means and effect analysis) and business continuity plan to ensure process risk is being adequately controlled. After this LSS process review has concluded, a broad group of experts – including robotics developers, internal audit staff, risk leaders and senior leadership from all impacted business areas – are brought together to jointly review the robotics proposal and agree on a go/no-go decision.

A critical component of this process review is thorough documentation of every step along the way. Using an Excel playbook to organize all the tools in one place enables a smooth transition as the effort moves from the quality team to the robotics development team. Then, this comprehensive documentation is retained by the business area for ongoing maintenance. Specific elements of this documentation include a systems inventory, a record of all sign-off dates and approvals and a business continuity plan for disaster recovery. Having complete documentation enables the business areas to take a proactive approach when faced with upcoming system changes or unexpected work disruptions. It also equips business areas with any data points required for routine internal or external audits.

Deployment Pitfalls to Avoid

There are some specific areas of concern when it comes to RPA.

  • Communication: Provide clarity to business areas about what RPA can and cannot do, and what processes fit best with this technology. Without an accurate understanding of the capabilities of RPA, there will be an influx of unsuitable requests for this new technology and, as a result, many disappointed business areas and wasted effort spent putting together their business case. At Edward Jones, the most common misunderstanding was regarding the lack of reading ability for the specific RPA vendor being used. While the bots can recognize characters in static fields, they are not able to interpret characters in an unstructured context. This ruled out many initial RPA requests. Additionally, while comparing RPA to macros was initially an effective way to explain the technology to business leaders that were not knowledgeable about technology development, this comparison created an unfortunate misconception that coding and implementing bots was as fast and easy as creating a macro. Business areas were not expecting development time to take four to six months for what they perceived to be a simple request.
  • Change Management: Incorporate thoughtful change management throughout the deployment at all levels of the organization. Leveraging bots will take away manual tasks being completed by employees. Some employees may welcome the automation of monotonous tasks, but others may view this technology as a threat to job security. Supervisors will need to adapt and grow their skills to include oversight of the RPA technology. Strong people leaders often don’t have the same level of competency in the technical space, and they will need to quickly increase knowledge and skill to effectively manage their automated processes. Senior/C-suite leaders will need to consider the inherent risks associated with using RPA, the infrastructure and skills needed to support an RPA program, and how to obtain the needed resources and talent.
  • Human Resources: Bots may create job redundancy, creating the potential for job loss reassignment. Engage human resources early to navigate these situations.
  • Governance: Balance senior leader involvement so they feel comfortable with automation without extra levels of required approvals that slow the development process down.
  • Don’t Force a Problem to Fit the Solution: RPA is not the right solution for every bad process. In the early phase of bot deployment, it is easy to let excitement about the new technology lead to poor choices around when to apply RPA. This leads to disappointing results that could undermine the entire bot deployment. Identify clear criteria regarding when bots are an appropriate solution and use a disciplined approach to evaluate each new process improvement opportunity. Consider non-bot solutions before a final decision is reached.
  • Vendor Approvals: Any third-party vendors must permit bots to interface with their systems. Review vendor contracts or have new contracts signed to ensure bots are legally allowed to interact with vendor systems and web sites before beginning development.
  • Resource Constraints: Set clear expectations with business areas about the work involved and resources needed to design and implement an RPA solution. The quality team and technical developers do not have the knowledge required about the specific processing steps to complete this work without a subject-matter expert from the business area being heavily involved throughout the project life cycle.
  • Results: Heavy focus on capacity savings only tells part of the story. Identify other meaningful methods of communicating value from RPA implementation, such as risk reduction, faster cycle time, improved client experience or increased accuracy.

Case Study: Automating Retirement Disbursements to Charities

An example of an RPA implementation at Edward Jones involves the process of receiving, validating and executing on client requests to send monetary donations from qualified retirement accounts to charitable organizations. Prior to implementing the bot, the Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) process required 11 hours of manpower each day to get through the volume of donations – and the number of requests had been doubling each month.

The process had five to 10 errors monthly due to the manual data entry required, which in turn took one to three hours of leader or senior processor time to resolve. A bot was designed and implemented that would validate the original request (quality check) and then enter the appropriate data into a computer screen to issue the check to the selected charity.

Stakeholder Analysis and SIPOC

After the project charter was created and agreed upon by the project Champion and project team, a stakeholder analysis was conducted to identify any additional individuals or business areas that were upstream or downstream of the process or might be affected by a change to the process. These parties were consulted or communicated with throughout the effort to ensure process impacts were understood and considered as the automation opportunity was identified and designed.

Next, a SIPOC matrix was created to understand all the process inputs, including systems, data files and end users. Together, the stakeholder analysis and SIPOC are essential in ensuring all critical components of the process upstream and downstream are identified early in the automation effort so no processing gaps are created during RPA development.

SIPOC Analysis: SIPOC for the QCD Automation Project
Supplier Inputs Process Outputs Customer
Client, branch team Clilent instructions, intranet form message Branch team sends form message with client instructions for QCD Unexcuted client request in the retirement department queue Retirement support team
Retirement support team Form message, client account information, IRS rules, client request Retirement associate reviews client request for QCD to confirm eligibility Validated client request Retirement support team
Retirement support team Validated client request Issue check Executed request, issued check Client, branch team
Retirement support team Client request, issued check Close client request on system Completed client request for QCD Client, branch team

Current- and Future-State Process Maps

The next step was to create detailed current- and future-state process maps. The current-state process map must include enough detail to highlight all the data sources required by the process, and where that data must be entered to move the process forward. The future-state map must incorporate all of those critical points, while also accounting for the limitations of RPA technology (inability to “read”) and the advantages of RPA (directly ingesting data files, speed and accuracy).

For the QCD process, the client verification step needed to be handled differently for RPA than in the original process. Previously, an employee was comparing client names between the original client request and the account registration referenced in the request to ensure a match. Names can be difficult for RPA to match because the technology doesn’t understand common nicknames that might be used interchangeably with legal names. For example, “Bill” and “William” would flag as a mismatch by the robotic technology, while a human processor would recognize those as referring to the same individual. To avoid large numbers of false positives from the bot flagging mismatches caused by nicknames, an alternative form of identification matching was used, in this case a social security number.

In a typical Six Sigma effort, the goal is to achieve a more streamlined future-state process map with less processing steps and fewer decision points. One key difference between process maps for an RPA effort compared to a more typical Six Sigma improvement effort is that the future-state process maps may contain more, not fewer, steps and decision points. This is normal and shows that the automation capability is being fully utilized to provide a higher level of accuracy. Since the bot processes at a speed much faster than a human can achieve, these additional quality checks do not add to the overall process cycle time. Each decision point with RPA represents a quality assurance checkpoint, allowing for the final output to have higher accuracy than the original process achieved.

Figure 1: QCD Process – Before BPA

Figure 1: QCD Process – Before BPA

Figure 2: QCD Process – After RPA

Figure 2: QCD Process – After RPA

Risk Assessment

Once the future automated state has been identified, conduct a risk assessment to understand the risks associated with the current process and how the process risks may be affected by RPA. The largest risk associated with the QCD process was the manual nature of the process and likelihood of human error. This risk was eliminated by using bots.

However, automation adds different types of risks, including system failures and coding errors. By identifying potential risks and using control reports to quickly identify and remediate issues, these risks can be effectively managed.

Business Continuity Plan

The final element of the process review is a business continuity plan, specifically focused on failure of RPA to successfully perform the programmed tasks. Consideration should be given to a failure of the bot itself but also any underlying systems that the bot needs to interact with to obtain data or execute requests. Planning should include how to perform the work if the automation is not operational for a particular timespan as well as how to identify and resolve errors made by the bot if the programming becomes corrupted.

Through this planning exercise, a critical aspect of the QCD process was identified that may have led to future bot failure had it not been remedied. Volumes for this highly seasonal process rise drastically at year end, and a single bot was unlikely to keep up with the work at this peak. Programmers were able to proactively solve this issue by diverting process volume onto three separate bots to stay on top of the surge of work during these high-volume time periods.


The QCD bot was implemented in September 2019 and immediately realized 11 hours of capacity savings with no errors. The total project cycle time from the initial continuous improvement analysis, through the bot design, development, testing and implementation took seven months. Since implementing RPA on this process, 100 percent of the process has been automated with zero errors. Process risk was reduced by one point on a 10-point scale by eliminating human error from manual work steps.

During routine follow-up six months after bot implementation, the project team learned that the benefits received from the automation had grown significantly. The volume of client requests for charitable distributions had increased rapidly, so the bot was now performing work that would have taken 34 hours – or five employees – to complete each day.


Don’t short cut the methodology when leveraging RPA and other new technologies. Technology masks a bad process, so clean up the underlying work steps first to maximize the benefit of RPA.

Tips for Working at Home

Shifting to remote work raises many questions for managers and employees, especially when it happens quickly as a result of a crisis.

Prithwiraj “Raj” Choudhury, the Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School, studies how location and geographic mobility affect worker productivity and innovation. His research also examines how companies benefit by allowing employees to work remotely.

Choudhury answered questions from participants in a recent installment of “Office Hours,” an Instagram series (@HarvardHBS) in which Working Knowledge makes experts available to Instagram users to ask questions about their research.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your research?

Choudhury: One of the most surprising things I’ve realized is how, in our personal and social lives, we use a lot of digital tools for communication. But in work, we still tend to use face-to-face meetings.

How does location or geographic mobility affect innovation?

Choudhury: Knowledge is often locked in a geography, and when a worker moves from one geography to the other, knowledge is often transferred and recombined with local knowledge.

What’s the best place to be most productive?

Choudhury: That’s an interesting question. I feel the best place is where you get the most psychological satisfaction and that can be very different for every person.

What can organizations that haven’t made the change to remote work do, since they are behind?

Choudhury: Identify workers and tasks that can be done remotely, easily, comparatively, and then learn from these [experienced] remote companies, like GitLab and Zapier, who have mastered these processes to make remote work, work.

More tips for remote workers

How the coronavirus is changing everything we know about how to get work done.

The New Rules for Remote Work: Pandemic Edition

Many parents are working and caring for kids at home. How can managers set expectations?

Choudhury: It’s a great question. I feel managers should show a lot of empathy in allowing people to find their rhythm and settle down and the manager should also adjust their own personal timelines for when to expect stuff to get done.

How can I avoid the temptation to procrastinate when I work remotely?

Choudhury: We all do that, so don’t feel bad about it. I feel the key is to set alarms and find a routine that works for you, so that you can get stuff done even when you have kids around and life is not normal.

Do you think companies will stick with remote work post-pandemic?

Choudhury: Companies might be tempted to go back to work as usual, but some workers might enjoy the flexibility in this timeframe and might start demanding flexible work as a long-term solution.

Doesn’t making employees work remotely save on utility expenditures?

Choudhury: If companies allow workers to live anywhere, they might save real estate costs, rental costs, electricity costs, and that might be huge if the company is based in a major metro.

What are the biggest obstacles for companies that want to allow remote work?

Choudhury: I feel the biggest obstacle is changing the organizational processes for how communication and coordination happens, but also the mindset of managers in thinking that people will not shirk and will be responsible.

Has coronavirus changed your remote work research at all?

Choudhury: I’ve started multiple projects, especially trying to understand how companies and workers are scrambling to adjust to this new way of working in a very short period of time.

How will operations change after COVID-19?

Choudhury: Many workers are picking up tools, such as Zoom and Slack, in this period. And even when they go back to physical work, they might use these tools for coordination and communication.

The New Rules for Remote Work: Pandemic Edition

30 Mar 2020|by Dina Gerdeman

Welcome to the new world of remote work, where employees struggle to learn the rules, managers are unsure how to help them, and organizations get a glimpse into the future!

With more people working remotely right now, many of us have experienced a videoconference interrupted by barking dogs or hungry kids demanding snacks, punctuated, perhaps, by cabinet doors slamming and ice makers grinding in the background. We all understand, of course—we’re living it, too.

Welcome to the new world of remote work, pandemic style.

Before the coronavirus hit, 5.2 percent of US employees reported telecommuting most of the time, while 43 percent worked from home at least some of the time. Now, with the pandemic shuttering workplaces, that figure has skyrocketed globally.

But remote work during this bizarre time, with so many people scrambling to get their work done while sharing close quarters with shut-in kids, spouses, and pets, is certainly not business as usual, even for work-from home veterans. While some of the typical remote work rules apply, others don’t. Business leaders need a new game plan.

We asked Harvard Business School professors to provide practical advice for managing large-scale, long-term remote work at a time when many employees are not only distracted by the commotion in their homes, but are shaken by the crisis unfolding outside their doors.

“Managers should make the call on high-level priorities, so employees can focus on their best work.”

Here are 10 ways that leaders can support employees who are working remotely during an unprecedented and uncertain time:

1. Communicate clearly and be decisive

Business leaders have already had to make difficult decisions, such as closing offices or eliminating travel, but now they should express in black-and-white terms how employees’ work priorities should change as a result of these business disruptions.

If certain non-essential tasks are too difficult to pull off from home, take them off the table or at least put them on a back burner for now, and let workers know which projects should be prioritized, says HBS Senior Lecturer Julia Austin, who provides leadership coaching to companies.

“While now is a time to foster trust and delegate, you don’t want people debating about whether they should or shouldn’t do a major project. All that time questioning what to do will impact productivity,” Austin says. “Managers should make the call on high-level priorities, so employees can focus on their best work.”

At a time when many business leaders can’t gather their staffs in the same room, they need to “show up” on videoconference or in email to update workers regularly about how their companies are pivoting to weather this crisis and are protecting employees worried about their jobs, says HBS professor Tsedal Neeley, the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration, who has researched how to fix broken global teams.

“They may not be able to completely reassure workers about what will happen tomorrow, but they can provide a glimpse of the big picture from their perspective,” says Neeley, who is writing a case about a leader of a US company whose entire China operation was shut down and has seen no revenue, with thousands of employees home, since November.

2. Lead by example

Managers should model the behavior they want to see in others. If they say employees can leave the office or avoid travel, but the manager keeps popping into the workplace and hitting the road, workers may feel guilty staying home.

“Leaders underestimate how much what they do is mirrored by their employees,” Austin says. “Hypocrisy degrades them. Employees not only want to be told what to do, they want their managers to follow through on everything they’re saying, so they don’t feel pressure to keep up or start questioning their own performance.”

3. Be extra flexible

The beauty of classic remote work is the breathing room for employees to take a walk, throw in a load of laundry, or start dinner, all while getting more work done by avoiding unnecessary office meetings and traffic-snarled commutes.

But right now, with offices, schools, and day cares closed, those time-on-your-side benefits have evaporated for many remote workers who no longer have the house to themselves and are struggling with the tremendous challenge of focusing on work while balancing the demands of family members.

So, this period requires a new frontier of flexibility, the professors say. Managers should ask employees what challenges they face and allow workers the freedom to choose their own best windows of time to get work done, whether at the crack of dawn, late at night, or in two-hour shifts with breaks throughout the day.

“Managers should yield to the expertise and knowledge of their subordinates and let them decide the best times and ways for them to work right now,” Neeley says.

If the team is working on a project that is time-critical, one option is to ask employees about their availability so everyone knows not to expect an immediate response during certain chunks of the day. And, if a manager starts sending out emails on Sunday mornings because that’s her own best time to work, she should make it clear that her subordinates need not reply until Monday.

“Employers should understand the fundamental shift in employees’ lives and recognize that they have to radically alter their work expectations.”

4. Adjust work expectations

With business practices changing as the result of widespread remote work, some workers have too much to do and others have too little, and some may have a tougher time getting work done than others. Whenever possible, managers should trust workers to make decisions about what they can and cannot accomplish, Neeley says.

And based on input from employees, managers may want to evaluate each employee’s workload and ability to handle the work under the current circumstances and shift projects around as needed, Austin says.

In some cases, it might even be appropriate for employers to decrease workloads for now and reevaluate when working hours should return to normal, says Lakshmi Ramarajan, the Anna Spangler Nelson and Thomas C. Nelson Associate Professor of Business Administration.

Her research suggests that employer expectations can create conflicts between employees’ personal and professional identities, decreasing their performance and commitment.

“Employers should understand the fundamental shift in employees’ lives and recognize that they have to radically alter their work expectations until this crisis winds down,” Ramarajan says. “An employee with young kids at home, or someone taking care of elder relatives, or a worker needing to focus on their own physical and mental health as a result of the situation will not be able to do a 40-hour workweek.”

More tips for remote workers

Unsure of your footing when it comes to working at home? Remote work expert Prithwiraj Choudhury answers all your questions.

Readers Ask: I Need Tips for Working at Home

Wikimedia, the nonprofit organization behind Wikipedia, is telling staff and contractors they can work 20 hours per week and still get paid for 40. “Work is not the only thing on people’s minds right now. Their families, their bills, childcare and school closures, the economy … we are all trying to manage a lot,” CEO Katherine Maher wrote. “It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect someone to be fully present, eight hours a day, when they have a three-year-old with crayons drawing on the wall, or an elderly parent who needs help navigating the stairs.”

On the flip side, some employees are working more than usual now—partly to prove they’re still plugging away when they can’t be seen. “There’s this pressure to say to your supervisor, ‘Yes, I’m here!’ by making yourself super available at all hours,” Austin says.

Managers should discourage workers from being “heroes,” Austin says. “If an employee is cranking at home because he’s good at it, but his colleagues are struggling, don’t start assigning all the work to him,” she says. “Managers should be patient and give people time to catch up, so you’re not adding pressure to anyone’s plate.”

5. Rethink meetings

Managers should understand that some employees can’t do back-to-back phone or online meetings all day long. “People are still spending too much time in meetings, even though our work and lives have changed significantly,” Austin says.

If your office has a meeting-heavy culture normally, consider scaling back the total number and length of meetings, Austin says. Could you reduce a get-together that typically lasted an hour in the office to a 30-minute huddle on Zoom if the meeting leader sticks to a clear agenda?

One of the simplest ways to trim meetings is to move to email, Slack, and other writing-based tools for information-sharing and idea-gathering, and call meetings only for decision-making, says Austin, who has written about how to master team meetings. “Meetings should be reserved for getting things done,” she says.

At the same time, Neeley notes that for some organizations, additional contact with staff and more meeting-based communication may be necessary now, particularly in the early days of adjusting to the remote work world. Research shows that informal conversation benefits remote employees, so she advises managers to devote time during meeting calls to connecting with staff on a personal level, for instance, by asking how everyone is holding up.

“It can be harder to pay attention to a long meeting online versus face-to-face.”

Afterward, managers should articulate key outcomes of the meeting using other media like email. “It can be harder to pay attention to a long meeting online versus face-to-face, so some form of redundant communication would be helpful so things don’t slip through the cracks,” Neeley says.

6. Move to more asynchronous work

Given the disruption to the 9-to-5 workday, employers should decrease “synchronous” work that employees perform simultaneously and increase “asynchronous work” that workers can do on their own time in a Google doc, Slack, or email, says Prithwiraj Choudhury, whose research shows companies often benefit when employees work remotely. Choudhury is the Lumry Family Associate Professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit.

“The crisis accentuates what remote companies already understand—that work does not need to happen at the same time,” says Choudhury. “People can wake up in different time zones and cities, open documents, and get going.”

Those who are new to remote work also need to change their mindset about how quickly to expect responses and learn to practice patience, he says.

“If you post a message in Slack, trust that people will be responsible and come to it when they can,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt to throw your question in the deep, dark water and wait a few hours. We will all learn that things don’t have to happen right this instant. This is the new norming that needs to happen.”

7. Accept that productivity will probably suffer

Choudhury’s research shows productivity often increases with remote work. But now, with workers who have never operated this way scrambling to get up to speed while dealing with the anxiety of the virus and distractions at home, this period is not the best litmus test for measuring the productivity of remote work, Choudhury says.

In fact, companies may need to face the hard truth that productivity could suffer by at least 10 to 20 percent in the short term, Austin says. “I have a client who hung a sheet in his basement because it was the only way he could hide from his kids. And his kids were still handing him notes under the sheet during our call,” she says. “With that happening everywhere, productivity is bound to suffer.”

Ramarajan says business leaders should send this message: We get it—this isn’t easy. Take care of yourself and your families first. And since employees are concerned about the global health and economic conditions affecting their job security, employers should also reassure them they won’t be penalized if productivity drops, whenever possible. This will generate greater long-term commitment to organizations, she says.

“Great leaders will share their own struggles about adjusting to their partners being on conference calls in the next room,” Austin says. “People often think that everyone else has it figured out except them. They’ll be relieved to know this isn’t easy for anyone.”

8. Focus on outcomes rather than monitoring activities

Supervisors who lack experience managing remote workers might seek to keep close tabs on employees—asking them to keep their webcams on all day or alert managers when they take quick breaks. Or they might send emails at 4:45 p.m. to test whether workers are still online. Neeley says this type of micromanaging, which was found, for example, in a Wall Street Journal editor’s leaked memo, sends a hidden message to workers: We don’t trust you.

“The crisis accentuates what remote companies already understand—that work does not need to happen at the same time.”

“It’s terribly intrusive and tone deaf,” says Neeley. “Managers who don’t see the people they’re managing are struggling. They feel like they’re losing control, and their insecurities are creeping in.” She urges managers to let go of commanding by fear and trust they’ve hired competent people who aren’t slacking off.

One caveat: While most workers thrive with a hands-off approach, Choudhury’s research suggests that junior workers who are new to a company may need additional supervision and guidance while working remotely.

But in general, rather than monitoring every move employees make, companies should establish work goals and measure individual productivity based on output, he says.

“If you’re on a team in a traditional company, one imperfect measure of productivity is showing up to work every day,” Choudhury says. “Now companies don’t see their workers, so the immediate priority should be to make productivity more objective and measurable to the person, so you don’t worry people are free-riding.”

9. Take time to empathize

It’s a terrible, uncertain time, and managers need to acknowledge the obvious. After all, employees are worried not just about keeping their jobs and how their business is faring, but about the welfare of their families and friends, their personal finances, and even the logistics of squeezing in a germ-harrowing run to the grocery store.

Managers might want to give employees space to talk with each other, offer support, and listen.

“Now, more than ever, teams need empathy and to feel like you are all suffering together,” Austin says. “Everyone is dealing with a crisis that is very real. Managers should show their vulnerabilities by saying, ‘We’re all feeling this.’ After 9/11, crying with my coworkers was one of the most transformational moments in my career. Work teams may bond over this current crisis.”

10. Let workers blow off steam

With many employees feeling anxious and isolated, companies could set up attendance-optional social events online—coffee breaks, lunch gatherings, happy hours, cooking and crafting classes, talent shows, and even meet-the-pet sessions.

Knowing that workers are bound to feel some screen fatigue these days, business leaders should encourage self-care by allowing employees to take breaks, naps, and walks between work calls.

“A manager can say, ‘It’s 3 p.m., and it’s been a tough week. Take the rest of the afternoon off and spend time with your loved ones.’ You’d be meeting people where they are by recognizing that everyone is stressed out,” Neeley says.

While this period of remote work isn’t normal, Choudhury says, the silver lining is that many business leaders who have long been resistant to the idea of remote work may open their eyes for the first time to its benefits, including happier workers, less need for office space, and, for some, a possible bump in productivity over the long haul, once the virus settles down.

“Now that you’ve opened the door to adopting a remote work culture, it may be hard to go back,” Austin says. “My prediction is that there will be a higher demand for more remote-friendly software solutions, a lot of empty space in office parks, and more workers looking for remote roles.”

How’s Your Return on People?

by Laurie Bassi and  Daniel McMurrer

Managers are always claiming, “People are our most important asset.” But deep down, they can’t shake the feeling that employees are costs. Big costs. And they treat them that way. Quarterly earnings off? Cut the perks, rein in training, and downsize. This strategy may increase earnings in the short term, but it’s myopic. Recent studies suggest that layoffs actually destroy shareholder value. And our research shows that treating employees like the assets they are—by investing in their development—boosts returns over the long term.

For years now, our research has measured the effect of spending on employee education and training—a “cost” that is buried in general and administrative expenses—on the stock prices of 575 publicly traded firms. We created four hypothetical portfolios (one each for years 1997 through 2000) consisting of between 20 and 40 companies that invested at roughly twice the industry norm in employee development in each of the previous years (1996 through 1999). We followed the performance of these portfolios through 2001. Their returns were robust and in line with a growing body of empirical research showing that organizations that make extraordinary investments in people often enjoy extraordinary performance on a variety of indicators, including shareholder return.

In December 2001, we decided to put our money where our research was and created a live portfolio of companies that spend aggressively on employee development. In its first 25 months since inception, that portfolio has outperformed the S&P 500 index by 4.6 percentage points (2.2% versus a decline of 2.4% for the index). In January 2003, we expanded our investment strategy by launching two additional live equity portfolios made up of similar development-oriented companies. The results speak for themselves. While past performance is never a guarantee of future results, and while it is always possible to lose money, each of these three portfolios outperformed the S&P 500 by 17% to 35% in 2003. (See the exhibit “The People Payoff.”)


The People Payoff

How are you investing in your most important asset?


Hard Work Isn’t Enough: How to Find Your Edge

27 Jan 2020|by Dina Gerdeman

Life isn’t fair, especially in the workplace. In Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage, Laura Huang offers a new strategy for uncovering and showcasing your unique value in the face of obstacles.

We’re told that the secret to success is hard work. But the truth is, hard work alone doesn’t always pay off.

After all, career advancement isn’t always neatly tied to your skills, effort, or even the quality of your work. Some people gain easier access than others to the critical ingredients of money, time, and connections that part the workplace waters—even when they don’t have the best ideas or the most talent.

“It’s a myth that hard work is enough. We’ve all had experiences where we worked hard and still ended up losing out on a new job or a key promotion,” says Harvard Business School Associate Professor Laura Huang, who studies early entrepreneurship, where failure is common. “You can take two people who work equally hard, and one person will naturally have an advantage and achieve success, while the other can’t climb the corporate ladder.”

What often gets in the way: stereotypes about gender and race or perceptions about age and class. Indeed, vast research shows that certain groups, such as women and African Americans, have a tougher time getting ahead.

Yet Huang argues that we can’t let other people’s stereotypes or their views of our faults or limitations, right or wrong, hold us back. Instead, we have to focus on finding our “edge”—the unique qualities that set us apart—and take strategic steps to make other people see our value and open the doors that will take us where we want to go.

Video: Laura Huang says that cultivating an “EDGE” can help others see and understand your unique value.

“Life isn’t fair. We can’t just wait around for people to make the right decisions for us,” says Huang, who witnesses plenty of wheel-spinning among the hundreds of entrepreneurs she has researched, including some who can’t get funding for ingenious business ideas. “So how do we take all the disadvantages stacked against us and flip them in our favor to succeed within an imperfect system?”


It all starts with confronting potential barriers or shortcomings and molding them into assets, Huang says in her new book Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage.

The five tips below, based on advice in the book, are intended to help further your career, whether you’re hunting for a first job or find yourself at a key inflection point: frustrated with your current standing in the workforce and grappling with how exactly to position yourself for success.

1. Identify the “basic goods” you have to offer that will enrich others

It’s what cofounders Arch “Beaver” Aplin III and Don Wasek did when they opened their first Buc-ee’s gas station in Lake Worth, Texas, in 1982. They focused on the things they figured travelers needed most: gas, cheap ice, and clean restrooms.

Today Buc-ee’s is a road trip destination, with more than 30 sprawling stores offering Texas-themed gifts, Buc-ee’s brand beef jerky, plenty of gas (as many as 120 pumps at one store), mountains of ice to refill coolers, and giant spotless restrooms (with up to 33 urinals in a single men’s room).

natural advantage

In evaluating your own career goals, Huang recommends taking a page from Buc-ee’s and asking yourself:

  • What are the strengths that set you apart from the pack and provide value?
  • When people are interacting with you, what is the most basic thing they expect you to deliver?

To zero in on your basic goods, trust your gut in figuring out what skills you bring to the table—and what you don’t. If your brilliant business idea relies on software programming and you’re not a programmer, switch gears.

“Pinpoint your basic goods and define your circle of competence, then operate inside that perimeter,” Huang advises.

2. Own your constraints and encourage others to see past them

In Huang’s freshman year of college, she was shocked to fail a writing assignment. When she asked the professor where she went wrong, he said, “Don’t worry. Since English is not your native language, it will take you some time to get the hang of writing.”

Suspecting the instructor had judged her work unfairly based on her last name, she decided to own the constraint and write her next essay on the challenges of growing up as a nonnative English speaker. Evidently the professor detected none of her sarcasm and gave her a B-minus.

Huang avoided the mistake many people make: counting themselves out of the running based on the constraints other people place on them—or ones they place on themselves. In fact, research shows that men are more likely to apply for jobs even when they don’t fit most of the criteria in a job ad, whereas women are quicker to dismiss themselves and shy away from applying at all.

“We can all become too focused on the things we think we can’t do or the things people say we can’t do,” Huang says. “We have to embrace our constraints, rather than dodge them, but we also can’t let them define us.”

When applying for a job, it’s good to be aware of the stumbling blocks that might thwart an offer, but it’s even more important to emphasize the talents that do match the job criteria, so you can shine to the point of making any shortcomings seem meaningless.

“Every diamond has certain flaws, but someone else might not see those flaws unless you let them show,” Huang says. “If you focus on the angles that make you sparkle brightly, that’s what people will see.”

3. Focus on ways to delight others

The best way to pacify skepticism others may feel about you is to surprise and delight them, Huang says.

In a meeting with a buyer for Neiman Marcus, clothing designer Sara Blakely was talking up the benefits of her product, Spanx, but sensed she was losing the buyer’s attention. So Blakely asked the woman to follow her to the bathroom and showed her what she looked like without wearing Spanx, followed by the slimming effect after slipping the undergarments on. The buyer was delighted not only with the product, but with the brilliance of the pitch, and the deal was sealed.

“Find those points of connection to surprise people in a memorable, engaging way that gives them a pleasant feeling,” Huang says. “You can’t be boring because people won’t hear you.”

The most delightful interactions are improvisational, so it’s OK to develop high-level plans for making a good impression prior to an important meeting, but strike a balance between preparing and staying spontaneous in the moment.

“If you over-prepare, it can immobilize you and prevent you from bobbing and weaving,” Huang says. “You don’t want to be tethered to a script that feels forced. You want to stay alert and light on your feet.”

Yet delighting others isn’t necessarily about being charming, entertaining, or charismatic. It’s about entering high-stakes situations with ideas for wowing others with the unexpected.

Years ago, Huang’s colleague at an engineering firm did just that when she found herself among a group of laid-off employees who were told they could decide whether to continue working or take personal time during a two-month severance period. While most workers took the two months off to find a new job or take a break, the woman kept showing up to the office, and when new assignments were floated, she offered to take them on.

At the end of the two months, the woman was involved in so many critical business operations, she received multiple offers from senior leaders to stay—and she went on to work for the company for 40 years.

4. Guide how others perceive your work and worth

The levers that enable success are often outside our control, and the people pulling them tend to make decisions based on their view of our competence and character. Huang says you need to be aware of how others see you and guide their perceptions, redirecting them when necessary to influence whether they appreciate your value.

Huang recalls setting up slides before teaching a new MBA course at HBS when a student entering the room mistook her for an IT support specialist. “Easy mistake, right?” Huang says. “Asian woman equals tech support, not professor.”

When people make snap judgments about us, we can empower ourselves to shift forces in our favor. Knowing she might not fit the typical image of a professor—because she’s “too young and too female,” as she puts it—Huang opened her class by saying, “I know it may look like I’m here to sell you Girl Scout cookies,” then redirected her students’ judgments about her age, race, and femininity by outlining her professional credentials.

“Some people think this is gross and too strategic,” Huang says. “But when people form perceptions about us, they need to be guided in how they think about us, rather than relying on assumptions about who we are.”

That’s what Cyrus Habib, who lost his eyesight at age 8 to retinoblastoma, has done. When he ran for lieutenant governor of Washington in 2016, well-meaning friends expressed concern about whether the blind man could handle door-to-door canvassing.

Habib responded by telling them he had gone “from Braille to Yale,” had found his way through the Port Authority Bus Terminal, plus had navigated the thousand-year-old dorms and cobblestone streets at Oxford. By confronting what others saw as a deficit head on, Habib turned his obstacle into a way to connect with voters, and ultimately, he won the election. “I guide [people] away from who they think I should be, to who I am,” he says in Huang’s book.

5. Be the proverbial “prom queen”

When Huang was in the last year of her doctoral program and was nervously seeking her first academic appointment at a college, her advisor encouraged her to “be the prom queen.” Because, she said, “everyone wants to date the prom queen.”

Huang felt far from the academic equivalent of the prom queen. Her alma mater, University of California, Irvine, was not considered a “high-caliber school” among the top 50 research institutions. And unlike many of her peers, she lacked a single published research paper, the main currency for academics vying for plum positions.

natural advantage 1.0

Her advisor argued that none of that should matter. Rather than trying to contort our own experiences into what we think is the standard trajectory toward success, being the prom queen means capturing your special aura by explaining where you have come from and where you are going to guide other people to understand your value. And that value doesn’t have to be the same as everyone else’s.

In meetings with job search committees, Huang showed college officials her potential by focusing on what made her stand out: her research into the previously unanswered question of how gut feelings figure into entrepreneurial investment decisions. Much to her surprise, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania hired her as an assistant professor.

“Being the prom queen means you shouldn’t care if you haven’t taken the typical path like everyone else,” Huang says. “You should focus on the qualities you do have that make people sit up and pay attention.”

People who put in the most effort often feel jaded when their work doesn’t speak for itself, Huang says. It’s important to set bitterness aside and find the right way to influence the outside perceptions that drive so many decisions about our careers.

When it comes to achieving success in any field, hard work is a given, Huang says. Gaining an edge requires what she calls “hard work, plus”—and that “plus” amounts to enriching, delighting, and guiding other people so they can see your value.

“Hard work will work harder for you if you tie it together with other strategies to give it headwinds and tailwinds,” she says. “That’s when you’re unstoppable.”

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is senior writer at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. HBS Digital Media Producer Amelia Kunhardt produced the video interview. 
[Image: metamorworks]

VOC Advances: New Paths to Understanding Customers

By Kimberly Watson-Hemphill and Anthony E. Curtis

Voice of the Customer Strategy

Most companies today say they are using voice of the customer (VOC) data to make decisions. But what exactly does that mean? In a 2002 survey by the Confederation of British Industry, with responses from more than 400 companies, the VOC methods mentioned included:

  • Surveys, 65 percent
  • Ideas meetings, 53 percent
  • Service/product testing, 50 percent
  • Formal observation, 18 percent

If a company’s goal is to stay ahead of its competition, there are two fatal flaws with this state of affairs:

  1. These traditional forms of VOC collection are unreliable even when the purpose is simply to improve what is already offered to customers. Odds of them helping the company push its market boundaries through innovations in products or services are virtually nil.
  2. Most companies are not even making good use of these traditional methods. Pushed for details, most managers will describe doing a survey once or twice a year, or say they get customer input only when testing a completely developed prototype. That is far too late in the design process to have a significant impact.

Beyond the Traditional Forms of VOC

There are some hard truths that businesses today are only just starting to grapple with. Most competitors in a particular field have access to the same customers and the same market information. The company that best understands those customers will end up with the biggest business advantage.

Developing this level of understanding demands skills well beyond traditional VOC techniques. Customers usually cannot explain their needs or wishes that would lead to innovative or transformational products and services because:

  • They do not know a supplier’s capabilities as well as that supplier does – so it does not occur to them that a supplier may be able to help them solve a problem.
  • Customers’ creativity is more likely to be focused on their jobs than on the products or services they use.
  • People are better at reacting to specific ideas than coming up with insights on their own.
  • When customers are asked if they like a new offering, they may lie. They may not want to hurt anyone’s feelings; or they may just want to avoid an argument.

Simply asking customers what they like or do not like about current products or services will not work. Microsoft fell afoul of this by asking customers to attend a focus group, use their software for a few hours, and answer questions interactively. It went something like this:

Question: Did you like the product?
Answer: Yup!
Question: Any features you do not like or want to add?
Answer: Nope!

Based on these answers, it might appear that Microsoft had a winner right out of the gate. But when Microsoft developers began recording keystrokes and videotaping customers’ experience, they discovered a wide range of negative customer reactions – grimaces, hesitations, etc.

Ethnography: The New Science for Understanding Customers

If simply asking customers what they like will not work, what will? The answer is incorporating close, detailed observation of customer behavior into design work. The epitome of this trend is the emerging field of customer ethnography, where a company finds ways to “live with” selected customers to get an in-depth understanding of their needs and how they use a product or service in real life. Ethnography is a discipline built on the principles of social anthropology, studying people in their native habitat. (Of course, in a business context, that habitat is more likely to be an office, school or home than the jungles of New Guinea.)

At its simplest level, ethnography includes any direct observation of customers with an eye towards identifying things that could make their lives easier. For example, Scott Cook noticed how much time it took his wife to pay the monthly bills and how repetitive it was. This was the birth of his idea for Quicken, the personal finance software, which grew into a billion dollar company. The practice of observing customer behavior has continued, now alive in Intuit’s “Follow Me Home” research program which is designed to gather what is being called ethnographic customer data. Because of that continued emphasis on understanding customers’ lives, Quicken and other Intuit products are consistently rated at the top of easy-to-use software.

The purpose of ethnography is to generate the kind of deep and intuitive understanding of customer needs and frustrations that cannot help but inspire creative insights. A company will select a few customers or potential customers to observe, typically about 10. (While other VOC methods are concerned with information quantity, ethnography focuses on quality.) A team of trained observers is sent to watch the customers. Their goals are to:

  • Develop a holistic view of customer needs – look at all the behaviors associated with a particular need, not just a single task, including all the activities that surround a product or service a supplier offers.
  • Expose and record “tribal knowledge” – the things that people do automatically, that they do not consciously think about.
  • Identify customer frustrations and areas of less-than-optimal efficiency, whether or not it is related to the product or service a supplier offers.

A Case Study in Ethnography

Other than Intuit’s approach, no financial services businesses have made available reports on their use of ethnography, though Bank of America has set up an experimental branch where it can test any number of customer services. But the experience of a retail chain which wanted to improve customer experiences at its stores provides an example that could easily be adapted to banks with branch locations. This case study shows how ethnography complements more traditional forms of VOC.

The retail company team’s goal was to understand how it could redesign its stores to give shoppers a more pleasant experience (one that would correlate into sales, of course). To get started, the team:

  • Looked at the current state of store layout and design and asked how that matched up with what the customer “wanted” – as much as they knew at that point, at least.
  • Reviewed existing quantitative data. Like most good companies, this retail chain had an abundance of market and consumer segmentation studies, market share studies and business results on hand.

The team used this historical data as a starting point. (Many companies will stop here and not go any further, assuming that this data is true and basing all their decisions on it. In fact, such an assumption is seldom true.) Based on what was learned, the team began working on two different fronts:

1. What Other Companies Were Doing (Benchmarking)

  • The team made many trips to competitors’ stores, did subjective evaluations of whether those designs seemed to be working, and looked for design features they could incorporate into their redesign effort.
  • Team members traveled far and wide searching for the newest, hottest store design examples and concepts. For example, they found that European retail stores were much more cutting-edge in their fixturing designs.
  • The team also looked at designs for other types of stores, hoping to find inspiration.

2. What Customers Wanted (VOC Collection)

  • The team recognized that focus groups, surveys and simple interviews would not supply the information it needed. The team went to customers, on their turf, visiting them in their own homes to hear about their issues and concerns.
  • The team also conducted “shop-alongs,” going to various retailers with consumers to observe their actions, asking for clarification on why they did what they did and capturing detailed notes on consumer reactions.
  • The team turned some staff into “mystery shoppers,” who went to stores to shop for certain things and interact with the sales associates to see how customers are treated and what is offered to them.

Based on the information collected, the team moved into the next design phase – prototyping. Though often used only for new product development, prototyping is critical for all development efforts. This team took its research and ideas and incorporated them into miniature store layouts and designs. For example, to test a completely new design of the music section, they constructed (in open warehouse space) a scaled version of the new fixtures and layout. Then they brought in customers to test out the shopability of the new design. The feedback was immediately implemented into improving the design and establishing a second prototype, which also was tested. The same process was used for each department until the store design was complete.

Conclusion: Getting New Insights

A growing body of case studies shows how ethnography leads to insights that companies simply cannot get any other way. A book about this new discipline, The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, profiles IDEO, a firm in Palo Alto, California (USA). The firm has used ethnography to design everything from medical equipment to an office furniture showroom.

One downside of ethnography is that it is time- and labor-intensive. Also, a company needs to guard against designing a product or service based on a just a few customers. The experiences of the few people a business chooses to observe in-depth can be a great source of inspiration and provide the starting point for next-generation products and services. But the more traditional forms of VOC – focus groups, phone interviews, etc. – are still needed to validate findings from an ethnographic study.

Safeguard Against 4 Forms of Six Sigma Resistance

By J. DeLayne Stroud


Over the years, I have had numerous inquiries from readers about overcoming opposition to Six Sigma. Interestingly enough, I have also experienced this opposition when speaking with prospective or existing clients, some of whom have asked me not to mention Six Sigma but to speak to tools in a generic fashion. Obviously, opposition to the method is a common deployment obstacle.

Practitioners typically encounter four types of resistance to Six Sigma: technical, political, organizational and personal. In order to resolve this negative force, they must classify the type of opposition they are encountering, understand its root cause and then adjust their deployment strategies accordingly.

History of the Push Back

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a growing consensus that Six Sigma was not a “flavor of the month” process improvement methodology. It had crossed over from manufacturing to service industries, including the financial and healthcare industries. Adoption was relatively high, and opposition low. Companies were delighted with the methodology’s accomplishments and sustainability. But stakeholders have become more cautious of using the Lean and Six Sigma terminology, tools and methodology.

While the terminology may be intimidating, Lean and Six Sigma tools have brought much success to corporations. Therefore, practitioners must work to overcome this fear. To do this, they must investigate the root cause of the opposition.

Change Should Not Equal Loss

The root cause of opposition can be seen in an exercise featured in the article “The Change Game: Engaging Exercises to Teach Change.” To play, participants are asked to change things about their physical appearance. Surprisingly, people often begin by taking off pieces of jewelry or clothing. During the post-game debrief, participants note a strong tendency to think of change as a loss – they must lose something in order to change.

If change is somehow equated with loss, how can practitioners expect any Lean Six Sigma program to be successful? The answer is to identify, motivate and mobilize their teams in order to increase commitment and eliminate the fear of loss. This can be accomplished through a stakeholder analysis.

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Completing a Stakeholder Analysis

Stakeholders control critical resources or own key processes impacted by change. They have needed expertise. They are influential in how other critical stakeholders think. They can block projects – directly or indirectly – and must approve certain aspects of those projects. It is important to identify key stakeholders or those stakeholders who have leverage or influence over other stakeholders. Once identified, practitioners should document each stakeholder’s level of support or opposition to the quality initiative.

There are five possible levels of stakeholder support:

  • Strong Support – Advocates for making things happen
  • Moderate Support – Those who may only be involved in helping with the Six Sigma initiative. They do what they are asked to do and nothing more.
  • Neutral – Those who are merely letting things happen. They are not proactive advocates of the initiative, nor are they out to sabotage it.
  • Moderately Against – Those who will not comply with what is asked of them
  • Strongly Against – Not only do they not comply with the efforts underway, but they also go out of their way to lobby against the change initiative.

Table 1 shows one of many examples of a stakeholder analysis. The five categories of support are listed across the top of the chart, while stakeholders are listed down the left-hand side. An “O” represents the stakeholder’s current support for the initiative, and an “X” represents where the stakeholder’s support needs to progress to in order to successfully complete the initiative.

Table 1: Stakeholder Analysis

Practitioners do not always need strong support from every stakeholder; however, all stakeholders need to be aware of the change because neutral or moderate support may indicate that they do not know of the initiative. Practitioners should document the plan or actions required to bring the respective stakeholders up to the required level of support (Table 2).

Table 2: Stakeholder Analysis with Action Plans

Types of Opposition

In most cases, none of the stakeholders will be where practitioners need them to be to ensure the success of the initiative. Many may be neutral because they have not heard of the initiative. Because of these factors, practitioners likely will encounter at least one of the four forms of opposition.

While I’m really good with PowerPoint animations and can maneuver around a database, I am not a wizard with the computer. Most of my technical skills are either self-taught or from observing best practices of my peers. While I want to be an expert at everything, that is not always possible. So, why do I occasionally express opposition to technical aspects? Because I do not want to feel inept. That which is not often understood is typically resisted. Although I pride myself with my accomplishments and deliverables, the computer at times makes me feel insufficient.

This scenario applies to participants implementing Lean Six Sigma initiatives. The methodology is commonly associated with statistics, which can make people feel inept. Many Master Black Belts are trained statisticians who rely more on theory than application.

How to Overcome In the case of technical opposition, it is vital to eliminate theory and concentrate on training the basics. Make concepts easy to understand by providing real-life examples. Encourage participant confidence by building on their own examples and experiences.

Political Opposition

Politics are present within most organizations, and they need to be understood and dealt with accordingly. A former client had a senior manager participate as a stakeholder. This senior manager was extremely intelligent and had a proven track record for her style and approach in getting things done. Unfortunately, she was vocally opposed to the Lean Six Sigma deployment from Day 1 and said she would do the best she could to get the program cancelled and eliminate the need for my team.

It was extremely difficult not to take this as a personal attack. But I understood this as merely political opposition. Political opposition exists when a change is seen as a threat to the status quo. This individual was comfortable using concepts that she believed in and now someone had come in and expected her to do things differently – perhaps affecting her success.

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How to Overcome Political opposition can stem from real or perceived loss on behalf of an individual. Practitioners should distinguish between what is real and what is perceived, and then work quickly to provide reasoning as to what can (and in most cases, will) be gained, versus lost, from the initiative.

Organizational Opposition

Like political opposition, organizational opposition involves the feelings of loss. The primary difference is rather than the loss being attributed to a person, it is attributed more to a group or department. Everyone wants to succeed and be recognized; however, when the recognition stems from factors outside of the organization – like a never-before-attempted methodology – egos can become bruised. A Lean Six Sigma initiative can give process owners the perception that they are no longer in the driver’s seat, making them feel unable to manage their business.

How to Overcome When dealing with organizational opposition, recognize that it involves ego, a sense of ownership, control and pride. Extreme care should be given to ensure the involvement of process owners so that they are fully engaged and feel a greater sense of control in the improvement process.

Personal Opposition

I worked with a client who seemed in full support of Lean Six Sigma. She said all of the right things and did not present a negative viewpoint. However, the initiative timeline had fallen way behind and a six-month project was nearing nine months. When asking what the client thought the holdups were, what barriers she was facing and how I could assist with their elimination, she addressed some personal, non-work-related challenges and situations. The root cause for some opposition may be extreme personal stress and fatigue caused by factors outside work.

How to Overcome Be extremely empathetic with someone who exhibits personal opposition. As coaches, practitioners often find themselves acting as a sounding board for topics unrelated to Lean and Six Sigma. Practitioners should modify their behavior toward these individuals; lessen their workload but increase involvement with these people. Everyone benefits from a little compassion, patience and understanding.

How Best Business Practices Can Improve Health Care

Clayton Christensen on Disrupting Health Care

by Deborah Blagg

An acclaimed author and expert on the development and commercialization of technological and business innovation, HBS professor Clayton Christensen has written a new book aimed at changing our national conversation about health care. In The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care (read an excerpt), Christensen and his coauthors, the late Jerome Grossman and Jason Hwang (MBA ’06), focus not on how the United States will pay for health care in the coming decades, but rather on targeting innovations that will make health care both more affordable and more effective in the future.

Deborah Blagg: “Disruptive innovation” is a term you’ve used in your analyses of other industries, but what does it mean in the context of the health-care industry?

Clayton Christensen: People think they know what disruptive innovation means, but I’ve found it’s often misunderstood. The simplest way to describe it—in a way that applies to health care or any industry—is innovation that transforms a product or service that historically has been very complicated and expensive into something that is affordable and simple to use.

Q: In your book, you identify fee-for-service reimbursement as a “runaway reactor” in accelerating the rise in health-care costs. Why is this system such a problem?

A: By some estimates, 50 percent of all health care is driven by physician and hospital supply, not by patients’ needs. Today’s doctors work in a system where they are rewarded by Medicare and insurance companies for the number and cost of the services they provide rather than by the value of those services in helping patients. In short, medical professionals make money when their patients become sick.

Here’s one example of how the problem plays out in practice. In our research, we came across a book by George Halverson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente. In making the argument for flat-fee reimbursement (which his company employs), Halverson notes that even though there is an affordable sealant that is almost 100 percent effective in protecting children’s teeth against decay, only about one-third of kids get it. By contrast, in the minority of dental plans that provide comprehensive care for a yearly fixed fee, nearly all children are treated with the sealant. Now why might this be? Because in the fixed-fee system, filling cavities is a cost, not a revenue opportunity. So the financial incentive supports preventive care.

Q: So a system where health providers offer comprehensive care for a fixed fee is the disruptive innovation that will bring down costs?

A: It’s a key component, but one reason why health-care reform is such a tough problem is that the challenges are complicated and interrelated. People who have studied this industry for a long time have come up with a number of feasible ideas to get at the cost problem, including high-deductible insurance and health savings accounts. But until we make sure that the treatments and services consumers are getting are effective and affordable, changing the way we consumers pay for the services doesn’t fix anything.

What we need is a system of new value networks that will disrupt the old business models in this industry. We need a new approach not just to insurance and reimbursement, but also to the places where medical services are delivered, the way we use technology, the way pharmaceuticals are developed, the way we educate medical professionals, and who performs what kinds of services. These things are all connected, and changing one piece, or plugging an isolated innovation into an existing framework, will not solve the larger problem.


Q: You mentioned that the places where health care is delivered are part of the outmoded business model. Could you elaborate?

A: You can’t make CT scans more affordable by changing the way big hospitals are run. But if you take procedures that once had to be performed at Mass General [Massachusetts General Hospital], for example, and you make them available at lower-cost, focused hospitals, that saves money. And as the technology evolves and becomes more portable, some procedures that took place in a focused hospital might move right into the doctor’s office or clinic. It’s by making lower-cost venues of care more capable that health care becomes affordable, not by expecting large hospitals to charge less.

Q: Could you give an example of a technological innovation that you think will have great impact?

A: The advantages of electronic medical records, which make patient information accessible and portable, have been talked about for a long time. One hurdle to progress on this relates, again, to the existing business model, which makes it difficult for information stored on one health-care provider’s software system to merge with information from other facilities. There’s a new disruptive technology in the works, personal electronic health records (PEHRs), an open-source tool that collects data from all providers and gives patients access over the Internet or by mobile phone.

It’s not hard to imagine how PEHRs can help us manage our own health care, but the technology is transformative in lots of unexpected ways. In some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, PEHR technology in the hands of health-care workers has already helped reduce the transmission of mother-to-child HIV. For many pharmaceutical companies, complete and accurate patient data would help in screening participants in drug trials and make it possible to track and troubleshoot unexpected problems that show up after a drug is introduced into the general population, like what happened with Vioxx. The potential of this technology is far-reaching.

Q: Your prescription calls for widespread, coordinated change. Who is responsible for leading the way?

A: We hope policymakers in Washington will give our approach consideration, but to transform a complicated industry like this, you need buy-in from a broad range of people, including executives of provider organizations, as well as hospital, insurance, drug, retail, and medical device companies; deans of medical schools; and employers, who pay the bulk of health-care costs. All these parties interact in an interdependent way inside the current system and need to work together to bring about real change.

Q: Is this change happening, and if so, where are we on the transition timeline?

A: System problems require a systemic solution. You need what the great [HBS professor] Al Chandler called “the visible hand of managerial capitalism.” When this kind of change happened in personal computers, IBM weighed in and orchestrated the creation of a new business ecosystem.

That’s what we need in health care. Right now, only 5 percent of health care in America is provided by integrated institutions such as Kaiser, Intermountain, and Geisinger, but 95 percent of health care is still provided by disintegrated, specialized providers. And if those providers don’t start to integrate as competitors in the health-care market, they will be the losers.


The “Secret Sauce” for Extraordinary Employee Performance

Elissa Tucker  Feb 17, 2020

i have a secret

If there was one thing that you could do today to drive extraordinary performance from your team—would you do it? In this email interview with APQC, Amy Leschke-Kahle—VP of Performance Acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP Company—talks about the role of employee engagement in accelerating performance and reveals the most powerful thing a team leader can do to engage employees.

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement has become one of those terms that we toss around and don’t really stop and clearly define what we mean. Therefore, it’s meaning tends to get watered down. And without clarity it’s near impossible to figure out how to get more of it. I find the clearest definition of employee engagement is that it is the emotional precursors to extraordinary performance.

Why does employee engagement matter?

If you clearly define engagement as I have above, then of course it matters. Organizational differentiators have significantly changed over the last decade. Technology and process efficiency are table stakes for any business. And even if you discover the most amazing technology or design the best new product, the tools your competitors need to “me too” are so accessible that your secret sauce doesn’t stay secret for very long. Therefore the only real unique asset that any organization has is it’s people. Knowing that engagement is the accelerator to extraordinary performance and that engagement is all about people and the teams they are on really ups the ante on how important engagement really is.

What drives employee engagement?

The number one ritual that moves the needle on engagement is attention from your team leader. Period. The research is clear and even more importantly the experiences from real organizations are clear. Attention, attention, attention. It has to be radically frequent but it can also be light touch. We know from our research and our clients that team members who receive weekly light-touch attention from team leaders are 2 ½ to 3 ½  times more likely to be fully engaged.

Many of our readers are leaders/people managers. What is something that they could do today to promote engagement among the employees they lead/manage?

The simplest and most powerful thing any team leader can do, no matter what level they are or what kind of organization they are in, is to pay frequent attention to their team members in the context of the team members’ day-to-day work. Simply ask them, at least once a week, “what are your priorities this week and how can I help?” It’s common sense, you just need to make it common practice!

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