Leading People to Think in the 21st Century Workplace

Amy Edmondson_smaller
Dr. Relly Nadler: In this week’s show we are going to talk about decisions in ambiguous times. We have Dr. Amy Edmondson with us. She will share her insights on decision making and management practices as both a top performer and a coach for top performers based on her research and work at Harvard University.

Dr. Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management. The Novartis Chair was established to enable the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful business enterprises for a better society.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It was an absolute honor and privilege to not only meet Dr. Amy Edmondson but to be a key member with her as a faculty at the Walmart Executive Education Programs. Relly, as you and I both know, we are extremely privileged individuals in the realm of leadership development and we often come across talent and thought leaders and always take the opportunity to invite them to be with us on these shows because we want to focus on top performers and how to create them.

Dr. Amy Edmondson joined the Harvard faculty as an assistant professor in 1996 and her research examines leadership influences on learning, collaboration, and innovation in teams and organizations. Her field-based approach includes research in healthcare delivery and manufacturing. She has published widely in academic journals and she is also well known to management periodicals and is the author of teaching cases on the Cleveland Clinic, Prudential Financial, Simmons Mattress Company, Yum Brands, IDEO Product Designs, one of my favorite companies, and NASA’s failed Columbia mission which we’ll talk about during our program today.

In 2003, the Academy of Management Organizational Behavior Division selected Professor Edmondson for The Cummings Award for outstanding achievement, and in 2000 selected her article, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” for it’s annual award for the best published paper in the field.

Her article “Why Hospitals Don’t Learn From Failures: Organizational and Psychological Dynamics that Inhibit System Change,” has received the 2004 Accenture Award for a significant contribution to management practices and certainly as a former partner with Accenture I know how important that award is.

Before her academic career, Dr. Edmondson was director of research at Pecos River Learning Centers where she worked closely with CEO Larry Wilson to design and implement organizational change programs in a variety of Fortune 100 companies. In the early 1980’s, she worked as chief engineer, architect, inventor, for Buckminster Fuller and her book, “A Fuller Explanation,” clarifies Fuller’s mathematical contributions for a non-technical audience; that’s amazing.

Edmondson received her PhD in Organizational Behavior and she has a degree in psychology, engineering and design; all from Harvard University. She lives with her husband George, a physician and scientist and their two young sons.

I was privileged to meet Amy during our program along with wonderful faculty that helped us to talk about decision making in ambiguous times. Welcome, Dr. Amy Edmondson.

Dr. Amy Edmondson: Thank you so much, Cathy, I’m delighted to be here.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Well Amy, we always want to try to find out a little bit more about what makes up folks; I think that comes from my background as a psychologist. Who have been some of the most influential people in your thinking as a teacher and as an educator of leaders?

Dr. Amy Edmondson: Well I have to say that I have been spoiled in that respect in that I have had the privilege of working with more than my fair share of leaders and great teachers. I guess I would say it starts with my wonderful experience of working with Buckminster Fuller right out of college. So I graduated from college with a degree in engineering and design and at that time I could think of nothing more exiting or wonderful than working for Buckminster Fuller who was known best for inventing the Geodesic Dome, but had a far greater and more expansive vision of how to make the world a better place through responsible design.

I thought, of course, that dream was an impossible one and so just to get it out of my system I wrote him a letter as a senior at college to see whether I might work for him, but knowing that I, of course, it wouldn’t be possible. I had a letter back in my mailbox about a week and 1 day later offering me a job. This was in 1980. I went down and spent a little over three years working for him. He was exactly 4 times my age when I started that job. That was initially an education in how do you design incredibly tough structures that withstand hurricanes and everything else. Far more importantly, it was an education in how you think in such a way as to lead people, engage their hearts and minds, in the quest of helping them discover what it is that their experience and insight leads them to want to do in the service of making a better world.

I’ll stop there. I think I could take up all of your time just talking about Bucky and I. I know you don’t want to do that, but he certainly was the more formative influence on me in my early career day.

Dr. Relly Nadler: The other thing that it might be worth saying a little bit about is Larry Wilson at Pecos River. I’ve been to Pecos River and what a great area. Maybe you could say a little bit about that.

Dr. Amy Edmondson: That’s why I feel so spoiled, I sort of went from great mentor to great mentor. So after Bucky passed away, which was really very sudden even though he was 88 and was at his wife’s deathbed, so they both really died together—he had a heart attack as she was very ill and fading. I wrote a book after that time. I was really quite grief stricken but also felt a need to give something back. So, I wrote this book about Fuller’s work and had a little bit of opportunity to lecture about it and so forth, and that is where I met Larry Wilson at a big conference in Colorado.

I ended up going down to Pecos River to work with him, first, in a research capacity and then really in a sort of quasi-research and consulting capacity with Pecos River Learning Centers. It was really Larry who turned my attention to the problem of organizations and leadership in that sector as opposed to the design and engineering sector.

I had, as I said, this wonderful opportunity to go work with Larry Wilson just in the early days when Pecos River Learning Center, maybe his third or fourth entrepreneurial venture, was getting started. My job was to do research and help Larry think about the kind of programs we would run that, in a nutshell, I think were designed to help people tap into their own sense of purpose and I think what Cathy would call happiness and to tap into the energy that that brings them in the workplace; to engage in improvement activities, to serve customers better, to serve their organizations and ultimately the world in a more effective way. This became to me surprisingly interesting and engaging as a focus of my work.

I absolutely loved working at Pecos. I loved working with Larry. I learned more than I can possibly ever convey and along the way had the kind of stark realization that I lacked any formal training in this domain. Meaning, I had no psychology background at the time, I had no business training and so I finally decided to come to grips with that and apply to graduate school. I applied to the PhD program in organizational behavior at Harvard and was lucky enough to be accepted and be given scholarship support and so forth.

That really, in addition to the work with Larry, launched me on a new career as a researcher of these issues that I cared so much about. So I guess I’ve been in the academic part of this enterprise for the last almost 20 years.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Amy, I’m jumping in here, sorry, I’ve been thinking about what you have been doing and the case studies that you’ve developed. I was so fortunate to see you in action deliver the case study in the compassionate and absolutely invigorating style that a Harvard Professor of your elk will do with executives at this retreat. This whole process of using case studies with executives was not something that I had actually seen put to practice, certainly having been a professor myself having seen it in the classroom, you see how it works. How do you develop these case studies and make them so exciting to help leaders understand crises management?

Dr. Amy Edmondson: Well I think that’s a wonderful question. It starts with the recognition that a particular issue or a particular organization or a particular person in an organization offers a rich setting for discussion. So you’re nose or your gut is engaged by something and clearly the Challenger Shuttle tragedy was a rich and engaging and challenging problem for people to wrestle with. So I’ve written maybe 25 or so cases over the years. I’m always drawn in, for some reason or another, by a person or an issue, as I said. Then I and sometimes my students will go in and we do our very best to try to capture in writing the situation without putting our forethoughts into it. Without putting our analysis into it. This is very difficult as academics because we are trained to analyze. We find that the best pedagogical vehicles, the cases, are ones that don’t give it away but really try to convey the situation fully and as accurately as we can.

Then we go into the classroom. Now I as the professor have an idea of where I want to go and what lessons I want to draw out, but it’s never the same twice. So the case doesn’t lead to people too hard in the direction that I’m trying to go but maybe gently pushes them in that direction. It’s really a wonderful way to teach because it’s asking people educare—go within—to find the insights that they have and to make those connections working with some situation that they had nothing to do with.

It’s both safe because it’s not their reality; so it’s safe to jump in and take risks and say what comes into their heads and at the same time they are very connected to their reality because they are fundamental human truths there.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Just that reflective time; it’s already happened, so you are really bringing them in to that 20/20 vision in the case of what brought about the case, but then also what would they do differently.

Dr. Amy Edmondson: Exactly. What would they do differently and why did this happen the way it is, which isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. We have heated debates and Cathy saw some of them in the classroom, whereby people do, they can’t help it I think, start to point fingers and say well, it was this managers fault, or it was that engineers fault, rather than thoughtfully considering the ways in which these different factors came together to produce a bad outcome or in some other cases a good outcome.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So when that happened, because I’ve seen that also happen in my work, it’s almost a primitive let’s try to pass blame that takes away the complexity of the issue. How do you bring that back because it’s almost like the brain just want to get an answer: they did this and this, when it’s never that simple.

Dr. Amy Edmondson: Well, you bring it back, and that’s really well put, with a well timed and well structured question. So, you never want, as you know as a psychologist, you don’t to call someone wrong, and in fact they are not wrong, there’s a truth to what they say it’s just incomplete.
You want to try to open it back up; so you can say: that’s an interesting perspective, does everyone see it that way? Does anyone have a different point of view? The beauty of the case method is that in a good sized room, there will be someone who doesn’t agree and who isn’t in the hot seat at the moment you ask the question so they can think more clearly. So, they can say, well I’m not so sure that someone else in that chair wouldn’t have done the exact same thing.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: One of the things that I think you do exceptionally well in engaging the hearts and minds of these executives is partly a competency or a skill that requires someone to be like a coach; nonjudgmental and open to suggestions that may in fact even be incorrect. Is this a natural skill that you think you’ve always had or can others learn how to that so that they can help others learn better by asking good nonjudgmental questions?

Dr. Amy Edmondson: I think it’s absolutely a skill. I wouldn’t for a moment claim that I’ve always had it. I think you are absolutely right in pointing to that as kind of the heart of not only the pedagogy but good coaching which is learning to ask the right questions, asking in a nonjudgmental way, and helping people find the answers within themselves.

Some people have said at Harvard Business School, that how we teach is what we teach. It’s almost less about the frameworks, the theories, the models, and more about the process, which is exactly the process you were just pointing to.

Dr. Relly Nadler: That’s great. I’m just writing it down for myself. It’s how we teach and I think the “how” really gets people thinking. I think in the management world, I often say this, leaders train their direct reports not to think. Just come ask me; I’ve got all of the answer. So people take the shortcut and they don’t think.

Dr. Amy Edmondson: And, what a mistake that is in the global interconnected knowledge-based 21st Century workplace. That just won’t work.

Listen to the complete interview with Dr. Amy Edmondson, above, without commercials.


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