An Executive Guide to the Fall 2019 Issue

These summaries will help you navigate our Fall 2019 lineup.

Collaborate Smarter, Not Harder

Rob Cross, Thomas H. Davenport, and Peter Gray

No question, collaboration allows companies to serve exacting clients more seamlessly, respond more quickly to changing environments, and innovate more rapidly. But when an organization tries to boost collaboration by adopting a new formal structure, technology, or way of working, it often adds a steady stream of time- and energy-consuming interactions to an already relentless workload, diminishing instead of improving performance. Employees struggle with increases in email volume, the proliferation of new collaborative tools, and expectations of fast replies to messages — with deleterious effects on quality and efficiency.

Even though employees are acutely aware that they’re suffering, most organizations don’t recognize what’s happening in the aggregate. With increasing pressure on organizations to become more agile, there is also a tendency to swamp employees with collaboration demands in pursuit of a networked organization. People have, on average, at least nine different technologies to manage their interactions with work groups. The result can be overwhelmed and unproductive employees, sapped creativity, costly restructurings, and employee attrition.

Fortunately, through analytics, companies can improve their collaboration efforts in five key ways: scaling collaboration more effectively, improving collaborative design and execution, driving planned and emergent innovation through networks that cross capabilities and markets, streamlining collaborative work by diagnosing and reducing collaborative overload, and engaging talent by identifying social capital enablers of performance, engagement, and retention.


Improving the Rhythm of Your Collaboration

Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore, and David Lazer

Leaders help establish the rhythm for their organizations’ and teams’ collaborative efforts. For at least a century, they have done this largely by planning working-group meetings, huddles, one-on-ones, milestone reports, steering committee readouts, end-of-shift handoffs, and so on.

But collaborative rhythms have become much more complex and less controlled in recent years, given all the digital tools at our disposal, along with email, texting, messaging, and the profusion of meetings that haven’t gone away. Collaboration has gone omnichannel — and orchestrating it has become a major challenge.

Given how hyperconnected most people are now at work, is more collaboration simply better, as we tend to assume, or should organizations have a rhythm that alternates on and off? The authors’ research suggests that alternation is essential for work that involves problem-solving. While always-on connectivity helps employees coordinate and gather information, people produce less innovative, less productive solutions without dedicated unplugged time. By achieving more and more connectivity, humans are becoming a bit like passive nodes in a machine network: They are getting better at processing information but worse at making decisions from it.

It takes strong leadership to create an effective rhythm that alternates between rich interaction and quiet focus. This article explores what that means in practice for managers and illustrates how they can avoid common problems.


It’s Time to Tackle Your Team’s Undiscussables

Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux

In 2008, Theranos engineer Aaron Moore created a mock ad for a prototype of the company’s blood testing device. It was intended as a prank to amuse his colleagues. The ad described the device as “mostly functional” and said it included “leeches” among its “blood collection accessories.”

An alternative reading of his spoof is that it was not just a joke but a desperate bid to raise a taboo subject: The device didn’t work as promised, and company leaders were hiding that fact.

While this was an extreme case, the underlying issue — team undiscussables — is all too common. Undiscussables exist because they help people avoid short-term conflicts, threats, and embarrassment. But they also prevent the inquiries and challenges essential to both completing tasks and promoting learning. The authors’ work with dozens of senior management teams reveals that a team’s capacity to discuss what is holding it back is what drives its effectiveness. They have observed this dynamic across hundreds of teams in a range of settings. Drawing on this experience, they have developed a framework, a set of diagnostic questions, and some targeted solutions to help teams address their own undiscussables.

Teams struggle with four types of undiscussables: They think but dare not say, as was the case at Theranos; they say but don’t mean, reflecting discrepancies between what the team says it believes or values and how it behaves; they feel but can’t name, because their feelings are difficult to express constructively; and they do but don’t realize, so their unproductive behaviors go unaddressed and lead to inefficiencies and poor performance. Surfacing and removing undiscussables is never a one-off exercise. To prevent the buildup of new ones, leaders must regularly make time for inward-focused team talk.


Casting the Dark Web in a New Light

Keman Huang, Michael Siegel, Keri Pearlson, and Stuart Madnick

With cyberattacks increasingly threatening businesses, executives need new tools, techniques, and approaches to protect their organizations. Unfortunately, criminal innovation often outpaces their defensive efforts. Attackers always seem to be one or two steps ahead of the defenders. Are they more technically adept, or do they have a magical recipe for innovation that enables them to move more quickly?

If, as is commonly believed, hackers operate mainly as isolated individuals, they would need to be incredibly skilled and fast to create hacks at the frequency we’ve seen. However, when the authors conducted research in dark web markets, surveyed the literature of cyberattacks, and interviewed cybersecurity professionals, they found that the prevalence of the “fringe hacker” is a misconception.

Through this work, they found a useful lens for examining how cybercriminals innovate and operate. The value chain model developed by Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter offers a process-based view of business. When applied to cybercrime, it reveals that the dark web — that part of the internet that has been intentionally hidden, is inaccessible through standard web browsers, and facilitates criminal activities — serves as what Porter called a value system. That system includes a comprehensive cyberattack supply chain, which enables hackers and other providers to develop and sell the products and services needed to mount attacks at scale. Understanding how it works provides new, more effective avenues for combating attacks to companies, security service providers, and the defense community at large.


The Magic That Makes Customer Experiences Stick

Stefan Thomke

Memorable experiences, and the ensuing positive word of mouth, can drive customer decisions as much as, if not more than, price and functionality. To that end, consultants have created many tools and frameworks, and academics have studied customer engagement models that focus on managerial variables such as employee selection, training, rewards, and service culture. Yet recent research reports suggest that there have been few, if any, meaningful improvements in customer experience over time. Despite the insights gleaned about customers through advanced technologies and data analysis, something still seems to be
missing for most companies.

That missing ingredient is emotion. Years ago, when the author first asked his executive education students for their most memorable experiences as customers, he was surprised by the language they chose: Made me feel special. Really cared. Trusted me. Surprised us. These executives weren’t using the standard language of business. Instead, they were describing emotional impact.

The stories they shared — along with a deep dive into research on decision-making — led to a critical insight: Customers want their choices to align as much with their feelings and senses as with their values and ethics. The rational approaches taught at most business schools — offer customers more value for money, add features, make service more efficient — are not enough. Creating memorable experiences for customers also requires a bit of emotional magic. This article explores how that can work.


Creating Digital Offerings Customers Will Buy

Jeanne W. Ross, Cynthia M. Beath, and Martin Mocker

Digital technologies are forcing companies to reimagine their customer value propositions. That’s because new social and mobile applications, analytics, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, biometrics, blockchain, cloud and edge computing, and many other advances allow them to deliver value in ways that simply were not possible in the past.

But given all that potential, how does any company figure out which offerings are viable? Digital technologies are game-changing — they provide ubiquitous data, unlimited connectivity, and massive processing power. Savvy companies are converting all this capacity into digital offerings: information-enriched solutions wrapped in seamless, personalized customer experiences.

Successful digital offerings are created at the intersection of what technologies can deliver and what customers want and will pay for. That point of intersection, however, has proved to be elusive. To find it, companies must experiment repeatedly, cocreate with customers, and assemble cross-functional development teams — and the insights gleaned along the way must be shared internally. This article explores how several of the nearly 200 companies the authors studied have built and exercised these capabilities.


How Algorithms Can Diversify the Startup Pool

Morela Hernandez, Roshni Raveendhran, Elizabeth Weingarten, and Michaela Barnett

Some venture capital (VC) firms are starting to realize how much gender bias can skew their decisions about which startups to fund — and the negative impact that can have on their portfolios and investments. They are embracing algorithms, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and other quantitative, data-driven approaches in an attempt to making smarter, fairer funding decisions. But so far, the effectiveness of these tools remains an open question.

So the authors have set out to examine the extent to which such tools and technologies really do help level the VC playing field for female entrepreneurs. On the basis of their emerging findings, they are cautiously optimistic. In this article, they explain how biases tend to creep into VC decision-making when investors size up their prospects according to factors like fit and likability, why investors rely so heavily on gut instinct, and their tendency to passively wish for a more diverse pool of candidates. The authors then describe some of the data-driven approaches firms are using to tease out those biases, explore the opportunities and challenges of algorithmic decision-making, and offer concrete recommendations that VC firms can use to mitigate bias in the profiling of entrepreneurs who seek capital for startups. The goal: to help VC firms make less biased, more quantitative investment decisions that serve both the firms themselves and the entrepreneurs who need their funding.