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Organizational Ambidexterity | Exploration and Exploitation

“Trying to understand how a tech company is going to be successful is a little bit like looking at a sonogram and trying to predict the baby’s hair color.” – Marc Andreessen, Founder, Netscape

Prior to the technological revolution a company could develop a competitive advantage through simply improving operational performance. This was accomplished through the company’s leadership and their ability to discover, analyze, and exploit operational efficiencies. In the current landscape of information and globalization agility and adaptability are increasingly more essential components of effective leadership. Organizations continue to try and find ways to improve performance at the organizational and team level, and no longer simply to augment current processes, but to position themselves ahead of the curve with regards to emerging opportunities as well.

Groups are traditionally formed, inside and outside a professional setting, to perform tasks and get things accomplished (Forsyth, 2010). There are many who believe that organizing a group with one set of competencies comes at the cost of forsaking other competencies. However, this paradigm is currently being critically evaluated in a number of experimental and observational studies. One of the interesting areas of study regarding this trend is an emerging body of research on the concept of organizational and group ambidexterity. To highlight the emergence of this work, in 2004 there were less than 10 papers on corporate ambidexterity; by 2009, there were over 80 papers (Raisch et al., 2009). The purpose of this paper is to take an exploratory look about what is known about group ambidexterity, how leadership effectiveness can influence ambidexterity, and identify areas where further research is needed.

The primary construct of ambidexterity in an organization and/or group context is the ability for a group to engage in both explorative and exploitative work simultaneously. For instance, it is believed by some researchers that a group with strong ties among members has a greater capacity to exploit and implement established ideas, but inherently has a lower capacity to be creative and forward thinking. Conversely, a group with weak ties among members has a greater capacity to generate new ideas, but as a result has a lower capacity to implement them (Tiwana, 2008). It was traditionally believed that this group dynamic creates a natural dilemma between the ability of a group or team to accomplish and improve upon tasks versus their collective ability to come up with creative solutions to problems. In this sense, most researchers look at both explorative and exploitative work as innovation. However, explorative work is considered the driver of future endeavors. It is the creative process that leads to new products and new ways of thinking. Explorative work creates entirely new ways of doing things and can turn old systems upside down. Exploitative work on the other hand tends to improve processes that are already in place. It focuses on how things are currently running and functions to create improvements that optimize current operational processes.

The term organizational ambidexterity was first coined by Dr. Robert Duncan in 1976 in the article The ambidextrous organization: Designing dual structures for innovation. Fifteen years later, Dr. James March published the seminal article Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning which is credited with creating a general interest in the concept of organizational ambidexterity. During early examination of organizational ambidexterity operational improvements and innovation were believed to be essentially two separate activities which required different kinds of leadership, group roles, and structures to optimize performance in either area. During the 1990s, it was generally believed that highly functional operational groups involved in activities such as implementation and refinement would not be well suited for creative activities such as innovation, discovery, and experimentation. In other words, it was believed that being well equipped to exploit existing competencies of a group came at the cost of being inefficient at exploring new ones (Raisch & Birkinshaw, 2008).

Mumford et al. (2009) states there are four key elements to being innovative: the expertise brought to the task, the particular types of knowledge applied in solving the problem, the effective execution of processing operations in the generation of a solution, and the strategies used in executing a solution based on the group’s knowledge structures. The counterargument to organizational ambidexterity is that when the key elements for creative innovation are met in a group, tension in the group increases which limits the group’s ability to optimally act efficiently on operational talents. The underlying theory is this tension exists because of the potential conflicts in group interaction when group member attributes and skill sets are not aligned. This state leads to a natural increase in complexity at the task level and increases the ambiguity of shared goals and success measures (Forsyth, 2010).

Another challenge when talking about organizational ambidexterity is the inconsistent definitions of exploration and exploitation from one researcher to another researcher. Gupta et al. (2006) discussed this challenge and examined whether these two attributes should be treated as orthogonal or conversely two ends of a continuum. The idea of exploration appears to have much more consensus and is conceptually easier to understand than exploitation. It is intuitive that a group with a diverse member base, that possesses competing skill sets, would have a wider breadth of intellectual resources at their disposal and therefore be better at innovating new solutions than a group with members that have homogeneous skills and experience. The definitions for exploitation are more diverse and not as precise but appear to have roots in self-presentation theory. It is thought that in an evaluative group environment people tend to engage more in dominant responses than non-dominant responses (Forsyth, 2010). As established tasks get learned, practiced, and refined, an organization can better exploit process performance. However, if norms are challenged, the ability for the group to exploit is decreased. Gupta et al. (2006) also argued that ambidexterity may not always be the desired ideal and that punctuated equilibrium might be more appropriate in certain situations. Punctuated equilibrium is the concept that shifting through periods of exploration and exploitation is a better approach than trying to optimize to achieve desirable levels of each attribute simultaneously.

Therefore, some worthy questions for examination are: Do ambidextrous organizations really perform better than non-ambidextrous organizations? Can the principles of ambidexterity be applied across a wide variety of groups; on the other hand, are these principles only applicable to subgroups within large organizations (that can more effectively operate simultaneous groups that are respectively explorative and exploitative)? Lastly, is ambidexterity always a worthy pursuit or are there limits to its utility?

To answer the question whether ambidextrous organizations performed better than other organizational models, an empirical study was conducted by Gibson and Birkinshaw (2004) using data collected from 4,195 individuals in 41 business units. For the purposes of their study, Gibson and Birkinshaw referred to explorative qualities as adaptability and exploitative qualities as alignment. Through statistical modeling, they found that there was indeed a strong correlation between the dependent variable of performance and companies that possessed both high levels of alignment and high levels of adaptability (indicating ambidexterity). Based on previous work, Gibson and Birkinshaw identified various methods used by groups to increase ambidexterity such as: worker recruitment and training, decentralized group structure, trust, shared culture and vision, flexible managers, and supportive leaders.

To research whether ambidexterity is a concept with applications outside of large organizations, Lubatkin et al. (2006) used multisource survey data, including CEOs and top management team members from 139 small- to medium-sized firms (SMEs) to investigate the background and consequences of ambidexterity. Their research focused on the central role that top management plays in ambidexterity and if their influence had an overall effect on performance at the SME level. The researcher’s findings led to the conclusion that the dual pursuit of an exploratory and exploitative approach positively affects performance at the SME level. It also uncovered that behavioral integration by top management teams is essential to achieving ambidexterity. The researchers acknowledge that because of the bigger ecosystems at larger corporations some of the statistical associations may be weaker if the same tests were performed on this group. Regardless, the research points to the influence that the top management team has on positive innovative outcomes and the importance of leadership in driving ambidextrous organizations.

To better understand the underlying dynamics behind ambidexterity in group collaborations, Tiwana (2008) conducted a study using 42 innovation-seeking project alliances to examine the relationships between bridging ties and strong ties. The purpose of this study was to examine whether ambidexterity had applications across groups and in collaborative matrixes. Bridging ties cross structural holes creating the potential for innovation but lack the capacity for integration (usually due to interaction within cross-functioning teams). Strong ties create integration capacity but are short of innovation potential (theorized based on the existing evidence). Tiwana makes the argument that bridging ties harmonize with strong ties in enhancing alliance ambidexterity at the project level. While bridging ties create access to diverse, structural hole-spanning capabilities and perspectives, it is strong ties that assist in integrating these capabilities and perspectives so that groups can realize an innovation. Tiwana (2008) also suggests that these ties influence alliance ambidexterity because they assist knowledge integration at the project level. Since Tiwana elected to use stepwise regression it is wise to be a bit skeptical of his empirical results. However, intuitively his assertions make sense and it is interesting to explore how ambidexterity can transcend across groups operating within two different environments.

Accepting the notion that organizations are capable of pursuing exploration and exploitation simultaneously, and that ambidexterity leads to superior performance, Jansen et al. (2008) wanted to investigate how this practice might lead to the presence of conflicting goals. They did this by surveying executive and senior managers at Dutch branches of a large European financial services firm. By design, ambidexterity creates conflicting goals and role ambiguity which naturally can cause challenges within groups. These researchers found that senior teams who have transformational leadership were more likely to be associated with high levels of exploratory and exploitative innovations than those that had a more transactional leadership styles. Based on their analysis, the researchers reported that organizational ambidexterity requires the development of shared vision, which is an integral part of transformational leadership. Transformational leaders are also better equipped to deal with conflict as it arises, which is an inherent challenge of ambidextrous organizations.

Building from the literature on innovation, Andriopoulos & Lewis (2009) examined ambidexterity innovation through the lens of new product design consultancies because of the inherent need for these types of businesses to innovate. When the researchers polled the leadership of these firms about the inherent tension between present day operational innovation and forward thinking competitive innovation, they reported that these issues were not perceived internally as dilemmas per se but rather paradoxical attributes of ambidexterity.

Andriopoulos & Lewis (2009) identified three paradoxes related to ambidextrous organizations. The first paradox, the paradox of strategic intent, highlights an organization’s aspiration to improve good business practices while simultaneously trying to achieve profit-breakthroughs though the creation of new products. The paradox of customer orientation highlights an organization’s need to work within constraints in order to stay in line with client expectations, while at the same time operating with enough autonomy to avoid stifling the ability to properly service the client with new ideas. Lastly, the paradox of personal drivers highlights the perception that creativity is somewhat lessened when exposed to procedural constraints (ex. timelines, resource allocation, etc). Andriopoulos & Lewis (2009) make the argument that ambidexterity needs to be shared responsibility across organizational levels to effectively stimulate virtuous cycles of ambidexterity (see figure 1).

Virtuous Cycles of Organizational Ambidexterity
Figure 1. Andriopoulos & Lewis (2009) Virtuous Cycles of Ambidexterity

Andriopoulos & Lewis (2009) hypothesize that three factors help achieve this objective: taking a multilevel approach, employing complementary tactics when setting up systems, and learning synergies that make sure knowledge transfer is optimized among groups.

Chermack et al. (2010) suggested using organizational ambidexterity for leveraging teams toward organizational effectiveness based on the totality of the existing research although they cautioned there are a few studies that suggest the pursuit of ambidexterity might not be appropriate for every industry. However, a case is made that it can be generalized that in our new business climate, where only the most agile corporations will survive, organizational ambidexterity becomes a key competitive advantage.

A review of the existing literature supports a compelling argument that one can assume that the theory of ambidexterity is an essential attribute of a company that wants to compete in today’s business climate. As we continue to globalize, the ability for an organization to be able to concurrently operate optimally in both day-to-day operations and future innovations will trend away from merely being a competitive advantage into being an operational necessity. In this regard, transformational leadership is encouraged because it supports an ambidextrous environment. Recent history is peppered with companies that have succeeded because of their exploratory abilities. For instance, Avon began as a company selling books door to door, Tiffany & Co began selling paper, and Google started as a service to search electronic bulletin boards (Carlson & Saint, 2009).

With respect to further research, as ambidextrous theory continues to grow, it will be important to evaluate whether these principles can be applied universally. Although I have attempted to address all the original questions I put forth, the issue of ambidexterity always being a worthy pursuit was difficult based on the existing research. Therefore I only was able to currently address it at a cursory level.

Another issue about ambidexterity is there appears to be a lack of any meaningful prescriptive models for innovation that would instruct an organization on how to apply ambidextrous principles. There is empirical evidence to imply that ambidexterity is worth pursuit at both the SME and large corporate level, but there is limited information on how to successfully implement what has been discovered so far in real world applications.

Also, social orientation theory does not seem to be addressed in any of the articles on organizational ambidexterity. It seems intuitive that the extent to which group members have positive or negative orientations would play a significant role in the execution of ambidextrous principles. However, in discussions of the formation of teams, researchers rarely mention issues related to this paradigm.

Although there is a growing body of literature on ambidextrous groups, there still is a need to dissect the complexities. As our world gets more technologically complex the importance for industry to balance the creative process of ideation with the business goals of optimizing operational practices will become increasingly more important. This is further highlighted by new emerging project management paradigms such as Scrum that are predicated on ambidextrous groups and were developed to accommodate this trend.

To conclude we look at Raisch et al. (2009) who examined some of the fundamentals that make organizational ambidexterity controversial. They examined four questions they refer to as ambidexterity’s “central tensions”: Must organizations take a static or dynamic perspective on ambidexterity? Should organizations achieve ambidexterity through differentiation or integration? Can ambidexterity arise internally, or do firms have to externalize some processes? Lastly, does ambidexterity occur at the individual or organizational level?

The static versus dynamic controversy Raisch et al. (2009) references is whether static models are appropriate when framing ambidexterity. As identified earlier, the need for ambidextrous models is evident. However, a problem in this type of research is that modern contingency theory states alignment comes not from static configurations but rather a dynamic process which makes modeling a difficult task.

The controversy around differentiation and integration is rooted in the discussion of whether organizations can create ambidexterity within a single business unit or if it is better fostered through unique business units working together. Further research in this area can confirm or discredit the ability of a single group to optimally be ambidextrous.

There is some speculation that the best way to create ambidexterity is to outsource the set of tasks that are not part of your organization’s core competencies. The idea is that organizations can create synergies by sharing their respective expertise. This controversy is predicated on the supposition that ambidexterity cannot be achieved through integration. If further research makes a strong case that ambidextrous integration is possible, this issue becomes moot.

In this paper I have primarily focused on the dynamics and leadership effectiveness of ambidextrous groups. However, regarding the final controversy discussed by Raisch et al. (2009), there is some speculation that ambidexterity is better optimized at the individual level (i.e. worker recruitment), implying group formation, training, and resource acquisition could be the most viable methods for creating operational ambidexterity. Currently there is no empirical evidence to back this claim up and therefore it would be another good area for further study.

References:

  1. Andriopoulos, C., & Lewis, M. W. (2009) Exploitation-Exploration tensions and organizational ambidexterity: Managing paradoxes of innovation. Organization Science, 20(4), 696–717. doi:10.1287/orsc.1080.0406
  2. Bledow, R., Frese, M., Anderson, N., Erez, M., & Farr, J. (2009) A dialectic perspective on innovation: Conflicting demands, multiple pathways, and ambidexterity. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2, 305–337.
  3. Carlson, N., & Saint, N. (2009, October 14) 10 huge successes built on second ideas. Chermack, T. J., Bodwell, W., & Glick, M. (2010) Two strategies for leveraging teams toward organizational effectiveness: Scenario planning and organizational ambidexterity. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 12(1), 137–156. doi:10.1177/1523422310365669
  4. Forsyth, D. (2010). Group Dynamics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning
  5. Gibson, C., & Birkinshaw, J. (2004). The antecedents, consequences, and mediating role of organizational ambidexterity. Academy of Management Journal, 47(2), 209-226.
  6. Gupta, A. K., Smith, K. G., & Shalley, C. E. (2006) The interplay between exploration and exploitation. Academy of Management Journal, 49(4), 693–706.
  7. Jansen, J. J. P., George, G., Van den Bosch, F. A. J., & Volberda, H. W. (2008). Senior team attributes and organizational ambidexterity: The moderating role of transformational leadership. Journal of Management Studies, 45(5), 982-1007.
  8. Lubatkin, M. H., Simsek, Z., Ling, Y., & Veiga, J. F. (2006) Ambidexterity and performance in small-to medium-sized firms: The pivotal role of top management team behavioral integration. Journal of Management, 32(5), 646-672. doi:10.1177/0149206306290712
  9. Mumford, M. D., Hunter, S. T., & Byrne, C. L. (2009) What is the fundamental? The role of cognition in creativity and innovation. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2, 353–356.
  10. Raisch, S., & Birkinshaw, J. (2008). Organizational ambidexterity: Antecedents, outcomes, and moderators. Journal of Management, 34(3), 375-409. doi:10.1177/0149206308316058
  11. Raisch, S., Birkinshaw, J., Probst, G., & Tushman, M. L. (2009). Organizational ambidexterity: Balancing exploitation and exploration for sustained performance. Organization Science, 20(4), 685–695. doi:10.1287/orsc.1090.0428
  12. Rothaermel, F. T., & Alexandre, M. T. (2009) Ambidexterity in technology sourcing: The moderating role of absorptive capacity. Organization Science, 20(4), 759-780.
  13. Tiwana, A. (2008) Do bridging ties complement strong ties? An empirical examination of alliance ambidexterity. Strategic Management Journal, 29, 251–272. doi:10.1002/smj.666

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi | Flow

Flow | Dr. Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is a common word in the vernacular of anyone studying positive psychology. Intuitively most people get the general concept. A good working definition is having the feeling of fusion with an on-going activity, effortlessly and fluidly (offered by Dr. Bloch in her article Flow: Beyond Fluidity and Rigidity. A Phenomenological Investigation). Most people believe they have an abundance of Flow in their life when in reality it is a fairly difficult state to obtain. We get in our own way with regards to Flow simply because most feel the need to be in complete command of a situation.

The Godfather of Flow, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, defined flow in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience as the “experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement,” and “a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation” in anything we love doing.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi stumbled upon Flow in his youth. As a child growing up in Hungary Mihaly saw how many in Hungarian society were affected by war, many devastated because of the loss of their social status and/or finances. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi wanted to avoid the perils of this negativity and see if he could find meaning outside the confines of what was happening around him. In his own words, he wanted to, “live life as a work of art, rather than as a chaotic response to external events.”

He was intrigued and studied why some people did not lose their sense of self during this time, even after losing everything, where as others were devastated and were not able to reclaim their sense of worth. He discovered that people found pleasure in very profoundly different ways. As Csikszentmihalyi matured he continued to be fascinated by this and conducted hundreds of interviews with people from different walks of life including athletes, artists and CEOs to discover what compelled their passions.

He continued to find people define this state very differently but discovered a common theme, that people that really enjoy internal pleasures described enjoying those pleases like being in a trance. He began to develop a concept of Flow, that of being an extremely productive and fulfilling state where one forgets about their self and is extremely focused at the task at hand.

He observed that people experiencing flow do not notice fear, they do not really keep a mental record of what they are doing and actions are instinctual. That is not to say that you can find Flow in routine tasks, on the contrary the mundane has been shown to hinder flow because the lack of challenge does not provide the right stimulus.

So what does Flow mean (in the mind of Dr. Csikszentmihalyi):

  1. Concentration – being completely involved and focused
  2. Elation
  3. Inner clarity – clearly seeing tasks and executing them flawlessly
  4. Confidence
  5. Serenity – complete self-trust and lack of fear
  6. Timeliness – absorbed in the Now
  7. Intrinsic motivation – doing for the sake of doing

As I previously discussed achieving flow cannot be found in the mundane, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi believes there needs to be balance between skill and challenge. It is the sweet spot between arousal and control. Too much arousal and you might get anxious about the outcome, too much familiarity and control and boredom may get the best of you. Find the balance between the two and you are able to fully engage yourself in a desirable state.

An Argument for Optimism

When someone tells you to be realistic, what does that really mean anyway? I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite because I have blogged before about realizing, owning-up, and playing to your personal strengths. As individuals we all will face limiting factors that will exclude us from achieving certain accolades (for instance, I know I will never win American Idol, I’m simply not a good singer… to my dismay). However, I make the argument today that these types of boundaries are best tested and realized internally.

Let me set forth the argument that in the world of achieving peak human performance, optimism is the desired course. When evaluate your own performance, there is evidence to show that over the long-term you are better off overestimating your abilities. In the paper, On the Evolutionary Emergence of Optimism, researchers Aviad Heifetz and Yossi Spiegel show that high performing individuals are regularly found to be overly optimistic. These results run contrary to what one would expect. However, one of the many differences between optimists and pessimists is that pessimists are more realistic about their performance by way of either underestimating themselves, or more likely giving themselves a realistic self-evaluation.

Optimists on the other hand are likely to self-evaluate themselves as more effective than they actually are. Intuitively one would assume this to be a negative. However Heifetz and Yossi found being optimistic changes the structure of one’s environment and with optimists (as opposed to pessimists) successful tendencies proliferate faster (even when overestimated).

When pessimists accurately perceive their performance they often can find the motivation to continue. Viewing the situation as unsuccessful, it is easier for a pessimist to classify an activity as an unworthy pursuit. The positivity possessed by optimists provides these individuals with the drive and emotional support to continue, eventually mastering the skills needed, and influencing outcomes. What was once an unrealistic evaluation (by the optimists), over time now becomes reality.

This has powerful applications outside of achievement as well. Looking broadly at human performance, optimists are fighters. We (I fancy myself an optimist) do not go gently into that good night. In the study Optimists vs pessimists: survival rate among medical patients over a 30-year period when a person shows a pessimistic explanatory style (determined by the Optimism-Pessimism scale on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory assessment) their risk of mortality is 19% higher than someone who is optimistic. Being realistic is often just a defense mechanism of someone who wants to protect you or themselves from the future based on a perceived failure often with roots in a personal failure from their past. Optimists believe the past is not a good determinant of the future, and science backs us up. So if you are an enthusiast of optimizing human performance, dream big, it will suit you well.

Happiness is a Choice

I know it is a cliché: happiness is a choice; but it’s a cliché backed by empirical evidence. In practice though, it isn’t always that easy. Speaking from my own experience it takes a lot of work to engage in the type of self-awareness needed to alter one’s mood by simply switching focus. But hear me out and you might be whistling a happier tune by the time you finish reading this…

While researching positive psychology I have seen the studies that point to a genetic predisposition to happiness. Some researchers in psychology argue that we inherit our ability to be happy and that the level to which we are able to derive satisfaction in life is significantly influenced by our genetic make-up. However, in the study Long-Running German Panel Survey Shows That Personal and Economic Choices, Not Just Genes, Matter for Happiness researchers observed 60,000 Germans over the span of 25 years, and found that levels of individual happiness actually correlated stronger with setting goals and personal choice and less on genetic factors.

In the long-term, those who value family and personal relationships seem to be happier than those who are focused on material success and/or career advancement, which strengthens the argument about happiness as a choice because personal relationships are an area where we have much better control over external outcomes. For example, we can decide to be a good friend (or not), but we cannot decide to force our company to give us a promotion.

Happiness is a Choice

So how is happiness affected based on personal choice? There are many easy ways we can influence our own behavior that will help improve your mood. One way we can increase happiness is by making a conscious effort to focus on the positive attributes of any given situation. Deciding what to focus on in any given circumstance is a personal choice, and one of the most straightforward ways to increase happiness. There are more subtle ways as well… For instance, making an effort to keep a mild and friendly pitch when we talk has shown to increase mood. In the study Speech Pitch Frequency as an Emotional State Indicator, evidence suggests that the pitch and tone of our voice reflect and affect our emotional state. Gentler tones will also maintain low stress levels in the people around us. Another example is, accordingly to the brief report Keep Smiling: Enduring Effect of Facial Expressions and Postures on Emotional Experience and Memory, the simple act of choosing to smile. Simply making an effort to smile more has been shown to have a positive effect on our well-being in numerous ways and happiness is one of them.

In short, current scientific findings are challenging that happiness is somehow outside of our control. Simply being cognizant that you have power over your emotional state, and coming to the realization that you can actively decide how you are effected by certain life events, can help increase your overall happiness in very profound ways. If you have any tactics that work for you, please share them in the comments below.

Collective Learning | Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Isaac Newton once famously remarked, “…if I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The statement has been generally accepted to mean that worthy pursuits are only advanced through the progress created by continuing the work of great minds of the past.

David Christian is a Professor of History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia and is currently collaborating on a venture called the Big History Project with Bill Gates. He gave a talk about the Project at a recent TED conference. Within Dr. Christian’s presentation there was a topic that might be of particular interest to performance psychologists and researchers, which is the concept of “collective Learning”. Dr. Christian credits collective learning as being the catalyst that has allowed humans to flourish, but he also warns that this power might not be completely in our control – highlighting our species complexity and fragility through historical and current events.

Much like DNA is the system that stores biological information, collective learning is a global system that stores our vast body of knowledge. It began to exist the moment human language was created and was immensely empowered further with the advent of the Internet. Collective learning outlasts the knowledge of any one individual and evolves with the passing of each generation. Our ability to share and improve information is what makes humans different than every other known species. It has allowed humans to improve performance and achievement with each passing generation. Honoring the idea of collective learning one is able to learn for others and contribute to the greater good.

Laugh and Smile!

Smiling and laughing are physical manifestations of being happy. One of the easiest short cuts to tricking the mind out of a bad mood is to find reasons to smile and laugh.

Why smile? Well, why not? While stress has been linked to a lot of health issues, smiling, laughing and being positive is associated with longevity, positivism and other health benefits that promote wellness in both our minds and bodies.

Laugh and Smile!

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows the benefits of smiling and laughing. For one, laughter lets the body discharge endorphins (a neurological biochemical that naturally alleviates stress). When we are tense or anxious our pulse rate goes up, our body heat rises, and our nervous system is hyperactive; it is difficult to perform optimally in this state. On the other hand, smiling and laughing allows us to relax, and induces a feeling of happiness (surprisingly it works even if you aren’t really happy) thus removing stress. Laughing moderates the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, a study has shown that laughing boosts our immune system by increasing the number of immune cells and antibodies we have (thus developing the body’s resistance to stress, illness and disease).

Intuitively, smiling also gives us a greater feeling of harmony with our environment. That is because smiling can affect the way people see us — as well as having a positive natural effect on other people’s mood too. Outside of the proven benefits of performance, smiling is often a signal of your friendliness, approachability and good character. So smile, charm the world, while reaping its health benefits and performing better!

Play to Your Strengths

Play to Your Strengths

As humans, most of us are inclined to spend more time dwelling on our negative attributes, and trying to improve upon them, than we are developing our inherent strengths. We learn this bad habit at an early age… a child is deficient in math but great at writing? Great, get them a math tutor to improve the deficiency and keep them at pace with their writing proficiencies. In adolescents this makes sense because of the need of self-discovery, developing learning styles, and foundational growth. However, once we have matured this reasoning can lead to frustration because sometimes our efforts become futile. If we have mastered something close to the peak of our potential in a particular area, then further training makes little sense. This ties in with my post Applying the Pareto Principle. When a maximum effort will only result in smaller and smaller increments of improvement for a skill that is not a core competency for fulfilling a particular goal, then wouldn’t your efforts be better served elsewhere? Peak performers on the other hand spend time developing their core strengths …and with any remaining time only try to correct their most dominant weaknesses.

The attributes of a particular “strength” are usually defined by the methodology used to evaluate a particular set of strengths. My personal preference is the VIA Strengths defined by Martin Segliman (due to my affinity for Positive Psychology), but there are others out there such as Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0.

Experts are starting to agree, that developing and improving upon existing strengths is a better use of time than trying to improve upon weaknesses. For another person’s take on strengths and weaknesses read the HBS article Stop Worrying about Your Weaknesses by Peter Bergman.

Creativity and Imagination

New research shows that creativity and imagination are two important qualities in human performance and are often overlooked attributes. Today, most employee performance evaluation checklists show metrics that measure one’s analytical skills, job competencies, interpersonal and communicative skills, but creativity and imagination are often not revered and/or evaluated.

Jonah Lehrer discusses in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works that it is creativity and imagination that are seminal in generating ideas that can lead to innovative solutions in the marketplace. For instance, a simple example is project presentations that leverage these two attributes, which (when used) usually have a higher likelihood of winning over skeptics both internally and/or externally to get a particular project started or funded. Imagination and creativity are often what differentiates a mediocre performance from an outstanding one — not just regarding presentations, but many facets of various work.

Along the same lines as above, imagination and creativity also allow people to prepare and plan for future actions by creating creative solutions that can only happen when imagination and creativity are working together. As business processes get more and more complex, it is often our imagination and creativity that saves the day. Using imagery and imagination allows us to prepare, rehearse, and perfect our future actions. This type of planning and practice is a consistent pattern for peak performers in both business and sport. As we get older in age, we unfortunately often get less imaginative. Imagination and creativity are also important aspects of brain plasticity, and maintaining these skills help us sustain our cognitive reserve as we grow older allowing us to operate optimally late into life.

There are simple things we can do to maintain our imagination at any age. One exercise is to draw a peaceful landscape that does not exist in reality. The definition of “peaceful” is unique to each individual, so you have creative license to draw whatever you want as long as the environment is completely imagined (i.e. not drawn from memory). The way we perceive and operate in the world is personal to our respective selves. The world as we know it is defined by our experiences and developing our creativity also allows us to expand our capacity to understand our human experience. In short, these are important but often overlooked skills in both one’s professional life, as well as one’s personal life.