Monday, April 30, 2012

McKinsey on the Manager's Contribution to Meaningful Work

Here's a link to an article in the McKinsey Quarterly (free once you register) titled "How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work" by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. It's worth reading, because it addresses the signals that leaders send, often unintentionally, in day-to-day management. The article builds on work the authors report in their book "The Progress Principle," in which they report, among other findings, that
Of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.
Even incremental steps forward--small wins--boost what we call 'inner work life' . . .
So what does this have to do with leadership? The authors found that bosses at all levels often undermine the feeling of success by
dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off project teams before work is finalized, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities . . .
They identify and describe several traps, such as sending signals that mediocrity is valued or that there is not strategic focus. And they offer some very useful suggestions that management can keep in mind, including remembering the perspective of the line worker. Though the examples are all from for-profit businesses, they easily translate to not-for-profit and government as well.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Extreme weather and ocean salinity

Illustration from
Climate Central has posted a very clear explanation of the new research using changes in ocean salinity to stand in for worldwide drought and rainfall measures. The idea is straightforward: with climate change, extreme weather cycles are likely to worsen. We're starting to see that regionally, but regions - even ones as large as a continent - are too small to give a global picture. Hence the move to measure ocean salinity. (No one has rainfall data over the ocean, so salinity serves as a proxy measure.) As you can see from the map above, ocean saltiness is increasing. And what's really news is that it appears that the change is happening about twice as fast as the land-based predictions had suggested.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Penalty kicks, soccer, and statistics

One of my very first posts when I started this blog, back in late 2010, was about Simon Kuper's terrific book "Soccernomics," about the economics of soccer and the minimal use of data. So this New York Times article about the failure of two top Spanish teams to convert penalty kick opportunities to wins rang a bell.

But what's curious is that the Times writer focused on the gut reaction, his own and the fans', though he did note that Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho pointed out soccer players miss shots just as tennis players do (even the good ones miss frequently).

But in fact there's some serious analysis of penalty kicks available, and Kuper has explained in this column how it can be done. (Ignore the name of the website, but read the column.)

The key moment in any shootout occurs before it even starts. The referee tosses a coin, and the captain who calls correctly gets to decide whether his team takes the first kick. Always kick first, says Palacios-Huerta. The team taking the first penalty wins 60% of shootouts. That’s because the team going second shoots under great pressure. They keep having to score just to stay in the game.
Sadly, the various video links in the column don't appear to work. But the column is worth reading in full. Better yet - read the book!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Guest Blogger Marta Siberio: The toughest moments in the strategic planning process

Today guest blogger Marta Siberio continues her series on the strategic planning process with some advice on navigating the difficult moments of any strategic planning process. 

A well-designed and managed strategic planning process is valuable, and it can be fun! However, there are always tough moments. Here are some of the most common--along with some ways to navigate them successfully:

Making choices:  It is often very difficult for organizations to focus on a few key things in designing a strategy. During times of great uncertainty, it can be even scarier to limit an organization’s scope. Further, the prospect of ending programs or initiatives is usually loaded with emotion. At the same time, selecting strategic priorities is the key to increasing an organization’s impact. To help organizations through this difficult step, I usually offer the “rule of three:" transformative work is more likely to occur when energies and talents focus on no more than three things at once. I also remind participants that three years, the recommended maximum time span for any plan in our current faced-paced world, is a relatively short time, and the opportunity to focus on three new things will be here before they know it.

Sharing decision-making:  Deciding the organizational priorities, which services stay and which go, and how resources will be allocated are some of the high-level decisions made in planning processes. Deciding who will make these final decisions can be a difficult issue for organizations.  To what degree should staff or the Board to be involved? The answer depends on organizational culture. What is most important is to be clear and up-front with staff and Board about how their input will be used.

Reactions to change:  Throughout the strategic planning process it is common to encounter resistance, push-back and other behaviors that can be challenging. Most often these are presentations of people's psychological reactions to impending change. When not addressed in a productive fashion, these reactions can become roadblocks to creative, collective engagement. To help strategic planning groups through these potential roadblocks, I offer insights about theory of change, the need to acknowledge loss and normalize the process of adaptation to new realities.

Implementing the plan: Once the plan is done, there is usually a gradual realization that you have only just begun! But it’s important to focus on plan implementation immediately. After some modest period of rest, I like to suggest that organizations establish consistent and easy-to-follow processes to implement the changes and report on progress. It is only by applying your focused attention to the work that you increase the odds that you will actually follow your plan! I also like to encourage embracing the full time span of the plan. Spreading out the work over the full three years makes it more likely that it will actually get done.

Guest blogger Marta Siberio is the principal in Marta Siberio Consulting, which has provided organizational development and strategic planning services since 1993. You can read Marta's previous posts in this series, on the role of leaders during strategic planning, readiness for strategic planning, and the benefits of strategic planning.

Monday, April 23, 2012

NYC transit data in maps

Michael Frumin, a systems engineering manager at the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority (he's speaking at the Transit Museum on Wednesday, April 25), is working on real time bus tracking for the MTA. That's the system that tells you, when you are at a bus stop, how far away the next bus is. Citywide rollout is underway, starting with Staten Island.

It turns out Frumin also has a blog. It's irregular, but interesting, with posts about things he's working on, like MTA Bus Time, and also some calculations of how much vehicle capacity the NYC subway system saves. Here's his conclusion:
Just to get warmed up, chew on this -- from 8:00AM to 8:59 AM on an average Fall day in 2007 the NYC Subway carried 388,802 passengers into the CBD [Central Business District, ie, Manhattan below 60th Street] on 370 trains over 22 tracks. In other words, a train carrying 1,050 people crossed into the CBD every 6 seconds. Breathtaking if you ask me.
Over this same period, the average number of passengers in a vehicle crossing any of the East River crossings was 1.20. This means that, lacking the subway, we would need to move 324,000 additional vehicles into the CBD (never mind where they would all park).
And that map at the top? It's a screenshot from Frumin's post showing the change in ridership at MTA stations going back to . . . 1905. Here he's mapped the stations around Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, but he also shows the areas around Yankee Stadium and Wall Street.

There's lots more there, all worth checking out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Another great set of charts from The Atlantic

Derek Thompson, who oversees business coverage at, has compiled, also here, a set of charts describing who pays taxes, how much we pay, and what we get for our taxes. They're all worth looking at. Here's a screenshot of my favorite, from the Tax Policy Center.

But they're all good.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Number Needed to Treat

I've written in the past about using data in understanding medical recommendations, particularly in the context of cancer screening, what with new recommendations about PSA (and mammogram) testing. You can see my earlier posts here, here, and here.

Today I am adding a new (for non-statisticians) concept, the number needed to treat. Put simply, the Number Needed to Treat is the number of people who need to take a medication, or have a procedure, in order, statistically, for someone to have a good outcome. Here's a great video, from the website, explaining the concept:
Here's a link to the NNT's explanation in writing, for those of you who prefer to learn by reading.

Decisions about what procedure to have, or whether to start taking a medication, require the exercise of judgment. Adding the number needed to treat gives you one more piece of information to consider. If the number needed to treat is large, and the side effects sound daunting, then perhaps you might make a different judgment than when the number needed to treat is smaller. Among many other great features of the site is a quiz. The quiz gives you basic information about the medication (how the medicine is delivered, its cost) and the numbers (how many trials, how many patients, how many trials showed a benefit). Unlike other quizzes, this one is designed to help you practice weighing different factors about a medication. Because value judgments are involved, your answers may differ from the site's answers, but there is always an explanation.

There's a lot more to this site that I will take up in future posts. For now, this concept is definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

More climate data from NOAA

Update, April 19: Here's a link to the Early Bloomers Op-Ed in today's NY Times about the how much earlier the plants that Thoreau noted bloom now, and how rare some of them have become.
Image: NY Times
After yesterday's post, I took a closer look at NOAA's Climate Services page. It's very useful, with links to reports, data, a news feed, a lookup for historical weather data by zip code, and other material. My favorite: two interactive data dashboards (one for climate change, the other for climate variability). Here's a partial screenshot:

The top graph is change in average surface temperature across the earth compared to the average for 1901-2000. The second shows the area of the Northern Hemisphere covered by snow in March and April, shown as the difference from the 1971-2000 average. And the third shows the average mass, together, of 30 reference glaciers from around the world. How do I know this? The little question mark signals a popup that explains what each graph displays in one or two sentences, and then offers a "read more" link for more information.

I encourage my clients to develop and update data dashboards because they let you see, at a glance, the status of your programs. These are particularly glitzy ones, but then they draw on a large number of data points. It's worth going to NOAA's site and experimenting with them directly. And, as I've said before, also here, it's not as if more proof of global warming were needed. Climate change is here, and these depressing numbers show that it's time to take some action.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Climate change data displays

Two useful displays of data showing climate change underway. First, remember how warm March felt? Here's a video using NOAA data to show visually the 15,000+ records that were broken in the US in March:

Second, here's a screenshot of a post from RealClimate ("Climate science from climate scientists") showing how recent earth temperatures have exceeded predictions from a paper published in Science in 1981. The grey is the original graph; the pink is the actual measurements.
I found both of these because I regularly follow James Fallows' terrific blog at He posted the second; the first was on the Atlantic's video channel.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Guest Blogger Marta Siberio on the Role of Leadership in Strategic Planning

Guest blogger Marta Siberio is back! Today she's writing about the role of the CEO during the strategic planning process. You can read Marta's previous posts in this series, on readiness for strategic planning here, and the benefits of strategic planning here. (Note: this post has been updated.)

An important ingredient of successful strategic planning is an organizational leader who sees the need for planning, is open and flexible throughout the process, and considers strategy as a dynamic activity (not a set, unchanging plan) that she must continuously hone. Here are a few things to consider about a leader’s best roles before, during and after a strategic planning process:
  • Before: CEOs need to assess organizational readiness for strategic planning and they need to help key participants prepare for the process. Boards may need some education about strategic planning to understand what will be expected of them; staff needs support to find the time to be involved and to collect the necessary data to support effective decision-making. In addition to solid preparation, CEOs are uniquely positioned to catalyze the energy of participants around the planning process by underscoring the importance of aligning the organization’s work to its values and core purpose.
  • During: CEOs are best as open, flexible, engaged participants, and not leading the strategic planning process. Expect a strategic planning consultant to partner with the CEO to shape and modify a process that allows the CEO to be a full contributor. As curators of organizational value, CEOs see strategy development as an opportunity to define what the organization will and won’t do, and should be ready to negotiate the discomfort that surfaces when asking these kinds of fundamental questions. 
  • After: CEOs recognize that strategy development is a continuous process; you don’t solve the need for strategy with the completion of a plan. The CEO encourages development of the plan by methodically challenging the assumptions on which it is built. CEOs model strategic thinking all the time (not just during the planning process), establishing the expectation among their leadership team that strategy is a part of everyone’s domain.
Guest blogger Marta Siberio is the principal in Marta Siberio Consulting, which has provided organizational development and strategic planning services since 1993. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Map of Cherries in Bloom

From the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a clickable and updated map showing which flowering cherries are blooming in the garden. Here's a screenshot:

As you scroll over the map (not the screenshot; you'll have to click on the link) you get popups inviting you to click for more information and photos of the blossoms, like this:

It's a clear and clever use of information, and a great resource for a beautiful place.

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