As singer Jimmy Buffett once put it, “Some things in life are a mystery to me, while other things are much too clear.” This is pretty much sums what I’ve learned from studying organizations and trying to help managers apply the best evidence. There are some things that are really hard to solve, perhaps impossible. Take leadership. There is some good evidence out there about what effective leaders do, but uncovering it is challenging. There is so much bad evidence and so much ideology running through writings on effective leadership that virtually any leadership style can be justified by some writings. When Jeff Pfeffer and I were writing Hard Facts, he put “the leadership secrets of” in Amazon. The first book to pop-up was “The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.” The second was “The Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus.” I just did it again, and found that Santa was replaced by “The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell.” If you can see a pattern there, let me know.
Consider my favorite example in Hard Facts: stand-up versus sit down meetings. A study at the
University of Missouri compared groups where people stood-up during short (10- to 20-minute) meetings to groups where members sat. Groups where members stood-up took about 34 percent less time to make the assigned decision, without loss of quality. Do the math: How many people work in your organization? How many 10- to 20 minute meetings do you have a year? Sure, there are times when people need to sit down during meetings, like when emotionally hot issues are discussed. But there are plenty of times when standing is fine. Let’s consider a company that is getting a lot of heat these days for keeping too much money from consumers, energy giant Chevron-Texaco, which has over 50,000 employees. If each employee replaced one 20-minute sit-down meeting per year with a stand-up meeting, this study that each meeting would be about 7 minutes shorter and be just as effective. That would save about 6,000 hours per in employee time. The upshot is that you might pull the chairs out of some of your conference rooms and put in some stand-up desks instead. It might save a lot of time and money.
Or take medicine. Cancer and heart disease are tough to cure, and billions of dollars are devoted to them – as it should be. But some problems can be tackled with a little soap, water, and elbow grease. Almost 100,000 Americans die from infections that they catch from health care providers and in health care settings. One of the most effective ways to cut this number is to simply getting doctors to wash their hands after they touch each patient; yet recent research suggests that less than 50% of doctors wash their hands as often as they should. Some forget. Some are rushed. And some doctors don’t believe the evidence. One hospital that I know of in Florida fights this problem by displaying signs and giving out buttons to patients that say “It’s OK to ask,” which means that it is OK to ask if your doctor to wash his or her hands. The CEO of this hospital told me that the doctors hate these buttons, as they don’t like being told what to do. But he also reported that they seem to be more conscientious about washing their hands!
Sure, it is worthwhile trying to solve hard problems like what effective leaders do or how to manage creative work. But it bewilders me why so many managers and organizations chase vague shadows, while electing to ignore so many small, simple, and obvious things that can have such a big impact.