Sunday, February 26, 2012

The History of Happiness

A modern Russian adage holds that “a person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American.” It’s true that when McDonald’s arrived in Russia, in 1990, one of its first tasks was to train clerks to seem cheerful. I’ve spent time since with Russian friends, discussing cultural rules on showing happiness, agreeing that differences remain.
The point here is not to disparage Russians. Most East Asian cultures also have lower happiness expectations than Americans are accustomed to. Some Latin American cultures tend in the other direction. The point is that cultural variations on happiness are considerable, contributing to the findings of international happiness polls that dot the contemporary public opinion landscape.
Moreover, attitudes toward happiness don’t just vary; they change. Danes, the current polls suggest, are no longer so melancholy. Exploring the nature of such change not only illuminates our own context for happiness but also allows us to assess its advantages and downsides. Without historical perspective, American expectations seem so normal and so natural that they’re difficult to evaluate.
The fact is that the commitment to happiness in Western culture is relatively modern. Until the 18th century, Western standards encouraged, if anything, a slightly saddened approach to life, with facial expressions to match. As one dour Protestant put it, God would encourage a person who “allowed no joy or pleasure, but a kind of melancholic demeanor and austerity.” This does not mean people were actually unhappy—we simply cannot know that, because cultural standards and personal temperament interact in complicated ways. But there is no question that many people felt obliged to apologize for the moments of happiness they did encounter. Sinful humanity had best display a somewhat sorrowful humility.
This changed dramatically with the 18th century and the values of the Enlightenment. Alexander Pope declaimed, “Oh happiness! our being’s end and aim!” while one John Byrom urged that “it was the best thing one could do to be always cheerful…and not suffer any sullenness.” The charge here was double-edged and has remained so. On the one hand, it was now perfectly legitimate to seek happiness. On the other, not being happy, or at least not seeming to be, was a problem to be avoided. Ordinary people began writing about their interest “in enjoying happiness and independence.” Disasters, such as the brutal yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, produced recommendations to the survivors to keep up their spirits and avoid excessive grief.
The list of historians working on happiness is not long, but those who’ve tackled some aspect of the subject generally agree: At the level of rhetoric, at least, a significant shift occurred in Western culture around 250 years ago.
The obvious question is why, and while some causes are pretty clear, we probably still fall short of a fully satisfactory explanation. Components include, certainly, the intellectual shift toward a higher valuation of matters in this world and a reduced commitment to traditional Christian staples such as original sin—all part of the cultural environment created by the Enlightenment. It’s important to stress that the happiness surge was not antireligious; a key component was the new idea that being cheerful was pleasing to God. The 18th century also saw some measurable advances in human comfort for the middle classes and above, ranging from better home heating to the availability of umbrellas to provide shelter from the rain. (Only a few British traditionalists objected to the latter as undermining national character.) One historian has also noted the 18th century as a time of improved dentistry, when people became more willing to lift their lips in a smile; he argues that the ambivalent smile of a Mona Lisa probably reflected embarrassment at tooth decay. The several shifts driving the happiness surge were powerful enough to propel happiness into politics by century’s end, with the American revolutionary commitment to the pursuit of same.
Indeed, there seems to have been a bit of an American twist on all this even early on. A British journalist in 1792 was surprised at “the good humor of Americans,” and 40 years later another noted that Americans seemed unwilling to complain, for the sympathy they might gain would be outweighed by their friends’ disapproval. It was in the 1830s that Harriet Martineau, often described as the first female sociologist, professed amazement at how often Americans tried to make her laugh: One stranger “dropped some drolleries so new to me, and so intense, that I was perplexed what to do with my laughter.” The smiling American was becoming a stereotype two centuries ago, as a new nation sought to justify its existence by projecting superior claims to happiness. It was no accident that this same new nation, at this same point, quietly revolutionized the approach to death by introducing the garden cemetery, where people could gain a sense of contentment, if not happiness, as they contemplated the end of life.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Great Repeatable Leader

Admiral Lord Nelson, Britain's famous naval leader, owed his enviable record of victories to the ability of his officers to make synchronized decisions in the heat of battle without communicating directly.
These commanders, personally trained by Nelson, he called his "band of brothers" and they took the right decisions because they knew what he would do in their shoes. By projecting his key principles of decision making and his strategy out to the front line Nelson created a faster and more adaptable Royal Navy that regularly overwhelmed far larger enemies. 

Few businesses are like Nelson's Navy. Rather than speeding up their decision-making, they're slowing down. Of course, they're doing it with the best of intentions.
Here's how it works. In an effort to cover all the bases in an uncertain, changing world companies are trying to give themselves as many strategic and organizational options as possible. In doing so, however, they are making themselves unconsciously more complex organizations. It is a trend that's slowly and silently killing them. Complexity turns people inward and distorts information flow, slowing the pace of decision-making down and making the decisions themselves increasingly incoherent.
How can leaders prevent this from happening?

To find the answer to that question I attended a session on leadership at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was led people by who have devoted their career to this topic and included Daniel Goleman, coiner of the term "emotional intelligence." What emerged was a consensus that the most successful leaders in the future will be those who - like Nelson - can cut their distance to the front line through three key traits: the ability to be authentic, empathy with the customer and front line, and true self-awareness. 

As I sat through the session, I realized that these principles meshed closely with the work that my Bain colleague Jimmy Allen and I had been doing in strategy. We have just completed a three year study at Bain & Company that identified the "design principles" of businesses that outperform and out-adapt their rivals. We called these principles the "Great Repeatable Model" because companies whose business models embodied the principles were able to replicate their successes over and over again.
Let's review what the two sets of principles have in common:

The first design principle, the "principle of focus" demands a clear source of differentiation at the core of a business that can be replicated and adapted over and over to new situations, markets, applications - because differentiation is how you make money in business. Typically, 80% of a company's managers believe their company has this differentiation. But only 8% of their customers agree. This is a huge gap and it demonstrates that managers are fooling themselves. This is where the leadership principle of authenticity comes in. It is all about being able to recognize this gap and find ways of really delivering something different to the customer.

The second design principle, the principle of embeddedness" is the ability to hard wire the key values that should drive decisions and behaviors all the way to the front line routines that touch the end customer and end product. This is also not that easy. In fact, over 60% of employees in the average company say they have no idea of the strategy or its key principles. Imagine if that were true for a marching band? This is where you need a leader who is genuinely empathetic and in touch with the concerns of front line employees and seen as one of them. A leader like this can define the strategy through the language, incentives, measures, and capabilities of the people executing it.
The third design principle, the "principle of adaptability" is the ability to turn the rate of learning into a competitive advantage through the way a company measures quality and performance and how it interprets what it finds. Central to this is self-awareness and a willingness to question core assumptions. It starts with brutal honesty: competitors will catch up, customers will raise their standards and the old repeatable model will need to be a better repeatable model to win tomorrow.

The close concordance of our business model design principles with the principles of great leadership explain why so many of the Great Repeatable Models of the companies we studied also had Great Repeatable Leaders who successfully steered their businesses through a number of transitions, continually repeating their success in adjacent markets and product categories.
Interestingly, quite a number of these were family companies such as IKEA, Tetra Pak or Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Here closeness to the front line was baked into the DNA of the successive managers and where a sharp differentiation was central to the reason for existence of the company. We also saw these characteristics in some of the instances where a CEO restored struggling companies to former glories (Lego and P&G, for example). In all these cases the CEOs refocused on a rejuvenated version of the core differentiation and drove that focus down into the day to day routines of the business by listening and paying close attention to the front line.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

1. Get specificWhen you set yourself a goal, try to be as specific as possible. "Lose 5 pounds" is a better goal than "lose some weight," because it gives you a clear idea of what success looks like. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there. Also, think about the specific actions that need to be taken to reach your goal. Just promising you'll "eat less" or "sleep more" is too vague — be clear and precise. "I'll be in bed by 10pm on weeknights" leaves no room for doubt about what you need to do, and whether or not you've actually done it.

2. Seize the moment to act on your goals.
 Given how busy most of us are, and how many goals we are juggling at once, it's not surprising that we routinely miss opportunities to act on a goal because we simply fail to notice them. Did you really have no time to work out today? No chance at any point to return that phone call? Achieving your goal means grabbing hold of these opportunities before they slip through your fingers.
To seize the moment, decide when and where you will take each action you want to take, in advance. Again, be as specific as possible (e.g., "If it's Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I'll work out for 30 minutes before work.") Studies show that this kind of planning will help your brain to detect and seize the opportunity when it arises, increasing your chances of success by roughly 300%.
3. Know exactly how far you have left to go. Achieving any goal also requires honest and regular monitoring of your progress — if not by others, then by you yourself. If you don't know how well you are doing, you can't adjust your behavior or your strategies accordingly. Check your progress frequently — weekly, or even daily, depending on the goal.

4. Be a realistic optimist.
 When you are setting a goal, by all means engage in lots of positive thinking about how likely you are to achieve it. Believing in your ability to succeed is enormously helpful for creating and sustaining your motivation. But whatever you do, don't underestimate how difficult it will be to reach your goal. Most goals worth achieving require time, planning, effort, and persistence. Studies show that thinking things will come to you easily and effortlessly leaves you ill-prepared for the journey ahead, and significantly increases the odds of failure.

5. Focus on getting better, rather than being good.
 Believing you have the ability to reach your goals is important, but so is believing you can get the ability. Many of us believe that our intelligence, our personality, and our physical aptitudes are fixed — that no matter what we do, we won't improve. As a result, we focus on goals that are all about proving ourselves, rather than developing and acquiring new skills.
Fortunately, decades of research suggest that the belief in fixed ability is completely wrong — abilities of all kinds are profoundly malleable. Embracing the fact that you can change will allow you to make better choices, and reach your fullest potential. People whose goals are about getting better, rather than being good, take difficulty in stride, and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

6. Have grit.
 Grit is a willingness to commit to long-term goals, and to persist in the face of difficulty. Studies show that gritty people obtain more education in their lifetime, and earn higher college GPAs. Grit predicts which cadets will stick out their first grueling year at West Point. In fact, grit even predicts which round contestants will make it to at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The good news is, if you aren't particularly gritty now, there is something you can do about it. People who lack grit more often than not believe that they just don't have the innate abilities successful people have. If that describes your own thinking .... well, there's no way to put this nicely: you are wrong. As I mentioned earlier, effort, planning, persistence, and good strategies are what it really takes to succeed. Embracing this knowledge will not only help you see yourself and your goals more accurately, but also do wonders for your grit.
7. Build your willpower muscle. Your self-control "muscle" is just like the other muscles in your body — when it doesn't get much exercise, it becomes weaker over time. But when you give it regular workouts by putting it to good use, it will grow stronger and stronger, and better able to help you successfully reach your goals.
To build willpower, take on a challenge that requires you to do something you'd honestly rather not do. Give up high-fat snacks, do 100 sit-ups a day, stand up straight when you catch yourself slouching, try to learn a new skill. When you find yourself wanting to give in, give up, or just not bother — don't. Start with just one activity, and make a plan for how you will deal with troubles when they occur ("If I have a craving for a snack, I will eat one piece of fresh or three pieces of dried fruit.") It will be hard in the beginning, but it will get easier, and that's the whole point. As your strength grows, you can take on more challenges and step-up your self-control workout.
8. Don't tempt fate. No matter how strong your willpower muscle becomes, it's important to always respect the fact that it is limited, and if you overtax it you will temporarily run out of steam. Don't try to take on two challenging tasks at once, if you can help it (like quitting smoking and dieting at the same time). And don't put yourself in harm's way — many people are overly-confident in their ability to resist temptation, and as a result they put themselves in situations where temptations abound. Successful people know not to make reaching a goal harder than it already is.

9. Focus on what you will do, not what you won't do. Do you want to successfully lose weight, quit smoking, or put a lid on your bad temper? Then plan how you will replace bad habits with good ones, rather than focusing only on the bad habits themselves. Research on thought suppression (e.g., "Don't think about white bears!") has shown that trying to avoid a thought makes it even more active in your mind. The same holds true when it comes to behavior — by trying not to engage in a bad habit, our habits get strengthened rather than broken.
If you want to change your ways, ask yourself, What will I do instead? For example, if you are trying to gain control of your temper and stop flying off the handle, you might make a plan like "If I am starting to feel angry, then I will take three deep breaths to calm down." By using deep breathing as a replacement for giving in to your anger, your bad habit will get worn away over time until it disappears completely.