Every couple of months I
gather in New York a group of heads of strategy at large, non-competing firms
for an open, confidential discussion about challenges and opportunities.
Yesterday we invited Professor
Srikumar Rao to facilitate our discussion. Given the personal nature of the
session, and our agreement to keep it confidential, I cannot share the specific
content of participants’ dialogue. However, I want to share a few tidbits of
Dr. Rao’s talk. Because, as you will see, he belongs to a growing group of
business gurus who are making tangible the link between being good and
here is a quick overview on Dr. Rao. He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia
University and has been featured in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Financial Times, and other
leading business publications. He is the author of two books, Are You Ready to Succeed? and the soon-to-be-launched Happiness at Work. He taught one of the most popular
courses at Columbia’s MBA program and now teaches this same course at London
Business School and Haas. He also offers it in a public format. See www.areyoureadytosucceed.com for more information.
Rao has a following of executives who span the globe. And getting a
glimpse of his message tells you why. This summary surely doesn’t do Dr. Rao’s
work justice, but here it goes nonetheless.
the center of Rao’s approach is the belief that we think we live in a real
world, but we are
actually living in a self-constructed, imaginary one.
I’m not saying we live in the “matrix” or that you need to choose between the
red and blue pills. But instead, this means that many of our beliefs about how
the world works are mental constructs that help us simplify things. But these
constructions are not necessarily true. This links to my theory that
breakthrough companies beat their competition because they challenge accepted,
false beliefs that larger firms and industry experts have settled on as truth.
“false reality” is a function of our “mental chatter” – the internal monologue
you have going on in your heads all the time. This mental chatter has become so
much a part of your normal state that you don’t notice it anymore. And not
recognizing it is a big mistake because you start making assumptions and acting
on those assumptions without thinking.
a higher level, we build “mental models” – notions we have that “this is
the way the world works.” These are like the strategic patterns that I
teach to my clients and my readers. These models work well, and they save us
time and help us understand complexity. By not recognizing these models or
patterns, we are destined to make mistakes and miss opportunities.
Rao spoke about the “self-centered universe” most of us live in. We interpret
everything that happens around us in terms of “what is its impact on
instance, if my boss was in a bad mood this morning, it must be because I did
something wrong or because he doesn’t respect me. Our ego steps in and
immediately tries to twist the world around itself. It says, “This is me;
I am important; make me feel good!” The result of making it always about
you is that you are more likely to feel frustration, anger, disappointment.
issues cause tangible problems for organizations. They lead to ineffective
teams that are unable to see new approaches, and unsatisfied workers who
aren’t being fully productive.
key to rising out of these issues – the inner dialogue, limited mental models,
and the self-centered universe – is to find a cause bigger than you. This is
where ethonomics comes into play. By finding a mission that motivates people
beyond themselves, a company can get past individual egos and stale strategic
lesson came out during our session. One participant – a senior manager
responsible for strategy and innovation of a large corporation – realized that
when he set aside his ego, when he focused on helping his colleagues rather
than worrying about his career, his frustration suddenly disappeared.
Rao walked us through a small exercise that taught the group how to have a
similarly cathartic moment. Try it for yourself:
Find a few friends you trust
Share with them a frustration
or complaint you have
Complain to them
Then ask them to offer an
alternative interpretation to what is going on. This interpretation must meet
two conditions: it must (a) be better than your current explanation and (b) be
one you see as plausible
people realized that the only thing that limits their ability to see new
options is their own ego or already defined mental models. By asking for
another point of view, the individual is given a new perspective. By using that
new outlook to his or her advantage, the person can stifle that internal
chatter and develop strategies that they originally couldn’t see.
This problem plagues big and small companies alike.
For example, today I’m heading to Redmond, WA to work with Microsoft on what I
now recognize as a quite similar issue: how can we help emerging leaders
recognize and step outside of their mental models to see new, innovative ways
of doing things?
yourself the questions below to see if you can set aside your ego to build a
business beyond your competitors’ grasp and limited vision.
What are my biggest
What do I see as our
company’s largest obstacles?
Why do we see these as
By removing egos from the
equation, can we come up with approaches to tear down these obstacles?
5. How can I use the exercise above to develop better explanations and approaches?