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Sheri Singer, Executive Producer

This week’s episode of our Stanford FRICTION Podcast stars Sheri Singer, who has worked as a TV and film producer since she was 21 years old. Sheri has been executive producer of 37 made-for-tv movies — and is working on several additional films right now. She is perhaps best known for the Disney Channel Halloweentown series, where young woman Marnie Piper trains to become a witch and uses her powers to battle evil. Sheri is my first cousin, so it was easy to convince her to join us on the podcast. We had a rollicking conversation, in part, because Sheri’s husband Steve White was in the room during the recording and kept egging us on with provocative stories and questions. …


The challenge of injecting innovation into large, staid, and stalled organizations has long vexed leaders, consultants, and academics. The list of failed efforts goes on and on, including Yahoo!, Motorola, Blackberry, Sears, HP, Kodak, RadioShack, and that terrible merger between Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz. Yet there are exceptions. Some tired old companies do turn vibrant. …


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That’s the assignment historian Nancy Koehn gives the students in her leadership class at the Harvard Business School. When I interviewed Nancy for the first episode of our new season of the FRICTION podcast, she explained most leaders she teaches and coaches are adept at the “technical” aspects of management. What blindsides them, brings down their teams and organizations, gets them fired, and keeps them up at night are those complicated, unpredictable, and emotional people who they lead, follow, and otherwise are responsible for influencing, inspiring, and sometimes, discouraging and defeating.


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My co-conspirator Huggy Rao and I are knee-deep into “The Friction Project.” We are studying the causes and cures for bad organizational friction, how to navigate when work and workplaces turn frustrating, overwhelming, and exhausting, and when and why friction is a good thing. We’ve learned that insights about friction are most useful and most likely to be applied when the weave together both rational and emotional elements. Thus:

Our motto is that friction is a problem that is “Part Organizational Design. Part Therapy.”

We are learning about friction in many ways: conducting case studies; doing, supporting, and reviewing pertinent academic research; teaching classes to Stanford students and executives about friction; working with organizations to reduce bad friction and inject good friction; and — as part of our effort to talk to lots of smart people about the subject — I host the FRICTION podcast, which is produced by Rachel Julkowski and Alli Rico and the rest our wonderful Stanford eCorner team at the Stanford School of Engineering. …


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Photo by Claudia Goetzman

Biased but mostly evidence-based opinions on management and life

I have taught an introduction to organizational behavior class for more than 30 years — to both undergraduate and graduate students. I first taught it at The University of Michigan to undergraduates when I was doctoral student. And I’ve taught an ever-evolving version of the class almost every year since I landed at Stanford in 1983. For years, the last day, especially the final 20 minutes or so, felt awkward and forced as I struggled to look back on what the class had learned, provide some closure, and end on an upbeat note. About 15 years ago, I experimented with an ending ritual: I passed out a list of 12 things that I believe, made a brief comment about each one, and thanked the class for their efforts and for putting up with my quirks and imperfections. The list contained many opinions that were related to the class. …


I am on a committee at Stanford where we are trying to do something new (sorry, I must keep it vague). We’ve been working on the paperwork for a particular job candidate, which led an administrator to urge us to use the same language and process for all past, current, and future hires to “remain consistent across actions so that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged by a change.” You probably hear things like this from administrators where you work too, and such advice is often necessary and noble. …


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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I was thinking of everything in my life that I am grateful for, just as many of you are thinking about this week. I thought it would be nice to reprint a story and poem I first posted on my work matters blog nearly 10 years ago, on the day my book that my book The No Asshole Rule was published. I updated shortly after Vonnegut died in April, 2007. I’ve revised it a bit, but the main message persists.

The centerpiece is Vonnegut’s Joe Heller poem, one of the last things he published before he died. His message that reminding ourselves how much we have (rather than how much we want), that so many of us “have enough,” is timeless and especially fitting for the day. …


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Research on creativity and innovation provides an enlightening perspective on constraints. On first blush, it may seem that imagination will flourish when “anything goes.” Yet virtually all creative feats are accomplished by people, teams, and organizations that face challenging and immovable constraints. Much of the famous art created during the Renaissance in Europe, for example, was commissioned by benefactors — usually the church and governments — that bound artists to contracts that stipulated many details, including materials, colors, and sizes.

You’ve probably seen pictures of Michelangelo’s famous statue of David, and perhaps you’ve visited it at the Accademia Gallery in Florence. The statue was started, but never finished, by Agostino di Duccio in 1463. Michelangelo was hired in 1501 to complete it. The contract mandated that he finish it within two years. It also specified how the statue should look and be positioned. Within those guidelines (and the limits imposed by a hunk of marble that had been partially sculpted almost forty years earlier), Michelangelo was able to sculpt many nuances as he saw fit — and ignore many critics, including a government official who pestered him to make David’s nose smaller. The result was the Renaissance’s most famous sculpture — renowned for its great size and the striking contrast between David’s intense facial expression and his relaxed, almost nonchalant, pose. …


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It’s wonderful that design thinking is now applied to so many different problems: designing better experiences for hospital patients, designing and implementing better client experiences at social-service agencies, starting new companies, teaching leadership, inventing new radio shows, changing organizational structures, and developing new products and services for people at the bottom of economic pyramid — to name just a few. Design thinking focuses on uncovering human needs, and doing so by not just relying on what people say, but by watching what they do as well. …


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I have been maintaining — and occasionally updating — a list of “Books That Every Leader Should Read” on my Work Matters blog since 2011 and at LinkedIn since 2013. As I am experimenting with — and enjoying — Medium, I thought I would post my 2015 update here as well.

These are books that have taught me much about people, teams, and organizations — while at the same time — provide useful guidance (if sometimes indirectly) about what it takes to lead well versus badly. This is the latest update. I expanded it to 12 books in recent years and, even with that, I left out many of my favorites — and probably many of yours as well. …

About

Bob Sutton

Stanford Professor who studies organizations. Books include Good Boss Bad Boss, The No Asshole Rule, The Knowing-Doing Gap, and Scaling Up Excellence

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