What Project Managers Can Learn from Adele and Beyoncé

You may have noticed that Adele dominated at the recent GRAMMY Awards. Sure, there’s some controversy over whether Beyoncé should have won more, but here’s why I even bring this up: Adele and Beyoncé were just two of many thousands of artists and producers who wanted to be on stage that night, lifting high their award for their big hit.

Yet few make it that far.

What makes a hit? And why should that even matter to project managers?

I recently sat down with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor at The Atlantic magazine. Thompson is the author of a new book entitled Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. Thompson chased down this idea of what makes hits and has put together an engaging read on the science of what makes something popular.

I’ll take a wild guess and suggest that you’re not necessarily trying to write the next GRAMMY-winning song. But if you lead teams and projects, you need to sell your ideas. Whether it’s for your project or your career, there are approaches or ideas that you’d like to see get some traction. Thompson’s book outlines some intriguing ideas for your consideration.

You can hear Thompson talk about the book in his own words at http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/166

Here’s an appetizer of ideas that project managers and leaders at all levels can sample from Thompson’s book.

Remember the MAYA Rule

First, when it comes to trying to sell an idea, Thompson suggests you follow the MAYA Rule. MAYA stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. You may not recognize the name Raymond Loewy, but you’ve been influenced by him more than you know. He’s the father of modern industrial design, and Cosmopolitan magazine wrote back in 1950 that Loewy “has probably affected the daily life of more Americans than any man of his time.”

Loewy’s philosophy? Stretch the boundaries of something to make it new, yet keep it just familiar enough to be acceptable. Too much innovation before its time and it won’t be accepted. Too familiar and it won’t get noticed or catch on.

MAYA was his answer. What’s the lesson for us? If the idea you’re trying to get approved is rather radical—perhaps edging towards Most Advanced and Barely Acceptable—try to anchor your message with the familiar. Seek to show how this new idea is similar to something they already know. If you’re trying to get approval for something more on the familiar side, do the opposite. Seek to highlight what’s new.

Sometimes we try to ask for too much, or strive to change too much, too quickly—it’s beyond the Yet Acceptable threshold. Keep MAYA and Thompson’s related advice in mind as you try to influence in the days ahead.

Fluency and Disfluency

When an idea is easy to assimilate, it’s fluent. Thompson finds “fluent ideas and products are processed faster and they make us feel better, not just about ideas and products we confront, but also about ourselves. Most people generally prefer ideas that we already agree with, images that are easy to discern, stories that are easy to relate to, and puzzles that are easy to solve.”

Disfluency is the opposite. It requires hard thinking. It’s dissonant. And it may keep our ideas from catching on.

There are countless applications for us as leaders of teams and projects. Take an email to our stakeholders, for example. How can we make it as fluent as possible, which is to say, how can we make it as easy as possible for them to understand what we’re trying to communicate?

I teach an MBA class on project management and one of the assignments is a 2-page paper. One of my students submitted a paper where the initial paragraph was a page and a half! One paragraph! Opening that document was like opening a door to find a brick wall instead of a doorway! It screamed “Don’t read me!” “I don’t know what I’m talking about!” It dripped with disfluency!

We can cause disfluency by using jargon or not appreciating cultural influences. In a rush to send a message, we leave out critical aspects of our idea that leave the receiver without the necessary context.

Before you send that next message, remember to seek fluency instead of disfluency.

Beware Homophily

Whether you recognize the term or not, you’ll recognize the effect. Homophily is our tendency to sort ourselves into tribes (or, as Thompson prefers, “mini cults”). Homophily is impacting how we get our news, with whom we go to lunch most days, and how we build our networks of relationships.

Especially in this time of increasing polarization, I encourage you to intentionally fight back by seeking out people who think differently from you, who have different perspectives or even worldviews than you. Homophily will try to get in your way. Push through.

The dirty little secret of business is that everything comes down to relationships. Thompson provides insights and examples of how the success of your ideas, your career, and your projects could depend far more than you realize on who’s in your Top 5 relationships.

Go deeper into the organization, beyond your particular domain or area—even outside your industry. If you’re a project manager, take advantage of joining your local PMI chapter and take the time to get to know people who are leaders there.

Building a strong Top 5 is not brown-nosing or simply self-seeking. It’s just a great way to build your ability to make a difference, for you, your team, your organization and your career.

Quality is Not Destiny

We have this bias sometimes that the best idea wins. The smartest person gets promoted. The best approach gets approved. Our work should stand on its merits.

The best song or most talented artist should be on the GRAMMY stage, right?

No offense to Adele or Beyoncé: that’s not what the research finds. But if you’d like to learn more about how ideas take off, including some scenarios specifically relevant to project managers and other leaders, check out this discussion with Derek Thompson about his book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.


P.S. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear my duet with Beyoncé.

So what’s your take? What questions or concerns do you have? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below. I look forward to discussing this with you!


Andy Kaufman is a keynote speaker who helps organizations around the world improve their ability to deliver projects and lead teams. He is the host of the People and Projects Podcast which provides interviews and insights to help you lead and deliver.

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