Over the holiday break, I finished up Daniel Kahneman’s new and much-praised book Thinking, Fast and Slow. I consider it quite an achievement, and by that I mean both the book itself (a deep, personal, and introspective look back at the career of one of the most important psychologists of our time) and my actually reading it (the book weighs in at almost 500 very dense pages).
One of the many interesting things about Dr. Kahneman is that, as a psychologist, he actually won his Nobel prize in economics. If you are interested in learning more about how that happened, go here.
Over the last few months, Kahneman’s book has been sitting near the new Jim Collins book Great by Choice in the rarefied air of Amazon.com’s top 100 books list (I reviewed Great by Choice a few months back here). So I thought it was interesting that Kahneman challenged Jim Collins and his book Built to Last in Chapter 19. It was a pointed attack not just on Collins but the entire genre of success story-inspired business books.
Since I spend quite a bit of time reading these sorts of books, I was really interested in his viewpoint. I mean, have I been wasting time reading that I could just as usefully spent watching reruns of Tosh.O or Arrested Development on TV? Is there real value in studying successful businesses and leaders or is it just an illusion?
Here’s what Kahneman says:
“The basic message of Built to Last and other similar books is that good managerial practices can be identified and that good practices will be rewarded by good results. Both messages are overstated. The comparison of firms that have been more or less successful is to a significant extent a comparison between firms that have been more or less lucky. Knowing the importance of luck, you should be particularly suspicious when highly consistent patterns emerge from the comparison of successful and less successful firms. In the presence of randomness, regular patterns can only be mirages.”
Kahneman cites Philip Rosenzweig’s book The Halo Effect (which is now on my reading list) and quickly jumps to the punchline of that book:
“[Rosenzweig] concludes that stories of success and failure consistently exaggerate the impact of leadership style and management practices on firm outcomes, and thus their message is rarely useful.”
So are we to believe Kahneman and Rosenzweig? Is there really no value in studying the leadership and management practices of great companies?
Even after reading the whole book Thinking, Fast and Slow and understanding the psychological principles that trick my brain into applying great importance to these sorts of success stories, I still find the conclusion a hard one to accept. And then Kahneman throws the knockout punch:
“Stories of how businesses rise and fall strike a chord with readers by offering what the human mind needs: a simple message of triumph and failure that identifies clear causes and ignores the determinative power of luck and the inevitability of regression. These stories induce and maintain an illusion of understanding, imparting lessons of little enduring value to readers who are all too eager to believe them.”
Okay, I get it. Kahneman views me as a sucker. And who am I to argue with a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist?
But I just can’t help it. I think there is plenty that we can learn from the lessons of innovative businesses like those that Collins profiles in Built to Last. Kahneman may be right that these books suffer from an illusion of academic rigor that breaks down under close study. And yes, they probably need a disclaimer (“The author makes no promise or guarantee that if you follow the principles outlined in this book you will become Google overnight. Individual results may vary.”).
But what these books lack in academic rigor they make up for in one simple area: they inspire people. To not settle for what they see today. To try something new. To learn. To grow. To believe.
They create the possibility of hope. “Others have done it. I could too!”
So in that sense, Kahneman’s critique is somewhat akin to an adult telling a three-year old child that there is no Santa Claus. My view? The analysis is technically correct, but emotionally bankrupt.
Where success story business books fail the analytical brain, they often are just what the emotional brain needs.
So I don’t know about you, but I’m going to keep on reading business books. By constantly refueling my head with new ideas, I’ll always have something to learn and try. I’ll continue to be inspired by authors like Jim Collins, by companies and leaders who have seen great success, and I’ll suspend my academic doubts in the hope of learning new lessons that might just work.
I’d love to hear what you think. If you believe Kahneman’s critique of Collins and the genre is on the money, or if you believe instead that there is still value in sharing and learning from business success stories, let me know in the comments section below.
Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in two panel discussions at the Human Capital Institute’s Engagement and Retention Conference in Chicago.
I moderated the first panel on behalf of my friends at the Management Innovation Exchange. This panel featured the winners of the first Human Capital M-Prize: Lisa Haneberg of MPI, Joris Luijke of Atlassian, and Doug Solomon of IDEO. The Human Capital M-Prize competition, run jointly by HCI and the MIX, was designed to find bold ideas, stories, and innovations highlighting ways to unleash the passion of people within our organizations.
Lisa began by presenting her winning hack, entitled Start with a better question to create a better talent management system: the Talent Management Cloud. She made the case that the “old kind” model where engagement and retention are owned within the HR function is fundamentally broken. Because there are so many factors well beyond the control and influence of HR alone, responsibility for talent management must be the responsibility of the whole organization. I’d encourage you to go take a look at Lisa’s winning hack if you are interested in learning how to put her more holistic model into practice.
Next, Joris, who came in all the way from Sydney for the conference, took on the performance review– something he described (accurately in my book) as universally hated by both employees and HR people around the world. Joris shared his story of how Atlassian designed a kinder, gentler, more humane performance review system and rolled it out within the organization. You can read Joris’s original story Atlassian’s Big Experiment with Performance Reviews on the MIX.
Finally, since I make no secret of being an IDEO fanboy, I was excited to share the stage with Doug Solomon, CTO of IDEO. Doug shared his winning story, entitled The Tube: IDEO Builds a Collaboration System That Inspires Through Passion. Frustrated by so-called collaboration systems that IDEO found desperately lacking, they took on the challenge of designing their own, using a model based on facilitating person-to-person interaction more akin to Facebook than your typical knowledgebase or database-driven collaboration system. Doug also shared that a company called Moxiesoft has taken The Tube and turned it into a product, which I can’t wait to go check out.
At the end of the session HCI announced a new M-Prize, which will run from now through December 9th. This M-Prize is called “Encouraging the Gift of Leadership” and will be an effort to discover innovative ideas for how we can stimulate and support the development of “natural” hierarchies, where influence comes from the ability to lead, rather than from positional power within organizations. Have a great idea? You should go enter it on the MIX.
Later that afternoon, I participated in another panel where Katie Ratkiewicz of HCI shared the results of a recent survey regarding the relationship between career development efforts within organizations and overall employee engagement. I was joined on the panel by Stuart Crabb, Head of Learning and Development at Facebook, Russell Lobsenz, Director of Talent Development at Orbitz, and Cathy Welsh, SVP of Leadership Consulting at Lee Hecht Harrison.
I was particularly interested to hear Stuart’s comments regarding Facebook’s approach to career development. Basically, his thinking is that career development is primarily the employee’s responsibility (not the company’s) to drive, something that I expect was fairly controversial to many in the room (judging from the data shared in the survey), but which I couldn’t agree with more fully.
While I was excited to hear him say it out loud (because I wasn’t sure whether I’d be driven from the room tarred and feathered if I’d done it on my own), I did acknowledge that there were prerequisites for an approach where employees are accountable for their own career development to work. In my view, there has to be an entrepreneurial culture in place in the organization where employees have the freedom to explore new opportunities. I certainly felt we had those sort of opportunities while I was at Red Hat and it sounds like there is a culture based on freedom and personal accountability at Facebook as well.
I want to thank my new friends at the Human Capital Institute for a great day and some wonderful hospitality. Also thanks to my friends in the MIX community and especially Lisa, Joris, and Doug for participating on the panel. I’ll see all of you again soon!
When I hear people in the technology industry talk about the benefits of open source software, one of things they mention often is their belief that open source software “gets better faster” than traditional software (David Wheeler has done a nice job collecting many of the proof points around the benefits of open source software here). While the speed of innovation in open source is in part due to the power of Linus’s Law (“Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow”), I believe it also has a lot to do with the way open source projects are managed.
Many of the characteristics of this open source management style apply well beyond making software, and I’m always looking for examples showcasing this in action. A few weeks ago, I wrote briefly about the story in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink about (now retired) US General Paul Van Riper.
Gladwell tells the story of how, in an enormous military war game called the Millennium Challenge in 2002, Van Riper took command of the Red Team, playing the role of a rogue commander who broke away from the government of his Persian Gulf country and threatened US forces (the Blue Team). Rather than following standard military management protocol, Van Riper managed his team according to a philosophy he called “in command and out of control.” From the book:
By that, I mean that the overall guidance and the intent were provided by me and the senior leadership, but the forces in the field wouldn’t depend on intricate orders coming from the top. They were to use their own initiative and be innovative as they went forward.
Over the years, I’ve picked up an unhealthy understanding of the language of business. Years of sitting in big corporate meetings will do that to you, unfortunately.
Here at New Kind, my business partners will still call me out for talking about “action items,” saying something is in our “wheelhouse,” or jumping straight to the “net-net.”
But perhaps the business term I love to hate the most is the word bucketize, which I’d translate as “to organize into broad categories.” Common usage might include statements like the following:
“I’m going to bucketize these requirements.”
“We’ve bucketized the skillsets we need for this project.”
It’s not just the word that I dislike either, but the entire concept of bucketizing things, which often means taking complex relationships and oversimplifying them in order to fit into broad buckets designed to hold everything except much meaning. Bucketizing often puts things into silos (another favorite business word), destroying valuable connections between ideas, tasks, or people ending up in, well, different buckets.
Perhaps the most egregious example of corporate bucketizing for me is the typical corporate org chart, which looks something like this.
In most organizations, each person sitting at the executive table has their own employee bucket. As an executive, you are often motivated to fill your bucket with as many people as possible, because the more people you have working for you, the more power you control in the organization.
The problem? The org chart is an oversimplified, semi-fictional construct.
It rarely represents an accurate view of the complex web of working relationships found within an organization where people in different buckets communicate and work with each other all of the time. Yet, even though it is mostly fiction, the org chart often creates real power for executives to wield.
[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]
Maybe some day we’ll look back on the role of the manager in our organizations and laugh.
Such a quaint trend. Kind of like having The Clapper in every room of your house, or wearing multiple Swatch watches, or working out to Richard Simmons videos. Each seemed really helpful at the time, but looking back, we kind of wonder what the heck we were thinking.
OK, I’m exaggerating. After all, the manager/employee trend has been going strong for 100 years or more. But are we seeing enormous changes in the role of managers on the horizon? Signs point to yes.
In some of the most forward-thinking businesses and in many projects being run the open source way, the traditional manager/employee relationship, which looks something like the image above, is being replaced with something much less formal and much more flexible.
I think the new model looks more like this:
[read the rest of this post on opensource.com]
This week I finally got a chance to sit down and digest IBM’s latest Global CEO Study, newly published last month and entitled Capitalizing on Complexity. This marks the fourth study IBM has done (they complete them once every two years), and I’ve personally found them to be really useful for getting out of the weeds and looking at the big picture.
This report is based on the results of face-to-face meetings with over 1500 CEOs and other top leaders across 60 countries and 30+ industries. These leaders are asked all sorts of questions about their business challenges and goals, then IBM analyzes the answers and segments the respondents to isolate a group of high-performing organizations they call “standouts.” The standouts are then further analyzed to find out how they are addressing their challenges and goals differently than average organizations.
As a quick summary (but don’t just read my summary, go download the study for free), IBM found a big change this year. In the past three studies, leaders identified their biggest challenge as “coping with change.” This year, they identified a new top challenge: “complexity.”
If you’ve been reading marketing collateral or web copy from your vendors over the past year (someone must read that stuff…) this will come as no surprise to you. How many things have you read that start with something like: “In our increasingly complex world…” or “In the new deeply interconnected business landscape…” If the marketing folks are saying it, it must be true.
But I digress. Here’s IBM’s punch line:
[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]
Let’s face it. There are tons of projects out there in the world being run the open source way today. While the great ones can accomplish unbelievable things, the bad ones, even the average ones, often fail to achieve their goals.
Some projects fail because the contributors just aren’t skilled enough at what they are trying to do. Projects also fail because people don’t have the dedication to see them through—folks give up when the going gets tough.
But in many cases, the contributors have the skills and the dedication, yet the projects still don’t work out. My view? Many of these projects fail because they are missing one simple thing.
Collaboration works better when you trust the people with whom you are collaborating. Transparency is more believable when you trust those who are opening up to you. And it is much easier for the best ideas to win when there is a base level of trust in the community that everyone is competent and has the best interests of the project at heart.
A successful open source project needs a culture of trust much more than a project not being run the open source way. Why?
[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]
I’ve always been a fan of the Mozilla Foundation, and not just because of the Firefox web browser. As catalyst for some of the great communities in the open source world, Mozilla is something of a recipe factory for what to do right when it comes to building community. As it turns out, Mozilla’s Director of Developer Relations, Chris Blizzard, is a long time friend of mine.
In fact, this is not the first time I’ve interviewed him– my first Blizzard interview experience was back in 2002 when Mozilla 1.0 came out and he and I both worked for Red Hat.
I spent some time with Chris to discuss his experiences and learn more about community-building the Mozilla way.
1. When I first met you ten years ago, you were a Red Hat employee with a day job keeping the redhat.com website up and running, and, even then, you were hacking on Mozilla for fun in your spare time. Now you run developer relations for Mozilla, and you’ve had some other amazing experiences, including working on the One Laptop Per Child project, along the way.
It strikes me that you are a great case study of someone who has achieved success in the meritocracy of open source by doing good work. Knowing what you know now, if you were starting from ground zero as a community contributor, how would you get started?
That’s kind of a tough question because I don’t have that perspective anymore. I know too much about how these communities operate to be able to answer that with the fresh face of someone new to a project. But, honestly, I think that that if I were to guess I would say find something that you’re passionate about and just start working on it. My own case is instructive.
[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]
I love The New York Times, the best newspaper in the world. There is no greater pleasure than sitting out on the patio on a Sunday morning, reading The New York Times, and learning.
I stress the word learning because there are so few places left in our world where true discovery happens. Most of the time, marketers, computers, and even our friends are showing us more of what we already know we like, rather than introducing us to things we have never seen or heard of before.
In the pages of The New York Times, I can be introduced to people, places, events, ideas I would have never found on my own. Every day I read The Times I learn something new. The paper expands my understanding of the world rather than reflecting back to me the understanding I already have.
This is an incredibly valuable service. It is a service that very few media companies in the world still provide (my local paper, the Raleigh News and Observer, rarely does these days, sadly).
Yet, the ongoing conversation about how to solve the financial issues of The New York Times revolves around fixing the business model for newspapers. Most experts say the model is fundamentally broken, and a report released last week by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism doesn’t have a lot of good news for the future of journalism as a whole.
From my vantage point, the answer to fixing The New York Times will not come from exploring a revolutionary business model. It will come from a revolutionary brand, culture, and community model. Let me explain.
Last fall, a group of researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) released a study showing an abrupt leveling off in the number of editors and edits to Wikipedia, starting in about 2007.
I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few months about what might be causing the slowing rate of contributions, as have many others. I particularly liked Niel Robertson’s post last week on the Enterprise Irregulars site.
Niel’s thesis is that Wikipedia has failed to continue to develop innovative ways to motivate its community, falling behind as other communities and companies have implemented more creative new techniques. Niel goes on to identify seven types of motivation for crowdsourcing (yes, I still dislike that word) efforts, of which he says Wikipedia is only using a couple.
I think he is on to something. But Wikipedia is operating at a scale that dwarfs almost every other crowdsourcing effort in history. It takes a massive bureaucracy of editors and administrators to keep the whole thing going.
And if traditional bureaucracies (like those in governments and large companies) tend to stifle innovation, what happens in a bureaucracy where the bureaucrats aren’t getting paid and aren’t getting any recognition for their efforts?
From my point of view, this is Wikipedia’s next great challenge:
How does it convince the world to love and recognize its contributors?
[Read the rest of this article on opensource.com]