I first posted this last December, but I thought that it would be fun to update it for 2012. Note I have removed two from last years list: Men and Women of the Corporation and Who Says that Elephants Can't Dance? They are both great books, but I am trying to stick to 11 books and the two new ones below edge them out. Here goes:
I was looking through the books on Amazon to find something that struck my fancy, and instead, I started thinking about the books that have taught me much about people, teams, and organizations -- while at the same time -- provide useful guidance (if sometimes only indirectly) about what it takes to lead well versus badly. The 11 books below are the result.
Most are research based, and none are a quick read (except for Orbiting the Giant Hairball). I guess this reflects my bias. I like books that have real substance beneath them. This runs counter the belief in the business book world at the moment that all books have to be both short and simple. So, if your kind of business book is The One Minute Manager (which frankly, I like too... but you can read the whole thing in 20 or 30 minutes), then you probably won't like most of these books at all.
1. The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. A masterpiece of evidence-based management -- the strongest argument I know that "the big things are the little things."
2. Influence by Robert Cialdini the now classic book about how to persuade people to do things, how to defend against persuasion attempts, and the underlying evidence. I have been using this in class at Stanford for over 20 years, and I have had dozens of students say to me years later "I don't remember much else about the class, but I still use and think about that Cialdini book."
3.Made to Stick Chip and Dan Heath. A modern masterpiece, the definition of an instant classic. How to design ideas that people will remember and act on. I still look at it a couple times a month and I buy two or three copies at a time because people are always borrowing it from me. I often tell them to keep it because they rarely give it back anyway.
4. Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman. Even though the guy won the Nobel Prize, this book is surprisingly readable. A book about how we humans really think, and although it isn't designed to do this, Kahneman also shows how much of the stuff you read in the business press is crap.
5. Collaboration by Morten Hansen. He has that hot bestseller now with Jim Collins called Great By Choice, which I need to read. This is a book I have read three times and is -- by far -- the best book ever written about what it takes to build an organization where people share information, cooperate, and help each other succeed.
6. Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. It is hard to explain, sort of like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll as the old song goes. But it is the best creativity book ever written, possibly the business book related to business ever written. Gordon's voice and love creativity and self-expression -- and how to make it happen despite the obstacles that unwittingly heartless organizations put in the way -- make this book a joy.
7. The Pixar Touch by David Price. After reading this book, my main conclusion was that it seems impossible that Pixar exists. Read how Ed Catmull along with other amazing characters-- after amazing setbacks, weird moments, and one strange twist after another -- realized Ed's dream after working on it for decades. Ed is working on his own book right now, I can hardly wait to see that. When I think of Ed and so many others I have met at Pixar like Brad Bird, I know it is possible to be a creative person without being an asshole. In fact, at least if the gossip I keep hearing from Pixar people is true, Jobs was rarely rude or obnoxious in his dealings with people at Pixar because he knew they knew more than him -- and even he was infected by Pixar's norm of civility.
8. The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew May. This 2012 book has more great ideas about how to get rid of what you don't need and how to keep -- and add -- what you do need than any book ever written. Matt has as engaging a writing style as I have ever encountered and he uses it to teach one great principle after another, from "what isn't there can trump what is" to "doing something isn't always better than doing nothing." Then each principle is followed with five or six very short -- and well-edited pieces -- from renowned and interesting people of all kinds ranging from executives, to researchers, to artists. It is as fun and useful as non-fiction book can be and is useful for designing every part of your life, not just workplaces.
9. Leading Teams by J. Richard Hackman. When it comes to the topic of groups or teams, there is Hackman and there is everyone else. If you want a light feel good romp that isn't very evidence-based, read The Wisdom of Teams. If want to know how teams really work and what it really takes to build, sustain, and lead them from a man who has been immersed in the problem as a researcher, coach, consultant, and designer for over 40 years, this is the book for you.
10. Give and Take by Adam Grant. This book won't be out for a few months, but you should pre-order it so you don't forget. Adam is the hottest organizational researcher of his generation. When I read the pre-publication version, I was so blown away by how useful, important, and interesting that Give and Take was that I gave it the most enthusiastic blurb of my life: “Give and Take just might be the most important book of this young century. As insightful and entertaining as Malcolm Gladwell at his best, this book has profound implications for how we manage our careers, deal with our friends and relatives, raise our children, and design our institutions. This gem is a joy to read, and it shatters the myth that greed is the path to success." In other words, Adam shows how and why you don't need to be a selfish asshole to succeed in this life. America -- and the world -- would be a better place if all of memorized and applied Adam's worldview.
11. The Path Between the Seas by historian David McCullough. On building the Panama Canal. This is a great story of how creativity happens at a really big scale. It is messy. Things go wrong. People get hurt. But they also triumph and do astounding things. I also like this book because it is the antidote to those who believe that great innovations all come from start-ups and little companies (although there are some wild examples of entrepreneurship in the story -- especially the French guy who designs Panama's revolution -- including a new flag and declaration of independence as I recall -- from his suite in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and successfully sells the idea to Teddy Roosevelt ). As my Stanford colleague Jim Adams points out, the Panama Canal, the Pyramids, and putting a man on moon are just a few examples of great human innovations that were led by governments.
I would love to know of your favorites -- and if want a systematic approach to this question, don't forget The 100 Best Business Books of All Time.
P.S. Also, for self-defense, I recommend that we all read Isaacson's Steve Jobs -- I keep going places -- cocktail parties, family gatherings, talks I give and attend, and even the grocery store where people start talking about it and especially arguing about it. As I explained in Wired and Good Boss, Bad Boss I have come to believe that whatever Jobs was in life, in death he has become a Rorschach test -- we all just project our beliefs and values on him.
It is Thanksgiving morning here in California and I was thinking of all the good things in my life I have to be thankful for, just as I know that so many of you are thinking today. I thought it would be nice to reprint a story and poem I first posted on this blog over five years ago, on the day The No Asshole Rule was published and it was updated shortly after on the day Vonnegut died. The key part 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. Enjoy and have a happy Thanksgiving.
I just heard that Kurt Vonnegut died. I loved his books and was touched by his sweet contribution, for creating the best moment I had when writing the book. His death makes me sad to think about, but his life brings me joy. All of us die in the end, it is the living that counts -- and Vonnegut touched so many people. Here is my story.
The process of writing The No Asshole Rule entailed many fun twists and turns. But the very best thing happened when I wrote for permission to reprint a Kurt Vonnegut poem called "Joe Heller," which was published in The New Yorker. I was hoping that Vonnegut would give me permission to print it in the book, both because I love the poem (more on that later), and Vonnegut is one my heroes. His books including Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions had a huge effect on me when I was a teenager-- both the ideas and the writing style.
I wrote some anonymous New Yorker address to ask permission to reprint the poem, and to my amazement, I received this personal reply from Vonnegut about two weeks later. Take a look at the two sides of the postcard, it not only is in Vonnegut's handwriting and gives me permission to use it "however you please without compensation or further notice to me," the entire thing is designed by Vonnegut (and I suspect his wife helped, as she is a designer). "Life is No Way to Treat an Animal" is one of the famous sayings from his character Kilgore Trout -- even the stamp is custom. It is one of my favorite things.
The poem fits well in my chapter on how to avoid catching asshole poisoning. Here is how I set it up in the book:
'If you read or watch TV programs about business or sports, you often see the world framed as place where everyone wants “more more more” for “me me me,” every minute in every way. The old bumper sticker sums it up: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” The potent but usually unstated message is that we are all trapped in a life-long contest where people can never get enough money, prestige, victories, cool stuff, beauty, or sex – and that we do want and should want more goodies than everyone else.
This attitude fuels a quest for constant improvement that has a big upside, leading to everything from more beautiful athletic and artistic performances, to more elegant and functional products, to better surgical procedures and medicines, to more effective and humane organizations. Yet when taken too far, this blend of constant dissatisfaction, unquenchable desires, and overbearing competitiveness can damage your mental health. It can lead you to treat those “below” you as inferior creatures who are worthy of your disdain and people "above" you who have more stuff and status as objects of envy and jealousy.
Again, a bit of framing can help. Tell yourself, “I have enough.” Certainly, some people need more than they have, as many people on earth still need a safe place to live, enough good food to eat, and other necessities. But too many of us are never satisfied and feel constantly slighted, even though – by objective standards – we have all we need to live a good life. I got this idea from a lovely little poem that Kurt Vonnegut published in The New Yorker called “Joe Heller,” which was about the author of the renowned World War II novel Catch 22. As you can see, the poem describes a party that Heller and Vonnegut attended at a billionaire’s house. Heller remarks to Vonnegut that he has something that the billionaire can never have, "The knowledge that I've got enough." These wise words provide a frame that can help you be at peace with yourself and to treat those around you with affection and respect:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel 'Catch-22'
has earned in its entire history?"
And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."
And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"
And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."
Not bad! Rest in peace!"
The New Yorker, May 16th, 2005
(Reprinted with Kurt Vonnegut’s permission -- see the above postcard!)
P.S. I also added another post about Vonnegut after this one that was good fun, which talked about my favorite quote.
P.P.S. The first version of this post was written on February 22nd, the day The No Asshole Rule was published. I then updated in mid-April of 2007, after I heard that Vonnegut had died. This is the third update because it seems like such a great Thanksgiving message.
About 15 years ago, UC Berkeley's Barry Staw and I had a running conversation about the conditions under which showing anger, even having a temper tantrum, is strategic versus something that undermines a person's reputation and influence, and for leaders, the performance of their teams and organizations. In fact, Barry eventually collected some amazing in-the-locker room half-time speeches for basketball coaches that he is currently working on writing and publishing.
I thought of those old conversations when I got this amazing note the other day (this is the same one that inspired me to do my last post on the Atilla the Manager cartoon):
I just discovered your work via Tom Fishburne, the Marketoonist. I had an asshole boss until I got her fired. For 6 years I was abused and I should have done what you say and got out as soon as I could. But you get comfortable and used to the abuse. You even think you are successfully managing the abusers behavior with your behavior. Ridiculous I know. I suffered everything you mentioned including depression, anxiety and just plain unhappiness. The day I snapped, I used the "I quit and I'm taking you down with me" tactic. I did document the abuse even though just like every asshole situation, everyone knew she was an abuser. In an impassioned meeting I let top management know exactly why I was quitting, let them know they are culpable for all the mental anquish and turnover and poor results stemming from the asshole. They probably thought I was a madman with nothing left to lose and about to sue and defame the company (they'd have been correct). Two hours later she was walked out. Now the department is doing great and actually producing instead of trying to manage the reactions of a lunatic.
I am taken with this note for numerous reasons. For starters, I am always delighted when the victim of an asshole finds a successful way to to fight back. I am also pleased to see that, as happens so often, once this creep was sent packing, people could stop spending their days trying to deal with her antics and instead could devote their energies to doing their jobs well. And in thinking about it in more detail -- and thinking back to those old conversations with Barry -- I believe that showing anger was effective in this situation for at least three reasons.
1. He was right. This was, as the headline says, an evidence-based temper tantrum. Although his superiors may have not been overly pleased with how he delivered the news, he apparently had darn good evidence that this person was an asshole and doing harm to him and his co-workers. Facts matter, even when emotions flare.
2. His anger was a reflection of how others felt, not just his particular quirks and flaws. This outpouring of anger and the ultimatum he gave were seen as giving voice to how everyone who worked with this "lunatic" felt. It was his tantrum, but it was on behalf of and gave voice to others. In such situations, when a person is not seen as out of touch reality or crazy, even though he may have felt or even acted like a "madman" for the moment, the anger and refusal to give in can be very powerful. I also suspect that, in this case, those same bosses who fired him felt he same way about the local asshole, and his anger propelled them to take an action they knew was the right thing to do. The notion that emotions are contagious and propel action is quite well established in a lot of studies (see research by Elaine Hatfield for example).
3. The was a rare tantrum. This follows from the last point. If you are always ranting and yelling and making threats, people aren't likely to take you seriously. Tantrums are effective when they are seen as a rare and justified outburst rather than a personal characteristic -- as something that is more easily attributed to the bad situation the person is in rather than personal weakness or style.
Please, please don't use this fellow's success as a reason to start yelling and making threats and all that. That is what a certified asshole would do. But -- while such outbursts are not always the product of rational planning -- this little episode provides instructive guidance about when expressing anger might produce outcomes for the greater good. It also provides some interesting hints about when it is best to try to stop outbursts from those you are close to versus when egging them on is a reasonable thing to do.
Finally, a big thanks to the anonymous writer of this note. I learned something from it and I hope that other do as well.P.S. This note and post makes me think that some revision to my list of Tips for Surviving Workplace Assholes might be in order.
I got a note from a manager about this cartoon and story at the Marketoonist, which is drawn and written by Tim Fishburne -- he talks about The No Asshole Rule and the problem of brillant jerks. Check out his site, it is filled with great stuff -- like this cartoon and story about my least-favorite U.S. company, United Airlines.
P.S. I am sorry I have not been blogging much, I am hoping to turn up the volume and have a lot of things to write about, especially Matt May's new book The Laws of Subtraction. But life keeps getting in the way!
I spent the morning trying to catch-up on all the emails that have been piling-up and the stuff I have been collecting to read for the book we are are writing on scaling-up excellence. Huggy Rao and I spent the week as co-directors of an executive program called Customer-Focused Innovation. We had great fun and learned an enormous amount from the 65 executives who participated in blend of traditional classroom education (we call it the "clean models" part) and d.school experiential education -- project with JetBlue aimed at bringing more "humanity" to air travel for their customers (we call this the "dirty hands" part).
The program appears to be a big success (participants rated it 4.87 on a 5-point "willingness to recommend" scale). But after all those logistics and all that social ramble, I am delighted to have a quiet day. I wasn't planning on doing a post, but I couldn't resist sharing the opening of an article by the amazing Karl Weick, one of the most imaginative people in my field.
Karl started out his 2002 British Journal of Management on "Puzzles in Organizational Learning: An Exercise in Disciplined Imagination" this way:
It is sometimes possible to explore basic questions in the university that are tough to raise in other settings. John Gardner (1968, p. 90) put it well when he said that the university stands for:
• things that are forgotten in the heat of battle
•values that get pushed aside in the rough and tumble of everyday living
• the goals we ought to be thinking about and never do
• the facts we don’t like to face
• the questions we lack the courage to ask
I read that list over and over. As you may know, the late John Gardner was one of the most thoughtful leadership "gurus" who ever lived and so much more. As a university professor, this reminded me of why my colleagues and I -- at our best, we all screw-up at times -- do certain things that annoy, surprise, and -- now and then -- actually help people. We feel obligated to take years trying to figure out the answers to questions that seem pretty simple on the surface. We study obscure things that seem trivial or at least not very important right now. We feel obligated to go with the best evidence even when we don't like answer (e.g., the recent Stanford study that shows there is little or no documented health advantage to organic food isn't something I want to hear, but it is so carefully done that I accept it as the provisionally true). We also feel obligated to ask questions of ourselves at others that can be quite unpleasant for everyone.
I think of my colleague Jeff Pfeffer in particular here, who throughout his whole career, has raised questions about everything from the overblown effects of leadership, to the ways that focusing on money turns us greedy and selfish, to his current work on how organizations and workplaces can make us ill and cause us to die premature deaths. Jeff has made a lot of people squirm people over the years, including me, but he is doing exactly what John Gardner asserted that a good professor ought to do -- seek and tell the truth, even when it is hard to take.
As has happened so many times throughout the nearly 30 years I have been a university professor, Karl Weick (with a big assist from John Gardner this time) has reminded me yet again of what is important in my line of work and the standards I should try to follow.
As regular readers of this blog may recall, my wife -- Marina Park -- is the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Northern California. It has been a busy year from Marina and her staff because it is the 100 year anniversary of the founding of the Girl Scouts and there have been many celebrations. There was an especially wild one called 100 Hundred, Fun Hundred where some 24,000 girls gathered at the Alameda County Fair Grounds to camp and engage in activities ranging from rock climbing, to scuba diving, to dancing to roakc bands. You can read about the various celebrations here on their website.
Today, I am focusing on the Forever Green Awards -- a series of dinners that have been held throughout Northern California to honor women who "have made a significant impact to sustaining the environment, economy, or community." I have been three of the eight award dinners now and have been inspired by many of these women (here is the complete list), from opera soprano Katherine Jolly, to Jane Shaw the Chairman of the Board at Intel, to Amelia Ceja -- the Owner & President Ceja Vineyards.
I heard something last week at the dinner in Menlo Park that especially caught my ear -- from none other than Brandi Chastain, the Olympic Women's Soccer gold medal winner and world champion, who still plays soccer seriously and now often works as a sports broadcaster for ABC and ESPN. Of course, Chastain we always be remembered for throwing off her jersey after scoring the winning goal at the Women's World Championships in 1999 -- in 2004 she wrote a book called "Its Not About the Bra."
The award winners at Menlo Park were each asked to describe the best advice they ever received. Brandi began by talking about her grandfather and how crucial he was to her development as a soccer player and a person. Brandi said that he had a little reward system where she was paid $1.00 for scoring a goal but $1.50 for an assist -- because, as she put it, "it is better to give than receive."
I love that on so many levels. I helped coach girls soccer teams for some years, and getting the star players to pass was often tough. And moving into the world of organizations, as Jeff Pfeffer and I have been arguing for years, too many organizations create dysfunctional internal competition by saying they want cooperation but behaving in ways that promote selfish behavior. Chastain's grandfather applied a simple principle that can be used in even the most sophisticated reward systems -- one that I have seen used to good effect in places ranging from General Electric, to IDEO, to McKinsey.
P.S. The last Forever Green Awards will be in Santa Rosa at the Paradise Ridge Winery. Click here if you want to learn more.
William Gibson is one of the most influential and out there science fiction writers of our time. Read about him here and here. He is credited with first usign the term "cyberspace" in a 1982 story and Wikipedia claims "He is also credited with predicting the rise of reality television and with establishing the conceptual foundations for the rapid growth of virtual environments such as video games and the World Wide Web." He is also credited with one of my favorite quotes "The future is already here -- it is just not very evenly distrubited.
P.S. A big thanks to Caroline for sending this to me!
I confess that as an avid reader of The New York Times, I have been disappointed in recent years because they devote too much space to interviews with CEOs and other bosses. Notably, it seems to me that they run the same column twice every Sunday: Adam Bryant's "The Corner Office" and another interview column called "The Boss." I do love many of these interviews anyway, as The Times gets interesting people and their editing makes things better. And I am a big fan of Adam Bryant's book, The Corner Office, as it did a great job of transcending the column. What bugs me, however, is that The Times devotes so much of the paper to interviews now, I suspect, because it is simply cheaper than producing hard-hitting investigative journalism. They do an occasional amazing in-depth story, but there is too much fluff and not enough tough for my tastes.
That said, some of the interviews are still striking. One of the best I have ever read appeared yesterday, with Citrix CEO Mark Templeton. The whole interview is unusually thoughtful and reminds me that people who don't see themselves as CEOs and don't lust after the position often turn out to be the best candidate for the job (related point: see this study that shows groups tend to pick people with big mouths to lead but that less pushy and extroverted leaders tend to lead more effective teams -- at least when the teams were composed of proactive members). In particular, however, I was taken with this quote from Templeton:
You have to make sure you never confuse the hierarchy that you need for managing complexity with the respect that people deserve. Because that’s where a lot of organizations go off track, confusing respect and hierarchy, and thinking that low on hierarchy means low respect; high on the hierarchy means high respect. So hierarchy is a necessary evil of managing complexity, but it in no way has anything to do with respect that is owed an individual.
If you say that to everyone over and over and over, it allows people in the company to send me an e-mail no matter what their title might be or to come up to me at any time and point out something — a great idea or a great problem or to seek advice or whatever.
There is so much wisdom here, including:
1. While there are researchers and other idealists running around and urging companies to rip down their hierarchies and to give everyone equal power and decision rights, and this notion that we are all equal in every way may sound like a lovely thought, the fact is that people prefer and need pecking orders and other trappings of constraint such as rules and procedures. As Templeton points out so wisely, organizations need hierarchies to deal with complexity. Yes, some hierarchies are better than others -- some are too flat, some have to many layers, some have bad communication flows, and organizational designers should err on making them as "light" and "simple" as possible -- but as he says, they are a necessary evil.
2. His second point really hits home and is something that all too many leaders -- infected with power poisoning -- seem to forget as they sit at the top of the local pecking order "thinking that low on hierarchy means low respect; high on the hierarchy means high respect." When leaders believe and especially act on this belief, all sorts of good things happen, including your best people stay (even if you can't pay them as much as competitors), they feel obligated to return the respect by giving their all to the organization (and feel obligated to press their colleagues to do as well), and a norm of treating people with dignity and respect emerges and is sustained. Plus, as Templeton points out, because fear is low and respect is high, people at the top tend to get more truth -- and less CYA and ass-kissing behavior.
No organization is perfect. But a note for all the bosses out there. If you read Templeton's quote a few times and think about what it means for running your organization, it can help you take a big step toward excellence in terms of both the performance and well-being among the people you lead.
I've been reading research on organizational size and performance as it is pertinent to the book that Huggy Rao and I are writing on scaling-up excellence. In doing so, I also have been following the debate about banks and whether the assertion that both a cause of the meltdown and a risk for future fiascoes is that banks are "too big to fail." Of course, the debate is hard to sift through because there is so much ideology and so many perverse incentives (example: the bigger the bank, the more the CEO, top team, and board will -- in general -- be compensated).
Although bankers have been generally silent on this, some have started speaking-up since former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weil -- the creator of that huge bank (which lives on courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers) -- joined the chorus and argued that big banks ought to be broken-up. Simon Johnson -- an MIT professor -- had an interesting editorial in the New York Times yesterday where he reviews some of the recent arguments by bankers and lobbying groups that very big banks are still a good idea -- and refutes their arguments (and points out that both Democrats and more recently Republicans are starting to challenge the wisdom of mega-banks).
I especially want to focus on the "economies of scale argument," that there are more efficiencies and other advantages enjoyed by larger systems in comparison to smaller ones. This appears to be the crux of an editorial in defense of large banks published in the NYT on August 22nd by former banking executive William B. Harrison Jr. I was struck by one of Johnson's retorts:
As I made clear in a point-by-point rebuttal of Mr. Harrison’s Op-Ed commentary, his defense of the big banks is not based on any evidence. He primarily makes assertions about economies of scale in banking, but no one can find such efficiency enhancements for banks with more than $100 billion in total assets – and our largest banks have balance sheets, properly measured, that approach $4 trillion.
Although I am interested in -- and an advocate -- of the power of growing bigger and better organizations at times, doing so is only justifiable in my view if excellence can at least be sustained and preferably enhanced, and the side-effects and risks to do not overwhelm the benefits. Unfortunately, the optimism among the bigger is better crowd often outruns the facts. For starters, I would love to see sound evidence that really really big organizations enjoy economies of scale and other performance advantages -- Wal-Mart might be such a case, they certainly have market power, the ability to bring down prices, and brand recognition -- but I can't find much systematic evidence for economies of scale across really big organizations. If Mr. Harrison is correct, for example, there isn't any evidence of increased efficiencies for banks over 100 billion in assets.
This debate reminds me of some fascinating research on the differences between cities and companies. Luis Bettencourt and Geoffery West of the Santa Fe Institute present fascinating evidence that larger cities are more efficient and effective than smaller ones. As they conclude in this article in Nature:
Three main characteristics vary systematically with population. One, the space required per capita shrinks, thanks to denser settlement and a more intense use of infrastructure. Two, the pace of all socioeconomic activity accelerates, leading to higher productivity. And three, economic and social activities diversify and become more interdependent, resulting in new forms of economic specialization and cultural expression. We have recently shown that these general trends can be expressed as simple mathematical ‘laws’. For example, doubling the population of any city requires only about an 85% increase in infrastructure, whether that be total road surface, length of electrical cables, water pipes or number of petrol stations.
OK, so it seems that economies of scale do exist for at least one kind of social system, cities. Does this provide hope for those bankers? Apparently not. Check out West's Ted Talk on "The Surprising Math Cities and Corporations." He concludes several interesting things about scaling. First, the bigger the biological system, the more efficient it becomes. Second, following the above quote and the logic that follows from organisms, cities become more efficient (and creative and financially successful too) as they become larger. Third, that cities rarely die, but organizations almost always do (he claims always). Fourth, he shows that companies do scale -- in fact he talks about Wal-Mart, shows their economies of scale, and describes his dataset of 23,000 companies. But the twist is that as companies become larger and older they become weighted down with bureaucracy and -- unlike cities -- the resulting internal friction both outweighs the benefits of economies of scale and renders them unable to to pull-off the radical innovations required to stay alive.
Here is this conclusion in more detail, from an article in The New York Times:
This raises the obvious question: Why are corporations so fleeting? After buying data on more than 23,000 publicly traded companies, Bettencourt and West discovered that corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, was entirely sublinear. As the number of employees grows, the amount of profit per employee shrinks. West gets giddy when he shows me the linear regression charts. “Look at this bloody plot,” he says. “It’s ridiculous how well the points line up.” The graph reflects the bleak reality of corporate growth, in which efficiencies of scale are almost always outweighed by the burdens of bureaucracy. “When a company starts out, it’s all about the new idea,” West says. “And then, if the company gets lucky, the idea takes off. Everybody is happy and rich. But then management starts worrying about the bottom line, and so all these people are hired to keep track of the paper clips. This is the beginning of the end.”
The danger, West says, is that the inevitable decline in profit per employee makes large companies increasingly vulnerable to market volatility. Since the company now has to support an expensive staff — overhead costs increase with size — even a minor disturbance can lead to significant losses. As West puts it, “Companies are killed by their need to keep on getting bigger.”
There are still advantages to size despite these rather discouraging data: market power, legitimacy, the ability to do complex things that require multiple disciplines, and brand recognition come to mind. And there are studies by economists that show economies of scale help under some conditions. Some organizations are also better than others at limiting the burdens of bureaucracy as they grow-- Wal-Mart is one of them.
As a practical matter, when I think of Bettencourt and West's data and combine it with Ben Horowitz's amazing post on scaling, it appears his advice to "give ground grudgingly," to add as little structure and process as you can get away with given your organization's size and complexity, is even more sound than I originally thought.
As with many researchers, West has a healthy ego and states his findings with more certainty than is probably warranted. But these are -- unlike the bankers -- evidence-based statements, and when I combine them with what Huggy and I are learning about how hard scaling is to do well (there are big differences between companies that do it well versus badly), the lack of evidence for economies of scale in really big banks, and a system where the primary defenders of really big banks have strong incentives and weak evidence to support their positions, I am hoping that in a political season where my country seems hopelessly split on so many issues, perhaps this is one where both sides can come together and hold an evidence-based position.
I appreciate the interesting comments and suggestions in response to my last post on different levels of felt accountability. Readers may recall that I proposed -- from best to worst - that a team or organization can be characterized as having people who feel everything from authorship. mutual obligation, indifference, and mutual contempt. I have especially been thinking about this comment from Justdriven, which builds on a prior comments by AnnieL:
"Regarding your first question, I think AnneL may have identified a fifth category between mutual obligation and indifference which would be fear driven box checking. This would be the case where individuals follow procedures out of a fear of retribution rather than an endorsement of said procedures. This would seem to be what the pilot experienced. This stage would be a slippery slope that takes you from mutual obligation to indifference and then contempt."
I am taken with "fear driven box-checking" as it seems to be both a symptom and a cause, where people who feel powerless have no ability -- and thus no obligation -- to help make things go well because the system makes it impossible regardless of how good their intentions might be. This comment also got me thinking about how, in some systems, people can zoom past indifference and move to mutual contempt by following the rules exactly as a way to fight back against a bad system or boss -- especially when there are bad standing rules or orders for a given challenge. "Working to rule" is a classic labor slow down tactic, and there is some sweet revenge and irony when you get back at company or person that you don't like by following their instructions to the letter.
More broadly, I have been interested in the notion of "malicious compliance" for a long time. In Chapter 6 of Good Boss, Bad Boss I wrote about how it is sometimes used to get back at a bad or incompetent boss, or in the example below, by bosses to shield their people from a lousy boss up the chain of command:
I know bosses who employ the opposite strategy to undermine and drive out incompetent superiors. One called it “malicious compliance,” following idiotic orders from on high exactly to the letter, thereby assuring the work would suck. This is a risky strategy, of course, but I once had a detailed conversation with a manager at an electronics firm whose team built an ugly and cumbersome product prototype. After it was savaged by the CEO, the manager carefully explained (and documented) that his team had done exactly as the VP of Engineering ordered, and although he voiced early and adamant objections to the VP, he gave up because “it was like talking to a brick wall.” So this manager and his team decided ‘Let’s give him exactly what he wants, so we just said “yes sir” and followed his lousy orders precisely.’ The VP of engineering lost his job as a result. Again, this is a dangerous and destructive strategy, and I would advise any boss to only use it as a last resort.
I would be curious to hear of other examples of malicious compliance -- and if you have any ideas of how to create conditions so it won't happen. Its is one of this sick but fascinating elements of organizational life.
One of our most charming and well-read doctoral students (he is just finishing-up, in fact, I believe he is already a Ph.D), Issac Waisberg, just sent an old quote that is pretty funny. I apologize to my economist friends, but recent global events make this comment seem more true than ever:
In an essay about Walter Bagehot:
"I have been careful not to say that the pure economist is valueless but, if I may borrow one of his own conceptions, his marginal utility is low." F. S. Florence, The Economist, July 25, 1953, 252.
If you check-out the link, you will see Bagehot was the editor of The Economist a long stretch in the 19th century" "For 17 years Bagehot wrote the main article, improved and expanded the statistical and financial sections, and transformed the journal into one of the world’s foremost business and political publications. More than that, he humanized its political approach by emphasising social problems." It sounds like he was great editor, but I still love the snarky and well-crafted dig.
This blog and much of the rest of my life were swamped last week by the intense reactions to the story about how badly United Airlines treated Phoebe and her parents when she traveled as an unaccompanied minor. You can read the blog post with the original story (and the 90 comments that were not too hostile to print) and the family's statement if you missed it. Also, Diego at Metacool did an insightful post about why the story went so viral.
At some point, I should write a post with the twists and turns of the story: the surprising hostility, the lies and veiled threats from the media, the stories about United that are far worse than the one published here (warning: stranded older teenagers might be worse than stranded young kids in some ways as they fall into a weird no-mans-land), and the senior executive ( I won't name him, he can out himself) who is on United constantly because he has no choice for his job, despises what they have devolved to, and reports he is sending back the expensive gift he got a few days ago to thank him for the 2 million miles he has flown with United -- he is going to suggest that they use the money to give some passenger a little better (or at least less bad) service.
As I recover from all this madness, I continue to think about felt accountability, the concept that I used to frame the United story. Huggy Rao and I are rather obsessed with this notion as it is so central to scaling-up excellence -- and for de-scaling bad behavior of all kinds. United is, I believe, a place that has lost that feeling of mutual obligation to do the right thing, where management helps employees, employees help management, employees help each other, employees help customers, and where customers feel compelled to pitch and play a helpful role too.
I am thinking -- Huggy gets part of the blame here too -- that there might be four different levels or kinds of accountability that a group or organization might have, which go something like this:
This comes from my friend, early stage venture capitalist, and d.school teaching star Michael Dearing -- we heard it just yesterday from him. This is what you get get in a small start-up, from an inventor, and yes, from book authors like me. That feeling that not only am I obligated to do the right thing, but that I am the person responsible for designing and making it as great as I can. Steve Jobs had this in spades, of course, but you mostly see it in smaller organizations or pockets of bigger organizations. I think of Brad Bird at Pixar as another example, especially his amazing efforts on The Incredibles, how it was his vision, but how he still instilled the feeling in so much of team: Whatever little part they were working on, he made many members of the team feel as if they were authors -- if you want the feel of working with Brad, although DVD's are fading, check out the "behind the scenes" material on The Incredibles DVD. Amazing stuff.
David Novak, CEO of Yum! brands, argues that this should be the goal of a great leader, to create a place where it feels like you own it and it owns you. This is what United has lost, what I still feel at Virgin America, JetBlue, and Southwest most of the time. IDEO and McKinsey have the same feel, as do Procter & Gamble and GE. I saw it at the Cleveland Clinic when I was patient there. I also think of people who work for the Singapore government, who can be remarkable in this regard. These organizations aren't perfect, none can be, but there is palpable weight on people, they feel pressure to do the right thing even when no one is looking, as the old saying goes. And they pressure others to do so as well.
Think of the average hair salon, where each stylist rents a chair. Or a group dental practice, where dentists share a common receptionist and a few services and little else. Some organizations are designed this way and can be quite effective. The mutual dependence is weak, it is a "we don't do much for you, so you don't have to do much for us" situation. People don't have contempt for their colleagues or customers, it is just indifference. I was thinking that United had devolved to this state. But after the deluge last week, I realized it was worse than that. Hence, my proposed last category.
I first heard hints of this notion at an unnamed university I worked at briefly quite a few years ago. Right after I arrived, one of my new colleagues said something "this is the kind of place where, when you a full professor, you not only don't care about your colleagues, you feel good when something bad happens to them." I should hasten to add that this was probably an overstatement, that such contempt seemed to be largely between groups and departments, not so much within them -- and they have new leadership and things seem to be better.
BUT I also fear that this describes the modern United Airlines, everyone seems to despise everyone else. I hope I am wrong about this, but the awful stories rolled in from so many sources that it seems as if all the years of cost-cutting, all the battles with unions, all the management changes, all the stress that customers have endured over the years have conspired to bring the organization -- at least most it -- to this dark place. It appears that many United employees are keenly aware of this sad state of affairs and it hurts them deeply -- especially front line employees.
I was especially struck by a long comment from a guy who said he was a 25 year United pilot. If you want to read the whole thing, it takes awhile to get there from the original post as there are 90 comments, and you have to click about four pages back, it is by Greenpolymer, August 14th, at 9:24 pm. I think this link gets you to the right page if you scroll down toward the bottom.
This pilot tells a brief story earlier in the post that really got to me. It reflects terribly on United's management, and shows that people who act on feelings they are accountable to passengers are punished -- despite claims by senior executives to the contrary:
I had the gall to apologize to my 150 passengers for a shares delay of 45 minutes one day. I was asked to write a letter of apology TO MANAGEMENT for mentioning the problem. (I think the videos also say something about being truthful and taking responsibility)
This is the worst -- and most disturbing -- part:
I used to be the Captain who ran downstairs to make sure the jetway air conditioning was cold and properly hooked up. Who helped the mechanic with the cowling and held the flashlight for him. I used to write notes to MY guests, and thank them for their business. I wrote reports, hundreds of reports, on everything from bad coffee to more efficient taxi techniques.
No more. I have been told to do my job, and I do my job. My love for aviation has been ground into dust. After 15 years of being lied to, deceived, ignored, blamed falsely; and watching the same mistakes being made over and over again by a "professional management" that never seems to learn from the copious reports of our new "watchers", I give.
It's not an easy thing to do. I am an Eagle Scout, an entrepreneur, and a retired Air Force Officer with over 22 years of service. Those twelve points of the Scout law still mean something to me, especially the first three. I have been in great units and not so great units, and the difference ALWAYS came down to LEADERSHIP. Most (and I will be the first to admit not all) of the employees that you all have been talking about here are desperate. They would give anything to find a LEADER, with a VISION, and a sense of HONOR to lead this company.
Painful, isn't it? "I used to be... I used to be... I used to be." I think he is a victim of the years of contempt, which is something far more vile than indifference -- not just for United customers, but for people like him who want to care.
Once again, this post is just to explore some emerging ideas -- and to start stepping back from the United incident (although clearly I have not been completely successful at that). To return to the big picture:
1. Any comments on the my four categories? Do they ring true? Any advice?
2. Now the hard part. We will return to this one. How do you build an organization that starts and remains a place where felt accountability prevails? Tougher still, once it is lost -- as seems to be the case at United -- how do you get it back? Or is it impossible?
My last post was about how United Airlines lost Phoebe, my friend’s 10-year old daughter. All of us involved in this story – especially parents Annie and Perry, NBC’s Diane Dwyer (the only media person that interviewed Annie and Phoebe), and me – were stunned to see how viral it went. A Google search last night revealed it was reported in at least 160 outlets – including England, France, and Germany with the facts based only on the post written here, Annie and Perry’s complaint letter, and United’s tepid apology. This blog received over 200,000 hits in the last two days; 2000 is typical. Annie and Perry have resisted the intrusive onslaught of media people (most were polite, several incredibly rude) and elected to do a single interview with Diane Dwyer. It appeared locally in the San Francisco Bay Area as well is in a shorter (but I think still excellent) form this morning on The Today Show. Here is the link to The Today Show video and to Diane’s written story on the local NBC site.
I also want to reprint United's statement because it lacks even a hint of empathy or compassion. Note that it does not question any of the facts put forth by Annie and Perry and also note that no attempt was made to reach out to Annie and Perry until United was contacted by NBC reporter Diane Dwyer. As one executive I know explained -- he is in what they call Global Services, the top 1% of United customers -- even the statement is a symptom of how deep the denial is and how shallow the humanity is in the company:
“We reached out directly to the Klebahns to apologize and we are reviewing this matter. What the Klebahns describe is not the service we aim to deliver to our customers. We are redepositing the miles used to purchase the ticket back into Mr. Klebahn’s account in addition to refunding the unaccompanied minor charge. We certainly appreciate their business and would like the opportunity to provide them a better travel experience in the future.“
Charles Hobart/United Airlines Spokesman
Annie and Perry have written a statement below and as you can see, they aren’t going to be doing any additional media and their focus is on persuading United to change its policies and procedures for handling unaccompanied minors. They ask the media and anyone else out there to please respect their privacy from now onward.
As they request, I will also shift my efforts here and elsewhere to trying to understand how United reached the point where they are so broken, developing ideas about what can be done to save them from themselves, and to press United to break out of its current denial and start down the road to redemption.
Here is the statement from Annie and Perry, again, please respect their privacy.
On behalf of the Klebahn family we appreciate your interest in our story. We feel strongly that United's program for handling unaccompanied minors is deeply flawed and that they need to seriously overhaul this program and their entire approach to customer service.
Hundreds of thousands of families send their kids on United each year as unaccompanied minors. We sent our daughter away to summer camp, but many families are separated for a variety of reasons and sending their kids on planes alone is part of their required routine. United offers this service, and families like us trust and rely on them to provide safe, secure passage for children. The age of the children United takes into their care is 5-11 years old and not all of them carry cell phones, nor have the maturity to know what to do in an emergency. It's astounding how many flaws there are in United's program but at a bare minimum we think they need to change the following:
- United does not disclose that their unaccompanied minor service is outsourced to a third party vendor--this needs to change so parents can make an informed choice about who they are entrusting their children to when they travel alone
- If United is going to continue offering this service to families they need to offer a dedicated 24/7 phone line that is staffed with a live human being in the U.S. so that parents have an active and real resource to use during their travel experience
- United should also be required to alert parents immediately of travel delays and alternative plans for the minors in their care
It is still startling to us that after our unbelievable experience it took six weeks, and a press story by NBC, to have United even consider responding to our concerns and complaints. Our only goal in all of this is to have United acknowledge that their program is flawed, and to consider an immediate overhaul before another child gets lost or hurt. Getting our $99 back with a veiled apology means nothing given what we've been through.
As an organization United is broken. They have the worst customer rating of all airlines, they have the highest number of official complaints on the US Department of Transportation's website, and the largest number of negative comments on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. How can they not notice that they are doing it wrong?
At this point the important thing for us is that our daughter is safe. We can only hope that making our story public will in some way make an impact by adding another voice to the many out there asking United to change. If you would like to add your voice too, please join our petition to change United's Unaccompanied Minor Program by signing your name to the petition we started on Change.org.
We would like to thank Diane Dwyer at NBC and Dr. Robert Sutton for their help telling this story. There will be no further comments or interviews.
Annie and Perry Klebahn
My colleague Huggy Rao and I have been reading and writing about something called "felt accountability" in our scaling book. We are arguing that a key difference between good and bad organizations is that, in the good ones, most everyone feels obligated and presses everyone else to do what is in their customer's and organization's best interests. I feel it as a customer at my local Trader Joe's, on JetBlue and Virgin America, and In-N-Out Burger, to give a few diverse examples.
Unfortunately, one place I have not felt it for years -- and where it is has become even worse lately -- is United Airlines. I will forgo some recent incidents my family has been subjected to that reflect the depth at which indifference, powerlessness, and incompetence pervades the system. An experience that two of my friends -- Annie and Perry Klebahn -- had in late June and early July with their 10 year-old daughter Phoebe sums it all-up. I will just hit on some highlights here, but for full effect, please read the entire letter here to the CEO of United, as it has all the details.
Here is the headline: United was flying Phoebe as an unaccompanied minor on June 30th, from San Francisco to Chicago, with a transfer to Grand Rapids. No one showed-up in Chicago to help her transfer, so although her plane made it, she missed the connection. Most crucially, United employees consistently refused to take action to help assist or comfort Phoebe or to help her parents locate her despite their cries for help to numerous United employees.
A few key details.
1. After Phoebe landed in Chicago and no one from (the outsourced firm) that was supposed to take her to her next flight showed up. Numerous United employees declined to help her, even though she asked them over and over. I quote from the complaint letter:
The attendants where busy and could not help her she told us. She told them she had a flight to catch to camp and they told her to wait. She asked three times to use a phone to call us and they told her to wait. When she missed the flight she asked if someone had called camp to make sure they knew and they told her “yes—we will take care of it”. No one did. She was sad and scared and no one helped.
2. Annie and Perry only discovered that something was wrong a few hours later when the camp called to say that Phoebe was not on the expected plane in Grand Rapids. At the point, both Annie and Perry got on the phone. Annie got someone in India who wouldn't help beyond telling her:
'When I asked how she could have missed it given everything was 100% on time she said, “it does not matter” she is still in Chicago and “I am sure she is fine”. '
Annie was then put on hold for 40 minutes when she asked to speak to the supervisor.
3. Meanwhile, Perry was also calling. He is a "Premier" member in the United caste system so he got to speak to a person in the U.S. who worked in Chicago at the airport:
"When he asked why she could not say but put him on hold. When she came back she told him that in fact the unaccompanied minor service in Chicago simply “forgot to show up” to transfer her to the next flight. He was dumbfounded as neither of us had been told in writing or in person that United outsourced the unaccompanied minor services to a third party vendor."
4. Now comes the most disturbing part, the part that reveals how sick the system is. This United employee knew how upset the parents were and how badly United had screwed-up. Perry asked if the employee could go see if Phoebe was OK:
"When she came back she said should was going off her shift and could not help. My husband then asked her if she was a mother herself and she said “yes”—he then asked her if she was missing her child for 45 minutes what would she do? She kindly told him she understood and would do her best to help. 15 minutes later she found Phoebe in Chicago and found someone to let us talk to her and be sure she was okay."
This is the key moment in the story, note that in her role as a United employee, this woman would not help Perry and Annie. It was only when Perry asked her if she was a mother and how she would feel that she was able to shed her deeply ingrained United indifference -- the lack of felt accountability that pervades the system. Yes, there are design problems, there are operations problems, but the to me the core lesson is this is a system packed with people who don't feel responsible for doing the right thing. We can argue over who is to blame and how much -- management is at the top of the list in my book, but I won't let any of individual employees off the hook.
5. There are other bad parts to the story you can see in the letter. Of course, they lost Phoebe's luggage and in that part you can see all sorts of evidence of incompetence and misleading statements, again lack of accountability.
6. When Anne and Perry tried to file a complaint, note the system is so bad that they wouldn't let them write it themselves and the United employee refused their request to have it read back to be fact-checked, plus there are other twists worth repeating:
We asked to have them read it back to us to verify the facts, we also asked to read it ourselves and both requests were denied. We asked for them to focus on the fact that they “forgot” a 10-year old in the airport and never called camp or us to let us know. We also asked that they focus on the fact that we were not informed in any way that United uses a third party service for this. They said they would “do their best” to file the complaint per our situation. We asked if we would be credited the $99 unaccompanied minor fee (given she was clearly not accompanied). They said they weren’t sure.
We asked if the bags being lost for three days and camp having to make 5 trips to the airport vs. one was something we would be compensated for (given we pay camp $25 every time they go to the airport). They said that we would have to follow up with that separately with United baggage as a separate complaint. They also said that process was the same—United files what they hear from you but you do not get to file the complaint yourselves.
7. The story isn't over and the way it is currently unfolding makes United looks worse still in my eyes. United had continued to be completely unresponsive, so Annie and Perry got their story to a local NBC TV reporter, a smart one who does investigations named Diane Dwyer. Diane started making calls to United as she may do a story. Well, United doesn't care about Phoebe, they don't care about Annie and Perry, but they do care about getting an ugly story on TV. So some United executive called Annie and Perry at home yesterday to try to cool them out.
That story was what finally drove me to write this because, well, if bad PR is what it takes to get them to pretend to care, then it is a further reflection of how horrible they have become. I figured that regardless of whether Diane does the story or not, I wanted to make sure they got at least a little bad PR.
I know the airline industry is tough, I know there are employees at United who work their hearts out every day despite the horrible system they are in, and I also know how tough cultural change is when something is this broken. But perhaps United senior executives ought to at least take a look at what happens at JetBlue, Virgin America, and Southwest. They make mistakes too, it happens, but when they do, I nearly always feel empathy for my situation and that the people are trying to make the situation right.
You have probably have heard of Geoffrey Nunberg -- that brilliant and funny linguist on NPR. He has a brand new asshole book called Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First 60 years. I first heard about it a few weeks back when I was contacted by George Dobbins from the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He asked if I might moderate Nunberg's talk on August 15th, given we are now fellow asshole guys. I was honored to accept the invitation and I hope you can join us that evening -- you are in for a treat.
The book is a satisfying blend of great scholarship, wit, and splendid logic. It is a joy from start to finish, and the reviewers agree. I loved the first sentence of the Booklist review “Only an asshole would say this book is offensive. Sure, it uses the A-word a lot, but this is no cheap attempt to get laughs written by a B-list stand-up comic."
Nunberg starts with a magnificent first chapter called The Word, which talks about the battles between "Assholes and Anti-assholes." I love this sentence about the current state of public discourse in America "It sometimes seems as if every corner of our public discourse is riddled with people depicting one another as assholes and treating them accordingly, whether or not they actually use the word." As he states later in the chapter, he doesn't have a stance for or against the word (although the very existence of the book strikes me as support for it), the aim of the book is to "explore the role that the notion of the asshole has come to play in our lives."
He then follows-up with one delightful chapter after another, I especially loved "The Rise of Talking Dirty," "The Asshole in the Mirror," and "The Allure of Assholes." I get piles of books every year about bullies, jerks, toxic workplaces, and on and on. Although this isn't a workplace book, it is the best book I have ever read that is vaguely related to the topic.
I admired how deftly he treated "The Politics of Incivility" in the chapter on "The Assholism of Public Life." Nunberg makes a compelling argument that critics on the right and the left both use the tactic of claiming that an opponent is rude, nasty, or indecent -- that they are acting like assholes and ought to apologize immediately. Nunberg documents "the surge of patently phony indignation for all sides," be it calling out people for "conservative incivility" or "liberal hate." He captures much of this weird and destructive game with the little joke "Mind your manners, asshole."
I am barely scratching the surface, there is so much wisdom here, and it is all so fun. Read the book. Read and listen to this little piece that Nunberg did recently on NPR. This part is lovely:
Well, profanity makes hypocrites of us all. But without hypocrisy, how could profanity even exist? To learn what it means to swear, a child has to both hear the words said and be told that it's wrong to say them, ideally by the same people. After all, the basic point of swearing is to demonstrate that your emotions have gotten the better of you and trumped your inhibitions
We hope to see you at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on August 15th, it should be good fun.
I was intrigued to see the new study that shows companies perform better when they have women on their boards. Check out this story and video at CNBC. Here is the upshot: "Credit Suisse analyzed more than 2,500 companies and found that companies with more than one woman on the board have outperformed those with no women on the board by 26 percent since 2005."
This result becomes even more compelling when you pair it with a rigorous study done a couple years ago. It showed that groups that have a higher percentage of women have higher "collective intelligence" -- they perform better across an array of difficult tasks "that ranged from visual puzzles to negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex rule-based design assignments," as this summary from Science News reports. In that research, the explanation was pretty interesting, as the authors set out to study collective intelligence, not gender. As Science News reported:
Only when analyzing the data did the co-authors suspect that the number of women in a group had significant predictive power. "We didn't design this study to focus on the gender effect," Malone says. "That was a surprise to us." However, further analysis revealed that the effect seemed to be explained by the higher social sensitivity exhibited by females, on average. "So having group members with higher social sensitivity is better regardless of whether they are male or female,"
Yet, despite all this, there is still massive sexism out there, especially in the upper reaches of many corporations. Note this report from the Women's Forum: "While women comprise 51% of the population, they make up only 15.7% of Fortune 500 boards of directors, less than 10% of California tech company boards, and 9.1% of Silicon Valley boards."
Pathetic huh? And it is pretty good evidence that all those sexist boys who love going to board meetings and retreats unfettered by those pesky women are just hurting themselves -- and their shareholders -- in the end. But perhaps there is justice in the world, as this just may be a case where "times wounds all heels."
Indeed, I wonder when we will see the first shareholders' suit where a company that has no women on the board, and suffers financial setbacks, is sued. Their failure to do so could be construed as a violation of their fiduciary responsibility. I know this sounds silly, it does to me. But lawyers and shareholders have sued -- and won -- over far more absurd things, as this would at least be an evidence-based claim (albeit one that stretches the evidence a bit too far for my tastes).
Yesterday I was sort of watching the Olympics -- reading the New York Times on my iPhone and occasionally glancing-up at the TV. There was some swimming race I wasn't following on the screen, but I looked-up because of all the enthusiasm by the guy on the screen. I was sure he had won a gold medal. Actually he hadn't, he had won bronze. His name is Brendan Hansen and he won it in the 100 meter breaststroke -- that is him above. In looking into his story, there are lots of reasons for him to be excited,as he was the oldest athlete in the field at 31, he had retired after the Beijing Olympics and done a comeback, he is only the 13th swimmer to win a medal after the age of 30, and he was not favored to win a medal. So he certainly deserves to be happy for many reasons.
But his joy on the screen reminded me of a cool study I first heard of nearly 20 years ago that, I strongly suspect, still holds true. A team of researchers found that, while gold medalists are happiest about their accomplishments, bronze medalists in the same events are consistently happier than sliver medalists. This was first established in a 1995 study by Vicki Medvec, Scott Madey, and Tom GIlovich. They coded videotapes of Olympic athletes from the Barcelona Spain summer games just after they learned of their performance, such as swimmers like Brendan Hansen right after their race. Then they coded the emotions again when they were awarded the medals on the podium.
They found that gold medalists displayed the strongest positive emotions, but bronze winners displayed stronger positive emotions than silver winners. The researchers replicated these same 1-3-2 findings in two other events, including the Empire State Games, an amateur competition in New York.
The researchers proposed that this finding is driven by what is called "counterfactual thinking," those thoughts of what might have been if something different had happened. In particular, they proposed that silver medals did upward comparisons to the gold medal winner, while the bronze medalists did downward comparisons to people who didn't win medals. As one of the authors, Tom GIlovich, explained to the Washington Post, "If you win a silver, it is very difficult to not think, 'Boy, if I had just gone a little faster at the end . The bronze-medal winners -- some of them might think, 'I could have gotten gold if I had gone faster,' but it is easier to think, 'Boy, I might not have gotten a medal at all!' "
I guess, to put perhaps too fine a point on it, silver medalists see themselves as the first loser, while bronze medalists see themselves as the last winner.
Like all research, this won't hold in every case, other factors come into play, especially -- as you could see with Brendan Hansen -- that happiness is also a function of what you get versus what you expect, and exceeding expectations is a universal trigger of positive emotion. So, for example, if the U.S. basketball team, who are strong "overdogs" get a gold get a bronze instead, I bet they won't act as happy as Hansen after they learn of the result.
Enjoy, and as we watch the Olympics, let's see if those bronze medalists look a bit happier than the silver medalists standing along aside them, as Medvec and her colleagues found.
P.S. Here is the source:
I can't even recall quite when it happened, but several month back a Wired reporter named Ben Austen called me about a piece he was doing on Steve Jobs' legacy. I confess that kept the conversation short, in large part because I was just getting tired of the story -- and I think everyone else is as well. But this turned into the cover story, which -- despite my lack of enthusiasm about the topic -- is one of the most balanced and well-researched pieces I have seen. At least that became my biased opinion after I saw that he plugged my last two books in the final three paragraphs! Here is the whole piece if you want to read it and here is my argument -- you can read the whole excerpt about Jobs as a Rorschach test here, where I put it in earlier post. Here is how Ben Austen ended his piece:
As he was writing his 2007 book, The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton, a professor of management and engineering at Stanford, felt obligated to include a chapter on “the virtues of assholes,” as he puts it, in large part because of Jobs and his reputation even then as a highly effective bully. Sutton granted in this section that intimidation can be used strategically to gain power. But in most situations, the asshole simply does not get the best results. Psychological studies show that abusive bosses reduce productivity, stifle creativity, and cause high rates of absenteeism, company theft, and turnover—25 percent of bullied employees and 20 percent of those who witness the bullying will eventually quit because of it, according to one study.
When I asked Sutton about the divided response to Jobs’ character, he sent me an excerpt from the epilogue to the new paperback edition of his Good Boss, Bad Boss, written two months after Jobs’ death. In it he describes teaching an innovation seminar to a group of Chinese CEOs who seemed infatuated with Jobs. They began debating in high-volume Mandarin whether copying Jobs’ bad behavior would improve their ability to lead. After a half-hour break, Sutton returned to the classroom to find the CEOs still hollering at one another, many of them emphatic that Jobs succeeded because of—not in spite of—his cruel treatment of those around him.
Sutton now thinks that Jobs was too contradictory and contentious a man, too singular a figure, to offer many usable lessons. As the tale of those Chinese CEOs demonstrates, Jobs has become a Rorschach test, a screen onto which entrepreneurs and executives can project a justification of their own lives: choices they would have made anyway, difficult traits they already possess. “Everyone has their own private Steve Jobs,” Sutton says. “It usually tells you a lot about them—and little about Jobs.”
The point at which I really decided that the Jobs obsession was both silly and dangerous came about a month after his death. Huggy Rao and I were doing an interview on scaling-up excellence with a local CEO who founded a very successful company -- you would recognize the name of his company. After I stopped recording the interview, this guy -- who has a reputation as a caring, calm, and wickedly smart CEO -- asked Huggy Rao and me if we thought he had to be an asshole like Jobs in order for his company to achieve the next level of success.... he seemed genuinely worried that his inability to be nasty to people was career limiting.
Ugh. I felt rather ill and argued that it was important to be tough and do the dirty work when necessary, but treating people like dirt along way was not the path to success as a leader or a human-being. Perhaps this is my answer to the Steve Jobs Rorschach test: I believe that Jobs succeeded largely despite rather than because of the abuse he sometimes heaped on people. Of course, this probably tells you more about me than Jobs!
Huggy Rao and I have been reading and talking about charter schools for our scaling-up excellence project. Charter schools come in many forms, but the basic idea is that these often smaller and more focused schools are freed from many of the usual rules and constraints that other public schools face, and in exchange, are held more accountable for student achievement – on measures like standardized test scores, graduation rates, and the percentage of students who go onto college.
There is much controversy and debate about these public schools: Are they generally superior or inferior to other forms of public education? Are they cheaper or more expensive? Can the best ones be scaled-up without screwing-up the original excellence? Which charter school models are best and worst?
There is so much ideology and self-interest running through such debates that, despite some decent research, it is hard to answer such questions objectively. But one lesson is unfortunately becoming clear enough that there is growing agreement -- that my home state of California is so poor that it is a lousy place to start a Charter school of any kind. I first heard this a few weeks about from Anthony Bryk, a renowned educational researcher and the current President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He was also directly involved in starting and running one (or perhaps more -- I don't recall for sure) charter schools when he lived in Chicago.
Tony told me that California was providing such meager funding that -- although much of the charter school movement started here, there are many charter schools here, and many of the organizations that start and run these schools (called "charter management organizations") are here -- the funding that California schools receive is so meager that they are increasingly hesitant to start schools in California because the schools are condemned to mediocrity or worse.
I started digging into it, and what I am finding is distressing as both a Californian and an American. I knew that our schools were suffering, but I did not realize how much. For a glimpse, here is an interesting and detailed article on scaling-up charter schools in Education Week from last year. As Tony warned me, the charter operators described in this article are struggling to sustain quality in California and are looking elsewhere. Here is an interesting excerpt:
Aspire, in Oakland, has also focused so far only on California. It opened its first charter school in Stockton, Calif., in the 1999-2000 school year and has grown by several schools each year. The CMO operates 30 schools and has nearly doubled its enrollment, to 12,000, over the past three school years. James Willcox, the chief executive officer of Aspire, said the difficult budget climate in California is causing him and other Aspire leaders to think about opening schools outside the state. “It’s getting harder and harder to do quality schools in California,” he said, “because the funding is so painfully low, and charter schools get less per student than traditional public schools.”
He isn't exaggerating. I was shocked to see, for example, that (according to the article) the State of California is currently providing less than $6000 per pupil each year; in contrast, New York City provides $13,500. Ouch. I know that government wastes lots of money, and certainly there are inefficiencies in education. But can we afford to do this our kids and our future? As Tony suggested, California has degenerated to the point where all they can do is support a teacher for every 30 kids or so, a tired old classroom and school, and little else.
I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was this bad. There is plenty of blame to go around -- we all have our own pet targets -- but perhaps it is time to put our differences aside and do the right things.
Remember that speech from a Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson famously ranted at Tom Cruise "You can't handle the truth?" I was vaguely reminded of it when I saw this picture. It reminded me that, when it comes to creativity and innovation, if you want the innovations, money, and prestige it sometimes produces, you've get to be ready to handle the mess.
I love this picture because it is such a great demonstration that prototyping -- like so many other parts of creative process -- is so messy that it can be distressing to people with orderly minds. This picture comes from a presentation I heard at an executive program last week called Design Thinking Bootcamp.
It was by the amazing Claudia Kotchka, who did great things at VP of Design Innovation and Strategy at P&G -- see this video and article. She built a 300 person organization to spread innovation methods across the company. She retired from P&G a few years back and now helps all sorts of organizations (including the the Stanford d school) imagine and implement design thinking and related insights. As part of her presentation, she put up this picture from a project P&G did with IDEO (they did many). We always love having Claudia at the d.school because she spreads so much wisdom and confidence to people who are dealing with such messes.
That is what prototyping looks like... it even can look this messy when people are developing ideas about HR issues like training and leadership development and organizational strategy issues such as analyses of competitors.