Tag Archives: culture

Being Successful Doesn’t Make You Right

No, this isn’t some sort of epistemological exploration of what “right” really means, or whether such a thing can exist at all in a post-modern world. Quite the opposite: it is a blog entry on corporate culture and how that culture works, or doesn’t work, at successful companies, in this case Google and Microsoft.

Peter Sims wrote a piece about why he thinks Google is potentially past its prime, on the way to becoming the next Microsoft. I don’t know if he’s right about that; I suspect he is, but I hope not, since I have friends who work at Google. But in the course of his article, he talks about Google’s corporate culture and how it might be hindering current success:

“Product manager candidates, for example, are told they must have computer science degrees from top universities. But while Google’s core algorithm was a brilliant feat of engineering innovation, a growing chorus of voices question whether it can be sustained. That cookie-cutter approach to people misses important opportunities for diversity and creates glass ceilings for non-engineers, both of which stifle innovation. Cultural hubris, another pattern Jim Collins in particular raises, is of foremost concern. It is often said that at Google the engineers lead engineering, product, and even marketing decisions. But when the company has failed, such as with Google Wave or Google Radio , critics have questioned whether the company really understands people.”

Google has been incredibly successful, and folks at Google will say “our culture must be right; look how successful we’ve been.” But maybe Google wasn’t successful because of its engineering-led culture. They launched with a great search solution right at the time the market was ripe for contextual advertising. So maybe their success was due to luck. Or maybe the engineering culture was important early, but not now. After all, it’s not like Google has been spewing out successful new products (hello Orkut). In fact, Google still makes the vast majority of its revenue from the same search business it’s been running since launch.

In the same way, people at Microsoft used to say about their culture: “It must be right; look how successful we’ve been.” But Microsoft was successful mostly because it had a monopoly on operating systems, which it brilliantly leveraged into applications success. Perhaps it was successful despite its culture, not because of it. In fact, I would argue that Microsoft’s historic corporate culture of aggression was in fact counter-productive, leading directly to the antitrust actions that have hampered the company ever since.

The point is that companies, and the employees therein, should recognize that there may not be a causative relationship between the corporate culture and success, or if there was once such a causative relationship, it may have been severed as the strategic landscape changed. Companies would thus do well to avoid resting on their laurels and to instead constantly examine practices and cultures and see if they need revision based on current conditions.

Soccer Is Too Random for America

Like many Americans, I have been watching a lot of soccer during the World Cup. Also like many Americans, I won’t watch soccer again until the next World Cup in four years. Despite the popularity of youth soccer across the US, the game has just never really caught on as a spectator sport here.

A number of theories exists as to why soccer isn’t more popular in America — no timeouts for commercial breaks, not enough scoring, ridiculous faking of injuries, generally boring*, too European, etc. — all of which are probably true (I am drinking my own explanation Kool-Aid here). And there are, I’m sure, plenty of other good reasons, including my personal uber-theory of sports, which I will save for a later post, after I have trademarked its awesome parts.

But watching this World Cup I came up with a new idea. Relative to the big American sports, soccer is way more random; players don’t have as much control as they do in our sports. The players thus lack agency, which I use here in the philosophical sense: “human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.” Americans like sports with heroes, and heroes require agency. All the great American sports narratives are abut players who took control (Babe Ruth calling his homer, Michael Jordan in the clutch) of their game. Randomness gets in the way of this control.

When I say that soccer players are not in control, I don’t mean this as a criticism. The guys in the World Cup are the best at what they do. But using your feet to move a ball is simply less precise than using your hands, as you do in football, basketball and baseball. Shots and passes regularly go awry in soccer; this is the randomness of which I speak.

For example, in Sunday’s game between England and Germany, at around 59 minutes a German player was breaking away. Although English defenders were closing in fast, the German had an open shot at the goal. He took the shot from not far outside the penalty area (ie. from 54 feet…pretty close) and yet he missed the goal by three feet. Why? Because kicking is not hugely accurate. Compare that to an NFL quarterback, who, even with giant players rushing in to clobber him, will rarely miss a 19 yard pass by three feet. Why? Because throwing is accurate. Note: I am watching the Uruguay vs. Netherlands game as I post this, and the same thing just happened.

True soccer fans probably like this randomness. And over time, the randomness will be evened out: even if players only make a fraction of their shots, the better team will likely take more shots, and thus score more by the end of the game. But Americans are far more Newtonian. We want action, then result. We prefer a narrative of consistent forward progress, not random fits and starts. We want our action heroes not to follow the flow of Brownian motion but to seize the day and execute, whether they are Peyton Manning or John McLane.

* I tried to find the brilliant bit from the Simpsons where the ball just gets kicked back and forth for about two minutes, fully encapsulating the American view of soccer, but the internet failed me.

THIS JUST IN: Check out this set of Get Fuzzy comics for a classic take on the American view of soccer as boring.

Not Either/Or, But Both

If you spend any time reading about current affairs, whether you read newspapers, magazines or blogs, you tend to see that issues are discussed in dualistic terms. Most authors say the matter at hand is the result of either X or Y: two oppositional explanations.

For example, in this Atlantic article about obesity in America, the discussion tends to fall in one of two camps: either X) the obese are weak-willed, or Y) the obese are victims of the US system of cheap corn subsidies and for-profit food companies with their manipulative marketing and clever chemists.

Or in this NY Times article about why the military is awarding fewer Medals of Honor, the reasons given are: either X) the nature of current war doesn’t create as much of the close-in combat that tends to lead to Medals of Honor, or Y) the military system that awards medals has become so risk averse and bureaucratic that someone in the chain rejects even worthy Medal of Honor recommendations.

I understand why authors do this; it’s easier to bundle complex systems into single narratives, and creating oppositional tension makes an article more interesting. But rarely in real life are there two mutually exclusive and oppositional reasons for something. It’s not either/or; it’s both.

Life is complicated, and in virtually all situations there are multitudinous reasons for any phenomenon. Take obesity: of course some people simply won’t restrain their appetites. But it’s equally obvious that the nexus of policies and food companies greatly increases the likelihood of people eating fattening food. X and Y. And there are plenty of other likely causes too.

This shouldn’t be a great revelation to anyone – “oh, you mean there usually isn’t one simple cause for everything?” – yet journalists and pundits continue to employ the binary analysis. Does this matter? I think it does, because popular dialogue ends up framing the debate. If all people ever hear about is either/or, then they will look for a single solution, which will inevitably be insufficient. If the public instead hears about both, then they will look for more complex solutions that can address the multiple causes, and which will be far more likely to succeed.

For example, take the ballooning federal deficit, please. Pundits and politicians would like you to believe that the cause is either too much government spending or tax rates that are too low. If the public buys into that dichotomy, then the public will assume that simply cutting spending or raising taxes will solve the problem. But it won’t. The problem involves both federal spending and insufficient taxes, and it will only be solved by addressing both causes.

Discussion matters because it ends up circumscribing actual policy. So let’s make sure our discussions are accurate, even if complicated, because life is complicated.

On Sacrifice: Eliot Spitzer, Moral Leader?

Disgraced New York governor Eliot Spitzer has a great article in Slate about how Americans have lost their commitment to shared sacrifice, referencing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the exhortation to all Americans to work hard so that the soldiers of the Civil War “shall not have died in vain.” I know it’s ironic to be lectured on sacrifice by someone who couldn’t even sacrifice his own orgasm for the good of his family and his state, but he makes some excellent points.

Spitzer talks mostly about taxes and energy, discussing for example how reading the Gettysburg Address makes  investment bankers arguing for millions in additional compensation seem petty. But I would go further than Spitzer; the need for all of us to sacrifice to solve some pretty big problems could be extended from investment bankers to union members. Shared sacrifice should apply to those who sue for millions when they trip in the grocery store, those who are always looking for a government handout, those who hate sharing. During World War II women stopped wearing stockings because the silk was needed for the war effort. My guess is that we all have a metaphoric stocking we can give up for the good of the country.

LSD and Human Frailty

I went to a book reading the other night by Don Lattin, author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club, a new bestseller about the period in the early 1960’s when Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, professors at Harvard, were conducting free-wheeling experiments using LSD and other psychedelic drugs. It sounds like a great book, and well worth reading.

The book discusses the broad theme of how psychedelic use ushered in the 60’s as we know them, but I want to focus on two of the personality issues that Lattin brought up last night. It turns out that one of the Harvard undergrads who tried to get involved in the experiments was Andrew Weil, who would later become Dr. Andrew Weil, bearded king of holistic medicine. Weil was rebuffed, since Leary and Alpert had promised not to use undergrads in their experiments. He did not take this rebuffery well, and used his position as a reporter for the Harvard Crimson to dig up dirt on Leary and Alpert, lying, cheating and betraying his best friend in the process. So to clarify: Dr. Andrew Weil, who has made millions on “balanced living,” got his start by sliming other people.

After being fired from Harvard, thanks to Weil’s sneaky maneuvers, Richard Alpert traveled to India, found a guru, and came back to the US as Baba Ram Dass, becoming a well-known spiritual teacher who wrote the bestseller Remember, Be Here Now. Since then, Alpert has dedicated himself to living, and helping others live, a spiritual, be in the moment kind of life. Despite that, Lattin described how when he was spending time with Alpert while working on the book, Alpert still got angry at the thought of Andrew Weil, even 40-plus years later. This is not exactly the behavior one expects of a spiritual guru.

My point is not to criticize Weil and Alpert. My point is to note that even the most centered among us is still human, and thus fallible. Actually, Weil may not be centered – he may be an ambitious, money-grubbing jerk – but that is beside the point. Whether centered or not, spiritual or not, LSD-gobbling or not, we are all human, all too human, and with our humanity comes frailty. We would do well to remember that as we observe the behavior of those around us.

Who Rents What Movies?

Check out this totally cool map that shows the top 10 Netflix rentals by zip code for 12 metropolitan areas.

Piling on Malcolm Gladwell

It turns out that I am not the only person who thinks that Malcolm Gladwell is overrated and often wrong. Here are three more articles taking him to task:

  1. The Nation
  2. NY Times book review
  3. A blog about finance and statistics

I’ll let you all follow the links and read the articles, but I am feeling good about no longer being alone on the anti-Gladwell plank.

Gay Marriage: Should Tactics Change?

If I am going to blog about anything as controversial as gay marriage, I should state at the outset that I fully support the right of gays to marry. Two people in love should be able to marry. Period. The claim that gay marriage will weaken traditional marriage is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Here in California, I have voted for gay marriage every time it has been on the ballot (which may only be one time…I can’t really remember) and will continue to do so.

Yet while I completely share the goals of the gay marriage movement, I am going to recommend a change in tactics: stop pushing on marriage, at least for a while, and focus on strengthening civil unions. I say this in the wake of Maine – flinty, individualist Maine, state motto: “I lead” – voting against gay marriage. As we have seen in state vote after state vote (including super liberal California), the populace of this country is simply not ready to support gay marriage. Gay marriage laws have been put to the vote in 31 states and have lost every time. As the graph below shows, this is changing, and over time will continue to change, but for now, gay marriage is a losing vote.

Gay marriage attitudes over time

Gay marriage attitudes over time

While some might argue for continuing to push ballot initiatives until they win, I posit that strategy is counter-productive, because it riles up the opposition. As the NY Times reported, Maine’s vote attracted all kinds of outside money and support, including from the National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic Church. Civil unions, on the other hand, do not attract that kind of organized opposition. Marriage itself is the bright line that conservatives clearly intend to hold. The more we push gay marriage initiatives, the longer it will be until they pass, because we will continue to inspire the opposition.

Civil unions are clearly not as good as marriages. They don’t address federal laws like taxation and social security. But they do, or can, address many important issues: health care decisions, wills, community property, adoption, etc. And they can be made stronger because, as noted above, they attract less conservative opposition. So my argument is to spend the next few years focused on passing and strengthening civil unions, state by state, and wait for the citizenry of the country to catch up. As the graph below shows, they ARE catching up. As older people die and kids (who are used to seeing things like Eric come out of the closet on Gossip Girl) become eligible to vote, the tide will turn and gay marriage initiatives will be able to pass.

Attitudes toward gay marriage by age

Attitudes toward gay marriage by age

I recognize that this is all easy for me to say as a straight man. I don’t have to settle for the inferior civil union, nor do I have to live every day feeling like my society is not treating me fairly. While I can imagine that feeling, I can never completely understand it, since I can’t live it. I readily concede that saying that we should delay fairness is awful. So when gays say that they have to fight for their civil rights now, I get it, and I don’t mean this post to argue against it. This post is purely about tactics, and about what I think is the quickest way to achieve the gay marriage goal.

Malcolm Gladwell is Often Wrong

I’m a little late in getting to this, but a semi-recent suite of letters to the editor regarding Malcom Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on basketball’s full court press provided me with a reason to write something I’ve been stewing over for years: Malcom Gladwell is massively overrated. I have been disagreeing with him for years, since before he published The Tipping Point, back when he was just a New Yorker staff writer.

The letters about the full court press, which sadly are not on the New Yorker website, generally press [heh heh] on the theme that Gladwell’s conclusion was superficial if not downright specious. This makes sense to me, since when I read his article, it clearly seemed to be wrong. And that has been my problem with Gladwell all along: too often I feel like his conclusion doesn’t make sense.

I should state here that I don’t want to fully attack Gladwell. Sometimes his conclusions are correct. And in all cases I think he is a truly talented writer with an amazing skill at explaining complex ideas in clear and concise language. He just sometimes leaps to unwarranted conclusions.

Here is how the typical Gladwell article works: he presents a few facts, which he then links into some sort of “surprising” conclusion (e.g. underdogs should always press or a few well-connected hipsters started the Hush Puppies trend) and then does a series of riffs on the implications of this conclusion. But his conclusion is based on some analysis he has done of those first few facts. My problem is that he never gives you the details of this analysis or how he did it. That means that you can’t tell if he’s right or not. He might have misread the data, or skewed it to fit his thesis, or just screwed the analytical pooch. You have to trust his analysis, and if you don’t, his whole article is meaningless.

The real problem here is that Gladwell’s analyses are sometimes wrong. As the letters indicate, his view of the press is flawed. Of course any new strategy can prove effective for a while, but fundamentally all a press does is move the locus of competition from the basket to the backcourt. Once teams get used the press, the good teams will break it the same way they can outscore the bad teams once under the basket. In addition, as the letters pointed out, it is often the favorite that presses, leveraging its physical advantage.

Similarly, Gladwell’s first — and still most famous — analysis, in The Tipping Point, is equally problematic. Recent research in trends has shown that that randomness and social dynamics provide a full explanation for why some trends explode and some don’t. Gladwell’s whole structure of Mavens and Connectors is irrelevant. Check out Duncan Watts’ work on music popularity to see how wrong Gladwell really was. See links here, here, here, here and here.

Here is Watts from the NY Times magazine: “This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors.”

As statisticians always say, just because the data looks like a trend doesn’t mean the trend exists. Gladwell’s problem is that he likes to make a thesis out of a few data points, without doing the work to truly understand whether his thesis actually has causative properties.

Or, as MIT professor Ezra Zuckerman put it in a letter to the New Yorker regarding Gladwell’s piece on the Wall Street meltdown, “This is an interpretive leap drawn from two facts….But Gladwell’s logic is faulty.”

I want to emphasize again, however, that I am not fully anti-Gladwell. His writing is great, even if his analysis is sometimes flawed. And his review of Free, the idiotic book by Chris Anderson, is right on the money. So to speak.

Greed: It’s Not Just For Wall Street

After my last post, full of invective against greed by Wall Street bankers and corporate chiefs, it’s only fair that I mention that we are all guilty of some greed. When President Obama said in his inaugural address that the current financial crisis is a result of “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age,” he wasn’t just talking about Wall Street. “Collective” means all of us, and we all share some blame. Or if not actually “all,” at least most of us.

Most of us were on a consumption binge of one sort or another. Some were buying things they didn’t need, others were buying things they couldn’t afford. The most obvious, and painful, example, is in the housing market. Folks bought more house than they could afford, and often more than they needed, seduced by low teaser rates, or by the chance to get a big win by selling it later. Others bought houses purely as investments, planning to flip them, only to be squeezed by rising mortgage payments and falling housing prices. Some refinanced with foolish mortgages, so they could “take money out of the house” and use the tax-subsidized proceeds to buy consumer products.

But it wasn’t just houses. We bought giant flat screen TVs, charging them to our credit cards. We drove around in monstrous Ford Excursions (financed by the geniuses on Wall Street), burning a gallon of gas every 15 miles. We drank bottled water instead of tap, we carried Coach purses, we stayed at 4 Seasons hotels when our income was purely Hamptons Inn.

While the Wall Street big shots may have taken huge bonuses with our tax dollars, they weren’t the only ones looking for the big score. We all wanted some goodies, whatever our income level. Those days are over. The goodies are nice, if they haven’t been repossessed, but we can’t afford them anymore. We couldn’t afford them then, which is the whole point. The days of living beyond our means are over. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be in yurts, heated only by burning cow manure. It just means that maybe we don’t need to have the biggest and newest, all the time.