Saturday, October 31, 2015

When You Can't Tell the Loners from the Posers

I still remember when Steve Jobs was featured in business school case studies as an example of bad leadership style. At the time, Apple was a less-than-successful computer company, and Steve – ever the loner - had moved on to create another less-than-successful one (Next). When things go poorly for a nonconformist, how easy it is to call them the fool. But on those rare occasions when the loner gets it right, he does so in a big way. As Andy Rachleff likes to say, nothing pays off so well as a nonconsensus strategy that wins.

But where do we find these nonconsensus entrepreneurs? Many people come to the Silicon Valley in search of them. But here’s the problem: The way to conform in the Silicon Valley is to act like an entrepreneur. Often I have been told by spectacularly intelligent Stanford students, sheepishly, that they have accepted a well-paying job at a big established company. That such great news is delivered with embarrassment says something about the culture of the Silicon Valley: The way to conform is by acting the entrepreneur. So here is the rub. In places where entrepreneurship is all the rage, you can’t tell the loners from the posers.

So to find a nonconsensus entrepreneur, we should look to places where entrepreneurship is unpopular. Naturally that brings to mind Tokyo. Your company’s status matters a lot in most countries, but this is especially so in Japan. So it was shocking when the “Purinto Kurabu” – Print Club in English – appeared all over Tokyo back in the 1990s:

Japanese teens lined up for blocks to get into one of these booths for a picture with their friends, which would then come out on a sticker. Ultimately, this little device proliferated worldwide, and made a lot of money along the way. But unlike most Japanese innovations, it did not come from a big established firm. Instead, it came from a start-up company, “Atlus,” formed when Naoya Harano struck out on his own. His little company was creating some of the earliest fantasy-based video games, such as “Megami Tensei” (“Transformation of the Goddess” in English) - and had a cult following in Japan. But these games did not pay the bills. Harano, desperate and intelligent (a great combination), made money any way he could – distributing billiard tables to gaming rooms, setting up karaoke machines in empty container vehicles around Tokyo, and the like. The consummate loner, Harano would likely have stayed off our radar screen, except that one day his unpredictable behavior led to a fantastically successful product. In fact, the idea for the product itself came from a female secretary at his small company. At one of the huge, established Japanese conglomerates, a new idea from a low-status female worker would have no chance. But in the hands of a nonconsensus entrepreneur, the idea saw the light of day.

More generally, it turns out that at times or in places where entrepreneurship is least likely, those few entrepreneurs who do appear may win big. So to find the nonconsensus entrepreneurs, look to where entrepreneurship is least likely. Examples abound once you look for them. In the UAE, you might be surprised to see twofour54, an entrepreneurial media hub in Abu Dhabi run by Ms. Noura Al Kaabi. Coming out of Peru, you’ll see Kola Real, formed during a coup d’├ętat in 1988 – not exactly an ideal environment for business incubation. Or, in Kamchatka, you’ll see ecotourism ventures by Wild Salmon River Expeditions – initiated by an alliance between a former American military officer and his Russian associates. Name your own unusual circumstance. Where entrepreneurship is least expected, only the authentic entrepreneurs show up.


For academic research on this idea, check out my paper with Professor Elizabeth Pontikes on the nonconsensus entrepreneur.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Oblivious Leadership

The old priest prepared his sermon all week for family mass. He would target the children, draw out of them some gems and that way make his point to the adults. The message would be thankfulness, since Christmas was approaching and the Advent gospel was on appreciating God’s gifts.

Sunday. The sermon started as planned: Up came the children, sitting around the old priest in the timeless pose of prophet and disciples. The priest was direct, “What are you thankful for?”

Without hesitation, a blonde boy in the back of the group shot up a hand. The priest encouraged: “Yes, young man; what are you thankful for?”

“Life!” came the reply.

The old priest’s delight could hardly be contained, as he looked up and proclaimed to the adults, “People, did you hear that!? The boy is thankful for life!”

Seeing the misunderstanding, the boy piped up “Life is a game!” for he had been given the board game “Life” as a gift, and for that he was thankful.

The face of the old priest transformed into shock. He beseeched: “No, child, life is NOT a game!”

The perplexed child could not decode the sudden turn in the priest. Dismayed, he responded matter-of-factly, “Life is a game.”  

Tell-tale gasps and barely-suppressed laughs from the congregation spoke not of humor but of surprise, yet to the old priest the tittering sounds told a cynical story. He scanned the adults, now doubly shocked by their complicity in the child’s warped view. Down went all heads, striking a praying pose, but the shaking shoulders suggested otherwise.

Derailed, the sermon meandered through the priest’s messages on thankfulness, gratefully without any more audience participation. Calm returned. All sat in silence, sharing the quiet shame of having played a part in the derailment – made worse by the fact that only the old priest himself was oblivious.

Lest I be throwing the first stone, I admit that the story of the old priest is my story too, and yours. All of us suffer at times from not understanding the other’s understanding. Research shows that humans have a lot of trouble bridging this gap in understanding: We naturally tend to assume that others see what we see the way we see it. So if you think that this is not a problem for you, your self-assurance, itself, is a symptom of the problem.

The problem of understanding the other’s understanding is even worse for leaders. Our life experiences shape our points of view. For most leaders, their life experiences are very different from those they lead. So it is that leaders and followers rarely see things from the same vantage point. Yet leaders are expected to persuade their followers – despite the fact that they do not understand their followers' understanding.

No wonder that a vast industry tries to help leaders communicate. These efforts have mixed results, since communication failures often are just a symptom of the deeper understanding problem. It won’t help if I improve my communication techniques, but remain clueless about how my followers see things. This fact explains many a notorious gaff: The politician who knows not the price of bread; the executive flying a private jet to ask for government support; the CEO’s video explanation of layoffs, filmed in his paneled office. Such miscues result from not understanding the other's understanding.

So what should you do to bridge the understanding gap? Step one is to get beyond the suggestion to "be empathetic" that one often reads about. Remember, the problem is that you don't have a clue. You cannot empathize with someone whose life is a complete mystery to you. Some say you can bridge the gap by "walking around" at work - except that everybody knows you're the boss.

If you are serious about bridging the understanding gap, you could take a page from the tradition of academic ethnographers: Put yourself (literally) in the other’s shoes. What is it really like to be them? Try actually working in your organization – obey their rules, try to get along with others who don't know you're a boss, and work within the guidelines and systems that you have set for your people. This approach will not be easy, but you may end up coming to the most important understanding: that life is not a game.


Many academic literatures address this issue in different ways. One of my favorite approaches is the work of Professor Thomas Gilovich. Examples of using ethnography in the workplace can be found in the work of Professor John Van Maanen