Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Elite's Curse

What university has the best geography department in the world?

If you answered "Harvard," you are not alone. Consistently, Harvard ranks well when people are asked this question. Search up the Guardian's poll on University rankings, and Harvard's Geography Department ranks right up there just below Oxford's and Berkeley's and right above Cambridge's.

But Harvard does not have a geography department.

In fact, the field of geography is still reeling from Harvard's decision, decades ago, to disband its geography department, since it led to similar abandonments at Yale and elsewhere. To find classes in geography at Harvard today, you have to find courses that sneak into the curriculum masquerading as Earth Sciences, Environmental Studies, Anthropology, and the like.

The success of Harvard's nonexistent geography department is the elite's curse. With enough social status, you are likely to be called the best - even at things you don't do!

Elites through time have always had to worry about this curse. After all, it is hard to know how well you are really doing when everything you do is above scrutiny. Like the emperor in Andersen's often told tale, the elite may be parading naked.

You are probably amused at a Stanford professor making fun of Harvard as elitist. Let me admit: I've benefited greatly from my own University's reputation, so much so that I too suffer from this curse. People routinely assume I know what I am talking about. But in the dark of the night I know I am often quoted not for the merit of my argument, but because of the logo on my letterhead.

In this way, the elite's curse harms the very elites that it insulates. If we are not careful, we can come to believe the myth to the point where we are parading naked.

Case in point: Five days ago here on the Stanford campus, the rapper Common spoke at an event that was "open to the public." But when it was time for questions from the audience, the Stanford staff reserved the scarce questioning time for Stanford students, effectively silencing those not from Stanford.  When asked why, the staff person explained, "we find that Stanford students ask better questions than outsiders."

So let me get this straight. If, next week, Common decides to come to an event here at Stanford, he will not be allowed to ask any questions?

Common would object if he knew what came down that night. The man who has spoken the poetry in "Respect for Life" would have wanted all to participate. Maybe he'd rap about it later. We failed; the elite's curse striking again. We open our campus to the public to increase the diversity and richness of the dialogue, and then silence anyone not in the club.

The lesson: Favor merit over privilege, and speak truth to the emperor.


For more on merit vs. privilege, see my article on "The Senator's Son Problem."

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Price of Genius

You have to admire Singapore. The world's most efficient city-state has planned itself into modernity. Whenever I'm stuck in a confusing airport, I wish they would outsource their operations to Singapore. But Singapore has also shown us the limits of planning. In the 1990s, I was in the mall attached to Singapore's Westin hotel when I saw a clean-looking street musician playing a Peter, Paul, and Mary song about "Puff the Magic Dragon." That night I saw a similar musician strumming away on another milktoast tune in the lobby of the Singapore Shangri-La hotel. No way this happened by chance. Sure enough, a colleague later explained to me that the musicians were part of a government campaign to increase creativity.

You just smirked at the idea of planned spontaneity. But having spent a lot of time in Berkeley, I can understand Singapore's dilemma. On average, street musicians sound bad, smell bad, and generally are worth avoiding. So I can see why Singapore would want to manage their street musicians; let's have some of this spontaneous creativity, but without the riff-raff.

Here is the problem: Creativity is not about eliminating error. Creativity's payoff is the occasional burst of genius - and you don't get that by eliminating error. To the contrary, once you start telling the musicians how to look, sound, and act, you'll never get the next Bob Dylan. Systems that sometimes give us the rare genius also give us a lot of foolishness along the way.

Creative systems should be judged, but not by their "average output." Instead, you should judge creative systems by their variance - their ability to produce extreme outcomes whether good or bad. As Professor James March explains, high-variance systems are the most creative. They produce lots of foolishness and, every now and then, a moment of brilliance. If you plan away the foolishness you might improve the "average" result. But planning away foolishness will also reduce variance - which means you eliminate any chance of genius. 

In short, foolishness is the price of genius.

You probably accept this idea when it comes to artistic creativity. But what about in business? Well-meaning business leaders plan away variance all the time. Sometimes that makes sense, of course. I don't want a lot of creative experimentation when we're operating an airport. But when leaders want innovation, they typically put systems in place that reduce variance and raise the average. They ask for "intelligent" innovation, for creativity without foolishness. Don't look to leaders like this for the next breakthrough innovation. They are unwilling to pay the price of genius.