Thursday, November 30, 2017

Delete All Meetings!

You don't need me to tell you that scheduled meetings are over the top. A friend of mine at a high tech firm here in the Valley noted that this week his entire schedule - all day every day - was nothing but meetings. We're no better here in academia. We run life through committees, which of course meet. We even have a committee called "The Committee on Committees."

Of course we understand the theory. Some say it goes back to Ben Franklin, who famously advocated planning as a way to become more virtuous. You're thinking "I must be a saint." But note, in this sample of Franklin's idea of a well planned day, that there is not a single meeting! Well, perhaps some of his 8 hours of "work" included meetings. But odds are, those meetings would have happened on an as-needed basis. They were not formally locked into his schedule - and certainly not put there by others regardless of the reason (or lack of reason) as is common for us all today.

Meetings are a great example of what sociologist Max Weber called "procedural rationality" - as opposed to substantive rationality. Meetings symbolize that work is being done in a rational way, regardless of whether they actually contribute to getting things done. "I did not see you at the meeting." "Did you know about the meeting?" "We should work on this. Let's schedule a meeting." "I'm heading up a new committee. We'll be meeting." And then there are all the regularly scheduled meetings set on "repeat" within everyone's calendars.

What is missing from formal meetings is the question "why?" Under norms for procedural rationality, we assume that meetings make sense. But think of how often you meet without actually knowing why! We set a meeting, and then we figure out what should be on the agenda. In this way, meetings are a perfect example of a solution looking for a problem.

On the other hand, there is a type of meeting that is really very useful - the informal chat. I remember an eye-opening conversation with the great anthropologist Bill Durham. We talked spontaneously about "co-evolution" and I came up with an idea that would lead to a series of papers and a book. You probably have similar experiences; the informal, possibly random interaction that turned out to be golden.

Informal conversations are useful because unless they have value you don't have them. We cut small talk short precisely because it is not useful. Informal talks continue only when they matter.

Knowing this, Steve Jobs' vision for the new Apple campus is of a great big circle. His idea was to increase the chances of random, informal interactions in the center. No doubt Steve still remembered the informal "random access" period at the Homebrew Computer Club back in the 1970s, where he and Wozniak showed off their first Apple computers.

The lesson? Delete all meetings from your calendar. Schedule time to actually work. And meet with others informally just as long as is useful.


An interesting study of the value of informal connections is by Sharique Hasan.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Winning as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

They left without the photographer.

The bride was being consoled by her best friend, who was hoping to keep the makeup from liquefying. The yacht was perfect, of course, and most of the bridesmaids were there as planned. How dreamy – except now no pictures. Well, the bride would make sure that the photographer never got another high-profile job. And, to think, all the best families had raved about what a genius he is.

Two hours later, as they lay on the yacht’s sun deck in the warm tropical air, they heard the roar of twin diesels. Looking up, there in the bow-sprit chair of a racing marlin boat was the photographer, Paul Barnett, snapping photos from a long telescopic lens. James Bond with a camera.

But of course! You don’t photograph the wedding party on the yacht itself; too close quarters. You shoot from a separate boat! What a genius.

Let me tell you, the story from my brother Paul’s perspective sounds a lot different: A desperate realization that you were told the wrong time; a frantic cab ride to the marina, only to see the yacht heading to sea; a search for a fast boat; a payoff to a nefarious bad guy; the last-second idea to shoot from the bowsprit chair strapped in like a marlin fisherman.  And then, of course, the usual self-assured act later on, as if to say “all part of the plan.”

Some people have a way of making things go right, no matter how badly they seem to be going wrong. Why do winners seem to just keep winning?

Social scientists tell us that winners keep winning for several reasons. First off, maybe they are just better. But quality aside, we know that those with a reputation for past success tend to get disproportionate credit for future wins – the so-called “Matthew effect” described by the sociologist Robert K. Merton. And of course the winners from the past tend to be in the right place to make things happen in the future, and have the connections and resources to make good on those opportunities. 

But there may be another reason that winners keep winning – a reason that is particularly useful to understand business leadership: The self-fulfilling prophecy. Some people tend to be unrealistically optimistic, a view that sometimes makes itself come true.

The downside of unrealistic optimism is that you are out of touch, but the upside is that your outlook might trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy. Steve Jobs was said to have been surrounded by a “reality distortion field,” in that he would believe in possibilities even when others saw them as unthinkable. Of course, once Steve believed, then others would too – making his vision more likely to come true.

So-called “positive illusions” of this sort have been talked about by social psychologists for years in terms of mental health outcomes (see the work by Shelley Taylor and her colleagues). A related idea is the "growth mindset" featured in Carol Dweck's influential work, where our belief that we can develop ourselves leads to greater effort and better outcomes. In sum, when we believe that positive outcomes are possible, we behave in ways that increase the chances of those outcomes.

Paul Barnett could not accept that he would fail. So in a situation where others would throw up their hands and admit defeat, he kept scrambling. Not letting the facts get in the way, the unrealistic optimist expends effort as if victory was within reach – which of course makes that victory more likely. And with every victory, the optimist’s unrealistic view gets confirmed yet again.

The lesson for leadership is clear. Of course we know that a well-informed decision is one that sees reality for what it is. But leadership is so much more than correct calculation. Especially in uncertain times, what the leader believes to be true may end up so through the self-fulfilling prophecy.


For some of the academic work in this area, try this summary of Professor Dweck's work on the growth mindset.