Capitalism, unions, equality, the fallacy of the average and mediocrity

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A short caveat: while this post is not totally unrelated to my regular line of writing, it does somewhat detaches from my usual subject matter and is focused more on personal doubts, questions and thoughts and less on practical implications.

 

I see myself a capitalist. I believe in its basic premises. And while my views have become less extreme in the last few years and I do think there is a need to rethink and change some of the basic practical behaviors we derive from the concept, it is still a part of how I define my world views.

Within this framework I have always wondered about the idea of work unions. On a very shallow level it seems incompatible with the some of the ideas I used to think capitalism represented, so in my younger years I immediately thought of unions as something wrong. However, over the years I understood the importance of mechanisms that will put some balance into the capitalist system so it will not undo itself. Having said that, maybe because of my biased viewpoint, wherever I looked I saw unions resisting change and progress, upholding stupid rules (see this Gates talk on TED for some examples) and keeping the interests of the top quartile of employees instead of those who actually need protection. This has always bothered me.

Lately, because of current political and economic issues in Israel, I have been thinking about this issue quite a bit. This week, while listening to a freakeconomics podcast about the negotiations between the NFL league and the players union (negotiations, many of the players themselves are not privy to) I came to a realization that what troubles me about unions is something that has been troubling me about other fields as well. The misuse of the idea of equality. I have written before (see also here):

Equality is an important concept in many aspects of life, especially in the legal field, I know so well, as a former lawyer. But in real life, because equality is intertwined into our thinking DNA it is used in ways that many times hinders excellence. All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two.

In western societies, equality is part of the ethos. People fought for the right of equality for ages and it is so commonplace and understood (even if not completely practiced) we regard it as a given right. The quotation “All men are created equal” is arguably the best-known phrase in any of America’s political documents. And if all men are created equal, they should be treated as equal in the workplace as well. And they think as themselves as equal. And this creates problems. Because we are not equal. We are unique. Special. With different talents, skills, perspectives, life experiences, likes and dislikes. And that means that treating us as if we are the same is wrong.

In the case of unions, the idea of equality means that unions can act like all workers are equal. If they are equal, they can talk about the average worker. It is a classic case of the fallacy of the average. Because of everybody is equal and we are taking care of the average worker we are losing the individuality. And that is the fastest way to mediocrity.

In Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe write:

That’s what Aristotle meant when he said that practical wisdom as opposed to a universal rule was necessary because of the priority of the particular. A wise person knows how to do the right thing, in the right way, with this person, in this situation. To be wise, we need cognitive and perceptual machinery that picks up on similarities without being blind to differences.

I am not an expert on the issue of unions, their history and their contribution to society. I am also not against the idea that workers should be protected to some degree and have a right to be represented. I do resent the fact that some unions focus their attention on keeping the status quo and base their thinking on a misconception of equality that leads to a discussion of averages. In general, the work of any leader, political, business, union or other, is to balance similarities and differences. I am not sure that many of the union leaders or those that sit with them to the table of negotiations are actively thinking of this balance. What will happen if both sides of a labor dispute (or even better, prior to the dispute) will start doing just that? Isn’t it worth a try?

Elad

Strange or Unique

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Today I started reading Change to Strange: Create a Great Organization by Building a Strange Workforce by Daniel M. Cable (on my new Kindle). I didn’t read to a lot of the book, just the preface and a little of the first chapter. In this short reading I came across this interesting paragraph:

Nowadays, most organizations claim that their people are their competitive advantage. But most organizations build workforces that really are not very different from their competitors’. Most organizations, it turns out, treat their people just about the same as most other organizations. In fact, companies deliberately benchmark their people practices to the industry average. Not surprisingly, there is nothing particularly distinctive about most organizations’ workforces and nothing the organization produces is particularly noteworthy from a customer standpoint – nothing very strange.

Put these together, and what situation do you have? You have organizations hoping to achieve extraordinary results with a solidly ordinary, normal workforce.

With the above caveat that I still haven’t read most of the book I want to share two thoughts with you.

The first is that I absolutely love this quote and the idea this book is probably going to make. It reminds me of my writing about the idea of abandoning the misleading concept of equality. And it reminded me of intelligent writings such as those of David Rendall about the Freak Factor. I find the idea of building on people’s comparative advantage instead of making them cogs working in a factory producing mass identical products compelling. But more importantly, the claim that in order to truly innovate and succeed you need to stray from the ordinary and average sounds to me not compelling only but also necessary in today’s world. Look at this quote from Bill Taylor in an HBR.org post today:

How does the practice’s leader, Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle, find the right people for these unusual (but critical) jobs? “We recruit for attitude and train for skill,” Dr. Fernandopulle told Dr. Gawande. “We don’t recruit from health care. This kind of care requires a very different mind-set from usual care… Now that’s an effective prescription for innovation! Over the years, as I’ve studied high-impact organizations that are changing the game in their fields, they’ve adopted a range of strategies and business models. But they all agree on one core “people” proposition: They hire for attitude and train for skill.

The second is that I have a problem with the words chosen to express this wonderful idea. Strange. I understand the need to make the message more convincing and grab attention. And it is working. At the same time, the problem I see with using the word “strange” is that it has a negative association. If a state of uniqueness is what we aspire to create, if this is the new normal want to set as the standard, we need to start creating a language that embraces the differences and not emphasizes them as different. We need to start using words that will allow people to be proud of their differences. To see themselves in a positive way. To allow others to congratulate them and recognize them for their uniqueness. I don’t know if “Change to Unique” is a good title for a book or a concept. I know that finding the right term is part of the struggle…

Elad

Are you more important than others?

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Today I read an interview (link in Hebrew) with Prof. Beni Lauterbach – Head of Business Administration School at Bar-Ilan University. In it, Lauterbach claims that business administration departments in universities are much more important than the physics, chemistry and engineering departments. Why? Because a good manager can add more value than an engineer. Lauterbach claims that as a former engineer he knows that for a fact.

I almost fell of my chair when I read this. I am, as readers of the blog know well, a big supportive of the idea that great managers are important value creators. More than that, I actually believe that in the coming years, the importance of managers as facilitators of innovation through diversity will increase. However, Lauterbach approach is in my eyes, a manifestation of everything that is wrong with management today.

The idea that there is one person or occupation that is more important than others is the problem of many of the current management practices. Mostly, the work of a manager is to create synergy. In this respect, synergy is about creating greater value from a group of people than they could produce alone. And in this process, every person is important because without each and every one, synergy is not possible. Lauterbach approach is rotted in the myth of leadership, where we look to one leader to solve all of our problems and believe that salvation will come out of one individual. Maybe this worked in the past. It will not work in the future. The future is about diversity, synergy and collaboration. In this kind of environment, nobody is more important. Not that everybody is equal. Everybody is unique and contributes differently and an excelling organization enables and leverages that uniqueness.

Let’s stop fighting over who is more important and start collaborating to create a better future.

And by the way, all of the above is said without regard to the question whether business administration departments actually produce managers (not to mention, good ones). I am not quite sure.

Elad

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Experts and novices

Photo by Mai Le

Seth Godin has fascinating short post out today. He describes his own interpretation of The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. His conclusions:

1. Don’t talk to all your employees, all your users or all your prospects the same way, because they’re not the same.

2. If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail.

I love point number one because I extensively write about it myself (for a summary, see here). The notion of equality must be banished from places it is not needed at. As Godin hints – in the area of marketing – and of course, in the area of managing people. If treat everybody the same we get cogs in a machine. The answer should be found in the idea of Equifinality. There are a lot of ways to reach success.  If we treat everybody according to their uniqueness we create variety which is beneficial. In the past, management practices were built on mechanisms of control that were intended to deal with heterogeneity. Today, this heterogeneity is need ingredient in the creation of innovation. We don’t need to control it, we need to embrace it.

But point number two is not less powerful. As I mention in my no more rules presentation, the use of rules and lose of judgment and practical wisdom is a short-run gamble for productivity. In the long run, only self-thinking, experts how develop practical wisdom through trial and error could produce tangible innovative, human connecting results. When you treat somebody like a novice, you are sacrificing his or her future ability because you prevent him from developing the qualities you need the most.

Elad

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Make yourself non-equitable

Scott Ginsberg (or in the name is more famous for, The Nametag Guy), introduced a challenge on his blog. He has a new book out, called -ABLE: 35 Strategies for Increasing the Probability of Success in Business and in Life (see cover above). This is how he describes his book:

The purpose of this book is to sell you on my theory of the universe. Which is:

The only thing in life you have control over is yourself.

And that you can’t make anything happen – but you can (greatly) increase the probability of that thing happening … by making yourself more “-able.”

(The title of the book is pronounced as “a bull,” just like the cute little cartoon.)

So, he challenged people to come up with more concepts that represent their own theory of the universe or describe secrets for increasing the probability of success and name it with a word that ends in the suffix “-able.

Hence, this post titled: make yourself non-equitable.

Equality is an important concept in many aspects of life, especially in the legal field, I know so well, as a former lawyer. But in real life, because equality is intertwined into our thinking DNA it is used in ways that many times hinders excellence. All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two. Nobody can be good at everything. People who truly excel do it by recognizing their comparative advantage, maximizing it and letting other people do what they are better at than them.

In western societies, equality is part of the ethos. People fought for the right of equality for ages and it is so commonplace and understood (even if not completely practiced) we regard it as a given right. The quotation “All men are created equal” is arguably the best-known phrase in any of America’s political documents.And if all men are created equal, they should be treated as equal in the workplace as well. And they think as themselves as equal. And this creates problems.

Because we are not equal. We are unique. Special. With different talents, skills, perspectives, life experiences, likes and dislikes. And that means that treating us as if we are the same is wrong. Can you honestly tell me that everybody is equally fitted to be a manager? Of course not. And still, the structures for development in most companies are mainly built on the assumption of equality. People who don’t get to be managers feel they are not successful. If we have different talents and needs, why do managers devote equal time to the people they work with instead of giving different people what they need? Why are performance reviews standardized? Because everybody is the same! And we fire the worst performer on the standardized criteria because he is not as good as doing the same thing as everybody else.

The equality ethos, while not bad or wrong by itself has its limitations. The problem is it is so entrenched into our thinking, that we export it to areas of life that it has no place for. Have you ever been part of team that needed to make a presentation and the members insisted that everybody speak during the presentation? Nobody asks whether this makes sense or whether this actually hurts the effectiveness of the presentation. No! We are all equal in this team. We all have to participate! That is just a simple example, but it demonstrates how, in places where we don’t have to, we are willing to sacrifice performance for artificial equality.

It is time we leave equality to the human rights field and start treating people as unique beings and not as cogs in a productivity machine. Nobody can be good at everything. People who truly excel do it by recognizing their comparative advantage, maximizing it and letting other people do what they are better at than them.

So, how do you become non-equitable?

First, by finding your own unique talents and strengths. What are you great at? What do you bring to the table that nobody else does? What do enjoy doing? In what activities do you feel a sense of flow? Doesn’t it make sense that you would do more of that and less of other stuff? So? What are you waiting for?

Second, by not treating others like they are equals. By finding what each individual brings to table and helping him or her be the best they can at it. By respecting others and treating them like they are different from you and thus, have something to teach you. By not evaluating people on standardized scales and expect them to be all-around players. That is just the path to mediocrity. By learn from what we know about how to treat kids:

Rena Subotnik, a researcher with the American Psychological Association, has studied children’s progression into adult creative careers. Kids do best when they are allowed to develop deep passions and pursue them wholeheartedly—at the expense of well-roundedness. “Kids who have deep identification with a field have better discipline and handle setbacks better,” she noted. By contrast, kids given superficial exposure to many activities don’t have the same centeredness to overcome periods of difficulty

Its time you leave the equity ethos behind and start becoming non-equitable.

Elad

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Artificial Equality

Photo by Gapingvoid

One of my favorite bloggers, Hugh MacLeod, from Gapingvoid, has started a series of posts where he designs business cards for people he admires. He designs a card for them and puts it on his blog explaining a little bit about that person and why the card represents him. The picture above is from his latest cards for Web 2.0 Guru Chris Brogan.

The card reminded me of a powerful lesson I keep being reminded of again and again. This is what I wrote in my e-book:

Equality is an important concept in many aspects of life, especially in the legal field, as I know so well. But in real life, because equality is intertwined into our thinking DNA it is used in ways that many times hinders excellence. Earlier I mentioned Ken Robinson‘s inspiring speech regarding creativity and education. In it he says that standard and equal education for everyone is not necessarily good because it “misses” people’s strengths. All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two. Nobody can be good at everything. People who truly excel do it by recognizing their comparative advantage, maximizing it and letting other people do what they are better at than them.

MacLeod’s cartoon and this quote connected very strongly with something I read a few days ago in Richard Hackman’s book, Leading Teams. In many sections of the book he describes the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a Grammy Award-winning classical music chamber orchestra based in New York City, known for its collaborative leadership style, in which the musicians, not a conductor, interpret the score. This is what, among other things, Hackman writes about Orpheus:

Members are not treated as equal because in fact that they are not equals: each individual brings special talents and interests to the ensemble and also has some areas of relative disinterest and lesser strengths. Orpheus members recognize that fact and exploit it relentlessly in the interest of collective excellence. The orchestra’s willingness to acknowledge, to respect, and to exploit the individual differences among its members is one of its greatest strengths as a self managing team.

The equality ethos, while not bad or wrong by itself has its limitations. The problem is, it is so entrenched into our thinking, that we export it to areas of life that it has no place in. Have you ever been part of team that needed to make a presentation and the members insisted that everybody speak during the presentation? Nobody asks whether this makes sense or whether this actually hurts the effectiveness of the presentation. No! We are all equal in this team. we all have to participate! That is just a simple example, but it demonstrates how, in places where we don’t have to, we are willing to sacrifice performance for artificial equality.

Are you sacrificing performance for artificial equality?

Elad

Am I just like you?

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Photo by Lanuiop

A few days ago, Bob Sutton wrote a post called “I am just like you“. In it, he describes some of his thoughts after reading David Dunning’s book: Self-Insight. While I haven’t read the book (Yet! Just added it to my ever-growing Amazon wish-list), I am not sure I agree with Sutton’s thoughts. Here is what I perceive to be the gist of his post:

Dunning points out that a host of studies show that one major impediment to self-awareness is that people see themselves as unique — usually as superior to others —  when that actually are  not: as more ethical, emotionally complex, skilled, and so on…

The implication, however, that if we assume “I am just like you” rather than “I am special and different,” or even that “we are all the same,” we might make better decisions and learn at others’ expense rather than our own strikes me as a lesson that could be quite valuable.  For example, I’ve been rather obsessed about the virtues and drawback of learning from others mistakes rather than your own (see this post on Randy Komisar and Eleanor Roosevelt), as this question has huge implications about how to teach people new skills and the best way to develop competent and caring human-beings.

While I agree with the basic assumption that we should get to know ourselves better and that we should develop a better understanding of our abilities and strengths, I am not sure the solution could be found in “I am just like you” thinking. Actually, I don’t see the difference between that kind of thinking and “we are all the same” thinking. I wrote something similar in my e-book:

Equality is an important concept in many aspects of life, especially in the legal field, as I know so well. But in real life, because equality is intertwined into our thinking DNA it is used in ways that many times hinders excellence. Earlier I mentioned Ken Robinson‘s inspiring speech regarding creativity and education. In it he says that standard and equal education for everyone is not necessarily good because it “misses” people’s strengths. All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two. Nobody can be good at everything. People who truly excel do it by recognizing their comparative advantage, maximizing it and letting other people do what they are better at than them.

I do not disagree that people have a tendency to be over optimistic about their abilities. There is ample research to support that. I am just not sure that the way to deal with that problem (if we assume it is a problem) is to reinforce the wrong assumption that we are in fact just like each other. I think this is a dangerous line of thinking for individuals and managers. The real value is found in realizing the actual differences and respecting them. By realizing who we are and embracing it, we could reach much more than by deluding ourselves about our equality or superiority.

Elad

A few lessons you can learn from John Wooden

Although this talk by John Wooden is from 2001, I think it is even more relevant today than it was eight years ago. See it. Off course, as someone who is interested in education, I learned a lot from it about being a teacher. But there are also great lessons for managers.

A few great quotes and my thoughts about them:

1. “Not all are born equal
Wooden’s attitude to equality reminds me of what I wrote in my E-book: “All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two”. The more time passes and experience I go through the more I believe in that.

2. “Never try to be better than someone else, always try to be the best you can be
I found this quote to be so insightful. How many times in life do we found ourselves comparing ourselves to someone else? There are actually some scholars who believe that this is a big part of people’s motivation. We also know that our perception is always relative, even when it shouldn’t be. Is the grass of the neighbour really always greener? What would happen if we concentrate a little bit on ourselves and what we can do? If you agree that point number one is true, than this is the attitude you must adopt.

3. “Things will work out as they should providing we do what we should
Peter Drucker said that: “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things”. Whether you agree with this saying or not (and I am not sure that I do), the belief in doing the right thing is in my eyes, an important aspect of the success of leaders and managers. But it also means that at the first instance you have, as a manager or a leader, you should ask yourself, “do I understand myself?” and “what it is I think I should do?”.

4. And the last one is my favourite: “Our tendency is to hope that things will turn out the way we want them to so much of the time, but we don’t do the things that are necessary to make those things become a reality“.
A few posts ago I asked “are you ready?” – To listen, to change, to do, to fail. As Samuel Beckett wrote in his novel Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”. We must try and we must do. Otherwise, we are not entitled to hope that things will turn the way we want them too.

Elad

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