Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library. - Barbara Tuchman
The only true equalisers in the world are books; the only treasure-house open to all comers is a library; the only wealth which will not decay is knowledge… – J. A. Langford
I present book synopses monthly (now twice a month, in two locations) for the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by Central Dallas Ministries. The Rev. Gerald Britt Jr., their Vice President for Public Policy, is a thoughtful, substantive thought-leader. He has an op-ed column in the Dallas Morning News on the crisis facing municipal governments, specifically Dallas, because of budget cuts. Here’s the paragraph that should evoke a little sadness, and maybe some fear, in book lovers everywhere.
The cuts in library services are particularly illustrative. This budget has plummeted from $28 million in the 2008-2009 budget to a proposed $13 million next fiscal year. The projected loss of personnel threatens services such as fewer new books and fewer staff to shelve and organize materials.
I spend hundreds of dollars a year on books. I have to “mark them up,” and give many of “my copies” away at our events (I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate to give away these books!), so I can’t use the library for these particular books. (And a few folks give me many books – for this I am deeply grateful). But I check out some books just to read from the Eastfield College Library (where I teach), and I have many fond memories of reading library books over the decades of my life, from Jacksonville, Florida to Harlingen, Texas, to Long Beach and Los Angeles, California, to Dallas, Texas. And I could not begin to tell you the number of books I have read that I never had to purchase.
But books are just the beginning. In these tight economic times, many people use the library to help with their job search. One library director in Central Oklahoma described this new phenomenon: people come sit in the parking lot of the library, and open their laptops in their cars to access the internet connections available through the library.
In other words, for a literate society, for a society that values learning, library cuts are more than just an inconvenience. The public library provides essential tools for personal improvement, providing tangible help for needed job skills, countless programs to help our youngest neighbors learn to read and then cultivate a love of reading, and so much more.
We all need to help get this economy humming along a little better. For a lot of reasons. But one really important reason is this: we’ve got to restore those funds to the library! A library with little money for books and staff (and, shorter hours of availability), is a genuinely serious problem.
Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest. - Lady Bird Johnson
In The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton discusses the trial of Socrates who “understood that he had no chance. He lacked even the time to make a case. Defendants had only minutes to address a jury [in this instance about 500 citizens, most of whom slept through the process], until the water had run from one jar to another in the court clock.” Socrates was convicted by 360 jurors, “a collection of the aged and one-legged who had not submitted their beliefs to rational examination and were waiting for the water to run from one jar to another.” He was sentenced to death that would occur after he consumed hemlock.
What lessons does de Botton suggest can be learned from the process that resulted in Socrates’ court-ordered suicide? “It would be as naïve to hold that unpopularity is synonymous with truth as to believe that it is synonymous with error. The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic. It is not because an argument is denounced by a majority that it is wrong nor, for those drawn to heroic defiance, that it is right.”
My take: The reliability of the so-called “wisdom of crowds” depends almost entirely on the reliability of those who comprise the given “crowd.”
As Socrates observes, true respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning. The judgment of authorities who possess an abundance of relevant knowledge is superior to the judgment of those who possess only uninformed opinions. Consider these comments by Socrates to Polus, a well-known teacher of rhetoric visiting Athens from Sicily:
“The trouble is, Polus, you’re trying to use on me the kind of rhetorical refutation which people in law courts think is successful. There too people think they are proving the other side wrong if they produce a large number of eminent witnesses in support of the points they’re making, when their opponent can only come up with a single witness or none at all. But this kind of reputation is completely worthless in the context of the truth, since it’s perfectly possible for someone to be defeated in court by a horde of witnesses who have no more than apparent respectability and who all happen to testify against him.”
The wisdom of a crowd of authorities who possess an abundance of relevant knowledge and practical experience is superior to the wisdom of a crowd of others who possess only uninformed opinions.
If you were to look up the word “leadership” in any reputable dictionary, it would probably suggest that you contact Warren Bennis. No one has written more and more enlightening commentary on the subject of leadership than has he. In Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, he and Patricia Ward Biederman examine a number of what the authors call “Great Groups.” Perhaps the most important point is introduced in the first chapter: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
That is to say, the “Great Man” theory is invalidated by the achievements of truly creative teams such as those at the Disney studios which produced so many animation classics; at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which developed the first personal computer; at Apple Computer which then took it to market; in the so-called “War Room” which helped to elect Bill Clinton President in 1992; at the so-called “Skunk Works” where so many of Lockheed’s greatest designs were formulated; at Black Mountain College which “wasn’t simply a place where creative collaboration took place. It was about creative collaboration”; and at Los Alamos (NM) and the University of Chicago where the Manhattan Project eventually produced a new weapon called “the Gadget.”
Bennis and Biederman conclude Organizing Genius by providing 15 “Take-Home Lessons.” Each is directly relevant to any organization which aspires to accomplish what Steve Jobs once described as being “insanely great.”
With all due respect to the command-and-control skills of great leaders in the past (including most of those enshrined in the “Business Hall of Fame”), such skills simply are not effective today. “None of us is as smart as all of us.” A group can become “great” only if and when it possesses both genius in each member and the leadership necessary to achieve creative collaboration by those members. With rare exception, “Genius” in isolation simply cannot accomplish what “genius” in creative collaboration can.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Michael Schrage for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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U? L? V?
Pick any recovery-shaped letter you like. Economic policymakers would still be wondering: Where did the jobs go [click here]?
Alas, that’s exactly the wrong question. The better question: Where did the employers go?
America doesn’t have a jobless recovery; it has a hireless recovery. Don’t confuse them. After all, you first have to get hired to have a job. Organizations may be desperate to grow, but they overwhelmingly lack the desire to hire. Fewer people are working longer, harder and (presumably) smarter hours. So many firms have proven so productive even after several rounds of layoffs, that serious economists wonder if, in fact, large slices of the workforce actually offer ZMP — Zero Marginal Productivity [click here] — to their enterprise. In other words, the Great Recession reveals many employees not just to be worth less but economically worthless. Ouch.
Keynesian fundamentalists aside, the nascent mainstream perspective suggests hiring has been hamstrung by two dominant forces: the likelihood of relatively slow economic growth — why expand your workforce beyond the barest minimum? — and the certainty of greater uncertainty around future employment costs. American organizations literally can’t yet calculate either the top- or bottom-line impacts of health care reform. Financial legislation similarly injects greater uncertainty and angst into credit access. Swirls of proposed and promised regulatory initiatives around energy, sustainability and diversity further complicate and confuse hiring economics. These economic uncertainties are not the sort that boosts investor confidence. Uncertainty effectively becomes a tax on hiring. The greater the uncertainties, the larger the tax. Why should anyone be surprised that raising “hiring taxes” reduces hires [click here]? A serious public policy would seek to reduce costs, risks and regulatory burdens of hiring people. Slower growth/higher tax environments stimulate survival instincts in established firms.
As with any large tax increase, the costs of uncertainty have businesses looking for loopholes and scrambling for safe havens. They don’t want to overpay. In lieu of minimizing taxes, firms are choosing to minimize hires. Executives and entrepreneurs aren’t asking “Who should we hire?” They’re asking, “Why should we hire?” World-class firms are still looking for world-class people. But when world-class people aren’t what’s needed, world-class firms will consider world-class alternatives. Most people looking for a job today aren’t competing against each other. They’re competing against alternative ways to getting that job done.
For most organizations, people are a means and medium to an end. They’re not hiring employees, they’re hiring value creation. If they can get that value — or most of it — from contingency workers, outsourcing, automation, innovative processes or capital investment, why wouldn’t they? If tweaking a process or program empowers three people to do the work of five, then tweakonomics is the way to go. The profound difference between today and 2005 is that good hires looked like better investments than great tweaks back then. In 2010, good tweaks look like better bets than even great hires.
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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of Serious Play and the forthcoming Getting Beyond Ideas.
There are dozens of excellent books on the subject of innovation and this is one of the best. Frankly, I found none of Sutton’s ideas “weird.” Unorthodox, thought-provoking, and perhaps even somewhat controversial but certainly not weird. (Perhaps the title was devised to accommodate marketing needs.) He makes two important distinctions: between routine work (essentially defending and sustaining the status quo) and innovative work (challenging and disrupting, perhaps even transforming the status quo), and, between invention (creating something entirely new) and innovation (discovering new applications for what has already been invented). He also correctly acknowledges the advantages and disadvantages of separating innovation initiatives from the traditional organization structure. In Organizing Genius: Secrets of Creative Collaboration, Patricia Ward Biederman and Warren Bennis explain why it was so important to establish Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California, far removed from corporate headquarters in the Northeast. Sutton suggests that such separation may not always be possible or at least prudent.
In general, though, innovation is most productive when not constrained by limits of any kind. Indeed, innovation worthy of the name is by nature anathema to order and structure. For me, the greatest value of this book lies not in any one or even in all of the “Weird Ideas” that Sutton proposes; rather, in gaining a better understanding of the “world view” and mindsets that those ideas suggest. “Feelings — not cold cognitions — drive people to turn good ideas into reality….Every innovative company I know is passionate about solving problems….Playfulness and curiosity are related attitudes of innovation [in combination with] the ability to switch emotional gears between cynicism and belief, or between deep doubt and unshakable confidence.” If you take Sutton’s admonitions to heart, challenge all of his ideas as well as everyone else’s ideas and come up with more innovative ones of your own. Throughout the 15 chapters which comprise this book, he carefully prepares his reader to do just that.