Don Thompson is an economist and professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. He has taught at Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics. He is author of nine books, including The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, which details his explorations in trying to understand the high end of the contemporary art market. Shark has been published in thirteen languages. His most recent book, Oracles: How Prediction Markets Turn Employees into Visionaries, was published by Harvard Business Review Press (June, 2012).
Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing Oracles a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Thompson: A dozen brilliant people I encountered in grad school (at Berkeley) and later, in universities, businesses and government. From each I learned new things, but more important, new ways of looking at problems, and how to think outside the box.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Thompson: My formal education included an MBA, which got me interested in problem solving, and a PhD, which furthered that interest but is also provided an essential entry point to an academic career. So the formal education part has been invaluable for my career path.
Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time?
Thompson: The importance of the soft skills involved in communication, motivation and managing.
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles?
Thompson: Citizen Kane. The explanation is in the eyes and mind of the viewer.
Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business?
Thompson: I’ll suggest two: Michael Mauboussin’s More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places (Columbia Business School Press 2008), and Cass Sunstein’s Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford University Press, 2008). The Mauboussin book is about business, but more centrally, about making rational decisions. The Sunstein book is about how wrongheadedness gets worse when people get together in groups. Both are brilliant thinkers, I recommend anything with those names attached.
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know.”
Thompson: Right. None of us is as smart as all of us (which is also a Japanese proverb).
Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”
Thompson: The prediction market equivalent is probably, “If you really are afraid of the answer, don’t ask the question.”
Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Thompson: It never occurred to me that there was another option. Probably too late now.
Morris:Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Thompson: That is a great quote. I once was presented with its equivalent, by a Columbia marketing professor named Al Oxenfeldt, with whom I had co-authored a couple of articles and was proposing a new topic, which I had collected a lot of data on. Al said, “If something is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well.” Quite right.
Morris:In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?
Thompson: That is exactly the philosophy of Jim Lavoie and Joe Marino, co-CEOs of my favorite prediction-market company, Rite-Solutions – which is the subject of the first chapter of Oracles.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Don cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Don’s faculty page, please click here
Amazon’s Oracles page, please click here.
Amazon’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark page, please click here.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of best practices depends on those who execute them
As co-editors Marshall Goldsmith and Louis Carter explain, the material in this book focuses on 14 dynamic enterprises (i.e. Avon Products, Bank of America, Corning, CES, Ecolab, GE, IRS, Kaiser Permanente/Colorado Region, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Murray & Roberts, Porter Novelli, Southern Company, and Whirlpool) that were selected by the Best Practice Institute because they have succeeded in implementing talent enhancement programs – “although, to be fair, to call them ‘programs’ is not entirely accurate, as they are in reality vital strategic components integrated into the companies’ core operating values.” Indeed, had they not been so integrated, neither they nor their companies could become, much less remain, vital and dynamic. There is a separate chapter devoted to each of the 14, written by one or more of the contributors who were invited to participate. It is important to keep in mind that in an age when several companies “built to last” haven’t and others once great are no longer even good, at least a few of the 14 in this book may no long be exemplars of anything, except perhaps of how quickly an organization can become weakened in one way or another.
I appreciate the material provided in the Conclusion introduced by this explanation: “In order t0 present a fuller and more complete picture of the best practices in talent management, in March 2009 the Best Practice Institute [of which Cater is founder and CEO] released results from a groundbreaking survey of some of America’s most dynamic companies.” An overview is provided in the Conclusion. Then in the Epilogue, William J. Rothwell suggests several “key take-away points” from each of the 14 mini-case studies. From Ecolab, for example, “This case is outstanding for illustrating how a talent program can be built on, and leverage, the organization’s culture and values. These values include, according to the case, (1) spirit; (2) pride; (3) determination; (4) commitment; (5) passion; and (6) integrity. The talent program was based on internal interviews of company executives.” Obviously, brief take-away points merely serve as triggers to recall insights that are developed in much greater depth, in context.
Presumably Goldsmith and Carter are responsible for the reader-friendly format that most of the contributors adopt (with only minor modification) and graphic devices such as Figures that consolidate a wealth of information about an especially important subject such as Avon’s “Talent Investment Matrix” (Page 6), Corning’s “Program Snapshot – Week One” (50), Ecolab’s “Success Indicators for Business Drivers at Each Pipeline Level” (90), “IRS Leadership Core Responsibilities” (119), McDonald’s “Performance Drivers” (162), and Microsoft’s “Key Stakeholder Roles for HiPo Coaching program” (196). Because they are best practices, these and others examined in the book should serve as exempla that suggest possibilities rather than as templates to be adopted without revision or modification. That is to say, doing what is right and doing it right pose entirely different challenges.
Those who share my high regard for the material in this volume are urged to check out George Anders’ recently published book, The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else, as well as Dean Spitzer’s Transforming Performance Measurement: Rethinking the Way We Measure and Drive Organizational Success, and Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution co-authored by Jeanne R. Ross, Peter Weill, and David C. Robertson.