The study of philosophy has as its purpose to know…the truth about the ways things are.” Thomas Aquinas
This is the sixth and most recent volume in the “50 Classics” series edited by Tom Butler-Bowdon and published by Nicholas Brealey. It is also the most ambitious in that the authors and works discussed are, in my opinion, among the most challenging as well as the most rewarding in print. In terms of their timeline, the “classics” range from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in 4th century BC to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick in 2011.
The 50 are organized in alpha order of their authors’ names but can also be viewed as “classics” in one or more of four separate but related fields: Thinking (analysis, cognition, the limits of what can be known, the sense of self); Being (opportunities and choices for happiness and a life of meaning and purpose, free will, and autonomy); Acting (power and its uses, liberty and justice, fairness, ethics, morality), and Seeing (Plato’s cave and perception/reality, linguistic challeges, quality of life in a media world). Butler-Bowdon devotes a separate chapter to each of the 50 and employs a common format: representative quotation(s), “In a nutshell” representative insight, “In a similar vein” authors and works, and a four-page introduction to the author and work.
As I began to work my way through the sequence of commentaries, I was again reminded of an incident years ago at Princeton University when one of Albert Einstein’s faculty colleagues pointed out to him that he asked the same questions every year on his final examination. “Quite true. Each year the answers are different.” Consider the enduring questions to which thoughtful persons have responded throughout several millennia. “Who am I?” for example, and “What is wisdom?” There may be a general agreement about nomenclature but seldom a consensus on definitions. There is even widespread disagreement about subjectivity.
Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now offer a few of the dozens of Butler-Bowdon’s erudite observations that caught my eye:
On Aristotle: His “pleasing conclusion is that happiness is not predetermined by fate or the gods, but can be acquired habitually by consciously expressing a virtuous life through work, application, or study. ‘[We] become builders,’ he says, ‘ by building and we become harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.’ In other words, we become a successful person through habit.” (Page 25)
On Jeremy Bentham: “On a purely personal level, asking ‘What would benefit the most people, in the best way, as far as possible into the future?’ is surely a good way to approach life and its decisions. Bentham assumed that most people were self-interested, but all religions, and many kinds of moral philosophy, attest to the benefits of cultivating the direct opposite state: thinking of the good of others first is actually the one thing we can count on to deliver our own happiness.” (54)
On Cicero: “Cicero is an enigma. On one hand, he is the great defender of the Roman Republic and its ideal of the rule of law; on the other, he sentenced several conspirators to death without trial. Though at the time Rom e was operating under martial law, the conspirators were still citizens, and many thought the act unforgivable. One cannot doubt his influence, though. He was instrumental in bringing Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, to the educated Roman classes. His outlook was adapted by Christian philosophers, notably Augustine, whose life was said to have c hanged after reading Cicero’s Hortensius (a work now lost), and his ethics and concept of natural law were foundational to medieval Christian philosophy.” (78-79
On Confucius: He emphasized patience in building a community or state. Instead of rule by personal whim, one should wish for things to happen at their natural pace. Such a long-term view enables the interests of all to be taken into account, including future generations, and acknowledges the progress that has been made in particular areas by ancestors and past administrations. In a time of war and upheaval, this vision of long-term peace, prosperity, and justice in the state was highly appealing to governors.” (84)
On René Descartes: “Contemporary philosophers like to gloss over or deprecate Descartes’ metaphysical side, seeing it as the blemish on an otherwise brilliant conception of the world. Textbooks tend to `forgive’ his desire to provide proofs of God, pointing out that this most rational of men could not escape the religious nature of his times. Surely, if he were alive today, he would not even dip his feet into such metaphysical murkiness? Let’s not forget that Descartes’ `tree of knowledge’ has metaphysics as its very trunk, from which everything else spreads out.” (90)
On Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What is the relationship between Emerson`s earlier essay, `Self-Reliance,’ and `Fate’? It would be tempting to say that the later work reflects a wiser Emerson who was more attuned to the power of nature and circumstance in people’s lives. It is almost as if he is challenging him self to believe his earlier, more forthright essay on the power of the individual…But having noted [an] apparent determinism, and just when one thinks that Emerson has finally sided with fate, he says that this beautiful necessity (nature, God, law, intelligence) `solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipoe3tnce.’” (96)
On Daniel Kahneman: “Thinking, Fast and Slow’s focus on a great array of biases and failures in human thought does not mean that the book has a negative tone. Rather, it offers hope, because many of these thinking black spits were once hidden or unconscious – and so we were at their mercy. Now, we can factor them into any rational decision we need to make or theory we wish to develop. Philosophy is as vulnerable to these cognitive mistakes as any field, and to think it is above them is hubris.” (155)
On Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was shocking in its suggestion that science does not take humanity on a neat, linear path toward some objective truth about the reality of the world via the accumulation of empirical observations (what can be called the Enlightenment view), but is in fact a human creation. If science is an attempt to make our theories fit nature, then it is human nature with which we have to contend first.” (176)
On Jean-Jacque Rousseau: “Whereas Hobbes thought that people had to make a choice between being ruled and being free, Rousseau said that it was possible to have both; you could remain free if your `ruler’ was yourselves (in the form of an assembly of citizens set up to make laws). Critics have said that while this might have worked in the Swiss cantons with which Rousseau was familiar in his youth, such optimism was less suited to the real world. Nevertheless, his overall vision remains powerful.” (252)
The other 40 philosophers include Heraclitus, William James, John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Those who read this book with appropriate curiosity and care will be generously rewarded in one or more ways: they will be introduced to thinkers and works about which they knew little (if anything) previously; and/or, their own reasoning skills will be strengthened significantly as will their understanding of specific issues of greatest interest and value to them; and/or, thanks to Butler-Bowdon, they will become motivated to read or re-read one or more of the 50 works within a wider and deeper frame-of-reference. Now sold by Amazon for only $12.36 (only $9.95 in the Kindle version), this volume offers remarkably inexpensive (and tasty) “appetizers.” A sequence of gourmet feasts then awaits – in the form of the 50 primary sources – for those who love wisdom as much as Tom Butler-Bowdon does.
“Vision without execution is hallucination.” Thomas Edison
Do not be deterred by the fact that this book was first published in 1996. Long before that, one of Albert Einstein’s faculty colleagues at Princeton pointed out that he always asked the same questions each year on his final examination. “That’s quite true. Every year the answers are different.” Steven Stowell and Matt Starcevich are not — nor make any claim to be — Einstein’s intellectual peers but they have formulated a model for synergistic coaching that remains relevant almost two decades after they introduced in this book. Stowell and Starcevich help their reader to formulate the questions that need to be asked regularly because, as in quantum physics, the answers will change as dynamics and interelationships change.
Healthy organizations have effective communication, cooperation, and (especially) collaboration at all levels and in all areas of operation. In fact, in today’s global marketplace, the healthiest organizations have effective communication, cooperation, and collaboration between and among everyone involved. For individuals as well as for organizations, Stowell and Starcevich correctly suggest, effective partnerships – whose raison d’etre is collaboration — involve mutual respect and trust as well as shared responsibility, integrity, openness, and synergy.
We also know that the best coaches tend to be the best teachers and the best students. That was true of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as well as of John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, and Pat Summitt. In the business world, every day, there are supervisors — although perhaps known only to their associates — who are also great coaches. They establish and then nourish mutually beneficial (win-win) relationships with others. I agree with Stowell and Starcevich that C-level executives can learn at least as much from their direct reports as those direct reports learn from them. In healthy organizations, it is common practice for leaders to become followers, and vice versa, based on knowledge and competence. That is perhaps the best example of what Stowell and Starcevich characterize as “synergistic coaching.”
Its defining characteristics are best understood in terms of the values of mutual respect and trust, exemplified in three types of synergistic coaches’ relationships: with themselves, with each of those entrusted to their care, and with the relationship shared with them. Moreover, mutually beneficial relationships must be nourished constantly. In her brilliant book, Growing Great Employees, Erika Andersen suggests – and I agree – that the most effective leaders have a “green thumb” for “growing” people in the “gardens” of free enterprise. It is worth noting that, for example, GE’s senior-level executives – including CEOs such as Reggie Jones, Jack Welch, and Jeff Immelt — have devoted at least 20% of their time to coaching GE’s high-potential middle managers.
Stowell and Starcevich recommend an eight-step process and devote a chapter to explaining each, then conclude with eight “Wrap Up Points” to keep in mind when establishing and then building a learning relationship. They also insert dozens of insights throughout their narrative that are both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Yes, this book was published 17 years ago but, as I indicated earlier, the issues it addresses and the values it affirms are – if anything – more relevant now than they were in 1996.
All organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas. Therefore, one of their most important strategic objectives must be to establish and then nourish a leadership development program such as the one that Steven Stowell and Matt Starcevich envision. In my view, it will require rock-solid and (key word) generous support from those in the C-suite but it must also offer a compelling vision that energizes, hopefully inspires wide and deep buy-in with both passion and a sense of urgency. Finally, it requires a LOT of sustained, collaborative, often boring, seldom easy work. I agree with Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Here is a brief excerpt from a feature article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and published in the Atlantic magazine. To read the complete article, watch a video during which Anne-Marie Slaughter talks with Hanna Rosin about the struggles of working mothers, sign up for free email alerts, and obtain subscription information, please click here.
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It’s time to stop fooling ourselves, says a woman who left a position of power: the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here’s what has to change.
EIGHTEEN MONTHS INTO my job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan, I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. And the previous spring I had received several urgent phone calls—invariably on the day of an important meeting—that required me to take the first train from Washington, D.C., where I worked, back to Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived. My husband, who has always done everything possible to support my career, took care of him and his 12-year-old brother during the week; outside of those midweek emergencies, I came home only on weekends.
As the evening wore on, I ran into a colleague who held a senior position in the White House. She has two sons exactly my sons’ ages, but she had chosen to move them from California to D.C. when she got her job, which meant her husband commuted back to California regularly. I told her how difficult I was finding it to be away from my son when he clearly needed me. Then I said, “When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”
She was horrified. “You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.
A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).
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I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.
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To read the complete article, please click here.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department and dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Paul J.H. Schoemaker is a pioneer in the field of decision sciences, among the first to combine the practical ideas of decision theory, behavioral economics, scenario planning, and risk management into a set of strategic decision-making tools for managers. He is co-author of a landmark book on the subject, Winning Decisions: Getting It Right the First Time. He has written nine books, the latest of which is Brilliant Mistake: Findings Success on the Far Side of Failure (Wharton Digital Press 2012). In addition, he has written over 100 academic and applied papers, which have appeared in such diverse journals as the Harvard Business Review, the Journal of Mathematical Psychology, Brain and Behavioral Sciences, and The Journal of Economic Literature. Given their global applicability, his writings appear in at least 14 languages. His scholarly work ranks in the top one percent in academic citations globally as measured by the International Science Index (www.ISIHighlyCited.com). He is also an entrepreneur: he is founder and executive chairman of Decision Strategies International, Inc. Finally, Paul is a dedicated educator: he is research director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, served for five years as a director of the Decision Education Foundation, conducted hundreds of lectures and executive seminars around the world. A native of the Netherlands, Paul lives on the East Coast with his wife; they have two children.
Here is my interview of Paul. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: When and why did you decide to Brilliant Mistakes?
Schoemaker: Two issues have always intrigued me. First, when the founder of Honda claims that success is 99% failure, I wonder why we label the necessary steps toward success in such a negative way? Failure and its twin sister “mistake” too often get a bad rap. Second, when executives tell me that they learned the most in their careers from mistakes, I wonder why they don’t make a few more. In the book, I suggest that we should make more mistakes (given how valuable they often are), but most people deeply reject that seemingly silly notion. I was also fascinated with Thomas Watson’s counter-intuitive advice, as founder and Chairman of IBM, that if you want to succeed faster, you need to make more mistakes. Our ambivalence about mistakes in business seemed an underdeveloped topic to me, especially the paradoxical notion that some errors will prove to be brilliant over time.
To learn maximally from mistakes, we need to commit more errors than we deem optimal as judged within the bounds of our limited rationality. This idea may be hard to swallow. Yet, it is the quintessential insight of this book. To my way of thinking, mistakes can be brilliant in two ways. The first is to learn from an unexpected setback so much that it starts to dwarf the cost of the mistake. The second way, which is more difficult to achieve, is to create strategies, organizations or cultures where people can make the types if mistakes where the learning benefits far exceeds the cost of the mistake.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Schoemaker: Hardly any “head-snapping revelations,” but certainly a few surprises. Successful people tend to have a different view about mistakes than most ordinary people. Not only are they more tolerant of them (in themselves and others), but they often embrace them. Notable examples are Steve Jobs who celebrated his mistakes during a commencement speech at Stanford, or C.K. Rowling who argued that she could not have produced the astoundingly successful Harry Potter series (books, movies, accessories) without having hit rock bottom first.
In the arts and humanities, people embrace mistakes more readily than in business, I feel. As trumpet great Wynton Marsalis put it so well, if you are not making mistakes, you are not playing jazz – you are not trying. I believe the same applies to life, since that requires a great deal of improvisation as well. I don’t think that perfectionists, or people who eschew mistakes for other reasons, realize their full potential as human beings, either for themselves or others
A surprising conclusion is that people who are more risk-averse should make more deliberate mistakes, since they can be used as hedges. This was counter-intuitive to me at first. A strong portfolio case can be made for investing in mistakes. For a risk-averse decision maker, it may be worth putting some money in a project expected to yield a loss provided this investment offers a sufficient hedge in case other investments sour. Even though that seemingly inferior project will not raise profit expectations, it can help reduce losses in case bad scenarios happen. Similarly, a deliberate mistake can be viewed as a hedge against conventional wisdom, one that will have a high payoff when the majority view of the crowd happens to be wrong (but a loss otherwise in all likelihood).
Morris: Please explain the approach you take in the book to establish a case for making brilliant mistakes.
Schoemaker: In the book, I draw more on behavioral decision theory and its close cousin, behavioral economics, than portfolio theory or options thinking. Because humans suffer from bounded rationality and furthermore don’t know what they don’t know, the only way to overcome myopic frames, overconfidence, and incremental career progress is to innovate beyond the bounds of our self-limiting world views. I describe a long list of past business mistakes – as judged by the conventional wisdom at the time – that proved to be brilliant. These include personal copiers, selling via pet stores, ATM machines, credit cards for students, organic food, fractional jet ownership, and tobacco-free cigarettes. Just as these ideas were ridiculed at the time, there are many silly ideas floating around today in business that will prove to be brilliant in the future. The challenge for managers is to recognize them, and this can only happen if leaders create sufficient space for productive mistakes to occur. In most companies, brilliant mistake may already have been made, but the brilliant part lies dormant because there is little appetite or capacity to mine the mistake. Since the tuition was paid, why not extract the lesson?
Morris: All of your previous books are research-driven. Is that also true of Brilliant Mistakes?
Schoemaker: I build on the strong foundation of decades of research in behavioral economics and decision psychology. I offer a practical plan for separating destructive from constructive mistakes, for learning to make more of the brilliant kind. I encourage leaders to embrace this quality, to milk it for all of its evolutionary and learning potential. For those rationalists who deem the notion of a Brilliant Mistake to be an oxymoron, I would recommend that they take a portfolio view. A strong case can be made for investing in projects that are expected to yield a negative return. For a risk-averse decision maker, it may be worth putting some money in a project expected to yield a loss provided this investment offers a sufficient hedge in case other investments sour. Even though that seemingly inferior project will not raise profit expectations, it can help reduce losses in case bad scenarios happen. Similarly, a deliberate mistake can be viewed as a hedge against conventional wisdom, one that will have a high payoff when the majority view of the crowd happens to be wrong (but a loss otherwise in all likelihood). My book provides the formal argument for those interested.
Morris: Mistakes can either be intentional or unintentional. Please cite a few examples of mistakes (i.e. those that are deliberate and purposeful) can be beneficial.
Schoemaker: Mistakes have been the cause of great discoveries and revolutionary new insights. It was bad judgment that led the Wright brothers to try to fly: everybody knew at the time that humans couldn’t fly and never would. In 1895, just eight years before their fragile construct took to the air, Lord Kelvin, the esteemed British mathematician, physicist and president of the British Royal Society, had unambiguously declared that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
It was relative ignorance that prompted Albert Einstein, a lowly patent clerk in a Swiss law office, to pose some silly questions about the nature of time, space and energy. Albert Einstein made at least 23 mistakes in his published (and refereed) scientific publications. Some of these were necessary to achieve his monumental insights about the deeper forces of nature.
At a more mundane level, I describe a young woman deciding to date any person asking her out and in the end marrying someone she wouldn’t have given a second look. She was willing to test her preconceived notions about Mr. Right and companies should perhaps do likewise when hiring new talent. Hiring in your own image is seldom the best approach.
Morris: In the Preface to Brilliant Mistakes, you observe, “For most people, the problem is not that they make too many mistakes but too few.” Are there any examples of that in your own experiences thus far?
Schoemaker: Although there has not been that much brilliance in my own life, there are several personal examples that I would consider “brilliant” mistakes at my own level. One concerns my decision to take a two-year sabbatical with Royal Dutch/Shell’s planning group in London just after having been promoted to associate professor at the University of Chicago. Many colleagues deemed this a mistake since my academic career was going well and leaving the world of scholarship might cast doubt on my commitment to research etc. This risk was indeed real, and my two-year absence from publishing probably did not help my academic career. But it also opened up new vistas about life beyond academia and led me to found Decision Strategies International, which for 20 years now has served leading companies around the world in the fields of strategy and decision making.
The second mistake concerned our family’s move from Chicago to Philadelphia without there being any single compelling reason to do so. We were quite happy in Chicago but I left nonetheless to be closer to family, friends and colleagues I had worked with in academia and business. It turned out to be a great move, without regrets and many new experiences that Chicago would probably not have offered.
In the book I describe a third example, where our company decided – against its better judgment – to respond to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that came in over the transom. We had good reasons to believe it would be a waste of time to pursue such RFPs, but then decided to challenge this key assumption. It turned out that we were wrong; some of these random RFPs proved quite valuable to us in terms of new clients and growth.
Morris: Which factors have the greatest impact on a decision’s outcome? Which of them seems to have the greatest impact? Why?
Schoemaker: Companies that want to compete on innovation are well-advised to become more error-tolerant in practice and develop better methods for capturing the lessons from mistakes. Such companies should also emphasize that managers (especially younger ones) who are involved in project failures, are to be viewed as being on a fast learning track, rather than an exit track. Given the significance of failures and mistakes that have led to success, there is potential value from the lessons learned if they are documented, captured and shared. Career development benefits should follow for those involved in the right kinds of failure, assuming they learn and apply the lessons to avoid mistakes in the future. This can be tested via performance reviews as well as actual on-the-job behavior.
The deeper challenge in all this is that leaders must learn how to celebrate the egg that people invariably have on their face, award. This president of an Ann Arbor business decided to institute a Golden Egg to make sure his organization would extract as much learning as possible from past failures. This story is detailed in the book. His viewpoint was that mistakes are valuable assets that belong to the organization. To hide them and not share the lessons would amount to destroying shareholder wealth. At first, few managers wanted to receive the Golden Egg award, but after a while it became much sought after. Winners would proudly regale visitors in their office with the tale of their failed venture and proudly share its lessons. The president created a true learning culture.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Paul cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Home Page: please click here.
Wharton’s Mack Center: please click here.
His Amazon page: please click here.
His Wikipedia page: please click here.
A video: please click here.
The power of redundant “overcommunication” of what is most important to achieve and sustain organizational health
After eight bestselling business fables, Patrick Lencioni has written a book in which he gathers his most important insights from them in a single volume. However, as he explains in the Introduction, “The book is the result of an unpredictable journey, one that began when I was just a kid, probably eight or nine years old.” (He was born in 1962.) It draws upon but almost expands upon those books and really should be judged on its own merits, not theirs. That said, I wish to add that this is not a “best of” book, per se. Those who read it need not have read any of its predecessors, although I hope they eventually do read a few.
First, Lencioni makes a case for organizational health, not because the value of organizational health is in doubt but, rather, because it is ignored. “This is a shame because organizational health is different.” It seems reasonable to me that many (most?) executives take their company’s health for granted just as they take their own health for granted, at least until….
Next, Lencioni introduces “The Four Disciplines Model” and devotes a separate chapter to each discipline. With appropriate modifications, this model can be of substantial value to leaders in any company, whatever its size and nature may be. “An organization does not become [and remain] healthy in a linear, tidy fashion. Like building a strong marriage or family, it’s a messy process that involves doing things at once, and it must be maintained on an ongoing basis in order to be preserved. Still, that messy process can be broken down into four simple disciplines.” They are best considered within the book’s narrative, in context. Suffice to say now that both a company’s health and an organization’s health (be it a company, school, church, etc.) requires a team effort. Moreover, in addition to being competent in what they are expected to do, members of the team must also communicate, cooperate, and collaborate effectively with each other. Lencioni recommends four specific steps to build such a team
To achieve clarity (i.e. everyone involved “being on the same page”), Lencioni recommends that “six simple but critical questions” be asked and then answered. My own opinion is that these questions should be posed frequently. Why? The best answer to that is provided by this anecdote. Years ago, a colleague of Albert Einstein’s at Princeton pointed out to him that he always asked the same questions on his final examination. “Yes, that’s quite true. Each year, the answers are different.”
Question #3 is “What do we do?” and reminds me of another anecdote. When Home Depot held a meeting of its store managers many years ago, one of the company’s co-founders (either Bernie Marcus or Arthur Blank) reminded them that when a customer came through the door, it was not to purchase a quarter-inch drill. Rather, to purchase a quarter-inch hole.
The section entitled “The Centrality of Great Meetings” provides an explanation of how to sustain the rigor of the four disciplines, hence the health of the given organization. My own opinion is that very few meetings are “great.” Most accomplish little (if anything) while wasting precious time, energy, attention, and enthusiasm. They are usually detrimental to organizational health. However, Lencioni asserts – and I agree – that there are four different types (conducted on a regular basis) that can be “great” if leaders follow the guidelines he recommends. (Please check out the material in Pages 175-187.) Of course, if an organization’s leaders are inept with regard to establishing and then following the four disciplines, meetings will accomplish nothing.
For whom will this book be most valuable? It will help leaders of an organization that either needs to “get in shape” or “get in better shape” to gain or increase its competitive advantage. The key considerations include teamwork and clarity. An effective leader is imperative. If everyone is in charge, no one is. Moreover, with regard to clarity, repetition is imperative. There must be constant reminders – perhaps in the form of affirmations – of the shared vision and of what is most important to achieving it. Lencioni calls it “overcommunication.”
Patrick Lencioni brilliantly explains why organizational health trumps everything else in business and, in fact, in all other domains of human initiatives. I presume to add, so does terminal illness.
An entrepreneur and veteran of the computer industry, Frank Moss spent his career bringing innovative technologies to market. Ten years ago he set out to make a broader contribution to the world, leading him to cofound a cancer drug discovery company and then to the MIT Media Lab, where he served as director from 2006 – 2011, and where today he is Professor of the Practice of New Media Medicine. Moss was born in Baltimore, Maryland, where as a teenager he became hooked on America’s fledgling space program, and went on to earn a BSE from Princeton and a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.
His career began at IBM in Haifa, Israel and he held management positions at IBM research, Apollo Computer and Lotus Development. He was CEO and chairman of Tivoli Systems, which he took public in 1995 and merged with IBM a year later. He cofounded many companies, including Stellar Computer, Bowstreet, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and Bluefin Labs. Moss was a trustee of Princeton from 2007-2011 and is currently serves on the advisory councils there, the Mayo Clinic and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. His book The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives was published in June 2011. Twitter @frank_moss and www.frankmoss.com.
Here is an excerpt from my interview of him. To read the complete interview, please click here.
Morris: Before discussing Sorcerers, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? Please explain.
Moss: Definitely my dad, Sam Moss. He instilled in his children the core values that have driven my life: family, humor and the passion to make the world a better place.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development?
Moss: While I was just starting my career at the IBM TJ Watson Labs I had the opportunity to work on occasion with Dr. Ralph Gomory, a prominent mathematician who was head of the Research division. He was truly a strategic thinker, always questioning conventional wisdom and willing to take huge risks. His philosophy for managing innovation was to gather the very best possible people, from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and give them the freedom to explore their passions, make mistakes and learn. I tried to bring these values to all my companies.
Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Moss: Actually, my “epiphany” occurred just in the past five years, after joining the MIT Media Lab as its director. Many of the innovations at the lab were directed at people who are disabled or disadvantaged. But I began to notice that many of these innovations could also apply more broadly to the general population. For instance, a “social emotional prosthetic” that enables people with autism to better “read faces” could also by marketing professionals in organizations to understand the reaction of customers to their products. This “epiphany” has greatly influenced the direction of my career, both in the new areas of research I took the Media Lab and in the new companies that I am now creating.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?
Moss: It is really very hard to say what has been truly “invaluable” about my formal education. I suspect that the network of friends and acquaintances that I met during my college years – not the courses I took – continues to nourish me the most in both my professional and personal life.
Morris: As you know, there has been sometimes quite severe criticism in recent years of MBA programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools, including MIT Sloan and Harvard. In your opinion, in which area is there greatest need for immediate improvement? Why?
Moss: The business world is changing at such a dramatic rate that it is becoming hard to see the role that a traditional MBA degree will play in the future. In the era of large corporations, business schools produced graduates who understood process, governance and strategy by studying “business cases” and best practices. But all of that is now virtually obsolete with the emergence of startups as the driver of the economy. But how do you teach entrepreneurship? From what I have seen, business schools are now not much more than fancy startup incubators. They need to evolve dramatically if they are to remain relevant by becoming a much more integral part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work for IBM in Haifa, Israel?
Moss: Business success is all about being able to tell compelling stories – drop the slides and Powerpoint presentations completely.
Morris: Is starting a company today easier, more difficult, or about the same as it was (let’s say) 20 years ago? Why?
Moss: A lot easier in some ways, but a lot harder in others. On the easy side, technology has lowered the bar by providing the basic infrastructure that enables one to create a new product or service quickly and cheaply. On the hard side, investors have become more risk averse, so if you have a truly novel idea that has not already been proven, at least to some extent, it is very difficult to get it funded.
Morris: Here’s a related question. Are the chances for a start-up’s success today better, worse, or about the same as they were then? Why?
Moss: In general, I think they are probably worse. There are too many startups out there with propositions that are incremental or not unique. Sometimes there are hundreds or even thousands of startups going after the same derivative idea. On the other hand, I think that if you have a product or service that is truly revolutionary, the chances are actually better than before but there are precious few of these.
Morris: Please explain the process by which you became director of the MIT Media Lab. For example, which issues had to be addressed? How and why did you eventually accept the offer?
Moss: I was happily on my way to starting a new company when I got a call from a headhunter asking if I would like to interview for the position of director of the MIT Media Lab. I answered that although I appreciated the offer, I had left the academic world for the business world a long time ago, and had no desire to return. I believed that all academic researchers did was write papers and attend conferences. But the headhunter was insistent that I visit the lab, and I finally gave in. What I discovered during my visit completely changed my mind about what a university research lab could be. Students from a wide variety of backgrounds were hunched over worktables, tinkering with hardware and building working prototypes of their ideas; and when I stopped by they described and demoed their inventions with unbridled enthusiasm and passion. Several weeks later, late at night in a weekend, I visited the lab with my kids, and it was buzzing with activity. After we left, they insisted that I take the job.
Morris: For those unfamiliar with the Lab, when and why was it founded?
Moss: The Media Lab was founded over twenty-five years ago by a band of professors who wanted to completely change the model of academic research. They believed in creating an environment where researchers from a broad array of disciplines – from artists to designers to computer scientist to physicists to architects – would have the freedom to invent and create according to their passions. One of the basic precepts was that the best way to predict the future is to invent it (as described by an early collaborator and famous computer scientist Alan Kay) and that the best way to invent is to “just do it” – build what you are thinking about rather than thinking about what to build. In that way, you often end up solving big problems in a novel way by the process of serendipity.
Morris: Here’s a two-part follow-up question: To what extent (if any) has that original mission changed? What are the defining responsibilities of its director?
Moss: The mission of the Media Lab is essentially the same: inventing digital technologies that can improve our everyday lives, and in the process, transform society.
The role of director of the Media Lab does not have a job description attached to it. Each director, from the Media Lab co-founder and first director Nicholas Negroponte, to my successor Joi Ito, has brought different experiences and skills to the table. Negroponte was a great visionary and a prolific fundraiser, exactly the skills that were needed to get the nascent lab off the ground. When I arrived, the Media Lab had different needs, one of which was to find a way to provide increased value to its corporate sponsors. Therefore, my experience in the business world at both large companies and startups, from research to product development and marketing, was a plus. All directors of the Media Lab need to be good storytellers, able to paint a picture of where technology is taking humanity in the future, and how the lab is helping to make that future happen.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Frank cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites.
My author website: www.frankmoss.com
My twitter handle: @frank_moss
The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives
Crown Business (2011)
How and why “individuals empowered with radically new technologies…can succeed in transforming society”
Note: The title of my review is taken from one of the observations made by Frank Moss in the Preface: “I am convinced now that individuals, empowered with radically new technologies that you will read about in the pages ahead, can succeed in transforming society” from the bottom up where our institutions have dismally failed. This has greatly increased my sense of optimism for the future, and I hope it will do the same for you.”
As Moss’s background clearly indicates, he is eminently well-qualified to discuss these and other issues. Currently, he is managing partner of Strategic Software Ventures, LLC, and a part-time professor of the practice at the MIT Media Lab, where he heads the New Media Medicine group. He has spent his career developing innovative technologies and bringing them to market. He was director of the MIT Media Lab from 2006-2011, where he held the Jerome Wiesner Professorship of Media Technology, and before that he had a 30-year career as an entrepreneur in the software and computer industries. Moss holds a BSE from Princeton University in Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences and a PhD from MIT in Aeronautics and Astronautics. He serves on Princeton University’s board of trustees
I agree with Oliver Sacks: “We must humanize technology before it dehumanizes us.” I also agree with Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That is to say, technology will dehumanize us only if we allow it to. Hence the delicious as well as daunting relevance of this book’s title, one that can be traced back at least to one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poems, Der Zauberlehrling, written in 1797.
What Moss offers in this book is a personal and extended tour of the MIT Media Lab where “digital magicians” (modern day “sorcerers”) are “creating innovative technologies that will transform our lives.” In fact, several already have or are now in the process of doing so. He carefully explains the process by which the Lab’s capabilities are developed, who have been centrally involved in that process, and what lessons can be learned that increase our understanding of what the probable relationship will be between “sorcerers” and their “apprentices” in years to come.
Here are a few of the dozens of passages that caught my eye, then engaged me within Moss’s lively as well as eloquent narrative:
“Media Lab [isn’t] just a place where you dream up inventions. Here, you are expected to actually build, test, and demonstrate them.” (Page 13)
“Sometimes designed serendipity can lead to inventions that are quite literally magic. To see how, press the rewind button back to 1967 when fourteen-year-old Tod Machover, now a world-renowned composer of ‘Hyper’-symphonies and robotic operas, inventor of electronic instruments, and head of the lab’s Opera of the Future group, first heard the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Page 98)
“How close are we, you might be wondering, to having a sophisticated robot housekeeper like the Jetsons’ Rosie (only less clumsy, who helps you cook the family dinner, does the dishes, and then helps the kids with their homework? [Matt] Berlin concedes, ‘We’re not there yet.’” (Page 171)
John Moore. MD, a PhD student in the Lab’s New Media Medicine group, takes an approach that enables ordinary people to take control of their own health. It is based on the conviction that “if given access to in formation about their health, and the deep understanding of what it means, patients can collaborate better with their physicians and play a much more proactive role in their own health care.” (Page 195)
These are but a few of dozens (hundreds?) of passages in which Moss examines very real people involved in a wide range of experiments at the MIT Media Lab whose common purpose is to improve the quality of human life with new or better, more effective applications of radically new technologies.
I cannot recall another book that I enjoyed reading more while learning so much about so many different subjects about which I knew little (if anything) previously. Also, I appreciate having had the pleasure of Frank Moss’s company and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to meet so many of his colleagues.
Peter Bregman is the author, most recently, of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. He advises and consults with CEOs and their leadership teams in organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups to nonprofits. He speaks worldwide on how people can lead, work, and live more powerfully. He is a frequent guest on public radio, provides commentary for CNN, and writes for Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, and Psychology Today. He is also the author of Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change.
Peter began his career teaching leadership on wilderness and mountaineering expeditions with Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School. He moved into the consulting field with the Hay Group and Accenture and, in 1998, he founded Bregman Partners, a global management consulting firm.
Peter earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his M.B.A. from Columbia University. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children and can be reached at www.peterbregman.com, where you can subscribe to be notified when he writes a new article.
To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing 18 Minutes, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal and professional growth? How so?
Bregman: There are so many people. I couldn’t reduce it to one person. I view life as an almost infinite number of small steps, experiences, learnings, and aha moments. Each one moves us in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems like it takes me 20 times making the same mistake before I learn to avoid it. And then I make new mistakes. And each time, I have new teachers and people I admire who influence me and help me develop and grow.
Certainly my parents fit in the category of being important teachers. And Eleanor, my wife, has a great influence on me. Then there are friends of mine – some accomplished, like the late Dr. Alan Rosenfield who was the dean of the school of public health and a remarkable man, and some who are simply kind thoughtful intelligent people who live their lives in a way that I admire. And then, of course, there are my children who, these days, may have the greatest influence on my growth because I feel such a need to be a better person in order to be a good Dad.
Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Bregman: It was more of an experience. I went on a camping trip that was training me to lead camping trips and I fell in love with outdoor leadership. The people on the trip were generous and talented and simply good people and living in nature and leading people to work effectively with each other felt great. I just loved it. That trip set me on the course that I’m on today.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished thus far?
Bregman: It’s been helpful, to be sure. But it’s been one experience of many that move me – both emotionally and practically – toward my accomplishments. I loved going to school and I was fortunate enough to have terrific teachers – not just because they were talented and smart – but because they cared, we’re passionate about their subjects and about learning, and took an interest in me. Also, my fellow students always taught me as much as my formal teachers. Learning really does happen in every moment if you are interested.
Morris: What specifically do you know now that you wish you knew when you began teaching leadership on wilderness and mountaineering expeditions with Outward Bound and then the National Outdoor Leadership School?
Bregman: Not much. I enjoy having life uncovered as I experience it. I’ve made mistakes for sure, but I don’t really regret any of them. Each of my mistakes has helped me become clear about what’s important to me and how I want to act in the future. Each mistake teaches me something. I’m pretty pleased with my decisions – good and not so good – and I’m happy with the way knowledge has unfolded for me in my life.
Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) about the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?
Bregman: I believe that charisma is really important. I think people want to be inspired by their leaders. I know I do. But it can’t be all charisma – leaders need to create processes, organizations, and other leaders who can operate independently of them.
Morris: Although hardly an authority, I am a serious student of great leaders throughout history. However different they may be in most respects, all of them seem to have been great storytellers. Presumably you agree. How do you explain that?
Bregman: Great leaders engage the emotions of those around them. Great leaders help us feel passion and loyalty and courage and persistence and a million other things. Great leaders help us feel deeply. And stories are one of the best ways to help people connect to their feelings.
Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations and much of the resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?
Bregman: I don’t believe that people resist change. We all change, purposefully and intentionally every day. We get married, have babies, change jobs, move – and those are some of the big ones. We also change what we eat, how we travel, and places we visit on vacation.
People don’t resist change, they resist being changed. I don’t mind changing as long as it’s my choice. But I will resist when you try to change me. I don’t like to lose control.
So the way you avoid resistance to change is you don’t force it. This is what I wrote my first book about – Point B: A Short Guide to Leading A Big Change. The book includes 7 strategies for creating change without resistance. The strategies are counter-intuitive like “get the change half right.” We usually try to make change perfect but that leaves no room for people to write themselves into it.
Instead of shooting for perfect, we should be shooting for half finished and then let the people we want to buy in to the change finish it. It’s while they are perfecting the change themselves that they buy in to it.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Peter Bregman cordially invites you to check out the resources at www.peterbregman.com.
Here is an excerpt from an article that appeared in The Atlantic(January/February 2010) in which Amanda Ripley shares what she learned about recent efforts to improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning in public schools. She also discusses Teach for America (TFA), a non-profit organization founded by Wendy Kopp in 1990 after she graduated from Princeton. TFA’s purpose then and now is to recruit, train, and then deploy recent college graduates and other carefully selected applicants teach for two years in impoverished inner-city and rural communities where the quality of public school education tends to be poor and morale is often worse.
I highly recommend Kopp’s two books, One Day, All Children…The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way (Public Affairs, 2003) and A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All (Public Affairs 2011).
To read the complete Atlantic article, please click here.
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For years, the secrets to great teaching have seemed more like alchemy than science, a mix of motivational mumbo jumbo and misty-eyed tales of inspiration and dedication. But for more than a decade, one organization has been tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and looking at why some teachers can move them three grade levels ahead in a year and others can’t. Now, as the Obama administration offers states more than $4 billion to identify and cultivate effective teachers, Teach for America is ready to release its data.
On August 25, 2008, two little boys walked into public elementary schools in Southeast Washington, D.C. Both boys were African American fifth-graders. The previous spring, both had tested below grade level in math.
One walked into Kimball Elementary School and climbed the stairs to Mr. William Taylor’s math classroom, a tidy, powder-blue space in which neither the clocks nor most of the electrical outlets worked.
The other walked into a very similar classroom a mile away at Plummer Elementary School. In both schools, more than 80 percent of the children received free or reduced-price lunches. At night, all the children went home to the same urban ecosystem, a ZIP code in which almost a quarter of the families lived below the poverty line and a police district in which somebody was murdered every week or so.
[Be sure to check out the video of four teachers in four different classrooms who demonstrate methods that work, courtesy of Teach for America’s video archive, available at http://www.teachingasleadership.org/.]
At the end of the school year, both little boys took the same standardized test given at all D.C. public schools—not a perfect test of their learning, to be sure, but a relatively objective one (and, it’s worth noting, not a very hard one).
After a year in Mr. Taylor’s class, the first little boy’s scores went up—way up. He had started below grade level and finished above. On average, his classmates’ scores rose about 13 points—which is almost 10 points more than fifth-graders with similar incoming test scores achieved in other low-income D.C. schools that year. On that first day of school, only 40 percent of Mr. Taylor’s students were doing math at grade level. By the end of the year, 90 percent were at or above grade level.
As for the other boy? Well, he ended the year the same way he’d started it—below grade level. In fact, only a quarter of the fifth-graders at Plummer finished the year at grade level in math—despite having started off at about the same level as Mr. Taylor’s class down the road.
This tale of two boys, and of the millions of kids just like them, embodies the most stunning finding to come out of education research in the past decade: more than any other variable in education—more than schools or curriculum—teachers matter. Put concretely, if Mr. Taylor’s student continued to learn at the same level for a few more years, his test scores would be no different from those of his more affluent peers in Northwest D.C. And if these two boys were to keep their respective teachers for three years, their lives would likely diverge forever. By high school, the compounded effects of the strong teacher—or the weak one—would become too great.
Parents have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school, statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of their children. Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools—even supposedly good schools—than among schools.
But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.
At last, though, the research about teachers’ impact has become too overwhelming to ignore. Over the past year, President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have started talking quite a lot about great teaching. They have shifted the conversation from school accountability— the rather worn theme of No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s landmark educational reform—to teacher accountability. And they have done it using one very effective conversational gambit: billions of dollars.
Thanks to the stimulus bonanza, Duncan has lucked into a budget that is more than double what a normal education secretary gets to spend. As a result, he has been able to dedicate $4.3 billion to a program he calls Race to the Top. To be fair, that’s still just a tiny fraction of the roughly $100 billion in his budget (much of which the government direct-deposits into the bank accounts of schools, whether they deserve the money or not). But especially in a year when states are projecting $16 billion in school-budget shortfalls, $4.3 billion is real money. “This is the big bang of teacher-effectiveness reform,” says Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that helps schools recruit good teachers. “It’s huge.”
Despite the perky name, Race to the Top is a marathon—and a potentially grueling one; to win, states must take a series of steps that are considered radical in the see-no-evil world of education, where teachers unions have long fought efforts to measure teacher performance based on student test scores and link the data to teacher pay. States must try to identify great teachers, figure out how they got that way, and then create more of them. “This is the wave of the future. This is where we have to go—to look at what’s working and what’s not,” Duncan told me. “It sounds like common sense, but it’s revolutionary.”
Based on his students’ test scores, Mr. Taylor ranks among the top 5 percent of all D.C. math teachers. He’s entertaining, but he’s not a born performer. He’s well prepared, but he’s been a teacher for only three years. He cares about his kids, but so do a lot of his underperforming peers. What’s he doing differently?
One outfit in America has been systematically pursuing this mystery for more than a decade—tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and analyzing why some teachers can move those kids three grade levels ahead in one year and others can’t. That organization, interestingly, is not a school district.
Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools, began outside the educational establishment and has largely remained there. For years, it has been whittling away at its own assumptions, testing its hypotheses, and refining its hiring and training. Over time, it has built an unusual laboratory: almost half a million American children are being taught by Teach for America
teachers this year, and the organization tracks test-score data, linked to each teacher, for 85 percent to 90 percent of those kids. Almost all of those students are poor and African American or Latino. And Teach for America keeps an unusual amount of data about its 7,300 teachers—a pool almost twice the size of the D.C. system’s teacher corps.
Until now, Teach for America has kept its investigation largely to itself. But for this story, the organization allowed me access to 20 years of experimentation, studded by trial and error. The results are specific and surprising. Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.
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To read the complete article, please click here.
Amanda Ripley is the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why.