Saturday, August 30, 2014

Management Lessons from Dr. Who: Robert Sutton Edition

The Doctor: "So tell me, what do you think of the view?"

Half-Face Man: "It is beautiful."

The Doctor: "No, it isn't. It's just far away. Everything looks too small. I prefer it down there Everything is huge. Everything is so important. Every detail, every moment, every life clung to."

Did I mention the balloon is made out of human skin?
Perhaps a reflection of how "small" people were to the cyborg.
The above is one of my favorite lines from the Season 8 premiere of Doctor Who, featuring Peter Capaldi as the brand new face of the Doctor. It takes place in a hot-air balloon above the city of London as the Doctor attempts to reason with a cyborg built largely out of human parts ("Hello, hello...rubbish robots from the dawn of time..."). It isn't getting the praise that the Doctor's alley scene or the Clara/Doctor "egomania" restaurant spat are (which are both brilliant), but it was a small glimpse into how the Doctor sees the world. "Those people down there," the Doctor growls, "they're never small to me." The line about big and small resonated with me not only on both a theological and moral level, but even from a management perspective. Stanford professor Robert Sutton has addressed the management vs. leadership trend by pointing out the danger behind it:

[T]his distinction seems to be used as a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve... “Big picture only” leaders often make decisions without considering the constraints that affect the cost and time required to implement them, and even when evidence begins mounting that it is impossible or unwise to implement their grand ideas, they often choose to push forward anyway...[T]he worst senior executives use the distinction between leadership and management as an excuse to avoid the details they really have to master to see the big picture and select the right strategies. Therefore, harking back to the Bennis theorem I quoted above, let me propose a corollary: To do the right thing, a leader needs to understand what it takes to do things right, and to make sure they actually get done” (bold mine).

Sutton sees the distinction between leadership and management as 

accurate but dangerous because it distorts how too many bosses--at all levels--view and do their work. It encourages bosses to see generating big and vague ideas as the important part of their jobs--and to treat implementation, or pesky details of any kind, as mere “management work” best done by “the little people.” Even if left it unsaid, this distinction reflects how too many bosses think and act. They use it to avoid learning about people they lead, technologies their companies use, customers they serve, and numerous other crucial little things. Among the CEOs, Brad Smith of Intuit (maker of popular software such as QuickBooks and TurboTax) reacted most strongly to these arguments. He explained they struck a nerve because of his experience with developing new managers: The best are obsessed with learning details about every aspect of the business; the worst--the least promising and most arrogant--treat such nuances as being somehow beneath them (bold mine).

Sutton warns of what he calls “Clusterfugs”: "a deadly blend of illusion, incompetence, and impatience [that] creates disasters." These are often "attributable to a failure to “do things right” rather than a failure to try to “do the right thing.” For a recent brilliant analysis of one such “clusterfug” see Harvard's Amy Edmondson’s piece on the botched Obamacare rollout. Such sad tales further reinforce my view that thinking about what could happen, and exhorting people to make it so, is a lot easier than actually getting it done. What's that old saying? Isn't it, "strategy is for amateurs and logistics are for professionals."

Organizations, according to Sutton, need both poets and plumbers. They need to "weave together the "birds eye view," the big picture, with "the worm's eye view," the nuances and tiny little actions required to make bold ideas come to life." As a 2,000 year old Time Lord, I think the Doctor understands this quite well. Managers should take note. 

With that, watch the Doctor regenerate into his newest incarnation (Capaldi) below. And watch Season 8. It's shaping up to be amazing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Meeting Core Needs

Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath of the Energy Project have an excellent article in The New York Times titled "Why You Hate Work." The gist of the article demonstrates that organizations must be recognized as communities (my word, not theirs) made up of actual people. This requires organizations to meet what the authors call "core needs":

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

The more effectively leaders and organizations support employees in meeting these core needs, the more likely the employees are to experience engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy at work, and the lower their perceived levels of stress. When employees have one need met, compared with none, all of their performance variables improve. The more needs met, the more positive the impact.

The specific examples of increased "engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy" are impressive:

Renewal: Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being. The more hours people work beyond 40 — and the more continuously they work — the worse they feel, and the less engaged they become. By contrast, feeling encouraged by one’s supervisor to take breaks increases by nearly 100 percent people’s likelihood to stay with any given company, and also doubles their sense of health and well-being.

Value: Feeling cared for by one’s supervisor has a more significant impact on people’s sense of trust and safety than any other behavior by a leader. Employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67 percent more engaged.

Focus: Only 20 percent of respondents said they were able to focus on one task at a time at work, but those who could were 50 percent more engaged. Similarly, only one-third of respondents said they were able to effectively prioritize their tasks, but those who did were 1.6 times better able to focus on one thing at a time.

Purpose: Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations — the highest single impact of any variable in our survey. These employees also reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and they were 1.4 times more engaged at work.

It is exciting that the evidence points to a more human-driven business model. According to the authors, "more and more companies are taking up this challenge — most commonly addressing employees’ physical needs first, through wellness and well-being programs. Far less common is a broader shift in the corporate mind-set from trying to get more out of employees to investing more in meeting their needs, so they’re both capable of and motivated to perform better and more sustainably." 

I hope to see more organizations focusing on all core needs. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Alain de Botton on Work

I just downloaded author Alain de Botton's book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, but haven't cracked it open yet. The following inspired me to check it out.

Is the daily grind of work an escape from the big questions? Is daily work about imposing order on the seemingly meaningless chaos of human existence? Does work allow us to become something greater than we are ordinarily?

Questions to think about.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Don Bradley & the Sanctification of Progress

Below is a presentation by historian Don Bradley at the 2014 Conference for the Mormon Transhumanist Association entitled "Mormonism: The Sanctification of Human Progress." It has significant overlap with some of the themes in my own paper (co-authored with and presented by Allen Hansen) from the same conference.

Some of my favorite quotes:

  • The idea of a necessary apocalyptic bottleneck in our future progress is the only obvious barrier (that I can see) to accepting Mormon theology's implication that all human progress is progress toward the deification of human kind and the transfiguration and ultimate celestialization of the earth.
  • On this vision, the principle of stewardship extends to every human endeavor. Stewardship doesn't just apply to church callings and families, it also applies to work, personal consumption, management of resources, care of our community, and every other domain.
  • Perhaps our approaches to the spiritual and temporal should reciprocally inform each other. Maybe instead of just transferring the simplicity with which we often approach spiritual problems to deal with temporal problems, we should transfer some of the complexity and rigor we've developed in dealing with temporal problems to how we engage spiritual problems. In temporal problem-solving we take for granted that we might need to learn methods and practice, practice, practice in order to hone skills. Yet, in spiritual problem-solving we seem to expect that God will do all the work except for the nominal "studying out" the problem in our mind, after which God is obligated to give us the right answer...We expect that calculus will be hard, but that gaining revelation from God Almighty will be easy. One implication of the intimate relationship of temporal and spiritual is that lessons learned in our temporal lives may have relevance for how we pursue our spiritual lives

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Do What You Love

There is much in Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement speech that I applaud. For example, the importance of interdisciplinary study and collaboration was made apparent in his story about the influence of a calligraphy course on the Macintosh design. Implicit in this approach (whether Jobs demonstrated this in practice or not)[1] is a sense of intellectual humility. "None of us is an expert at everything," writes author and historian John Dickson. "...Despite the collective brilliance represented by my readers, what we don't know and can't do far exceeds what we do know and can do. A little humility, then, is hardly rocket science. It is common sense."[2] And while this advocates for lifelong, multifaceted learning, it also demonstrates the need for others with various backgrounds, skills, and experiences. It hits on some of the best aspects of both personal development and group collaboration. However, the advice in the video above to “do what you love,” though appealing, negates an important and inescapable feature of life: mundaneness. Writing in the leftist magazine Jacobin, Miya Tokumitsu explains, "There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers." In essence, there is a contradiction between the humble, inclusive nature of Jobs’ interdisciplinary approach and the rather self-absorbed DWYL mantra. "By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness," continues Tokumitsu, "DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment…Under the DWYL credo, labor that is done out of motives or needs other than love (which is, in fact, most labor) is not only demeaned but erased." The DWYL mantra “is ultimately self-focused to the point of narcissism." The ability to “choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class."[3] 

A blog post at Harvard Business Review a couple years back actually argued against "doing what you love" for four other reasons:

  1. You love it--but you're not great at itIt’s hard to judge yourself accurately, so ask your friends and employer what your talents and weaknesses are, and then play to your strengths, even if they don’t lead you to what you would currently describe as your “perfect” job."
  2. You're skilled at your passion--but hate the work that surrounds it: "Many businesspeople are masters at their craft but drop the ball when it comes to everything else...It’s possible to learn these skills, but, for many, the process sucks the joy out of their chosen field."
  3. You're too emotionally attached: "Writers who get too close to their work and take criticism too personally never improve. Similarly, businesspeople need to look carefully at whether passion for their work is clouding their judgment. When you care deeply about a pet project, for example, it’s hard to make a rational decision about whether it should live or die."
  4. No one will pay for it: "You can turn a hobby into a job — but only if someone’s willing to pony up. Sometimes the market’s just too small...Sometimes the margins are too thin...And sometimes your company simply has other priorities."

"Doing what you love can inspire great dedication and a sense of meaning," the post concludes. "[B]ut sometimes, that passion can blind you to feedback (are you the only one who thinks it’s a good idea?), make you miserable (who knew launching the initiative would mean managing a dozen new staffers?), or harm your financial prospects." 

From my perspective, DWYL robs people of the chance to experience the Hasidic concept of avodah be-gashmiyut ("worship through corporeality"). Compare Jobs' 2005 commencement speech to that of the late David Foster Wallace. It was actually Wallace's "This Is Water" speech that first triggered my interest in finding the sacred in the mundane and it was a comment on a previous post dedicated to that speech that led to an eventual conference paper on the subject. Wallace notes that "whole, large parts of adult American life" are filled with "dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines..." Yet, "petty, frustrating crap like this" can be transformed from a "crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation" into something "not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down." This transformation comes from continual "attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day." Commenting on the Jacobin piece, philosopher Gordon Marino wrote in The New York Times,

My father didn’t do what he loved. He labored at a job he detested so that he could send his children to college...The universally recognized paragons of humanity — the Nelson Mandelas, Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Martin Luther Kings — did not organize their lives around self-fulfillment and bucket lists. They, no doubt, found a sense of meaning in their heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but they did not do what they were doing in order to achieve that sense of meaning. They did — like my father and some of those kids from town — what they felt they had to do...Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.

"When you are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God" (Mosiah 2:17).

And now, in honor of the Jacobin article's title, some U2.


1. Jobs could be authoritarian, but had a collaborative side as well. See Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

2. John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), Kindle edition. "Ch. 3: Common Sense: The Logic of Humility."

3. I agree with much of Tokumitsu's analysis, though her socialist perspective is one I don't share. For example, she claims that "DWYL is, in fact, the perfect ideological tool of capitalism" because...adjunct professors, fashion interns, and the arts don't get paid enough. Industries that are "feminized" attempt to "extract female labor for little or no compensation." It seems to me that those who pursue these industries are part of the very privileged (which I don't view as inherently bad) Tokumitsu is blasting, thus making such options viable. I've written on the gender gap both here at The Slow Hunch and at Difficult Run. For those interested in an economic analysis of wages, see the article "Classical Economics vs. the Exploitation Theory" by economist George Reisman.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

WWE - "Adam Miller and the Spirituality of Boredom"

As one who tends to feel slothful when bored, but anxious when overloaded, I was inspired by philosopher Adam Miller's presentation at the Miller Eccles Study Group a couple weeks ago. In a brief post at Worlds Without End, I summarize Miller's comments and connect them to a few subjects I've written on in the past regarding work and Hasidism. The history of the word "boredom" itself is interesting:

“Boredom” first became a word in 1852, with the publication of Charles Dickens’ convoluted (and sometimes boring) serial, Bleak House; as an emotional state, it obviously dates back a lot further. Roman philosopher Seneca talks about boredom as a kind of nausea, while Greek historian Plutarch notes that Pyrrhus (he of the “Pyrrhic victory”) became desperately bored in his retirement. Dr. Peter Toohey, a Classics professor at the University of Calgary, traced the path of being bored in 2011 in Boredom: A Lively History.
Among the stories he uncovered was one from the 2nd century AD in which one Roman official was memorialized with a public inscription for rescuing an entire town from boredom (the Latin taedia), though exactly how is lost to the ages. And the vast amount of ancient graffiti on Roman walls is a testament to the fact that teenagers in every era deface property when they have nothing else to do.
In Christian tradition, chronic boredom was “acedia”, a sin that’s sort of a proto-sloth. The “noonday demon”, as one of its early chroniclers called it, refers to a state of being simultaneously listless and restless and was often ascribed to monks and other people who led cloistered lives. By the Renaissance, it had morphed from a demon-induced sin into melancholia, a depression brought on by too aggressive study of maths and sciences; later, it was the French ennui.
There is a lot to digest in Adam's outlook on boredom (similar to Joseph Spencer's views on leisure)[1] and much that is valuable. I don't think I'll ever look at church (and how boring it is) the same way again.


1. Spencer's thoughts can be found in his For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014).

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Freedom to Flourish

With July 4th weekend wrapping up, I thought I'd share this video from the Institute of Faith, Work, and Economics entitled "Freedom to Flourish":

The think tank seems to pursue a research subject after my own heart, as demonstrated by the opening lines: "Our lives are not divided into two halves with one part being sacred and another part secular. Worship is not reserved only for Sunday morning, but for Monday morning as well." The institute's three core principles are:

  1. Each person is created in God’s image and, like Him, has a desire to be creative and to find fulfillment using their God-given talents through work. 
  2. All work, whether paid or volunteer, matters to God, and we as Christians are called to pursue excellence throughout the week – not just on Sundays – stewarding all that we’ve been given for God’s glory and for the flourishing of society. 
  3. Therefore, we as citizens must promote an economic environment that not only provides us the freedom to pursue our callings and flourish in our work but also reflects the inherent dignity of every human being.
I recognize a lot of what Mormons would call "consecration" in these principles.

Every moment is a gift. Every moment belongs to the One who gave us that moment.