Heads I win, Tails you lose

A telling observation from Laura Miller’s review in Salon of David Rothkopf’s “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making”:
“Taking a dinner party at the home of Chile’s finance minister, Andres Velasco, as an example, Rothkopf describes his uneasy response to the oligarchs around him. He realizes that they embrace the market-oriented philosophy of the “Chicago Boys,” Milton Friedman’s University of Chicago disciples, but only so long as the attendant suffering is limited to Chile’s lower classes. They quietly resist reforms that might nibble away at their iron control of the nation’s industries. “While many of the most powerful people in the country embrace ‘progress,'” Rothkopf observes of Chile, “they use their energy and political capital primarily on behalf of the changes that benefit them most directly. Elites in Chile have implicitly or explicitly resisted the changes that might create more competition, more entrepreneurship, more access to capital for the poor and middle classes.” As a result, though Chile is touted as Latin America’s great economic success story, profound inequities in its society have gone comparatively unchanged.”
Do I hear echoes here of Leona Helmsley’s “only little people pay taxes”.

A Conspiracy of Laughter revisited

Yesterday the phrase, “A conspiracy of laughter” floated into my mind. Quite what prompted it I don’t know, but I warmed to it anyway. It is what we need I thought. Today I remembered that I had written something about it on my blog, so I did a search. There it was on 20 June 2003,”A Conspiracy of Laughter”. Reading through it looking for a suitable extract, I thought why not reproduce it in full, So I have:
“I have long been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, whose New Yorker articles are reproduced on his site. What I like is the way that in his writing he comes up with fresh insights and unexpected patterns of connections. In one of his latest pieces Group Think:What does ‘Saturday Night Live’ have in common with German philosophy?”“, drawing on Randall Collin’s book, “The Sociology of Philosophies”, he He goes on to talk about a group surrounding Erasmus Darwin, who, as described by Jenny Uglow in her book, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World”“, illustrate the importance of informal, social interaction in the process of innovation.
“What were they doing? Darwin, in a lovely phrase, called it “philosophical laughing,” which was his way of saying that those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence.”
After I first read this I went round confidently misquoting my discovery of “a conspiracy of laughter” to any one who would listen. But as I have found before sometimes a misquote can be as telling as the real thing. I think in this time of what Seth Godin calls the Fundamentalists – people who “believe that they have found the one and only truth, and they can’t abide changing old rules in light of new data.”, we need as many conspiracies of laughter as we can find.”

Know by doing

Digging around on the often intriguing Metacool site, I came across this piece on routine innovation as exemplified by Honda. Well worth a read. Here’s a taster:
“Know by doing:  as the leader of the Ridgeline project, Gary Flint wasn’t isolated from reality by layers of managers.  He lived the details of the project to the point where, as he says in the article, he would even dust the office.  If you’re in there dusting, you’re probably also walking around, hearing and seeing the realities of the project.  And if you know those, you’ll know the critical things to focus on.  Honda has a long culture of knowing by doing, and of putting people in leadership positions who know — really know — the nuts and bolts of the business.”

What can we learn from baboons?

Prompted by a posting in the excellent 3Quarks I found my way to an article by Robert M. Sapolsky in Foreign Affairs, “A Natural History of Peace”, where he argues:
“Humans like to think that they are unique, but the study of other primates has called into question the exceptionalism of our species. So what does primatology have to say about war and peace? Contrary to what was believed just a few decades ago, humans are not ‘killer apes’ destined for violent conflict, but can make their own history.”

Sapolsky is a subtle thinker, whose combination of field work and lab work gives him an interestingly nuanced view of the interaction between genes, environment, social context and physiology. While I have somewhat provocatively titled this post, “What can we learn from baboons?”, it would perhaps have been more accurate to ask “What can we learn from Robert M. Sapolsky?” and my answer would be “a lot”.
These days we are bombarded with advice about how and why we should change our lifestyles if we are to live healthy and productive lives. So we should eat “five a day”, stop smoking, drink moderately, take exercise, maintain the correct bmi and so on. What generally gets left out of all this is the importance of the nature of our social interactions and the very real physiological impact they can have on our health. To put it crudely – inequality kills.
One of the lessons I draw from Sapolsky is the vital importance of a sense of control over our lives for good health. This insight can be useful on an individual basis for formulating strategies to cope with the physiological impact of any sense of insecurity and inability to influence events in our lives.
And here, perhaps there is something we can learn from the baboons. Sapolsky’s account of the baboons that simply opted out of struggle for position in the hierarchy is one of the most optimistic things I have encountered for years:
“A handful of these guys simply walked away from it over the years. Nathaniel was one, and Joshua was another. They had the lowest stress hormone levels you’ve ever seen in male baboons, and outlived their cohorts.”
But the more important lesson is political. The evidence to me seems overwhelming that if we could shift our institutions and organisations so that the individuals within them felt that they had more power over their work and lives and a greater sense of solidarity with those that they work and live with, we would probably have both more effective and healthier institutions and organisations. Such a shift, would of course, mean moving away from the fragmented individualism that has been propagated over the last twenty or so years to a greater recognition that we are social beings and that a true individualism is more likely to thrive in a co-operative and collaborative context than one where individual competition is all.
Anyway, that is my reading of Sapolsky. Take a look at these and see if you agree:
“Stress, Neurodegeneration and Individual Differences”
A fascinating video of one of his lectures filled with good stuff one you get past the rather over long introduction.
A BOZO OF A BABOON: A Talk with Robert Sapolsky
My first encounter with Sapolsky at Edge back in 2004 where I warmed to his account of the drop out baboons.
Of Monkeys and Men
Another good interview from The Atlantic.
And finally, do read, “A Natural History of Peace” in Foreign Affairs, which has some of his latest thinking about this stuff.

How to add value

For a creature that lives in time we seem to have a very undeveloped sense of how things unfold over time. A classic example of this is how our financial markets so often reward those who slash and burn their way through a company making the numbers look good in the short term – and the short term here can be some years – before reality bites back and the value that has been destroyed in the process is finally revealed.
Steve Jobs’s remarks, “On managing through the economic downturn” makes a refreshing contrast to these hard-nosed fantasists:
“We’ve had one of these before, when the dot-com bubble burst. What I told our company was that we were just going to invest our way through the downturn, that we weren’t going to lay off people, that we’d taken a tremendous amount of effort to get them into Apple in the first place — the last thing we were going to do is lay them off. And we were going to keep funding. In fact we were going to up our R&D budget so that we would be ahead of our competitors when the downturn was over. And that’s exactly what we did. And it worked. And that’s exactly what we’ll do this time.”

The Great Unwinding

I’ve been planning to write something about the curious paradox of our system where financial markets operate in a free market fantasy detached from the world the are supposed to be servicing and our public services have adopted the old Soviet fantasy of centralised targets. In both cases we are beginning to see clear signs of reality biting back and the nonsenses of the past twenty years or so unravelling.
However, once again Simon Caulkin has beaten me to it:
“We live in strange times. In the private sector, market rules are so degraded that it has become the role of companies in the real economy, some built up over decades, to act as chips tossed around by high rollers in the City supercasino. Meanwhile, the public sector is in the grip of a central planning regime of a rigidity and incompetence not seen since Gosplan wrote Stalin’s Five-Year Plans.
You think I exaggerate? Well, as Exhibit A, consider the hedge funds that borrow company stock in order to vote for or against a proposal – a merger or takeover, say – not to further the interests of the company, but to make their previous bet on the firm’s share price come true. For Exhibit B, name another government since Leonid Brezhnev’s that prescribes 198 targets for local government, numbers and postings of junior doctors, reading methods for teachers in primary schools, cleaning techniques used in hospitals and how GPs should organise their appointment diaries.
Already individually dysfunctional in their own way, in combination these diametrically opposed management extremes deliver not the fabled ‘third way’, or at least not in any manner intended, but an unholy mess, from which we get the worst of both worlds.”

A Noticing Programme

Johnnie Moore opens a recent post on brainstorming with the caveat, “(Long slightly rambling post ahead)”. And, yes, the post that follows is both quite long and quite rambling and herein lies its strength. Although the focus of the piece is on brainstorming and some of Johnnie’s reservations about the process, the rambling nature of piece opens up spaces to to explore a whole range of crucial issues about how we can work productively and creatively together and the obstacles we place in the way of doing so.
I would urge you to go to this post, read it carefully and then join in the discussion that I hope will follow. There is much to be mined here.
The part I want to focus on here is where he talks about the importance of “noticing”. Paying attention is one of the central tenets of purposive drift. Those who have been following my ramblings will have noticed that a point I keep on returning to is the way that many of the plans and processes we adopt get in the way of us noticing what is actually going on. Or as Johnnie put it in an earlier post, “pay more attention to what is happening and less to your notion of what should be happening”.
In his brainstorming post, Johnnie suggest that, “… instead of having innovation programmes, we might try noticing programmes”. My sense is that the successful adoption of a “noticing programme” could be the biggest step that any one could take to transform an organisation in a positive way. What do you think?