Need for luck and learning: constant and continuous

Last week was rich pickings for insightful stories, for me. I still remain captivated by the story, ‘The case against Google’. I blogged on it here.

The next story that I liked immensely was the story in Wall Street Journal on GE under Jeff Immelt.

I like such stories not for the reason that they vindicate my priors (I remind myself not to hold too many of them!) but because they make me think.

This one short paragraph summed up the story rather well:

But Mr. Immelt didn’t like hearing bad news, said several executives who worked with him, and didn’t like delivering bad news, either. He wanted people to make their sales and financial targets and thought he could make the numbers, too, they said. [Link]

Jena McGregor in Washington Post has a good follow-on article on this story. She writes,

The article puts GE well out of its usual role as management exemplar. And it shines a light on a problem endemic to corporate America, leadership experts say. People naturally avoid conflict and fear delivering bad news. But in professional workplaces where a can-do attitude is valued above all else, and fears about job security remain common, getting unvarnished feedback and speaking candidly can be especially hard.

There was an added complication for Jeff Immelt. He was a celebrity CEO. No matter how hard he tried, people would hesitate to share bad news.

From Jane McGregor’s article:

Being led by a celebrity CEO who succeeded a man once named “manager of the century” probably doesn’t help either. Immelt, who rose through GE’s sales and marketing ranks before leading its plastics and health care divisions, became CEO after a high-profile horse race to succeed Jack Welch that catapulted him into the spotlight. One of the most recognized faces of corporate America for the 16 years he held the job (he stepped down last year) Immelt led President Obama’s jobs council and was considered as a veteran corporate hand to replace Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Leadership experts say such prestige can create a “social distance” between the CEO and direct reports, even if they make efforts to improve personal relationships. (Immelt, for instance, was known to host dinners with one of the top 185 officers of the company each month at his home and reconvene for a few hours the next morning to talk about their careers and their performance.)

“People tend to not want to tell them the bad stuff,” said Tim Pollock, a professor of business at Penn State University who has studied celebrity CEOs. “They become starstruck; they’re less likely to want to speak up and say negative things.”

As with most things in life, this too could go wrong. You could create an organisation culture where everyone only brings up bad news and uses them as an excuse not to perform or deliver. There is a fine line and no one knows where it is drawn.

It requires repeated experimentation, trial and error, learning by trying and, above all, good luck, to figure out the right balance between fostering a culture of frankness, honesty and of positivism; right balance between awareness of limitations and of strengths too.

In general, today’s world is a high pressure world – not just in jobs or in businesses but in just about everything. From parenting to maintaining social networks, friendships, from pursuing multiple interests. The culture is one of doing so much in so short a time. Efficiency and scale, even in personal lives, pursuits and social interactions, are privileged. They used to be expected only in business organisations.

When people are running everywhere and in every place with no place to rest, pause and reflect, anyone who allows them to step back, reflect and question these will actually be deemed a saviour! People feel grateful to be allowed to voice their self-doubts and inner doubts, their anxieties and frustrations once in a while and feel connected with those who do not hesitate to let them know that they share these too!

Therefore, that CEO or leader who allows his lieutenants the odd opportunity to step back, to say NO and to warn him of over-reaching, should be received with gratefulness and will be reciprocated with trust, commitment and higher motivation actually. That is my guess.

Not without dangers. Someone might take advantage and someone might embarrass the leader publicly about this. Some one in the media might say that the leader is a shirker and the share price might nosedive! The leader will be out of his or her job soon.

It is not that easy to swim against the prevailing currents even if you are convinced that the current will eventually plunge into a ravine. Given time, it will be right. The GE story is an example. The company went with the social norms and ethos of the times – good news, optimism, success, high performance, not taking NO for answers and deadlines are yesterday, etc. Indeed, it defined the ethos and norms of the times. Has it succeeded? Now, we know that it has not.

But, it takes time to know that it does not work. Not many have that luxury of time or luck to take a bet against consensus norms and ethos and succeed. They have to live in a society and be part of it. Humans are social animals. They need to belong. Some of us actually come to like it. It is seductive. It is lonely to be not part of it. Not easy.

The best we can do is to be aware of how excessive any organisational culture can become and modulate it from time to time. No one size fits all and no one culture works in all situations.

Let us also not forget that these articles are appearing with the benefit of hindsight. Note this paragraph in the WSJ story:

Former GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin, who worked alongside Mr. Immelt during challenges such as the financial crisis, said the CEO would methodically approach a problem with his team, consider multiple viewpoints and communicate regularly with the board, making sure executives stayed focused on the most important issues. “I never found him to be overly optimistic,” said Mr. Sherin, who retired in 2016.

To his credit, Jeff Immelt did not preach one thing and practise another. He believed in his model:

At a conference hosted by Axios in November, the month after he stepped down as chairman ahead of schedule, Mr. Immelt noted that GE is “125 years old; we go through cycles,” and said he was “fully confident that this company is going to thrive in the future.”

A spokesman for the former CEO pointed to his decision to purchase $8 million worth of GE shares in 2016 and 2017. That included 100,000 shares in mid-May at a price roughly twice today’s.

The only enduring lesson in all this is that in business as elsewhere, the need for luck and learning is constant and continuous.

Are we ‘inevitably’ evil? – the story of the year

NY Times magazine published a very long piece titled, ‘The case against Google’. It will probably be the article of the year for me. It is a business case study, a public policy case study and a business ethics case study – all rolled into one. All of these are interwoven into the personal story of two small entrepreneurs whose search engine proved more powerful than Google for certain types of queries and how they paid for it!

Public policy students and analysts will appreciate the spirit behind ‘anti-trust’. In the process, you learn the story of Standard Oil, the story of Microsoft. Microsoft did win its appeal against anti-Trust decisions. It did not have to break up. But, the legal challenges – even though they failed – made the company a lot more sensitive and allowed an upstart (called Google) to emerge.

Google’s behaviour may not have been against consumer interests but was it simply fair?

One can also reflect on the spiritual and philosophical lessons of this. When Google was formed, it took on the motto, ‘Don’t be evil’. Has it lived up to it? Or, as one grows big, powerful and influential, does it become part of the DNA or almost inevitable to become ‘evil’? Is that true, almost without exception, for individuals, institutions, corporations and sovereigns?

[Note: Google’s new parent Alphabet abandoned that motto and took up, ‘Do the right thing’, circa 2015. Don’t be evil is simple and absolute. ‘Doing the right thing’ is relative, can be subject to interpretation and it can be bent. The yardsticks are malleable.]

Then, does it follow that if you are self-aware, you limit your own growth and stay small, lest you become inevitably evil?

Do we realise that, once we start rationalising, we are no longer wedded (but already divorced) to our values? In fact, the rationalisation is merely a confirmation of the divorce that would have happened some time earlier.

Is there no better way at all than to become inevitably evil? What is that ‘better way’ if there is one? What does it take to traverse down that path? Do the modern society and its organising principles militate against individuals, institutions and businesses walking down that path?

Or, is that question too a form of rationalisation? Isn’t it implicit in the question that we have simply re-arranged our priorities?

How do we stop rationalising or, better, realise that we have started rationalising?

Is it about having fearless upstarts and advisors telling us that? Does it work? In the Indian epic Ramayana, Kumbakarnan warns Ravana eloquently of the doom that he was courting by having brought Sita forcibly to his kingdom. It did not work. It was too late.

In Mahabharat, Vithurar was the voice of wise counsel in the Kaurava court. Even Vikarnan warns his brother, Duryodhana of the destruction that awaits in the path that he had chosen to walk on. No avail.

Indeed, even the wise ones and the exalted souls are not exempt. The illusion of size, power and influence shrouds their intellect. Knowledge, spirituality and reason retreat.

Therefore, ‘are we doomed to end up like this only?

Utterly fascinating, utterly educative and utterly and ultimately sobering, about us. [Link]

Jordan Peterson

Peggy Noonan has an interesting article (ht: Venugopal Ramakrishnan) on the interview of clinical psychologist and social philosopher Jordan Peterson by a British television journalist. From what she writes, I think Peterson’s work resonates with me. I listened to the interview he gave to Cathy Newman of Channel 4. He handled himself exceptionally well.

If you want to be shocked by how someone could so deliberately distort the interviewee’s words and if you do not want to watch the interview, you can read an article in ‘The Atlantic’.

I got to know of Jordan Peterson as the person who had interviewed the Google employee James Damore. Sunder Pichai fired him for posing important questions on the culture at Google. Now, Mr. Pichai says he stands by his decision. Well, I suppose, it is too early for a mea culpa. Julian Baggini has a review of his book at FT.

The sub-title of the review is: ‘A YouTube intellectual’s advice on how to live emphasises order and tradition’. That is enough to put any objective reader off. The arrogance of some of these self-styled intellectuals is blinding them to the obvious reality that it is not helping but hurting the very causes that they claim to espouse – so-called liberal values. There is nothing very liberal or liberating about putting down another person. It is cheap and vulgar. It is intolerance. There are far better, more effective and more persuasive ways of critiquing a book’s content or the lack of it.

Cathy Newman of Channel 4 and Julian Baggini have done the greatest disservice to genuinely liberal values and principles.

Peggy Noonan has an answer for Julian Baggini:

When cultural arbiters try to silence a thinker, you have to assume he is saying something valuable.

So I bought and read the book. A small thing, but it improved my morale.

As many readers-commentators in FT have said, the article in ‘The Guardian’ on his book is far more insightful. I could also read what Professor Peterson had to say about the backlash his interviewer from UK’s Channel 4, Cathy Newman, faced.

The last line of that article tells me that he is a liberal:

If Cathy is interested, maybe we could model a conversation. That would be a good thing.

That is the way to foster a dialogue.

The wisdom of Sébastian Bras for Mark Zuckerberg

The September 23rd International Edition of New York Times had two very beautiful stories. I caught up with them on my flight to Hong Kong.

The first story I want to mention here is that of Facebook. The article is aptly titled, ‘Facebook’s Frankenstein moment’. The article has some very interesting and profound sentences that should make us think of its relevance for human lives too.

The journalist writes:

If I were a Facebook executive, I might feel a Frankensteinian sense of unease these days. The company has been hit with a series of scandals that have bruised its image, enraged its critics and opened up the possibility that in its quest for global dominance, Facebook may have created something it can’t fully control.

One more:

But the troubles do make it clear that Facebook was simply not built to handle problems of this magnitude. It’s a technology company, not an intelligence agency or an international diplomatic corps. Its engineers are in the business of building apps and selling advertising, not determining what constitutes hate speech in Myanmar. And with two billion users, including 1.3 billion who use it every day, moving ever greater amounts of their social and political activity onto Facebook, it’s possible that the company is simply too big to understand all of the harmful ways people might use its products.

The last one:

When Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, nobody could have imagined its becoming a censorship tool for repressive regimes, an arbiter of global speech standards or a vehicle for foreign propagandists.

These three excerpts made me think. Multiple thoughts came to my head. There are lessons in this for corporate mission and goals; for humans.

Is growth the ‘be all and end all’ for corporations? Are we in control of what we do? When we begin to do something, do we even know in what directions it would grow and how big? Do we control the process all the way through? Do we realise that? Do we even know that we don’t drive the process but the process has a mind and life of its own? In fact, it is the real intelligence and we are the artificial one! Do we grasp the play of the law of unintended consequences in life and in business?

Only if we do, we can put our hand up and say STOP and not pursue growth for its own sake. When we conscioiusly question the ‘growth’ choices (becoming big or rich or both), we will even think of why we pursue those goals – megalomania or delusions of grandeur?

Plainly put, is it ego that drives and not any other so-called rational imperative? Per se, nothing wrong with ego having a role. It always does. But, recognising that will evaluate the trade-offs and the costs better and pursue corporate goals (or, personal goals) with a sense of awarenesss.

Every time we are offered choices to grow big and fast, the alternatives are ‘grow big but at a measured pace’ and ‘stability over growth’. How do we evaluate the choices? That would make a big difference. Going back to our origins, our goals at inception would help steer us better and keep us grounded even as we fancy taking flight to higher altitudes. Again, applies as much to businesses as it does to individuals and institutions.

And, to politicians! As they become bigger and bigger players, they move furhter and further from their core values and principles. IF they look into the mirror one day, they will not recognise the face they see. How much has it been transformed and HOW and WHY?

Staying close to one’s knitting and to one’s initial goals, staying small, compact and manageable vs. growing big, these are as much philosophical decisions as they are business decisions. When we choose the latter – growing big – we do have to recognise the possibility that we won’t be in the driver’s seat.

Letting the process drive us and growing big consciously are actually two different choices. The articles give us the opportunity to think about how many of us are victims or prisoners of the former? The second one is about freedom. Are we free?

[Of course, at a macro level or economic plane, there is a problem with this philosophy. A country of India’s size needs scale. Also, conversely, while the desire and passion to grow big brings with it, its own share of problems, issues and loss of control, the motivation to stay small should also be subjected to rigorous questioning? – laziness (sloth) or lack of confidence.]

But, in the American context and in the light of what Facebook has wrought to itself, to people’s lives (most users are on big ego trips on their Facebook page unmindful of their own privacy and security), the above questions and issues are more relevant than the parenthetical sentiment.

The story of the Michelin *** Chef putting his hand up and say STOP was a beautiful contrast to the Facebook story. He is a spiritual chef.

Mark Zuckerberg – and all of us – must have a conversation with Sébastian Bras. He is only 45 years old (google search). He wants Michelin to take his three stars away. Pointedly, he said this:

I want to be liberated from the pressure.

That is it. We have found our spiritual wisdom. That one sentence can unlock many things, many of our minds including that of Zuckerberg.

‘Liberation’ is a heavily loaded spiritual term. We are all held in bondage by our desires, by our goals and by social conventions, pressures and because ‘this is how and this is what everyone does’. Liberation is about letting go. He is ready to do that, at least in this aspect. If ‘letting go’ is not spiritual, what else is?

He said he wanted to give a new meaning to his life.  Bingo!

Towards the end of the article, there are quite a few profound truths, uttered by chefs. There is something very beautiful about hearing these words from chefs because food is the biggest craving for many of us. It is a very big bondage. Here, chefs are teaching us about ‘letting go’. There is a beautiful irony in it.

Sample this:

In 2005, Alain Senderens, a founder of the nouvelle cuisine movement, decided to close Lucas Carton, his Art Nouveau restaurant on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris and abandon his three stars. He said he was fed up with the agony of perfection and wanted to do “beautiful cuisine without all the tra-la-la and chichi, and put the money into what’s on the plate.”

Fed up with the ‘agony of perfection’ – think about it.  It is not an invitation for sloppiness. Indeed, the paradox is that he would most likely make food that delight scores of customers with this mindset.

Or, sample this:

Earlier this year, René Redzepi, 39, the chef and a co-owner of Noma in Denmark, a leading light of the New Nordic movement, said he was closing his two-starred restaurant and moving it to another neighborhood in Copenhagen, forsaking his hard-earned stars. He said in an interview that it was “necessary to break down a castle in order to build a new one.”

Of course, in my book, the gold goes to Sébastian Bras:

Mr. Bras, for his part, said his decision to shun the would-be supreme court of global cuisine had been motivated by a search for serenity. He noted that while the pressure to retain three stars could be an engine for creativity, it could also prove debilitating.

“Food should be about love — not about competition,” he said. “All I want is to welcome people to my restaurant during the day, or during the night under a sky filled with stars.”

All emphasis mine.

Sébastian Bras is not just a chef. He is a Guru.

[Postscript: A friend, on reading the post promptly, pointed out that the use of the word, ‘process’ can be confusing. A process-driven path to growth (or any other business or personal goals) may actually be considered the right way to go about it rather than the one that is ego-driven or driven by convention, social pressures or peer group pressure, etc. I have used the word, ‘process’, to denote these latter, unthinking and unconscious approaches]

Scarcity of nuance

A good friend forwarded an article by Ta Nihisi Coates – extracts from his forthcoming book, apparently – published in ‘The Atlantic’.

I read it and I was profoundly disappointed. It was an article written for the faithfuls. He was singing to the choir.

The author makes fundamental errors of distinguishing between ‘average’ and ‘at the margin’. Uses exclusionary arguments. Broadbrushes everybody else and quotes out of context. Contradicts himself liberally (pun intended).

It should be possible to accept and argue

that racism remains an issue in America,
that America has indeed made considerable progress,
that many conscientious Whites have done their bit to remove the racism barrier,
that the election in 2016 was between two unworthy candidates,
that the more populist won (because of race, among other things)
and that President Obama did not do much for blacks (except tokenism as he ‘did’ for world peace)

Exclusionary and exclusive arguments and assuming what one needs to establish are the stuff of polemics and not scholarship.

Articles or books such as these, in the environment that the world finds itself, won’t shake up the establishment and narrative. They would worsen the divide. What is in short supply is ‘nuance’ and that is what intellectuals need to supply. What is in short supply has value. Polemics and polarisation are on offer plentily. No value. Sheer Economics.

But, nuance is hard work.

Lilla on the ‘Liberal’ leela

Closely related to the previous post on the matter of James Damore vs. Google, is a long piece by Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University. It is an extract from his book being published today. It is long but it is time well spent. Google’s conduct exemplifies what he writes below:

It is time to admit that American liberalism is in deep crisis: a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, a crisis of attachment and trust on the side of the wider public. The question is, why? Why would those who claim to speak for and defend the great American demos be so indifferent to stirring its feelings and gaining its trust? Why, in the contest for the American imagination, have liberals simply abdicated?…..

Other sentences from his piece that are worth pondering over:

As a teacher, I am increasingly struck by a difference between my conservative and progressive students. Contrary to the stereotype, the conservatives are far more likely to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas and principles. Young people on the left are much more inclined to say that they are engaged in politics as an X, concerned about other Xs and those issues touching on X-ness. And they are less and less comfortable with debate.

Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X…This is not an anodyne phrase. It sets up a wall against any questions that come from a non-X perspective. Classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. What replaces argument, then, are taboos against unfamiliar ideas and contrary opinions…..

We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals for solidarity—including ones to benefit particular groups—in terms of principles that everyone can affirm……

Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. By publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But its decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and demand a confession of white sins and public penitence only played into the hands of the Republican right.

Frank Bruni’s article in the New York Times (‘I am a white man; hear me out’) is a good read too.

An inner search engine for Google

The story of former Google Engineer James Damore is dominating airwaves. He was fired for writing a memo that pointed to basic gender differences as one of the explanations for why there were so few women in software. It is not just about the firing of a single employee. It is about Google. Over time, being fired from his job might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for James Damore.

I had gone through his memo. You can find it here. I found it reasonably worded and argued. I listened to the 50-minute conversation of Prof. Jordan Peterson with James Damore. Professor Peterson at the University of Toronto cited many references that supported the points that Damore had made in his memo.

David Brooks in NYT wrote a good piece as to why Sunder Pichai should resign.

James Damore wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal as to why he was fired. It is interesting that he appeared to sympathise with Google management by blaming the ‘mob’ for ‘tying’ the hands of the management:

Upper management tried to placate this surge of outrage by shaming me and misrepresenting my document, but they couldn’t really do otherwise: The mob would have set upon anyone who openly agreed with me or even tolerated my views. When the whole episode finally became a giant media controversy, thanks to external leaks, Google had to solve the problem caused by my supposedly sexist, anti-diversity manifesto, and the whole company came under heated and sometimes threatening scrutiny.

Professor Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens have a comprehensive post at the Heterodox academy with a list of citations and research findings that both support and refute the points that Damore had made in his memo:

If you wanted to jump straight to their conclusion, here it is:

In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability. This distinction between interest and ability is important because it may address  one of the main fears raised by Damore’s critics: that the memo itself will cause Google employees to assume that women are less qualified, or less “suited” for tech jobs, and will therefore lead to more bias against women in tech jobs. But the empirical evidence we have reviewed should have the opposite effect. Population differences in interest may be part of the explanation for why there are fewer women in the applicant pool, but the women who choose to enter the pool are just as capable as the larger number of men in the pool. This conclusion does not deny that various forms of bias, harassment, and discouragement exist and contribute to outcome disparities, nor does it imply that the differences in interest are biologically fixed and cannot be changed in future generations.

If our three conclusions are correct then Damore was drawing attention to empirical findings that seem to have been previously unknown or ignored at Google, and which might be helpful to the company as it tries to improve its diversity policies and outcomes.  What should Google’s response to the memo have been? We’ll address that in a followup post next week. [Link – all emphasis mine]

Based on her personal experience, Megan McArdle agrees with James Damore.

In short, Google had an opportunity to set an example for what it means to be truly liberal. It blew it. Perhaps, Sunder Pichai’s education, background and experience did not prepare him for facing a situation like the one he faced with James Damore’s memo. It needed a non-Engineering approach. Perhaps, a woman would have handled it better? But then, Google’s diversity officer Danielle Brown did not offer any nuanced reaction. It was a mere prelude to the firing of James Damore.

There is very little to choose between the openly intolerant and not-so-openly intolerant. In fact, the former can be handled mostly through the law-and-order apparatus and framework but the latter is insidious and, hence, probably more dangerous.