Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Srini Chandrasekharan of What ho! fame on my blog. Srini’s Laughing gas is among my favorite reading haunts. On twitter, @waatho is one of my favorite places for chuckles. He is a published author of 3 Lives, In Search of Bliss and Instant Karma, a collection of short stories. Srini’s blog is a place where high quality humor and satire rub shoulders with science, philosophy and spirituality — an eclectic mix! And on the rare occasion when he comments on your blog, his comments are a delight in their clarity and knowledge, opening up new vistas of discussion. With great pleasure, I welcome him at my space. Over to Srini…
The Moron Menace
I don’t read management books. Frankly, most are a waste of time. I’d rather pay a person to beat me over the head repeatedly with a baseball bat. Management books are compilations of mythologies. The few that are written well are fun to read, rather like Harry Potter novels. But they don’t work well beyond the contexts from which they arose.
Davids and Highly Successful People..
A rare alignment of stars and the wind blowing at exactly the right speed in the right direction worked for David on the day he decided to load up his sling and take a shot at Goliath. There’s no record of David having slain giants either before or after this tale. In fact, when he became king, David did not distribute slings to soldiers. But the myth stuck on. That’s because winners tend to write the mythologies. For every David, there are a dozen Damodarans who’ve been squashed between Goliath’s thumb and forefinger before they could say sling.
Take Stephen Covey, the author of ‘Seven Habits of Highly Successful People’ with which I was impressed when I was in business school. Apparently he spent a lot of time studying successful people and compiled his list. I wonder if Covey spent time on interviewing unsuccessful people who happened to possess the seven habits of successful people. When he says X leads to Y (in this case, X = seven habits and Y = success), the scientific imp in me wants to know if he’s mixing correlation with causation. What if we find out that out of every 10 people who have all the seven Covey habits, only one became successful? Someone ought to dig into this. Success has a way of distorting the way we look at data.
Black holes of logic
Let’s take another example. Team work. Everyone believes in team work, right? There’s no ‘I’ in team. Collaboration. Consensus. Blah. Blah. We’ve all heard the buzzwords and phrases, I presume. The notion that a large group of incompetent people working together will deliver better performance than a small group of competent individuals has gained currency and swept the world of management without being contested. Let’s take this piece of conventional wisdom and see how well it holds up to logic and reason. Luckily for you, I studied engineering and it so happens that engineers possess a superpower which allows us to spot black holes of logic within nanoseconds of observation.
The What Ho! Law of Inevitable Moronism
Let’s agree on the following before we proceed further.
1. A team consists of 3 people or more.
2. We expect the team to perform useful work.
And, I’m going to define a ‘moron’ as ‘a person who has a bad attitude towards people and life.’ Examples of bad attitude are being a jerk towards others, being incompetent coupled with unwillingness to learn, has an inclination towards illegal and unethical activities like stealing other people’s money, etc. Note: I’m not defining morons based on conventional measures like IQ, analytical capabilities or general knowledge.
Now, allow me to present Exhibit A: The What Ho! Law of Inevitable Moronism. This law states that as a team becomes more successful, it will inevitably attract one or more moron(s) who will then disrupt and destroy the team. In other words, this law avers that teams will always evolve from being locally unstable pockets of high performance to globally stable pockets of mediocrity.
I suspect that teamwork was invented by those who recognized the impossibility of stopping morons from entering the workplace and designed teams as a mechanism to limit aforesaid morons from inflicting irreparable damage. There’s no greater lie than is said when someone stands up at a company town hall meeting and gushes eloquently about ‘how the team pulled together under very challenging circumstances.’ What she means is ‘I did not expect to be herding cats after spending $200K on my Stanford MBA. There were many moments during the project when I vacillated between suicide and firing off a few rounds at the team. I hope to God that these morons get hit by a bus. Teams suck.’
A corollary of the What Ho! law states that, “The probability of a team being destroyed by morons equals 1, when n > 5, where n = number of people on the team.” In some industries, ‘n’ has been seen to be as low as 3. In others, they have managed to push it up to 8. Don’t get hung up on 3, 5 or 8. The point is that n is a finite single digit number.
There’s another law which comes into play with regards to teams. It doesn’t have to do with morons. This law merely re-states the obvious which is that people are fundamentally different. We view the world differently. We have differing risk tolerance. We are not motivated by the same things. We have different energy cycles. This law points out that the odds are pretty heavily stacked against a group of people with similar attributes finding each other to form a team in the first place, and then sustaining superior performance over time.
The Seven Habits of Incorrigible Morons
So, what’s the deal? Why bother? Should we ban management books? Should we dismantle teams?
These are not the right questions. Instead we must ask:
1. What makes morons tick?
2. How can I avoid being a moron by avoiding the things that make morons tick?
We’re looking at the wrong data when analyzing success. Most predictors of success today are not predictors of success. They are usually outputs of selection bias. Instead, let’s study morons. And God knows we have plenty of them in our midst. Success is, in a sense, the avoidance of being a moron. Here are maybe a few ways to get there:
1. By rewarding failure: Failure happens when people have wrongly estimated either risk or execution capability or both. Rewarding failure will encourage people to take risks and build their skill sets. You have to believe that they will succeed eventually.
2. By firing people who haven’t failed at least once in the last two years: They are the lazy ones. Let them go join the government.
3. By not hiring morons: Beware that morons have magical powers and invisibility cloaks. They will find a way to sneak in. Keep a top-notch moron detector handy to hunt them down and fire them.
If you follow these What Ho! principles, be warned that your company size will never exceed single digits. As for me, I’d like someone to write a book called “Seven Habits of Highly Incorrigible Morons.” I wouldn’t mind plunking down ten quid for something like that. I have a feeling that it will contain insights of such extraordinary value which could lead to the discovery of a Nobel prize winning anti-moron vaccine.
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