Book Report: Iris Bohnet’s What Works: Gender Equality by Design

What Works by Iris Bohnet CoverIris Bohnet’s What Works: Gender Equality by Design is probably the most pragmatic books on changing organizational culture that I’ve ever read. Over the course of the book, Bohnet offers 36 research-grounded design suggestions for achieving gender equality in the workplace. The use of the word “design” here is intentional: Bohnet is a behavioral economist, and the book offers much in the way of behavioral design from that perspective. Bohnet presents a careful review of current research — occasionally, this can be a bit dizzying as she walks through conflicting studies, but in the end she consistently delivers evidenced-based recommendations for how to achieve gender equality in the workplace and beyond.
This dizzying coverage of so much research and so many ideas can be a bit overwhelming. I had an incredibly difficult time narrowing down my selection of quotes for this summary. The behavioral design approach means that the solutions Bohnet offers in the book are incredibly practical. Given my own focus on hiring and interview processes over the last few years, I loved the checklist for comparative, structured interviews, and it has evolved my thinking on interviewing management candidates. The book also offers thought provoking insights into opportunities to improve diversity when hiring like this one:

The police force in the United Kingdom substantially increased the talent pool by adopting a friendlier tone and asking people a simple question before they took the entry exam: Why do you want to join the police and why does it matter to your community? Hearing a different tone and being nudged to think about what motivated them increased the pass rate of minority group applicants by 50 percent. Making a small change that had a big impact required no more than the insights and experimentation of a few creative thinkers at the UK Behavioral Insights Team.

Bohnet reviews research into all aspects of gender differences without shying away from the fact that there are measurable differences between the genders in different societies. For example, she digs into gender differences in competitiveness, pointing out that, “For MBA graduates at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, interpersonal differences in willingness to compete translate into significant differences in earnings, explain part of the gender gap in earnings, and have long-lasting effects: competitive graduates are more likely to work in higher-paying industries nine years after graduation.” When discussing these ideas, Bohnet covers both the long term need to explore the ways society might create or amplify those differences, while suggesting how companies might address it in the meantime.
Bohnet really digs into every aspect impacting gender equality in the workplace and society. While I was somewhat aware that female leaders can sometimes be the cause of discrimination against women, I was not familiar with much of the research this book presents. Bohnet gets right into interesting stories like this and goes on to address how we might correct for it.

In Spain, academic promotions from assistant professor to associate professor and then to full professor are determined by randomly created evaluation committees, leading to random variation in the gender composition of the committees. It turns out that female associate professors evaluating assistant professors for promotion were more likely to be in favor of promoting male junior colleagues. But this effect was only evident when evaluator and candidate were at the same institution. It appears as if the evaluator again feared same-sex competition, perhaps assuming some implicit gender quota. In fact, if a male evaluator was replaced by a female evaluator of the same institution, this decreased the likelihood that a junior female candidate was promoted by 38 percent. It did not affect female candidates from other institutions. Nor did the researchers observe any of this behavior for promotions to full professor. When full professors evaluate associate professors to join their ranks, they need not fear same-sex competition. Full professor is the highest rank possible in academia, and at that point, evaluators, looking for friends and people like themselves, exhibited an in-group preference, favoring candidates of the same sex and academic network.

The book also digs into other areas of diversity that, while not directly related to addressing the gender gap, struck me as fascinating. Given the huge trend anti-PC rhetoric in the U.S. at the moment, this research-driven call in favor of political correctness for creative endeavors stood out:

In addition, and somewhat counter-intuitively, groups might want to constrain themselves from speaking freely. The study “Creativity from Constraint” presents experimental evidence on how imposing a norm of political correctness (PC) that specifies how men and women should interact with each other enhances creativity in mixed-sex groups. The PC norm increased the exchange of ideas by clarifying the rules of engagement and providing assurance to those, predominantly women, for whom speaking up was associated with counterstereotypical behavior.

As organizations work to hire diverse employees into largely homogeneous teams, they face challenges. I’ve heard women describe having a single woman in an otherwise-male software team as an anti-pattern. Bohnet offers pointers into when diversity matters the most, and when homogeneity might actually be a good thing. This will take me a while to absorb and think through.

If a task involves coordination, say the provision of a public good like clean water or better health care, homogeneous groups can be helpful. All-women teams, for example, outperformed mixed and all-male teams in Friend or Foe because they correctly believed that women would be more likely to cooperate than men, leading to a virtuous cycle.
If a task involves individual problem-solving, say test-taking, be aware of peer effects. Diversity might produce spillovers (or, more formally, “externalities”) affecting, for example, how students perform in a class. If one group is more likely to work hard or disrupt less, as has been found to be true of girls, having them over-represented can help others, in this case boys, perform better.

Like many, I pay careful attention to diversity reports coming out of major tech companies each year. I often find them discouraging, and after finishing the chapters on behavioral modifications that might work, I find myself wondering if they’re actually doing a disservice by normalizing the current levels of diversity.

Making public and visible how well a company or country does in terms of gender equality compared to others might also promote convergence on a new norm. Indeed, a number of organizations now provide social comparisons or explicit rankings based on gender equality. In 2006, the World Economic Forum (WEF) launched its annual Global Gender Gap Report measuring the existing gender gaps in four categories: economic participation and opportunity (pay, participation, and leadership), political empowerment (representation), education (access), and health and survival (life expectancy and sex ratio at birth). Since then, the WEF has annually published a report measuring how the gaps are changing over time. It ranks countries on their overall performance, as well as on how well they do in all four categories. Over nine years, the Nordic countries have been leading the pack with Iceland having closed the overall gap by 87.3 percent (with 100 percent indicating gender equality) as of 2013. Generally, Middle Eastern and North African countries have fared worst, with Yemen having closed only 51.2 percent of the overall gap.

At the least, the book has me convinced that collecting the numbers that companies release and putting them in ranked order with a visual and easy to understand score might be a helpful step in the right direction.

Improvements in a college’s rank on US News and World Report Best College Rankings immediately translate into a larger number of applications. Interestingly enough, however, the authors only find this effect when the magazine presents the colleges ordered by rank. When the colleges are listed alphabetically, with their rank included in the body copy describing the institution, no effect on applications could be detected. Only easily understandable and highly visible comparisons mattered, something gender equality designers hoping to influence behavior need to keep in mind.

Beyond the huge volume of research surveyed in this book, Bohnet also provides tons of other resources for people and organizations working towards gender equality. It’s a tremendous resource of practical and thought-provoking ideas. I especially appreciated the depth of coverage. In fact that very depth occasionally had me worried that this book could become a resource for the James Damores of the world to cherry pick isolated arguments out of context. But I suppose it would be a bit too much to expect this book to offer solutions to that. Overall, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s sure to be something I refer back to often, and if you’re interested in understanding and correcting gender inequality, you should read this book.

Book Report: Camille Fournier’s The Manager’s Path

The Manager's Path CoverThis book is a very short overview of the management career track — it’s probably of most use to an engineer debating making the switch between the technical and management track. Fournier’s thoughts resonate strongly with me, and I have already recommended it to a few friends and colleagues.
Some of her advice was entirely new to me; like this particular idea that made me stop reading and think for a bit: “Leaders who are strong team players understand that the people who report to them are not their first team. Instead, their first team is their peers across the company. This first-team focus helps them make decisions that consider the needs of the company as a whole before focusing on the needs of their team.” That’s such an interesting idea, but I was disapointed that Fournier doesn’t go on to explore the idea in significant detail. Here’s a longer passage that showcases the human-centered approach that she’s filled the book with:

Do remember to be kind. It’s natural and perfectly human to want to be liked by other people. Many of us believe that the way to be liked is to be seen as nice — that niceness is itself the goal. Your goal as a manager, however, should not be to be nice, it should be to be kind. “Nice” is the language of polite society, where you’re trying to get along with strangers or acquaintances. Nice is saying “please” and “thank you” and holding doors for people struggling with bags or strollers. Nice is saying “I’m fine” when asked how you are, instead of “I’m in a really crappy mood and I wish you would leave me alone.” Nice is a good thing in casual conversation. But as a manager, you will have relationships that go deeper, and it’s more important to be kind. It’s kind to tell someone who isn’t ready for promotion that she isn’t ready, and back that up with the work she needs to do to get there. It’s unkind to lead that person on, saying “Maybe you could get promoted,” and then watch her fail. It’s kind to tell someone that his behavior in meetings is disrupting the group. It’s awkward, and uncomfortable, but it’s also part of your job as his manager to have these difficult conversations.

Her advice on hiring managers was, to me, one of the most valuable bits of insight in the book. She lays down some suggestions that have helped me think through how I could potentially build out a manager interview process that is truly audition-based. I’m excited to put those ideas into practice.
If the book has a weakness, it’s that in achieving the “very short overview” it offers, the book feels rushed. As with the first-team focus I mentioned above — she leaves lots of ideas only partially explored. Luckily, the book does include a great list of suggestions for follow up reading. I found several books I’m looking forward to digging into.

Things to consider buying with your 3d printer

Okay, so when I first mentioned buying my Prusa i3 mk2s, I said that I wished I had ordered some additional pei sheets with the printer. But there have really been several small purchased I’ve made that have been pretty useful, so I thought I’d list them out for folks waiting for their printer to ship. I’m not endorsing the products I’ve bought, but I’ve linked to them on amazon in a totally non sponsored way so you can grab them easily if you like.

  • A good metric caliper that’s large enough to make sure that everything’s equal when you assemble a printer kit makes life a lot easier. I’m also looking forward to using it to measure real world objects for creating my own 3d objects.
  • A giant bag of desiccant and some humidity indicators. Filament is apparently pretty sensitive to humidity, so you want to make sure you’re keeping it dry. You probably also want a giant sealable plastic storage bin to keep it in with the desiccant and indicator.
  • A specialized spatula for removing printed objects. Turns out they stick pretty well to that pad, and being able to pry them up without ruining the PEI sheet on the printer is pretty important. A spatula with nicely rounded corners has been pretty helpful
  • Miscelaneous bearings and o-rings. Yeah, when you take a look at the projects on thingiverse, you’ll find quite a few that use o-rings for tires, or steel bearings as marbles, or other odd parts. Take a look through what you want to start with and order the right extras early.
  • Sandpaper. Okay, so I really haven’t been using this as much as I probably should have, but it’s worth picking up sandpaper in a variety of grits. The link here is for a kit with a whole bunch of sheets and a case for them.

So that’s what I’ve gotten so far: really not that much extra $, and I’ve been stalled at various points waiting for them to arrive. You might be able to speed yourself up a bit by getting them all at the start.
And as always, if you’re aware of other “must-haves”, share them in the comments!

Thoughts on buying a 3d printer

Why did I buy a 3d printer at all?

I had several motivations in purchasing a 3d printer, but the strongest is probably just the pure geeky joy of being able to print random things out of plastic. Have you looked around on thingiverse? There are a million amazing projects that range from this box that it’s hard to imagine existing if it weren’t for 3d printers to neat toys for kids to sundials to that car part that broke off years ago but I never ordered a replacement for. So lots of fun clever little plastic things that you take have the joy of downloading and printing, but you’re not really going to be changing lives with your 3d printer.

On a somewhat more “practical” note, I should mention that I have a 10-year-old daughter who is really into robots. One of the things I’m most excited to print is a set of mecanum wheels for her lego ev3 kit. And just generally being able to create and print lego and robot parts was a huge part of my decision to buy a 3d printer.

The case against
But still, it was something I struggled with for a long time before I decided to get one. Why? Well, one useful thing to keep in mind is that although 3d printers are called “printers”, the name implies a level of simple usage where you hit CTRL+P and out pops an object. It’s really more of a mini-forge than a “printer” – you’ll need to calibrate and re-calibrate the machine to keep it printing. The results won’t always be what you expect – I often have a very successful print followed by a complete failure. Why did it fail? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ This also isn’t a very cheap hobby. Many printers cost > $2,000 and the materials and parts are not especially cheap, either. And really, I’m not printing anything I can’t live without. For the most part here, what I’m printing is pretty much crap: clever for sure, but the sort of thing you get at a trade show and throw away a few months later. The main part for the marble toy I linked to above is going to take about 27 hours to print, so you’ll need a place to keep the printer where it will remain undisturbed through long prints.

Why buy the Prusa i3 mk2s?
I did a lot of research before buying a 3d printer. For a long time I had my eye on the Lulzbot Taz 6 which runs $2,400, but is, I’m sure, quite a fine printer. But at $2,400, I found lots of reasons not to buy it, and kept putting it off. Sometime in early 2017 I read an article which mentioned an estimate of the number of 3d printers sold in 2016, along with the number of Prusa i3 clones that were a part of that. I can’t find the original article, but let’s just say the percentage was high enough to make it clear that the Prusa was the king of reprap printers. What’s a “reprap” you ask? Well, reprap is an attempt to build a self-replicating manufacturing machine. Open Source hardware and software combined in a 3d printer that can print another 3d printer. In fact, the new Prusa factory largely consists of printers printing printers:

Sure, there is a solid metal frame and plenty of milled metal parts and electronics, but Prusa releases plans for all of their parts, so you could absolutely build this printer without buying it from Prusa. But why bother when you can get the original, which won Make magazine’s top spot and is a damned fine printer. If you order a pre-assembled printer (more on that later), Joseph Prusa will even sign it for you. Just be prepared to wait: I had to wait 8 weeks for my printer kit to arrive from the Czech republic.
At $700 ($900 pre-assembled), the Prusa i3 MK2S truly seems to be the 3d printer right now. And Joseph Prusa is continually tinkering with the design and providing updates. Most recently, he’s added a multi-material upgrade to the MK2S to allow it to print 4 materials integrated into a single design without unloading and loading filament. Given the complications of getting a single material working well, I’m glad that I decided to wait for that capability.
One quick note: If you decide to go with the Prusa, as long as you’re ordering the printer to be shipped from the Czech republic, you can save yourself later stress by ordering a few spare PEI sheets. There are other options out there, but just go ahead and press the easy button on this one and save them for when you need them.

Why buy it in kit form?
Well, you can save $200 by buying the kit, but honestly that wasn’t a factor for me. Instead, I (again, long since lost the original article, sorry) read an article pointing out how finicky 3d printers are, and suggesting that it is far better to spend the time assembling the printer from scratch to learn as much as possible about how it fits together. Because you will be futzing about and trying to adjust alignments every now and again.
For me, the build was a ton of fun: it was like building a giant lego kit for making other lego kits: what could be bad about that? It did probably take me about 10 hours to fully assemble the kit, which is a bit frustrating when you really want to print something with your new toy. A good bit of that time could have been cut shorter if I hadn’t largely done it in two intense overnight sessions. But with twin 5-year-olds in the house, uninterrupted time late at night worked best for me.
Anyhow, it’s all together, and I’m printing away and learning tons. I’ll post a bit more about useful things I’ve learned and some handy “buy this” accessory tips.

Book Report: Radical Candor

Radical Candor Book Cover It’s a challenge to think of useful things that I can tell you about this book that you don’t already know from listening to the Radical Candor podcast (and you are listening to it, aren’t you?) — much of the book will be very familiar. The podcast often references the book and the book often references the podcast, so there’s a bit of a ouroborus trying to talk about one or the other.
The premise of the book and podcast is simple: by providing honest feedback (and especially not shying away from negative feedback) you will lead your team to better results. That’s not quite enough to fill a book, but that’s really at the core of all the advice: whether it’s getting to know what motivates your team or how to run effective collaborative meetings, it all relates back to create a culture of useful feedback.
There’s plenty of good advice to be followed here, and I would strongly recommend the book for new leaders (or even leaders moving into new roles) looking for good advice on getting started: there’s even a “Getting Started” guide at the back of the book to walk you through implementing the books’ ideas. Here’s one of my favorite bits, which is a typical example of the obvious (once it has been clearly stated) advice that the book is full of:

One of the funniest things about becoming a boss is that it causes an awful lot of people to forget everything they know about how to relate to other people. If you have a beef with somebody in your personal life, it would never occur to you to wait for a formally scheduled meeting to tell them. Yet, management has been bureaucratized to the point that we throw away effective strategies of everyday communication. Don’t let the formal processes — the 1:1 meetings, annual or biannual performance reviews, or employee happiness surveys — take over. They are meant to reinforce, not substitute, what we do every day. You’d never let the fact that you go to the dentist for a cleaning a couple times a year prevent you from brushing your teeth every day. Don’t use performance reviews as an excuse not to give impromptu in-person feedback.

I’m a reader and I liked this book quite a bit, but if you’re not a reader, fear not! You can get plenty from tuning into the podcast each week.

Book Report: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

I’ve been interested lately in the idea of using infographic pages to display critical stats about the services my teams build. In typical fashion, I decided to start by reading a book, and this one seems to be the book to read in the field of informative graphics.
It was definitely a bit of a mismatch — I didn’t get what I was hoping to out of the book. Perhaps partly because of my disappointment in that, I also didn’t find the book to be very helpful. For one thing, most of the rules Tufte lays out are negative rules. “Don’t use gridlines” (he calls it chartjunk) is typical. Even some of his “Do” rules are really about things that should be erased. Some of the ideas seemed obvious to me and others felt like an opinion stated as absolute fact.
And that’s definitely a thing in this book: Tufte rarely sounds like he’s voicing an opinion, instead the book is filled with statements like “Beautiful graphics do not traffic with the trivial.” As I was reading the book, my inner voice would often fall into a Hollywood “Voice of God” tone. Here’s another typical example (although in this one, at least Tufte starts out with the qualifier “should”):

Data graphics should often be based on large rather than small data matrices and have a high rather than low data density. More information is better than less information, especially when the marginal costs of handling and interpreting additional information are low, as they are for most graphics.

Perhaps this book, written in 1982, has just become a bit dated? I found some of Tufte’s “improvements” on data display more confusing than the originals; apparently those visual metaphors did not catch on. I did get some value out of the book; I suppose it served as an introduction to some of the vocabulary and concepts, but overall I’d say this book is more useful to someone who’s building graphics in a statistical context than someone looking to do so in a business context.

Book Report: Turn The Ship Around by David Marquet

Turn the Ship Around Book CoverThis short, entertaining and insightful book tells the story of how the author, David Marquet, effectively applied bottom-up leadership principles when taking over command of a submarine, and achieved some truly remarkable results.
As I began reading a lot about leadership research a few years ago, I initially found myself quite surprised to find references that the US Armed forces have been increasingly abandoning command and control leadership approaches for a much more modern and collaborative approach. If you haven’t seen evidence of that yet, it may surprise you that the passage below was written by a submarine Commander:

In our modern world, the most important work we do is cognitive; so, it’s not surprising that a structure developed for physical work isn’t optimal for intellectual work. People who are treated as followers have the expectations of followers and act like followers. As followers, they have limited decision-making authority and little incentive to give the utmost of their intellect, energy, and passion. Those who take orders usually run at half speed, underutilizing their imagination and initiative.

Because this book walks through his journey starting a short time before he took over command, it offers insights that would probably be especially useful to someone taking on a new leadership role: I suspect it will be on my re-read list when the next transition in my career comes.
The book is surprisingly short, but it packs a lot of thoughtful advice into its pages while remaining entertaining and engaging. Marquet does a fantastic job of using stories to illustrate his point, and having fun with them. He achieves a subtle elegance with language that I don’t expect out of leadership books. Here’s a typical example, where I had to pause to ponder for a bit which meaning of “blow stuff up” applied:

For phase one, we rendezvoused with a helicopter and picked up the SEAL team. Eleven burly guys, their weapons, two rolled-up Zodiac inflatable boats, two motors for the Zodiacs, and a bunch of equipment to blow stuff up left the helicopter, came on board the submarine, and went down the hatch.

If you don’t have time for the book, you can get most of the essence of it from this excellent video:

Book Report: The Ten Day MBA

The last time I was applying for a job I wondered frequently whether it would be a worthwhile investment for me to get my MBA. Many people go and get their MBA to get the sort of job that I had at the time. But would it have made me a more attractive candidate? Since then, I’ve had conversations with several trusted mentors and have decided that it’s not going to help me do the sorts of things that I want to do.
However, The Ten Day MBA looked like a quick and potentially useful survey over some of what I was missing. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to retain much of what I read; it’s simply too fast. A 30 page summary of quantitative analysis? Nope. Silbiger only has the space to make super quick statements without follow-up, such as when describing the Keynesian relationship: “It was especially true in the period between 1950 and 1985, but it has not been consistently so over time, such as the period since 1985.” What exactly is that saying? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ You’ll have to find your own answers to many such questions when reading this book.
The book also suffers from being an older book that has been updated over time. A section recommending the internet as a really good way to do research, which lists a few useful search sites including yahoo and google as really good resources? You might get a headache from the speed at which your eyes roll into their sockets. And that worries me about other advice in the book which I know less about.
I quickly realized this was going to be useful in the same way that books like “Teach yourself C++ in 21 Days” were useful in the age of dial-up networking and terrible internet searching — the book gives you a general overview of the topics, gets some key words and concepts in your head, and you can refer back to it whenever you need to. When you do that it will give you a quick overview, which you can use as a springboard to jump into more detailed study.
All-in-all, for me personally this book was probably a better investment than getting an MBA would be. I’ll leave it at that.

Conference Notes: Neuroleadership Summit 2016

I’ve been looking for a conference entirely focused on leadership of software development teams, but haven’t found anything since goto leaders seems to have folded (if you have suggestions, comment, please!). But in my search, I found the Neuroleadership Summit, which appealed to the geek in me because of the hard-science aura of neuroscience. I was fortunate enough to attend this year and thought I’d share some of my observations.

General Impression
If you’re used to attending tech conferences, the first thing that will probably strike you about the conference is the diversity of the attendees. While I couldn’t find any published demographic data, I would guess that it was majority female, and it had many more people of color than you would be likely to see at a programming conference. This was a welcome change of pace for me.
The Neuroleadership Institute bills the conference as “the most brain-friendly conference on earth” (you can read some semi-propaganda about this) and I have to say that they certainly put some effort into this. The food served attempted to be more healthy than the average conference fair (mostly succeeding), but most impressively the format of the conference is significantly different than any conference I’ve attended. There are fewer sessions, broken up by more networking times, and most significantly, each presentation included several breaks during which you were encouraged to discuss your impressions with someone sitting near you that you had not chatted with before. While this was cringingly awkward for an nerd like me, it did often lead to insights, and I would say that generally I remember the content better than I normally would. Brain science, who knew, right?

Random quick hit clippings from my notes

  • “Mandatory non-thinking time”: decision making is taxed throughout the day. Before important meetings, set aside some time to not think!
  • Can we improve inclusion by capturing and encouraging curiosity?
  • Comment from Claude, one of the many interesting people I met: “Employees want to please their leader. Possibly in the laziest way possible.”
  • Impressive (scary!) things can happen simply by inducing a slight current to certain parts of the brain. This can be done with magnetic fields. tin-foil hats!!!
  • We still rely on labor policies that were created in the 1940s
  • A suggested strategy for overcoming bias in hiring: think about who will be the best hire 3 months from now?
  • Currently leadership potential is generally determined by self- or manager-based identification, which is a terrible predictor of future leadership performance.
  • Branding for new-agey initiatives can be hilarious. The Army brands its mindfulness training as “tactical breathing”.
  • Want to create culture change? Define a list of habits that embody that culture, and try to instill those. Keep the list small!
  • Feedback offered is almost entirely useless. Instead create a culture of asking for feedback. Thought: isn’t this exactly what we do when we submit a PR request? We should capture that better!
  • If you’re not getting feedback from at least three sources, you’re only getting bias (this one hit me hard)
  • We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.
  • Trying to control your unconscious bias is like trying to control your pancreas.
  • Awesome phrase, and I’ve entirely forgotten the full context: “Deeper thinking at a structural level”
  • People who perform the best feel that they are bringing something unique and important to the team.
  • Instead of calling it diversity and inclusion, we should call it inclusion and diversity.
  • heh… The last thing written in my notebook: “We’re supposed to be sitting here and reflecting on the past few days and they’ve invited the most distracting possible performer to sing while we’re doing this. Instead of being able to think, I’m uncomfortable and NOT enjoying this at all” (to be fair, other’s in the audience seemed pleased)

Useful things for 1:1s based on neuroscience!

  • Best feedback strategy: “You should do more of x”. All negative feedback offered flares defensiveness. (This is exactly the same advice I’ve read in every parenting book I’ve ever read).
  • “What was the most useful PR comment you’ve received lately?” (also: can we build a github plugin to capture this?)
  • “Who on the team energizes you? As in when you walk away from a conversation with them, you feel energized?”

First, a quick complaint: the Neuroleadership Institute spent a little too much time self-promoting during the conference — that became increasingly annoying over time. By the time they brought the entire team on stage (which took a good 10 minutes) for a public thanks at the end I was getting really annoyed with it.
I had a great time at the conference, but I’m not sure I would personally go back. I’m not really the target audience. Much of the audience were professional coaches or HR folks. I would recommend this as a fantastic conference for a new leader (1st year manager?) to attend. If you read Harvard Business review on a regular basis, there’s not much more for you here. If you subscribe but never get the chance to read, perhaps it would be a good opportunity to focus once per year on new research.

Book Report: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux

reinventing-organizationsReinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux explores non-hierarchical organizations (they’re called “Teal” organizations throughout the book) in an effort to explain how organizations can operate without much in the way of structure — essentially a CEO and then a bunch of title-less employees that simply find work that needs to be done and go and do it. It sounds utopian, to be sure, but Laloux explains the history of several successful businesses that have been operating in this paradigm for some time.
Probably most impressive is the story of Buurtzorg, a Dutch neighborhood nursing organization that grew from 10 to 7.000 nurses in 7 years, and has achieved incredible results:

The results achieved by Buurtzorg on the medical front are outrageously positive. A 2009 Ernst & Young study found that Buurtzorg requires, on average, close to 40 percent fewer hours of care per client than other nursing organizations—which is ironic when you consider that nurses in Buurtzorg take time for coffee and talk with the patients, their families, and neighbors, while other nursing organizations have come to time “products” in minutes. Patients stay in care only half as long, heal faster, and become more autonomous. A third of emergency hospital admissions are avoided, and when a patient does need to be admitted to the hospital, the average stay is shorter. The savings for the Dutch social security system are considerable—Ernst & Young estimates that close to €2 billion would be saved in the Netherlands every year if all home care organizations achieved Buurtzorg’s results. Scaled to the US population, this savings would be equivalent to roughly $49 billion. Not bad for just home care. Imagine if the incomparably bigger hospital organizations were to be run in a similar manner.

The book is filled with similar stories of amazing results, but where it fails, for me, is Laloux’s absolutely positive view of the organizations and practices. At no point is there any serious exploration of negative impacts the organizational changes described. The only negative language used in this book is to describe those who doubt that the system, and the book often uses flowery new-age language to describe business environments: a “beautiful set of practices”, a “wonderful procedure”, “we need integrity and wholeness to transcend the primacy of profits and heal our relationship with the world.” It feels more like a book about religious or spiritual practices than a book about business. Because of the overly-positive descriptions, and lack of any raised concerns, I found the book to be untrustworthy, especially given what I’ve read about Zappo’s attempts to adopt Holacracy.
Some of my peers who enjoyed the book more than I have share my skepticism about some of these practices in the context of a software development organization: I was disappointed that there was no example there. Laloux also doesn’t answer questions of scaling to my satisfaction: I find it telling that the book mentions (frustratingly briefly) that the two largest organizations discussed have both abandoned their “Teal” practices.
Laloux also blows right by issues that raise my eyebrows — as here when he explains that a Morning Star employee is expected to write a letter to colleagues outlining a work schedule that raises life-work balance issues to me (not to mention my cringe at the idea of having to write a commitment to colleagues outlining said “balance”):

Morning Star has a similar practice: each colleague indicates in his CLOU [Colleague Letter of Understanding] his work schedule commitment. A person might indicate, for example, 40 to 45 hours off-season, and 50 to 55 hours in high season (when tomatoes are harvested and processed). Because colleagues discuss their CLOUs, they know about each other’s commitments.

My biggest concerns are with the descriptions of the feedback and conflict resolution processes described in the book. Here’s a bit about feedback:

The first is simply to approach feedback with the ancient insight shared by all wisdom traditions. We can approach the world from one of two sides: from a place of fear, judgment, and separation; or from one of love, acceptance, and connection. When we have difficult feedback to give, we enter the discussion uneasily, and this pushes us to the side of fear and judgment, where we believe we know what is wrong with the other person and how we can fix him. If we are mindful, we can come to such discussions from a place of care. When we do, we can enter into beautiful moments of inquiry, where we have no easy answers but can help the colleague assess himself more truthfully. Bringing this kind of mindfulness to discussions is something we can learn, something that can be taught. Simple practices can help too: we can start feedback sessions with a minute of silence or any other personal ritual that helps us tune in to love and care.

And here’s the conflict resolution process at Morning Star:

The conflict resolution process (called “Direct Communication and Gaining Agreement”), applies to any type of disagreement. It can be a difference of opinion about a technical decision in a given situation. It can be interpersonal conflict. It can be a breach of values. Or it can be related to performance issues, when one colleague finds that another is doing a lousy job or not pulling his weight. Whatever the topic, the process starts with one person asking another to gain agreement:

  • In a first phase, they sit together and try to sort it out privately. The initiator has to make a clear request (not a judgment, not a demand), and the other person has to respond clearly to the request (with a “yes,” a “no,” or a counterproposal).
  • If they can’t find a solution agreeable to both of them, they nominate a colleague they both trust to act as a mediator. The colleague supports the parties in finding agreement but cannot impose a resolution.
  • If mediation fails, a panel of topic-relevant colleagues is convened. The panel’s role, again, is to listen and help shape agreement. It cannot force a decision, but usually carries enough moral weight for matters to come to a conclusion.
  • In an ultimate step, Chris Rufer, the founder and president, might be called into the panel, to add to the panel’s moral weight.

Since the disagreement is private, all parties are expected to respect confidentiality during and after the processes. This confidentiality applies of course to the two persons at the heart of the conflict as well. They must resolve their disagreement between themselves and are discouraged from spreading the conflict by enlisting support and building rival factions.

Thinking about how these processes might look to someone who’s been discriminated against in life — who’s likely to approach any of these discussions feeling oppressed rather than empowered raises huge concerns for me. Can you imagine that conflict resolution process in the context of a sexual harassment incident? Step one is to sit together and sort it out privately? Then they need to find a mediator? I seriously can’t imagine that this is truly the process in that case, and yet Laloux (as always, ignoring any potential problem areas in the practices he describes) does not mention any other process. In that context — even if that would be legal (I can’t imagine it is) — it is horribly, deeply immoral.
Laloux would respond to my concerns that they are coming from my own fear and ego (the word “fear” appears 83 times in 326 pages of text). Maybe that’s true, but I don’t think I’ve approached much of my career out of a sense of fear, and I am genuinely interested in the approaches these organizations are taking.
In fact, in spite of all of my criticisms about the book, I found it a very worthy read. First of all, it was deeply challenging to many of the views that I hold. More importantly, in spite of the fact that Leloux suggests that attempting parts of these practices within a hierarchical structure is a waste of time, I found many ideas in the book (and in my thinking about the book) that I will be experimenting with over the next few months.