Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Books like Good to Great are based on survivor bias. Study a bunch of companies that have had an unbroken run of success (By whatever arbitrary criterion you choose. Why 20 years? Why not 21.5 years?) In the universe of all companies, there are bound to be a few that meet your criteria, even though 99 % of companies eventually fail, go out of business, or get bought out. It’s like taking a group of 10000 people and asking them to flip a coin. Every time they flip, you only keep those people that guess right on the coin toss. After a certain number of iterations, there is one person who “successfully” predicted 18 coin tosses in a row (or whatever the number would be). Does that indicate the winner is psychic? After that, you find some arbritrary features that you decide must explain the “success.” Write a book about it, with many compelling – yet just so – stories.

The problem with stories is that they make a great read, convey a point or illustrate with an example. None of these have anything to do with whether there is actually something to be explained in repeated cause and effect terms. The other problem with these books is that they isolate causes of success after the success has occurred, and despite the fact that there is a fair dosage of luck involved (though not always). The resulting advice often appears to be useful on the surface, but there are no real guideposts indicating how to apply it. We’re told that it’s essential to concentrate and adopt the hedgehog approach. What about all the cases where it would have been better to be a generalist? Zen like Level 5 Leadership is the way to go, except that most of the truly exceptional business innovators and leaders are petty tyrants (Jobs, young Gates, etc.). Innovate and be out front, except when you shouldn’t. In fact, for the latter, you could argue that it is the foolhardy thing to do. It’s probably much better to see which way the wind is blowing, and then to bet on a small number of the most likely winners, accepting that you could be totally wrong.

© 2010 Richard Martin

Note – While the following content is mine, I got the term “cultural intelligence” from a book by Thomson and Inkson called, you guessed it, Cultural Intelligence.

  1. Be naturally curious. Don’t shut yourself off from dialogue or interaction with people of other cultures. This includes other professions, occupations, or organizations – yes, it is possible to understand engineers…
  2. When you encounter someone with an accent you can’t identify, ask them politely and with curiosity what it is. I have done this quite often and people respond well to the inquiry because they love to talk about their home country and culture.
  3. Be open minded and receptive to other people and other ways of doing things. There is seldom one perfect way of doing things. Even more, there is never one single way of seeing the world.
  4. Ask questions and listen to the answers. If you don’t know how to act in a certain situation, then ask a trusted advisor about the custom and expected behaviour. I have often asked this of my interlocutor in an exchange. Sometimes I get a laugh, but it breaks the ice and creates a dynamic of open communication.
  5. Use humour. I’m always astounded that people from around the world find essentially the same things funny.
  6. Be aware of your own implicit theories. We all carry around our own cultural baggage, whether that be professional, organizational, ethnic, linguistic, gender based, or whatever else. Try to see your behaviour from others’ points of view and continually question your assumptions and perceptions.
  7. When you travel, go off the beaten track. That doesn’t mean you should walk around a dark souk alone at two in the morning, but you can certainly get out of the stultifying, yet comfortable, business/tourist travel circuit.
  8. You don’t have to “go native” to understand another national culture. I have worked in many different countries without adopting their traits and behaviours. The important thing is to respect others, and to get respected. The key way of doing this is by reading beforehand, asking candid questions, listening and observing. If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it. You may have to explain your reasoning, but people are more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

Recommended Reading

As a new feature, I’ve decided to occasionally offer free reading advice. This month I would like to recommend – at great risk to my own life and limb – Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, by S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007). I make this recommendation because global warming is about to cost us billions, so it will have an organizational and business impact for decades to come, whether it is real or not.

The book, while quite polemical, offers an interesting, and refreshing, counterpoint to all the claims about an overwhelming “scientific consensus” on man-made global warming in the popular press. The authors’ favourite target is of course the UN funded International Panel on Climate Change, but that doesn’t stop the book from being an eye opening read which could lead you to challenge some of the alarmist pabulum we are being fed on a constant basis these days.

Singer and Avery are favourite targets of the environmental movement in the U.S. because they are highly sceptical of man made global warming and the dire predictions of Al Bore and acolytes. Here is the interesting thing. Singer is actually a professional meteorologist and climate scientist. The main thesis is this: the earth warms and cools over an approximate 1,500 year cycle. This is primarily caused by fluctuations in solar radiation and its interplay with cosmic rays and the earth’s own variations in orbit, inclination, etc. If your head still doesn’t hurt, you can examine the many graphs of ice-core samples from Greenland and upper atmosphere temperature readings by satellites. You could also read the dozens of pages of references to articles by reputable climate scientists in refereed academic journals.

In the final analysis, you can agree or disagree with the thesis of man-made global warming. Unstoppable Global Warming at least provides an alternative viewpoint to the so-called scientific consensus. It also provides another perspective on the world of academic publishing and paradigm building, but that’s just a bonus in my mind.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.