Mutterances on miscellaneous matters

mark-516277_1920Holacracy is in the news, thanks in part to an Atlantic article this month and a FastCompany piece last May.

It’s a new and radical organizational model that Zappos—the online shoe and clothing store—has gone all in on by eliminating management titles. According to this approach “removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously, without a micromanaging boss.”

At first is seems to resemble the way many small businesses—including rock bands—operate. But on further analysis, it’s a highly structured and sophisticated system (which would take me multiple blog posts to explicate). To get a handle on this model, I recommend as a place to start.

It will be interesting to see if such an approach can blossom at Zappos, which is owned by Amazon, a company not known for workplace autonomy. Meanwhile, if you want a good guffaw, check this out to see what a real org chart would reveal!


A half century ago this week, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” was the #1 song on the US pop charts. That the most exciting band in the rock world at the time would release a single featuring one member (Paul McCartney) singing a sad ballad by himself, accompanied only by a mournful string quartet, speaks to the innovative daring that characterized the band’s success. A year and a half later they would change the playing field with the release of their Sgt Pepper album. This is an organizational team that reinvented an entire field of business. (That would be pop music.)


The Dunbar number

Numbers - woman countingThe more I use Facebook the more I’ve come to appreciate the conclusion of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar that there is a “cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” This has inspired me to reprise an earlier post, “Too big to groom.”

Much has been written about the optimal size for communities and business organizations. Primatologist Robin Dunbar says any group becomes inefficient when it exceeds approximately 150 members.

Coincidentally, many businesses—like W.L. Gore and Brazil’s Semco—have discovered on their own that when one of their organizations exceeds that size it loses its sense of community and needs to be split into smaller units. Dunbar has also found that three to five is the optimal number for intimate friends, which happens to fit the size of most rock bands and small business teams.

But until this week I had missed the evolutionary link behind Dunbar’s numbers. In his anthropological research he discovered that when communities of primates began to exceed 150, it weakened their social bonding based on their ability to groom each other’s fur!

Suddenly, things I've observed as a management consultant make sense. For instance, whenever I worked with mining and manufacturing sites that exceeded 150 workers I was always mystified by the fact that employees seemed totally uninterested in combing each other’s hair. Perhaps you’ve noticed this too.


Following the kids, listening to Keith, and talking to the Dead

forum-27450_1280 I'm long overdue for another interview with myself.

Self-interviews are a challenge, of course, because it’s so difficult for the self-interviewer to catch the interviewee off guard. Even more so when the interviewer and interviewee are so busy that the Q&A has to be conducted by email. But we did the best we could.

    Q. So what kind of music are you listening to these days?

    A. I like to listen to a wide mix, but lately it’s been a lot of old blues. Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker. The folks whom the early rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, grew up listening to. Too many contemporary rock artists have no clue about the roots of R&R. If I were teaching Rock 101, I’d start with Robert Johnson and the folks just mentioned and then move onto the R&B giants like Louie Jordan. They're all part of the rock & roll canon.

    Q. Is there a business lesson there?

    A. Absolutely. The blues and R&B greats were all pioneers in some way. We may not notice it now because they've been copied so much, but those blues greats in their day were innovators. They staked out new territory. Important for any business, especially in the Creative Economy.


Dumb, Dumber, and Dunning Kruger

one-way-street-582635_1280 I’ve heard people talk about Dunning Kruger so much I thought it was a country music duo.

Actually it's a cognitive bias—"the Dunning Kruger effect"—in which individuals who are relatively unskilled at a task have an illusion of superiority at it. In the words of psychologist David Dunning: “The incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

I can testify to the accuracy of the DK effect after watching US Presidential candidates huff and puff their way through complex foreign policy issues, with overweening certainty. What makes this tendency especially dangerous—whether it’s a business leader (or consultant!) always claiming to know the right strategy for a company or a political leader sounding off with a ready and simple answer to every world problem—is that people are attracted to leaders who exude complete confidence. And the less these individuals know, the more certain they are.

I saw plenty of this in my rock days. Players at the low end of the skill ladder thought their musicianship—or vocal ability or songwriting talent—was as good as that of the top acts. One redeeming aspect of this illusion is that it keeps many musicians in the game long enough to actually acquire the skills they need. (Hmm. Now I have to wonder about my own arrogance as a young musician...)