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 holacracy.org 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 holacracy.org 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!

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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.)

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I just attended a panel session on “Hits, Hooks, and Jam Bands” at the Boston Book Festival—featuring authors Alan Light, Walter Holland, and John Seabrook explaining the various ways songs are written. I enjoyed the perennial debate whether the best singer/songwriters—like Dylan or Prince—are in control of their creative process or are to some extent tapping into what is already out there, perhaps in the collective unconscious. For example, Dylan—whenever he talked about a song of his—rarely said, “When I wrote that song,” but more often, “When that song was written”—begging the question, "By whom?" And yet the songwriter is hardly a passive medium, merely downloading divine utterances. As one panel member concluded, “Visions come to prepared spirits.”

So here's a question that will keep me busy for a few lifetimes: "What does 'prepared' mean—in business, in art, in life?"

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I always bristle when folks make casual remarks about drug-addled rock musicians, as if our consumption habits are different from the world at large. Hell, Prozac has been found in fish for over a decade! But is anyone complaining about drug-addled trout? Noooo. (And what does it say about our society that even our fish are seeking antidepressants?)

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In business or education the importance of maintaining high expectations can’t be emphasized enough. (Or, conversely, the danger of low expectations.) A rock musician I’ve played with for years, Vic Lalli—who teaches music to babies, toddlers, and young children—believes the sky is the limit for his “students.” For instance, he has 9-month-old babies singing perfect musical intervals back to him.

How does he do it? Well, for starters, he relates to children as human beings and believes that everyone—at any age—is musical (even if some are more musically inspired than others). This is simply his “reality." In Vic's universe, children have abundant musical gifts, expressed in different ways. And his beliefs are confirmed—daily.

Moving over to business, those of us who have worked with front line employees—especially blue collar workers (miners, in my case)—know how many of them are natural leaders if given the chance, and are fully capable of managing their own teams. With a little training—e.g., in communication skills and business literacy—they can also run high stakes projects, with eye-popping results. What else should we expect?

The same holds true in education. In Ed Magazine (the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education) I read a moving account of a young boy with cerebral palsy, Matt, who many years ago could only communicate by blinking and opening and closing his mouth. His school system had reached the conclusion that he was “profoundly mentally disabled” and suggested he be institutionalized. But his mother never bought into the assessment and was convinced that Matt was quite intelligent.

Fortunately a team of educators agreed to teach him the alphabet and Morse Code (which he learned in 10 minutes), and gave him a switch connected to a computer that he could control with his chin. (This was in the earlier days of the personal computer.) Suddenly the universe had changed and Matt was given a chance to talk. And the first thing Matt expressed—the very first communication of his young life—was a note he typed out to his mother. He told her how much he loved her.


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5 Comments

  1. It feels far to "woo woo" for most folks, let alone most business folks, that we create reality by what we believe. No, obviously, I can't create a chocolate cake by "believing" one onto the table, but I'll posit that nothing would make me actually believe that anyway.

    But I have plenty of evidence that what I believe will happen, happens. Perhaps our brains are just so seriously wired to follow belief that our powerful unconscious makes as act it out. Or perhaps there are still one or two things we haven't measured and quantified about how reality works.

    1. Well said. When someone believes something to be true, it can set up a dynamic (not always observable) in which s/he is undertaking actions that are enabling the results—actions that s/he wouldn't be taking if s/he didn't believe in the intended outcome.

      For example, because Vic Lalli believes babies are capable of singing difficult intervals, he may try singing to the baby a few seconds (or minutes) longer than another person might. Or Vic may be creating a deep rapport with the infant that encourages the infant to play along. (The fun that Vic creates IS infectious.)

      There are many possible explanations that don't deny that action is taking place between belief and result.

      And here's a crazier one: the high expectations that great leaders, teachers, parents, etc. set for others produces a kind of "field" which over time re-arranges the behavior of the associates, students, children, etc. who operate in that field!

      1. Makes me think of a couple things.

        Our brain does stuff that can be measured outside our heads. Invisible, but not imaginary.

        Humans are masters of thin-slicing, intuition, the blink, whatever one calls it: we see the tiniest movement, microexpressions, hear subtle nuances of tone, and it's impossible to avoid picking up another's vibe.

        We learn startling new things about the brain all the time. You and I grew up thinking that this next beer was gonna kill brain cells we'd never get back. Guess what? The brain grows new cells. Fundamental brain science, discovered within the past decade or so.

        Paul Ekman's work in microexpressions fascinates me. His team realized after years of analysis that they could, for instance, predict whether a married couple would stay together or not after watching a few seconds of video.

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