Business-and-music-related observations and comment.

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Elvis the introvert

elvis-presley-157006_1280 I continue to be amazed that so many stars—celebrity entertainers, political VIPS, business luminaries—turn out to be, on close examination, introverts! Especially in this era of self-promotion, when so many of us would sell our offspring to gain more Likes, Fans, Friends, and Followers.

As mentioned in a previous post, best-selling author Susan Cain has pointed out that we—in the US at least—live in a society that deifies extroverts, especially in business, where display is paramount and the public trumps the private. A killer presentation too often hides a lack of originality. So it's refreshing to discover successful public figures who don't fit the expected profile.

Before I go into those exceptions, you may be asking, “Who gives a tweet?” Here’s who should: folks in any field (whether it's education, business, healthcare, politics, sports, entertainment) who possess real talent but wonder if they have the “right stuff” because they lack the overbearing confidence or out-sized personality they see in the extroverted leaders around them.

To them I say, “Larry Page.” (Or Mark Zuckerberg. Or Marissa Mayer. Or Michael Jordan. Or Guy Kawasaki. Or Angela Merkel. Or Elon Musk.)

What sparked this line of thought was my discovery that our first rock & roll megastar, Elvis Presley—whose wild gyrations were deemed so scandalously outlandish that he could only be shown from the waist up on national TV in 1957—was, in fact, an introvert. So says Sam Philips, the man who first recorded Elvis, as recounted in Peter Guralnick’s new book, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis was “one of the most introverted people to come into the studio” according to Phillips, who recorded hundreds of early rockers for Sun Records.

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When Dylan discovered electricity—part two

Lightning Still reading—and still ruminating on—Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties. This is fast becoming my favorite history book on anything related to rock, folk, or blues. This dude knows his subject.

(No, I don’t get any perks or payoffs from honking books. I don’t know Elijah Wald personally except for bumping into him at a Boston radio station where I was performing 20 years ago.)

The point I made in my last post—that Dylan has something to teach business (or art or entertainment) about the value of being distinct—bears further elaboration. What made Dylan so fascinating to so many was not just his uniqueness but how threatening his uniqueness was. In “The Times They Are A-Changin’” Dylan warns:

"Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’
It’ll shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’."

One can be unique and still be inconsequential and harmless. Or one can be unique and be disruptive and a serious threat to the status quo. Dylan was a "dent maker"—to use Steve Jobs' term. At least in the 60s. (I haven’t been able to make as much sense of his later identities and incarnations, but that's ok. He did more with those first five years of his career—and those first seven albums—than anyone else has done before or since, with the exception of The Beatles.)

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When Dylan discovered electricity—part one

guitar-861929_1920I’m finally getting around to Dylan Goes Electric by Elijah Wald, an especially good read if you’re interested in the roots of rock and folk or the mid-sixties transformation of pop music that Dylan instigated (with the help of a few others).

The book, subtitled Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties, puts in broad context the fateful night that Bob Dylan, the darling of the Newport Folk Festival, allegedly broke tradition—and thoroughly pissed off the old guard—by performing there with a loud blues-rock backup band on the evening of July 25, 1965.

Elijah Wald, a folk-blues guitarist and music historian, is just the right fellow to put this event in perspective, given his encyclopedic knowledge of the music genres in play at Newport, the colorful characters who made the music, and the myths surrounding those characters.

It will take several posts over the coming months to tease out what I’m learning from this book—and what I'm relearning from Dylan's career—that applies to business, innovation, marketing, and more. But here’s the major headline (if I may steal a quote from Tom Peters): Be distinct or be extinct!

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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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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.

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