January 2023 - being contrarian, mindlessness, unitasking, and the secret to engagement
the 49th issue of the newsletter
Welcome to January 2023… already!
This month: Unitasking ❋ Toxicity ❋ To see things in new ways: be a contrarian ❋ Mindlessness ❋ Managing ❋ Engagement ❋ Curiosity ❋ Blitzscaling ❋ Before you change anything, think Fences
An insight into the recent layoffs in tech companies:
“Blitzscaling is a strategy that prioritizes growth at all costs and emphasizes building for a future so far off you practically need a telescope to see it. Most notably, it was the strategy that the vast majority of venture capital investors promoted to their portfolio companies.
Blitzscaling worked well for the better part of a decade. In fact, it worked so well that it was largely responsible for creating hundreds of unicorns. The trouble, as we now know with hindsight, was that this phenomenon was fleeting in many cases and largely the result of low interest rates and easy access to capital.
A trend that, as it always has been, was unsustainable.
Because, as Edward Chancellor quotes Henry Hazlitt in 1946 in his new book “The Price of Money:” Easy money creates economic distortions. It tends to encourage highly speculative ventures that cannot continue except under the artificial conditions that have given birth to them.
Then, as Seth Klarman said, 75 years later, persistent low rates have wormed their way into everything: investment thinking, market forecasts, inflation expectations, valuation models, leverage ratios, debt ratings, affordability metrics, housing prices, and corporate behavior. Moreover, by truncating volatility, forestalling business failures, and postponing the day of reckoning, such policies persuaded investors that risk had gone into hibernation or simply vanished.
Each time throughout history, when easy money and low rates vanish, so do the distortions, speculative ventures, and delayed business failures. This time has been no different.
Over the past year, higher rates and tighter money have forced private companies to shift from blitzscaling to conserving cash, public companies to focus less on total addressable markets and more on earnings and cash flows, and both venture capital and private equity firms to stop raising massive funds and instead dedicate more time to getting their existing companies through this downturn. That said, this is just the start. There is a lot yet to be worked out.
The question is, what will this “working out” look like?
Read the rest of the article for the answer.
This newsletter has already provided references to the myth of multitasking. Cal Newport takes it one step further:
We used to multitask, and then research came out and said you can’t literally multitask. Your brain can’t have your inbox open next to the memo you’re writing while you’re also on the phone.
So everyone, in the first decade of the 2000s, said: I turned off my notifications. I do one thing at a time. But what we didn’t realize is that even when you jump over to check the inbox and come right back, it can be just as damaging as multitasking. When you looked at that email inbox for 15 seconds, you initiated a cascade of cognitive changes.
if you have to work on something that’s cognitively demanding, the rule has to be zero context shifts during that period. Treat it like a dentist appointment. You can’t check your email when you’re having a cavity filled. You have to see it that way.
Office hours is a solution that comes up. You say, Every day at these times, I’m online, my phone’s on, I’m on Zoom, my door’s open. You can defer half a dozen different quick conversations to these office hours. It makes a big difference, because six little conversations might otherwise be 50 to 60 messages, each of which requires relatively quick turnaround. It could make the difference in how much context shifting is going on.
Do it on a trial basis
We’re working now with disruptive new technologies that only emerged in the late ’90s. The idea that we immediately figured out the best way to use them is ahistorical. Of course we haven’t gotten it right yet.
The management challenge
the people doing the work, often know more about what they’re doing than the people managing them. (…) This is different from industrial manufacturing, where a small group of people figures out the best way to work and then the workers execute. So [author Peter] Drucker is saying that knowledge workers need to manage themselves.
How managers have responded
Visible activity as a proxy for productivity was the solution. We need something we can focus on day to day and feel that we’re having a role in pushing work: Let’s just manage visible activity.
There’s a lot of issues with [this response], but it’s also not easy to fix. We’re kind of in a mess that we can’t change on a dime.
I saw this
And I wondered about its management equivalent:
“Stop playing boss.”
This is the idea that people love to do the things that *look* like management but aren’t.
To see things in new ways: be a contrarian
to make any progress, we need to pull the herd out of our mind and set it firmly aside, exceedingly difficult as the task may be.
This kind of radical thinking can be done only in the absence of the herd’s influence in its many forms: societal pressure, political partisanship, ideological bias, religious indoctrination, media-induced fads and fashions, intellectual mimetism, or any other -isms, for that matter. Such extraneous factors tend to lead us astray, when not blinding us altogether.
That’s why most of the time we don’t produce new, genuine knowledge, but only recycle the established (herd-sanctioned and herd-pleasing) knowledge on which our society [company/organization] relies.
Before you change anything, think Fences
This is from G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox.
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away.
Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
In a recent book, authors Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett suggest that we should ask not who is curious, but how is each person curious.
They observe that
Scholars who study curiosity have paid remarkably little attention to neuroatypical learners, let alone neuroatypical curiosity. Attention to diverse neural networks, however, requires precisely this. The network approach equips us to think much more richly about the validity of different modes of curiosity. Consider a room full of students with a range of learning differences, from dyslexia and autism, to anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, or again from hyperactivity and obsessive-compulsive tendencies all the way to Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences.
Each learner has their own architectures of learning. How wide is that slate of curiosity signatures?
Acknowledging that every person is curious in their own way is yet another way in which managers can be more effective in having their team members contribute all that they can as who they are.
Most engagement surveys are long. His has six questions. If you answer yes to all of them, you’re probably engaged. One no and you’re probably not.
Are all forms of thinking about work encouraged by management rather than seen as a threat or a form of resistance?
Am I allowed to use my knowledge and experience to critique systems and processes knowing that they will be taken seriously by management?
Will this then directly impact ongoing work redesign, making my job more meaningful and less frustrating?
Can I then tell people that our product or service is genuinely as good as I think we can make it?
Would I recommend my friends apply for a job at my company?
Would I recommend my family and close business friends buy/invest in my company’s product or service?
You don’t want to choke under pressure? Be mindless, not mindful
Although mindfulness has its merits, psychological research has also revealed that in some circumstances it’s important to be mindless. That is, as we develop skill in complex tasks, we can perform them with increasing facility until attention seems to be unnecessary. Everyday examples range from riding a bike to chopping cucumbers to brushing your teeth.
Underlying this state of “automaticity” (…) are mental processes that can be executed without paying attention to them. These processes run off without conscious awareness—a chain reaction of mental events. We don’t perform all tasks automatically, but many can be performed this way once they are well practiced.
To be clear, paying attention is important when learning a new skill. (…) But expertise research has also revealed that paying too much attention to what you’re doing can have damaging effects, particularly when you perform well-practiced skills. In fact, this is one reason why some experts appear to “choke under pressure”: they think too much about the mechanics of the task at hand. (Scientific American)
MIT Sloan Donald Sull’s research points to five key attributes of a toxic corporate culture. It is
A toxic culture is a strong driver of disengagement, attrition, employee stress, burnout, and sickness.
In a recent article he identifies actions managers can take to improve this and avoid being part of the problem:
Quantify the benefits of cultural detox to keep it on the top team’s agenda. Be clear about the bottom-line benefits of a healthy work culture, such as lower attrition rates and employee health care costs.
Publicly report progress to keep the pressure on. Don’t just post a list of core values on the wall. Publicly report progress, or a lack thereof, on values and related goals that embody a healthy work culture.
Model the behavior you expect from employees. “When leaders act consistently with core values, it is one of the most powerful predictors of how positively employees rate their corporate culture.”
Track progress with honest data. Don’t filter out reports of toxic behavior as they make their way up the leadership chain. That behavior needs to be addressed, not ignored. Also, “Leaders cannot afford to disregard external employee reviews when trying to assess their corporate culture, warts and all.”
Research has shown that people who work on multiple things concurrently are less able to filter out irrelevancy, have poorer memory, and are more easily distracted.