Category: Articles

How you do anything is how you do everything

So said Derek Sivers, although I suspect that, originally, it’s probably a core principle of Zen Buddhism. In this article I want to talk about management and leadership. But also about emotional intelligence and integrity.

I currently spend part of my working life as a Product Manager. At some organisations, this means that you’re in charge of the budget, and pull in colleagues from different disciplines. For example, a designer you’re working with on a particular project might report to the Head of UX. Matrix-style management and internal budgeting keeps track of everything.

This approach can get complicated so, at other companies (like the one I’m working with), the Product Manager manages both people and product. It’s a lot of work, as both can be complicated.

I think I’m OK at managing people, and other people say I’m good at it, but it’s not my favourite thing in the world to do.

That’s why, when hiring, I try to do so in one of three ways. Ideally, I want to hire people with whom at least one member of the existing team has already worked and can vouch for. If that doesn’t work, then I’m looking for people vouched for my the networks of which the team are part. Failing that, I’m trying to find people who don’t wait for direction, but know how to get on with things that need doing.

It’s an approach I’ve developed from the work of Laura Thomson. She’s a former colleague at Mozilla, and an advocate of a chaordic style of management and self-organising ducks:

Instead of having ‘all your ducks in a row’ the analogy in chaordic management is to have ‘self-organising ducks’. The idea is to give people enough autonomy, knowledge and skill to be able to do the management themselves.

As I’ve said before, the default way of organising human beings is hierarchy. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Hierachy tends to lean on processes, paperwork and meetings to ‘get things done’ but even a cursory glance at Open Source projects shows that all of this isn’t strictly necessary.

Last week, a new-ish member of the team said that I can be “too nice”. I’m still processing that and digging into what they meant, but I then ended up reading an article by Roddy Millar for Fast Company entitled Here’s why being likable may make you a less effective leader.

It’s a slightly oddly-framed article that quotes Prof. Karen Cates from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management :

Leaders should not put likability above effectiveness. There are times when the humor and smiles need to go and a let’s-get-this-done approach is required. Cates goes further: “Even the ‘nasty boss approach’ can be really effective—but in short, small doses—to get everyone’s attention and say ‘Hey, we’ve got to make some changes around here.’ You can then create—with an earnest approach—that more likable persona as you move forward. Likability is a good thing to have in your leadership toolkit, but it shouldn’t be the biggest hammer in the box.”

Roddy Millar

I think there’s a difference between ‘trying to be likeable’ and ‘treating your colleagues with dignity and respect’.

If you’re being nice to be just to liked by your team, you’re probably doing it wrong. It’s a bit like, back when I was teaching, teachers who wanted to be liked by the kids they taught.

The other approach is to simply treat the people around you with dignity and respect, realising that all of human life involves suffering, so let’s not add to the burden through our everyday working lives.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The above is one of my favourite quotations. We don’t need to crack the whip or wield some kind of totem of hierarchical power over other people. We just need to ensure people are in the right place (physically and emotoinally), with the right things (tools, skills, and information) to get things done.

In managers are for caring, Harold Jarche points a finger at hierarchical organisations, stating that they are “what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences with financial quid pro quo as the prime motivator”.

Jarche wonders instead what would happen if they were structured more like communities of practice?

What would an organization look like with looser hierarchies and stronger networks? A lot more human, retrieving some of the intimacy and cooperation of tribal groups. We already have other ways of organizing work. Orchestras are not teams, and neither are jazz ensembles. There may be teamwork on a theatre production but the cast is not a team. It is more like a community of practice, with strong and weak social ties.

Harold Jarche

I think part of the problem, to be honest, is emotional intelligence, or rather the lack of it, in many organisations.

Unfortunately, the way to earn more money in organisations is to start managing people. Which is fine for the subset of people who have the skills to be able to handle this. For others, it’s a frustrating experience that takes them away from doing the work.

For TED Ideas, organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic asks Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? And what can we do about it? He lists three reasons why we have so many incompetent (male) leaders:

  1. Our inability to distinguish between confidence and competence
  2. Our love of charasmatic individuals
  3. The allure of “people with grandiose visions that tap into our own narcissism”

He suggests three ways to fix this. The other two are all well and good, but I just want to focus on the first solution he suggests:

The first solution is to follow the signs and look for the qualities that actually make people better leaders. There is a pathological mismatch between the attributes that seduce us in a leader and those that are needed to be an effective leader. If we want to improve the performance of our leaders, we should focus on the right traits. Instead of falling for people who are confident, narcissistic and charismatic, we should promote people because of competence, humility and integrity. Incidentally, this would also lead to a higher proportion of female than male leaders — large-scale scientific studies show that women score higher than men on measures of competence, humility and integrity. But the point is that we would significantly improve the quality of our leaders.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

The best leaders I’ve worked for exhibited high levels of emotional intelligence. Most of them were women.

Developing emotional intelligence is difficult and goodness knows I’m no expert. What I think we perhaps need to do is to remove our corporate dependency on hierarchy. In hierarchies, emotion and trust is removed as an impediment to action.

However, in my experience, hierarchy is inherently patriarchal and competitive. It’s not something that’s necessarily useful in every industry in the 21st century. And hierarchies are not places that I, and people like me, particularly thrive.

Instead, I think we require trust-based ways of organising — ways that emphasis human relationships. I think these are also more conducive to human flourishing.

Right now, approaches such as sociocracy take a while to get our collective heads around as they’re opposed to our “default operating system” of hierarchy. However, over time I think we’ll see versions of this becoming the norm, as it becomes ever easier to co-ordinate people at a distance.

To sum up, what it means to be an effective leader is changing. Returning to the article cited above by Harold Jarche, he writes:

Hierarchical teams are what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences with financial quid pro quo as the prime motivator. In a creative economy, the unity of hierarchical teams is counter-productive, as it shuts off opportunities for serendipity and innovation. In a complex and networked economy workers need more autonomy and managers should have less control.

Harold Jarche

Many people no longer live in a world of the ‘permanent job’ and ‘career ladder’. What counts as success for them is not necessarily a steadily-increasing paycheck, but measures such as social justice or ‘making a dent in the universe’. This is where hierarchy fails, and where emergent, emotionally-intelligent leaders with teams of self-organising ducks, thrive.

Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?

…asked Annie Dillard. It’s a good question.

Richard D. Bartlett, who I support via Patreon and who is better known as richdecibels, has started a newsletter. The process of signing up for it reminded me of a post he wrote last year entitled Hierarchy Is Not The Problem…

Is it a circle or a cone?

Ten years ago, in my first foray into senior management, I was told by a consultant to the newly-installed Principal that “he’s very hierarchical”. She meant it in a good way, but I almost quit on the spot. To me, that’s shorthand for a very dictatorial style of management.

So Bartlett’s post, which I think I’ve mentioned before, is one I keep coming back to. He says that:

I don’t care about hierarchy. It’s just a shape. I care about power dynamics.


These days I have mostly removed “non-hierarchical” from my vocabulary. I still haven’t found a great replacement, but for now I say “decentralised”. But again, it’s not the shape that’s interesting, it’s the power dynamics.

Richard D. Bartlett

That’s quite a challenging notion for me, having been in situations within very hierarchical organisations where people try and put me in a box, tie me to a particular role, or otherwise indicate I should stick to my own lane.

It’s something I’m continue to process. I’m not sure whether Bartlett’s correct. It’s a great argument, and I’ve certainly seen some great organisations structured by way of what I’d call the “default operating system” of hierarchy.

Perhaps the thing is that it’s easy to show the difference between the way an organisation is structured (its nodes) as opposed to the the difference between the way those nodes connect with one another. Interactions between other human beings are complicated, and difficult to put in a neat diagram.

Recently, Sam Altman, President of the famed startup accelerator Y Combinator, wrote a Twitter thread which he entitled How To Be Successful At Your Career. It’s what people do instead of blogging these days, it would appear.

One tweet in the thread really stuck out to me, especially in this context of hierarchy and coercive power relationships:

The most successful people (judged by history, not money) continually look for the most important thing they are able to work on, and that’s what they do. They do not get trapped in local maxima, and they do not deceive themselves if they find something more important.

Sam Altman

In other words, what you’re attempting to do should transcend the organisation you currently work for and the people with whom you currently work. I believe Steve Jobs called this “making a dent in the universe”. It’s unlikely to happen if you’re playing politics within your organisation, if you’re abusing a position of power, or you’re spending all day in meetings.

Fred Wilson, a VC, says he often gets asked what to work on. This is understandable, given it’s his job to keep his finger on the pulse of companies in which he can invest. Wilson sums up by saying:

You must work on something that inspires you and others, you must work on something with a significant impact, and you must do it in a way that makes getting where you want to go as easy as possible and keeps you there as long as possible.

Fred Wilson

I think this is a good mantra, and I appreciate that he doesn’t just consider ‘impact’ to be ‘financial impact’, but also “how it changes the way people think and how they react to your product or service or innovation”.

Context is really important. It’s the reason why there is no one-size-fits-all approach to organisational structures, and why, unless you’re the founder of the organisation, you will never be 100% aligned with everything it does. And even then, if your organisation grows to make an impact, there will be a difference between you and the organisation you helped to gestate.

All we can do, at any given point, is to weigh up where we are, using principles such as Fred Wilson’s:

  1. Am I working on something that inspires me (and others)?
  2. Am I working on something with a significant impact?
  3. Am I working in a way that makes getting where I want to go as easy as possible (and keeps me there as long as possible)?

As Altman writes, that’s likely to be in a place that doesn’t play politics and, to Bartlett’s point, it’s important to pay very close attention to power dynamics. In short, it’s important to ask ourselves regularly, “Am I best positioned to make the particular dent I’ve decided to make in the universe?”

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted

So said Aldous Huxley. Recently, I discovered a episode of the podcast The Science of Success in which Dan Carlin was interviewed. Now Dan is the host of one of my favourite podcasts, Hardcore History as well as one he’s recently discontinued called Common Sense.

The reason the latter is on ‘indefinite hiatus’ was discussed on The Science of Success podcast. Dan feels that, after 30 years as a journalist, if he can’t get a grip on the current information landscape, then who can? It’s shaken him up a little.

One of the quotations he just gently lobbed into the conversation was from John Stuart Mill, who at one time or another was accused by someone of being ‘inconsistent’ in his views. Mill replied:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

John Stuart Mill

Now whether or not Mill said those exact words, the sentiment nevertheless stands. I reckon human beings have always made up their minds first and then chosen ‘facts’ to support their opinions. These days, I just think that it’s easier than ever to find ‘news’ outlets and people sharing social media posts to support your worldview. It’s as simple as that.

Last week I watched a stand-up comedy routine by Kevin Bridges on BBC iPlayer as part of his 2018 tour. As a Glaswegian, he made the (hilarious) analogy of social media as being like going into a pub.

(As an aside, this is interesting, as a decade ago people would often use the analogy of using social media as being like going to an café. The idea was that you could overhear, and perhaps join in with, interesting conversations that you hear. No-one uses that analogy any more.)

Bridges pointed out that if you entered a pub, sat down for a quiet pint, and the person next to you was trying to flog you Herbalife products, constantly talking about how #blessed they felt, or talking ambiguously for the sake of attention, you’d probably find another pub.

He was doing it for laughs, but I think he was also making a serious point. Online, we tolerate people ranting on and generally being obnoxious in ways we would never do offline.

The underlying problem of course is that any platform that takes some segment of the real world and brings it into software will also bring in all that segment’s problems. Amazon took products and so it has to deal with bad and fake products (whereas one might say that Facebook took people, and so has bad and fake people).

Benedict Evans

I met Clay Shirky at an event last month, which kind of blew my mind given that it was me speaking at it rather than him. After introducing myself, we spoke for a few minutes about everything from his choice of laptop to what he’s been working on recently. Curiously, he’s not writing a book at the moment. After a couple of very well-received books (Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) Shirky has actually only published a slightly obscure book about Chinese smartphone manufacturing since 2010.

While I didn’t have time to dig into things there and then, and it would been a bit presumptuous of me to do so, it feels to me like Shirky may have ‘walked back’ some of his pre-2010 thoughts. This doesn’t surprise me at all, given that many of the rest of us have, too. For example, in 2014 he published a Medium article explaining why he banned his students from using laptops in lectures. Such blog posts and news articles are common these days, but it felt like was one of the first.

The last decade from 2010 to 2019, which Audrey Watters has done a great job of eviscerating, was, shall we say, somewhat problematic. The good news is that we connected 4.5 billion people to the internet. The bad news is that we didn’t really harness that for much good. So we went from people sharing pictures of cats, to people sharing pictures of cats and destroying western democracy.

Other than the ‘bad and fake people’ problem cited by Ben Evans above, another big problem was the rise of surveillance capitalism. In a similar way to climate change, this has been repackaged as a series of individual failures on the part of end users. But, as Lindsey Barrett explains for Fast Company, it’s not really our fault at all:

In some ways, the tendency to blame individuals simply reflects the mistakes of our existing privacy laws, which are built on a vision of privacy choices that generally considers the use of technology to be a purely rational decision, unconstrained by practical limitations such as the circumstances of the user or human fallibility. These laws are guided by the idea that providing people with information about data collection practices in a boilerplate policy statement is a sufficient safeguard. If people don’t like the practices described, they don’t have to use the service.

Lindsey Barrett

The problem is that we have monopolistic practices in the digital world. Fast Company also reports the four most downloaded apps of the 2010s were all owned by Facebook:

I don’t actually think people really understand that their data from WhatsApp and Instagram is being hoovered up by Facebook. I don’t then think they understand what Facebook then do with that data. I tried to lift the veil on this a little bit at the event where I met Clay Shirky. I know at least one person who immediately deleted their Facebook account as a result of it. But I suspect everyone else will just keep on keeping on. And yes, I have been banging my drum about this for quite a while now. I’ll continue to do so.

The truth is, and this is something I’ll be focusing on in upcoming workshops I’m running on digital literacies, that to be an ‘informed citizen’ these days means reading things like the EFF’s report into the current state of corporate surveillance. It means deleting accounts as a result. It means slowing down, taking time, and reading stuff before sharing it on platforms that you know care for the many, not the few. It means actually caring about this stuff.

All of this might just look and feel like a series of preferences. I prefer decentralised social networks and you prefer Facebook. Or I like to use Signal and you like WhatsApp. But it’s more than that. It’s a whole lot more than that. Democracy as we know it is at stake here.

As Prof. Scott Galloway has discussed from an American point of view, we’re living in times of increasing inequality. The tools we’re using exacerbate that inequality. All of a sudden you have to be amazing at your job to even be able to have a decent quality of life:

The biggest losers of the decade are the unremarkables. Our society used to give remarkable opportunities to unremarkable kids and young adults. Some of the crowding out of unremarkable white males, including myself, is a good thing. More women are going to college, and remarkable kids from low-income neighborhoods get opportunities. But a middle-class kid who doesn’t learn to code Python or speak Mandarin can soon find she is not “tracking” and can’t catch up.

Prof. Scott Galloway

I shared an article last Friday, about how you shouldn’t have to be good at your job. The whole point of society is that we look after one another, not compete with one another to see which of us can ‘extract the most value’ and pile up more money than he or she can ever hope to spend. Yes, it would be nice if everyone was awesome at all they did, but the optimisation of everything isn’t the point of human existence.

So once we come down the stack from social networks, to surveillance capitalism, to economic and markets eating the world we find the real problem behind all of this: decision-making. We’ve sacrificed stability for speed, and seem to be increasingly happy with dictator-like behaviour in both our public institutions and corporate lives.

Dictatorships can be more efficient than democracies because they don’t have to get many people on board to make a decision. Democracies, by contrast, are more robust, but at the cost of efficiency.

Taylor Pearson

A selectorate, according to Pearson, “represents the number of people who have influence in a government, and thus the degree to which power is distributed”. Aside from the fact that dictatorships tend to be corrupt and oppressive, they’re just not a good idea in terms of decision-making:

Said another way, much of what appears efficient in the short term may not be efficient but hiding risk somewhere, creating the potential for a blow-up. A large selectorate tends to appear to be working less efficiently in the short term, but can be more robust in the long term, making it more efficient in the long term as well. It is a story of the Tortoise and the Hare: slow and steady may lose the first leg, but win the race.

Taylor Pearson

I don’t think we should be optimising human beings for their role in markets. I think we should be optimising markets (if in fact we need them) for their role in human flourishing. The best way of doing that is to ensure that we distribute power and decision-making well.

So it might seem that my continual ragging on Facebook (in particular) is a small thing in the bigger picture. But it’s actually part of the whole deal. When we have super-powerful individuals whose companies have the ability to surveil us at will; who then share that data to corrupt regimes; who in turn reinforce the worst parts of the status quo; then I think we have a problem.

This year I’ve made a vow to be more radical. To speak my mind even more, and truth to power, especially when it’s inconvenient. I hope you’ll join me ✊