Weekly Musings – March 26, 2017
A weekly post in which I share (some of) the most thought-provoking content I read this week(ish), which I am too lazy to write full blog posts about.
It’s been a good week, filled with lots of writing! If, like me, you’ve noticed all the articles out there right now pointing to the lack of a strong HR team at Uber and Thinx as a cause of their recent scandals, I invite you to consider an alternative perspective in my (slightly ranty) post ‘Startup Scandal? HR is Not the Answer‘. I also published a post over on our excellent team blog at Actionable.co sharing the way that we’re approaching role design in a fast-growing company. Even if your organization isn’t in growth mode, I think you might find it interesting: ‘Redesigning Roles: Leaving the Traditional Org Chart Behind‘.
Of course I also managed to squeeze in lots of great reading this week. Here are a few pieces of note:
Some Half-Truths of Management – Henry Mintzberg
Great read. I love Mr. Mintzberg’s writing (it’s a recent discovery, so I’m not ready to call him by his first name yet). His first ‘half-truth’ is ‘We Live in Times of Great Change’.
“Have you heard this before—say in the last hour? Did you know that when a laptop detects a CEO about to type a speech, it automatically enters: “We live in times of great change.” Why bother the CEO to type it again, since just about every management speech in the past few decades has begun with this line. That never changes.”
What can I say? I like his style. But the line that had me fumbling for my Evernote app so I could record it for this post came a few paragraphs later:
“Managing change without managing continuity is anarchy.”
I need to let this sentence soak into my brain for a little while. It’s so right, and it’s got a few dimensions to it. Like: how often do we overlook the lessons offered by those things that quietly endure? I feel like I need to use this sentence to sharpen my thinking ahead of each post I write that contemplates some change, and ask myself “What continues?”
I encourage you to check out the rest of Mr. Mintzberg’s management half-truths, there’s some thought provoking stuff there.
The Pot-Belly of Ignorance – Shane Parrish
“Clickbait media is not a nutritious diet. Most people brush this off and say that it doesn’t matter … that it’s just harmless entertainment.
But it’s not harmless at all. Worse, it’s like cocaine. It causes our brains to light up and feel good. The more of it we consume, the more of it we want. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Shane is the man behind Farnham Street, which is hands down some of the highest quality writing on the web, so he’s totally justified in this observation. I also really needed to read this, because I am 400% better at resisting actual junk food than I am in resisting clickbait, and I’d never really thought about it as equivalently harmful.
If you read this Weekly Musings post series and/or follow me on Twitter it might seem like I read a lot, but in reality I have over 30 unread books on my Kindle right now, and a stack on my bedside table. It stresses me out. And yet I find myself clicking on links to articles that I should know are going to be the most superficial bullshit. (Pro-tip: if the title is some variation of: “7 out-of-the-box ideas to do X” the ideas will most definitely NOT be out of the box).
I am actively working on this habit, but it’s challenging. Sometimes my brain gets tired and I’d prefer stuff I can just skim. A good reminder then:
“Surface skimming articles are sometimes meant to be readable by the lay public, but more frequently it indicates simply that the author only has surface knowledge! Referenced work also shows you the author is aware of the filters their information came through too. It’s like knowing the vegetables on your plate are organic and responsibly sourced.”
I’m resolved to trim my focus in the coming weeks, and work a bit harder on my mental attention muscle the same way I work on my deadlifts every week. If you have tips on how you’ve tackled this please share in comments below!
In Defence of Hierarchy – Aeon
It seems an appropriate follow-on from admonitions about the hazards of junk food content that my last share for this week is a lengthy (albeit readable) deep dive on the nature and often over-looked value of hierarchies, co-authored by several professors of philosophy and politics.
It caught my eye because of the recent focus we’ve had at Actionable on thinking about our organization’s structure and the roles within it, as well as an upcoming course I’m participating in related to self-management.
It’s true that hierarchy, while a regular feature of our organizations and institutions, is not a term that conjures warm feelings for most. For those of us in the West, that is likely due, at least in part, to our own cultural expectations of an egalitarian society. Individually, I suspect many of us have found ourselves at some point stifled by the bureaucracy that can arise within many-layered organizations, and have come to associate that experience with hierarchy.
But hierarchy as a concept does not necessarily involve bureaucracy, and the authors point out that our knee-jerk reaction to the term obscures the existence of many hierarchies we accept in life:
“On the other hand, the idea of a purely egalitarian world in which there are no hierarchies at all would appear to be both unrealistic and unattractive. Nobody, on reflection, would want to eliminate all hierarchies, for we all benefit from the recognition that some people are more qualified than others to perform certain roles in society. We prefer to be treated by senior surgeons not medical students, get financial advice from professionals not interns. Good and permissible hierarchies are everywhere around us.”
I doubt many people could argue with the benefit of elevating experts to positions of authority, at least in situations where that expertise will be used in decision-making. The distinction then is when experts are elevated to positions of authority even when they are not the most qualified to person to make the decision at hand (that is, the decision is unrelated to their expertise).
“Hierarchies are often pernicious not because they distinguish between people, but because they perpetuate these distinctions even when they are no longer merited or serve a good purpose.”
“To protect against abuse by those with higher status, hierarchies should also be domain-specific: hierarchies become problematic when they become generalised, so that people who have power, authority or respect in one domain command it in others too.”
The authors argue that ‘good, permissible’ hierarchies may in fact enable individuals to act more autonomously by empowering experts in positions of authority to effectively disseminate their knowledge and intervene to curb irrational actions, essentially placing boundaries around an arena in which individuals can use the information available to make choices and take actions. The efficiencies this creates related to decision-making and communication are, I think, one reason that organizations (particularly as they grow) seem to struggle to operationalize structural alternatives to hierarchy .
Holacracy, one system of self-organization, relies on a complex (to me, anyway) governance framework, possibly in order to overcome the potential communication and decision-making inefficiencies that hierarchy might otherwise impose. The degree to which participatory decision-making and authority can be shared within a hierarchy is debatable, but the authors posit that it’s possible.
“Hierarchy is oppressive when it is reduced to a simple power over others. But there are also forms of hierarchy that involve power with, not over.”
Anyway, I’m starting all my pre-work and reading for the Leadwise self-management intensive, and I’ll be posting some thoughts on Medium as part of the course work…so, stay tuned.
Do you wish your ‘reading diet’ had less junk food in it? Any favorite sources of more wholesome content you’d like to share? Thoughts on the pros and cons of hierarchy? Share in the comments please, and have a great week!