Sharks are Dangerous, #2
Ash Fontana — 29 Mar 2011
More warnings, signals and solutions for ram ventilation cultures.
Beware Sharks Bearing Formulas
Perpetual and constant propulsion with finite fuel is impossible, unless one reuses the fuel. Business formulas, or ‘best practices’, are reusable fuels for use at work. These can be analytical models, financial metrics or management strategies. Respective examples include a conversion funnel across web pages, a cost accounting formula or highly regular team/taskforce/working committee meetings.
Beware those sharks who repetitively apply formulas to maintain constant output. They are not likely dealing with the complexity or distinction of your business problem. Stephen Wolfram has said that not one MBA has ever succeeded at his organization because it is not a formula-run place.
"When reviewing a list of best practices, keep in mind that someone somewhere is selling them in a book." Lee Clow, Chairman and Global Director of TBWA\Worldwide (tweet).
Formulas are prone to re-application in contexts far from those in which they were originally effective and relevant. In addition to irrelevance and ineffectiveness, the recursive application of a formula can reinforce behavioral biases. Appropriating a quotation from the great Warren Buffet, beware sharks bearing formulas.
A warning sign that you are an obligate ram ventilator is that you carry resources reminding you of previously learnt formulas, and apply those formulas across workplaces and problems.
You can avoid a culture of ram ventilation by simplifying problem definition before attempting a solution, approaching problems from first principles and questioning the assumptions of every formula presented to you.
Shivers of Sharks
Hosting meetings is an easy way to signal output within a repeatable calendar structure. Sharks will, thus, always tend towards meetings, even if this means imposing a large productivity cost on those who need to focus for long periods of time to achieve anything in their work, like programmers.
A warning sign that you are an obligate ram ventilator is that you have numerous and unproductive meetings signaled by low or reducing participation, low output or arbitrary regularity of the meeting times you set.
You can avoid a culture of ram ventilation by forcing the shark to consider the cost of a meeting to those on the ‘maker’ schedule.
Be Still and Train
The most effective workers simultaneously learn and work so that they may constantly make compound improvements in their effectiveness with new methodologies and knowledge. A shark will think of work and learning as apposite but certainly not capable of simultaneous performance; the shark will, not being able to see immediate results from learning, see work and learning as opposite.
A warning sign that you are an obligate ram ventilator is that you find it difficult to value training, especially when off-site or ‘unplugged’, or that you consistently place a low value on all forms of training.
You can avoid a culture of ram ventilation by actively seeking out training opportunities, and highlighting the eventual intertwining of methods picked up at work and those picked up in training.
The Ram Ventilator Can’t Survive in a Reflection Pond
Bob Sutton recently noted that we are more creative and learn most effectively through self-reflection informed by the observations of others. ‘Forward-only’ mode is incompatible with reflection. You could opine that this is planned by the Shark as reflection (self or group) is an often difficult, jarring and certainly confronting process.
A warning sign that you are an obligate ram ventilator is that you spend very little time looking back to reflect on both results and behavior.
You can avoid a culture of ram ventilation by running regular reflection sessions on specific business tasks. Charlie Munger in his talk on the Psychology of Human Misjudgment offers an example of staff at Johnson & Johnson staff having to revisit all acquisitions in order to avoid Pavlovian association in business decisions, misconstruing past correlation as a reliable basis for decision-making.
A Question for Sharks Themselves
Sharks actually face a question of great significance that they should confront as soon as practicable – what is their end goal? When the movement stops, will they really asphyxiate? Why?
Asking a shark to deeply consider ‘why’ they work at all will perhaps force them to address their mode of work. Additionally, with a self-actualized purpose in work one will find themselves thinking about work in many different, non-work contexts, without moving and without asphyxiating. Allowing yourself freedom to enjoy the challenges of work as separate from the mode of work is a liberating moment on the path towards truly ‘doing what you love’, all the time.