Squirrel!: Welcome to the Ricky Bobby School of Management

BusinessPart two of a series.

Ricky Bobby is not a thinker…He is a doer. – Talladega Nights

In part one of this series, we talked about a new analysis that explains how important stupidity is to the modern corporation. Today we’re going to have a look at what this means for you.

In short, despite what you’ve been told your whole life, being smart may not be good for your career.

In some job situations, being smarter, faster, and more rhetorically gifted might also keep you stuck in your current role longer than your peers.

“When you have a lower-level job, being exceptionally good at it is usually a deterrent to getting promoted,” says Lilit Marcus, author of Save the Assistants: A Guide for Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace. For example, “when you’re such a great assistant that your boss has difficulty functioning without you, it means that he or she will keep you on as an assistant as long as possible and will not consider promoting you out of their service.”

You bust your ass, you’re the best performer in the office, and yet you got passed over for a promotion by that useless dolt Johnson, who spends all day on Facebook? Indeed, and now maybe you know why.

I was talking with my friend and colleague J. Stephen O’Brien, who spent years as a senior level consultant for some of the country’s largest corporations. He hid this to say about the process of deciding whom to lay off:

It wasn’t that they targeted smart people, it was that the people they let go tended to be among the very best or very worst performers. The very best performers tended to be the very smartest, or at least the smartest who were unwilling to just go along and keep their mouths shut.

And this is a common phenomenon. You hear it all the time in post-layoff interviews and focus groups. The people left behind are, in virtually every case, flabbergasted that “Mary” of “Bob” or whoever was let go, because they were the very best.

But the very best tend to be both threatening and irritating. They figure out stuff that’s being done wrong, and they want to fix it. When interviewed about why Mary or Bob was let go, the people making that decision usually had something to say along the lines of “not a team player,” “trouble-maker,” “didn’t fit in,” etc. People who worked side-by-side with Mary and Bob didn’t have these impressions, at all. Just the opposite, in fact.

This dynamic helps explain a particular kind of company, one that some of us know all too well. In this company you find smart people, but a) they’re generally quiet, and b) none of them are higher than mid-management. The senior leadership stratum is Ricky Bobby from one end to the other, and anyone lower down the food chain who demonstrates above average intellect is soon out the door. (Fred Spannus does a wonderful job of articulating their particular perspective, and I recommend you pop over and give him a read when you’re done here.)

The irony is that a lot of the former employees JS describes had probably been encouraged to speak up. Be forewarned: it’s a trap. Avoid cultivating a reputation as a “straight-shooter” as you would the galloping herpes. When the bosses say “we really appreciate your honesty,” they’re lying.

In the end, it’s clear that all too many businesses are populated and run by people who, as I have been known to say in business meetings, “aren’t rocket surgeons.” In some cases it seems to work out for them (witness the massive profit numbers generated by companies whose leaders are essentially sociopathic C students). But there’s a cost, and it’s frequently paid by workers who haven’t yet learned to keep their intelligence to themselves.

As I thought about this series over the past few days, my mind kept swinging back around to dogs. You know how dogs don’t really grasp the concept of pointing? You’ll be pointing up a tree and saying “look, buddy, a squirrel!” He’ll be all excited because he knows the word “squirrel,” but since he’s staring at your finger instead what you’re pointing at, he’s completely baffled?

That’s what a lot of business leaders are like. They talk about how important it is to have smart people, even though they’re structured so as to keep smart people out of the company (or at least away from decision making). They bray about creativity, making frequent reference to how important it is to “think outside the box.” Because nothing is more creative than the tiredest cliché in the jargon manual.

But when a truly smart employee stands up and points to a creative idea, like a dog owner to a squirrel in a tree, the “leaders” respond by staring at the finger. And then trying to bite it.

Be brilliant if you must. But if leadership finds out, be prepared to suffer the consequences.

American business: powered by Stupid®

Part one of a series.

Phil Rizzuto: “Hey Yogi I think we’re lost.”

Yogi Berra: “Yeah, but we’re making great time!”

BusinessYou know how certain segments of society think that governments and universities and public school systems ought to be “run like businesses”? And how those same people bitch at length about how messed up their companies are and by the way, their bosses are complete morons. Yeah. Me, too.

Truth is, hardly anything should be run more like a business. Including, you know, businesses. There can be appalling levels of stupidity at work in even the best of companies: counterproductive decision making, breathtaking short-sightedness, a robust commitment to keeping smart people as far away from meaningful authority as possible – these are all too often the hallmarks of real businesses.

But we have to be careful when talking about business and teh stupid, because one often finds oases of pure genius in the midst of the intellectual wasteland. In larger companies, for instance, it’s almost impossible to talk about how things run in the aggregate – you usually need to take the conversation business unit by business unit, work group by work group. I once worked in a Fortune 500 telecom that was, collectively speaking, steeped in every kind of 19th century legacy idiocy you could think of. But Corporate Communications was a model organization. Truly, to this day it’s the best PR group I have ever seen. And within it sat the Employee Communication group. When I arrived, it was (for a variety of reasons, many of them owing to the senior manager in charge), a complete joke, the target of barely concealed snickering on the part of the talented folks around the corner in Media Relations. By the time I left two years later, though, it had earned a great deal of respect from everyone it touched.

So within one narrow silo in the org chart as of the moment I arrived, you had a bad group that was part of a world-class department that was part of a company captive to old, dying ways of thinking. All of which means that yes, there’s lots of stupid, but it’s important to think in nuanced ways about it.

The problem is that I have been writing in such a way as to suggest that stupid is a bad thing. Not so, says a recent analysis.

A recent article in the Journal of Management Studies examines the value of stupidity in successful companies. Yes, I said “value.” For starters, says lead author Mats Alvesson, professor of organization studies at Lund University in Sweden, stupidity can increase efficiency.

In…”A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organisations” Alvesson and colleague André Spicer explain how what they call “functional stupidity” generally helped get things done. “Critical reflection and shrewdness” were net positives, but when too many clever individuals in an organization raised their hands to suggest alternative courses of action or to ask “disquieting questions about decisions and structures,” work slowed.

I think what we have here is a corporate application of the old adage that “ignorance is bliss.”

The study’s authors found that stupidity, on the other hand, seemed to have a unifying effect. It boosted productivity. People content in an atmosphere of functional stupidity came to consensus more easily, and with that consensus came greater roll-up-our-sleeves enthusiasm for concentrating on the job.

To sum up, stupid people reach consensus quickly and then set about enthusiastically acting on it. I can’t lie, that does have the ring of truth about it. The authors are describing what is known, in management-speak, as a “bias for action.” No word on how stupidity and consensus relate to doing the right things, but one presumes this goes back to the whole “too many clever individuals” problem from that first quote.

This all leads to some disoriented thinking, I fear. Many of us look at top businesses and fancy that their success is a function of intelligence. And we want government bureaucracies and schools, which are less “efficient” and hence less intelligent, to be more like businesses, which we now know owe their accomplishments in large part not to intelligence, but to stupidity.

Which may mean that those organizations we hate aren’t how they are because their people are idiots, but just the opposite. They’re too smart for their own good. They’re so worried about doing the right things the right way that they never get off their butts and do anything.

Now I’m thinking about the old management catchphrase from some years back – don’t work harder, work smarter. Which is precisely the wrong advice. By all means work harder, and if possible, work dumber.

My head hurts. I’m going to go have a couple of stiff drinks before I get back to work….

Haste, cost erode editing of online and mobile news

In 1976, I was a general-assignment reporter of limited experience and minimal accomplishment. So my editor kindly fired me, then said: “Now get your ass up on the copy desk where you belong.”

I knew little about copy editing. So I asked my newsroom godfather: “Neil, what do copy editors do?”

He looked over the rims of those 1950s spectacles he favored and said, “Defend your reader.”

“Against what?” I asked.

Error,” he said. “Any error possible.”

The memory of, or, perhaps, even the desire to exercise that dictum may remain in today’s newsrooms. But the ability of copy editors today to defend readers against error has inexorably been eroded. That decimation of editing capacity has been fueled by computerization beginning in the late ’70s and continued in this past decade by the sacking of newsroom staffs and the insatiable demand of management to get stories online or winging to mobile devices right now.
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One reason why you didn’t get the job you were perfect for: can we ask companies to stop the fake job Dog & Pony Show process?

CATEGORY: EconomyMillions of Americans are looking for jobs, and they’re using a wide range of approaches: want ads, online job boards, headhunters and recruiters, networking, these are common approaches. But in an environment where there are far fewer jobs than candidates, none of them are working especially well.

Sometimes, though, you wonder how you missed out. In the past 10-15 years I have seen and applied for plenty of jobs. Some I was qualified for (based on the posted requisites, anyway). Some I was marginally qualified for, at best. And some I was perfect for. In a number of cases I was so perfect that it seemed like the only difference between the job posting and my résumé was my name and contact information at the top of the page. This may have happened to you, too.

But … you didn’t get the job. Continue reading

Hedge funds, sensing profit opportunities, buying distressed newspapers

And now, newspapers’ newest problem: The vultures have descended.

Newspapers continue to lose money and advertising – the New York Times Co. reported print ads would decline 5 percent in the third quarter across all its media. But investors are actually buying newspaper properties, often through bankruptcy sales.

What gives? Are they vultures just picking over already tattered carcasses for spare change? Or do these investors expect to make significant money – somehow?

The New York TimesJulie Creswell reports that

A handful of hedge funds, as well as some big banks, are vying for ownership or have already gained controlling interests in newspapers across the country, including The Los Angeles Times, The Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Chicago Tribune.

And it’s not just newspapers or newspaper companies. They’re buying supermarket tabs, television properties, radio and big publishers. Creswell’s story identifies who’s buying what. But a secretive investor is the most active.

Creswell calls Randall D. Smith a pioneer of vulture investing. Continue reading

The Money-Mad Move to Mobile™: It will cost us dearly

Got an iPad? iPhone? Blackberry? Any mobile device? Content, formerly known as news, is coming to you at lightspeed. McPaper wants to lead the way — or at least catch up to others.

The migration of content from print to online is hardly news. Neither is the intent of content conglomerates, formerly known as newspaper companies, to send content directly to mobile devices. Got an iPad? Gannett’s corporate site trumpets the 800,000 — and climbing — downloads of the free USA Today app.

Other content providers, formerly known as newspapers and cable news sites, are already parked on your Blackberry, iPhone, Droid, and iPad and have been for a while: I routinely read The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.com on my Blackberry. Get my weather on it, too.

There’s a corporate rush to get content, presumably reported and written by content providers (formerly known as journalists), to you wherever you are right now — and have it return to corporations the revenue that their newspapers, now known as content vehicles, have been losing by the bucket loads for a decade. They want that money back. And in the course of dumbing us down, they’re going to get it.
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Forget Spitzer's errant penis: Think more about CNN's blunders

You remember this tableau, don’t you? It’s Monday, March 10, 2008, and the governor of New York state is standing in front of reporters and beside his stoic wife. In a CNN.com story, Eliot Spitzer, the reporter wrote, “confess[ed] to an undisclosed personal indiscretion, saying he had acted ‘in a way that violates my obligations to my family, that violates my or any sense of right and wrong.'”

On that day, a story on CNN.com posed this question: Is scandal enough to sink Spitzer for good?

We learned that, on Feb. 13, 2008, Spitzer spent three hours and $4,300 on a prostitute. She was “Kristen”; he was “Client 9.” On March 12, in a CNN.com story, we learned Spitzer had spent $15,000 on prostitutes. Continue reading

The new news: lean, multiplatform, creative? Is less now more?

Editor & Publisher reported this today:

The San Diego Union-Tribune laid off more than 30 staffers on Thursday in what Editor Jeff Light called in an editor’s note an effort to build “a lean, creative, multi-platform team that can lead the industry.” [emphasis added]

E&P reports that this is the U-T’s seventh round of staff cuts since 2006.

In April 2008, when The Seattle Times cut 200 people, its publisher said: “Strategic and thoughtful changes to the way we do business will allow us to be positioned for the future.” [emphasis added]

When The New York Times cut 100 jobs in 2009 (after whacking 100 jobs in 2008), its executive editor said:

These latest cuts will still leave us with the largest, strongest and most ambitious editorial staff of any newsroom in the country, if not the world. … I believe we can weather these cuts without seriously compromising our commitment to coverage of the region, the country and the world. We will remain the single best news organization on earth. [emphasis added]

Why is that the MBA-driven leadership of the newspaper industry, after cutting 35,000 mostly newsroom jobs between October 2007 and June 2010, continues to insist that the future (for whom?) is bright, and news (about what?) will multimedia its way to us day after day, quantity and quality unaffected?

There are words for that kind of image-driven happy talk: Reality challenged. Misrepresentation. Delusion. Outright lies. And, of course, bullshit.
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Bloggers will be 'reimagined' in the future of news. We'll be rich!

So, you’re a blogger. You gettin’ paid for what you write?

Nada? Thought so. Me, too. Nada. But don’t worry: Corporate types who run content businesses have big plans for us. They’re gonna make us stars of online local news.

Here’s an example: In the latest edition of American Journalism Review, writer Karen Carmichael outlines the plan for Albritton Communications’ strategy for local online news in Washington, D.C. She writes:

[T]he new operation is determined to figure out how to make local online news a profitable venture and to reimagine the relationship among reader, blogger and news organization, with heavy aggregation and partnerships with area bloggers key parts of his strategy. [emphasis added]

Damn. We’re going to be reimagined. (Say, how much does that pay?)
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Who should be held responsible? BP, Sovereignty, Personhood and the Corporation – Part 3

Investment from the poorestNot everyone can be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. We would all love to be the person who invented the microchip or founded WalMart. We can’t be. It may be that we weren’t born into the right family, clever enough, or simply in the right place at the right time.

But we can buy shares in this luck. In 2004, you may have no design skills but you may recognise that the iPhone is the future and buy Apple shares. You would have done well for yourself.

Maybe you’re not that sharp? Well, you can always invest in an index fund and let the market make you an investor.

The last thing you need is a heavy knock on the door and be arrested for crimes committed by Enron even though you only had $12 in the firm. Continue reading

Who should be held responsible? BP, Sovereignty, Personhood and the Corporation – Part 1

Something horribleOn 20 April, pressure built up in the well 1,500 metres beneath the Deepwater Horizon, an exploratory oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The pressure catapulted up the pipeline, overcoming the concrete keeping it in place, as well as the blowout preventer designed to stop exactly this type of occurrence.

The gas exploded as it hit the rig sending it to the ocean floor and taking the lives of 11 of its 126 crew. The immense pressure in the rupture is propelling some 5,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil up into the ocean every day.

No-one knows what went wrong. Whether it was direct negligence on the part of the various operators, or whether something unforeseen happened that we can learn from … for next time. Continue reading

In the future, online news will make us all feel fine …

The Newspaper Association of America is crowing of late over the growth of audiences at online news websites.

Newspaper companies drove record traffic to their websites in the first quarter of 2010, attracting an unprecedented 74.4 million unique visitors per month on average – more than one-third (37 percent) of all Internet users. This new record follows the strong audience newspapers delivered in last year’s fourth quarter, with newspaper websites drawing an average of 72 million unique visitors per month during that period. [emphasis added]

Editor & Publisher points out that these numbers demonstrate continued online growth carried over from the fourth quarter of 2009. The first quarter numbers apparently show visitors showing up and staying on site a while, averaging 44 pages per person during a visit of just more than a half hour.

The NAA is happily tossing confetti and joyfully dropping balloons over this booming Internet traffic. The business model of the future is nigh! Should anyone else celebrate?
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The pay wall: Good idea? Or too little, too late?

The word carries a sense of enforced separation — walls, as in pay walls. Keep out those who don’t belong — meaning those who don’t, won’t, or can’t pay.

Managers of content-provision corporations — there’s no point any more in calling them “newspaper companies” — are desperate for revenue after enduring print ad losses. So, after 15 years of giving away the milk for free online, they’ve finally mustered up the cojones to at least talk about charging for content on their websites. They speak of this in a language the reporters they’ve fired would never use — the content provision managers talk of monetizing their sites, of incorporating paid-content strategies, of generating additional digital revenue.

And if you believe pay-content impresario Steven Brill of Journalism Online, about 1,000 publishers — er, content-provision specialistsexpect to make $900 million at $8.33 a month from the 10 percent of online website visitors Mr. Brill thinks would be willing to cough of up the cash. But an American Press Institute study says only 51 percent of publishers (who voluntarily completed a survey) think they can charge successfully for online content.

But what does “successfully” mean? And who gets to define it? Easy: Cui bono?
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Yo, Rupert: Think that 'pay wall' will work?

The newspaper industry promises it will begin charging for news online. But it shares a similar problem with the music industry. It has allowed consumers of news for well more than a decade to treat news as a free good.

Further, during that decade, the newspaper industry has purposely deteriorated its product in a vain attempt to chase the last dram of declining advertising revenue. To do this, it has cut costs in the two principal areas it can — paper and people. Physically, newspapers have shrunk in height, width and number of pages, reducing the amount of newsprint required. In 1990 America’s daily newspapers had 56,900 staffers; 5,900 journalists lost their jobs in 2008; and thousands more have been whacked this year. And it’s the expensive high end of the experience spectrum that the industry has callously discarded. So profit levels remained tolerable to shareholders, but only because of decreased costs — not increased revenue.

And the titans of the industry now say they’re going to charge for a product produced by fewer people with less experience that’s led to far more editing errors and one-source stories that reveal much in their shallowness about the quality of the product being sold? Good luck with leading the paid content charge, Rupert.
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Business side gets raises; newsroom side doesn't

Salaries at newspapers are rising, reports Jennifer Saba of Editor & Publisher, a newspaper industry trade journal. But it’s not necessarily good news for would-be journalists looking to break into an industry beset by revenue problems.

Newspaper wages rose 2.1 percent from 2008 to 2009, reported Ms. Saba, based on the annual Newspaper Compensation Study by the Inland Press Association using data from 400 U.S. and Canadian papers.

But the folks getting the raises, up to 13 percent for “interactive producers,” are not the people producing the raw content — news stories.
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Business: when goals attack!

We can probably agree that it’s good to have goals. In business, especially, it’s good to know where you’re going and to have some mechanisms that help you chart and evaluate your progress.

Increasingly, though, we’re presented with more and more evidence suggesting that our goal-setting can easily go awry, and with dramatically counter-productive results. If you’ve read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s outstanding Freakonomics you probably recall their investigation of teacher-fueled cheating on standardized tests, for instance. While most of would agree in principle that our educational system should adhere to the highest standards possible, it’s clear that something went badly wrong in that system. If you know any teachers, you may also have heard (in tones ranging from quiet exasperation to unbridled rage) how goal-setting is failing in other places, as well, and for many of the same reasons. Continue reading

Strib files for bankruptcy under equity firm owner

A business ought to make a profit if it’s properly capitalized and wisely run. If it is neither, it fails. Today, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, joining the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, in the red-ink tank.

With assets of $493.2 million and liabilities of $661.1 million, the Strib, as it’s commonly known, certainly qualifies as undercapitalized. (Yes, we know: Declines in print advertising revenues had a great deal to do with this.) Wisely run? Less than two years ago, then-owner McClatchy Co. sold the Strib to a private equity group, Avista Capital Partners of New York, for $530 million.

So what does a gaggle of “seasoned professionals” — whose Web site says its “Global Partnership Strategy of focus, collaboration and expertise in business and investing—will enable us to do more than just make ‘good buys’ in today’s market … and supports management and enhances operational performance, creating real value” — know about newspapering?
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Newspapers: Do as we say. Read online. Well, pfui!

Remember the days when you’d bring in the newspaper from the front porch and drop it on the kitchen table, hearing a satisfying thunk as it landed? Remember when the newspaper had heft?

The newspaper business is contracting, much like a hypothermia victim losing circulation in the extremities to protect the body’s core. The recession now swallowing the global economy has accelerated that shrinkage.

Newspapers have contracted in physical size, rate of print publication, ability to produce quality journalism in quantity, reputation for credibility, meaningful participation in public discourse — and, of course, revenue. Their corporate leaders say the lousy revenue’s their problem; therefore, either more revenue or fewer expenses will solve the problem. Well, they’re not getting more revenue. Hence, the contractions.

And that is the problem: The newspaper industry doesn’t recognize what its problem truly is. Well, here it is: Newspapers no longer control readers’ habits.
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'You want me on that wall! You need (a good journalist) on that wall!'

For 20 years, I was a newsman. A damned good one. I learned the craft from good newsmen who learned it from other good newsmen before me. No steenkin’ journalism school for me.

I learned to parse cop code by making daily phone calls to the cops to get the police log — and often walked to the cop shop and read it myself when the damned desk sergeant wouldn’t read it to me. I learned by paying attention to details. I listened to what sources said — always more than one, y’know — and wrote it down. I had a newsroom godfather who taught me well: “Get it right. Period.” I only used anonymous sources three times in 20 years.

One day Editor Bob said he’d heard somebody was going to build a nuclear plant up river. “Find out,” he said. I did. I had to learn how nukes operated in less than two hours before going to the presser for the announcement. I was the only newsman who asked: “Will this be a boiling water or pressurized water reactor?” Hell, the PR types didn’t know. I did. I knew the in’s and out’s of each. Score one for me. I learned the beat quickly. I reported what the utility and the government didn’t want my readers to know. I wore a button given to me by my news editor: “Question Authority.” I found facts — so my readers found out something they needed to know.
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