|He has not written this, but may well do so after reading this article|
In keeping with the fleeting attention span of his wide range of readers, the dimension that the writing probes are breadth and variety without becoming entrapped in despairing depth. So a lot of it is superficial, merely scratching the surface. However, that is to be expected from an erstwhile scribe for the Washington Post who currently earns his royalty-aside bread as a columnist for The New Yorker.
For me, there are a lot of corporate lessons in his works. The books, with their pristine white get up, a concise subtitle and an economic picture of an out of box object, such as a match stick or a shoe, give an exemplary demonstration of the working of visual branding. This has been dealt with by the excellent caricatures of Cory and Blett in http://www.malcolmgladwellbookgenerator.com/.
They are also a lesson in how simple facts strung together by scratching the inner peripheries of something that sounds like science can fill pages on pages of engaging thought. Had I been in charge, his entire collection would have been compulsory reading for proposal writers bent on delighting time challenged customers. His latest book What the Dog Saw is an excellent example of reusing old ideas when nothing new seems to be forthcoming.
However, when I say that corporate proposal writers could learn from Gladwell, please don't misunderstand me. I would urge the reader to refrain from concluding that I am equating the works of the writer with the outputs of our cubicle constrained creativity. Many of the ideas penned by him, although often stating little more than the obvious and frequently challenged by scientists, are genuinely thought provoking.
In Tipping Point he talks about the disproportionate influence of a select few, which Joseph Juran had quietly outlined more than half a century ago.In his self effacing way, Juran had named the effect after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In Outliers, Gladwell proposes that success is the result of situations, circumstances, talent, repetition and hard work – a statement that almost challenges the inanity of axiomatic core messages of most corporate innovations.
|Picture: Cory and Blett|
Based on a study by Anders Ericsson, professor of Psychology at the Florida State University, Gladwell claims that genius does not always need colossal talent, but almost always requires enormous amounts of time. The magic number of hours roughly translates into 10000 across diverse fields. It is the defining claim of the book that a reasonably talented individual will be likely to rise to the level of a genius if fortunate enough to spend 10000 or more hours practicing and perfecting his art.
Bill Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent long hours programming on it. We need to remember that in 1968 computers were nowhere near as commonplace as they are now, and access to one was reserved for the very elite or the extremely lucky. Gladwell claims that without this circumstantial advantage, Gates could have been successful given his entrepreneurial acumen, but chances of being worth 50 billion US dollars would have remained remote.
Gladwell’s arguments about the hours are quite thought provoking. It raises the question, and sometimes concern, about how an initial edge driven by nothing other than plain strokes of fortune allows some people to experience this ten thousand hour luxury. An analysis of the birthdates of the US national league hockey teams reveals that most of them were born in the months of January and February which enabled them to be the oldest in their classes in junior school, thus enjoying an early physical advantage. He goes on to show how this advantage becomes the differentiating factor as these select people carried forward by timely birth were continuously selected among the best players, thus clocking hours and hours of best competitive hockey time, till the equally capable but born some months apart are left way behind for lack of equivalent practice.
While all that rings true, and I am a firm believer in chance and opportunity playing a rather unsettlingly dominant role in the shaping of success stories, my rather sinister sense of sarcasm was provoked into wondering how this rule translates into the land of the clicks, beyond the cubicle infested antiseptic boundaries of the corporate world.
|Well, these are his actual books|
However, even with mails, mailers, podcasts and newsletters paradoxically showcasing out of box Einsteins at every nook and corner of the cubicles, not even the most deluded star employee can honestly claim to be a genius at his work by any stretch of his stilted yet flexible imagination. With all the hours booked and salaries drawn by the workforce streaming in and out of the cubicles each day, pitifully little work is done that can be translated into even an infinitesimal paradigm shift. In the form of tools, spreadsheets, reports, metrics, meeting minutes and soiled coffee cups, the resulting output from all but a very small percentage of the hours put in by the workforce comes out as decadent debris of waste – products that can neither be used nor recycled, with the sole exception of the Styrofoam coffee cups. It is also a well known trait in the industry that the higher a person rises, the more incapable he becomes at performing useful work which actually benefits the customers.
So, does the 10000 hour rule draw a blank in the industry? Are all the monumental man years billed to grudging customers and spent in front of futuristic laptops immune to the Gladwell genius syndrome?
Let us take a deeper look.
One of the factors which contribute greatly to the lack of expertise seems to be the phenomenal hankering for
|Picture: Cory and Blett|
A person spends around 1700 hours in office per year. The amount of work done in these 1700 hours is a complicated function of the designation, but seldom is it more than a very liberal estimate of 50%. With emails, internet and coffee machines, it is neither possible nor fair to budget for more. Refreshing the mind and body becomes more and more necessary, especially given the extra hours that people insist on staying in office and wear as a medallion during the cycles of promotion.
We seem to have dug out the root of the problem. The unfortunate cubicle creatures are handicapped by the lack of opportunity of spending enough time on the job. Maybe a relook at the structure of the industry, the cycle of promotions and change of roles and some psychiatric counselling reigning in the fascination with growth and moving up the ladder can bring about a radical change in the quality of work. Maybe with such a change, suddenly innovations will resemble something worthwhile rather than an excel macro imitating Macavity in working out complicated long division sums.
But, the next question is, what about the hours put in now, piling upon one another, amounting to a mountain of experience so frequently translated into company capability? Do all those logged time amount to nothing? All spiral into nothing because of the change of designations and roles necessitated by promotion cycles? The promotion cycles in its turn are necessitated by the conviction that the most important feature in an individual is not the presence or absence of a sizable paunch, a working knowledge or absolute ignorance about George Bernard Shaw or a fantastic relationship or the absence thereof with spouse and kid, but surfaces only through the word manager and its derivatives printed or absent on a business card.
My view is different. Malcolm Gladwell does hit the nail on its head. In spite of changing roles every three years, corporate cubicle creatures do develop sophisticated skills at some of the activities demanded by the job. Because, regardless of designation, some things never change.
One should also not forget that with growth come additional responsibilities. There are frequent requirements of getting together with customers or colleagues, disgruntled or sycophantic underlings, planning sessions and motivational pep talks. All these mean steaming Styrofoam cups of hot brew.
The trick here is not to change allegiance between beverages. Dividing time between tea and coffee and the occasional hot chocolate like a fickle fresher ignorant of the bigger picture will end up in being neither here, nor there. Definitely not transformed into a genius.
Another aspect where I see excellence regardless of rapid change of designation, is in the phenomenal capacity of self promotion. If 50% of eight hours is spent working per day, nearly an equivalent or more is spent talking about the way the clicks of mouse and the taps on the solitary keyboard are keeping the world from disintegrating into the primordial soup we came from. No wonder people often spend way more than ten hours in office. There are ball by ball descriptions of the complications and challenges, coupled with the innovations brought about to overcome the same. Exceptional skill in every line of code written, every excel cell populated, every audit report filled. The Nobel Prize seems to have just about eluded the excellent and capable grasps in a cruel twist of fate. A fifteen minute interaction with most is enough to fill three and a half chapters of their biographies. Four hours a day engaged in this occupation, with whines and groans to spice things up as promotion cycle approaches, is another constant which gives us a semblance of stability in an ever changing world. A mere twelve years of this enables one to fulfil the Gladwell requirement. Every corporate creep who is worth his salt and has been around for little more than a decade is a genius at convincing the world that it exists because of his exploits in the cubicle. Atlas may have shrugged, but not he – for the organisation, the clients, the industry and the world is balanced on his weary and capable shoulders. Like a deep sea creature, he prides himself in surviving under immense pressure.
So, that is the Malcolm Gladwell verified image of the corporate genius.
Coffee cup in hand, a non-chalant smile taking the focus off bleary eyes, talking about achievements against the odds, about thriving under pressure and about coffers rich with received accolades, yet morose at being not rewarded with the step up to the next level. The air gradually filling up with the rancid combination of coffee and crap.