Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Corporate Genius - spoof of Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell's books always fascinate me.

He has not written this, but may well do so after reading this article
Written with the professional elegance of language, they discuss facts that massage the grey cells, passively exercising without stretching them too much. They delight readers by hinting at the possibility of there being something more to reality than is apparent. Pleasant and free flowing, they sometimes do away with scientific rigour – especially when making unverified claims about birth time windows maximising chances of becoming millionaires, highly connected hubs for successful networks and so on. However, they deal with complex sociological phenomena in the simplistic language even the modern twitterature and blogosphere addicts can follow.

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

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
However, the crux of his argument is interesting. He maintains, and I agree, that situations and circumstances far outweigh the other factors and actually provide the opportunity for talent to be sharpened to the level of the genius through repetition and hard work. Specifically, he comes up with the 10000 hour rule, which indeed what this article deals with.

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.

The Beatles, according to Gladwell, performed live in Hamburg over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time. Gladwell asserts that all this time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent. They were 'made' by this experience, chiselling themselves into something people had never heard before.

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
Working fo an Indian organisation, I can hardly open my mailbox without facing a 360 degree bombardment of innovations and accolades, stories of exceptional achievers and fables about delighted customers. The Key Responsibility Areas of managers are being mapped to idea generation by people who believe that time has installed publicity as the mother of invention. Hence, a common employee like me constantly finds his own thoughts slashed to ribbons by so called cutting edge conceptions, and the peace and quiet of the cubicle blasted to bits by the drums, bugles, bells and whistles that accompany these measures and drives. I would say we are lucky that almost all of these revolutionary ideas turn out to be brain farts and damp squibs, preventing a disaster of the nature as perpetual innovation had triggered in the banking industry not too long ago.

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
 the next level. To the workforce, promotions and change of role is the Holy Grail, elicited through periodic reminders, strategic whining and a lepidopterist like passion for collecting appreciation mails. What this ensures is that organisations play along and keep promoting people, often creating room at the top and adding layers in the middle to accommodate the continuous corporate climb. So, the seasoned athletes competing in the perennial rat race end up with a maximum of 3 years in a particular level, doing the same job.

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.

Hence, with a maximum of 2600 hours on the same job, the drones rarely have enough time to make them deft, skilled geniuses. Even when they perform the same role while spanning three different designations, they fall short of the required amount of practice that makes perfect. Another factor to consider here is that with each passing year and change in designation, the time spent working diminishes, making way for many channels aiding celebration of work in the form of caffeinated coffee, cigarettes, conversations, cell phone and ipod generated music, curriculum vitae circulation, cricket discussions, character assassination, cribbing about reward-less slogging and canvassing for a change of role.

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.

A standard issue worker consumes about eight cups of coffee per work day. If we put it in the well encouraged and appreciated quantitative numbers, this amounts to nearly two hours per day of taking the walk, washing the cup, choosing the brew, pouring and stirring, adding milk and sugar, networking with colleagues and customers in the highly connected hub called the espresso machine.  This amounts to nearly 450 hours per year. Given the normal 20-25 year career climb to the secluded office with a buxom secretary who will serve coffee and more, one generally ends up spending 10000 hours in quest of caffeine in the corpocratic quarters.

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.


  1. honesty has its appeal and yours truly being also associated with proposal writing admits that the facts and opinions presented in this article are quite real. The availability of such management books which sounds "science like" help in theorizing such inanities in simple steps with each step associated with "twitterature" (well coined :)) or "publicized" topics which must necessarily occupy the immediate attention span of the public but can remain unrelated or completely disjointed. And the geeks and budding MBAs gorge these novelties only to puke somewhere round the corner. It’s quite a surprise that this preposterous business model can manage after all to stand by itself. What aids is the attitude of customers who get entrapped in these fairy tales (or brain farts :)) like drug addicts --- while their whole lives are built around fancy and absurdity, starting with their bonus and promotion expectations and ending up embracing equally comical targets and hence supplier business solutions. The management texts available nowadays also help in redefining English dictionary words like 'success' and 'genius' while ignoring some other existing yet unpopular words like 'chicanery' and 'flippancy'. This is an irreparable damage done to English diction where this systematic annihilation of the meanings will leave posterity as castrated Dicks unable to link back to ancient erudition.

    Your observation on Gladwell requirement of 10K loyal hours spent in quest of caffeine (or it could have been golf :)) going a long way in building the core competencies of corporate bigwigs is stupendous. Completely fell in love with your analysis.

  2. it has always been my belief that luck -- some equate it to God -- or circumstances is what separates the great from the not-so great and so i find your statement " chance and opportunity playing a rather unsettlingly dominant role in the shaping of success stories," rather comforting


Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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