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Why Do Pundits Work So Hard To Deny These 3 Things About Human Nature?

2024 June 16
by Greg Satell

Humans have evolved a lot over the past few thousand years. We no longer depend on our own muscle power, use technology to overcome barriers of time and space and have gained significant control over our surroundings. Scientific studies that track shifts in our DNA find a surprising degree of variation from our ancestors.

That’s probably why it’s become fashionable for pundits and gurus to talk about “new eras” that will shift human behavior and reshape organizations. We’re told that we live in a VUCA world, that our organizations need to be flatter and that if we just engineer the right systems, we can let market and technological forces do the rest.

None of these things are true. While it is true that humans and our societies continue to evolve, human nature has mostly stayed the same. Our brains were not designed out of whole cloth, but formed on top of what is already there. We are, much more than we’d like to admit, driven by primordial urges and, to be effective, we need to be more aware of our own natures.

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Is AI Selfish?

2024 June 9

When evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins claimed that genes are selfish, he didn’t mean that he thought they are cognisant, with a will of their own. Rather, that genes act as if they are selfish, working to replicate themselves in the most efficient way, regardless of what that entails for the organism that carries them. In other words, the phrase “survival of the fittest” applies to our genes, not to us.

The concept led to the idea of memes, elemental bits of culture that compete to be replicated in the marketplace of ideas. Then Susan Blackmore introduced the concept of temes, elemental bits of technology, like lines of code sitting in Github, that are competing to replicate in order to survive in future technological artifacts.

Once you start thinking about selfish genes, memes and temes, and begin applying those concepts to artificial intelligence, it becomes clear that AI must be selfish as well, competing to get itself replicated through us. That in turn, raises some very important questions: What is the context we are creating for this competition and how will the rules affect our own fate?

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This Is One Big Reason Why So Much Business Thinking Is Crap

2024 June 2
by Greg Satell

Sometime in the 1980s, Harvard Professor John Kotter became intensely interested in how change succeeds and fails within organizations. He examined roughly 100 firms, evaluated their performance, and then interviewed executives in an effort to understand what went right, what went wrong and how things could be done better.

That led to Kotter’s 8-step change process, which still forms the basis for most change management efforts today. Six years later he teamed up with Deloitte to interview 200 more executives and, incredibly, learned nothing new but found the identical 8-steps at work. With such massive corroboration, who could question the results?

This is generally how business ideas get established and it is a very shoddy way to go about things. Case study interviews of self-serving executives are prone to enormous amounts of bias. Unless controls are put in place and corroborating research from other fields is examined, the result is likely to be more superstition and lore than fact-based analysis.

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Summer Reading List: 11 Books That Will Make You A Better Communicator

2024 May 26
by Greg Satell

More than a decade ago I published an article in Forbes about IBM’s Watson. With the system’s triumph, beating the best human players at Jeopardy!, everybody was wondering whether humans had a future or whether we would all be at the mercy of “our new robot overlords.” It was an exciting and confusing time.

Yet as I sat down with those that were developing Watson and its applications, it started to become clear that the new era of cognitive computing would be an era of cognitive collaboration, in which humans and machines would need to work closely to better serve other humans.

At the heart of all of this is a need for us to communicate more effectively, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of books have come out in recent years that aim to help us meet the challenge. There are also a number of truly profound thinkers throughout history that can help us think about communication on a more visceral level. Here are 11 of the very best:

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Look Out For These 3 Telltale Signs Of Transformation Theater

2024 May 19
by Greg Satell

When Bob Nardelli took over as CEO at The Home Depot, he was geared up for the challenge. Passed over for the CEO job at GE in a high-profile succession process, he was determined to show that he could, in fact, be a transformational leader. As Uber-consultant Ram Charan put it, ”What got Home Depot from zero to $50 billion in sales wasn’t going to get it to the next $50 billion.”

He sought to replace the retail firm’s famously decentralized, entrepreneurial culture with the six-sigma driven performance culture he brought from GE. He intended to ruthlessly seek out ways to cut costs, and streamline operations. Under Nardelli, everything would be measured to his exacting standards.

It didn’t turn out well. The truth is that what Nardelli did was not genuine transformation, but transformation theater. Despite the hype, he took the company backward and it lost ground. In the end, he was fired, but walked away with $210 million. Today, Nardelli has spawned an army of imitators. We need to learn to recognize these 3 telltale signs.

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There Are Things That Machines Can’t Do (And Never Will)

2024 May 12
by Greg Satell

I recently went to an event that featured a panel of experts discussing the impact artificial intelligence will have on society. As the discussion was winding down, the moderator asked what humans could still do that today’s superpowered algorithms cannot. One of the panelists, a renowned neuroscientist, replied, “die.”

“Well that was morbid,” I thought. It’s also completely untrue. There are lots of things machines will never do. Machines will never strike out at a Little League game, have their hearts broken in a summer romance or see their children born. These things may seem incredibly prosaic, but they’re actually deeply consequential and far reaching.

As MIT’s  Sandy Pentland has put it, “We teach people that everything that matters happens between your ears, when in fact it actually happens between people.” Collaboration, with humans and machines, is becoming a key to competitive advantage and that’s where we need to focus. As I wrote in Forbes a decade ago, the future of technology is always more human.

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Why The Suckers Always Think They’re Playing It Smart

2024 May 5
by Greg Satell

A 2021 Pew survey found that roughly half of US adults get their news often or sometimes from social media, sources are subject to influence by not only run-of-the-mill trolls and hucksters, but also by nation states deliberately looking to shape and distort what we think. Clearly, we live in an era of misinformation and disinformation.

The effect goes far beyond those directly exposed. Much like an epidemic, those influenced by misinformation and disinformation tend to pass it on and, since we tend to be heavily influenced by our local environments, fiction can begin to seem more real than fact. In social theory, this is called the principle of reflexivity.

We tend to assume that getting taken in is due to a lack of education and intelligence, but that’s rarely the case. Smart people get fooled all the time. In fact, those who intend to deceive us often start by flattering our intelligence, making us feel that we’re privy to information that others fail to grasp. It is by boosting our confidence that they take us in.

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Here’s Why “Creating Awareness” Is Usually A Waste Of Time

2024 April 28
by Greg Satell

I recently posted something on LinkedIn that drew a lot of angry comments, mostly from change professionals lashing out. What struck me was that while my comments were based on extensive evidence, my interlocutors seemed completely unaware of any of the facts. They even claimed that I was “using headlines to gain attention.”

The statement that mostly drew their ire was that “creating awareness is usually a waste of time.” While this is contrary to how most change management professionals are trained, the simple fact is that decades of research show that shifts in knowledge and attitudes usually don’t lead to a significant change in practice.

The truth is that change management has a startling track record of failure. McKinsey has found that 69% of transformation efforts fail. A more recent study by Bain found that only 12% succeeded and 75% had mediocre results. Misguided communication efforts are a big part of the problem. We desperately need to take a more evidence-based approach to change.

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Jack Welch’s GE Was The Wrong Model To Take From The 90s. Lou Gerstner’s IBM Is The Right One

2024 April 21
by Greg Satell

When Fortune magazine named  General Electric CEO Jack Welch “Manager of the Century.” it lauded the CEO’s ability to increase the stock price and deliver consistent earnings growth. Nicknamed “Neutron Jack,” he was known as a fierce competitor and a ruthless cost cutter. In the late 20th century, he was nothing less than an icon, an example other leaders wanted to emulate.

When Lou Gerstner took over at IBM in 1993, the company was near bankruptcy. Many thought it should be broken up. Yet Gerstner saw enormous value could be unlocked through reviving the culture that made the iconic company successful in the first place. His turnaround of the firm was perhaps the most impressive in corporate history.

It’s been a quarter century since both left their jobs at the helm and it’s time to take stock on the two radically different approaches. Welch created a fiercely competitive environment. Gerstner stressed values. By now it should become clear that Gertner’s approach was far more successful, creating enormous value for IBM and for society. Welch is a cautionary tale.

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Why The Right Way Is Usually The Hard Way

2024 April 14
by Greg Satell

In an interview he gave to Harvard Business Review, Jerry Seinfeld was asked about whether a consulting firm like McKinsey could make the creative process faster. That’s the assumption that many business leaders make, that every process can be optimized. As much as we like to imagine we’ve evolved, we’re still largely stuck with Frederick Taylor’s 20th century management ideas.

“Who’s McKinsey?” Seinfeld then asked. “Are they funny?” When told no, he said, “If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting.”

Anybody who’s been a successful performer, whether as an athlete, an actor or anything else knows what Seinfeld means. While there’s something to be said for honing processes to make them more predictable and efficient,  to create something new you need to do the opposite.  You need to explore to discover and that means being inefficient. Not all who wander are lost.

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