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Finding More Entrepreneurs . . . and Fewer Jerks

Finding More Entrepreneurs . . . and Fewer Jerks

I have two topics this week: the present-day obsession with clinging grimly to the status quo, when we have rarely needed change and entrepreneurial flair so much; and the obnoxious jerks whose presence in leadership positions disfigures too many organizations. These topics are linked by a recurring theme: the way that Hamburger Management—that dismal system of cutting corners, hounding people to reach crazy targets, and driving down every cost except the money paid to the guys at the top—blinds us to the reality that the way our workplaces function is a matter of choice, not some inevitable law of nature.

Entrepreneurs and Outrage
In an article for The Financial Times last week, Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, attacked business schools for their built-in conservatism and over-emphasis on accounting in place of entrepreneurial ability. She made the suggestion that the strongest drivers for overturning the status quo are discontent and outrage. That got me thinking, and what she says seems right to me (“Divine Discontent”). Significant change always demands energy, courage, and strong faith in an alternative vision. Complacent, satisfied, comfortable people do not support or desire any change. Nor do those who have been convinced by business schools—or anyone else—that the way things are today represents the only kind of business world that is possible. You do not find entrepreneurs among those who prefer things to stay as they are. It is obvious that the people most likely to drive change forward are those filled with discontent and a sense of outrage at the current state of affairs. Dame Anita is right in saying that we should hold to our sense of outrage and use it to fuel our determination to force change—whether or not business schools actively help or hinder the process.

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Organizational Dinosaurs
Imitation is so rife in organizations. They follow one another like lemmings, even though a moment’s thought can show you that doing what others have done first is an extremely poor way to create any kind of competitive advantage (“Industry Worst Practice”). Current management fashions are a rare case of evolution running backwards. Where competition in the natural world seems to drive species forward into ever more complex and demanding ways of outwitting their predators, recent years have seen our organizations proceeding resolutely backwards, relying instead on the simplest and crudest ways of competing: cutting costs as a way of life and trying to increase productivity solely by making everyone work harder, and for longer hours, without increasing pay (“Evolutionary Backsliding”.) This is the status quo that is so beloved of our hyper-conservative business establishment. It may provide a benefit for a short time, but such limited, instinctual responses are a dead-end in the competitive stakes. Any organization that resists this foolishness and keeps on working to produce smarter, more complex, and more effective ways of releasing human creativity will walk right over such organizational dinosaurs.

The Sad Biology of Jerks
I’m not the only person who feels a sense of outrage at all the small-minded, short-sighted, and self-centered behavior shown by people who ought to know better. Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford, will shortly be publishing a book that shows how to recognize and deal with the jerks and assholes that infest organizations everywhere (“Jerk-infested Waters”). Just like us here at Slow Leadership, Bob’s objective is to help create a more civilized, less stressful, and more enjoyable workplace culture, free from the actions of those who are so blinded by short-term profit that they can’t see the mess they are making of everyone else’s life. Get the book, read it, and fortify yourself.

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One of the saddest aspects of the status quo—and of Hamburger Management in general—is the belief that people only do things when they are “measured” on what they have done and suffer in some way for failure (“Measurement Versus Trust”). No one is trusted to do what they have been convinced is right. No wonder so many managers are grossly overburdened. We are trying to turn our managers into a legion of control freaks, when what we need for greater efficiency is a workforce that can be trusted to do the right thing without waiting to be told—or checked on after the event.

Bringing Life back to Organizations
That brings me full circle to Dame Anita and her suggestion that accountancy is not the answer to our need for more entrepreneurial and creative people in business. The audit mentality that measures everything and knows the value of nothing is squeezing the life out of organizations (and maybe many business schools too). Should we simply accept that as inevitable? I don’t think so. It’s time to give our discontent free rein and fire up a sense of outrage at the mess. Only strong emotions like those are likely to bring change—and we surely, surely need it.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.
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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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