Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Geek Way to Run Your Company

 I appreciated getting an advance copy of Andrew McAfee’s forthcoming book, The Geek Way: The Radical Mindset That Drives Extraordinary Results. I’m all in for extraordinary results, as I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen it happen in turnaround situations—where the employees are hungry for a new style of leadership.

McAfee, an author of many tech books, now puts the culture of successful companies in front of us. He asserts that the culture of speed, openness and other elements provide the medium for growth. He provides data to support his claim, which I’ll discuss below. While the author claims this new way of operating companies started in the 2000s, and is codified in a Netflix presentation openly shared with everyone, he also says that the crux of the Geek Way is found in a stack of business books sky-high. Which probably would include “Creativity Inc.” by Ed Catmull about Pixar’s culture. McAfee’s experience makes this a fun read, but for those of us who have read the mile-high stack of business books about cultures of mutual trust—competence, reliability/dependability, openness, acceptance (of failure in particular) and integrity—and driving accountability, responsibility and creativity will hardly learn much here. We would have seen similar things in Deming’s work, the culture of Westinghouse’s Hawthorne Works operations from the 1920s and 1930s, famous Skunkwork developments for World War II, high-reliability/high-performance military and civil operations teams, and so on. Much of McAfee’s advice can be found in “Built to Last” by Collins and Porras. Or McFarland’s “The Breakthrough Company” for the small- or medium-sized enterprises. Still, this book will help start-up leaders set the right course for their fledgling companies.

Like many other business books, McAfee’s suffers from a lack of contradictory evidence. He and others can write about the 10-50 successful companies practicing the Geek Way. He cannot or does not uncover if there are thousands of companies practicing the Geek Way outside of Silicon Valley, outside of tech, and how successful or not they are. There may be many that don’t succeed. How many tech startups have died, and yet had a Geek Way culture? How many other business failures—and the number is staggering in the first five years of any one business—weren’t prevented by the Geek Way? We may never know because Harvard Business School—of which McAfee had been a faculty member—cannot tell us. There isn’t a database for this.

While he applauds the social aspects of Geek companies—cultural evolution—he neglects some of the complaints that have happened even inside his star companies. There’s still tribalism in society and in tech companies: gender, race, caste are still obstacles to hearing and accepting another’s input or feedback. While constructive debate might be healthy, psychological safety can be key as McAfee points out. Still different personality types and different inherent motivational bases need different communication environments, methods and venues for safety and overcoming timidity. Ethical failures have also occurred in Geek Way companies. Maybe in a few decades we’ll know if Geek Way companies are “built to last.”

Likewise, the inertia in organizational dynamics and corporate culture requires several years to change a non-Geek company into one practicing the Geek Way. It’s why some startup kings and queens have had a hard time moving over to established companies. The people have “grown up” under a different kind of leadership and have a hard time trusting the new leadership styles, especially in the lower ranks who have less exposure to the C-suite.

The author avoids the trap of multiple anecdotes masquerading as data. However, McAfee fails to discern the quality of the data he includes. For example he touts a study of GlassDoor comments. GlassDoor surveys are self-selected, not random. This has an inherent bias towards the theoretical ends of company-culture distributions: the really bad and the really good. So we know nothing of the cultures—perhaps some operating in the Geek Way—of the middlingly rated, middlingly successful companies. 

While there are some inherent flaws in McAfee’s approach—but not unique for business books—his work can be important for those who need to hear and want to hear how the successful tech companies are thriving.

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