Bob Sutton on Crappy People versus Crappy Systems

I recently pointed to Bob Sutton’s new blog as a good source of insight into the world of effective organizations.  One of his recent posts, Crappy People versus Crappy Systems, offers an excellent case in point. The entire post is well worth your time, but here is the essence:

 The worst part about focusing on keeping out crappy people, however, is that it reflects a belief system that “the people make the place.” The implication is that, once you hire great people and get rid of the bad ones, your work is pretty much done. Yet if you look at large scale studies in everything from automobile industry to the airline industry, or look at Diane Vaughn’s fantastic book on the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the well-crafted report written by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board , the evidence is clear: The “rule of law crappy systems” trumps the “rule of crappy people.”

Sure, people matter a lot, but as my colleague Jeff Pfeffer puts it, some systems are so badly designed that when smart people with a great track record join them, it seems as if a “brain vacuum” is applied, and they turn incompetent. Jeff often jokes that this is what happens to many business school deans, and indeed, these jobs have so many competing and conflicting demands that they are often impossible to do well.

Bob Sutton: Crappy People versus Crappy Systems.

I’ve worked in a number of organizations that do an excellent job of hiring great people, including successful startups. Sutton’s post finally puts a finger on my central frustration in these organizations; they too often tolerate crappy systems that pull down the performance and potential of the great people they manage to attract.

I suspect this is partly a function of the wrong design emphasis. When you know in advance that your organizational systems must work regardless of your ability to attract the best and the brightest, you invest the time and energy to make those systems robust. If you go down the “hire the best” path, you give yourself license to under-invest in systems. Perhaps more harmfully, you don’t take the time to design the organizational systems that might actually amplify the quality and capabilities of a superior workforce.

New bloggers on the future of work

[Cross posted at Future Tense]

One of my colleagues at work recently asked which bloggers I might recommend that also deal with the future of work and the changes technology continues to elicit in organizations. His question was well-timed as there are several fine thinkers who have taken to blogging in the last several months that have much to add to this ongoing conversation.

I’ve previously mentioned John Sviokla (Sviokla’s Context) and Espen Andersen (Applied Abstractions) who were both colleagues at Harvard. There are three other academics/ex-academics who I find particularly cogent on the topic of managing and leading knowledge-based organizations.

David Maister created and taught a course on managing service-based operations during my MBA days; an area that has since grown to become one of the major organizing themes of the curriculum there. Since then, David has gone on to become one of the pre-eminent consultants to professional services organizations. He is blogging at Passion, People and Principles. Although his ostensible focus in on services organizations, the challenges they face make them a laboratory for the kinds of knowledge work issues that all organizations will face. David is also the author of several of the best books on consulting and professional services, including The Trusted Advisor and True Professionalism : The Courage to Care About Your People, Your Clients, and Your Career.

Another Harvard blogger is Andrew McAfee who teaches in the technology and operations management group, which has become the home of the most robust thinking about these topics at Harvard. His blog title, The Impact of Information Technology (IT) on Business and Their Leaders, lacks a bit in the snappy department, but the content is first rate. Recently, he has been leading the charge to map out and define the notion of Enterprise 2.0 in places as diverse as the Sloan Management Review and wikipedia.

Over on the West Coast at Stanford, we have Bob Sutton the author of several excellent books, most recently  Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management. His blog is Work Matters. Sutton has been collaborating with Jeff Pfeffer, also of Stanford, to promote the practice of evidence-based management, which, like evidence-based medicine,

means finding the best evidence that you can, facing those facts, and acting on those facts – rather than doing what everyone else does, what you have always done, or what you thought was true. It isn’t an excuse for inaction. Leaders of organizations must have the courage to act on the best facts they have right now, and the humility to change what they do as better information is found. [Evidence-Based Management]

Sutton and Pfeffer have also launched a website and a group blog to promote evidence-based management. You might also want to check out The Knowing-Doing Gap : How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action by Pfeffer and Sutton and Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation, one of Sutton’s earlier books.

Boys to men – 35th high school reunion

I spent the weekend in St.Louis with 17 of my classmates from the Class of 1971 of the St. Louis Priory. Since there were only 29 of us in the class, that was actually an excellent turnout. Lots of laughs and lots of stories from a group of truly excellent storytellers. It was good to reconnect with everyone.

Priory was and still is an all-boy Catholic prep school run by Benedictine monks. The founding group of monks were from Ampleforth Abbey in England and they had no reservations about transplanting English prep school practices and expectations to the Midwest. While the practices back in the 1960s extended to a belief in the efficacy of corporal punishment in focusing the attention of distractable young men, the high expectations of what we were capable of intellectually set us up for college, law school, medical school, business school, and graduate school experiences that were substantially easier than they otherwise might have been.

There is at least one other Priory alum that you know besides me. Kevin Kline, the actor, was a senior the year that I entered the school as a lowly first former (7th grader in American parlance).


Otter Group workshop – Everybody’s a CEO Bootcamp

Kathleen Gilroy and the folks at the Otter Group in Boston are putting on a workshop in Boston on October 25th called “Everybody’s a CEO Bootcamp.” Here’s their basic pitch:

Everybody’s a CEO: Basic Training is for you if:

You are still mystified by the wildly popular new world of blogs, podcasting, and RSS and wondering how you can use these technologies to reach more people and improve your marketing and sales.
You need to understand just where you can make the greatest contribution and want to tap into a network of like-minded people to help you figure it out and then make it happen.

Looks like a good group of presenters and a solid agenda if you’re interested in moving from tire-kicking to action for your organization.  

Beloit College’s Mindset List for the Class of 2010

Beloit College has been running this list each August to offer some insight into the formative years that characterize the 18-year olds about to enter college. It always makes me feel old. I’ve picked a few that strike home particularly for me. Check out the entire list and previous years’ as well.

Each August since 1998, as faculty prepare for the academic year, Beloit College in Wisconsin has released the Beloit College Mindset List. A creation of Beloit