Big, Frequent Meetings Are Unproductive and Crowd Out Deep Thought

(p. 7) To figure out why the workers in Microsoft’s device unit were so dissatisfied with their work-life balance, the organizational analytics team examined the metadata from their emails and calendar appointments. The team divided the business unit into smaller groups and looked for differences in the patterns between those where people were satisfied and those where they were unhappy.

It seemed as if the problem would involve something about after-hours work. But no matter how Ms. Klinghoffer and Mr. Fuller crunched the data, there weren’t any meaningful correlations to be found between groups that had a lot of tasks to do at odd times and those that were unhappy. Gut instincts about overwork just weren’t supported by the numbers.

The two kept iterating until something emerged in the data. People in Mr. Ostrum’s division were spending an awful lot of time in meetings: an average of 27 hours a week. That wasn’t so much more than the typical team at Microsoft. But what really distinguished those teams with low satisfaction scores from the rest was that their meetings tended to include a lot of people — 10 or 20 bodies arrayed around a conference table coordinating plans, as opposed to two or three people brainstorming ideas.

The issue wasn’t that people had to fly to China or make late-night calls. People who had taken jobs requiring that sort of commitment seemed to accept these things as part of the deal. The issue was that their managers were clogging their schedules with overcrowded meetings, reducing available hours for tasks that rewarded more focused concentration — thinking deeply about trying to solve a problem.

Data alone isn’t insight. But once the Microsoft executives had shaped the data into a form they could understand, they could better question employees about the source of their frustrations. Staffers’ complaints about spending evenings and weekends catching up with more solitary forms of work started to make more sense. Now it was clearer why the first cuts of the data didn’t reveal the problem. An engineer sitting down to do individual work for several hours on a Saturday afternoon probably wouldn’t bother putting it on her calendar, or create digital exhaust in the form of trading emails with colleagues during that time.

Anyone familiar with the office-drone lifestyle might scoff at what it took Microsoft to get here. Does it really take that much analytical firepower, and the acquisition of an entire start-up, to figure out that big meetings make people sad?

For the full story, see:

Neil Irwin. “How to Win at Winner-Take-All.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, June 15, 2019): 1 & 6-7.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 15, 2019, and has the title “The Mystery of the Miserable Employees: How to Win in the Winner-Take-All Economy.”)

The article quoted above, is adapted from:

Irwin, Neil. How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World: The Definitive Guide to Adapting and Succeeding in High-Performance Careers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Amazon Names “Openness to Creative Destruction” as “#1 New Release in Industrial Management & Leadership”

Art Diamond noticed on Fri., June 28, 2019 that Amazon.com had identified “Openness to Creative Destruction” as “#1 New Release in Industrial Management & Leadership”.

Efficiency Skills Are “Profoundly Different from” Innovation Skills

(p. A15) How do you deliver performance now while developing the products you’ll need in the future? The skills required to support established franchises, he argues, are profoundly different from those required to develop new ones. Management techniques such as Six Sigma, focused on efficiency and execution, tend to be bad for innovation, which is intrinsically messy and inefficient. Companies need a different approach to nurture the radically original projects, or “loonshots,” that are essential for long-term success.
. . .
In Mr. Bahcall’s view, the principal obstacle to innovation isn’t that there are too few creative ideas–indeed, there are plenty of artists, he says. The problem is that original proposals are both discomfiting and imperfect, hence reflexively rejected before they can develop enough to prove themselves in the field.
. . .
Organizations can miss innovation opportunities by accepting the conventional wisdom, Mr. Bahcall observes, a problem he describes as “false fails.” Consider the Facebook predecessor Friendster. Mr. Bahcall explains that while most investors decided that the failure of Friendster was evidence that social-network efforts weren’t sticky enough to retain customers, Peter Thiel’s investment team wasn’t so sure. They dug into the data and were “stunned by how long users stayed with the site,” despite the irritating crashes that dogged the platform. Hence Mr. Thiel’s fund was an early investor in Facebook, confident that, with appropriate attention to the underlying technology, the platform could succeed. Eight years later, he sold most of his Facebook stake and pocketed roughly $1 billion.

For the full review, see:
David A. Shaywitz. “BOOKSHELF; In Praise of Wild Ideas; Innovative proposals can be both imperfect and discomfiting–and are often rejected before they can develop enough to prove themselves viable.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, March 19, 2019): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 18, 2019, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Loonshots’ Review: In Praise of Wild Ideas; Innovative proposals can be both imperfect and discomfiting–and are often rejected before they can develop enough to prove themselves viable.”)

The book under review, is:
Bahcall, Safi. Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

“I’ll Stick with You in Failure”

(p. B13) Sidney Sheinberg, an irascible Universal Studios executive who discovered and nurtured Steven Spielberg, putting “Jaws” into production and helping to turn Hollywood into a blockbuster-focused business, died on Thursday [March 7, 2019] at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
. . .
Mr. Sheinberg was for much of his career the forthright top deputy to Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA, a conglomerate that encompassed Universal. The ultimate mogul, Mr. Wasserman defined power in Hollywood in the decades after World War II.
But Mr. Sheinberg, openly intimidating as president and chief operating officer, kept the gears turning. When the two men left MCA in 1995, Mr. Sheinberg had worked for the company for 36 years, the last 22 as president.
During that time he helped transform Universal into an international entertainment giant, complete with a sprawling theme park empire.
. . .
“Sheinberg dealt with all people like a battering ram: Do it his way or get out of the way,” Dennis McDougal wrote in the 1998 biography “The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood.”
Most important, Mr. Sheinberg discovered Mr. Spielberg. It was 1968 and the director, in his early 20s, had just completed a short film, “Amblin’,” a love story about hitchhiking hippies. Based on what he saw, Mr. Sheinberg put Mr. Spielberg under contract and gave him a job directing television shows. An episode of “Marcus Welby” was one of the first. In 1971 came “Duel,” Mr. Spielberg’s thrilling TV movie about a commuter terrorized by a truck driver.
With a line that has come to epitomize loyalty in the often fickle movie business, Mr. Sheinberg told his protégé at the time: “A lot of people will stick with you in success. I’ll stick with you in failure.”
Mr. Sheinberg, who could be as tender as he was prickly, was the one who allowed Mr. Spielberg to make “Jaws,” giving him a budget of $3.5 million (about $17 million in today’s money). A problem-plagued shoot pushed the cost to more than twice as much.
But Mr. Sheinberg, developing a father-son relationship with Mr. Spielberg, continued to support the film, which went on to become the prototype for the wide-release summer blockbuster.
. . .
When he opened the first Universal theme park in Orlando, Fla., in 1990 — in a race against Disney, which was building a movie-themed park that is now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios — Mr. Sheinberg and his team incorporated one of Disney’s mouse-ear hats into the “Jaws” ride.
The ears bobbed in the bloody water.

For the full obituary, see:

Brooks Barnes. “Sidney Sheinberg, 84, Dies; Universal Studios Leader Who Discovered Spielberg.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 9, 2019): B13.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 8, 2019, and has the title “Sidney Sheinberg, a Force Behind Universal and Spielberg, Is Dead at 84.” The online version says that the page number of the New York edition was D7. I cite the page number in my National edition.)

The biography of Wasserman, mentioned above, is:
McDougal, Dennis. The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood. revised ed. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001.

Entrepreneur Shafer Learned from Sweet Serendipitous Mistake

(p. 24) John Shafer, who abandoned a career as a Chicago publishing executive to join the vanguard of a new generation of vintners in California’s Napa Valley, died on March 2 [2019] in the city of Napa.
. . .
Mr. Shafer (pronounced SHAY-fer) was 47 when he resolved to acquire a winery as an absentee owner and one day retire as a gentleman farmer. His horticultural experience had been limited to planting flowers in his front yard.
But within six months of that decision, he took a leap. He left his job at what he described as an ossified company to take up a second career in which he could be his own boss and work outdoors.
. . .
. . . as a newcomer to the Napa Valley, which was just beginning to attract winemakers who popularized individual vineyards, he had neglected to hire a sufficient number of grape-pickers far enough in advance. That left the fruit riper — and sweeter — than the industry norm when the grapes were harvested.
“Shafer thought he ruined his wine, but instead it turned out to be the ripe signature style that has defined Shafer wines for the past four decades,” Wine Spectator magazine said.

For the full obituary, see:
Sam Roberts. “John Shafer, Executive Turned Winemaker, Dies at 94.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, March 10, 2019): 24.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 7, 2019, and has the title “John Shafer, 94, Who Made Triumphant Leap Into Winemaking, Dies.”)

.

Firms Find Humans More Flexible Than Robots

(p. B2) JACKSON CENTER, OHIO–Airstream’s factory here is racing to fill a backlog of orders for its retro, high-end travel trailers that spans well into next year. The company is hiring, adding dealers and spending $50 million to build a bigger plant.
I counted eight workers climbing through an Airstream to bolt a hulking aluminum shell to a steel chassis, and snake fluid lines and wires through walls. To finish the shiny, silver capsule off, workers will need to install 3,000 rivets by hand.
There’s not a robot in sight. They may speed production, but the machines require a substantial investment that risks being wasted if the economy slumps
. . .
“We see in U.S. manufacturing a race between technology and human capital,” Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom said. While some companies like electric-car maker Tesla Inc. are racing to automate almost every process on the factory floor, he said many executives are reluctant to sink investments in equipment that “will be hard to reverse.”
. . .
Robotics spending is forecast to equal $90 billion in 2018, according to researcher International Data Corp., with a hefty chunk of that investment aimed at industrial or manufacturing uses. That is a considerable increase compared to prior years, but it is only a sliver of the nearly $3 trillion committed to capital investment.
John Van Reenen, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor and Mr. Bloom’s research partner, said executives in many industries –including health care and retailing–aren’t sold on the technical revolution. “There is a big debate on whether robots are really delivering on the productivity benefits they might promise.”
At an event to commemorate the revamp of a factory west of Detroit last month, Ford Motor Co.’s president of global operations, Joe Hinrichs, said a lot of industrial automation happened several decades ago. Now companies are trying to “optimize how they use people” rather than install more machines.
Ford spent nearly $1 billion converting the factory to go from making small cars to producing pickup trucks. Much of that went toward new tooling for stamping out body parts, but relatively little went toward adding automation, Mr. Hinrichs said. Artificial intelligence is now integrated into the final inspection lines to boost quality. But skilled workers are needed to interact with the AI tools.
Mr. Bloom said incremental efforts like this are helping boost worker productivity, even if at a lower rate than was experienced during the decadelong boom that started in the mid-1990s. He said economists may need to get comfortable with 1% annual productivity gains, particularly because it takes a lot of investment just to maintain that modest rate.

For the full commentary, see:
John D. Stoll. “ON BUSINESS; Humans Are Winning the Battle With Robots.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018): B2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 1, 2018.)

Former Biggest Retailer Sears Limps into Bankruptcy

(p. A1) For much of the 20th century, Sears defined American retailing with catalogs and department stores that brought toys, tools and appliances to millions of homes.
By the time Sears Holdings Corp. limped into bankruptcy on Monday [Oct. 15, 2018], the once-great company was shriveled and sickly. Decades earlier, it had been dethroned by Walmart Inc. as the biggest U.S. retailer. Then it was crippled by a chief executive with unorthodox strategies, and Amazon.com Inc., an endless online catalog that sucked profits out of the business.

For the full story, see:
Suzanne Kapner. “Sears, Once Retail Colossus, Enters Painful New Era.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018): A1 & A6.
(Note: bracketed date added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 15, 2018, and has the title “Sears Reshaped America, From Kenmore to Allstate.”)