Sunday, December 28, 2008

Book Review: Outliers, Reviewed by Zan Jones

Susan and I recently had a contest. It began with us discussing how a book review would be fun to do. She called me while I was at Costco doing pre-holiday party shopping and I told her Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers was in my shopping cart. She informed me that she had just bought the exact book from! So we decided that whoever finishes the book first can write the book review - and I won!

You may remember Malcolm Gladwell because he also wrote The Tipping Point and Blink. Both books accomplish one goal: they make you think. And Outliers is no exception. Gladwell defines an Outlier as a "statistical observation that is markedly different in value from others in the sample." In other words, an Outlier is someone who does something out of the ordinary that doesn't seem to make sense - like why people from Roseto, Pennsylvania had a death rate from heart disease 50% less than the U.S. as a whole when they cooked with lard, ate high fat diets, didn't exercise, smoked heavily and struggled with obesity.

If you only remember 2 words from the book, remember these: Opportunity and Legacy. Gladwell examines 2 types of Outliers - those who benefit from Opportunity and those who benefit from Legacy.

Opportunity Outliers

In Part I Gladwell describes Outliers who achieve success from the opportunities in their life. Here are my 3 favorite examples:

  1. The Matthew Effect (as in the book of the Bible).
    Gladwell questions the meritocracy of Canadian hockey. Aren't players who work the hardest and have the most talent the ones who make it to the top? Not necessarily. Through a convincing analysis Gladwell suggests that your success in Canadian hockey leagues is directly correlated to your birthday. People born in January, February and March have the best chances of success. The closer your birthday is to January 1, the better. And if you were born in the last half of the year then forget it!

  2. The 10,000 Hour Rule.
    This rule explains the breakout success of Mozart, the Beatles and Bill Gates. Gladwell claims 10,000 hours is the "magic number of greatness." Because of a variety of near perfect circumstances completely out of each person's control, these Outliers were able to get in 10,000 hours of practice at exceptionally young ages. Mozart hit the 10,000 hour mark around the time he was 21. To survive, the Beatles had been performing together 8 hours a day, 7 days a week for about 7 years before they hit the United States. And because of how close he lived to the University of Washington, the fact that his high school had a computer club way back in the 1960's and because he was able to spend high school semesters writing code, Bill Gates hit the 10,000 hour mark in his 20's.

  3. The Trouble with Geniuses.
    Having an IQ of 150 or greater qualifies one as a genius. The relationship between IQ and success only works up to a point. Once you hit an IQ of 120 then having any additional IQ points doesn't translate to any real-world advantage. Gladwell proves his point using lists of American Nobel prize winners. Bottom line: you don't have to be a genius - just smart enough. (There's hope for me!) And those of us in the Smart Zone know that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is just as critical to success.
Legacy Outliers

In Part II Gladwell describes Outliers whose success (or failure) results from their legacy. Our heritage and culture of our past affect what we achieve in ways that we can't begin to imagine. Here are my 3 favorite examples:
  1. Harlan, Kentucky Family Feud.
    Gladwell describes a 19th century pattern in the Appalachian Mountains that began with the Howard-Turner family feud. Years of gunfire and fatal gunshot wounds occurred. It was a "culture of honor" to engage in an altercation with the enemy family. Then in the 1990s 2 psychologists conducted an experiment on the culture of honor. Men participating in the experiment were intentionally provoked to anger. And guess who got the angriest at the smallest provocation: southerners (ouch!). When northerners were provoked there was almost no effect. Southerners were almost itching for a fight. Are southerners just carrying out their cultural legacy when they get mad?

  2. The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.
    Gladwell tells a harrowing story of how a Korean plane crash in 1997 was a result the pilot's ethnicity. During that same time period Korean pilots had crash losses 17% higher than American pilots. The root cause: the cultural legacy of respecting superiors. Korean copilots were afraid to be too assertive with their pilot in times of possible danger and Korean pilots were too respectful of air traffic controllers to question their directives. This attitude toward hierarchy can be measured by a "Power Distance Index (PDI)." Countries with the highest PDI (Brazil, South Korea, Morocco, Mexico and Philippines) had the most crashes. Countries with the lowest PDI (U.S., Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) had the fewest crashes.

  3. Rice Paddies and Math Tests.
    For years students from China, South Korea and Japan have substantially outperformed their U.S. counterparts in math. How does this tie in to rice paddies? Cultivating Chinese rice paddies requires tedious and precise effort. It is estimated that rice farmers work 3,000 hours a year - compared to U.S. workers who work 2,000 hours per year. One other advantage is that the Asian number system has more regularity making calculations easier. This, combined with the cultural legacy of tedious rice culture and hard work, gives Asians an advantage in math. Click here for Gladwell's interview with Katie Couric discussing this subject.
In a nutshell the book proves this: people don't rise from nothing. The people that are on top of the world and appear to be self-made actually owe everything to extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that "allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways we cannot."

    Thursday, December 11, 2008

    Getting Your Head Straight and Loading the Wagon

    I was recently a presenter for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers in Scottsdale Arizona. It was a beautiful place at the Kierland Westin Resort. I was asked to present twice, with one of the presentations during lunchtime for some of the key leaders in the organization. The audience was mostly made up of men who travel internationally and bring high level management skills to their organizations. I always collect little tidbits of information during events like this and this event was no different.

    At the end of the presentation and after the group that gathered around me disappated, a nice man handed me a piece of paper and gave me a smile. He proceded to tell me that he felt my message was smack on target for their industry and for the challenges they faced as managers.

    "Don't worry about the mule going blind, just load the wagon" was written on the piece of paper. From my presentation he knew I understood this idea and believed that I would like it. I do and I believe you will too.

    This well educated gentleman has read many business books, has very knowledgeable mentors and this statement guides him almost daily has he moves his business forward. This is a tidbit worth sharing as I hear from many of you that you don't want to get distracted by the economy, performance issues, and some uncertainty in your future. Stay in the Smart Zone and concentrate on loading the wagon. I hope you find this helpful and thanks to the man with the smile.

    Monday, December 1, 2008

    Don't Flip Out: Adapting to Change at Work

    Have you ever had the carpet yanked out from underneath you? It happened to me early in my career when the job I was promised at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, Florida was discontinued because of budget cuts. Ouch - it was such an unexpected (and unwelcomed) change! But it was also one of the most important learning experiences I've had in my life. People in the Smart Zone adapt to change because they know adaptability is a character trait required for survival in today's business environments.

    "To be successful one must be willing to learn and apply new concepts and not be afraid of change."
    Craig Barrett, former CEO and Chairman of the Board for Intel Corp.

    You've had to adapt to change if this ever happened to you:
    • Your company was bought out or merged
    • Your department was reorganized
    • Your boss was promoted or left the company
    • You were a victim of downsizing
    • Your job description was expanded
    • The weekly staff meeting was moved to another day
    The Dallas Cowboys had to adapt to change recently when quarterback Tony Romo was sidelined with a broken pinkie finger. Corporate America (NFL included) has an "adapt or die" mentality. I laughed at a recent article in Inc. magazine where David Zugheri, cofounder of Houston First Mortgage, was determined to make the office paperless. So after investing in scanners he went in one night and unplugged every printer and copier and announced the next morning at 8:00 a.m. that the office was now paperless. Employees freaked out, 2 threatened to quit and by noon all printers and copiers had been plugged back in.

    People in the Smart Zone have enthusiasm for change. They are resilient and innovative. Here are 5 Smart Moves for adapting to change in your organization:
    1. Take a moment. Try to understand the change and its purpose. Why did your department get reorganized? Is it so communication can be improved? Is it to help avoid layoffs in the tough economy? Then decide if resisting the change is worth it. Adapting to change is easier when the root cause of the change is understood.
    2. Chill out. Fear and anxiety are normal responses to change but they can also impede your ability to adapt. Don't do what this news reporter did (although I don't blame him). Remain calm in the face of the unexpected. Let your response to a change not be ruled by fear but by your self-confidence.
    3. Don't gripe and moan! No one wants to work with a whiner. If you want to survive in today's competitive environment you must accept change with a smile and determine how you can contribute to making the change successful. Click here to read my example of how to respond positively to change.
    4. Differentiate yourself. We all seek change. Think about it - did you eat lunch at the same restaurant today as yesterday? Did you begin to re-read the same John Grisham book on the airplane yesterday instead of getting a new book? Accept the fact that change is necessary and be the one to give it a try.
    5. Stay focused on the end result. I consulted for a company who had so many "flavors of the month" that employees refused to embrace them because they knew the initiatives were short lived. Stay focused on the end result of your own job: cutting costs, increasing sales, satisfying customers, managing profit and loss, improving safety, etc. and make decisions that favorably impact the end result of your job.