Geek out

Tech companies have changed the world – not only through their products, but through highly effective ways of working.

There are plenty of books that synthesize the latest thinking on how to run a business. The Geek Way: The Radical Mindset That Drives Extraordinary Results, by Andrew McAfee, is a strong addition to the genre.

Thoroughly researched and attractively written, it argues that modern ‘geeks’ are revolutionizing business. These innovators reject traditional, hierarchical industrial-era practices, favoring a more egalitarian approach. In place of top-down decision-making, they emphasize group collaboration, empirical evidence and stress-testing ideas. McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT, boils The Geek Way down to four components.

  • Science – make decisions by arguing about evidence
  • Ownership – align through corporate objectives and key results, then unleash individual flair and creativity
  • Speed – iterate with feedback
  • Openness – reflect, don’t defend.

You have probably heard a version of McAfee’s analysis before. Virtually every sector is now dependent on information technology and data; an approach to running companies along the lines of a tech business increasingly makes sense. Of course, many traditional companies struggle with the transition. You may be working for one of them.

What makes McAfee worth reading is his interest in understanding why and how the geek way seems so effective. He is intensely focused on the dynamics and psychology of group behavior. He explains why companies tend to ossify into bureaucracies when they grow, and why so many workplaces are so unpleasant.

For McAfee, group dynamics are characterized by the need to fit in, which affects almost all of us. To fit in, we must stick to the norms of our group. Failure to do so is typically punished by exclusion: people stop asking your opinion, you are not invited to meetings and social events, and so on.

The drive to fit in is so powerful that scientists have shown exclusion can be as painful as physical injury. The result? If you join an organization, pretty soon you will start behaving like everyone else – or you will leave, or be fired.
Another key psychological force is our need for status. In traditional (industrial-era) companies, where management focuses on coordination and avoiding duplication of effort, status comes from managing people and resources – and from being consulted about initiatives. Gatekeepers have the power to veto other initiatives.

In traditional corporations the number of committees to be consulted often proliferates, hampering innovation. Blocking behaviors – even sabotage of rival projects – becomes an unwritten but accepted part of the corporate game.

Boards often blame the ‘frozen middle’ for blocking their strategies but they forget that it is their responsibility, along with senior executives, to shape organizational norms and culture. That isn’t about having a nice vision, mission and values statement. It’s about how leaders actually behave – because we instinctively imitate people we admire or regard as successful. Through their behavior, leaders affect what is considered normal and what behaviors the group will reward or punish. As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

It might be tempting to take a cookie-cutter approach to McAfee’s four elements and apply these techniques simply because they appear to work, without bothering too much about why they do. But the real value lies in understanding the underlying psychological drivers. The culture of tech companies is not for everyone, and the behavior of leaders like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, however successful they are, is not universally admired.

Better to ask yourself what behaviors are normal in your organization, and whether these are enabling the business to perform well and adapt to the endlessly changing environment. We need to work with our psychology – not against it.

Piers Cain is a management consultant.