Managers: Are We The Local Maximum?

From Wikipedia

The great Jim Rohn gave us an important bit of wisdom that I think about regularly:

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

This truth is connected to the effects of peer pressure — the good and bad kind. Spend all your time with gymnasts and you, too, will likely end up on a pommel-horse at some point. Hang out with heavy drinkers and you’ll eventually drink, too. So whatever you’re trying to accomplish, it is useful to see how your peer group either helps or hurts the cause. This is good advice.

Rohn’s wisdom also applies to a very important concept derived from mathematics called the local maximum. As shown in the image below, the local maximum starts with a constrained view of a function. Within that view (we’ll call it a “narrow interval”), you find the highest point of the function. That is the local maximum. Local because it’s defined within a narrow interval, not the whole. Maximum because it’s the highest point.

The global maximum, meanwhile, is a higher point that is achieved elsewhere in the function.

This is a very rich mental model. If applied to performance over time, you get something like what Seth Godin wrote in his very good book called The Dip. It’s highly recommended.

But I want to think about it in relation to Jim Rohn’s wisdom about the five people you spend the most time with. Let’s return to the gymnasts. Again, I think it’s absolutely true that if you spend most of your time with a peer group composed entirely of gymnasts, you will start doing gymnastics.

Imagine that happens. And imagine, too, that you discover some latent ability that makes you stand out immediately. It’s the stuff of a hollywood script. Your first time on the uneven bars is equivalent to someone else’s 50th time. Floor exercises? You do flips and twists that usually require six months of training. Incredible!

In this scenario, your gymnast friends watch with astonishment as you quickly become the best among them. You win all the local competitions and people speak about you in hushed whispers as this impossibly-talented wunderkind. They say you could be in the Olympics if this kind of progress continues.

Does the progress continue? If every other variable holds true?

Probably not. For one, becoming a world-class gymnast isn’t a Mediocristan endeavor. For more on that idea, check out this article.

Also, if all other variables stay the same, you’ll be bound by the local maximum. Sports and academics have taught us that the best in our hometown are rarely the best in the world. They’ve reached a local maximum, in both geographic and distributed terms, but not the global one. So you can continue to be the best gymnast in your town. But you’d have to find a new gym, on a bigger stage, to really grow.

In this way, Jim Rohn’s idea takes on a broader meaning. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

In a performance endeavor, this means that you can be the performer at the height of that average, but you’ll still be weighed down by the curve. If there is no one else to challenge you, how can you continue to be challenged?

Is This The Best We Can Do?

I don’t have my dream job at Google (yet!) but I can still learn from what happens there. That’s one of many reasons why Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules! is so important. Many is the time I encounter a problem in the workplace that makes me wonder … Does Google have this problem?

Do they have an absurdly bureaucratic process for procuring office supplies? Do they even have office supplies? There’s something weird about imagining this company using paper clips.

What about strategic plans? Or culture codes? Does Google have these? Really?

Then there are the managers. Do the managers at Google commit the same sins as all other managers?

Laszlo Bock provides some answers. And some fabulous advice. All of which was developed from his time as the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google.

On a sidenote, that job title can be confusing. People operations? What does that mean?

I think it’s an aspirational moniker that pulls the company away from the typical baggage associated with an HR department. Which is understandable. Also a bit tempting, too. These job titles continue to evolve in Silicon Valley and it’s getting a bit out of hand. You know it’s jumped the shark when there is a whole website dedicated to generating more of these titles in pitch-perfect parody.

Anyway, Laszlo Bock could be categorized as Google’s former HR director but that isn’t wholly accurate. He and the team did much more than typical “HR stuff”. They elevated the work to a higher standard. A global maximum, one might say. This book explains how.

It makes for a fantastic gift. Because there is no doubt our workplaces do some organizational functions very well. From a localized point of view. But from a global view of best practice, we can find room to improve. Starting with an example on empowerment.

Why People Become Managers

There is a fabulous chapter in Bock’s book where he covers one of the worst aspects of management: prestige. And correlated to that: status symbols. This is a very important and oft-forgotten aspect of management.

After all, why would anyone ever want to be a manager? When you remove the obvious reasons (higher salaries, more control), there is a very important, unspoken desire that lurks beneath the surface: prestige.

In a typical workplace, a manager is erroneously conflated with a leader. To be hired as a manager is to be chosen as a leader. Or so we say. This feels very prestigious. Thus satisfying.

Yet, most managers are unhappy. Largely because they have less power than they wanted and much less admiration than expected. Is there prestige? Maybe. But it comes at a high cost. And frankly speaking, it is a trap. Paul Graham wrote the best essay on this topic. Here’s a line that I think needs to be shared regularly:

If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige.

This is how people become managers. Prestige, in any form, is highly attractive to strivers.

Why People Become Bad Managers

But prestige isn’t what makes a bad manager. That requires something else that Bock points to with a great line from Olivier Serrat.

[P]eople micromanage to assuage their anxieties about organizational performance: they feel better if they are continuously directing and controlling the actions of others — at heart, this reveals emotional insecurity on their part. It gives micromanagers the illusion of control (or usefulness).

Note that last part about usefulness. People who strive for success usually enjoy a high level of productivity. That eventually leads them to become managers. And yet, as any sports coach will tell you, being a manager of the game rather than a player makes you feel a bit useless at times. Anyone who was really good at doing stuff, and enjoyed doing stuff, will want to still do stuff.

“Doing stuff” is what micromanagement is all about.

Few workplaces make a concerted effort to stop this. In terms of local maximum, most executives look around at their cadre of managers and probably think the micromanagement isn’t so bad. Unless the workforce happens to be large and highly skilled, the issue never becomes too threatening from the C-suite’s point of view.

But Google is just that: a large, highly skilled workforce. So bad management is a serious risk for their business. It runs along the idea that Marcus Buckingham wrote several years ago:

People leave managers, not companies.

So eliminating bad management at Google is akin to a traditional organization trying to eliminate waste. The work Bock describes is the best systematic practice I’ve seen. This is the global maximum. Sort of.

Knowledge Should Be Power

To combat micromanagement, and the unnecessary prevalence of managerial authority, Bock highlights how Google has stripped the status symbols from the position. That starts with a flatter organizational structure that I really admire:

As a practical matter, there are really only four meaningful, visible levels at Google: individual contributor, manager, director, and vice president.

Bock also writes of ways they discarded the conventional perks:

Our most senior executives receive only the same benefits, perquisites, and resources as our newest hires. There are no executive dining rooms, parking spots, or pensions.

These are great. But the best change comes from their practice of broad, lateral collaboration and maximum information to the individual. Which gives people maximum power to decide.

… decisions should be made at the lowest possible level of an organization. The only questions that should rise up the org charts are ones where … more senior leaders would make a different decision than the rank and file.

More specifically, decisions only escalate to management when there is a need for a tie-breaker.

Tie-breakers often are needed so not all decisions go to the “rank-and-file”. But an astonishing, exciting number of decisions do. One example is found in Dublin where some “Googlers” sought to improve their work/life balance by testing a program called “Dublin Goes Dark”. The idea was that participants would leave the office every day at 6:00 pm. Not just leave, though: actually turn in their laptop and stay offline until returning the next day. The experiment was a fantastic success and, two years later, expanded to the entire Dublin office.

Did management approve of this program beforehand? Probably. But not as gatekeepers. As participants. And when the data showed the success, those managers instituted it office-wide. Why? Because they had no choice.

That’s how it goes when you’re a data-driven organization. You let the data drive. This seems to happen a lot at Google. Bock gives several examples that we’ll study the rest of this week, all of which are liberating and consistent with some wonderful ideals.

To conclude, I’ve come a long way across Jim Rohn, mathematics, Bock’s book, and a small example of work/life balance programs to raise a single question: what is the best management practice? Not for your workplace or mine. For all workplaces. What is the global maximum of the managerial profession?

It’s not Google. But Google gives a lot to it. In terms of local max, you can’t get better. And for management, as a broad singular function, the global max is deeply driven by what we see in this wonderful book. And there is a common thread:

Google shows that it isn’t the individual manager who has to be great, it is the individual. They utilize a system that constrains the manager’s position and transfers maximum power downward to every member of the team. It is deeply familiar with what I’ve seen of 3M and a few other companies.

It’s a great, proven approach that I wholly support. There are some caveats, however. And it ain’t easy. Nothing good ever is. More to come throughout the week.