Tuesday, August 14, 2007

More Malcolm Gladwell

I was going to include this list as part of my last post, but it started to get kind of lengthy, so I decided it deserved its own posting. Here are a couple more New Yorker articles from Malcolm Gladwell that I found interesting:

  • Big and Bad - How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety.
    This should be required reading for anyone who currently owns or is thinking about buying an SUV. And when you're done reading that, you also need to see this for further proof that bigger is not better. (Did I mention that I drive an Integra?)

  • The Risk Pool - What's behind Ireland's economic miracle—and G.M.'s financial crisis?
    Gladwell uses the sociological concept of "dependancy ratios" to talk about the rise and fall of national economies and why GM is bankrupt while Toyota is thriving. (Here's another interesting article by Herbert Meyer that also talks about demographics and population distributions and why they're really important.)

  • The Talent Myth - Are smart people overrated?
    This article talks about the "rank and yank" system that McKinsey put into place at Enron, where employees were ranked into three categories: "The A's must be challenged and disproportionately rewarded. The B's need to be encouraged and affirmed. The C's need to shape up or be shipped out."
    An employer really wants to assess not potential but performance. Yet that’s just as tricky... Studies show that there is very little correlation between how someone’s peers rate him and how his boss rates him... You can grade someone’s performance only if you know their performance. And, in the freewheeling culture of Enron, this was all but impossible. People deemed “talented” were constantly being pushed into new jobs and given new challenges. Annual turnover from promotions was close to twenty per cent... How do you evaluate someone’s performance in a system where no one is in a job long enough to allow such evaluation? The answer is that you end up doing performance evaluations that aren’t based on performance.

    Enron may be dead now, but that performance rating system is still alive and well at many other corporations-- GE, J&J, and P&G are just some of the examples that I can name off the top of my head. And other companies continue implement these systems, despite the fact that they have caused many lawsuits and have been widely criticized by business experts.

    Gladwell specifically mentions P&G as an example of a company that doesn't have a "star system," but I disagree with that statement. P&G believes in hiring smart, talented people from some of the best schools in the country and assimilating them into the P&G culture. (They even administer personality tests as part of the hiring process.) And P&G's philosophy of "Up or Out" is well known around Cincinnati. It's especially emphasized in their Marketing division, which is viewed as the most important branch of the company. But even in Engineering, employees are expected to be constantly striving toward an ultimate goal of moving into upper management, and their loyalty to the company will be questioned if they say that they'd prefer to stay in a technical role. P&G may not technically use an "A-B-C" system, but that's only because they prefer to use "1-2-3" instead!

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