Think Tank Disruption and Affirmative Action

Finally stepped out of the ghostwriting/copywriting shadows this week for a couple of new bylined pieces.

First up, for Blog of the Century, a new piece looking at “The Limits of Merit.” The upshot:

One problem with moving from the status quo to a pure merit system is that it would level a giant blow to diversity. But, while the status quo produces more diversity than does a system of pure merit, it turns out not to be much better.

What could actually increase racial diversity at America’s top universities, relative to the current status quo, is shifting to a class-based affirmative action model.

On the navel-gazing side, I argue that explainer journalism might be just as disruptive to think tanks as it looks to be for traditional media. Explainer sites like Vox aren’t good enough to replace a think tank report yet. But no one really thinks that a PDF report is the Platonic form of good wonkery, either. The problem:

Vox is pushing iterations to its site on a near-daily basis. My team at The Century Foundation does well to persuade one fellow per month to release something that’s not a lengthy PDF, an 800-word op-ed, or a long journal article.

Read “Disrupting Wonkcomms” over at the WonkComms blog. Check out “The Limits of Merit” at TCF’s Blog of the Century.

Leadership and Collective Action Problems, or Goofy Games with Surprising Implications

I’m not generally all that big on “leadership training.” Back in early 2007, I spent a lot of time prowling around through the business section of the local Barnes & Noble, doing some research for a potential gig ghostwriting a book on leadership.

The project never really came together (thank you, FactCheck.org). But the experience did teach me one lesson. A whole lot books on leadership suck. More to the point, they mostly boil down to Leadership By Acronym (or LBA™). Want to improve as a leader? Just master my 14 simple acronyms and watch your revenue/teamwork/productivity/general awesomeness soar!

My subsequent experiences attending various leadership programs have pretty much confirmed my belief that this stuff is mostly bunk. Or, rather, that it’s mostly an exercise in spinning 80,000 words of some goofy metaphor, most of which just boil down to, “Don’t Be a Dick!

But that’s before I spent last week at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Now don’t get me wrong: there was still plenty of touchy-feely crap. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the parts that involved acronyms were the touchy-feely-est of all.

And yet, despite those occasional lapses into If Aristotle Ran General Motors land, I left the course with some real insights about myself and how my personality traits impact my work.

One that particularly stuck with me—and yes, now we finally come to the subject of the post—came to me in one of those well, duh moments. It started inauspiciously enough. The class all went outside to do one of those goofy teamwork games (I think they called it “hover stick.” Don’t be fooled. The name was the dumbest thing about it.)

The object of “hover stick” is for a group of 12 people to lower a long piece of PVC pipe to the ground. The catch? The pipe has to rest on top of everyone’s index fingers, and the group has to lower it to the ground without anyone’s finger losing contact with the pipe.

Those of you with even the most basic understanding of collective action problems will see the issue immediately.

I don’t want to be the one whose fingers come off the pipe. So I’ll keep exerting just a tiny bit of pressure to make sure I don’t disengage. But everyone else will do exactly the same thing. So the pipe keeps going up rather than coming back down.

Now CCL wanted us to take some lesson about communication styles from this. (I could tell you exactly the point, but that’d require getting out my notes, and that seems like a lot of work. So.)

The lesson I took was a bit different. See, the real problem is that individual incentives run in one direction, while the team goal runs in the opposite direction.

Work is often like that, too. The team benefits from producing the best possible product (or the biggest profit margin, or the largest set of sales, or what have you.) But the individual benefits from standing out in some way, from being the person who owned the product or who had the highest individual sales. But these incentives can easily lead your star performer to cut out other collaborators who might make the product better even while they dilute “ownership” or to poach sales from someone else in the office rather than create new clients.

And that’s where a real leader has to step in. A good manager has to try to align individual goals with the needs of the organization. A leader has to act as a hand on top of the PVC pipe, pushing down so that everyone else’s slight up still goes in the right direction.

Of course, that’s really easy to say. In practice, it takes a lot of hard work, a bit of insight, and probably a touch of luck. Which is to say that leading takes a lot more than an acronym. But don’t tell anyone. I just need to write another 79,322 words to finish up Leadership By Acronyms: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Leadership I Learned from Reading a Directory of Government Agencies.

Philosophy and Economics

So, I wore my new David Hume shirt to work yesterday. 

Joe's Hume ShirtAnd before you ask, yes, I am in fact that much of a nerd. Also, yes, I do in fact have a job where I can wear that shirt on a Thursday and no one cares. Some parts of my job I really like.

Anyway, I found the whole experience to be just a tiny bit depressing.

“Why’s that?” you ask, not unreasonably, perhaps expecting me to say something about how I’m an adult who still wears printed t-shirts to work or maybe waiting for me to comment on the fact that when I walked out of the office yesterday in my t-shirt it had suddenly turned really fucking cold.

But no. It’s not any of those things.

The depressing thing is that no one recognized David Hume.

Now I realize that I work with economists and budget analysts. I probably wouldn’t recognize a lot of fairly famous economists, either. But this is David Hume. The David Hume who was both a close friend of and huge influence on this other 18th century Scot you may have heard of, a fellow by the name of Adam Smith. Yeah, that Adam Smith. I mean, I’ve definitely heard that economics programs have stopped doing much in the way of history/theory and turned into applied mathematics programs, but I mean…

So my typical conversation ended up going something like this.

Composite character: Who is David Hume?

Me: He was a philosopher.

Composite character: * Blank look *

Me: 18th century. Scottish enlightenment. Friend of Adam Smith.

Composite character: Ah. Your shirt makes him look like a rock star.

Me: Yeah, that’s supposed to be the joke. It’s Daft Punk’s logo.

Composite character: Who is Daft Punk?

Me: Can we talk about something else now?