The coming elections and you. The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

From a LibraryThing interview with Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab

The most effective way of turning a non-voter into a voter—several times more effective than any other technique that’s ever been measured—is to send a citizen a copy of her vote history, the record of elections in which she cast a ballot, and her neighbors’ vote histories. Then tell her that everyone will get an updated set after the coming election. Behavioral psychologists call this “social pressure,” the idea that people adjust their behavior to conform with what they think are others’ expectations. In 2006, a few researchers ran a field experiment and found that sending such mail had a massive impact on turnout—but they also got death threats from people who accused them of blackmail.

This is an instance where the knowledge was shared, and, in fact, the study was published in a political science journal. (It’s proven to be one of the discipline’s ballsier experiments to date.) But political campaigns and parties have been wary of using it for fear of being labeled bullies by voters. Over the following years, political operatives and academics found ways to soften the language, while still exerting subtle social pressure and impacting voter turnout—and these results are likely to hit millions of mailboxes before Election Day.

I had thoughts about election analytics back in 2007, but I thought Google would be a more visible player. Here is my old post with two rather wrong predictions.

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Sushi Economy; his next project is a book on gay marriage, titled The Engagement.

Mundane organizations that work. More from Prof. March

It would be wrong to demystify heroic leaders without simultaneously celebrating mundane organizations. More from Appendix 2, “Mundane Organizations and Heroic Leaders”, in On Leadership:

Let me mention four components of elementary efficiency in organizations. They are neither novel nor mysterious; but they are, I believe, fundamental. The first of these, and I suspect the most important, is simple competence. Organizations work well if people in them know what they are doing. How is competence encouraged? In some very traditional ways. It requires appointment and promotion on the basis of merit rather than personal ties or irrelevant characteristics. It requires a division of labor, specialization, routinization, and training. […]

A secondo component of elementary efficiency is initiative. Organizations work well if problems are attended to most of the time locally, promptly, and autonomously. This is accomplished by delegation accompanied by instincts or rules of tolerance. If you are going to encourage initiative, you need to be tolerant of small deviations from what you would to yourself in the same situations. […]

A third component of elementary efficiency is identification. Organizations work well if persons in them take pride in their work and the organization. They have a sense of shared destiny, mutual trust, and collective identity. […]

A fourth component of elementary efficiency is unobtrusive coordination. Organizations work well if the autonomous actions of individuals are coordinated effectively, quickly, and inexpensively. […]

In fact, competence, initiative, identification, and unobtrusive coordination, and decisions about them, are at the heart of effective leadership. They are not grand; they are not heroic; they are not – for the most part – even interesting. […]

The contrast between the elementary things that make an organization work and heroic conceptions of leadership is striking. It is also potentially unsettling for leaders. Acknowledgement of the relative unimportance of leadership heroics is inconsistent with their interpretations of their own experiences. They do not want it to be true, and they do not believe it to be true. As a result, they overlook some things that seem to me quite fundamental to understanding how organizations work.

First, organizations work because of a density of ordinary competence throughout the organization. […] Organizations that work are those in which if someone sees a toilet not working, he or she fixes it. […]

Second, organizations work because subunits and individuals are interdependently autonomous. That is, they are left alone to do their jobs. There is mutual delegation and mutual confidence. Work is coordinated in a relatively unobtrusive manner, less by explicit interventions than by mutual anticipations. […] In short, organizations work better when organizational management is more like sailing than power boating.

Third, organizations work well because they have redundancy. Almost everyone is important but no one is indispensable, either over time or at a given point. If a task need to be done, there are several individuals, technologies, and routines available to do it. […] Without redundancy organizations are vulnerable to failure if any individual part fails; and that likelihood increases rapidly with increasing scale and complexity of organizational operations.

Fourth, organizations work because they have mutual trust without personal favoritism. Classic forms of trust, in families for example, are associated with favoritism. An organization requires a different form of trust, not confidence in mutual personal support but confidence that a job will be done well and with understanding of the job requirements of others. […]

Because of the ways in which we write and think about organizational leadership, and because of the personal success experience by which we prepare individuals for leadership, these mundane truisms about organizations are likely to be forgotten by leaders as they look for dramatic ways to make their marks upon an organizations.

Pleasures of the process. Prof. March on joy in leadership

I want to quote further from On Leadership, the little book from Prof. James March’s lectures I plundered in my previous post. For many years, Prof. March taught a course on organizational leadership at Stanford using four textbooks: War and Peace by Tolstoy, Don Quixote by Cervantes, Othello by Shakespeare, and Saint Joan by G. B. Shaw. The following argument was mostly developed in a lecture that drew from Don Quixote, although with an interesting digression about the Norse saga of Olav Trygvason (Olav was, apparently, a warrior who enjoyed fighting and killing his enemies very much).

Leadership and leaders are generally justified and understood in instrumental terms. Leaders evaluate themselves, are evaluated, and are (to some extent) compensated in terms of their contributions to organizational outcomes. At the same time, it is frequently noted that there are pleasures associated with the processes of leadership: the glories of position, the joys of commitment, the excitements of influence, the exhilaration of conflict and danger. These pleasures are, to a substantial extent, independent of their outcomes. […]

Leadership offers several types of pleasures:

  • The pleasure of becoming a leader, as regards both promotion and success in competition for the post.
  • The pleasures connected with the role (chairing meetings, being the source of approval, giving orders, taking decisions, receiving delegations, granting favors, managing crises), with being in the thick of the action (knowing what is going on better than other people, seeing the underside of cards, experiencing the theatrical buzz of meetings or negotiations), with an exciting life, and with the self-confidence derived from the value that people attach to the time and attention of a leader.
  • The pleasure of being recognized as a leader, connected with the confirmation of a prestigious status, with a flashy business card, with fame, deference (one becomes wise, sensible, clever, sexy), and treats (money, perks, first-class plane tickets).

It is often, therefore, easier to understand certain aspects of leaders’ behaviors by focusing on the pleasures that they can gain from their actions rather than on the consequences they achieve.

We are ambivalent about the importance of the pleasures of action, criticizing not only those who forget their long run goals and live “without a care for tomorrow”, but also those who only think in the long term and sacrifice all the pleasures of existence for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. […]

Throwing oneself into a role gives three types of esthetic pleasure. First, the direct experience of the joys inherent to our situation – the intoxication of power, the exaltation of being in love, the sensual pleasure of feeling alive. Second, the irony derived from enjoying the derisory aspect of this role, the fundamental ridiculousness of all our own pretensions. And, third, the affirmation, appreciation, and acceptance of our role. While being conscious of the limits and absurdities of our position, we discover its beauty and take on our responsibilities, our loves, and our life.

Mundane organizations and heroic leaders. Prof. March on not taking oneself too seriously

Tonight I came across an odd little book that has been on my shelf for a few years. Its content goes back even further, to my years as a student in business school.

It is titled On Leadership and I want to quote from Appendix 2, “Mundane Organizations and Heroic Leaders”, by James G. March. More snippets from the book are highlighted here, but I want to give you a fuller sense of March’s reasoning, as well as his style.

[…] there are some special features of the managerial role and the career path to it that lead to systematic leadership biases. The most conspicuous of these is the tendency for organizational leaders to have an overly grand vision of leadership and management and an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Unlike most of us, they have plenty of casual evidence that they are important. The evidence may, however, be misleading.

As managers rise through an organization, managerial power is celebrated; the trappings of managerial importance are increased; but it becomes less clear that a leader’s action has major effects on organizational performance. […] The procedures and dramas of decision making are organized to emphasize the importance of management and managers, to reassure us of the significance of leaders. Information is gathered and reported to symbolize that decisions have been made properly. Meetings are held to symbolize that specific actions have been decided upon by persons in authority. Control procedures are introduced to symbolize that the system is controlled. Evaluations are used to symbolize that managers are monitoring the organization properly.

As a reasult of these rituals and ceremonies, it seems very likely that most organizational leaders exaggerate their control over their success. We know that individuals tend to exaggerate the importance of individual action in controlling human events and that this exaggeration is particularly common among people who have been successful. Successful people tend to imagine that the events of their lives are produced by their actions. Organizational leaders are systematically successful. The managers we see in an organization are typically people who have risen to their present position by being evaluated as successes in previous positions. Such successes encourage them to see their own histories as the consequences of their own actions and competences.

This powerful belief on the part of successful people, the idea that their successes are the product of their competences, qualities, and efforts, is not particularly supported by research on managerial success. Studies of success in organizations show that successful people in most organizations, as in most other walks of life, are distinguished particularly by having made two early decisions very well. The first decision is the choice of parents; people who choose successful parents are much more likely to be successful than those who are unwise enough to choose unsuccessful parents. The second early decision is the choice of gender: people who decide to be male are much more likely to be successful managers than are those who decide to be female. These two “decisions” do not, of course, account for everything; but they account for more than any other two things we know.

Once you leave such well-known attributes of organizational leaders, research on managerial success provides very few consistent results. Most measured attributes of leaders fail to predict success with any accuracy.

Dark summer reading

I was not blown away by the book I read this summer. I need to plan better next time.

I ended up mostly engaged by crime fiction, even if it’s a genre I am not an expert in. The most satisfying read was The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi, an intricately constructed novel with some truly haunting moments. I also enjoyed two novels by Glenn Cooper, Secret of the Seventh Son (aka Library of the Dead) and Book of Souls. Secret of the Seventh Son starts out as a serial killer novel, but then branches out into something else, on a metaphysically bizarre premise that is further pursued in the second book of the trilogy (the third one, The Librarians, is forthcoming; you can see from the titles alone why I would dig this sort of stuff). The author is quite an interesting character: he majored in archaeology in college, then went to medical school specializing in infectious diseases, then became a pharmaceutical CEO. And now he writes metaphysically bizarre books.

I read two surf crime novels by Don Winslow, but they did not have the epic scope of what I think is his masterpiece, Power of the Dog, which I recommend you read right away if you haven’t yet.

Last summer, I was enthralled by Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Many people don’t read King because they think he writes in the horror genre. Even when he does, there is so much more to it; I’ve always loved his ear for the spoken language (if you are a foreign student of American English, you can hardly do better than read Stephen King for practicing your idioms). 11/22/63 is a novel about time travel – a topic very few writers have tackled successfully – transporting us in the United States of the late ’50s and early ’60s, revived in painstaking detail, to follow a protagonist who sets himself the task of undoing the Kennedy assassination. It is a marvel, and it is what I missed this summer, when there was no new big Stephen King novel, and nothing else as juicy as this.