Andrew McAfee – ‘Human beings are chronically overconfident’

Management expert Andrew McAfee has studied how mavericks such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have turned the established way of doing business on its head. And he thinks their way of doing things can transform any business, no matter how established or how small

Andrew McAfee is a principal research scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, co-founder and co-director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, and the inaugural visiting fellow at the technology and society organisation at Google. He studies how technological progress changes the world.

Andrew McAfee has written for The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times and he has talked about his work on CNN and 60 Minutes, at the World Economic Forum and TED. He’s also advised many of the world’s largest corporations and organisations, including the International Monetary Fund.

‘Elon Musk is fascinating because, to my eyes, he’s super geeky in some ways and not in others’

His new book, The Geek Way, will be published by Pan Macmillan on 16 November.

Information Age sat down with Andrew McAfee to discuss how internet pioneers such as Reed Hastings of Netflix and Jeff Bezos at Amazon have turned the established way of doing things on its head, and what CTOs and heads of IT can learn when it comes to managing their own teams.

How would you define a geek?

For me, a geek is somebody with two qualities. First of all, they get obsessed with the hard problem, and they wrestle with it. They’re very tenacious. They can’t let it go. And second, if the solutions to that problem that they come up with are unconventional, that doesn’t bother them. They’re not constrained by mainstream opinion or the status quo. So, for me, a geek is an obsessive maverick.

What is the Geek Way? What are its characteristics?

I got obsessed with the geeks who dove in on the really hard problem of how do you run and grow a successful company in these very turbulent times? The Geek Way is my answer for how they accomplished that. The Geek Way is the set of philosophies and practises that they have for running a company. And the reason I wrote the book is that I think the Geek Way works better in today’s day and age than the playbook that we developed over the industrial era.

When you say industrial era, I suppose you mean a visionary leader, a pyramid or dirigiste structure?

Let me let me put it a little bit differently, because a lot of the people who are running geek companies are visionary. They want to put you on Mars, they want to accomplish the green transition, they want to increase the GDP of the internet. These are big goals.

Over the industrial era, we became fond of the judgement and the decision-making ability of people higher up on the org chart. We were really fond of process and communication coordination and a whole lot of structured interactions in the organisation going all across the company. We got really fond of planning. We became confident in our ability to plan out big efforts in advance and have long planning horizons. And then finally we just had this philosophy of winning all the time and that quickly turns into a philosophy of not ever admitting that you’ve been wrong. And that makes people and organisations inherently defensive as opposed to inherently open.

I compared the playbook that we built up over the industrial ear to what these leading disruptive companies were doing. There was a really big disconnect. And I thought the geeks had figured out something better.

Who for you personifies the Geek Way as a business leader? Somebody like Elon Musk, for example, may be running a groundbreaking tech company, but he seems to me entirely that kind of my-way-or-the-highway kind of thinking.

Elon is a really interesting case because he and his companies have done things that are absolutely squarely within the Geek Way. A fondness for iterating instead of planning is the clearest example. For me, both SpaceX and Tesla are deeply, deeply agile organisations. They believe that you learn and that you gain knowledge about what you want to accomplish by trying things. With as rapid accidence as possible. That’s extraordinarily geeky, and it’s very different to the old planning heavy approaches of the internet.

But to your point, as we learn more about his management style and especially what he’s doing at whatever we’re supposed to call Twitter now, it seems kind of impetuous. It seems very, very overconfident. And these are not core aspects of the Geek Way. So, Elon is fascinating because to my eyes, he’s super geeky in some ways and not in others.

Then who is a paragon of the Geek Way?

For me, Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, is a pretty good example. He was a complete outsider to the entertainment industry, and we should remember that Netflix got started as a DVD by mail rental service. There’s nothing there that screams disruption of Hollywood, which then was a really well entrenched industry in Southern California. But Netflix has pioneered the changes in how we want to be entertained and how we consume entertainment that have turned the industry on its head.

When you read about how he went about that, you realise that, to my definition, is very, very geeky. He doesn’t believe in a whole lot of cross-functional communication structure coordination. He believes in a really decentralised, very autonomous organisation and is willing to tolerate the redundancy and sometimes the chaos that brings. He learned to be less fond of his judgement over time because he made some big calls in the wrong direction, but more to the point, he worked really, really hard on building a corporate culture at Netflix which was able to correct him or that was able to make the right decision even when he got an important decision wrong.

In his book No Rules Rules, he tells a story about how he didn’t think it was a good use of Netflix’s resources to allow people to download content. A couple of people in his company thought that was wrong, so they went out and did research with users in three different countries, and they came back and said, hey, people love the download feature. And it’s not a one per cent use case, it’s at least a 15 per cent use case. And instead of ignoring that or brushing them off, Hastings and his colleagues admitted they were wrong. It’s that kind of basic approach to leadership that I think characterises the Geek Way.

Apart from Netflix’s nimble thinking, are there any other companies which you would say exemplify the Geek Way?

Amazon is a gigantic company that, to my eyes, still tries very hard to keep following the Geek Way, even though they’re huge company with extraordinarily large, complicated operations, they still believe in this ownership-based management style, an org structure and a style. They realise that to accomplish big things, you’re going to have to get some things wrong and so they hand out Just do it awards to people who wanted to go try to accomplish that was not part of their day job. That’s not stay within your lane. That’s go try to get things done.

And I was struck a while back in one of Jeff Bezos’s letters to his shareholders when he was still the CEO, when he said, I guarantee you we are incubating multibillion-dollar failures inside Amazon right now. That’s kind of an extraordinary thing for a CEO to say to his investors. And when we look at the money that they’ve spent on the Alexa programme so far, I think he was right. I think they were doing a multi-billion-dollar failure but that’s OK, that’s part of the culture.

I contrast that to the industrial era focus on winning at all costs, digging in your heels, and not ever being willing to admit that you were wrong.

Can you give me an example of a company that had industrial age thinking and then took on board what you are talking about, this nimble Geek Way thinking?

For me, what Satya Nadella has done since he took over at Microsoft is one of the great corporate turnarounds of all time. At least on a level with what Steve Jobs accomplished when he came back to Apple.

You’ve got to remember where Microsoft was at the time. It wasn’t leading anything in the technology space, there was no buzz there, and internally they had an extremely sclerotic bureaucracy. There was a ton of political infighting at all levels, and they absolutely had this inherently defensive culture, where you never ever heard an executive admit that they had been wrong about anything.

One of the brilliant things that I think Nadella did culturally was to say you cannot own code or data at Microsoft because it’s subject to privacy and security. But if you want to grab some code or grab some data to experiment with it, you have that right inside Microsoft and you don’t need to ask permission. He did these really brilliant bureaucracy-busting things. And when we look at the revitalisation of Microsoft, we look at its share price and its market capitalisation, it’s clear that he got some things right.

When I get asked the question, can a company that finds itself in a bad place work itself out of that bad place and adopt the Geek Way, the answer is absolutely, yes, and we see a clear example with Microsoft.

Most of our readers are CTOs or heads of IT in in smaller businesses. How can they use the Geek Way in what they’re doing every day? What keywords should they keep front of mind?

Number one is to realise that you are way too fond of your own ideas. All of us, as human beings, are chronically overconfident. It’s the most common cognitive bias. That means that your brain children are going to be very, very dear to you, to the point that you’re probably unable to see the holes and the flaws. So that’s a problem.

The solution is other people. This is how science works. This is why I describe one of the great geek norms is simply as “science”. Science is really subjecting your ideas to the scrutiny of other people, and then having evidence-based discussions about the merits of those ideas. Is this good? Is this correct or not? One thing you can absolutely start doing is being a little less fond of your own ideas and stress testing those ideas early and often with other people.

Another thing we can do is acknowledge other people’s good ideas. Just start saying, “That’s a really good idea, thanks. I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe we should take a different approach here.” Those kinds of statements are super powerful, especially when they are coming from leader in an organisation, because as humans we are wired to take are cues from the people who have high status in an organisation. especially coming from leaders in an organisation. Because it turns out that that we humans are wired to take our cues from the from the people with high status in an organisation. And if you start behaving that way, other people will too.

Whereas if you fall back on this classic defensive posture where you’re not willing to admit fault or accept and you just dig in your heels, that’s also a signal the organisation will pick that up as well.

And when you are being challenged and a debate breaks out when somebody lower down the org chart presents some evidence, the organisation will watch. Are you going to shut that person down or are you going to listen and accept if they’ve won the argument?

A final thing you can do is start removing some of the Bureaucracy, some of the structure, some of the approval loops. Do you really need to sign off on every purchase over $50? You can just start getting rid of that organisational clutter. And again, that’s a signal and we humans are great at picking up and interpreting signals.

The Geek Way will be published by Pan Macmillan on 16 November

More Tech Leader Q&As

Yoshua Bengio – ‘Powerful tech will yield concentration of wealth’ Professor Yoshua Bengio, one of the godfathers of AI, on which sectors will be revolutionized by AI, the need for tighter regulation, and whether AI poses an existential threat

Elizabeth Renieris – ‘Our robot overlords aren’t quite here just yet’ – Elizabeth Renieris is a renowned artificial intelligence ethics expert, who believes that Big Tech is being disingenuous when it calls for a global AI super-regulator. Existing laws cover AI, she says, we just need to leverage them

Ashish Gupta – ‘You can’t be an averagely talented programmer’ – Ashish Kumar Gupta, head of EMEA for global IT services company HCLTech, believes AI will make truly skilled programmers even more valuable. The key to surviving the AI jobs purge will be to combine your tech skills with another business vertical, he says

Avatar photo

Tim Adler

Tim Adler is group editor of Small Business, Growth Business and Information Age. He is a former commissioning editor at the Daily Telegraph, who has written for the Financial Times, The Times and the...