Distractions: The Penis, Steve Jobs and the statistician

Had to find some distractions this morning. Been left childminding two five-year olds so an escape from pretending to be a Springer Spaniel was in order. So here goes...The penis, Steve Jobs, religion and birth rates. Sorry.

Baring all: The second most popular article on The Economist website is headlined The penis: Cross to bare. Which goes some way to indicate what sells a story. I leave it to you to find out what it's about. Whoever said the Economist was stuffy? 
Click here.

Just the Jobs: The Harvard Business Review has listed the top one hundred CEOs in the world. No 1 is, of course, Steve Jobs - still being lauded after his death. I got his biography for Christmas. Here's a quote from a memo sent by Jef Raskin, a former colleague from way back in the day: "Very often, when told of a new idea, he will immediately attack it and say that it is worthless or even stupid, and tell you that it was a waste of time to work on it. This alone is bad management, but if the idea is a good one he will soon be telling people about it as though it was his own." Oh dear.
Click here.

Birth right: I was thinking about the real meaning of Christmas and ended up on a video of the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling talking about religion and birth rates. It was recorded in the middle of the year, but how christmassy can you get?
Click here

The Hobbit: An unmotivated employee

(Spoiler alert: this article contains details about the plot in The Hobbit movie)

At first Bilbo Baggins is reluctant to join in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Can workplace pyschology help explain what drives his motivation

"Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his make-up from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out."

A Hobbit and the Progress Principle 
Bilbo Baggins is a stubborn Hobbit. Despite being the star of Peter Jackson’s latest installment in Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga, he steadfastly refuses to get on board when Gandalf the Wizard implores him to join a disgruntled band of 13 dwarves on a quest to reclaim their lost city under The Lonely Mountain. Can we therefore see his participation as a classic problem of workplace motivation? 

Fans will remember that in The Hobbit the dwarves have been expelled from their city by the ferocious and gold-obsessed dragon Smaug. And Bilbo, at first, doesn’t want any part of it. His trouble? Bilbo doesn’t really know Gandalf (except indirectly); is completely unfamiliar with, and somewhat offended by, the dwarves and has no direct connection or previous interest in their cause. Bilbo is also aware that the mission involves extreme peril, if not a grisly death, at the hands of goblins, orcs, wargs, trolls and, ultimately, Smaug him or herself (it’s not really clear). Why wouldn’t he stay at home in his comfy, well-appointed Hobbit hole with all its handicraft home comforts (Kirsty Allsop will shiver with longing when she sees it) and good food? Life, though sedentary, is good. In the film, Gandalf’s effort to persuade him to leave all that behind amounts to this: “The world is not in your books and maps - it’s out there.” It’s a no brainer. The dwarves can go where they like. Bilbo knows where he belongs.

In a review for entertainment website Total:Spec, I wrote that this was, “with all respect... why students go backpacking to Bali. It’s not a reason for facing down monsters and creatures from hell. And with no motivation Bilbo really has no story, no arc, other than he’s along for the ride - a troubling set of affairs for the movie’s central protagonist, and strangely unsatisfying once rendered in film.” But he does go. He packs his bags and runs off after the dwarves. Who would have guessed? What in all of Middle Earth is his motivation? And without one, how can we believe he will stay the course?

Where can we find an answer to this perplexing question? Last year saw the latest of many efforts to explain what motivates employees. This time it came from a professor at Harvard Business School, Teresa Amabile and her writing partner Steven Kramer, an independent researcher. The pair monitored 12,000 diary entries from 238 individuals working for 26 project teams across seven companies. The diaries detailed the workers’ feelings every day about work and whether it had gone well or badly. More importantly it also provided some insight into explaining their reactions. In short Amabile and Kramer concluded this: “We discovered the progress principle. Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

The results were recorded in a book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work. Fortunately it was also captured in an article for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) more economically headlined The Power of Small Wins. Though Amabile and Kramer’s research centres on what they define as “creative teams,” its worth going over their findings because, like all good researchers, they set out to quantify the results (I write with no irony whatsoever). It might provide some insight into Bilbo’s joy at work too. What they found was that events that could be classified as “progress” or “steps forward” occurred on 76% of worker’s best mood days. “We found that the most common event triggering a ‘best day’ was any progress in the work by the individual in the team. The most common event triggering a “worst day” was a setback,” they wrote in HBR. The pair take care to say that they cannot claim causality, only a correlation, but write: “However, we do know from reading thousands of diary entries, that more positive perceptions, a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, happiness, and even elation often followed progress.”

There are, however, other classes of event that can help give workers a buzz. Amabile and Kramer conclude that catalyst events - receiving help from team mates, or nourishing events - being shown respect or encouragement - also give workers a boost. Likewise, damaging events can put workers on a downer. They call these toxic - discouraging comments, or inhibitors - actions that block or undermine progress. To keep staff cheery and motivated to work, managers should, in short, master the art of encouraging progress and focus on catalyst and nourishing events.

Understanding Bilbo
Can this help us understand Bilbo Baggins? I don’t think it unreasonable to assume it might. Bilbo has thrown his lot in on a short-term project with an unfamiliar team of colleagues under the leadership of two individuals (Gandalf and the dwarf Prince Thorin). The end point is near term enough to keep everyone focused and yet there are travails-a-plenty to challenge the resilience of the team and its ability to collaborate on problem solving. Now, while this journey is somewhat more perilous than say developing a new bio-degradeable polymer or solving a glitch in the IT systems of an international hotel chain, they share these characteristics (workers in the plastics and hospitality industries rarely encounter orcs and goblins, though I have no doubt they think they do at times). Bilbo’s journey can be seen as a study in keeping stressed employees focused on their work.

But there is one thing worth noting. Amabile and Kramer were, in all honesty, not the first to come across the significance of “progress” to the psychology of workers (though they do appear to have been the first to put it to the test in such an extensive quantitative study). The US military has had psychologists looking at motivation among service personnel for some time. In 1996 a paper written by staff at the US Naval school, Monterey, identified what it called “intrinsic task motivation”. Servicemen experienced a sense of accomplishment, progress and meaningfulness if they were involved in decision making that included “committing to a meaningful purpose, choosing activities to accomplish this purpose, monitoring the quality/competence of one’s activities towards the purpose and monitoring one’s progress towards the purpose.” Written by Kenneth Thomas and Erik Jansen,the conclusions seem in tune with Amabile and Kramer whose diary research reveals the same task orientation among the project workers.

But though this seems sensible other researchers have implicitly questioned the “task” motivation. During the Iraq war researchers under the leadership of Leonard Wong, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, interviewed 40 US servicemen in combat units. In a paper that caused what seemed like a minor stir, Wong and fellow writers concluded that the key motivating factor was “unit cohesion”. In short, servicemen fought for each other because they built strong “interpersonal bonds”. The priority in the psychology, therefore, is each other, not the job (task) at hand. The difference doesn’t seem like much but could be significant when formulating officer training and management techniques for the military (You have to wonder whether Wong questioned the motivation of the researchers sent into Iraq to interview the soldiers).

But why military psychology in an article about Bilbo Baggins? Well, another way of looking at the Unexpected Journey is as a military expedition. The dangers, methods and objectives are certainly comparable. The goal (for the dwarves, at least) is the physical removal of an enemy. The tool will be violence - in the extreme. In many respects this is a soldier’s story, as much as anything else. And in truth, business and military managers concerned about organizational behaviour have always made a point of looking at each other’s work. That they should converge on some of the same conclusions should not surprise us. The question here is what it can tell us about Bilbo’s motivation. Is Bilbo driven by interpersonal bonds with the dwarves, a la Wong? Or, is he “task” orientated, deriving meaning and personal satisfaction from incremental success at achieving his stated goal?

Nourishing Bilbo
Taking the film alone (Peter Jackson and his co-writers have reengineered the characters somewhat. There was clearly a belief that Tolkien’s source material was not enough on its own to serve character development) there are some specific events which might lead us to an answer. Though we need to understand some context first. When the dwarves meet at Bilbo’s house at the start of their adventure they express misgivings about his presence on their caper. These concerns are given voice through Thorin who, traumatised by the loss of his city, status and his father, is a dour, brooding, self-reliant character, quick to distrust and condemn. Once on board, Bilbo’s evolving mission appears to be to earn Thorin’s trust and respect. This tension between them appears from the time Hobbit first meets dwarves at Bilbo’s house.

This is also the first occasion on which we witness something to help us understand Bilbo’s motivation. To persuade the dwarves that Bilbo will be good to have around Gandalf insists that there is more about him than it seems and explains that he is a top burglar. Bilbo has so much as burgled a black bird’s nest but the claim does at least advocate for qualities in Bilbo that may be useful to the dwarves and constitutes the first vote of confidence in his character. Amabile and Kramer might describe this as a “nourishing” event. That is, Bilbo receives respect and encouragement from a superior in front of work mates. It should be noted that this comes after what we know would be “toxic” discouraging remarks. But Gandalf’s intervention goes a little further. In calling Bilbo a top rate Burglar, he gives him a purpose along with validation for his presence among the company. 

Let’s move on to another key event - the run-in with mountain trolls. In this sequence Bilbo attempts to put his stealth skills to work in freeing stolen ponies from three monsters. He must play his part as burglar. However, he is caught and worse when the dwarves attack they too are bagged, ready for the pot. When Gandalf arrives to the rescue enough time is involved for the sun to come up and turn the trolls to stone. However, when the dwarves complain about Bilbo’s part in this episode Gandalf speaks up for him pointing out that it was Bilbo’s own deliberate time wasting that diverted the trolls long enough to be destroyed by the sun. Indeed, even as the trolls were slow roasting a couple of dwarves Bilbo was attempting to dissemble over recipes and flavours. Gandalf’s support is, once again, nourishing (excuse, the pun). But this time it is based upon Bilbo’s own behaviour, which he can take as a job well done. Gandalf’s comments are not just distant support however. They are direct help in Bilbo’s relationship. This then, as Amabile and Kramer would point out it, is a catalyst event. Bilbo should be buoyed up. He has demonstrated some ability, his presence on the trip is meaningful. When the dwarves only had swords to offer, and then not very effectively, Bilbo turns out to have some savvy.

Strangely though Bilbo’s mood is not entirely lifted. This is perhaps where the film’s writers part company with the psychologists. The Hobbit has trouble escaping Thorin’s doubts which appear to be ever present and weigh on him even as he receives affirmation from Gandalf and creates small victories, such as with the trolls. It is this feeling that brings us to the next character building event.

The party travels into the mountains and takes refuge in a cave. As everyone sleeps Bilbo decides to give up on the quest and head for home. The journey through the mountains has been stressful and he is feeling alienated from the group. But one of the dwarves, Bofur, spots him and intervenes. Bilbo says he is no use and not really one of the group. Bofur contradicts him, and in a moving statement, insists Bilbo is one of them now. It is a moment which is clearly nourishing for Bilbo who stays with the dwarves following what is a clear statement that he has been embraced by his fellow travelers. 

Distractions: Cricket, obesity, Big Data and life in the circus

Today’s Distractions - keeping me from doing some proper work. Actually, I've filed copy this morning so feel fairly relaxed about killing time. But not entirely.

Fat chance: The Economist is this week talking about obesity and its implications. Seems like a good business opportunity, if you’re in the health sector. Or, selling food full of saturated fats.
To watch the video click here
Ringmaster: Jerry Cottle, the one-time circus impresario, talks about his business ups and downs. Out of one hole he’s now in another running the caves at Wookey Hole.
See the film here
Information age: Want more data about your clients and customers? A top ebay manager and the man behind the iPhone talk about Big Data and using design to persuade customers to give up more of their personal info.
Click here.
Howzat!: The architect of the Indian premier cricket league talks trade to London Business School.
Click here.

Distractions: Motivation, revamping X-Factor, Favela sales and cursing Mad Men

Today’s Distractions

Not sure there's a link between the following. But they've grabbed my attention and took it away from my paid work. Which is ironic given that one of them is all about motivating workers. Prof Teresa Amabile says small amounts of progress keeps workers focused and on the up. I can get behind that. Especially as I work from home and suffer from debilitating freelancer's lassitude. Means only small amounts of progress are ever possible.
One man who has just made big progress is James Arthur, winner of this year's X-Factor and, even though he looks chronically world-weary, he found time to get involved in the debate about the future of the show. This is essentially a business issue - its strategy needs a revamp after audiences and caller showed signs of falling. Is the product broken? Or is it simply a marketing issue? Put it another way where do you think X-Factor in the product life cycle? It's a big one for Simon Cowell to address.

Pity he's not in Brazil where incomes are rising prompting more door to door sales activity in the country's favelas, traditionally the venues for gun battles between police and drug gangs. Direct sales though are helping some businesses boom.

Lastly, what are the values that marketeers seek in the artists they choose to help promote their products? Singer songwriter Tom Waits gives a lesson in brand values and damns the marketeers at the same time. 
See below.

Progress Principle: Prof Teresa Amabile on motivating your workers. (What about the self employed)? Click here.

Biting the hand: X-Factor winner James Arthur mumbles agreement that the show needs a revamp. The artist makes a business case for “authenticity”. Listen carefully and click here.

Doormen: Brazil sees rise of direct sales as favela dwellers witness their incomes climb. Click here.

Curse the marketeers: Singer/songwriter Tom Waits on why companies can forget about using his songs in their ads. Precisely the reason why they may want to use his, ...well, songs in their ads. Click here.

The Professional: Interview with Sir Michael Snyder

I recently interviewed Sir Michael Snyder, head of accountancy firm Kingston Smith, for Economia, the ICAEW's magazine. 

You can read it here.

Starbucks' froth

The behaviour of Starbucks this week may have done more to intensify the debate over corporate tax and its relation to corporate ethics more than any other event over the past ten years.
To recap MPs on the House of Commons public accounts committee questioned executives from Starbucks, Google and Amazon over their tax affairs with the aim of exploring why they appeared to be paying so little. It’s clear now Starbucks was stung by the event. Reportedly, coffee drinkers began staying away from the company’s outlets in protest.
Now, the Seattle chain has volunteered to stump up an extra £20m in tax to the UK exchequer over the next couple of years by way of righting the situation. A managing director told the news that the chain had “listened to its customers”.
Starbucks are not in the clear, however, and all the big multi-nationals out there who have similar arrangements may well be feeling that Starbucks' reaction could have stimulated the debate over "exporting" tax slightly more than a double espresso.
Firstly, the terms of the debate. Over the past few days the press has been at pains to make clear that Starbucks, Google and Amazon have done nothing illegal. The rest of the commentary seemed to revolve around demands for the companies to sort their affairs out. But the British tax system allows them to make these arrangements. The debate has yet to settle on what will be done about the law. In the week of an autumn statement which revealed austerity will last longer than expected the government has been suspiciously quiet on the subject of corporate tax, except to say it would be cut again (what matter a cut if you’re not paying tax anyway?). Strange this because it is the government that makes the law and national tax policy. What will be interesting is whether the key campaigners can make the argument heard that it is government that needs to act. For their part the government could fall back on the argument that they cannot act without international cooperation on reform. Is that a compelling claim? If it is, then perhaps the Treasury should indicate where it is leading that discussion.
At the moment lots of people, supposedly in the know, are talking about companies paying their "fair" share. If you don't have a legal framework in place that makes it perfectly clear what a "fair" share is, the situation is unlikely to be resolved satisfactorily. Small business has no choice but to pay their corporation tax at the going rate and they compete with multi nationals like Starbucks. They deserve a better deal from government.

Ignoring the system

Next, so far Starbucks has been the lightening rod for this most recent installment in the tax debate. This is interesting because the coffee company has only been doing what countless other companies have done in the past. The debate this week even largely ignored Google and Amazon. It has yet to broaden properly to engage with the system. This is mostly a function of the news outlets - they seem surprisingly slow to shift focus from a single company to the broader issue.
Other companies are no doubt keeping their heads down hoping that Starbucks will take one for the team. But if the debate broadens (and one wonders whether there is enough energy in the issue to maintain the current momentum) we could see that tax has become a key issue of corporate ethics. Indeed, if it hasn't already, it could develop to become to be an area where a business has to be scrupulously clean in order to maintain a functioning reputation. Starbucks clearly felt some reputational strain. After all, it’s on our High Streets and high profile, it was vulnerable to boycott. MPs noted that the company’s move to cough up more was caused by public pressure. Other companies may yet come to feel this heat. That said Amazon and Google may yet feel that they are now so ingrained in our daily lives that their reputations are unassailable. 

I think it’s possible to set the tax issue in a wider context. Since the global financial crisis and the poor behaviour of financial institutions we have been living in the age of holding big business to account. Sub-prime, the Murdochs and phone hacking, Barclays and Libor and now tax - these are all part of a narrative in which politicians, pressure groups and the public are emboldened to challenge big business more than they have in perhaps two or three decades. Our trust in big business, our default assumption that only they can cope with necessary technological advancements, has been substantially shaken.
Politicians especially now feel released from having to keep big business happy. So far though, this narrative has produced a lot of noise, many complaints and a lot of soul searching. But it remains to be seen whether substantive measures will be taken in response. Will banks have to separate investment banking from retail banking? Will the press really instigate a radical new form of regulation? 

In business

Lastly, if you are in a business which partly sells on reputation the Starbucks problem will become a case study in managing a crisis. As better commentators have pointed out, in "volunteering" to pay extra Starbucks makes it look like corporation tax is an option. What the company hasn’t done is said that they will reorganise their affairs so that revenues raised in the UK will be liable to corporate tax every year going forward. Volunteering does not resolve what the 'fair" liability is. PR and marketing strategists might theorise that Starbucks has come up with only a partial solution. They listened to customers but did not really engage with the issue. The £20m will be a welcome contribution to government coffers, but it does not resolve the tax position.

Starbucks, though looking contrite has still to confront the real issue. But they are not alone. Their position is shared by Google, Amazon, the many other companies exporting their profits and a government not yet fully engaged or leading the debate on corporate tax. At the moment Starbuck's £20m may still end up looking like froth.

Postscript: (Sat 8 December, 2012).

I have not boycotted Starbucks. I feel perhaps I should, and I am in favour of consumer action, but I haven't. For a few reasons. I'm still using Google (a bit more Yahoo these days) and I have a lot of gifts enrolee from Amazon. How could of ditch one without ditching the others. But then there's the broader issue. If I boycott Starbucks, I should also boycott the government, which I can't do, sadly. Starbucks has exploited a tax system which they didn't make. We have our lawmakers to blame for that.