The Elements of Effective Teamwork: A Google Experiment

This is a fascinating piece by Charles Duhigg (author of the excellent The Power of Habit) which outlines the steps Google took to understand what made some teams at the company effective, while other teams–though composed of very intelligent members–tended to underperform. The code name for the internal project at Google was Project Aristotle:

Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).

Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which teams had overlapping memberships and which groups had exceeded their departments’ goals. They studied how long teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success.

It’s worth reading the piece in its entirety, but it comes down to the fact that teams where individuals have a chance to speak their minds, engage in mild chit-chat, and share their personal stories and vulnerabilities end up as more cohesive, stronger performing teams compared to the ones that simply get down to business and attempt to get work done.

From the concluding portion of the piece:

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

And this:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

From my own personal experience, I can relate to the findings. I’ve tended to perform better in work groups where the managers or my colleagues tended to take an interest in my personal life, either by asking questions or offering advice.

On the Future of Machine Intelligence

This is a very thought-provoking read on the future of machine intelligence and how we will cope with its advancement. The author, Douglas Coupland, begins the narrative with some hypothetical apps that track data (geolocation, etc.) and then paints a dystopian view:

To summarise. Everyone, basically, wants access to and control over what you will become, both as a physical and metadata entity. We are also on our way to a world of concrete walls surrounding any number of niche beliefs. On our journey, we get to watch machine intelligence become profoundly more intelligent while, as a society, we get to watch one labour category after another be systematically burped out of the labour pool. (Doug’s Law: An app is only successful if it puts a lot of people out of work.)

The darkest thought of all may be this: no matter how much politics is applied to the internet and its attendant technologies, it may simply be far too late in the game to change the future. The internet is going to do to us whatever it is going to do, and the same end state will be achieved regardless of human will. Gulp.

Do we at least want to have free access to anything on the internet? Well yes, of course. But it’s important to remember that once a freedom is removed from your internet menu, it will never come back. The political system only deletes online options — it does not add them. The amount of internet freedom we have right now is the most we’re ever going to get.

I found the notion of Artificial Intuition (as opposed to Artificial Intelligence) worth highlighting:

Artificial Intuition happens when a computer and its software look at data and analyse it using computation that mimics human intuition at the deepest levels: language, hierarchical thinking — even spiritual and religious thinking. The machines doing the thinking are deliberately designed to replicate human neural networks, and connected together form even larger artificial neural networks. It sounds scary . . . and maybe it is (or maybe it isn’t). But it’s happening now. In fact, it is accelerating at an astonishing clip, and it’s the true and definite and undeniable human future.

Worth reading in its entirety.

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Note: I usually don’t link to The Financial Times (because of its stringent paywall), but at the time of this post, the article is free to access.

The Cascadia Earthquake

A thought-provoking, and frightening, piece by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker on the very big earthquake that is likely to strike the Pacific Northwest sometime in the future:

The first sign that the Cascadia earthquake has begun will be a compressional wave, radiating outward from the fault line. Compressional waves are fast-moving, high-frequency waves, audible to dogs and certain other animals but experienced by humans only as a sudden jolt. They are not very harmful, but they are potentially very useful, since they travel fast enough to be detected by sensors thirty to ninety seconds ahead of other seismic waves. That is enough time for earthquake early-warning systems, such as those in use throughout Japan, to automatically perform a variety of lifesaving functions: shutting down railways and power plants, opening elevators and firehouse doors, alerting hospitals to halt surgeries, and triggering alarms so that the general public can take cover. The Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system. When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive. Surface waves are slower, lower-frequency waves that move the ground both up and down and side to side: the shaking, starting in earnest.

Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.

Worth reading in entirety.

A World Without Work?

Are the machines taking over our world? Will they replace the jobs of the future? Derek Thompson explores in his essay at The Atlantic titled “A World Without Work.” Some notable passages below:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.

After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.

The post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society, Hunnicutt said, people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē,the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.

And then this:

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Derek Thompson’s conclusion:

One theory of work holds that people tend to see themselves in jobs, careers, or callings. Individuals who say their work is “just a job” emphasize that they are working for money rather than aligning themselves with any higher purpose. Those with pure careerist ambitions are focused not only on income but also on the status that comes with promotions and the growing renown of their peers. But one pursues a calling not only for pay or status, but also for the intrinsic fulfillment of the work itself.

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people. But a future of less work still holds a glint of hope, because the necessity of salaried jobs now prevents so many from seeking immersive activities that they enjoy.

Very interesting food for thought.

Bibliotherapy: Can Reading Make You Happier?

This is a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about bibliotherapy: reading books to deal with life’s ailments. Per the piece, the most common ailments people tend to bring to a bibliotherapist (who recommends books on various topics that are not in the self-help genre) are the life-juncture transitions, being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement.

Berthoud and Elderkin trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. “Librarians in the States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the same time in the U.K.,” Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.

Bibliotherapy, if it existed at all, tended to be based within a more medical context, with an emphasis on self-help books. But we were dedicated to fiction as the ultimate cure because it gives readers a transformational experience.

If you’re interested in learning more, perhaps check out The Novel Cure: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, the therapists mentioned in the piece.

The Untold Story of Industrial Light & Magic

A great piece in Wired this month on Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company founded by George Lucas in 1975.

Industrial Light & Magic was born in a sweltering warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in the summer of 1975. Its first employees were recent college graduates (and dropouts) with rich imaginations and nimble fingers. They were tasked with building Star Wars’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras. It didn’t go smoothly or even on schedule, but the masterful work of ILM’s fledgling artists, technicians, and engineers transported audiences into galaxies far, far away

As it turns 40 this year, ILM can claim to have played a defining role making effects for 317 movies. But that’s only part of the story: Pixar began, essentially, as an ILM internal investigation. Photoshop was invented, in part, by an ILM employee tinkering with programming in his time away from work. Billions of lines of code have been formulated there. Along the way ILM has put tentacles into pirate beards, turned a man into mercury, and dominated box office charts with computer-generated dinosaurs and superheroes. What defines ILM, however, isn’t a signature look, feel, or tone—those change project by project. Rather, it’s the indefatigable spirit of innovation that each of the 43 subjects interviewed for this oral history mentioned time and again. It is the Force that sustains the place.

Interview with George Lucas has the origin for the name:

LUCAS: We were working on the articles of incorporation and we said, “What are we going to call this thing?” We were in an industrial park. They were building these giant Dykstraflex machines to photograph stuff, so that’s where the “Light” came from. In the end I said, “Forget the Industrial and the Light—this is going to have to be Magic. Otherwise we’re doomed, making a movie nobody wants.”

And there are gems about how computer graphics were introduced for Jurassic Park.

Read the whole piece here.

On Marc Andreessen’s Plan to Win the Future

Tad Friend, writing in The New Yorker, pens a fascinating profile of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (and the firm which he co-founded and is currently a general partner, a16z). A representative snippet of the man:

Something of the transporter beam clings to Andreessen, a sense that he just rematerialized from a city on the edge of forever. He’s not great at the basics of daily life: directions confound him, because roadways aren’t logical, and he’s so absent-minded about sunglasses that he keeps a “reload station” with nine pairs on his hall table. Perhaps Edison haunts his conversation because Andreessen is a fellow-tinkerer, except that his gadgets are systems and platforms, and his workshop is his own mind. He regularly reprograms his appearance and deportment—his user interface—to suit his present role, and friends refer to chapters in his life as versions of an operating system: “Marc 1.0,” “Marc 2.0,” and so on. A charismatic introvert, Andreessen draws people in but doesn’t really want them around. Though he has a crisp sense of humor, it’s rarely deployed at his own expense. He hates being complimented, looked at, or embraced, and has toyed with the idea of wearing a T-shirt that says “No hugging, no touching.” He doesn’t grasp the protocols of social chitchat, and prefers getting a memo to which he can e-mail a response, typing at a hundred and forty words a minute. He didn’t attend Netscape’s twentieth-anniversary celebration, because it combined two things from which he recoils: parties and reminiscing.

Curious what would have become of Facebook if it weren’t for Marc’s advice to Mark Zuckerberg:

In 2006, Yahoo! offered to buy Facebook for a billion dollars, and Accel Partners, Facebook’s lead investor, urged Mark Zuckerberg to accept. Andreessen said, “Every single person involved in Facebook wanted Mark to take the Yahoo! offer. The psychological pressure they put on this twenty-two-year-old was intense. Mark and I really bonded in that period, because I told him, ‘Don’t sell, don’t sell, don’t sell!’ ” Zuckerberg told me, “Marc has this really deep belief that when companies are executing well on their vision they can have a much bigger effect on the world than people think, not just as a business but as a steward of humanity—if they have the time to execute.” He didn’t sell; Facebook is now worth two hundred and eighteen billion dollars.

I empathize with this philosophy for the world:

“I could never tolerate not knowing why…You have to work your way back to figure out the politics, the motivations. I always stop when I get to evolutionary psychology, and why we have tribes—oh, O.K., we’re primates cursed with emotions and the ability to do logical thinking.”

This is a key paragraph on how venture capitalism is more about errors of omission:

In venture, it’s not batting average that matters; it’s slugging average. Boldness is all. When Google Glass appeared, a16z joined a collective to seek out investments, and Andreessen declared that, without the face shield, “people are going to find they feel, basically, naked and lonely.” Google withdrew the product in January. But, he would argue, so what? His thesis is that such a16z failures as Fab and Rockmelt and Digg and Kno are not merely a tolerable by-product of the risk algorithm but a vital indicator of it. It’s fine to have a lousy record of predicting the future, most of the time, as long as when you’re right you’re really right. Between 2004 and 2013, a mere 0.4 per cent of all venture investments returned at least 50x. The real mistakes aren’t the errors of commission, the companies that crash—all you can lose is your investment—but those of omission. There were good reasons that a16z passed on buying twelve per cent of Uber in 2011, including a deadline of just hours to make a decision. But the firm missed a profit, on paper, of more than three billion dollars.

A must-read all the way through if you’re at all interested in tech, Silicon Valley, or entrepreneurship.