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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review of Outliers: The Story of Success

Review of Outliers: The Story of Success
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1006

An edited version of this review will appear in Personnel Psychology at some point in the next year.

Gladwell, M. Outliers: The Story of Success. Somewhere: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008, 320, $27.99, Hardcover.


A short while back, I was reading the Washington Post on a Kindle. Outliers was the object of a review, and I downloaded the book immediately. The Kindle edition cost $9.99, arrived a minute later, and added no discernible weight to my carry-on luggage. All in all, I made a good decision. This little book is well worth the few evenings you'll spend in the reading, and it'll lead you to the thinking you need to address a few nagging questions you've carried for a very long time. However, you do need to be discerning in your takeaways because the author picks convenient exemplars.

Have you ever wondered why it's Bill Gates and Microsoft? Surely, there were other geeks with equally good ideas, and we know other PC operating systems (e.g., TRS-DOS, CPM) were sufficiently equivalent to MS-DOS such that with some positioning they would have evolved into the operating system we would see on our machines today, but they didn't. Why? Probably, it's because of a series of events and decisions, which when considered independently were fairly insignificant, that left Microsoft poised to become the giant it is today. (Gates was programming in real time in 1968! I didn't get there until 1971. Yes, I had to wait until the crops were all in.)

To this end, the recurring theme in Outliers is that some decisions and rule structures have unintended consequences. The manner in which Canadian children engage hockey leads to the selection of professional players who are more likely to be born in the first months of the year. If you were born in December, you probably couldn't compete with the fellow born in January because of the early childhood development that makes a year's growth quite substantial when you're five. How many excellent hockey players have the Canadians missed because they don't have a second season?

What this means is that Outliers is not so much about outliers, at least not in the statistical sense. It's more about the sequence of minor events and decisions that sets in place a situation that favors one outcome over another, producing at some point an outlier, and it's right here that makes this book an important read for those who would be effective leaders. If you are a leader, you probably often find yourself working within a structure that might or might not be effective. More insidiously, the structure might have the appearance of effectiveness, but be self-limiting, and be so in ways that are not self-evident. Therein is your challenge as a leader.

Can you step back and ask the simple but hard questions. Why is it this way, and what are the consequences? Consider you find yourself working in an organization where face-to-face communications are valued and preferred nearly to the exclusion of other forms of communication. However, the work involves a great deal of travel, which precludes face-to-face communication on a daily basis. Although you know the value of personal communication among coworkers, you recognize that the work would be more streamlined if the people learned to take advantage of other forms of communication (e.g., phone, email, fax, text, IM). How do you bring about that change in communications such that the effectiveness of the organization is improved?

However, Gladwell's premise regarding the potential effect of otherwise minor events and decisions is not a new idea. Mart Twain visited this premise in his Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (p. 34) when he described Edward J. Billings, a tailor from Tennessee, whose ability with poetry exceeded that of both Homer and Shakespeare. Circumstance, however, precluded the world from ever knowing of Billings' work.

There are at least two caveats here. For one, Gladwell offers very little empirical evidence to support his suppositions. How would he? We would not permit such experimentation. Consider the ten-thousand-hour rule. Where did that come from? The general idea that a lot of practice makes us good at what we do works for me. The question is how much practice. For example, how much time would I need to practice the piano before people paid $100 a head to hear me play? I have no idea, but it does seem reasonable to think that with sufficient practice such a time would come. The question is would I live that long.

Secondly, you have to be content with a lot of inference. Gladwell makes the case for why our Asian colleagues are so good with math with a series of tenuous inferences. (Mind you, I work with a gifted artist, Asian, who considers herself poor with math.) In addition, you have to contend with cultural inference that suggests that a particular plane crash was the result of cultural learning that precluded an accurate and important exchange of information between pilots and air traffic controllers. Bear in mind that Gladwell makes sense as he presents these circumstances. My problem is that it's so easy to say yes, yes, and follow along.

This leaves us with the need to make careful and informed decisions. Gladwell offers no recipe. The advice he offers seems sound, and that is just the problem. So many things seem sound. Consider zero tolerance rules. They make perfect sense, at lest on the surface. Yet with implementation, we find ourselves with the Supreme Court considering the case of a young girl who was strip-searched at school for a tablet of OTC NSAID.

However, Gladwell's been around. He's seen more than most of us. We should take his advice with a substantial grain of salt, apply our own learnings, think with our dipsticks, Jimmy, and make decisions to move our organizations forward in the best manner we can identify.


Twain, M. (2000). Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven and Is Shakespeare Dead? Charleston, SC, USA: Booksurge Publishing.


The Crow said...

Googled outliers because the term is new to me. Found an interview at http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/index.html that explained what it meant, why he wrote the book.

It, and your review, are interesting. I have often wondered, as perhaps you might have at one time or another in your life, if I'm so damned smart, why aren't I wealthy? This book might answer that question for me.



Jim Penny said...

I've never really thought of myself as all that smart, though I have had less complementary thoughts about other people. ;)