What is The Geek Way? Andy McAfee has just released a book with that title, in which he writes about the organizational culture of modern business firms who have achieved extraordinary results in a short period of time. He’s taking about Netflix and amazon and Microsoft and Apple and their Silicon Valley neighbors. These are all tech firms, but McAfee is not focused on the technology behind their products and services, but on the culture and mental models of their organizational setup and their managerial practices.
He calls their approach to organization and business “The Geek Way” as a device to separate their thinking from that of the typical business school where it is believed that study and analysis by wise observers can deliver some general propositions about how to run a successful business. Geeks believe the opposite: that there are no generalizable propositions and that learning does not come from others but from within oneself and within the firm. It’s cultural.
Geeks focus on a narrowly defined subject matter, and then dig into it deeply with insatiable curiosity and love of experimentation. They’re not pre-committed to any outcome of their experiments and they certainly don’t concern themselves with conventional wisdom or majority opinion. They go wherever their inquiries take them
McAfee’s book is about management geeks. Discarding conventional business school teaching about how to manage firms, the geeks the author studies think from first principles about how to manage the new firms that have emerged in the digital era and which don’t seem to conform to industrial age thinking about command-and-control management structures, hierarchical organization and business planning. The new age companies flow. They’re not managed.
McAfee proposes that there are 4 guiding principles for management geeks: speed, ownership, science and openness. Speed refers to speed of iteration – the capacity to run lots of experiments that can be quickly mounted, analyzed, interpreted and used as design feedback for the next version, next step, or next move. Ownership refers to the removal of bureaucratic barriers to rapid decision making – distributing both authority and accountability so that the right individual can make – and own – a decision without running it up too many flagpoles or organizational hierarchies. Science refers to the determination of good and bad ideas through the scientific method of falsification. A good example is an A-B test: rather than making a decision about red versus blue as a color choice, run an A-B test with customers and let the response data point to the better choice. It’s better than HiPPO – the highest paid person’s opinion. Openness refers to bringing all opinions and arguments for and against any proposition to the table without any deference to hierarchy or supposed expertise. Argumentation rather than consensus is the method to get to agreement on how to proceed. Once the argument is resolved everyone moves on in unison.
The problem with the Geek Way that McAfee describes is its introversion. Geeks tend to be introverted, unconcerned with the opinions and preferences of others and entirely concerned with their own projects, their own firms, and their own technology platforms. But that won’t do for business success.
The purpose of business is to create value for customers. Those who work at building and growing a healthy business need to be Value Geeks not management geeks. To do so requires an extroverted approach – always looking outwards to the customer and the market, listening to customers’ hopes and concerns, translating the signals that the market sends, and turning them into ideas and projects for new and better ways to provide value in response.
The algorithm for Value Geeks is different than the one for management geeks. The four guiding principles are:
Empathy – the number one mindset and most important skillset for value geeks is empathy, the ability to identify the customer’s mental model of a desired state compared to their current state, and to be able to think like they think when ideas and propositions are run through that mental model. Value geeks can’t feel what customer’s feel – that’s a false claim for empathy – but they can simulate how they think and the implied consequences for choices they will make in the future.
Creativity – via empathy, value geeks understand customer dissatisfactions, what customers are uneasy about in their current circumstances, what they think could be better in the future or under different circumstances. But customers can’t invent new solutions; they’re not the innovators. How do innovative businesses create new value and new solutions? It requires creativity, that magic, unpredictable leap of imagination to a place that no one’s gone before. Value geeks prize creativity above all, because it holds the promise of novelty and surprise, the keys to new value. Will every creative idea be a winner? Of course not, so value geeks test and probe and experiment to add more substance and certainty until one of them is ready for market. But it’s creativity that is the essential ingredient to get the value process started.
Value Propositions – the form of the experiment to test for market acceptance is the value proposition, a promise to the customer that a product or service or experience proposed in a business offering will deliver a benefit that the customer will value. A value proposition incorporates the idea that the business listened to and understood the customer’s needs, creatively translated the customer’s signal into an innovation, and is humbly offering it for customer evaluation. A value proposition is an exquisite act of design and a persuasive act of communication, a promise that entices and a promise that is kept. Value propositions are creative art and delivery science, offered with the humility of hoping to get it right while ever-willing to improve.
Learning – value is a process, a learning process. For the customer, it’s the process of identifying, selecting, purchasing, using, experiencing and evaluating. The customer can’t know exactly what the experience will be in advance. They learn, and they evaluate by comparing actual with expected value. Similarly, the business making the value proposition is learning, too. They learned enough about needs to make a responsive design, and they subsequently learn from the customer’s evaluation of their experience how accurate the design turned out to be, and how to improve it if it’s off-target in any way. Learning is accomplished through open recursive feedback loops from the customer to the business. Value geeks welcome feedback and seek it out at every point in the process because they love to learn. Learning is fuel for value.
Empathy, creativity, value propositions, learning. These are the 4 guiding principles for that make up the value geek way.