The Tipping Blinkliers

I have no idea whether it’s merited, but Malcolm Gladwell takes a lot of flak.  One review describes Blink as:

a series of loosely connected anecdotes, rich in “human interest” particulars but poor in analysis

There’s an entire book accusing that

His history of fronting for Pharma and Big Tobacco has shown clearly shown that he has no qualms about working for industries that profit off misery, pain and death.

and my favorite blog, Andrew Sullivan, true to his motto of being “Biased and Balanced”, led: Did Malcolm Gladwell Cause The Recession?

Lehman’s president Joe Gregory embraced this notion of going with your gut and deciding quickly, and he passed copies of Blink out on the trading floor. The executives took this class and then hurriedly marched back to their headquarters and proceeded to make the worst snap decisions in the history of financial markets.

For my part, all I know is that:

  • his ketchup theory is a damn good read
  • his name carries heft: Bill Clinton’s reference to the The Tipping Point it up the popcorn social science lit genre; its intellectual heir Nudge sparked a similar round of discussion when it was spied in the reading list of political heir Obama
  • he’s instrumental to my long-term career path in Korea

Of Gladwell’s 3 best-sellers – The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers – the latter is the least interesting, least persuasive, and least influential.  Fortunately, the one story that is compelling is the one about Korea, in the chapter called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes”:

Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. … What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

But Boeing (BAFortune 500) and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren’t as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.

I use the case study of a very famous plane crash in Guam of Korean Air. They’re flying along, and they run into a little bit of trouble, the weather’s bad. The pilot makes an error, and the co-pilot doesn’t correct him. But once Korean Air figured out that their problem was cultural, they fixed it [ by mandating all cockpit communication be in English].

And that’s exactly what my hook is going to be in Seoul: error correction.  From a risk management perspective, the only difference between flying an airplane and designing software is frequency vs. impact of errors – software bugs don’t cost lives (generally), but are much more common.  In both cases, a second set of eyes can identify and fix issues early on before they become much bigger problems — Microsoft calls peer review the #1 most cost effective way to identify and fix bugs.  Insofar as language and hierarchical mindset is an impediment to that, Koreans will be at a long-term disadvantage in developing software.

Insofar as I can position myself on an expert in the latest Agile practices that specifically break down these hierarchical barriers that interfere with error correction, I’ve got half a chance at making a half-decent career for myself in Seoul.


Next post: getting from here to there

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