Author Talks: Andrew McAfee on how a ‘geek’ mindset can transform your business

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and cofounder and codirector of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, about his new book, The Geek Way: The Radical Mindset that Drives Extraordinary Results (Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group, November 2023). McAfee shares how unconventional approaches to project management and leadership can boost efficiency and create value. (Also, test how receptive to new ideas your organization is by taking a short survey—see sidebar, "How open is your company?") An edited version of the conversation follows.

You seem to use ‘geek’ as both a noun and an adjective.

My book is entitled The Geek Way. It brings up the question, “What do you mean by geek?” That word originally meant a young person who was way too into computers, and that certainly applies in my case. Luckily, as I have grown up, the definition of that word has broadened. I now think it means two things. First of all, it means somebody who’s willing to go deep, somebody who gets obsessed with a hard problem and just wants to wrestle with it. Those people are very tenacious about the problem or the situation that captivates them.

Second of all, if their solutions to the hard problem they’re working on are unconventional, that’s OK. Geeks are not bound by the mainstream. They’re not incredibly fond of the status quo. They are willing to be unconventional. So my shorthand for a geek is two words: obsessive maverick. In The Geek Way, I use geek as a noun, and I’m particularly referring to the business geeks—the people who got obsessed with the hard problem of running a company over a long period of time. But I also use geek as an adjective to describe the companies and the practices that they have come up with.

Why is this book relevant now?

The reason I wrote The Geek Way is because I noticed something really strange and really fascinating happening in the economy. One way to think about that is to realize that one-third of all the market cap creation, all the value creation in publicly traded companies over the course of the 21st century, has come from companies founded or headquartered in Northern California, in Silicon Valley.

That is a tiny, tiny piece of real estate to be responsible for one-third of all the public-company value creation in the 21st century in the United States. But I actually don’t love the label “Silicon Valley” for what’s going on. That’s a geographic label. What has happened is that the companies concentrated there found themselves in this very uncertain, technologically sophisticated, fast-changing environment and had to reinvent themselves. The model, the playbook that we came up with over the course of the 20th century and the industrial era just doesn’t work very well in a superdynamic environment with all the change and uncertainty that is happening.

And the geeks realized this. Whether or not they started out as organizational innovators, they wound up that way because they wanted their companies to be successful. So I’m using the label “geek” instead of the labels “tech” or “Silicon Valley” to talk about this phenomenon of coming up with a better way to run a company in any kind of technologically rich environment. These days, that’s every environment all around the world.

You say that The Geek Way is not about a suite of technologies, or even strategic thinking, but about norms.

The reason why The Geek Way focuses on aspects of a company’s culture is because I came to believe that in industry after industry, it’s not the technology tool kit that separates really high-performing companies from the also-rans. It’s not like Silicon Valley has all the patents on AI and they’re not sharing them with the rest of the economy. It’s not like they’re the only ones who understand platform business models or the power of big data. Every management team I talk to understands that.

Yet the companies that can succeed with exploiting the technology tool kit are pretty concentrated. They tend to come from one pretty small region in the country. They tend to center in a few industries, although that’s changing very rapidly. So my story about what is separating the companies that can harness all these amazing technologies from the also-rans is not a technology-based story. It’s a story based on the kinds of practices, the kinds of norms in place in a company that allow it to profit from whatever new technology comes along.

One of my conclusions is that the technology tool kit is going to continue to expand and change and surprise us in the years going forward. Because the geeks have figured out how to build a company that can accept wave after wave of technology and harness it, the geeks are going to continue to pull ahead from the competition as the technology tool kit expands and becomes more powerful.

You begin with science as one of the norms.

I came to the conclusion that the old saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is true. Also, culture eats investment for breakfast. Most of the leadership teams I talk to are very willing to get out their checkbook and spend real money to try to bring in powerful new technologies and harness them for their purposes. The number of companies, the percentage of companies that can succeed with that is very small. I wanted to understand what makes those companies, “geek companies,” so successful at incorporating technology after technology.

My solution revolves in part around the norm of science. If you ever want to have an argument with a room full of overeducated people, just ask them what science is. Ask them what the scientific method is and just watch the debate for the rest of the night. I love a very simple explanation of what the scientific method is. It’s a constant, ongoing argument. Science is an argument about the nature of reality, about the nature of the universe.

That argument has a ground rule. The person who wins the argument is not the person higher on the org chart. It’s not the person with the Nobel Prize or with charisma or the glittering track record. It’s the person who brings receipts. It’s the person who brings evidence that can separate between belief A and belief B. So, to me, the norm of science is just a community that has come together to agree on how they’re going to resolve their arguments. They’re going to resolve them with evidence.

That norm of evidence-based arguments can be brought into any company and put to work right away. We have to make a decision about what we are going to do next, how the future is going to unfold, how we are going to make this tough decision. Again, are we going to rely on charisma or who’s at the top on the org chart or who’s getting paid a very high hourly rate? People do that. Companies do that. What the geeks do, what the geeks embrace is saying, “Where does the evidence take us?” and following the evidence.

Then there is the notion of ownership.

Another norm that the geeks are passionate about is ownership. That sounds like a bumper sticker. Who doesn’t believe in a culture of empowerment and ownership? Yet why are these cultures so rare? That’s a question that I wrestled with as I was researching the book. I looked at myself. My career as a business academic is long enough to remember back in the late years of the 20th century, when we were obsessed with business process reengineering and cross-functional communication and collaboration and coordination. We were obsessed with all these words that implied that one of the important things you need to do when running a business is to make sure that everybody’s talking appropriately and that we’ve got very thorough processes to handle everything.

The geeks say no to that, or they say, “What’s the minimum amount that we absolutely need? Then, let’s actually stop all the coordination, all the communication, all the cross-functional work. Let’s try to build a modular organization where small, empowered teams have the freedom and all the resources they need to go do their work, and they’re not expected to sit around collaborating, communicating, coordinating, engaging in processes together.”

Build a modular organization where small, empowered teams have the freedom and all the resources they need to go do their work, and they’re not expected to sit around collaborating, communicating, coordinating, engaging in processes together.

The deep reason that the norm of ownership works so well is that what we human beings do—if we’re left alone—is go create something out there in the world. Unfortunately, because we love status so much and we love to be involved, we wind up creating ever more elaborate bureaucracies.

I think that’s the default that we should expect, unless we deliberately try to trim that back and make sure it never has a chance to latch onto an organization and slow it down. The geeks are passionate about ownership not just because it gives people a better feeling, which it does, but because it eliminates one of the most constant and pernicious dysfunctions in an organization, which is this tendency toward bureaucracy and toward slowing everything down. The geeks are desperate to avoid that. They want to remain lean, fast-moving, agile, and empowered. By and large, they succeed at that.

The third norm, speed, is not a new concept.

One of the other great geek norms is speed. But speed here doesn’t mean velocity. It’s not how fast you’re trying to get to the finish line. It’s not just setting a very tight, aggressive schedule for a project and then working really hard to get there. That’s kind of what we advocated for during the industrial era.

The geeks have come up with something different. When the geeks say “speed,” what they mean is speed of iteration. How quickly can you build something, get it out there to a customer, test it with nature, get valid useful feedback on that, and then do it again? What’s your cadence? What’s your clock speed? What’s your pace of iteration?

When the geeks say ‘speed,’ what they mean is speed of iteration. How quickly can you build something, get it out there to a customer, test it with nature, get valid useful feedback on that, and then do it again?

The mania for speed, I believe, was born one winter weekend when a bunch of frustrated computer programmers went to a ski resort in Utah and tried to reimagine how software was written, because software was written in this very monolithic, planning-heavy way. It’s called the waterfall method, and it made everybody miserable.

These geeks were unhappy with that. They got together and they brainstormed. They said, “You know what? What we need to do instead is write software in exactly this fashion—this iterative, fast-feedback fashion. We’re going to learn quicker that way.”

At least as important, if you have to get feedback then you have to show your work, and you have to involve a customer, or you have to get feedback from reality. That really limits the number of places there are in a big, complicated project for a lack of progress to continue or for bad results to hide. So the geek brilliance in emphasizing iteration and cadence and feedback is that it helps us human beings learn much more quickly. It also reduces the many, many places to hide that you find in most big, complicated efforts.

And the fourth one is openness.

The final great geek norm that I talk about in the book is openness. Again, that sounds like a bumper sticker. It sounds like something you see on the motivational posters inside a company. Let me talk about openness in terms of its opposite.

The opposite of openness is defensiveness. Now, we’re talking about a word that seems a little more negative. I want to go even further. If you have a set of practices inside your company that are based around winning all the time, that are based around taking control of a tough situation and assuming responsibility and driving for results and notching victories, those things actually sound pretty good.

We emphasize these practices when we teach how to run a business. They get you into trouble, because a mania on control means never being willing to give up control. A mania on winning means never being willing to pivot or being extremely reluctant to admit that the idea that you came up with is not the best one and that the organization needs to do something different.

If you’re not very careful, when you emphasize winning, being in control, taking authority, and charging ahead, you wind up with a situation where people dig in their heels and refuse to budge. You wind up with an inherently defensive organization that is great at ignoring reality.

When I talk about the great geek norm of openness, I’m talking about the opposite of that. I’m referring not to trying to fail but to being willing to tolerate failures, pivots, changes in direction, challenges to what you’re doing, and redirections in the organization.

One way to think about the difference is that if you are defensive, you’re obsessed with being right. If you are open, you’re obsessed with getting it right. That might mean that you yourself were wrong or that your idea didn’t work out. But as long as you’re helping the organization get it right and get it more right over time, then you’re participating in openness instead of defensiveness [see sidebar, “How open is your company?”].

Can the geek way also apply to setting goals themselves?

One of the things that I’ve noticed about a lot of the geek companies that I’ve learned from is that they have really lofty, very ambitious missions. “We’re going to make humanity an interplanetary species.” “We’re going to organize all the world’s information.” “We’re going to increase the GDP of the internet.”

These are great. But I also notice that nongeek companies also have really lofty mission statements—about improving human health or accomplishing the energy transition and taking better care of the planet. So I don’t think the loftiness of the mission statement is what differentiates the geeks from the nongeek companies.

Instead, what differentiates them is if a company is acting in ways that are counter to its stated principles. Do its people feel comfortable speaking up about it? Can you feel like you’re OK to speak truth to power in an organization? Do you have that kind of psychological safety where you can call BS on what’s happening in your own company? In a lot of companies I’ve been familiar with, that’s absolutely not the case. People learn pretty quickly to keep their mouths shut.

Geek companies are inherently more “mouthy.” They are more egalitarian when it comes to the mission and the goals of the company. Also, even though geeks believe very strongly in a norm of ownership, of giving authority, of pushing down responsibility—sometimes to uncomfortable levels—and of building these modular organizations, they’re also obsessed with making sure that everyone throughout the company, on all levels, knows how what they’re doing fits into the broad goals of the company.

Geek companies hate bureaucracy, but the ones I know of have an alignment bureaucracy where they say, “OK, once or twice a year, we’re going to make sure that everybody knows how their work lines up with the goals of the company, and we’re going to reassess what we’re doing and how it fits into the goals.”

If you can combine those things, if your people help you stay on track by speaking truth to power and by feeling like they have psychological safety, and if you build an aligned organization, those are two very powerful ways to accomplish big things in the world.

Say more about this idea of how most big companies end up having Liar’s Clubs.

A while back, a couple of colleagues tried to understand what was at the root of a common and disappointing phenomenon: that most big company efforts are late. They’re late in a very strange way. Things seem to be going fine for approximately 90 percent of the original timeline. Then we discover that something’s really not where it should be, and the project gets delayed—not by 10 to 20 percent but by 100 percent, 200 percent.

This is a very common pattern. It actually has a name: the 90 percent syndrome. So my colleagues decided to try to understand what was at the heart of the 90 percent syndrome. They conducted research and interviews. The title of their paper comes from an interview that they did with someone who was part of a large project.1 They said, “OK, great. Tell us about the Monday morning status meeting for all the project unit heads.”

The interviewee said, “Oh, you mean the Liar’s Club.”

My colleagues said, “What are you talking about?”

Then he said, “Well, look we’re gonna go into that room on Monday morning, and my portion of the project is a little bit late—somewhat late. I know that everybody else’s portion of the project is also somewhere behind schedule, but we’re all gonna get in there on Monday morning and say that we are on time. The person running the project can’t observe whether or not we’re on time. We’ve got low observability.

“And I’m smart enough, I have enough of an understanding of game theory to know that as long as I am not the first person whose lateness gets found out, then I’m gonna get all the extra time that the project needs to make up for that one person’s tardiness. I also get that extra time.”

So there’s an unpleasant game that gets played in a lot of organizations called the Liar’s Club. It leads to the 90 percent syndrome. But one thing I want to make clear is that the most common person we lie to is not the boss on the project, and it is not our colleagues. We lie to ourselves. We are chronically overconfident. We humans are chronically overconfident about almost everything, including whether or not we’re on time and whether or not we’ll be able to make up lost time if we find ourselves falling behind.

So it sounds like the Liar’s Club is just full of people lying to their peers and their bosses. By far, the more common phenomenon is that people walk around lying to themselves. As a result, we get this 90 percent syndrome. We get this really common phenomenon of bad, unpleasant surprises.

To drive that phenomenon out, the geeks deal with that low observability. They design projects in an agile, fast-feedback, fast-iteration way so that you get feedback about how everybody’s doing very rapidly, on a fast cadence, in a way that’s visible to everybody. The genius of the geek approach and the great geek norm of speed is that it disbands the Liar’s Club.

Do you think in time, the geek way can become how companies run things?

I think the geek way is simultaneously very easy to adopt and extremely difficult. It’s really easy because the geek way is not differential equations or matrix algebra. It’s not PhD-level computer science. You don’t need to have a 150 IQ to understand the norms that make up the geek way. They’re actually quite simple.

One thing that gives me optimism is that when you see the geek way laid out, I hope it makes a ton of sense. That’s why I wrote the book. The reason it’s difficult is that many aspects of the geek way run counter to human nature. In other words, the geek way is about dealing with human overconfidence and about having your overconfidence called out and exposed, which, generally, people do not like. We would rather sit around and listen to how brilliant we are than do the hard work of having to demonstrate it to everybody else. When we fall behind schedule, we would rather tell ourselves and tell everyone else that things are fine and we’ll make up the time. We do not like having our tardiness exposed to the world. So overconfidence will get us into trouble.

Maybe even more fundamentally, we human beings crave status. We’re the most social species on the planet. And social animals like status for very easy-to-understand reasons. If our drive for status gets misaligned with the goals of the organization, then we wind up with bureaucracy, turf wars, political infighting, and all these very common organizational dysfunctions that we see.

If our drive for status gets misaligned with the goals of the organization, then we wind up with bureaucracy, turf wars, political infighting, and all these very common organizational dysfunctions that we see.

It’s possible to fight back against them. But because they’re so deep rooted, you have to keep fighting, and you can’t take your eye off them. Otherwise, you’ll look up, and you will have factionalized companies. You’ll have more and more bureaucracy, things will slow down, and you’ll just see the chronic dysfunctions come back.

I hope the geek way is pretty easy to understand and describe. It’s relatively easy to start heading in that direction. But what I’ve observed is that you have to be vigilant and keep fighting for the great geek norms of science, ownership, speed, and openness.

The final reason for my confidence is that in competitive environments, the better way wins out over time. If you are slower moving, less innovative, and less agile, and a competitor who is better at all those traits comes to your industry, you are going to be in trouble eventually. The geek way is going to spread, especially in contested environments, because there, the better way tends to win out. The geek way is a better way.

What surprised you as you were researching this book?

One of the things that surprised me most is that there is a science that helps us understand why the geek way works as well as it does. I was trying to understand why these companies, concentrated in one very small piece of real estate in America, were taking over so many industries, and it was a head-scratcher until I came across a discipline that goes by various names. The name that I prefer is cultural evolution, which looks at us human beings as a separate species. It pokes at us as you would poke at a new animal species that you find.

It asks a fascinating question, “Why are human beings the only species on the planet that launches spaceships?” We are. Nothing else is going to come close. We don’t expect chimpanzees, octopuses, ants, or bees to launch spaceships anytime soon, even though they’re social animals. So what are we doing that’s so special? Cultural evolution teaches us that we human beings have two superpowers. We cooperate intensely with large numbers of people who we’re not related to. And we learn faster than anything else on the planet.

Cultural evolution teaches us that we human beings have two superpowers. We cooperate intensely with large numbers of people who we’re not related to. And we learn faster than anything else on the planet.

That was a bit of a eureka moment, because what else is a company supposed to do except evolve its culture faster? When you talk about innovating, becoming more agile, or improving efficiency, those are just different flavors of cultural evolution.

Now that we have this scientific discipline that lets us understand how we human beings are able to evolve our cultures, we can grab insights and findings from that discipline to make that evolution faster and to make sure that it’s going in the direction that we, as the people in charge of the organization, want. So we can borrow ideas to engage in aligned or directed and very fast cultural evolution. That’s shorthand for what the geeks are figuring out how to do.

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