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October 16, 2006

News & Opinion: Resisting Relevance

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 4:49 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Heres a terrific interview with Stanford University professor emeritus James March from the current issue of Harvard Business Review (this article is free online.) March is somewhat of the gurus guru, an intellectual whose work may be little-known but is deeply felt (i.e. he may not be famous but the key thinkers are influenced by him.)
In a fascinating interview concerning the applicability of models to work, the nature of trust, the need for foolishness, and other thoughts on how people think and learn, March shares a range of terrific morsels. He opens his classes by telling his students, I am not now, nor have I ever been, relevant, as a way of signaling them not to seek immediate usefulness from his ideas. If a manager asks an academic consultant what to do and that consultant answers, then the consultant should be fired, he explains. And then he shares thoughts that clearly have lasting impact.
For example, March discusses the hot-stove effectwhereby a cat that jumps on a hot stove will never repeat that mistake, yet will also avoid jumping on all stoves in the future.
The hot-stove effect is a fundamental problem of learning, he says. Learning reduces your likelihood of repeating things that got you in trouble, as you hope it will. But that means you know less about the domains where youve done poorly than about the domains where youve done well. You might say, Well, why should that cause problems? It causes problems whenever your early experience with an alternative is, for whatever reason, not characteristic of what subsequent experience would be. It clearly causes problems in domains where practice makes a difference. For example, you are likely to abandon an approach or technology prematurely.
There's much much more here. Recommended reading!

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.