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May 10, 2006

Ten Questions with Bob Sutton

In the spirit of anti-bozosity that Pam Slim’s posting recently established, here is an interview with Bob Sutton. Bob is a professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford School of Engineering.

His latest book, co-authored with Jeffrey Pfeffer, is called Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management. It’s a great read for people dealing with a management that’s fascinated with the guru and magical solution du jour. Asking management to read it, however, may be a CLM (career limiting move). :-)

Question: Isn’t your book essentially saying that most bloggers, gurus, authors, and speakers (including me) are full of shiitake?

Answer: Of course 90% of everything is crap. That goes for academic research too. But Hard Facts helps you decide who to believe. Are they claiming that the same old ideas are brand new? Are they claiming to be lone geniuses? Do the claim to have breakthrough ideas? All of us—I plead guilty too—are full of it at times.

I hate to give you a compliment, but while you are funny and have attitude, I’ve never seen you act as if you are a lone genius who has reinvented modern management. You just help people focus on acting on what they already knew. That is what the best gurus do—they do not act like false geniuses.

Question: Do you believe in any gurus, authors, or speakers?

Answer: I like C. K. Prahalad. Note how pompous and overblown Gary Hamel has become without him after they wrote one of the best management books of all time (Competing for the Future). Look at the great work that Prahalad now does by himself.

I also love Larry Prusak, the knowledge management guy. He is smart, well-read, humble, opinionated, and evidence-based. And much better read in academics than any academic I know.

David Kelley of IDEO is the most creative person I’ve ever met–and one of the most caring. His brother, Tom Kelley, author of The Art of Innovation, and now The Ten Faces of Innovation, is simply the best and most inspiring management speaker I’ve ever seen.  These guys aren’t evidence-based in the academic sense, but they both have something that is really the key to practicing evidence management, which Pfeffer and I call (borrowing from philosophy) “the attitude of wisdom.” They both are confident enough to act on what the know and humble enough to learn from what happens to them —and IDEO.

I also like Malcolm Gladwell and Steve Levitt and their models of evidence-based management. Although, I think that Blink is much weaker than The Tipping Point because Gladwell misses that the instant judgments he praises are developed through years of experience. You have to do a lot and think a lot about something before you can do the blink thing.

Finally, a prediction, I think the next big guru, at least if ideas and ability to present them counts, is Chip Heath of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He has a book coming out with his brother called What Sticks about the kinds of ideas that people remember and what persists. It not only is based on sound research, it is also hugely practical (I’ve seen executives get so excited by his stuff that they immediately grab him for gigs). Chip is such a compelling person that when he and Tom Kelley speak, the rest of us gurus and wanna-be gurus lag behind.

Question: Let’s suppose that there appears to be “evidence” for something. Still, how does one differentiate between correlation and causation?

Answer: There is a thing called logic. If you have a controlled experiment, where you change something, as they do at Yahoo! and Harrah’s all the time, that is best. But short of that you can at least make sure that the cause happened before the effect.

That is why I think that the book The War for Talent is such crap. They measured performance that occurred in the years leading up to the talent management practices and then said the talent practices caused the performance improvement. It is like concluding that cancer causes smoking.

Another of my pet peeves is Bain. Bain is a great company, but why do they have to claim “our clients outperform the market 4 to 1.” It is marketing BS. It is more reasonable to claim that, “You need to be rich to afford our services.”

Question: What does a company do when there’s no evidence because it’s trying to “create” a market that doesn’t exist yet?

Answer: Great question. There are two kinds of approaches. One is to look for a market that might want your product that doesn’t have it yet. There is a Stanford grad, Brian Rikuda who started a hip-hop company called Conduit Entertainment. Brian got angel funding for it after the dotcom he was working at went bust. He figured out that there was no Little Rock, Arkansas sound, and it was a decent sized market, so he started there. It was successful because he had no competition and could start his own sound. Now it’s moved to a larger market.

Or you can do all sorts of little experiments. In fact, what it takes to test a market on the web and what is considered valid evidence has changed. John Lilly was CEO and founder of Reactivity, a company that did web design and incubated new companies during the dotcom boom. It’s now an enterprise software company. Lilly recently explained how Reactivity generated ideas for new companies and why the approach they used would never work today. His team generated thirty ideas for new companies to pitch to venture capitalists in thirty days. Each of these “prototypes” was a PowerPoint deck.

The team picked the best one (a blend of email and a web browser), refined it, and eventually raised $90 million to start a defunct company called Zaplet. John is now vice-president of business development and Operations at the Mozilla Corporation. He explains that this approach won’t work now because venture capitalists only fund web-based companies that are already on the web and have already have a proven ability to attract customers.

So during the boom, the prototypes were PowerPoint decks and the associated pitch; now you need prototype products and services that are already bringing in real dollars and real customers. To me, this a move toward better evidence.

Question: How does a company break the hold of a reliance on mistaken beliefs?

Answer: Find people who disagree with you. If you get mad at them, it is a good sign you need to think. Fight as if you right; listen as if you are wrong

Question: What is more dangerous: fear or arrogance?

Answer: They both suck. What you prefer: a poke in the left or the right eye? If you prefer, I’ll take arrogance, at least arrogant people have the courage to act, and in the process, might get served humble pie.

Question: What are the qualities of an effective leader?

Answer: Some one who acts as if he or she is in control, but realizes that they only way to sustain some control is to listen, admit error, and keep learning. Here is a great quote that we have in book from Andy Grove, which demonstrates this attitude of wisdom, the ability to act on your knowledge, while doubting what you know, and on a related point, how pretending you are in control can help you gain control:

“I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly …. And try not to get too depressed in the part of the journey, because there’s a professional responsibility. If you are depressed, you can’t motivate your staff to extraordinary measures. So you have to keep your own spirits up even though you well understand that you don’t know what you’re doing.”

I can’t believe he said it, but it is consistent with the evidence!

Question: What should a person do if she works for a bozo who tries to implement the management fad du jour?

Answer: If you can’t talk them out of it, pretend to do it until the next fad comes along, then pretend to do that, but focus your real effort on what counts. Better yet, quit. Still better yet, start a movement to get him or her fired.

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I love all your comments! One last jab to Morgan. So Bain makes no attempt to show that engaging their services enhances performance. If you read the language under the chart, it is obtuse and contains a sort of "non-claim, claim." It is a pure case of correlation not being causation, but they keep advertisiting it. So what you call a value proposition -- since it is utter nonsense from a logical or statistical perspective -- is pure bullshit until they can establish that their services improve performance. I would add, however, that Bain is the best of the major of consulting firms based on my (biased) knowledge, but smart companies do dumb things -- like making this BS claim!

Interesting interview - My curiosity was particularly piqued by the list of gurus he *does* believe in. You asked a GREAT QUESTION there.

When I dug a bit deeper into one of them - Chip Heath and the book he's writing "What Sticks" - it seemed like a reasonable subtitle for it might be: "Memes for Business - How to Become Viral".

Good stuff! Also along the Evidence-Based thought-train: I'd have loved to sit in on the Stanford d.school ME228 class, "Creating Infectious Action", that they're doing this quarter!

Do you ever poke your head into any of these just to see who and what are cooking, Guy? It sounds right up your alley...


Thanks for this interview Guy. Nice article on the dangers of best practice-itus Anne Marie.

Totally agree that managers need to understand their own unique business problem, and then draw on evidence.

And, consultants need to stop the BS and perpetuation of their favourite best practice myths.

What works is what counts.

Great interview!

PS: The link to Bain is wrong ;)

(feel free to delete my comment after reading this ;)

You left out part of the 1st question:

Question: Isn’t your book essentially saying that most bloggers, gurus, authors, and speakers (including me [i]and you[/i]) are full of shiitake?

That's very funny!


That was great. Sutton is a plain-speaker with good warnings against management fads, gurus and fuzzy thinking, all of which are risks to consider whenever a management idea (like disruption) gains a lot of currency.

But to me, Sutton stands out for a particular hiring-ban which he described in Harvard Business Review's Breakthrough Ideas for 2004:

"I first encountered an explicit rule against them about 15 years ago... Our chairman was leading a discussion about which candidate we should hire. A faculty member proposed that we hire a renowned researcher... (which) prompted another to remark, 'I don’t care if he won the Nobel Prize, I don’t want any assholes ruining our group.' From that moment on, it was completely legitimate for any of us to question a hiring decision on those grounds. And it made the department a better place."

Clear evidence he has lived and worked in the real world.

I believe he is a bit harsh in many cases. I realize this man has written many books while being an educator, but I do not see the real world results based on his bio. I would have some more interest if he had not bashed so many other people.
If 90% of everything is crap then you are surrounded by the wrong people and environment.
I too remember some professors who sounded quite harsh... and yet they are still at the colleges. Why is that?

As long as you have the courage to act on your convictions, a little fear can be a healthy emotion. It can motivate you to pay keen attention to the needs of your markets and customers. It can motivate you to pay close attention to your potential competition. (The old joke is apropos - just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.)

On the other hand, even a little arrogance can blind you to the subtle clues that you are going astray.

As long as there is courage and action, I'll take fear (short of phobia) over arrogance.

He had my attention and agreement right up until the last line:

"Still better yet, start a movement to get him or her fired."

That's terrible advice. Not only would that be a CLM, I think that it's a really poor approach to solving a pervasive problem (bad management).

To senior management, such a "movement" would in most cases be not well-received. Sure they might fire the "bad" manager, but just as sure, you're next.

Why do people think Gladwell "misses that the instant judgments he praises are developed through years of experience?" This seems to be a common criticism of Blink, however, if you read the book, Gladwell clearly talks about developing the ability to thin-slice. Thus, it seems that the point Sutton makes above stems from a misinterpretation of the text.

I love the quote from Grove, "I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly."

There are principles that are true, there are facts also. We use them and act on them. It seems that business management requires using both to pick a direction... and nimble feet if the direction picked was wrong!

I spotted an interview with Bob Sutton some months back, when the book had not been published. Bob is quoted as saying that the book “aims to help managers and the people who consult them identify the best practices, ignore and discard the rest, and trounce the competition”.

Without having read the book, I wrote a reflective little piece about the dangers of indiscriminately copying best practice. Managers need to understand their own unique business problem, and then draw on evidence. I also made the case for taking the long view, especially in my own field of interest (new ways of working and organisational behaviour). If anyone is interested, you can have a read at:


I am off to buy a copy of the book...

I'd love to see the details on Bain's claim - is that performance before or after working with Bain? How does a company's performance change post-Bain engagement? Isn't that the metric that would matter?

Thanks Guy. Great little interview. I love Bob for calling out the shiitake in all of us, admitting he sometimes suffers from it as well. Wisdom and humility combined is the place we are meant to return to, every night before bed. There are industries that attempt to breed this out of your humanity. Financial Services being champions at massaging evidence they do nothing to create. I manufacture apparel. My BS marketing campaign could be: "100% of our customers are wearing clothing!"

Very interesting interview. I also like his no bs approach to things.

I really like the anti-bullshit approach of Bob Sutton. Way too many web-projects has been funded without the slightest grounds in reality.

But, it was fun to be able to get funding for the most stupid ideas back in the good old dot.com bubble days ;)

Thanks for the book recommendation. Based on this interview, I'm going to buy it .... today!

Interesting, albeit blunt, interview. Sutton mentions that Bain's claim that their "clients outperform the market 4 to 1" is one of his pet peeves. Why?

[For completeness: "Our clients have historically outperformed the stock market by 4:1."]

The reason "it's marketing BS" is clearly not evidence-based.

Sutton comes across, minimally, as one of those "marketing is evil" types.

Bain's "claim" is called a value proposition. The message Bain is attempting to send with its value proposition is that if "you" (prospective clients) contract Bain, there's a good chance "you" can outperform the stock market by 4:1 too. Refer to Nirmalya Kumar's book "Marketing as Strategy".

Thanks for the book recommendation.

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