Tim Cook’s views on collaboration

Jay Yarrow from BI’s transcription for Tim Cook’s 2013 commencement speech at Duke:


What qualities do you look for in terms of what you think will produce effective collaboration?And what’s your role as CEO in fostering that kind of collaboration?

You look for people that are not political. People that are not bureaucrats. People that can privately celebrate the achievement, but not care if their name that is in the one in the lights. There are greater reasons to do things.

You look for wicked smart people. You look for people who appreciate different points of view. People who care enough that they have an idea at 11 at night and they want to call and talk to you about it. Because they’re so excited about it, they want to push the idea further. And that they believe that somebody can help them push the idea another step instead of them doing everything themselves.

I’ve never met anyone in my life, maybe they exist, that could do something so incredible by themselves in companies with global footprints. In our world, in Apple’s world, the reason Apple is special is we focus on hardware, software, and services. And the magic happens where those three come together.

And so, it’s unlikely that somebody that’s focused on one of those in and of itself can come up with magic and so you want people collaborating in such a way so you can produce these things that can’t be produced otherwise. And you want people to believe in that.

Coagmento saves the day!

Practice what you preach. And I do! Lori and I have been using Coagmento for our wedding planning and it’s already coming handy. The other day we were somewhere in the western NC and it occurred to us that Lori had looked up some place around there as possible venues for our wedding. Neither of us remembered what they were. I had my iPhone with me and we could search again, but Lori couldn’t even remember what searches she had done to find those places.

Enter Coagmento! I went to Coagmento site on my iPhone, logged in and there – all the searches that Lori had done and the websites she had seen or bookmarked! We could instantly reuse those websites and searches. Thus, Coagmento helped us do multi-session collaborative exploration.

Coagmento for wedding

These days I’m all about taking Coagmento, my collaborative information seeking, synthesis, and sense-making system, out in the open water! Anyone who has done a large-scale user study for months knows how nice it is to get out!

So my recent adventure with this “field trip” is using Coagmento for our wedding planning! Yes, I introduced my fiance Lori to Coagmento (she has probably heard more than enough so far anyway), and now we both are collaborating on our wedding using Coagmento. I’ll post later about how it turns out!

Ballroom class

I teach ballroom dancing at UNC Chapel Hill, among other places. At UNC, these classes are mostly for the students (mainly undergraduates). Yesterday when I was teaching our usual weekly class, I tried something that I haven’t done for a while. I was teaching my students about good dance frame. I gave them some basic idea, but then instead of going on and on talking about it and letting them try as we typically do, I let them all fix each other. I made half the people get in their frames and asked the other half to observe and correct them as needed. Then we switched the roles. Surprisingly, every time we did this, the “fixers” could fix those trying their dance frame in almost perfect positions.

In other words, letting an expert (in this case, myself) go around and fixing everyone, letting a group of novice participants worked much more effectively!

Halo effect

iPod first generation When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, he knew it would take a lot of efforts to rebuild the image that the company had lost while he was gone. Introduction of iMac helped quite a bit, but it was not until the release of iPod when things started looking up for Apple. iPod, as we now know, changed the entire music industry forever. But more than that, iPod changed the very notion of intractability and usability. The huge success and wide adoption of iTunes and iPod interfaces inspired Apple to incorporate them into their other products too. In fact, iPod became a statement of products coming out of Apple because people thought if this company can make something as great as iPod, they must do other things also that great. This phenomena is often referred to as the Halo Effect.

Wikipedia notes, “The halo effect refers to a cognitive bias whereby the perception of a particular trait is influenced by the perception of the former traits in a sequence of interpretations.”. In the late 1920s a researcher named Edward Thorndike found that when army officers were asked to rate their charges in terms of intelligence, physique, leadership and character, there was a high cross-correlation. This means no good-looking person was rated dumb. People seem not to think of other individuals in mixed terms; instead we seem to see each person as roughly good or roughly bad across all categories of measurement.

The concept of halo effect complements the idea of social proof. As I noted earlier, social proof says that if a group of people doing something similar, there is a good reason that’s a good idea. Halo effect, on the other hand, states that if one person possesses a good quality, he may also have other good qualities.

The art of imitation

As mortal entities with a limited life-span and intellectual capabilities, we are bound by the cognitive limits that the nature has imposed on us. We can’t do everything or solve every problem that we encounter just by ourselves. Therefore, over the period of our evolution, among other things, we developed an ability to imitate something or someone instead of “reinventing the wheel”. However, we don’t copy just anything. In order to make imitation work, it has to be beneficial in the long run.

Nature is full of such examples. Take for instance, Monarch butterfly. It’s poisonous and so the predators won’t risk to have a bite of this butterfly. Some other butterflies have learned this fact over the period of their evolution. Viceroy butterflies are not poisonous, but they have learned that having the looks of Monarch butterfly is life-saver and so, they imitate Viceroy’s colors and patterns. See for yourself in the following pictures how similar both the butterflies look, but one can be a good snack, and the other a death-trap!

Viceroy butterfly Monarch butterfly
Viceroy butterfly Monarch butterfly

Social proof

We are social creatures. A lot that we do and think is influenced by what the society, or the people around us do. A common realization of this can be found in the concept of conformity; we often seek to get a confirmation of some decision that we have already made. Doing so gives us an assurance that our decision is actually good. Think about all those time when you took your friend shopping with you just so that you can get her seal of approval on that new dress you were going to buy.

There is another form in which before-mentioned social behavior is exhibited. To understand this, let’s talk about a study that Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowit did in 1968 in New York City. They put a man at the corner of a busy street looking up. A few of the passersby stopped to look up what he was looking at, and most kept moving. Then Milgram et al. put 2 people looking up, and then 3, 5 10, and 15. As they increased the number of “crowd” people looking up, more and more passersby stopped and looked up. These “subjects” were not looking for a confirmation; they were merely following the collective decision of a crowd.

Joshua Bell A more recent example can be found in a story published in Washington Post, who convinced Joshua Bell, a famous violin virtuoso to play in the Washington DC subway during the morning rush hour. So he took his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin and played. Almost no one noticed or stopped to listen. He collected a total of $32 for an hour of playing (not counting a $20 bill that was given by a person who recognized him). The commuters judged the famous violinist not by his performance, but how the rest of the crowd was reacting to him.

If lots of people are doing something or believe in something, there must be a good reason why. This idea is called social proof or informational social influence, or bandwagon effect.

Wikipedia defines social proof as a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.

If we look around carefully, we can find the realization of social proof almost everywhere. Why do companies distribute free stuff (also called SWAG) at job fair? Why do some items are over-priced? Why does a man take a picture with a group of attractive women and upload it show it to everyone? The answers to all of these and many more questions can be provided with explanations involving social proof.

Galton and the wisdom of crowd

Francis Galton Sir Francis Galton was not one of those who believed in the wisdom of crowds. Instead, he was convinced that the world was falling apart because there were too many idiots who have a say in its functioning. If only all the power could be given to a select few, he thought, things could be much better. His opinions mattered. After all [source: Wikipedia], he had produced over 340 papers and books throughout his lifetime. He also created the statistical concept of correlation and widely promoted regression toward the mean. He was the first to apply statistical methods to the study of human differences and inheritance of intelligence, and introduced the use of questionnaires and surveys for collecting data on human communities, which he needed for genealogical and biographical works and for his anthropometric studies. And did I mention that he was Darwin’s cousin?!

Anyway, one day in early 20th century this brilliant scientist, who was well in his 80s, went to a country fair fair close to his town in England. There he saw a guessing game, which we get to see even in these days at state/country fairs. The point was to guess the correct weight of an ox. Nearly 800 people gave their guesses. Galton collected these guesses once the “competition” was over and analyzed this data trying to measure several parameters. It almost shocked him when he averaged the guesses. The average was 1197 pounds. The correct weight of the ox was 1198 pounds! The “best” guess was far off from this number. This was not what Galton had expected. He thought since the crowd was likely to have a few smart, some dumb, and many dumber people, the average of their cumulative “intelligence” would be bad. But this wasn’t the case here. The crowd, as an entity, turned out much more “intelligent” than even the “smartest” person in that crowd.

Moral of the story: never underestimate the wisdom of crowd!

This story is inspired by the one given in The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.