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Interview by Jason Hreno

An expert on succeeding in the digital economy shares insights from his latest book.

Andrew McAfee


You believe that a whole new approach to running companies has emerged in recent years. Please describe it.

Think about a start-up, but at scale. An archetypal tech startup is an egalitarian band of people on a mission. It’s not terribly hierarchical — people do whatever needs to be done, but they’re all pointed in the same direction. They keep iterating and trying things out to ensure they have the right productmarket fit.

This has always been the typical ‘Silicon Valley way,’ and until recently, the rest of the business world has been saying, ‘That’s fine for tech start-ups, but it wouldn’t work in our industry, or at scale.’ They think this approach is too chaotic and that you have to plan every move really carefully. But what I refer to as ‘the Geek Way’ says to the business world, ‘Actually, our basic vibe and culture is widely applicable and it does scale.’ Now, it doesn’t scale perfectly. You might have to tolerate a bit more chaos and weirdness along the way, but that’s a small price to pay for the benefits of this approach.


How do you define the Geek Way?

The Geek Way is based around four great big ‘geek norms’ — which are expected standards of behaviour. The first one is Science — making decisions based on evidence, not an org chart, a PowerPoint presentation or charisma, but evidence that you can argue about. This entails an inherently grouplevel argumentative process.

The second geek norm is Ownership — or distributed responsibility for accomplishing goals with an explicit focus on not having a ton of bureaucracy. This makes a lot of organizations uncomfortable and sounds like a recipe for chaos. But what the Geeks have figured out is how to minimize chaos, even at scale, by having a very tightly constrained bureaucracy consisting of decentralized autonomous activities that are aligned with the overall goals.

The third geek norm is Speed: plan as little as possible and iterate as quickly as possible. And the reason that works so bizarrely well is that iterating and getting ongoing feedback from the customer turns out to be the best way to accelerate learning.

The final geek norm is Openness—which is the opposite of defensiveness. That means being able to say things like, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re totally right; thanks.’ A fairly close synonym for Openness is psychological safety, which is a concept introduced by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson that is super important.


Describe how the industrial-era ‘Model One mindset’ differs from this approach—and the key risks of continuing to embrace the outdated mindset.

Let me contrast the Geek Way with companies that grew up during the industrial era — the large successful incumbents of the 20th century. Today, here they are in the 21st century confronting the Geeks. Instead of Science, what you find is decision-making by hierarchy, job title, experience, credentials, ego — lots of different things except this inherently argumentative, egalitarian, evidence-based scientific approach. Instead of Speed, the giants have a deep fondness for process, analysis, planning and risk mitigation. That means getting everything right before you ever start dealing with a customer. It’s a completely different approach. A good synonym for it is bureaucracy.

And finally, instead of Ownership, the central idea of Model One is defensiveness. This means clinging to the status quo and holding on to your turf, your headcount, your ideas and defending them tenaciously. The Geeks are legitimately more open, and as a result their organizations can pivot. They embrace the power of saying, ‘Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.’ It’s the opposite of a defensive mindset.


I can’t think of an industry that

won’t be affected by the Geek mindset.


Are there any inherent downsides to The Geek Way?

Absolutely. A couple are fairly obvious. One is chaos. The Geek’s preference for autonomy and decentralization can easily turn chaotic. Another issue can be the commitment to Science. Geeks love to argue, but they don’t always do so in a respectful, compassionate way that builds psychological safety. And with speed, there is always a risk that you will take too many risks. This highly iterative approach and the reduction in the amount of upfront planning sounds great, but if you’re launching a rocket, you do need to think carefully.


Talk a bit about the ultimate Geek ground rule—ultrasociality— and how it fits into all of this.

The ultimate Geek ground rule stems from asking a question: Why are we human beings the only species on the planet that launches spaceships? The octopuses aren’t doing it. The chimpanzees, our closest relatives, aren’t doing it and neither are the ants, bees or wasps. That’s a deep question, and the answer lies in the relatively new science of Cultural Evolution.

We are the only species that comes together in very large groups of unrelated individuals to co-operate intensely and learn very rapidly. Every living thing on the planet experiences biological evolution, but we are the only species (as far as we know) that experiences very rapid cultural evolution. And why is that? It’s because of our ultrasociality as a species.

For the purposes of business, if you want a group to experience rapid cultural innovation, you have to take advantage of and use the right levers to shape its ultra-sociality so that the innovation, productivity and growth happen as fast as possible. Under any circumstances, we humans will come together and be ultra-social. We will create and evolve our culture.


Which industries stand to be most affected by the Geek Way?

I can’t think of an industry that won’t be affected by it. Industries are groups of companies — unrelated individuals who come together to accomplish a goal. To be more agile, innovative and productive, you need to have higher efficiency and execute better. These are all aspects of cultural evolution — so why wouldn’t you want the best tools to shape your organization, no matter what industry you are in?


Organizations with low psychological safety

are miserable places to work.


Describe the approach to innovation in the Geek Way. Are all old-school innovators destined to be, to use a quote used from the book, “caddies at a golf course they’ll never play”?

I love that quote, which comes from Barry Diller. The entertainment legend was describing the plight of Hollywood’s incumbents. Hollywood has been the epicentre of the filmed entertainment industry for a century. It’s very good at what it does, and it’s been doing it for a long time. Waves of technological disruption have come along, but for a long time Hollywood stayed on top. After a century you would think, ‘Wow, this industry is extremely stable.’

Then along comes Netflix, founded by a guy whose first company was software debugging tools. Hard to imagine a bigger outsider to Hollywood. Not sure if your readers are old enough to remember, but Netflix started as an ecommerce site that would ship you DVDs in an envelope. That was the business. And no more than about 25 years into that company’s history, it pivoted to streaming as opposed to mailing DVDs. Then it pivoted to making its own entertainment. When it announced plans to become a production studio, there was this wonderful quote from the head of Time Warner, who said, “It’s a bit like, is the Albanian army going to take over the world? I don’t think so.”

So Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, got some Albanian army dog tags, started wearing them around and got to work. The streaming revolution started, and these new entries have upended Hollywood so thoroughly that Diller says all the old studio heads are now “caddies on a golf course they will never play.” Ouch. They did not see this kind of disruption coming. And this is not the last industry where the incumbents are going to stand back and ask, ‘What the heck happened here? We designed this golf course, we owned it. It was ours. And now, the only way we can get on it is as a caddy?’ We’re definitely going to see more of that.


Looking ahead, what key opportunities does the Geek Way present?

There are two that stand out. The first is the opportunity to accelerate the cultural evolution of your organization. In order to innovate and execute with greater agility and efficiency, there is a much better tool kit available today, and it doesn’t bear much similarity to the one many managers grew up with. So the first big opportunity is to get better faster.

The second opportunity is to create better places for human beings to work. North Americans spend more hours at work than we do asleep — more time than with our partners and just a bit less time than with our children. Organizations with low psychological safety are miserable places to work. Not surprisingly, people don’t love leaders who shoot down their ideas or are unwilling to admit when they’re wrong.

We humans are ultrasocial creatures, so our working lives are extremely important to us. They can provide us with purpose, community, status, dignity, belonging, learning — lots of really important things. One fundamental reason the Geek Way is so valuable is that it is better aligned with how people want to spend their days — and in the long term, their working lives. 

Andrew McAfee is a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Co-founder and Co-director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and the inaugural Visiting Fellow at the Technology and Society organization at Google. His latest book is The Geek Way: The Radical Mindset That Drives Extraordinary Results (Little, Brown and Company, 2023). He and his frequent co-author Erik Brynjolfsson have long been ranked by the Thinkers50 among the world’s most influential management thinkers.

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