The Idea Trafficker : An Interview with Scott Berkun

December 2, 2011

(Version Française)

Scott Berkun has been one of the main inspirations of #hypertextual ever since this blog has started about 4 years ago.

Each of his books have been reviewed here : The Art of Project Management, The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a public Speaker (FR). They have all shed a bright and new light on the corporate world with a focus on management, innovation and creativity. These could be seen as survival guidelines in Corporatica.

Scott has just self-published his fourth book : Mindfire, Big ideas for Curious Minds the definitive best-of collection of his famous blog. I am delighted the Idea Trafficker (as Scott defines himself in Confessions of a Public Speaker) has accepted to discuss it on #hypertextual :

You used to be project Manager at Microsoft, in charge of Internet Explorer from version 1 to 5 and you decide to quit to write books. What was the trigger for you to take such a bold decision ?

I want to live an interesting life. That’s unlikely to happen if I do the same thing, in the same company, for decade after decade. I decided I’d learn and grow more by trying to do something else for a time, and the more diverse it was from what I’d done previously, the better. I’d always thought about writing a book. I also realized all my thinking about writing had converted to almost zero actual writing. There were always excuses. Therefore, I decided to remove all the excuses and see what happened. I figured the worst that would happen is I’d realize I hated writing and that I’d made a mistake, in which case I’d be thrilled to return to a job I was bored with before. I convinced myself I couldn’t lose.

You wrote an insightful book on project management : Making Things Happen (The Art of Project Management). How would you explain that despite reading good books on project management many managers still don’t do the right things ?

Knowing and doing are different things. There are many great books on parenting or driving, yet many parents and drivers don’t do the right things either. Projects of any kind involve so many different ways to fail and make mistakes. It takes a special kind of person to do well at the many different types of tradeoffs projects require.

You wrote the very famous blog post Why Big Corporations Suck. Is it just that organizations are doomed or is there a chance ? Can organizations be saved ? Is there any way people feel empowered and valued in an organization ?

People should look to their leaders and hold them accountable: it’s leader’s primary job to make the organization awesome. The reasons why CEOs and VPs earn so much more than the average employee is that they are accountable for decisions that affect everyone. If everyone on your team is unhappy, the team manager is accountable. If everyone at a corporation is unhappy, the CEO is accountable.   Better CEOs and VPs do a better job of taking responsibility (See the Lefferts Law of management). They make tough decisions in favor of protecting organizations from the natural problems of decay that develop over time.

In “The Myths of Innovation” you make a bold attack on the romantic vision of innovation. You then propose a more pragmatic description of it pretending it’s nothing but the result of hard work. If it’s so “simple” how would you explain that most organizations fail so miserably to innovate ? 

We are a risk averse species. Very few people enjoy taking risks. That’s the whole story really. We like to pretend otherwise, but very few people are willing to stand up in a meeting and pitch their idea to their co-workers or bosses. Or to quit their jobs and start a company based on their ideas. The people who have a chance at success with ideas can only possibly be the ones who take the risk to invest time and energy in an uncertain idea, as all new ideas are uncertain.

Why did you decide to publish this book independently ? (Scott previous books are published by O’Reilly which is one of the most respected publisher in IT business world)

I want to write books as long as I am alive, and the sooner I learn more about how they are made the better my books will be. I saw self-publishing as the only way to learn everything publishers do, which is good knowledge to have as an author.

What have you learned out of this publishing experience ? What would you do otherwise ? What would you recommend to a fellow writer willing to go down the same road ?

I learned self-publishing is easy. The technologies and services available today are amazing. The hard part is, and always will be, writing the book. But the publishing part anyone can do if they’re willing to do some work.

After Management and Innovation, your third book (Confessions of a Public speaker) addresses another famous failure of people in corporations : communication with presentations. Why are most knowledge workers so dreadful when it comes to present their work or ideas ? 

People mostly want to fit in. If in your corporate culture, the way to give presentations is to be vague, dull and dispassionate, any new employee wanting to do well will follow suit. It’s pure sociology. It takes someone with power and respect showing a better example for others to see there is a better way to go. Employees model much of their behavior on what the leaders in the organization do, despite what many leaders believe.

You’ve joined Automattic and work for WordPress.com. Why have you decided to go back and join an organization ?

I have always hated guru type people who haven’t actually practiced the thing they’re advising others to do (See How to call BS on a Guru). I get asked to speak and write about leadership, management and creativity, and I hadn’t managed a team in many years. It was time to go back and see how much of the advice I’d been giving others I practiced myself.

Hypertextual believes social software can help in making the organizations more efficient, more innovative and empower the employees. From your perspective how relevant these tools are in today’s organizations ? And how can the evangelists for enterprise social software avoid falling into the trap some Social Media evangelists fell into (Calling BS at Social Media)

I believe in people more than tools. If you have smart, good, passionate people, they will find ways to be successful with any tool, or seek out, on their own, the tools they need to be successful. If you have dumb, bad, or unmotivated people, it doesn’t matter what tools you give them, as they’ll always tend to fail. The only way an employee can be empowered is if their boss trusts them enough to give them the resources and autonomy they need, and that can be granted with or without any tool.

Whenever I hear someone say “We can fix the organization with Tool X!”, I frown. Technology alone is almost never the primary problem in any organization. Instead it’s the attitudes and behavior of the people in power, and the culture those attitudes and behavior creates. If changing software is tied to a change in attitude, or tied to key decisions made by leaders that empower people, then the tool can make a difference. But installing new software is dramatically easier to do than making real leadership decisions.

Scott, thank you so much. All the best for the new book !

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3 Responses to “The Idea Trafficker : An Interview with Scott Berkun”

  1. Jean-Michel Says:

    Thanks for this interesting interview !


  2. […] blog hypertextual called him an idea trafficker. We dig that. Idea […]


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