Farson, Richard

Coauthor with Ralph Keyes of Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins: The Paradox of Innovation.

Richard Farson has led several organizations noted for innovative programs. Farson helped found the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in 1958 and remains its president. In this capacity, he directs its International Leadership Forum, an Internet-based think tank that brings influential leaders together to consider critical policy issues. A University of Chicago Ph.D. in psychology, Farson has been a naval officer, college dean, research director, organizational consultant, and a Fellow of the Harvard Business School's Human Relations Faculty. He is the author of several books, including the critically acclaimed bestseller Management of the Absurd, now published in 11 languages. Farson lives in La Jolla, California.

tompeters.com asks …

Can you talk a little bit about your background? It seems quite diverse.

RF: I suppose it looks a little like a hodge-podge, but it always seemed a natural development for me. If you start, as I did, being a person interested in individual psychotherapy, you eventually come to see that dealing with individuals-while it’s fascinating and definitely a worthwhile way to spend your time-is not as effective as dealing with constellations of people. So you begin studying families and workgroups. Then you realize that these groups are all embedded in organizations, in cultures, in neighborhoods, in all kinds of arrangements where you need to understand even more encompassing networks. Soon you’re studying organizations, then communities, then even larger systems.

Eventually, you begin to see that there’s a blurred line between the world of human experience and the world of physical things. The physical arrangements in which people find themselves are quite determining. For example, there’s a big difference between a conversation held at a long, rectangular table and one held at a round table. The same participants, the same time, the same agenda, but the discussions are completely different.

Nobody smokes in church. It doesn’t make any difference how serious your habit is. The situation is overwhelmingly determining. Boot camp is the same way.

It was a natural development for me to take environmental design very seriously, and I eventually became dean of a school of environmental design. I know that that may sound strange, but only to people outside the design world. Designers think it makes all kinds of sense to have a psychologist as a dean of a school of design. But other people think, well, what is that? That seems absurd. But not to designers. They want to work with psychologists, and we need to work with designers. The future requires that marriage.

I became interested in behavioral science generally and, of course, in the other disciplines besides psychology that people break this field down into: sociology, anthropology, economics, political science and philosophy. That’s what we tried to do at our institute. We wanted a truly interdisciplinary institute, and that’s what we built, the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute.

It’s gone through several iterations, or maybe we should call them incarnations. Today, it’s largely a virtual organization, but in the early days it was an entirely residential one, and we worked on many different issues.

You consulted to organizations on environmental design? I’ve read that you conducted a study of convenience stores that helped reduce crime at those locations.

RF: Yes, we did. We didn’t start that way. WBSI began with an interest in the processes of leadership in small groups, and we did a number of studies of social power and of group therapy. We were always interested in trying to figure out how to extend the considerable benefits of participation in small groups to larger numbers of people. That led us to use mass media to stimulate such groups. One documentary film we made in that effort earned us an Oscar.

Then we began to look at policy issues, and conducted research on poverty, race relations, family life, education, deterrence strategies in international relations, and on the prevention of crime and violence. We did actually reduce the number of robberies in the chain of convenience stores we studied by 40 percent, which is quite a remarkable achievement. It was not the money lost in the robberies that the corporate executives were concerned about; it was the potential for violence. We were quite successful in this effort, largely because on our staff at that time we employed a number of well-trained ex-convicts, several of whom had been armed robbers, to help conduct the study.

In the eighties we became interested in the fact that leadership requirements had changed dramatically in the past few decades: the things leaders needed to know simply weren’t being taught in the business schools. We saw the need for top leaders to understand more about the larger context in which their decisions were embedded, say in globalization or environmental management and so forth, subjects they hadn’t been alerted to in their earlier years. We created a school for senior executives, accomplished mainly by means of computer communications. This was long before the Internet-this was in ’81. It turned out to be the first program ever offered in online distance education. We broke ground in a lot of different areas, and were considered quite forward looking. An independent institute can take risks like that, unlike universities.

I always was happy that we had such an institute. Now that the Internet has grown, we’re again using it to form a think tank made up of highly influential leaders that are connected via the Internet into what we call the International Leadership Forum. We are assembling these top people who otherwise don’t have an opportunity to get involved in intensive deliberations with each other on the great issues of our time.

It’s a very different kind of business we’re in now. It’s all done virtually. If you were putting a think tank together now, you wouldn’t try to get all the people to come and live in one city. You’d do it globally. That’s what we’ve done.

That’s impressive. Now about your book. I want to leap in with the title, which is Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins. I’m curious about the use of the word “Wins” in the title since you seem to exhort the reader to forego thinking about life in terms of winning and losing.

RF: My coauthor, Ralph Keyes, and I used it because we were taken with a quote from P.E. “Piggy” Lambert, who is a legendary coach at Purdue. He was John Wooden’s coach. Wooden is the famous UCLA basketball coach who won 10 national championships. One day Lambert called him over and said, ‘John, remember that the team that makes the most mistakes is probably going to win.’ As you know, that’s exactly the opposite of what sportscasters say, when they are announcing games.

What he meant, of course, was that they’re going to be the doers. They’re going to try more, they’re going to risk more. They’re going to shoot more baskets. John Wooden went on to use that philosophy in his coaching throughout his career. We were impressed with that as a kind of paradoxical example of the way in which people have to start thinking about success and failure, terms we think might well be dropped from the lexicon of management.

That again raises the issue of the use of sports analogies in business books. I think of women reading these books and wonder if these analogies mean anything to them. More so now than in the past certainly … but still. Does it make sense to equate a sports team with a work situation? I think a lot of people would say, ‘Well, yeah, but they’re all high-performing athletes.’ Can we really take these examples and apply them to the workplace?

RF: I think there’s a danger in that, yes. I think of them not as examples, but as metaphors. When you raise the question of women, I believe it was women in volleyball, for example, who began to congratulate each other after every point, win or lose. One of the messages in our book is that we’re trying to get people to treat success and failure the same way, to be concerned with engagement rather than with rewards and punishments.

To watch these Olympic volleyball players do hi-fives after every point, just because they made a tremendous effort, is an interesting metaphor for us, I think.

But I agree: People reach for sports examples because most managers are still men, and that’s how you appeal to them. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about sports. For example, Vince Lombardi is remembered for his comment ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’ Well, it turns out, he didn’t actually mean that, and he revised it carefully, in his later pronouncements.

Because sports analogies are used so often in talking about winning and losing, we thought it was important to use other sports stories to put a different slant on some of those myths.

You raised the issue of engagement, which for me is the biggest issue in this book, because you come at it from a couple of different directions. You first mention it with a Bill Russell story about playing basketball and how when everyone was playing really well, both teams going at it, he didn’t really care who won. What mattered was the high level of play.

RF: That’s right. And it isn’t just athletes who feel that way. When any of us gets that deeply absorbed in something, we tend to forget about winning or losing, success or failure.

At another point you talk about engagement with co-workers or employees as a way to support and motivate them. Heaping praise on them was not effective, was not what they were looking for. Can you talk about that because I think this is a huge issue.

RF: It’s the issue, really. You picked up, certainly, on the central point of the book. Our society has so many false ideas about how people are motivated. We have overly emphasized winning and losing, success and failure, offering praise and other extrinsic rewards, conducting performance reviews and evaluations. By and large, those approaches are discredited by researchers who really have looked at the subject. So in the book we are trying to get people to turn away from such empty techniques, change fundamentally their concepts of success and failure, and move toward a posture that holds more promise.

When you deeply get involved with somebody in what they’re trying to accomplish, it turns out that you don’t find yourself thinking in evaluative or judgmental terms. These terms begin to fade. The idea of winning or losing, just as it did for Bill Russell, becomes less important than the quality of the play.

That’s what happens in these marvelously engaging conversations an executive or a manager can have with an employee. The more deeply they become involved in discussing the process of a project, whether or not it’s going well becomes increasingly beside the point.
That happens with parents who are involved with their children; it happens with teachers who are involved with their students. It happens in every deep conversation. The evaluative dimension of it simply disappears.

Well, I have a couple of other questions around that. On the one hand, why is it that this engagement seems to be so lacking in the workplace, and then, isn’t it also true, though, that this real engagement is mentally exhausting?

RF: I wouldn’t agree with your latter point-it can actually be energizing. It’s almost always energizing to find that you really understand someone. I do agree with the former point you made, that it is certainly rare. Perhaps rare isn’t the word, but uncommon. We don’t see a lot of that kind of engagement in the workforce. We have every reason to believe, however, that it was very much a part of Edison’s work and Charles Kettering’s work, and a number of the key entrepreneurs and innovators in our history. That seems to be the way in which they operated with their staff: they encouraged a lot of risk-taking, and they accepted a great deal of failure. Kettering even called it the art of failure.

So there are plenty of examples of people who have been able to engage people that way. They were essentially schmoozing with them at those times.

The reason we don’t see much of it is because of the tremendous time pressures these days on executives. Some studies show that they average only about 11 minutes per task, before being called to another.

I thought that was fascinating.

RF: Things just move so fast in the world of executives, that to really sit down with somebody and get engaged with them is very difficult. I was at a memorial service yesterday for the dean of the medical school here at UCSD, [University of California, San Diego] and one of the things they said about him is he would sometimes sit down with a staff member and both would get really lost in conversation. That was regarded as both a strength and a failing, because he would miss appointments and things like that. That involvement, that ability to engage, made him a great man, and a terrific leader, but then it had its downside.

One of the reasons we have performance reviews is because it’s sometimes the only way top management can get their managers to spend time talking to their people. Performance reviews are totally a waste of time as far as productivity is concerned. All the studies show that it doesn’t have any influence on that. But we do them still, I think partly because it’s the only way to ensure that at least there’s one conversation every year with every employee. What we need to do is encourage more deep, but non-judgmental, conversations. Then a lot of other things that managers feel like they have to do would be less important.

Which seems to get back to this schooling mentality, where everybody’s got to get a grade for everything they do.

RF: That’s exactly right. It starts very early. In America now, we’re on a binge of accountability, where everything has to be tested and evaluated. Of course, that’s exactly the wrong direction. It is so counterproductive, but very few people understand that. It’s wrecking education.

We’re in the midst of it here in Massachusetts where they want to have state sponsored standardized tests that every student in the state has to pass in order to graduate from high school. A lot of people are up in arms, but it’s going through, because so many people feel like, well, this is the only way to truly evaluate.

RF: Evaluating seems so sensible. But the fact of the matter is that when people focus on specific tests, they lose sight of the overall picture. Think about it. Students now spend thirteen years in full-time study. At the end of that time, among the fifty-nine percent who don’t drop out, half can’t read, and the rest don’t read. Let alone develop critical thinking and an understanding of subjects that lead to wisdom, to responsible citizenship. This colossal waste of time is what really should be looked at.

But instead we are making sure that everybody endures this humiliating, counterproductive effort at evaluation, which corrupts teachers and students alike. It’s worse than pointless. It’s like homework. It doesn’t have anything to do with learning. It’s just making teachers and students and parents miserable. And we’re doing it in slavish devotion to a false god, and that false god is accountability.

Ambrose Bierce had it right. In his Devil’s Dictionary, published about a century ago, he wrote, “accountability is the mother of caution.” That’s a great line, and exactly right. If you want real innovation, real learning, real achievement and real movement toward high order goals, then stay the hell away from accountability. I know that sounds irrational but that’s the fact of it, that’s the way it works.

There’s a lot of Eastern thought, Zen Buddhism, non-Western thinking that you reference and talk about in this book. How much does that kind of thinking influence your ideas, and how important is embracing those ideas to—I don’t want to use the word success—achieving real engagement with work, with life.

RF: The great contribution that Eastern philosophies can make to our own thinking is that they have little difficulty embracing the co-existence of opposites. That’s because they were very little influenced by Aristotle. He had the idea that things should be categorized; that if something was true, then it couldn’t be not true. He left that mixed legacy, that unfortunate dichotomy, to us Westerners and we honor it to the present day.

So Westerners don’t know quite what to make of it when confronted with a statement like, “every profound truth is also true in its opposite.” Yes, less is more-but less is also less too. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it’s also in the object. The co-existence of its opposite occurs with every profound truth. If we could begin to see that, if we could understand that, then we’d see that winning and losing and success and failure are not just opposites, they’re also similar. There’s nothing quite so similar as opposites. To appreciate that requires a rather important shift in our thinking, and the shift is very much in the direction of Eastern thought.

What have you most recently been engaged with?

RF: I’m busy right now writing another book, and while it uses paradoxes in family life as its basic structure, it also tackles the issue of our unquestioning devotion, in America, to technology, to the belief that we can solve all human affairs with the application of technique and skill. We’ve come to believe, for example, that parenthood should be called “parenting,” which means it’s a technology, a set of skills about how to raise children.

We do this with every field. No field is so intimate that we don’t talk about it or teach about it as a matter of learning techniques and skills. That applies to everything from lovemaking to leadership, to practically every human experience. I believe that is counterproductive. I believe that the translation of everything into skill training has been wrong, not just for families, but for management, too. Leadership, for example, is not a set of skills. It is untrainable. That doesn’t mean that a person can’t be educated in ways that would contribute to their wisdom, vision, courage, optimism and other qualities that are important for leadership. But leadership is not a matter of skill. That’s the difference between training and education. There may be administrative skills, budgeting and planning and activities like that, that can be trained, but I’m talking about human affairs in management. And in that area, education, which is the marriage of experience with important ideas, is more appropriate.

Yes. Maybe people could learn how to listen, for one thing.

RF: Many years ago, Carl Rogers and I wrote an article called Active Listening, which introduced that term into the lexicon of human relations training. That article has been reprinted I don’t know how many dozens of times, and it remains one of the classic articles in that literature.

Even though I think there is little more important or rewarding in human relations than listening, to treat it as a skill is not what I would do now. I wrote that article when I was a graduate student. Now, I would not write the same article, because now I see that the problem is not that people need to be taught how to listen, it’s that there are so many barriers to listening. We need to try to figure out how to remove those barriers.

Well, it seems to me it’s just a matter of learning to take the time. It gets back to that 11 minutes per task for the manager.

RF: Exactly. Something I’ve done rather extensively is to ask people about their bosses. I ask them this question: “If you think back over your experience and your relationship with your boss, can you tell me any particular experiences that you’ve had that you feel were important in the development of that relationship?” They will start off telling me general stuff such as he’s always been fair to me, or he’s listened, whatever. But I try to get them to be specific about an incident. It is almost always an incident in which there is a break from the way that person ordinarily operates. That is, it’s a moment in which some genuineness, some vulnerability, appears.

I remember one secretary said she had been painting her kitchen and had a bit of paint in her hair, and she went in to take dictation from her very distinguished boss, a formal kind of guy who was just all business all the time. You get the impression he was a little stuffy. But he kidded her about the paint in her hair. Here she had been his secretary for many years, and that was her most significant, most memorable moment with him. It mattered because it was such a departure from the way he ordinarily was. It revealed some dimension of him which she didn’t even know was there.

So you risk becoming vulnerable when you get involved with people away from the ordinary formalities, but it can be the most rewarding experience for the people you work with.

Is there something that you were scared to try to do in your life?

RF: There are many, I guess. There is always the terror that comes from putting yourself out to the public. Lawrence Olivier threw up before every performance. Every performance. That happens to a lot of sports figures, too. And it happens to writers. Being a writer myself, I can tell you that when you think of something you have written going into publication, it can be frightening indeed. There are a great many moments of sheer terror, in which you’re sure what you’ve written is worthless, and you are scared to death of putting it out there, showing it to somebody.

My coauthor, Ralph Keyes, has written a wonderful book, called The Courage to Write, and in it he documents how even the very top writers have always had great anxiety about putting their words to paper. The creative act is both an arrogant and a deeply humbling act. You’re putting something out there, asking people to look at what you’ve done. It’s an excruciating situation to make yourself that vulnerable. You’re taking a risk, and that’s always scary.

I’ve taken stances that I knew would be unpopular. For example, I wrote the first book calling for full constitutional rights for children. I wrote the first article in a national magazine that dealt seriously with the subject of women’s rights. In 1969, when I wrote that article, it was not a popular stance, especially for a man to take. Those were, I think, high risk situations. Starting our distance education program was very high-risk. I had a hard time convincing our board that we should try it. I was really up against it, but it turned out to be a very worthwhile, pioneering experience.

I also think this book is quite revolutionary. When you change somebody’s ideas about success and failure, everything about management changes. Everything you think goes into a different kind of filter.

I think it’s fabulous thinking, and great writing, and I wish more people would hear this. Because I don’t understand this obsession with success that this country has. It’s an illness.

RF: We have the idea that people learn from their own failures and other’s successes, and it’s the other way around really: we learn from others’ failures and our own successes because we are so afraid to look at our own failures. Realizing the importance of failure, and its interdependence with success, is how we came to write that opening piece in the book about the young man who couldn’t get into medical school and then got fired from his job as a lifeguard and got interested in being a school psychologist but then got kicked out of student teaching because he didn’t get along with his supervisors. And on and on. That’s actually my story. But, working with a coauthor, you can’t really write in first person. So we wrote it as if it were about somebody else. But it happened to me.

After Tom Peters read that, he showed me his commencement address for his prep school. Have you ever seen that?


RF: A while ago, I think maybe in the eighties, he gave this commencement address, and he said, ‘Now, here I am, I make such and such an amount when I give a lecture, and I have the most popular book ever in management, and I have this and that. I got great grades in school, and I graduated from Stanford, and on and on. All true, right? Let me tell you another story.

‘When I went to this school I almost didn’t graduate because I’d stolen some sweatshirts from the athletic department, and the police caught me; and then I got into a headlong automobile crash,’ and that led to some other thing he did, which led to a success, and so forth. Tom reported the same kind of personal experiences to that graduating class that I had reported in the beginning of our book.

Well, I know he had picked up on your story, about going from one thing to another, some things not working out but then leading to other things that do. He uses that in some of his seminars.

RF: Really?

To make your point that life isn’t one success after another for anyone.

RF: He’s got that kind of story himself. We all have it. You have it, everybody’s got it. It’s so energizing to hear the truth from people on that. Especially people that you have great respect for. It’s not quite that they show their clay feet. It’s that they become real to you. It doesn’t ultimately help for people to present themselves as better than they are. Professionally, it’s called mystification. When you allow somebody to believe something about yourself that is not quite true, you don’t make their lives better, you make their lives worse. It happens, for example, in parent training. When parents go to a training program and the instructor allows these people to believe that he is skilled in these ways, and that he doesn’t have troubles with his children, the parent trainees unfortunately leave the class learning that. People learn what’s in the meta-message, they learn what’s in the form, in the ritual of the program, not in the content of the program.

So they go home to a crying, hysterical child, and they’re beside themselves, frustrated, frantic, they don’t know what to do. The skills they learned aren’t enough. They think, well, if that instructor were here, he’d know what to do. Or if Dr. Spock were here, or Tom Gordon, whoever your favorite expert is. The fact is those experts didn’t know what to do in raising their children either. I know some of those people, and they aren’t any better parents than I am. But when you feel responsible, and with new skills, you expect to be able to handle your children, but can’t, then you might become abusive.

That’s why it is important for us to de-mystify these experts, and Tom is really good at demystifying himself. I admire that terrifically.

It’s not that we should eliminate mystique completely. Romance, for example, would be very difficult if it didn’t have some elements of mystique to it, and probably the doctor-patient relationship needs some of that too. We all need it, to some degree. But the overwhelming mystification of professional authority in our world is surely counterproductive.

Thank you.


Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins (coauthor)
Management of the Absurd

A complete list of Mr. Farson’s books and publications can be found at his web site: www.wbsi.org/farson

Email: rfarson@wbsi.org