Saturday, September 16, 2006

Will winner take all work?

The Winner-Take-All Society is a world in which most of the productive surplus of a society is concentrated in the hands of a few winners -- irregardless of whether they win by virtue, luck, malice, talent or some combination thereof. This is our world.

In our world it is not unusual to see a CEO exercise over $30 million in stock options. That money could have gone to shareholders, or to existing employees, or to customers, or to business partners, or to recruit and retain new talent -- but it went to the winner.

This makes sense if one accepts the notion that the CEO is the company, and that success or failure is determined by the CEO. This is a popular notion; it is widely accepted by a vast array of journalists, consultants, senior executives, writers of best selling business books, the Harvard Business Review and, of course, CEOs.

It might be true. I have no great evidence to the contrary -- but I have doubts. In the world of medicine observational studies are notoriously unreliable and misleading; real data comes from genuine experimentation -- experiments that can't be done in the world of billion dollar corporations. If one believes that modern business is as complex in some ways as living organisms, it's likely we don't have any real evidence to support the belief that the CEO is the company.

There's room for a contrarian opinion -- that companies that do well are the product of hundreds, or thousands, of significant contributors -- most of whom are invisible -- and numerous external uncontrolled variables we can call "fortune" and "circumstance". If you buy this story, then there's a problem with winner-take-all.

The problem is that those contributors are human, and they have the human compulsion to "punish cheating". They will, unconsciously or consciously, respond to "winner take all" in a myriad negative ways. in time this will affect the performance of the corporation, though, not, perhaps, the winnner's take.

This is fundamental human biology -- it cannot be readily changed. Winner take all carries the seeds of its own destruction.

Update 9/16: I didn't expect a supporting argument from a sports article.

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