For the past couple weeks I’ve been reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (special thanks to Igor Shindel for the great recommendation).

The book is interesting. At the core, Newport examines the differences between “deep” and “shallow” work. He explains that “deep work” involves long stretches of uninterrupted, focused work. Shallow work is the opposite, short bursts of unfocused work speckled with interruptions from email and social media.   Along the way Newport describes many of the world’s greatest thinkers and inventors, crediting their achievements to the disciplined practice of deep work.

One of the thinkers that Newport talks about is Andy Grove of Intel. There was one particular anecdote about Grove really jumped out at me.

The story was about when Andy Grove was strategizing on how to deal with the potential disruption by upstart chipmaker AMD. AMD was making cheaper, less performant microprocessors and challenging Intel’s hold on the low-end chip market. To think about how to defend against the challenge, Grove invited Clayton Christensen come talk with his leadership team. Christensen is the world’s leading expert on disruptive innovation and helped Grove’s team deeply understand the concept of low-end market disruption and how AMD was threatening their businesses.

After Christensen concluded his lesson, Grove thanked Christensen and said – that’s a great lesson – but how do we do it? Christensen was confused by the question and paused for a second. He then started to re-explain his theory of disruptive innovation.

Gove stopped him quickly, responding: “You are such a naive academic, I know what to do, just not how to do it.”

Grove was very capable of understanding the theory that Christensen was teaching, but he also understood, as the leader of a large organization, the “what” is only part of the equation. Equally important is “how” – how to get a large organization oriented around a new idea and mobilized to defend against the upstart competitor.

In this lesson Newport points out that the difference between “what” and “how” can be particularly pronounced in the art of organizational structure. Knowing what your org structure should look like can be fairly straightforward, but actually manipulating the organization, moving the parts around, to get there can be extremely nuanced, complex, and take take many steps.

The solution?

Well, the book didn’t get into the specifics of “how” to change an organization, but I’m sure Newport would say the secret is deep work.

What vs. How
  • I did like the depiction of the exchange between Andy Grove and Clayton Christensen a lot; but I really wasn’t a fan of Deep Work (despite liking Cal’s previous book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, quite a bit). It felt more like an ad-hoc justification of a particular working style than an investigation into different types of work and how best to approach them.

  • That’s fair. It’s a bit of a one-liner. I’ll check out his other book- thanks for the recco!