Mirage or Vision? Four Blind Spots at the Core of Theranos’ Failure

The parable of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos, is not an unfamiliar one. It involves a dream, a mission, a plan, a vision and quite possibly monumental corruption. It’s unclear whether Theranos’ rise and fall will turn out to be a dazzling mirage of “would-be” business greatness, one of the most infamous stories of corporate fraud in the 21st century, or, an ironic reminder of the inescapable weakness of biased decision-making. What we know for certain is that behind this particular corporate failure lies a cautionary tale of boundless visioning that all investors, entrepreneurs and organizations seeking breakthrough innovations should be interested in further understanding.

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Miss the 2019 Ethics by Design Conference? Watch It Online

Jon Haidt, in his closing remarks during our second Ethics by Design conference, wanted to share his overall takeaway, encapsulating a day’s worth of ideas on managing organizations in an era of anxiety, polarization, and disruption. “We’re always talking about the importance of systems—ethical systems, designing systems. At the end of the day, I have a much greater appreciation of just how hard it is to make good systems,” the Founding Director of Ethical Systems said. He noted that lots of people help make systems, in engineering and economics, but you wouldn’t want engineers or economists designing a system alone, for human beings to inhabit. “We need the input of economists and engineers, but there have to be humanists involved. These are ultimately systems for human beings. And any system that’s designed that doesn’t take human nature into account—a really deep understanding of human nature—is likely to become a monstrous system.”

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How the Stressful World of Science Can Be Healthier (and More Ethical)

Last month, Tim van der Zee, a Ph.D. student at the University of Leiden who studies ways to improve open online education, got a bit snarky. He didn’t take well to a recent news article from Science magazine about how meditation can help Ph.D. students handle their outsized rates of anxiety and depression. “A recent study suggests that mindfulness interventions—a form of exercise for the brain—may help,” the publication tweeted, linking to the article. Van der Zee’s reply garnered hundreds of retweets and over a thousand likes: “Ah yes,” he said, “the correct response to the widespread problem of mental health problems in phd students is not to tackle it systematically but to... *checks notes*... make it their personal responsibility, [and] increase their workload with daily exercises…”

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Being a Parent as a Source of Ethics Risk

In 1973, in speaking to colleagues on the Cook County Democratic Committee, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago defended his having directed a million dollars of insurance business to an agency on behalf of his son John with the immortal words: “If I can’t help my sons, then [my critics] can kiss my ass. I make no apologies to anyone.”

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The Hidden Insights Evolution Has for Healthy Businesses

Charles Darwin ended The Origin of Species, his argument for evolution by natural selection, on a note of celebrated eloquence. “There is grandeur to this view of life,” he wrote, “with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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How to Make Lying at Your Company Normal

Earlier this month at the Beacon Theater, in New York City, Daniel Kahneman, famed author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, had a conversation with neuroscientist Sam Harris. It ranged over many of the topics the Nobel Prize-winning behavioral scientist has explored in his work. This included the “remembering” and “experiencing” self, where intuitions reliably fail, and—while discussing obstacles to desirable behavior—the need for ethical systems design. “You want to create systems whereby even mediocre, which is to say normal people, can behave better and better effortlessly,” Harris said. “You don’t want systems where you have to be a saint to do something good or proper.”

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Socialism and Conflicts of Interest

There was a time in my life when I might have embraced the cause of socialism, but that was many years ago, and today I proudly march under the banner of centrism. And the current flirtation with socialism in the U.S. has me worried—at least a little bit.

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Wall Street and the Behavioral Science of Making Culture Ethical

Before he became “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort, when he arrived in New York in the 1980s, was more like a starry-eyed sheep. That’s how Leonardo DiCaprio plays him in The Wolf of Wall Street, the film adapted from Belfort’s 2007 memoir of his years as a stockbroker. In an early scene from the film, Belfort brims with a rookie’s optimism about starting at investment banking firm L.F. Rothschild, under stockbroker Mark Hanna, played by Matthew McConaughey. He can’t wait to help make Hanna’s impressive clients more money, but he learns that isn’t quite Hanna’s modus operandi. “F[—] the clients,” Hanna tells Belfort. “Your only responsibility is to put meat on the table.”

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The Paradox of Employee Surveillance

This piece was originally published in Behavioral Scientist magazine.

For many people, the global financial crisis eroded trust in corporations and government. There was a double-digit decline in trust of large banks in particular, dropping from 69% before the crisis to 49% in 2013 in Edelman Trust data. These perceptions have ushered in a new paradigm of oversight between regulators and firms, both for banks and big business generally. And this increased oversight of companies has also created new dynamics between organizations and their employees, as executives try to control for any possibility of misconduct.

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Listen to Adam Grant Talk Leadership Science with Preet Bharara

It is safe to say that I am a podcast junkie. Whenever I find myself “ears-free”—while taking a shower, walking the dog, riding the subway—I listen to an episode. Usually it is intellectual fare—scientists or other sorts of scholars discussing their new books with, for instance, comedian Joe Rogan (on whose show our founder, Jon Haidt, just appeared). Recently I’ve wandered into more current- and legal-affairs territory, and discovered “Stay Tuned” with Preet, hosted by Preet Bharara, a former US attorney for the Southern District of New York who President Trump fired.

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