For more than a quarter century, MIT scientist Andrew McAfee has been studying how digital technologies change the world. As part of this work he comes into close contact with the “alpha geeks” whose innovations create the future. A few years ago, McAfee had the most surprising realization of his career: the geeks had figured out how to build better companies.
In his upcoming book, “The Geek Way: The Radical Mindset Transforming the Future of Business” (Little, Brown and Company, 2023), McAfee reveals what they’re doing differently and why it works so well. Geek companies are much more freewheeling, fast-moving, evidence-driven, egalitarian, argumentative and autonomous than their Industrial Era predecessors. As a result, they are standout performers and fierce rivals, disrupting industry after industry – and they’re just getting started.
“Earlier in my career, it seemed like there was always a tradeoff. A company might be innovative but struggle with execution or agility. They’d rarely be good at all three,” says McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT and co-founder of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy. “At these geek companies, those tradeoffs have disappeared. They are consistently good in all three areas. As a result, competitive battles between geek and non-geek companies really aren’t fair fights. In my book, I look at how and why that is and how other companies can adopt geek cultures so they can execute on their missions and not get left behind.”
Though a lot of geek companies are tech firms based in northern California, McAfee says “geek” is not a synonym for “high tech” or “Silicon Valley.” Instead, it’s a label for a company that consistently follows four norms: science, ownership, speed and openness. His book is about why those norms work so well, how the geeks put them into practice, and how any company can get geekier. As McAfee says, “Geek companies don’t depend on having lots of computer science PhDs or a West Coast headquarters. Any organization can learn to move faster, be more open and more evidence-driven, and give more autonomy to its people. It’s not fast or easy — it takes real leadership — but it’s a future that’s open to anyone.”
A technology optimist and an expert on human-machine interaction and the future of work, McAfee has been shining a bright light on the far-reaching impact of technology since his first book, 2009’s “Enterprise 2.0”. In 2011 he and co-author Erik Brynjolfsson released their paradigm-shifting book “Race Against the Machine.” Their next two books, The New York Times bestseller “The Second Machine Age“ (2014) and “Machine | Platform | Crowd“ (2017) expanded on the theme of how tech progress was reshaping societies, industries and businesses. In 2019, McAfee went solo with his pessimist-defying book “More From Less” in which he shares profound examples of economic and environmental progress driven by a combination of powerful technologies, economic freedom, public pressure, and smart regulation and policy.
As a speaker and advisor, McAfee offers organizations in every industry data-driven insights into existing and emerging tech trends. His work is particularly valuable to decision makers and innovators at financial institutions, manufacturers, health care organizations and government agencies, and to firms interested in emerging technologies that can streamline operations, enhance innovation and offer a competitive edge.
“A century ago, factories were in the process of switching over from steam to electric power,” explains McAfee in the opening of “The Geek Way.” “This transition took a while, but it was inevitable because electricity was simply better along every dimension. Something similar is going on now. Geek companies are simultaneously better at innovation, execution and agility than their predecessors, and they are taking over.”