Archives For June 2014

Sport is vicious, what with the zero-sum outcomes of winners and losers. World Cup group play tames that a bit by giving a point for a draw and the hope of moving on. But the bitterness of that last minute goal – the beautiful arcing ball from the world’s best player, placed perfectly on the forehead of his teammate for the equalizer – threatens to linger. We were so close to the sure thing…to making it out of the group of death into the round of 16! Now the US Men’s National Team must face the juggernaut Deutscheland and rely (perhaps) on fate to see us through.

I confess to waking up last night, replaying the long pass in my head, agonizing over the “what-if” scenarios. What if we didn’t dawdle with that final substitution? Maybe the keeper of the clock would have added one minute less of stoppage time. That would have been enough to keep the ball from Ronaldo and his final assist. What if, what if, what if. My wife did the same, the what-if curse being worse for her as each soccer match transports Kate back to her own college-playing days. Now imagine what those players are thinking.

Were I in that locker room after the end-of-game jersey-swaps and given the chance to address the players, I would say job well done. Now let it go. Don’t let the what-ifs into your minds. You can control process, but the outcome is the domain of the fates. You had a good strategy. You were conditioned well and played hard. You left nothing on the field. You were prepared, and the process was right. More often than not that will be enough to see you through, a good process will create victory. But sometimes you can do everything right, and bad luck rears its ugly head. That’s what happened last night in the final minute of stoppage time.

Here’s a matrix from the 2001 book, Winning Decisions, meant for business but maybe better suited for sports. The US men were prepared. That high level of preparation gives them the best chance of landing in the top right square, “deserved success.” But sometimes unlucky failure strikes despite your process. You end up in the bottom-right quadrant.  All you can do is shrug it off and move on.

Preparedness Luck matrix B Shadow

The real test comes next. Is this team resilient enough to bounce back from being so close to a sure thing? Can they trust their coach, each other, and the process to bring it one more time against Germany? Can they use this matrix with its oversimplified logic to rid their minds of the what-if curse and focus on preparing for the next match?

I believe…

I believe that…

I believe that we will win.

The Future Credit: James Vaughn via flickr

The Future
Credit: James Vaughn via flickr

Not so long ago I spent an afternoon listening to a half-dozen entrepreneurs hawk their ideas for new companies. The event was called a pitch day, and it had an American Idol feel. The presenters stood before massive power point displays in the cavernous auditorium of a converted warehouse, spinning their best stories of why their concepts would attract the most eyeballs, customer subscriptions, or advertising attention. Each wanted to launch a fast-growing business – the next tech rocket ship – and made their case to the judges, a collection of investors spread in front of the makeshift stage in neat rows of plastic chairs. Winning meant the entrepreneurs got a little extra cash, fuel for their rockets, and a chance to turn their concepts into real startups.

The presenters had been honing their pitches for weeks, seeking that right combination of words, images, and dramatic delivery that might persuade the investors to pick them. The event was glitzy. The pitches slick. But the substance?

Of the six proposals, each could be boiled down to “the next” (fill in the blank with Facebook, Twitter or Google) for (fill in the blank with a sliced-up market segment). Each was a derivative concept meant to piggyback in some way off the platforms created by more ambitious entrepreneurs who came before them. These ideas were less about originality than they were about exploiting market niches that were not yet the focus of the platform companies. There was not much stretching for greatness.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Commerce has long thrived on tweaking others’ ideas, but at some point it seems someone has to push forward the vision thing. I believe it was frustration with a lack of startup imagination that prodded Bruce Gibney of the Founders Fund to pen this missive in April 2011. He called it What Happened to the Future? and attached this brilliant subtitle: We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters. From that letter:

The future envisioned from the perspective of the 1960s was hard to get to, but not impossible, and people were willing to entertain the idea. We now laugh at the Nucleon [a nuclear-powered car] and Pan Am to the moon while applauding underpowered hybrid cars and Easyjet, and that’s sad. The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we’re waiting for today, half a century later. Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo.

It’s not a huge surprise why the pitch day ideas were so ho-hum. The entrepreneurs are running towards the money. Venture capital as an industry is more interested in backing the thing that seems most likely to get acquired (and thereby provide quick returns on their capital) than in backing bold bets. That makes sense. We need it. But we also need capital that backs the bold ideas. We need capital for the bets that might take years and years before paying out. I applaud Bruce Gibney and his colleagues at the Founders Fund for attempting to play that role. I applaud Google’s X labs for working on their own initiatives to change the world. My hope is that they prod more investors to take a long-term perspective.

When capital makes itself available for bold ideas, I expect we’ll see entrepreneurs tap into their more creative impulses. I expect we’ll see pitches that will bring promise of this future we’ve been waiting for.

IMAG0774

Author’s Daughter, Sporting the Old School Wildcat Outside Senior Apartments

The arc of my life bends more to Davidson College than I ever would have guessed on a broiling August day some 19 years ago. That’s when my dad and I stuffed the backseat of a rickety Oldsmobile Cutlass with the bulk of my possessions and travailed the six hours of interstates 85 and 77 that connect Auburn to that town on the northernmost edge of Mecklenburg County.  I was 17 and more practical than most teenagers. My brain was certain the next few years would be a strict economic exchange: my hard work and indebtedness for a degree inked on lambskin that would launch me into a career. And that would be that.

But it became much more than that. Not only in my time there, but in the many years since.

Yes, that diploma arrived. It’s in a beautiful frame on the floor of my basement office, propped unceremoniously against a wall. It’s come in handy on my twisted path of a career, yet the benefits of the Davidson College brand have played out so much more in my personal life. My marriage traces back to the chance meeting of a soccer player who stole my study table one afternoon on the second floor of E.H. Little Library. That was 17 years ago. I proposed to Kate at that same table nine years later, and we were married in Davidson’s Lingle Chapel a brief six months after that. Standing at my side was Jason, my best man who had been my best friend through college, and in the church pews sat countless faces of loved ones whom Kate and I came to know only because we spent that brief time as students at this particular school.

This nostalgia envelops me in the hours since I’ve returned to Raleigh with Kate and our two young daughters. We spent the weekend back at Davidson reminiscing with old classmates at my 15 year reunion, and I’ve been in a contemplative mood ever since. There’s the warm glow of happy memories, but there’s also some recognition of our own aging and what it means for friendships. Continue Reading…

Victor Hugo. Credit: Unknown, Public Domain

Victor Hugo. Credit: Unknown, Public Domain

There’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come.

– Victor Hugo

In their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom chronicle the power of organizations with no central control, no structured leadership, oftentimes no budget, and that tend to be volunteer driven. The authors call them “starfish” because they thrive despite (or perhaps because of) having no central nervous system. You cut off a leg, and they regenerate another.

Starfish organizations include Alcoholics Anonymous, Wikipedia, the abolitionist movement in England 150 years ago, and the Apache resistance to Spanish conquest in the 17th and 18th century Southwest US. As I considered last week, the idea can spread far and wide to include less known organizations operating in our communities, such as the F3 workout group that meets early each morning in Raleigh.

We’re so biased towards models of command and control, that it’s counter-intuitive to think that a group without a leader can somehow be more powerful and more successful than one with a manager at its helm. So what’s the secret to starfish success? The authors outline several success factors, and the one that jumps out the most is ideology. Here they highlight how it works with Alcoholics Anonymous:

At AA, the ideology is that people can help each other out of addiction. The twelve steps reflect the implications of this ideology. People who don’t buy into the twelve steps aren’t likely to stay in AA. But those who do follow the twelve steps do so rigorously…we can expect AA and its offshoots to be around as long as there’s addiction.

The idea is straightforward, and it serves a real need (addiction). The structure of the groups is simple and easy to replicate. If someone wants to start a new group, it’s like a fractal pattern repeating itself as its reach expands further and further. The power lies in the simplicity that makes it repeatable. If the ideology becomes too complex or too convoluted, the expansion collapses on itself.

As Victor Hugo put it above, there’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come. People will rally around an idea that speaks to them; that resonates. And in organizations that don’t provide economic compensation or status or other forms of incentive, the idea must have power, be simple, and be cogent.

Abe Maslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

Abe Maslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

50 years ago Abraham Maslow embedded himself in a Southern California tech factory to study its managers and culture. He kept copious notes and published his thoughts in 1962 in a sparsely-read tome called Eupsychian Management. The book was republished 37 years later, long after Maslow had passed, under the more accessible title, Maslow on Management. In it the great psychologist makes a distinction between the “doers” of the world and all those people who just talk, talk, talk.

After talking with various students and professors who “wanted to work with me” on self-actualization, I discovered that I was very suspicious of most of them and rather discouraging, tending to expect little from them. This is a consequence of long experience with multitudes of starry-eyed dilettantes – big talkers, great planners, tremendously enthusiastic – who came to nothing as soon as a little hard work is required.

We all know these types. I for one have to work hard to make sure there’s not one staring back at me each morning when I shave in front of the mirror. Someone recently told me I’m a great idea person. I think it was meant as a compliment, but my attention is piqued. I sure hope it’s not a euphemistic way of lopping me into that same category Maslow describes above.

Here’s Maslow’s technique from separating the talkers from the doers:

…I have tested people with these fancy aspirations simply by giving them a rather dull but important and worthwhile job to do. Nineteen out of twenty fail the test. I have learned not only to give this test but to brush them aside completely if they don’t pass it. I have preached to them about joining the “League of Responsible Citizens” and down with the free-loaders, hangers-on, mere talkers, the permanent passive students who study forever with no results. The test for any person is – that if you want to find out whether he’s an apple tree or not – Does He Bear Apples? Does He Bear Fruit? That’s the way you tell the difference between fruitfulness and sterility, between talkers and doers, between the people who change the world and the people who are helpless in it.

These are strong words from the father of Self-Actualization Theory. Here we assume Maslow must be this touchy-feely dude since his ideas are so often associated with kindness and making contributions to society. His views appear ironic even given that Maslow was first and foremost a thinker. I’ve never been quick to put theoretical psychologists into the “doer” category.

But he was also revolutionary. His bridge from talking to doing was constructed with rigorous testing, teaching, and writing. The hierarchy of needs thesis would have gone nowhere if he simply chatted with people about his novel concept. No, he had to go out and battle for respect in peer-reviewed journals. He had to promote it like crazy to earn acceptance and create his legacy. And his respect was not earned easily, nor did it come without wounds. It took years of grinding work that dilettantes are just not capable of.

What can we learn from Maslow’s view on doers versus talkers? My lesson is this: being an “idea person” brings little value to the world if you aren’t prepared to support the idea with all the grinding, thankless work it takes to fight through criticism and gain acceptance. This requires much more than brainstorming a few thoughts and patting yourself on the back because they feel so clever. The real value comes from transforming those thoughts from ideas to some kind of action. Even the tiniest action signals to the world that you’re serious, willing to work for your ideas, able to endure uncertainty, and not just another dilettante.

I. An Image Problem: Hercules & The Hydra

Hercules was a real jerk. That’s my conclusion after thumbing through the tales of his conquests last night in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. He’s lionized as the favorite Greek hero, but this dude had a serious case of roid rage, perhaps the first in all of literature.

To illustrate: his most famous adventures come from the “Labors of Hercules” in which he choked-out the fierce lion of Lemea, diverted two great rivers to clear years of accumulated animal filth in the Augean stables, and killed the many-headed Hydra of Lerna, a creature considered immortal until it met Hercules. But why was he checking all these chores off a list? They were part of history’s first 12-step recovery program, penance for a roid-rage fit in which Hercules murdered his wife and three sons. That backstory was conveniently missing from Disney’s cartoon movie. Seriously, we need to reconsider our heroes.

Hercules v. Hydra, Photo Credit:  Eagle Painter Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons License

Hercules v. Hydra, Photo Credit:
Eagle Painter Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons License

Here’s Hamilton’s description of the Hydra conquest:

The second labor was to go to Lerna and kill a creature with nine heads called the Hydra which lived in a swamp there. This was exceedingly hard to do, because one of the heads was immortal and the others almost as bad, inasmuch as when Hercules chopped one off, two grew up instead. However, he was helped by his nephew Iolaus who brought him a burning brand with which he seared the neck as he cut each head off so it could not sprout again. When all had been chopped off he disposed of the one that was immortal by burying it securely under a great rock.

Let’s refocus this tale from Hercules to the Hydra. Despite its evil reputation, I want to reimagine the creature in a more pleasant light. That ability to grow two heads where one is lopped off has been the source of nightmares, but I want to strip it of fear and turn it into a constructive metaphor for something we should want more of in our local economies. I’ll call them Hydra economies. Continue Reading…