Institutions + Innovation + Detroit

An ethics lesson from the Shawshank Redemption

One of my favorite quotes from any movie is from the Shawshank Redemption. In the film, the character played by Tim Robbins (Andy) says you either “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” It gets me every time.

[Here’s a link to the video clip]

It’s obviously an inspiring scene, but it also brings an interesting observation about human behavior to light – we have a hard time staying where we are.

Andy suggests that as we go through life, we can’t stay at the same equilibrium indefinitely. Rather, he says, we either get better or get worse. There’s no such thing as staying where you are.

And so it is with acting ethically. I do not think ethics is as simple as drawing a line in the sand saying “I will not cross this line”. If that’s how we chose to manage ethical behavior we will always lurk toward acting unethically. In real life, it doesn’t work for ethics to be a standard.

Rather, ethics is a practice. We have to constantly strive to be more ethical and live our ethics more fully. It’s something we must work on every single day. If we don’t do that, we’ll surely become more unethical as time passes.

Ethics isn’t something that can be maintained as a status quo. We must either get busy being more ethical or get busy being less ethical. There’s no in between.

Business should be truly ambitious

I read two articles about ambition, risk, and innovation this morning. I’d like to share these articles and the thoughts they inspired about business’s role in society and my own moonshot goal.

THE ARTICLES

“The golden quarter: Some of our greatest cultural and technological achievements took place between 1945 and 1971. Why has progress stalled?” - Why was the post WWII period to technologically groundbreaking and why hasn’t the trend continued? This article explores why.

“Google’s Larry Page: the most ambitious CEO in the universe” - This is a profile of Google CEO Larry Page (who’s a Michigan Alum, by the way) his approach to management, and his aspirations for Google & humanity.

Both pieces are more than worth reading. And as I said before, they helped me get one step closer to crystallizing the “moonshot” everything I do works towards.

But it also helped me better articulate my point of view about business’s role in society. I’d like to share that with you first.

BUSINESS SHOULD BE TRULY AMBITIOUS

I’m an MBA at the Ross School of Business, and the new Dean has articulated how Ross is the school that creates leaders that make a positive difference in the world. The implicit assumption there, from my perspective, is that business should make a positive difference in the world.

I don’t disagree with this (very much) as an outcome. What I disagree with strongly is the framing, because it doesn’t emphasize what’s really important. This framing misses the deeper point of ambition.

What I see now is that business should be truly ambitious. What I mean by that is business should create products and services for customers that solve their most challenge and most valuable problems. It just so happens that the most ambitious things are the ones that make a positive difference in the world. So I think it’s a subtle mistake to advocate for business’s purpose to be making a positive difference in the world, what really matters is for business to be ambitious.

If you do that, making a positive difference in the world is sure to occur. Notice however, that the corollary (if you advocate for making a positive difference, ambition is sure to follow)  is unappealing and untrue. Put another way, what’s the point in making a positive difference if it’s incremental and not ambitious?

Business shouldn’t be about incrementally improving software or developing a slightly more differentiated laundry detergent. Business should do be doing things that are hard and profitable, not easy and profitable. Business should be doing ambitious things that are worthy of the sector’s resources and its brightest minds.

Something that truly kills my heart a little bit is to see tremendously bright people join companies that put their talents toward banal purposes. If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, wasting a great mind on uninspired ends is a tragedy.

And that’s what I learned, It doesn’t matter if we mint business leaders who make a positive difference in the world if they aren’t truly ambitious when selecting the problems they choose to solve.

As many of you know, I’ve had a number of qualms with business school. I think the root of my frustration is that at its core, it doesn’t breed true ambition.

MY MOONSHOT: “MANAGEMENT AS FREEDOM”

I think a moonshot – a transformative goal that far exceeds the possibilities of the present day – is something everyone should have. These moonshots are the goals that matter so much to you, you don’t care if you fail when trying to achieve them. It’s something that you want to take risks to achieve and want to connect with others around.

Moonshots are goals that evolve and become more clear as time passes. Here’s my latest understanding of my moonshot.

In the past 100 years or so, organizations and management have been about control. Management has tried to centralize, streamline, and bring consistency to the organizational world. The way organizations treated people was like interchangeable parts in a machine.

I don’t believe that management should focus on maintaining control anymore. Management should be about freedom.

I want to rewrite the playbook on management – from its purpose to its strategies to its tactics – so that it focuses on freedom, not control. This means rethinking a host of things, like leader-follower relationships, collaboration, cross-sector partnership, metrics, technology, strategy, and others.

My moonshot is to fundamentally change the practice of management so that every organization in the world is rooted in freedom and not control.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

  • What’s your moonshot?
  • Am I full of it? Is business truly ambitious?

I want to quit football, but I can’t

I haven’t heard many people express tension about football (aside from their respective team underperforming) but I don’t think that I’m the only one that feels it. Between the media buzz at Michigan, domestic violence, and concussions, though, it helps bring to light what I think many are feeling – we want to quite football, but we just can’t.

I WANT TO QUIT FOOTBALL

The problem I have with football is that it’s not consistent with my values. It’s violent. It tends to be excessively masculine and at times, homophobic. It’s also laden with horrific injuries and physical consequences for players – whether it be professionals or pee-wees.

I don’t care for violence, and I don’t think that excessively masculine environments are comfortable. In fact, I’d argue that excessively masculine environments are not just uncomfortable, they’re dangerous. They give young males a very skewed view of what being a man is supposed to be: brute, aggressive, and tough – leaving little room for empathy, intellect, and admitting weakness.

These issues with football and football culture are no longer merely perceived, they are real. There are real cases of homophobia (although some would allege that the case of Michael Sam doesn’t indicate homophobia), and the effects of concussions. There are very real cases of domestic violence in the NFL – whether it’s Ray Rice or Adrian Petersen.

Just this weekend it was released that a football player at OSU with recent concussions may have committed suicide. To be sure, correlation isn’t causation, but there’s a creeping number of cases like this one and in the long-run new research being conducted on football-induced brain trauma may indicate that these cases are not merely correlation.

In addition to serious, life-threatening issues there’s also a litany of daily annoyances caused by football. On the more substantial end, the NCAA is often accused of being corrupt and college football has a host of issues unto itself. On the less substantial end, I’d contend that after the first 5 minutes, most conversations about football are horribly boring and uninspired (this is something I noticed once I stopped watching football regularly).

Whether it’s because of deep moral misgivings or minor frustrations, there are plenty of reasons to want to give up football.

BUT I CAN’T

I want to give up football, but I haven’t been able to yet because of its redeeming qualities. Every time I try to give up football, I remember that it’s part of who I am and part of who we are as a country.

We have many football traditions in high-school, college, and beyond – nostalgic times that seem almost synonymous with growing up in midwestern America. And despite the overly masculine environment football creates, I learned great lessons as a football player – I played from 8th grade until 10th grade – about persistence, handwork, and teamwork.

There are also wonderful stories about upstanding football players that use their celebrity status to be role models for others. There are also stories of football being a way for kids going to college that wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise. I know that nothing makes domestic violence okay, but some of these heartwarming stories make it easier to forget the horrible stories tying football to violence.

For me, football has been a rite of passage. It’s an excuse to chat with my buddies about a common experience and the fantasy football league I’m in is a way to keep in touch with old friends. I distinctly remember the times I’ve been in the Big House for games and I remember when Michigan won the National Championship in 1997. I remember football practices and super bowl parties. Homecoming games and the Rose Bowl Parade. Now, those memories include Robyn (my girlfriend), Robyn’s family, my family, and many other friends – both male and female.

The idea of football is so difficult for me. On some level, I hate football and what it stands for. But in another way, I love it.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

  • Would you quit football?
  • Is it okay to be a patron for something that you don’t agree with entirely?

The day the protests stop

In America today, people are talking about Ferguson. They are reading about it, I hope, from sources representing a variety of viewpoints. Even more, still, are sharing their opinions about the matter.

People are protesting, too, and that’s what I’m most thankful for. Of course, I’m not thankful for any of the violence and the reason there has to be a protest at all. But the protests mean people still care and still believe that their actions could pressure institutions to change.

The day the protests stop – meaning that they never occur – is what worries me the most. Because when the protests stop it means that citizens have lost their appetite for bettering their communities. It means they have become so disillusioned in their government that they think that trying to change it isn’t worth the effort.

I’m glad today isn’t the day the protests stopped. I hope that day never comes.

Twitter matters because it is a stethoscope

Twitter has a stratospheric valuation based on the fact that it can sell advertisements to its expansive user base. And that makes sense for investors. But I think that model of Twitter – as a microphone for advertisers – misses the platform’s real power as a stethoscope for institutions to listen directly to the masses.

Think about it. The POTUS, the Pope, and the Dalai Lama are all on Twitter. Multinational corporations are on Twitter. Celebrities and even airlines you want to complain about are on Twitter. You can tweet at all of those folks and they might actually respond.

I have personally engaged with really interesting people and institutions on Twitter that I’ve never met in person. It’s incredibly liberating to have access to institutions with power. Never before in history has it been easier for an individual without formal power (read: people like me) to collaborate with those that have lots of it.

That flipping of the model could be world-changing, and I’d argue it has been already. Twitter doesn’t seem to have done that intentionally, but that’s what’s happened.

Twitter is trying to make gobs of money by giving advertisers the ability to shout their shouts as loudly as possible. But wouldn’t it be interesting (and more valuable) if Twitter instead focused on helping institutions listen instead of shout?

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

  • Do “the masses” really have an appetite to share their opinions, ideas, and stories? Do institutions have an appetite to listen?
  • If “the masses” really do care about sharing their opinions, ideas, and stories, why don’t they now? For example, civic participation isn’t exactly rampant in the USA.

Why society depends on love

I thank God everyday for the unconditional love I have in my life. I’m so lucky to have a girlfriend, family, and friends who love me even when I do stupid things or am sinful. And yes, it feels good to be so loved, but there’s a societal benefit to that love as well – it tames my human instinct for greed.

I, like anyone else, have impulses that I’m not proud of. Let’s take business school as an example. Being in business school, I’ve learned a lot about how to make money. As a result, I’ve developed a strong ambition to make money, make impact, and make things happen. On the one hand, this ambition is important because it compels me to act and give effort toward things. On the other hand, it compels me to take, and take ruthlessly.

If unchecked, this ambition will become greed. I know this to be true, because it’s a theme that runs throughout history. I am not immune to this the fallibility of human nature.

And that’s where love comes in. It checks my ambition and greed.

The love that Robyn, my family, friends, and even strangers sometimes, give me is not something I feel afraid of losing. I feel secure in it and know it is there to catch me when I am at my lowest. It’s something I can lean on.

That love is enough for me to be happy. Even if I’m not successful in my career or in other pursuits, having and giving love fills me up. Because I have and give love, I do not have to worry about replacing the space it occupies with money, prestige, or power.

This is good, because when money, prestige, and power become an end in themselves, it makes us do funny things. It makes us behave unethically and robotically. At best, the lust for money, prestige, and power stress us out. At worst, that lust will drive us to madness.

Even though, I think hippy-dippy interpretations about love in society are bit superficial, I think those that talk about society needing more love are on to something. Love isn’t just something that’s nice to have as an individual. Because it’s a calming force that tempers greed and the darkest parts of our humanity, love is something society depends on.

 

Jobs pay a lot when they suck

I don’t think a high salary necessarily indicates that a job is “better.” Most of the time, I think jobs are high-paying because they suck.

Of course, I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but, here’s what I mean.

Let’s say there’s a dollar value, let’s call it $I (for income), and $I is the average amount of money people in America need to have a pretty good life. Nothing super fancy, but something nice enough that the average person is happy with.

Now, why would anyone take a job that pays more than $I per year? After all, if you’re happy with I, why bother doing something that requires more effort (which is presumably the case because you’re getting paid more).

There are two types of reasons:

1) Because you’re awesome
2) Because the job sucks

BECAUSE YOU’RE AWESOME
You might take this job for more money, because you’re valuable. Maybe you have a special set of skills and therefore, companies have to pay you more because of competition in the marketplace. If they don’t pay you a premium, someone else will. You get paid more because you’re awesome.

This is ideal, because you’re not sacrificing anything to get higher pay. You’re happy, and you are really skilled so you get paid more. Wonderful.

BECAUSE THE JOB SUCKS
An alternative explanation for taking the job that pays more than $I per year is that something about the job makes it less desirable. Maybe it’s because you have to work many hours, or the work is physically demanding. Maybe it’s boring or worse, maybe it’s not meaningful. Maybe it’s humiliating or dehumanizing work. Maybe the job is difficult and you’re likely to fail. Maybe the work/company isn’t prestigious. Maybe it’s stressful.

In this scenario, if the company doesn’t pay you a premium you wouldn’t want to do the job. You get paid more because the job sucks.

In reality, the wage we’re all paid is probably a mix of both – being awesome and the desirability of the job. If you  have a high paying job it’s worth asking yourself, and I direct this at my MBA classmates, is your job REALLY paying you a premium because you’re awesome, or because the job sucks?

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

  • How much of our educational life prepares us for being awesome, and how much of it prepares us for dealing with stuff that “sucks?”
  • What careers do you think are the most desirable? How much does it pay? Does it seem high or low, why?
  • Are there other reasons why some jobs pay a premium?

Detroit is not a laboratory

Detroit is not a laboratory, but we should be scientists. Here’s some explanation about where I’m coming from.

DETROIT IS NOT A LABORATORY

One of the narratives I’ve heard about Detroit, especially when stories about Detroit are told to those not currently living here, is that Detroit is a laboratory. It’s a blank slate, a place where enterprising folks can experiment and make something for themselves. Detroit, the story goes, is the new wild, wild west and a low-cost place to take risks and try something new.

That’s not exactly true because Detroit is precisely NOT a blank slate. The City was founded in 1701. It had over 1.5 million residents at its peak, and there are still over 700k that live within the city limits – not to mention the many more in the metro area. Detroit already has a culture, and monuments, artifacts, and history. It has major sports teams, and Universities. We’ve started cultural, economic, and social movements in our storied history.

Detroit is the opposite of a blank slate.

I mention this because talking about Detroit as a blank slate / laboratory can make locals feel marginalized – like they’re in a petri dish, under observation, and without agency. More and more, I feel that way too when folks talk about Detroit as a “laboratory.”

BUT WE SHOULD BE SCIENTISTS

That said, there are lots of people – both long-time residents, and new comers – trying new things and figuring out what works to make life in the City better. And I think that’s great. Detroit isn’t a city that works for everyone. It can be better, it can “rise from the ashes” as we Detroit’s like to say.

The way we get there is being scientists – by observing, listening, trying, failing, succeeding, learning, and sharing. Being a scientist doesn’t have to mean treating the city – and those in it – like part of an experiment. What it does mean being curious, humble, and learning by doing.

I’d also say that “being scientists” is part of who we are as Detroit’s. We’ve always been creative people, who work hard and build new things. And so we should.

It’s not lost on me that this is a subtle distinction, but I think it’s an important one.

When Facebook isn’t free

I’ve been asking friends a simple question over the past month: if Facebook started charging a monthly fee, what’s the most you’d be willing to pay?

Take a second and think about your answer.

Most people I talked to, unsurprisingly, said $0 is the maximum they’d pay for Facebook. 1-3 people said they’d pay $5 a month for Facebook, assuming all their friends stayed on the site.

This is remarkable to me, because so many people are on Facebook and people spend so much time on Facebook. In fact, the average American spends 40 minutes on Facebook, according to a July 2014 report. That’s a remarkable amount of time for something that’s close to value-less, based on the results of my straw poll.

Why do you think this is the case?

I’d contend because Facebook is free. The thing is, it’s not. Time has a tremendous opportunity cost – there’s so much other stuff you can be doing with time. Especially when you think of Facebook time in aggregate – what would you do with an extra 250 hours a year?

Perhaps that’s also why folks use Facebook profusely. It’s hard to imagine what you would do with an extra 300 hours a year. It’s less daunting to just use Facebook, than to go through the deep reflection required to imagine new possibilities for your own life. We don’t exactly live in a society with that’s facilitating of that sort of imaginative visioning, unless you grow up with uncommon privileges.

That’s a deeper issue, I’d say, than the fact that folks use Facebook a lot. What would it take to create a world where people are more likely to imagine a different future for themselves, rather than use that time on Facebook?

Enter, the liberal arts.

Knowledge, Skills, Wisdom (and Liberal Arts)

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I’ve been fairly amazed by the proliferation of online learning platforms, like Coursera, Skillshare, Khan Academy, and others. They’re remarkable, I think, because they decouple “learning” from needing to interact with a person in real-time. You can learn from a screen and/or a computer and still have it be more interactive than a book.

As a quick point of reference, I’d argue there are (roughly) three types of things we learn:

 

  • Knowledge – awareness and understanding of a topic. Knowledge answers what something is.
    • Sample Online Platforms: Coursera, Khan Academy
  • Skills – an ability required to complete a task. Skills are an answer for how to do something.
    • Sample Online Platforms: Skillshare, CodeAcademy
  • Wisdom – a virtue which helps decide what to do. Wisdom is an answer for why to do one thing versus another.
    • Sample Online Platforms: Do you know of any?

If you look at online learning platforms, you’ll find that most platforms fall into the knowledge and skills categories. The only platforms that come close to developing wisdom are things like TED and BigThink and even so only with certain talks. TED and BigThink are more like insights – when other people share their wisdom. True wisdom, I’d argue, is something which must be internalized.

The thing is, developing wisdom takes practice, thoughtfulness, self-awareness, and reflection. It takes asking tough questions and sitting with them. It takes a broad diversity of people and disciplines around you to develop.

Wisdom is the stuff of deep truths. Developing it is hard. I think that’s why you find plenty of online platforms exchanging knowledge and skills but few, if any, developing wisdom.

HIGHER ED

It seems to me that colleges and universities can’t win if they hang their hat on distributing knowledge and skills unless they do most of it cheaply on digital platforms. Online courses for knowledge and skills will always be cheaper than in-person ones.

What colleges and universities can win on is wisdom. They can offer meaningful experiences and a diverse community. They can offer mentors and teachers. They can provide coaching and external influences. In other words, they can provide the right environment for students to develop wisdom through practice.

They also have the liberal arts. Because of its diversity, propensity to uncover truths and deep questions, and it’s depth, it seems to me that the liberal arts are essential to developing wisdom.

Even if you’re an engineer, business person, doctor, or lawyer, the liberal arts are essential. Why? Because the liberal arts cultivate wisdom.


photo credit: Russ Allison Loar via photopin cc
 

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