Institutions + Innovation + Detroit

What we’d presumably have in common with space-faring aliens

I’ve been trippin’ out over the Fermi Paradox lately. Indeed, it’s hard not to. And I’ve been contemplating – if we were to encounter a space-faring alien civilization in our travels across the universe a few hundred years from now, how similar would they be to us?

More similar than we’d want to admit, I think.

They’d probably have senses to detect different things like we do, like light, sound, touch, and others. Maybe their senses wouldn’t be exactly the same, but they’d have to have some way of understanding the world around them. They’d probably have discovered and developed some of the same materials that we have, after all, the types of elements in the universe are fixed.

They’d probably have some mechanism in their bodies for capturing, storing, and expending energy. Their bodies would probably have some sort of waste or disease. The universe after all, is not efficient and it is certainly prone to random mutations. They’d probably have some mechanism for reproduction.

If they were space-faring explorers of the universe, they’d probably have a large population. After all, it would be difficult for a single alien or small group of aliens to develop the technology needed to explore space. As a result, they’d probably have some sort of language and some set of social issues arising from many beings having to live and work together.

Surely, it is captivating to think about an alien race’s similarity or dissimilarity to us, but here’s what gets me. Despite how much we have in common with an alien race, we have much more in common with other humans.

Our emotions, psychological biases, our notions of beauty, art, and God…something, even many of those things have got to be unique. I’d hope that our full humanness is not something that could be replicated by aliens. Human life is special.

At the same time, let’s assume that we never find any other space-faring alien civilizations. That even more so makes me believe that humans are special. We could be the only life in the universe that’s left. And even if we aren’t alone in the universe, we may be the only civilization that ever explores the universe.

So whether we are alone in exploring the universe or whether we aren’t, I can’t help but think that human life is special. Which means we are all special beings, endowed by God with something magnificent. Which makes me wonder why we treat each other so badly sometimes. I just don’t get it.

To whom would your life’s work be dedicated?

To Nakul, who in death teaches me every day how to live.

If I were to ever write a book of significance, Nakul is who I would dedicate it to. He is my brother, my teacher, and my inspiration.

If you were to write a book of significance – meaning one that you put your heart and soul into – to whom would you dedicate it?

A friend from school, Heather, pointed out the dedication in our Professor’s text book. The dedication in his textbook is here:

Afuah_Textbook

Afuah_Dedication

Money is everything, money is nothing

Money is everything, and money is nothing. This is one of the most interesting insights I’ve had since starting business school.

For a company, meaning the LLC-CCorp-faceless-legal-mumbojumbo contractual relationship, money is everything. Companies exist to generate a profit. Money is the means and the end. There is no reason to have a company if it does not make money. To be sure, it’s not unfortunate if the company does other things instead of make money, but that’s not the most function of a company.

The most important function of a company is to make money. But a company is nothing without people.

For people, meaning the air-breating-love-making-hand-holding-fun-loving-soul-filled humans, money is nothing. Everything that matters in life to people is precisely not money. We care about freedom, love, justice, god, greed, stability, pleasure, pain, prestige, and truth. Money only matters because it is a way to get one of those things that we actually care about. To be sure, money is important because it’s how we can get those other things.

For a person, money is a mere means that’s not intrinsically valuable. But we need it.

Paradoxically, money is everything and money is nothing.

3 simple rules to reform political campaign finance

Today, I had the pleasure of catching up with one of my parents’ longstanding customers, who has become a family friend. Let’s call him Jack.

Jack is in his eighties and without fail, we always end up talking about politics when we get together. He’s staunchly conservative and his view on most issues is starkly different from mine.

Despite our differences, we always see eye-to-eye on governance issues. In a nutshell, we both believe it’s better to have a government which makes decisions in the public’s interest, rather than in the best interests of private political actors.

Today, he shared a few simple rules to improve elections and campaign finance schemes. I’ve added and modded a little bit to round out the spirit of our conversation. I think they’re good rules, and rather elegant.

  1. You must be a registered voter to make a contribution to a candidate or party organization
  2. Registered voters are only allowed to donate to candidates / party organizations for races in which they will be able to vote (e.g., someone voting in Ann Arbor wouldn’t be able to donate to a candidate representing Omaha, if you live in  Michigan you can only donate to the party organization in your state or to a national party organization)
  3. Any individual donor or donating organization to any organization engaging in political activity (whether to a candidate, party, issue group, etc.) must be disclosed weekly in a machine-readable format with the donor’s name / unique voter ID, donation amount, donor’s company Tax ID, and date of their donation

This proposal would presumably need constitutional amendment to be legal. Is there any reason this wouldn’t work well?

In any case, I re-learned something important today. There are people who care about politics because of their private interests and others who care about politics because they care about the public’s interest and future of this country. Liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, it doesn’t matter – people of all political stripes fall into both camps.

Jack and I are a great example of this. Because we both care about the public interest over our private interests, we are able to engage in respectful discussion even though we wildly disagree on most issues. More importantly, because we both prioritize the public’s interest, we are able to find clever nuances on specific policies which allow for compromise.

Will the city benefit from economic growth initiatives? (Plus a framework)

In business and innovation, Teece’s model helps you determine who will profit from an innovation. After learning about it, I got to thinking if that model – or a similar concept – could be translated to cities and regions.

So I came back with a question – how do cities know if they will reap the benefits of an economic growth initiative? Here’s a model to help answer that question. It’s unsubstantiated by data, but it’s an intuition that I’d love your feedback on.

THE MODEL

To determine if a city or region will benefit from an economic growth initiative, I propose mapping the initiatives along two axes: the type of growth the initiative intends to create and the source of new revenues created.

As it happens, the quadrant look curiously similar to the Michigan Model of Leadership.

  • Type of Growth – is the growth created because of a creating a new product or services that meets an unmet market need? Or, is it a product or service that tries to steal market share from a competitor?
  • Source of New Revenues – are the incremental revenues created generated from customers in the city? Or, are those revenues collected from people from another locality? In other words, are the revenues exports or not?

USING THE MODEL

A model for determining the sustainability of economic growth.

A model for determining the sustainability of economic growth.

Using the model is simple. Note that the “city” is a placeholder term for the economic subdivision being analyzed. You could replace “city” with state or region.

Each quadrant has a distinct flavor. I’ve included notes in each quadrant to help economic growth teams determine the conditions under which they can reap the benefits from initiatives in each quadrant.

  1. Generate a list of all economic growth initiative for the city
  2. Map them on to the model. Initiatives that are 100% new products/services with cash 100% generated from non-local customers would go in the top right hand corner. And so on.
  3. Each quadrant has a distinct flavor. Look at where the distribution of all initiatives across the framework lie. Is it balanced? Should it be balanced?
  4. Look at the quadrant each initiative is in. Are the conditions in that quadrant met? If so, the city may reap the benefits of growth. If not, their ability to reap the benefits of growth will be handicapped.

Does this model made sense? As an economic development professional, do you find it useful?

 

Business lessons from social movements

My friend Erin raised an interesting question a few weeks ago, during the height of the Ferguson protests. Here’s a snippet of what she wrote:

“I would love to hear a good lecture/discussion (of series of the same) on the business of social change. I think what people fail to realize about the Civil Rights Movement is how deliberate and strategic its leaders were. For example, they chose Selma for the march for specific reasons…

In the end, a comparison of Selma and Ferguson (and even Occupy Wall Street) would be more than warranted. It’s a different day and time, in some ways, but thought-provoking to consider the definition of tangible metrics for success, identifiable leadership, legal and political leverage, and management of public opinion.”

On this point, I agree. It is interesting and important to understand what makes certain transformative efforts successful versus others. In a sentence, though more discussion is obviously warranted, what strikes me about Selma vs. Ferguson is how focused the activists in the Selma were, compared to today’s protests.

And that’s a lesson for leaders today, when leading other people it’s crucially important to focus.

WHY, WHAT, HOW

There are three questions which bring a goal into focus – why, what, and how. Most of the time, business leaders focus on the how. What I think makes organizations and movements (like Selma) effective is very clearly defining the “why?” and “what?”.

I think of why, what, and how like a road-trip. What is the destination you want to go to. Why is the reason you want to take the trip. The how is the route you take, the stops you make, and how you pack the car.

The what and why function like the lenses on SLR cameras. An SLR lens has two calibration steps. First, you rotate one of the focus rings to get the framing of the shot in the right range. Then, you rotate the second focus ring to get a clear image through the viewfinder.

Similarly, defining the “why” casts a compelling big-picture frame. Then, defining the “what” helps everyone understand exactly what matters within that frame.

DEFINING WHY AND WHAT

What’s difficult is clearly and actually defining “why” and “what.” If a leader is able to clearly define these things to his/her team, choosing the “how” is much easier in turn.

Different types of leaders start in different places to define these important questions of what and why. For discussion’s sake. Let’s assume we’re a visionary leader who gets an image of what the future could be and clarifies that vision as he goes.

First, define a vision – this answers who and what.

Then, define why this vision is compelling, using each of these angles:

  • Convictions (Why do we care?) – Strong beliefs tied to intrinsic motivations give people the fortitude to achieve a goal. This is an exercise looking inward.
  • Context (Why now?) – This is an exercise looking outward. In the organizations market/operating environment, why is this vision worth pursuing now? Is there a regulatory change? Is there a new technology? Why is the external environment ideal now rather than later?
  • Capabilities (Why us?) – Each organization has a unique set of resources and skills which lend themselves to achieving different visions. What capabilities do you have which make your organization ideal to go after this vision?

Finally, define the target by addressing the remaining “whats”:

  • Purpose (What outcomes do we want to see?) – A vision is broad and purposes are specific objectives. These are smaller, incremental pieces of the larger vision which can be measured and tracked. What are the small group of things that you must achieve for the vision to come true? Define them.
  • Priorities (What matters most, and, what doesn’t matter?) – People in an organization need to know what’s highest priority and what’s not, so that effort and resources are used wisely. Defining what’s not important is just as necessary as defining what is.

If a leader, a company, a movement, or any other organization can define the answers to these 6 questions, they have a chance at accomplishing tremendous transformations. And, if you clearly define the whats and whys, it much easier to craft a strategy (a how) to actually get it done.

That’s why I think movements like Selma were successful – they were able to clearly define what and why, and then pick the right how to actually make their vision a reality.

Also, I’d encourage you to read John Hagel’s recent post on terrain vs. trajectory-based strategy. It gave me a good boost in congealing my thoughts here.

The questionable accountability of non-profits

Organization’s tend to work better when independent entities (like boards or regulators) hold them accountable for their actions.

That’s why public companies have boards of directors – to make sure the company’s leadership team is effectively advancing the interests of shareholders. Similarly, government entities like the SEC and FDA exist to make sure companies follow the law and aren’t causing harm.

Who holds non-profits and foundations accountable for their day-to-day actions?

Non-profits are given tax exempt status because they serve a charitable or other purpose that is in the public interest. Most non-profits I know, though, don’t have independent boards that make sure the organization is appropriately serving a charitable purpose or doing it effectively. There also isn’t a government entity that regulates the day-to-day management of non-profits.

Sure, non-profits have boards of directors, but those directors aren’t independent. Directors are often close allies of the non-profit’s founder or are big donors or who have private interests in addition to any public interests they have. And those boards aren’t selected or monitored by the public. Rather, the selection and operation of boards are often heavily influenced by the chief executive of the non-profit, further blurring independence.

I’m not suggesting that the non-profit that you or I donate to is corrupt, run poorly, or otherwise complicit in some level of malfeasance.

What I am suggesting, however, is that the systems of governance that most non-profits have in place would make it very hard to know of malfeasance when it occurs, because non-profits police themselves.

On balance, do you know of any institution that polices itself effectively? Do you have any reasons to think non-profit organizations would be better at policing itself than the average institution?

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?
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