Category Archives: Chaos

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

–        Rabindranath  Tagore

Among the many fundamental debates in philosophy, one of the fundamental debates has been around the concept of free will. The debates have stemmed around two arguments associated with free will.

1)      Since future actions are governed by the circumstances of the present and the past, human beings future actions are predetermined on account of the learnings from the past.  Hence, the actions that happen are not truly a consequent of free will.

2)      The counter-argument is that future actions may not necessarily be determined and governed by the legacy of the present and the past, and hence leaves headroom for the individual to exercise free will.

Now one may wonder what determinism or lack of it has anything to do with the current state of things in an organizational context.  How is this relevant? Why are the abstract notions of determinism and free will important enough to be considered in the context of organizational evolution?  How does the meaning lend itself to structured institutions like business organizations, if you will, whose sole purpose is to create products and services to meet the market demand.

So we will throw a factual wrinkle in this line of thought. We will introduce now an element of chance. How does chance change the entire dialectic? Simply because chance is an unforeseen and random event that may not be pre-determined; in fact, a chance event may not have a causal trigger. And chance or luck could be meaningful enough to untether an organization and its folks to explore alternative paths.  It is how the organization and the people are aligned to take advantage of that random nondeterministic future that could make a huge difference to the long term fate of the organization.

The principle of inductive logic states that what is true for n and n+1 would be true for n+2.  The inductive logic creates predictability and hence organizations create pathways to exploit the logical extension of inductive logic. It is the most logical apparatus that exists to advance groups in a stable but robust manner to address the multitude of challenges that that they have to grapple with. After all, the market is governed by animal spirits! But let us think through this very carefully.  All competition or collaboration that occurs among groups to address the market demands result in homogenous behavior with general homogeneous outcomes.  Simply put, products and services become commoditized. Their variance is not unique and distinctive.  However, they could be just be distinctive enough to eke out enough profits in the margins before being absorbed into a bigger whole. At that point, identity is effaced over time.  Organizations gravitate to a singularity.  Unique value propositions wane over time.

So let us circle back to chance.  Chance is our hope to create divergence. Chance is the factoid that cancels out the inductive vector of industrial organization. Chance does not exist … it is not a “waiting for Godot” metaphor around the corner.  If it always did, it would have been imputed by the determinists in their inductive world and we would end up with a dystopian homogenous future.  Chance happens.  And sometimes it has a very short half-life. And if the organization and people are aligned and their mindset is adapted toward embracing and exploiting that fleeting factoid of chance, the consequences could be huge.  New models would emerge, new divergent paths would be traduced and society and markets would burst into a garden of colorful ideas in virtual oasis of new markets.

So now to tie this all to free will and to the unbearable lightness of being! It is the existence of chance that creates the opportunity to exercise free will on the part of an individual, but it is the organizations responsibility to allow the individual to unharness themselves from organization inertia. Thus, organizations have to perpetuate an environment wherein employees are afforded some headroom to break away.  And I don’t mean break away as in people leaving the organization to do their own gigs; I mean breakaway in thought and action within the boundaries of the organization to be open to element of chance and exploit it. Great organizations do not just encourage the lightness of being … unharnessing the talent but rather – the great organizations are the ones that make the lightness of being unbearable.  These individuals are left with nothing but an awareness and openness to chance to create incredible values … far more incredible and awe inspiring and momentous than a more serene state of general business as usual affairs.

Reality Distortion Field: A Powerful Motivator in Organizations!

The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently.  “

–         Andy Hertzfield on Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field.

Many of us have heard the word – Reality Distortion Field.  The term has been attributed to Steve Jobs who was widely known to have communicated messages to his constituency in a manner such that the reality of the situation was supplanted by him packaging the message so that people would take the bait and pursue paths that would, upon closer investigation, be dissonant from reality. But having been an avid acolyte of Jobs, I would imagine that he himself would be disturbed and unsettled by the label. Since when did the promise of a radiant future constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did the ability of a person to embrace what seemingly is impossible and far-fetched and instill confidence in the troops to achieve it constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did the ability of leadership to share in the wonders of unique and disruptive creations constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did dreams of a better future underpinned with executable actions to achieve it constitute a Reality Distortion Field?

The Reality Distortion Field usage reflects the dissonance between what is and what needs to be. It is a slapstick term which suggests that you are envisioning tectonic dissonance rifts between reality and possibilities and that you are leading the awestruck starry-eyed followers off a potential cliff.  Some people have renamed RDF as hype of Bulls*#t.  They believe that RDF is extremely bad for organizations because it pushes the people outside the comfort zone of physical and logical constraints and is a recipe for disaster. The argument continues that organizations that are grounded upon the construct of reality and to communicate the same are essential to advance the organization. I beg to differ.

So let me address this on two fronts:  RDF label and if we truly accept what RDF means … then my position is that it is the single most important attribute that a strong leader ought to embrace in the organization.

The RDF label:

We all know this to be true: A rose by any other name is still a rose. We just happen to call this rose in this context a RDF. It is presumed to be the ability of a person to cast possibilities in a different light … so much so that the impossibilities are reduced to elements just within the grasp of reality.  Now I ask you – What is wrong with that? For a leader to be able to cast their vision within the inimitable grasp of an organization is a huge proxy for the faith of the leader of the people in the organization. If a project realistically would take 3 months but a RDF is cast to get a project done in 15 days – that is a tall order – but think of the consequences if people are “seduced” into the RDF and hence acts upon it. It immediately unfolds new pathways of collaboration, unforeseen discoveries into super-efficient and effective methods, it creates trench camaraderie, it distills focus into singularity points to be executed against, it instills and ignites a passion and an engagement around the new stakes in the ground, people become keepers of one another for a consequential and significant conquest, it brings out the creative energies and the limitless possibilities, once the goal is accomplished, of disruptive innovation in means and ends.  Of course, one could also counter-argue a plethora of incidental issues in such cases: employees would burn out under the burden of unrealistic goals, employees are set more for failing than succeeding, it would create a disorderly orientation upon groups working together to meet RDF standards, and if one were to fall short …it would be a last straw that may break the camel’s back. So essentially this speaks to the ordinal magnitude of the RDF schema that is being pushed out by leadership.

RDF and the beneficial impact to an organization:

It is the sine qua non of great leadership to be able to push organizations beyond the boundaries of plain convenience.  I have, in my career, been fortunate to have been challenged and on many occasions, forced out of my comfort zone. But in having done so successfully on many occasions, it has also given me the confidence to scale mountains. And that confidence is a perquisite that the organization leadership has to provide on a daily basis.  After all, one of the biggest assets that an employee in an organization ought to have is pride and sense of accomplishment to their work. RDF unfolds that possibility.

We hear of disruptive innovations. These are defined as innovations that leapfrog the bounds of technology inertia.  How does a company enable that? It is certainly not incremental thinking. It is a vision that marginally lies outside our aggregated horizon of sight.  The age today which is a result of path breaking ideas and execution have been a result of those visionaries that have aimed beyond the horizons, instilled faith amongst the line men to align and execute, and made the impossible possible.  We ought to thank our stars for having leaders that emit an RDF and lead us off our tenebrous existence in our diurnal professional lives.

There is absolutely no doubt that such leadership would create resistance and fierce antipathy among some.  But despite some of the ill effects, the vector that drives great innovations lies in the capacity of the organization to embrace degrees of RDF to hasten and make the organizations competitive, distinctive and powerful.

 

Medici Effect – Encourage Innovation in the Organization

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
– Steve Jobs

What is the Medici Effect?

Frans Johanssen has written a lovely book on the Medici Effect. The term “Medici” relates to the Medici family in Florence that made immense contributions in art, architecture and literature. They were pivotal in catalyzing the Renaissance, and some of the great artists and scientists that we revere today – Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo were commissioned for their works by the family.

Renaissance was the resurgence of the old Athenian democracy. It merged distinctive areas of humanism, philosophy, sciences, arts and literature into a unified body of knowledge that would advance the cause of human civilization. What the Medici effect speaks to is the outcome that is the result of creating a system that would incorporate what on first glance, may seem distinctive and discrete disciplines, into holistic outcomes and a shared simmering of wisdom that permeated the emergence of new disciplines, thoughts and implementations.


Supporting the organization to harness the power of the Medici Effect

We are past the industrial era, the Progressive era and the Information era. There are no formative lines that truly distinguish one era from another, but our knowledge has progressed along gray lines that have pushed the limits of human knowledge. We are now wallowing in a crucible wherein distinct disciplines have crisscrossed and merged together. The key thesis in the Medici effect is that the intersections of these distinctive disciplines enable the birth of new breakthrough ideas and leapfrog innovation.

So how do we introduce the Medici Effect in organizations?

Some of the key ways to implement the model is really to provide the support infrastructure for
1. Connections: Our brains are naturally wired toward associations. We try to associate a concept with contextual elements around that concept to give the concept more meaning. We learn by connecting concepts and associating them, for the most part, with elements that we are conversant in. However, one can create associations within a narrow parameter, constrained within certain semantic models that we have created. Organizations can hence channelize connections by implementing narrow parameters. On the other hand, connections can be far more free-form. That means that the connector thinks beyond the immediate boundaries of their domain or within certain domains that are “pre-ordained”. In those cases, we create what is commonly known as divergent thinking. In that approach, we cull elements from seemingly different areas but we thread them around some core to generate new approaches, new metaphors, and new models. Ensuring that employees are able to safely reach out to other nodes of possibilities is the primary implementation step to generate the Medici effect.
2. Collaborations: Connecting different streams of thought in different disciplines is a primary and formative step. To advance this further, organization need to be able to provide additional systems wherein people can collaborate among themselves. In fact, the collaboration impact accentuates the final outcome sooner. So enabling connections and collaboration work in sync to create what I would call – the network impact on a marketplace of ideas.
3. Learning Organization: Organizations need to continuously add fuel to the ecosystem. In other words, they need to bring in speakers, encourage and invest in training programs, allow exploration possibilities by developing an internal budget for that purpose and provide some time and degree of freedom for people to mull over ideas. This enables collaboration to be enriched within the context of diverse learning.
4. Encourage Cultural Diversity: Finally, organizations have to invest in cultural diversity. People from different cultures have varied viewpoints and information and view issues from different perspectives and cultures. Given the fact that we are more globalized now, the innate understanding and immersion in cultural experience enhances the Medici effect. It also creates innovation and ground-breaking thoughts within a broader scope of compassion, humanism, social and shared responsibilities.


Implementing systems to encourage the Medici effect will enable organizations to break out from legacy behavior and trammel into unguarded territories. The charter toward unknown but exciting possibilities open the gateway for amazing and awesome ideas that engage the employees and enable them to beat a path to the intersection of new ideas.

Pivots – The Unholy Grail of Employee Engagement !

Most of you today have heard the word “pivot”. It has become a very ubiquitous word – it pretends to be something which it is not.  And entrepreneurs and VC’s have found oodles of reasons to justify that word.  Some professional CXO’s throw that word around in executive meetings, board meetings, functional meetings … somehow they feel that these are one of the few words that give them gravitas. So “pivot” has become the sexy word – it portrays that the organization and the management is flexible and will iterate around its axis quickly to accommodate new needs … in fact, they would change direction altogether for the good of the company and the customers. After all, agility is everything, isn’t it? And couple that with Lean Startup – the other Valley buzz word … and you have created a very credible persona. (I will deal with the Lean Startup in a later blog and give that its due. As a matter of fact, the concept of “pivot” was introduced by Eric Ries who has also introduced the concept of Lean Startup).

Pivots happen when the company comes out with product that is not the right fit to market. They assess that customers want something different. Tweaking the product to fit the needs of the customer does not constitute a pivot. But if you change the entire product or direction of the company – that would be considered a pivot.

Attached is an interesting link that I came across —

http://www.readwriteweb.com/start/2012/10/when-is-it-time-to-pivot-8-startups-on-how-they-knew-they-had-to-change.php

It gives examples of eight entrepreneurs who believe that they have exercised pivot in their business model. But if you read the case studies closely, none of them did. They tweaked and tweaked and tweaked along the way. The refined their model.  Scripted.com appears to be the only example that comes closest to the concept of the “pivot” as understood in the Valley.

Some of the common pivots that have been laid out by Eric Ries and Martin Zwilling  are as follows 😦http://blog.startupprofessionals.com/2012/01/smart-business-knows-8-ways-to-pivot.html). I have taken the liberty of laying all of these different pivots out that is on Mr. Zwilling’s blog.

  1. Customer problem pivot. In this scenario, you use essentially the same product to solve a different problem for the same customer segment. Eric says that Starbucks famously did this pivot when they went from selling coffee beans and espresso makers to brewing drinks in-house.
  2. Market segment pivot. This means you take your existing product and use it to solve a similar problem for a different set of customers. This may be necessary when you find that consumers aren’t buying your product, but enterprises have a similar problem, with money to spend. Sometimes this is more a marketing change than a product change.
  3. Technology pivot. Engineers always fight to take advantage of what they have built so far. So the most obvious pivot for them is to repurpose the technology platform, to make it solve a more pressing, more marketable, or just a more solvable problem as you learn from customers.
  4. Product feature pivot. Here especially, you need to pay close attention to what real customers are doing, rather than your projections of what they should do. It can mean to zoom-in and remove features for focus, or zoom-out to add features for a more holistic solution.
  5. Revenue model pivot. One pivot is to change your focus from a premium price, customized solution, to a low price commoditized solution. Another common variation worth considering is the move from a one-time product sale to monthly subscription or license fees. Another is the famous razor versus blade strategy.
  6. Sales channel pivot. Startups with complex new products always seem to start with direct sales, and building their own brand. When they find how expensive and time consuming this is, they need to use what they have learned from customers to consider a distribution channel, ecommerce, white-labeling the product, and strategic partners.
  7. Product versus services pivot. Sometimes products are too different or too complex to be sold effectively to the customer with the problem. Now is the time for bundling support services with the product, education offerings, or simply making your offering a service that happens to deliver a product at the core.
  8. Major competitor pivot. What do you do when a major new player or competitor jumps into your space? You can charge ahead blindly, or focus on one of the above pivots to build your differentiation and stay alive.

Now please re-read all of the eight different types of “pivot” carefully! And reread again. What do you see? What do you find if you reflect upon these further? None of these are pivots! None! All of the eight items fit better into Porter’s Competition Framework. You are not changing direction. You are not suddenly reimagining a new dawn. You are simply tweaking as you learn more. So the question is – Is the rose by any other name still a rose? The answer is yes!  Pivot means changing direction … in fact, so dramatically that the vestiges of the early business models fade away from living memory.  And there have been successful pivots in recent business history.  But less so … and for those who did, you will likely have not heard of them at all. They have long been discarded in the ash heap of history.

Great companies are established by leaders that have vision. The vision is the aspirational goal of the company. The vision statement reflects the goal in a short and succinct manner.  Underlying the vision, they incorporate principles, values, missions, objectives … but they also introduce a corridor of uncertainty. Why? Because the future is rarely a measure or a simple extrapolation of expressed or latent needs of customers in the past.  Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, Facebook, Google, Genentech, Virgin Group, Amazon, Southwest Airlines etc. are examples of great companies who have held true to their vision. They have not pivoted. Why? Because the leaders (for the most part- the founders) had a very clear and aspirational vision of the future! They did not subject themselves to sudden pivots driven by the “animal spirits” of the customers. They have understood that deep waters run still, despite the ripples and turbulence on the surface. They have honed and reflected upon consumer behavior and economic trends, and have given significant thought before they pulled up the anchor. They designed and reflected upon the ultimate end before they set sail. And once at sea, and despite the calm and the turbulence, they never lost sight of the aspirational possibilities of finding new lands, new territories, and new cultures. In fact, they can be compared to the great explorers or great writers – search for a theme and embark upon the journey …within and without.  They are borne upon consistency of actions toward attainment and relief of their aspirations.

Now we are looking at the millennial generation. Quick turnarounds, fast cash, prepare the company for an acquisition and a sale or what is commonly called the “flip” … everything is super-fast and we are led to believe that this is greatness. Business plans are glibly revised. This hotbed of activity and the millennial agility to pivot toward short-term goal is the new normal — pivot is the concept that one has to be ready for and adopt quickly. I could not disagree more.  When I hear pivots … it tells me that the founders have not deliberated upon the long-term goals well. In fact, it tells me that their goals are not aspirational for the most part. They are what we call in microeconomic theory examples of contestable agents in the market of price-takers. They rarely, very rarely create products that endure and stand the test of time!

So now let us relate this to organizations and people. People need stability. People do not seek instability – at least I can speak for a majority of the people. An aspirational vision in a company can completely destabilize a certain market and create tectonic shifts … but people gravitate around the stability of the aspirational vision and execute accordingly. Thus, it is very important for leadership to broadcast and needle this vision into the DNA of the people that are helping the organization execute.  With stability ensured, what then happens are the disruptive innovations!  This may sound counter-factual! Stability and disruptive innovations!  How can these even exist convivially together and be spoken in the same breath!  I contend that Innovation occurs when organizations allow creativity upon bedrock of discipline and non-compromising standards.  A great writer builds out the theme and let the characters jump out of the pages!

When you have mediocrity in the vision, then the employees have nothing aspirational to engage to. They are pockets sometimes rowing the boat in one direction, and at other times rowing against one another or in a completely direction. Instability is injected into the organization.  But they along with their leaders live behind the veil of ignorance – they drink the Red Bull and follow the Pied Piper of Hamelin.  So beware of the pivot evangelists!

Viral Coefficient – Quick Study and Social Network Implications

Virality is a metric that has been borrowed from the field of epidemiology. It pertains to how quickly an element or content spreads through the population. Thus, these elements could be voluntarily or involuntarily adopted. Applying it to the world of digital content, I will restrict my scope to that of voluntary adoption by participants who have come into contact with the elements.

The two driving factors around virality relate to Viral Coefficient and Viral Cycle Time. They are mutually exclusive concepts, but once put together in a tight system within the context of product design for dissemination, it becomes a very powerful customer acquisition tool. However, this certainly does not mean that increased virality will lead to increased profits. We will touch upon this subject later on for in doing so we have to assess what profit means – in other words, the various components in the profit equation and whether virality has any consequence to the result. Introducing profit motive in a viral environment could, on the other hand, lead to counterfactual consequences and may depress the virality coefficient and entropy the network.

What is the Viral Coefficient?

You will often hear the Viral Coefficient referred to as K.  For example, you start an application that you put out on the web as a private beta. You offer them the tool to invite their contacts to register for the application. For example, if you start off with 10 private beta testers, and each of them invites 10 friends and let us say 20% of the 10 friends actually convert to be a registered user. What does this mean mathematically as we step through the first cycle?  Incrementally, that would mean 10*10*20% = 20 new users that will be generated by your initial ten users. So at the end of the first cycle, you would have 30 users. But bear in mind that this is the first cycle only. Now the 30 users have the Invite tool to send to 10 additional users of which 10% convert. What does that translate to?  It would be 30*10*10% =30 additional people over the base of 30 of your current installed based. That means now you have a total of 60 users. So you have essentially sent out 100 invites and then another 300 invites for a total of 400 invites — you have converted 50 users out of the 400 invites which translates to a 12.5% conversion rate through the second cycle. In general, you will find that as you step through more cycles, your conversion percentage will actually decay. In the first cycle, the viral coefficient (K) = 2 (Number of Invites (10) * conversion percentage (20%)), and through the incremental second cycle (K) = 10% (Number of Invites (10) * conversion percentage (10%)), and the total viral coefficient (K) is 1. If the K < 1, the system lends itself to decay … the pace of decay being a function of how low the viral coefficient is. On the other hand if you have K>1 or 100%, then your system will grow fairly quickly. The actual growth will be based on you starting base. A large starting base with K>1 is a fairly compelling model for growth.

The Viral Cycle Time:

This is the response time of a recipient to act upon an invite and send it out to their connection. In other words, using the above example, when your 10 users send out 10 invites and they are immediately acted upon ( for modeling simplicity, immediate means getting the invite and turning it around and send additional invites immediately and so on and on), that constitutes the velocity of the viral cycle otherwise known as Viral Cycle time. The growth and adoption of your product is a function of the viral cycle time. In other words, the longer the viral cycle time, the growth is significantly lower than a shorter viral cycle time.  For example if you reduce viral cycle time by ½, you may experience 100X+ growth. Thus, it is another important lever to manage the growth and adoption of the application.

 

 

So when one speaks of Virality, we have to consider the Virality Coefficient and the Viral Cycle Time. These are the key components and the drivers to these components may have dependencies, but there could be some mutually exclusive underlying value drivers. Virality hence must be built into the product. It is often common to think that marketing creates virality. I believe that marketing certainly does influence virality but it is more important, if and when possible, to design the product with the viral hooks.

 

 

Walled Garden: Mirage or Oasis?

A walled garden in the context of the internet relays to full control of the user experience. In other words, it is a methodology that is deployed to ensure closed or exclusive content for consumption by a set of users.

One of the prime examples of the walled garden in the technology world is the Apple ecosystem. This constitutes the interplay or hardware and software intricately tied in a manner that precludes any legal way to contaminate the harmony of user experience. Well, at least that is what Apple has vociferously claimed over the ages. They have argued that adopting the walled garden has served to be a bedrock of innovation, and the millions of applications on the Appstore bears out that fact. But the open source folks argue otherwise.

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Inspirational speech – stay hungry, stay foolish

This is an inspirational speech. A must see for anyone who wants to follow their heart and believe that they can make a difference. Enough said. Enjoy.