Archive for the ‘Darden’ Category

I’m a One Year Old.

A little over a year ago I finished up my MBA at UVA, loaded up the few possessions we still had in Charlottesville and drove out to Boulder, CO to join my pregnant wife who had moved a month earlier. I arrived on a Sunday and started work at Gnip two days later.

One year ago last Friday, my daughter was born.

With a new baby, a new job, a new city and a new house, there hasn’t been much time for introspection. There still isn’t, so I’m just going with what I’ve got- what I’ve realized a year out from Darden:

    • I’m really glad went back to school. Not everyone needs an MBA; I did. As a forcing function for specific skills, it was right on. After college, a lot of our education is the ‘unschooling’ approach. We learn what we like, what interests us, what our job or situation demands. And that’s great, but it can be just as limiting as formal education. While there are downsides to set curriculum, it can be valuable to have  the time and expectation you’ll use that time to learn and pass a test on something like accounting (which I hated) and financial modeling (which I grew to love). Learning those skills led me to realize #2 –
    • Being a know-it-all sucks and I’m wrong a lot: This lesson is a continuing one 😉 – but one of the things I re-learned at school was that I’m not the smartest guy in the room, nor do I need to be. Far more valuable than being the smartest is being one who can: ask the right questions, admit being wrong, align different personalities, arrive at a clear decision and accept responsibility for the outcome. I don’t always get this right; it takes practice and it takes a culture that lets you practice. I’m lucky to be in a place that forgives occasional lapses.
    • No decision exists in a vacuum – and you never know all the inputs: One of the powerful things about school was a constant reiteration of the need to take a step back and consider a problem from various angles, to dive in and challenge assumptions, incorporate inputs from others, to make a decision and honestly asses that decision based on results, and then modify as necessary. For many people (me!) that model of thinking takes practice – practice that was evident in finance/stat courses, in ethics and leadership courses and in strategy and development courses. No course existed in a vacuum, because no decision does. And you never know all the inputs.
    • Engagement is good: I remember the first meeting at Gnip I was in – one week after I left school (and my first day at work). I made a point and immediately Rob Johnson asked “Why? Why do you think that? What data points prove it?” That type of engagement and challenge is powerful but it can be shocking to a system unused to it. School (in the case method) prepped me for defending my view and correcting it where wrong. But it requires practice to keep moving forward. And I can feel it when I’ve been solo on the road for a week and return to a meeting. After a week solo, I’m not used to input. But I’m always better off for receiving it.
    • Lastly, practice is an essential part of progress. Models always need refining. There are always flaws or poor assumptions; external factors are constantly changing; more valuable inputs are always available; more experience is always valuable. Whether you’re talking about an ethical framework you’ve developed and exercised, an actual financial model you’re testing, a marketing plan you’re building or a strategy you’re developing… challenging each model is practice that refines it and moves it forward.

What I’ve actually realized is that, like my daughter, I’m a one year old.

I’ve got some skills, I’ve learned to walk, but it’s messy sometimes. Luckily I have some good people holding my hand and I’m running forward as fast as I can, building step by step on what I previously learned. But there’s a lot of road ahead.

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Breaking System Constraints

During a class discussion this week the idea of ‘constraint’ came up- how we’re constrained by elements of our environment and the systems within which we work. I think we’re coming to an interesting point in the cycle of development for those systems. For hundreds of years, we’ve  worked to make processes more efficient and to make life easier. We’ve developed systems to accomplish this. But as these systems have grown, they’ve become so efficient that, in many cases, we’ve placed constraints on our ability for organic innovation. This is especially true in business systems.

What I find extremely interesting is how current technologies are beginning to explore this tension between business systems and innovation- and are trying to use systems to push innovation rather than stifle it. Social media is a great example of this, per my summer experience at NewsGator. NewsGator’s solution echoes informal online interactions that are a part of our personal lives – and transfers that form of communication to a company setting. The goal is to allow firms to leverage the speed and sharing capabilities of online systems like Facebook, thereby driving communication and innovation throughout the company.

So while Facebook turned informal in-person chats into a system of online communication, new technologies are turning that system of personal online communication into a system of business communication. What organizations that adopt NewsGator (like Citi, the US Air Force, etc.) realize are that the typical business systems they use are placing constraints on innovation and that something needs to change. By leveraging communication that allows faster sharing of information, greater informality in brainstorming, additional freedom in visual expression and the ability to create teams, NewsGator (and like companies) provide a system through which companies can replicate the informal interactions that can lead to fertile ideas while managing the process of that creation in a searchable, repeatable way.

This construct (using next-generation technology to take systems to another level of human interaction replication) becomes really interesting what you consider what companies like Oblong are doing (watch the awesome video below):

Once our operating systems begin to visually replicate how our minds and bodies work, we’re breaking a big constraint in a very cool way.

Growing the Soil

My “Corporate Innovation & Design” class is one I’m pretty excited about (taught by Professor Jeanne Liedtka) and in our first week’s reading, a quote jumped out that blew me away. It was from a VP of Innovation at a big pharma company who said:

“It’s not just about the seed, but it’s about the soil…You know, it’s not just about having the idea or the project or the initiative, but it’s also about the conditions in the organization that enable that idea to actually flourish and get to market successfully.”

As I thought through that idea, I realized- that’s why I came to business school! That’s why I like entrepreneurship! That’s why I want to work in technology! Throughout my life and career, and in my first year at Darden, I have never worried about the ‘idea.’ I’ve never sat there and said, I really need to think of something killer- of the right idea. I’m not saying that’s not important (it obviously is)- it’s just that the idea has never been as interesting to me as what you do with it. The jobs I’ve loved, the clubs I’ve had fun in, the friends I have- these are all grown from the enjoyment I have in the soil. I like the growth, I like the development, I like the J-curve.

What is most interesting to me, and most inspiring, is how that idea becomes a thing. How that idea grows and succeeds (or fails!).

Luckily for me, I’ve always been able to find an ‘idea’ that’s interesting enough that I can jump in and try to do what I love more- build something with that idea.

What I need to learn is how to be the best at fertilizing the soil- that’s why I’m here. I couldn’t think of any awesome metaphor, but basically, I need to know finance, decision analysis, marketing, strategy, leadership, ethics, innovation, operations. I need to be even better at the soil; I’ll find a seed to grow somewhere.

UPDATE***It’s not an awesome metaphor, but I did think of a way to express it- it’s the South Park Gnome episode! I’m in school to get better at Phase 2. The underpants I care less about.

Is my iPhone fueling war in Africa?

“Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

That’s a Cree Indian prophecy I read for the first time today on the “Travels With a Nine Year Old” blog (it’s seriously awe-inspiring; a mother traveling round the world with her 9 year old son).

While not directly related to my post, the quote convinced me to write about an issue I don’t have a clear opinion on. The issue is  “conflict minerals” and their use in consumer electronics (the below Mac/PC video gives some background).

(I offer several article links in the below; if you’re only going to read one, make it Jason Stearns’)

It’s an issue that strikes especially close to home given my fascination with tech, and off the bat, it seems extremely clear – if buying minerals assists a group or government in fueling conflict, genocide, murder, rape, etc, then we should stop allowing the companies to buy them. That’s the point of the US legislation passed in July. But critics of the bill are pointing out that sensationalism may cloud the fact that legislation will not stop these conflicts – and in fact, may make it more dangerous because we think  it’s going to (Laura Seay at Texas In Africa posts very clearly on this). Jason Stearns (as mentioned above) responds to that here.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this isn’t a question I have an answer to. I am against conflict minerals. I don’t think the legislation can hurt as long as we’re honest about what the impact of it can (and cannot) be. But I also don’t believe it offers a clear solution; nor do I think we can ignore the economic ramifications for these countries and the U.S.were we to immediately halt all purchases of these goods.

What I do know is that this is a cautionary tale.

The proliferation of stories/photos/blogs in the Age of Information we live in has definite negatives- we’ve all seen and commented on this (why is Lindsey Lohan in the news? why is CNN telling me this non-news? etc.). Because we live in an age of instant information, we expect instant answers and solutions. And so we draft bills, issue statements, and build committees that may not actually solve the problem- but they quickly appease the ravenous news cycle of the moment. So the machine churns on to the next story, leaving problems half-solved, partially addressed, but believed to be finished. Whether a bill will or will not help this problem is a question. What will help answer that question is our ability to provide continued pressure and examination of the issue as we implement this and other laws. It is the danger of our times that information moves so fast.

As our continued use of mineral resources ravages the planet and we are forced to make tradeoffs, speed of information will continue to become a double-edged sword. On one hand, we are lucky to live in an age where information is this available- we are more informed about issues than ever before. On the other, speed can result in poor decisions, half-executed plans, and the abandonment of yesterdays crisis for the story du jour.

The class I am most grateful to have taken this year at Darden is Ethics, because I learned very quickly that I am like most people- I default to a given position without truly thinking it through and then defend it out of sheer ego. I was lucky to have a class setting in which to realize this, and lucky to have a professor that helped us develop our own frameworks for preventing this (creating the focus and patience to think through and challenge the position I was defending). Without that class, though, I don’t know if I would have realized how often I fall into that trap, and how restricting that trap is when faced with complex and challenging problems – like conflict minerals.

Challenging one’s own beliefs is a skill that is not only valuable in the careers/hobbies/relationships/lives we each build, but is also one that is absolutely necessary if we want our actions and decisions to make a true and sustained difference in the world.

How will Darden help me at NewsGator?

So here I am in Colorado! Excited to be here…and to drum up a little jealousy, this is view from deck of the Boulder apartment I’ll be living at (thank you to my lovely [soon to be] in-laws!!).

I start my summer internship at NewsGator tomorrow – as I’ve mentioned a few times, NewsGator is a cool Denver company that creates social computing and collaboration solutions for businesses. Think of it like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc….for your company. Information can include user feeds (like twitter updates), collaborative docs, news stories, etc.

Note: I may be waaaaay off on my understanding of some things, which I’m sure they’ll tell me pretty quickly when I get there 🙂

What’s going to be most interesting is how I apply what I learned in my first year to the real world. B-school’s been great; I love my classes, professors, colleagues and friends. And I’ve learned a ton. But I’m intrigued to see how I actually apply any of it. The Darden case-study method hopefully gives a leg up over some MBA programs in ‘application’ of MBA concepts, but we’ll see. I’m excited look back at the end of the summer and see what I’ve used from different classes- marketing, operations, decision analysis (stats), finance, etc. If I have to build complex statistical models, I assure you my professors will be getting some heavy email traffic….

At the end of the summer I’ll post what I used, but I will definitely be depending on two truly valuable skills that Darden taught me- skills that are valuable no matter what the job:

  • Ask questions: Darden teaches you to question your own answers as well as others’ answers. If there’s one thing the case study method forces, it’s how to challenge a thought and drive down deeper until you understand (as well as how to respond to someone else’s challenge of you!). I truly believe that questioning is a learned skill and one that requires practice and dedication. We’re all reactive to what we hear and see; it takes practice to hold your own opinion up to the test when your gut reaction says “this way”.
  • Look at it from different perspectives: It’s funny how much of an expensive education comes down to the kindergarten maxim of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” but it’s a valuable perspective and one that was drilled into us in multiple courses. Looking at a decision or problem from multiple angles often sheds light on an issue- and surfaces assumptions that would otherwise go unnoticed. If you’re a finance whiz, try looking at a problem from an HR perspective. If you’re down in the weeds, try looking at it from a 50,000 ft view instead. Every person in every position makes assumptions; failure to step out of your perspective means greater risk of not identifying the possibly dangerous assumptions you’ve made.

So wish me luck! I’m looking forward to a great and amazing summer.