Posts Tagged ‘Darden’

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.

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.



Rice Husk Power in India: Guest Blogger Samir Shah

Samir Shah, a classmate at Darden, guest blogs today on a visit our class had from Chip Ransler, co-founder of Husk Power Systems, which delivers power to over 50,000 rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner. Samir’s post below:

****************************************

https://i0.wp.com/static.younoodle.com/pictures/27/7d/7c/49147853881fe0_64653245.jpg

What stinks?

Look around your immediate location.  Take a second to analyze what’s there, the purposes those things serve, and how they could be made better.  It might be a small issue like the ergonomics of your computer mouse, or something more significant, like the difficulty of keeping documents organized (As you might have guessed, I am looking around my own desk right now).  Take another second to think about how you would fix it, and what you would need to accomplish that fix.

So what stinks?  And how can you make it less stinky?  Chip Ransler, co – founder of Husk Power Systems recently discussed this idea with our Entrepreneurial Thinking class.  He felt that ‘what stunk’ was the fact that 350 million individuals in rural India lived lacking reliable electrical power.  What stunk even more is that these individuals could not be part of the economic revolution currently revitalizing and invigorating much of the country.  Rice, a large agricultural product, produces a waste product, rice husks, which were also being wasted.  That stunk too.

Now what do you do?  You found something that stinks, something that needs a solution.  Ransler and his partners found a way, through technology and the free market, to develop a power system that used rice husks to generate electricity for villages in rural India.  Facing obstacles like working with clients who are not easy to reach, ‘not in tune’ with paying for electricity (read: they usually steal it), a 40% payment default rate, and a corrupt government, Husk Power has grown to reach these rural Indians and provide power solutions to more and more people.

It has been largely successful, and the exact details of their growth story are made clearer on the company website. The story of Husk Power Systems is inspiring and compelling, and Ransler brought forth some key ideas in developing solutions for problems that stink.  So what ideas are relevant for aspiring entrepreneurs and creative thinkers?

  1. Get it done.  Put your feet to the fire and get your idea out there.  You need to have passion that borders on insanity and be willing to go to the mat for your idea and vision.  Be ready to sacrifice (Ransler, along with his partners, lived in rural India for months at a time to get the system running properly), adapt, and give up what is secure.  Finally, talk to people.  Then, talk to more people. After you finish talking to everyone, find some more people to talk to.  Communicate your idea so that you can find a way to put things together.
  2. Know your customer and frame your idea properly.  Husk Power wasn’t giving away electricity, but selling power units to a market that had a demand for energy.  They tailored their product to their market, and made sure it was a sustainable way to earn revenue, grow, and maintain the initial objective of fixing what stinks.
  3. Ransler talked about the concept of second and third right answers.  I probably need more time to digest this idea, but he noted that while developing a power solution was the first right answer, subsequent right answers came from adapting ideas to develop the target market – for HusK Power, this included selling smaller amounts of power, and having customers prepay for power, bringing the default rate from 40% to 0%.  These second and third right answers have helped Husk Power develop and grow, reaching more people in an ever expanding market, which has in turn helped them develop their technology and infrastructure and continue the cycle upward.

Ransler didn’t talk much about the effect of injecting this power system on rural Indians.  I can only imagine how the company has allowed thousands of people to expand their productivity.  He did give us one quote from a local resident, who noted that “We gained independence from England 60 years ago, but it feels like we just gained our independence today”.  I have to admit, this quote choked me up just a little bit – the image of rural Indians being empowered was an inflection point in the presentation being made – things didn’t stink as much for these folks anymore.

Having visited India, and having family who grew up in lower class areas of the country, I can empathize with this quote, and it made me stop thinking about the story of entrepreneurship and start thinking about the power of the free market to fix what stinks.  In what some might call the heart of human poverty, an idea and product have been developed to promote social good and economic development.

So what stinks?  What can you do to fix it?

Samir Shah

Guest Blogger: Kyle Hawke of Whinot on” Top 5 Questions that Kill Innovation”

Kyle Hawke, an MBA colleague at Darden, has just gone live with the platform for the company he founded – the very cool Whinot.com, which, “Provides a crowdsourcing process and web platform for SMB’s to identify and reward only realizable solutions to their operational and organizational issues. Whinot also provides a marketplace for freelance consultants to sell or share existing solutions and find consulting opportunities.”

It’s a very cool idea, and I’ve already put my profile on there- learn more and build your profile here.

To celebrate his launch, I’m republishing (with his permission), a well-thought out (and crowdsourced!) blog post Kyle had earlier this month on “The Top 5 Questions that Kill Innovation.” His blog post is the section between ***** below:

**********************************

Flowing from a recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “How to Kill Innovation: Keep Asking Questions”, I asked a question in a few LinkedIn groups to get a response to the following question:

What’s the #1 question that kills innovation?

This simple question generated about 30 responses in three communities: Whinot, Consultants Network, and Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing. This post is an attempt to pull out the themes and highlights from those discussions. In other words, this blog post is crowdsourced.

1) “Did you get management approval?” This came up a variety of ways, but the main point is that the organization itself (or the people leading it) can kill an innovation. One good example of this is organizations which (unintentionally or not) lead innovators to have a sense of fear of failure.

2) “How much does it cost?” or “Will it make money?” For even the best project managers, it is nearly impossible to accurately assign financial metrics such as ROI or NPV to an innovation. For some innovation, especially for breakthrough (rather than incremental) innovations, you have to ask yourself how heavily should these SWAGs should be weighted in the decision.

3) “How long will it take?” Certain industries and certain innovations require a long, laborious road to market. Industry certification or government regulation may slow down this process. For the innovation owner or other stakeholders involved, stalled progress or lack of momentum can be demotivating. Communication of regular status updates should be the norm during this period.

4) “Can I get it in writing?” Too often, putting something “in writing”, just makes it easier to “file away.” But when something is put in writing, it should be done with brevity and concision. It should fit on one page. A recent blog post on ReadWriteWeb.com reiterated this same point as it relates to business plans.

5) “Do we have the bandwidth?” There may be a variety of resource constraints (e.g. human, capital) preventing an organization from pursuing every opportunity that comes its way. That’s fine. But the key is to achieve a well-balanced portfolio of projects – some easy, some harder, some incremental, some breakthrough. If a must-have project comes along, consider alleviating the constraint by pursuing it in an open manner – through an external partnership, through acquisition rather than organic growth, or through the use of contract/freelance labor rather than full-time employees.

Throughout the discussions, I had my virtual hand slapped for thinking about this question with negative overtones (e.g. killing innovation rather than promoting it). These points are well-taken. And they lead to the final, most important point that was voiced by several people in the discussions:

No matter what the question, it is up to the innovation owner to be ready and able to answer them – clearly, concisely and effectively. Organizational change does not come easy and it does not come cheap. A strong and convincing owner is just as important as the innovation itself.

Thank you to all of those who helped crowdsource this blog post: Andrew Blair, Kevin Skislock, John Heun, Brian Waechter, David Albachten, Ann McLennan, Mike Buckley-Jones, Allan Edun, Ray Joseph, Sirisha Panchangam, Ed Kislauskis, Mark Liao, Randy Van Heusden, Patricia Duarte, Chris Hughbanks, Lars Dalen, John Michitson, Kevin Skislock, Lawrence Lau, Gary Oosta, Johan Oelofse, Koos Ris, Marc Hirsch, Detlef La Grand, and Karen Wong.

**************************************

Thanks for the post Kyle and good luck with Whinot! I’m looking forward to hopefully contributing as a freelance consultant!